We liberals can have difficulty understanding hard-line religious fundamentalists. How can they hold, without questioning, a rigid view of the world, or condemn those of us who do not accept the “one correct creed”? Unfortunately, some Democrats are practicing their own secular version of fundamentalism by rejecting liberals who express any pro-life sympathies. Those on both extremes of the debate want to present abortion as a simple issue, but for many of us, it is complex.
I find the thought of abortion late in a pregnancy troubling. When I was 20 weeks pregnant with my second child, I attended a memorial service for a friend’s 20-week gestation twins born too early. The service program included images of the boys’ footprints, which humanized them, and the grieving parents had held their children after their births, naming them and having them baptized. Feeling my own unborn child’s movements, I wondered, how could we have permitted the dismemberment of those twins, alive in the womb? I was politically pro-choice, with private doubts.
Fortunately, most abortions in the U.S. occur early in pregnancy, with 66 percent in the first 8 weeks and 89 percent in the first trimester. Only 3.8 percent of abortions are performed between weeks 16 and 20, and a very low percentage, 1.3 percent, at 21 weeks or later (Guttmacher Institute, “Induced Abortion in the United States”). It is impossible to know exactly where to draw the line legally with abortion, but I agree with the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade that first-trimester abortions are a private matter, as well as with the ruling that restrictions become increasingly reasonable as a pregnancy progresses, with allowance for broad limits after viability.
Why do I support freely accessible first-trimester abortion? It is not because I am entirely at ease with it morally or ever considered having one myself. I support the right to choose early in a pregnancy because these abortions occur at a stage where a significant percentage of pregnancies are miscarried naturally and when the fetus is less developed and unable to feel pain or survive outside the womb. Finally, in the United States, we aim to respect each other’s freedom of conscience whenever feasible.
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Our political system seems to require an all-or-nothing position on this difficult issue. My experience of discussing the topic of abortion with other Democrats is that they are often unwilling to engage in reasoned, nuanced discussion about it, and that they seem to perceive the right to abortion at any stage of pregnancy as a yes-or-no question. They often shut down the dialogue or bring up points based on critiques of the pro-life movement, such as: “So-called pro-lifers are only pro-life until birth.”
Yes, many on the right oppose reproductive freedom not because they genuinely care about children, as evidenced by their lack of interest in the plight of underprivileged children after birth. Nevertheless, should we let their hypocrisy override our own ethical analysis?
Another argument that I hear from liberals is: “The other side is so extreme; we can’t reveal any qualms about abortion or yield an inch. They think IUDs are murder, and they want to shut down all abortion clinics.”
This widely held position represents a dangerous trap for Democrats and reflects a lack of confidence in our own position. We must have a reasoned and open dialogue about abortion, informed by our own morals, despite the threat that right-wing extremists pose. Our intellectual honesty and openness about our reservations will not transfer power to them. On the contrary, it will humanize us and strengthen our credibility and moral reputation.
Religious fundamentalism incentivizes group members to stifle their own doubts and to cut off lines of questioning, even in their own minds. Fundamentalist communities make it unsafe to challenge established doctrine. The price of exploring doubts is too high, so you suppress or hide them.
Democrats have a crucial decision to make. Will they be liberal fundamentalists, requiring ideological purity and unquestioning adherence to a secular orthodox creed, or will they respect people with core values of equality and compassion, but differing views on abortion, based not on a desire to suppress women but on genuine concern for the unborn? The choice Democrats make will determine whether the party grows or dwindles because this isn’t just about abortion. It is a broader question of acceptance of internal differences and willingness to engage in open dialogue.
Elizabeth B. Lippincott is a Chapel Hill attorney who specializes in health law.