President Trump has again lured the media into sensationalist coverage of his latest outrageous statement. This time, the outrage is over abortion and in response to President Trump’s attack on Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers for promising to veto a bill that would have required doctors to offer medical care to infants who are born alive during an attempted abortion. Mr. Trump laid out the scenario this way:
The baby is born. The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby. They wrap the baby beautifully, and then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.
This is an outlandishly false description of the rare but very real situations that the bill attempts to address. There is no shortage of outraged pieces and tweets and explanations from pro-choice advocates to let you know that no one is calmly delivering and swaddling babies and then determining whether or not to “execute” them. They are correct about that.
But they are wrong if they think that their main problem is that Mr. Trump is not telling the truth about abortion procedures. Instead, as he has done before, especially during the 2016 election, Mr. Trump is leveraging the stunning failure of the pro-choice movement to acknowledge Americans’ moral qualms about abortion in order to make this a very effective wedge issue. Pro-life activists should not be proud of Mr. Trump’s willingness to misportray facts nor of how easily some pro-life voters fall for it—nor should they mistake it for any principled commitment on his part to the pro-life cause. Nonetheless, the reason he is able to exploit the issue is that even though this particular outrage is exaggerated, the absolutist position on abortion that has become a litmus test for Democratic politicians is outrageous in itself.
Pro-choice opposition to the “born-alive” bills, like the one in Wisconsin, a similar bill recently vetoed by the Democratic governor of North Carolina or the failed Senate bill introduced by Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, has been stalwart. Opponents have argued that bills are unnecessary because once born, even after an attempted abortion, an infant is a person, protected already by laws against homicide. But this response misses the point of these laws on at least two fronts.
First, there are very real gray areas here that deserve legal clarification. In recent gruesome history, Kermit Gosnell was convicted in 2013 on three counts of homicide for “snipping” the spinal cords of infants born alive during attempted abortions. (He was also convicted on one count of involuntary manslaughter of a patient who died during an abortion procedure.) While this is a case where prosecution under existing homicide laws worked, what if Dr. Gosnell had simply allowed the babies to die of exposure or from lack of routine medical assistance? While such an act should be criminal under existing law, would we ever find out about it? Or would it pass by as the unreported, unremarkable “completion” of a procedure that was never meant to result in a living child? It is worth noting that earlier this year when New York legislated an even stronger guarantee of abortion rights, it eliminated requirements in its public health code that explicitly required care for an infant born alive during an abortion.
Second, there is a purpose to laws that specifically focus on vulnerable people who are already protected by more general laws. One important reason for those laws is that they express a consensus moral judgment. Hate crime laws allow us to say that in addition to violence being wrong across the board, the racism and intolerance that motivate these crimes are wrong in themselves. The Violence Against Women Act—currently expired pending reauthorization by the Senate—not only enhances protections for victims of domestic violence, among others, but also says that these victims matter and deserve the attention and compassion of all Americans.
The absolutist position on abortion that has become a litmus test for Democratic politicians is outrageous in itself.
The fight over these “born-alive” protection bills is both practical and symbolic. At the practical level, they might only apply to exceptional circumstances during already rare late-term abortions. Those circumstances are important even if infrequent. But at a symbolic level, these laws are a way to say that there is some point at which our society and government can recognize that a child still in the womb has joined the human race and deserves our protection and compassion. Both support for and opposition to these laws are primarily about their symbolic weight.
Pro-life activists resort to laws like these (or to bans on partial-birth abortions and regulations that make it harder for abortion clinics to operate) not because they are the most important restrictions on abortion but because they are the only ones possible. Roe v. Wade’s construction of abortion as a constitutional right leaves no other avenues of resistance open, except the ongoing effort to establish a Supreme Court majority that might return the abortion question to the realm of legislative power.
Pro-choice activists, on the other hand, are committed to opposing all such laws tooth and nail because of the fundamental fragility of their moral position, which depends on focusing on compassion for women in difficult pregnancies while avoiding thinking too much about what pregnancy really is. Any explicit recognition that abortion ends a developing life—for example, by acknowledging that a late-term abortion that fails will result in a living child—imperils the broader acceptance of abortion. After all, people are most comfortable with accepting abortion when they are able to distance themselves from its concrete reality. That is why “choice” is championed without speaking about what is chosen and why it is easier to talk about a pregnancy being terminated rather than the life of the unborn child that is also ended by the same act.
Pro-life activists can rightly be criticized for rhetoric that suggests that late-term abortions are common or chosen in a cavalier fashion. President Trump certainly deserves to be corrected when he suggests that mothers and doctors are discussing whether or not to execute newborns. (Not least because it sadly muddies the waters of already very difficult conversations about how to offer palliative care to infants and support to families when children are expected not to survive to delivery or to die shortly after birth.)
That is why it is not enough for pro-choice advocates to deny that anyone ever does casually choose to end a viable pregnancy, thus killing a child—it is also necessary to deny that anyone ever should.
But the primary reason for these failures is that abortion advocates pretend that there is no reason, ever, that abortion should be restricted. That position is so far removed from the moral intuitions of most Americans that it opens up a political gap, ripe for exploitation. The fix for this is not merely to correct President Trump’s distortion of what goes on in late-term abortions. The fix is for some defenders of abortion rights—perhaps those who, until recently, argued for abortion to be “safe, legal and rare”—to admit that unborn human life has real value. There are plenty of people who, while not wanting to eliminate abortion entirely, believe in far tighter restrictions on it than are currently possible. Yet absolutism about abortion access has made that position legally and morally invisible. That is why it is not enough for pro-choice advocates to deny that anyone ever does casually choose to end a viable pregnancy, thus killing a child—it is also necessary to deny that anyone ever should.
Whatever consensus about abortion is possible in our society, it will be closer to having some limits than having no limits. As long as the leaders of the pro-choice movement refuse to accept that some limits on abortion are morally necessary, they are in a position very similar to President Trump: saying something they want their base to believe, even though it isn’t really true.