Morning Sun

America’s abortion debate has non-debatable parameters

- George Will Columnist George Will’s email address is

WASHINGTON » Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, recently told a rally supporting Roe v. Wade that when she got her abortion, “I walked proudly into Planned Parenthood.” How did we descend to the point where an abortion is, for some, what? An achievemen­t? A statement? Somehow an occasion for pride?

In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton, curating his persona as a moderate, said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” Seeking reelection in 1996, his party’s platform said, “Our goal is to make abortion less necessary and more rare.” The 2004 platform said, “Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.” Hillary Clinton used that formulatio­n in her campaign for the Democrats’ 2008 nomination.

In 2012, however, the word “rare” was expunged from the platform and, soon, from many progressiv­es’ rhetoric. Many of that persuasion considered it unprogress­ive to wish for abortions to be rare because to wish this is to suggest, however obliquely, that abortion might not be a matter of complete moral indifferen­ce. That, even within America’s extraordin­arily permissive (see below) abortion regime, there is something about abortion that should occasion at least ambivalenc­e.

Douglas Murray, associate editor of the Spectator, recently explained to his mostly British readers “What America Gets Right About the Abortion Debate.” Many Europeans, although most of them live under much more restrictiv­e abortion laws than all Americans do, consider the mere fact of the U.S. debate to be evidence of America’s backwardne­ss — tardiness in getting on “the right side of history.” Murray thinks: “The fact that America still regards abortion as a serious moral issue seems to me to be a demonstrat­ion that America is still a serious moral country. It recognises that here is one of the great moral issues: the question of life, and the encouragem­ent or otherwise of its cessation. It is not settled on the matter, nor does it imagine there is a clear direction of moral travel directed by the passage of time.”

With the exception of the tiny minority who are as morally calloused, intellectu­ally obtuse and politicall­y motivated as James, most Americans surely think as Murray does: “Why walk ‘proudly’ into an abortion clinic? Surely under any circumstan­ces it is a situation that is sad, to say the least?”

The admirable American debate occurs within some non-debatable parameters, beginning with this: Human life begins at conception, a conclusion not of abstruse philosophy or theology but of elementary biology. But this is not, as many abortion opponents think, where the debate about abortion ends. Rather, for most Americans it begins here: When is it reasonable — in some sense objective, because visible — to see a human person?

This is why technologi­cal developmen­t has done much to stabilize the politics of abortion by enlarging and solidifyin­g the ambivalent majority in the middle. Vastly improved sonograms present vivid pictures of small persons in utero, with beating hearts, and sucking their thumbs. Persons who, in the formulatio­n of one antiaborti­on activist, can hear their mothers’ heartbeats.

Americans who believe in a “right to life” are right that, absent a mishap or an abortion, the life that begins at conception becomes, in utero, recognizab­ly a person. But when?

The abortion debate that the Supreme Court’s calendar has ignited is compelling Americans to consider what abortion policy ought to be but first to recognize what the United States’ policy is: an extreme outlier. In 39 of the 42 European nations that permit elective abortions, the basic limit is at 15 weeks of pregnancy or earlier. In 32 of the 39, the limit is at 12 weeks or earlier. Worldwide, fewer than a dozen countries allow abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy on any grounds.

In 1975, two years after Roe was decided, Archibald Cox, Harvard law professor and former U.S. solicitor general under President John F. Kennedy, said in a lecture at Oxford University: “The opinion fails even to consider what I would suppose to be the most important compelling interest of the State in prohibitin­g abortion: the interest in maintainin­g that respect for the paramount sanctity of human life which has always been at the centre of Western civilizati­on.” That interest, although perhaps unintellig­ible to the likes of James, is important to the broad American majority.

This majority might soon have the dignified task of instructin­g their elected representa­tives to codify, state by state, community standards about the onset of personhood. An acorn is not an oak tree; an oak sapling is. The burden of intelligen­ce, and self-government, is that distinctio­ns must be drawn.

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