Thinking About Abortion…


Two recent bits revolving around abortion. Last week, the Wash Times ran a provocative story about Jimmy Carter in which the erstwhile Baptist–he's the guy who mainstreamed "born-again Christianity" in '70s political culture–condemned abortion. From the Times account:

"I never have felt that any abortion should be committed—I think each abortion is the result of a series of errors," [Carter] told reporters over breakfast at the Ritz-CarltonHotel, while across town Senate Democrats deliberated whether to filibuster the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. because he may share President Bush and Mr. Carter's abhorrence of abortion.

"These things impact other issues on which [Mr. Bush] and I basically agree," the Georgia Democrat said. "I've never been convinced, if you let me inject my Christianity into it, that Jesus Christ would approve abortion."

Whole account here. Among other things, Carter's comments take us back to a pre-Reagan, post-Roe America in which the abortion issue was not a particularly strong indicator of partisan party loyalty. You had Republicans like Sen. Bob "Tonsil Hockey" Packwood pushing for liberalized abortion laws, and folks like New York Gov. and later Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in the same boat. On the Dem side, a lot of Southerners, especially religious types like Carter, were never that comfortable with it. And even someone like Jesse Jackson was ardently against abortion–he likened it to "genocide" in '77–until he ran for the Dem presidential nomination in '84. It was really only with the Reaganite embrace of the Moral Majority, etc., that the anti-abortion position took on its rigidly Republican cast.

Apart from consideration of abortion itself, it's useful to remember that even the hottest of hot-button culture war issues are rarely set in stone. Rather, they exist as a means to an end–and the end is to define yourself as the antithesis of your opponent. This helps explain why Dems and Reps, or liberals and conservatives, can flop on issues ranging from federalism to overseas intervention without missing a beat. The point for partisans is not to maintain allegiance to particular ideals; it's to identify in opposition to your enemy.

Back to abortion: Today's Wash Post carries a story about new genetic screening tests that allow women to know if their fetus carries Down syndrome at 11 weeks after conception. The Post correctly notes that this gives women more options, whether you're talking about having an abortion or getting emotionally and pragmatically ready to care for a special needs child.

I take it as an axiom that more choice and more knowledge is a good thing. But this sort of screening should (rightly) start a conversation about how increasingly better genetic and other tests will effect the sorts of children that are born: If you knew, for instance, that a fetus carries Down syndrome or some other condition that can't be remedied in utero, would you abort? What about syndromes, ailments, etc., that are not as severe–what is the threshold individuals are willing to cross in pursuit of "normal" or better than normal offspring? What happens as these detection technologies become better and better, allowing women (and their partners) to know eye color, hair color, likely height, etc? Will/should those be factors that go into a decision to terminate a pregnancy? Something similar is already happening with pre-implantation screening of embryos created for IVF procedures. These are incredibly personal decisions–and they should remain with the individual, I think–but there are also profoundly social and deserve a wide and rich discussion.