How it’s time for a grownup conversation about abortion

Kirsten Powers’ USA Today column about the murder trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell is currently lighting up the internet because of (a) the shocking nature of Gosnell’s crimes and (b) Powers’ charge that the story has drawn little national media attention because of liberal media bias.*

Let’s be clear: the accusations against Gosnell are chilling. If proven true (and it seems all but certain they will be), I hope Gosnell goes to jail for a very long time.

So let’s take this sobering opportunity to get serious about preventing abortion in this country. Let’s finally have that grownup conversation about abortion. We’re long overdue.

The conversation will probably make those on the right and the left uncomfortable at points. All the more reason to have it. Some on the right want abortion banned altogether, yet they seem intent on pursuing policies (especially when it comes to birth control) that would ensure continued demand for abortion. Meanwhile, some on the left talk about making abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” but they never seem to get around to that last one.


Yesterday I tweeted a question to Jonathan Merritt (who helped Powers’ editorial in USA Today go viral on Twitter). I wanted to know if he thought we could prevent more cases like Gosnell’s if abortion were integrated into mainstream medical care. Much as I dislike abortion, it seems to me that having them done in hospitals rather than specialized clinics might (a) reduce the overall number of abortions, (b) empower women to make more informed decisions, and (c) ensure better oversight and reduce the risk of abuse. (More on this below.)

It’s hardly the only change I would propose, and maybe not even the most vital. But if we’re serious about preventing abortion, let’s put all ideas on the table.

Jonathan dismissed the question as irrelevant, saying there are “better common ground ways to reduce abortion.” But not mentioning any. So I thought I’d give it a try.


Here are four things we could do now in order to reduce abortion. (And yes, one of them involves tightening legal restrictions on abortion.)

Those on the left and right will probably find something to dislike. But this is a pluralistic society we’re living in. We can’t act as if the other side doesn’t exist or as if their concerns don’t matter.

Instead, we need to seek common ground ways to work for the common good. In this case, that means figuring out how to reduce abortion without marginalizing women.

1. Birth control

Yup. If conservative evangelicals are serious about reducing abortion, then it’s time for them (and Hobby Lobby) to get over their hang-ups with birth control — some of which are based on bad science.

Some in the pro-life camp seem to start every conversation with a legislative ban. If we care about reducing abortion, why not just outlaw it altogether and be done with it? Well, because legislation isn’t especially effective at curbing abortion. Countries with the most restrictive abortion laws tend to have the highest abortion rates. (Yes, you read that right.) Consider Latin America, a region with plenty of legislation… and 32 abortions per 1,000 women. Now compare that to Western Europe: 12 abortions per 1,000 women.

What makes the difference? Contraception, not legislation.

You might say you worry that contraceptives encourage promiscuity. Well, that’s a conversation you ought to be having with your sons and daughters. But as a society, what do we care about more? Keeping people out of the sack or preventing abortion? My vote is for the latter.

(In any case, I don’t know of any evidence proving that access to contraception encourages promiscuity among those not already inclined to be sexually active.)

2. “Middle-ground” restrictions on abortion

At what point is a fetus endowed with a right to life? That’s the big question, isn’t it?

Is it only at the moment of birth, as the most ardent abortion advocates suggest? That seems a bit arbitrary, doesn’t it? Especially since the timing of birth varies from one pregnancy to the next.

Is it when a fetus is deemed “viable” outside the womb? That’s a bit of a moving target as well, thanks to modern medical advances.

Is it, as most pro-life groups suggest, the moment of conception? Then why aren’t pro-lifers putting as much effort into saving the estimated 50-75 percent of all human embryos — living human beings who deserve legal protection, in their view — that fail to implant and therefore “die”? As Fred Clark asks, where is the charity 5K for all these embryos? Where is the celebrity telethon?

I don’t pretend to have the answer to the big question. I prefer to err on the side of caution. But whatever you think the answer might be, surely we can agree that, apart from a genuine medical emergency, there is rarely (if ever) a good reason for an abortion in the third trimester.

Isn’t it just a bit ironic that other industrialized nations — many of which are seen as being more progressive or liberal than the US — impose tighter restrictions on late-term abortions than we do (at least at the federal level)? In Britain, abortion is generally banned after the 24th week of gestation. In other European countries — Germany, Spain, France (France!) — abortion is limited to the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

These laws acknowledge something we seem to have either forgotten or ignored. Whatever you think about the early stages of pregnancy, at some point prior to birth, we have a living, conscious, functioning person on our hands. Anyone who’s experienced a full-term pregnancy knows this.

Granted, restricting late-term abortions by itself won’t have a serious impact on the overall rate of abortion, because 92 percent of abortions are performed within the first 13 weeks. Nearly two-thirds are done prior to 8 weeks. But surely we can do more to prevent cases like the one coming out of Pennsylvania even if they are relatively rare, as Planned Parenthood insists.

3. A better safety net for pregnant women and their families

More than 40 percent of those who have an abortion fall below the poverty line — many of them WELL below the poverty line. According to the Guttmacher Institute (yes, they’re a pro-choice organization; no, that doesn’t automatically invalidate their research), 3 out of 4 women who choose abortion cite economic hardship as a major factor.

If you want our society to protect life inside the womb, you have to be willing to invest in protecting that life once it exits the womb.

You might be under the impression that providing more assistance to single moms will just encourage them to make more babies . . . as if THAT’S their ticket to the good life. (And as if women can’t imagine anything better than being pregnant all the time.) You might have Ronald Reagan’s famous “welfare queen” speech reverberating in your years — you know, the one about the woman who had 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards, a bunch of kids, and who got rich by scamming the welfare system.

That woman never existed. Reagan made her up, yet his lie has shaped our perception of single women on welfare ever since. The average household receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) has 1.8 children. Which is less, not more, than than the average American household.

The good news? The abortion rate has been declining slowly for many years. But the bad news? Most of this decline has been driven by economics. Abortion has decreased nearly 30 percent among wealthy women in recent years. But during that same time, the abortion rate increased nearly 20 percent among impoverished women.

If we really want to prevent abortion, let’s tackle the root cause: poverty.

4. Placing abortion into the context of mainstream medicine

Jonathan Merritt may think this one’s beside the point, but I’m not so sure. One of the original arguments for legalizing abortion was to get it out of the back alleys. Even if Kermit Gosnell was the exception rather than the rule, does anyone want to argue that his clinic was any better than a back alley?

Pro-choice advocates argue that abortion should be “between a woman and her doctor.” If so, then shouldn’t it be a doctor who knows her as more than just a potential client? Shouldn’t it be a doctor who cares about treating the whole person, instead of someone who’s financial success depends on doing this one procedure as many times as possible?

(Is this yet another unintended consequence of accepting a profit-driven healthcare system?)

If we made sure that women could access comprehensive family planning services within the context of the larger healthcare system, wouldn’t we be empowering them to make more informed decisions and make them sooner (further reducing the number of late-term abortions, if nothing else)? Could we minimize the likelihood of horrific abuses like those allegedly perpetrated by Kermit Gosnell?


All of which is to say…

The abortion rate is unacceptably high in this country. Nothing we do will make abortion go away entirely. Nor can any one approach (or even a combination of approaches) hope to cover every possible scenario.

But what if we’d set aside our partisan talking points for two minutes? What if we actually put our heads together to come up with common-sense ways of reducing abortion without marginalizing women?

I bet we’d be surprised at how much we could achieve.

*Postscript: Conservative outrage over the alleged conspiracy by the “liberal media” to ignore the Gosnell trial seems a bit overblown when you consider the fact that this story broke more than two years ago when Kermit Gosnell was first charged. At that time it was covered by major news outlets such as NBC and Slate. Recently, the New York Times, The Nation, and the Washington Post have all responded to the criticism coming from conservative outlets.

3 thoughts on “How it’s time for a grownup conversation about abortion

  1. Thank you for sharing this. You’re so right in your concluding thoughts- setting aside partisan rhetoric…


  2. I think a rather wise piece of prose written by a man during a time and at a place where the value of a human life was certainly questioned comes into play as well.

    “Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question of whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of its life. And that is nothing but murder.

    A great many motives may lead to an action of this kind; indeed in cases where it is an act of despair, performed in circumstances of extreme human or economic destitution and misery, the guilt may often lie rather with the community than with the individual. Precisely in this connection money may conceal many a wanton deed, while the poor man’s more reluctant lapse may far more easily be disclosed. All these considerations must no doubt have a quite decisive influence on our personal and pastoral attitude towards the person concerned, but they cannot in any way alter the fact of murder.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    I think your four points above are VERY important conversation points to start a national conversation. But I think Bonhoeffer makes an equally important point about “deliberately deprived of life” (as opposed to miscarriages and such). When someone approaches making the decision to terminate a pregnancy, this must be somewhere in the conversation. The abortion may still proceed at pace afterwards (as I’m sure it has, many times), but we must not ignore the potential that has been discarded by the choice made.


    1. Thanks for sharing the Bonhoeffer quote. I’m not sure I’d follow him in viewing the destruction of an embryo as an act of murder, but I appreciate his concern for the sanctity of human life. I also think we need to hear his point about the communal or societal conditions that drive some people to abortion. That’s why I argue that the best way to reduce or (very nearly) eliminate abortion is by tackling the root causes, especially poverty.


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