The gruesome case of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion provider accused of murdering four live fetuses by “snipping” their spinal cords after botched abortions, has emboldened those who want to further restrict and erode a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. Abortion rights advocates argue that that is the wrong conclusion — that desperate women will be drawn to questionable clinics like Gosnell’s if safe and legal ones are not available. That’s a reasonable response, but not a winning one. This isn’t about reason. It’s about the real emotion that accompanies the difficult task of deciding when a fetus is a baby, a task that has grown more fraught with the advent of new technologies and the disappearance of old shames.
Most Americans don’t believe that life begins at conception and therefore that abortion is equated with murder in all instances. Nor are they comfortable with the unrestricted right to terminate a pregnancy anytime, for any reason. That’s why only about 1% of abortions are performed in the last trimester. That’s why Roe v. Wade acknowledges a sliding scale of rights as the fetus approaches viability.
But what once was a process shrouded in mystery has become a Technicolor reality show. See the fingers and toes! Learn the gender! Human characteristics are knowable at ever-earlier stages of fetal development, rendering the decision to terminate more, well, personal. Anti-abortion activists have exploited this to push for aggressive new restrictions on the state and federal level. At the same time, the shame associated with having a child out-of-wedlock is disappearing; 40%of all births in America now are to unmarried women, a startling increase that contains its own set of serious social consequences.
Despite all this, some central truths remain. Abortion is an anguished choice for most women, messy and complicated, but so is pregnancy and birth. It is a choice that must be protected, from unscrupulous providers as well as from zealots who campaign to overturn settled law and the commonsense predilections of the American public.