Outlawing abortion is a bad idea. Here’s what to do instead

As an independent-minded person, my political views rarely conform to those of the Left or the Right. In no case is this more true than when it comes to abortion.

Careful study of the arguments on both sides has convinced me that aborting a pregnancy, especially in the second and third trimesters, is the killing of an innocent human being. Like millions of American women, I see no way to justify the procedure except in cases of rape, incest, or mortal threats to the mother’s life.

Yet, despite this fact, I believe that abortion should be (to borrow a term from Bill Clinton) safe, legal, and rare.

How do I reconcile these opposing views? I can sum up my argument in three points.

Point number one: Outlawing abortion won’t make it go away

The US government has a long and checkered history of trying to regulate its citizens’ personal lives. The most notorious example of this puritanical tendency is the so-called “War on Drugs,” which has proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

If you doubt this assessment, then please point to an American community where illicit drugs are impossible to get. You’ll never find one, and neither will I. The economic incentives of the drug trade make government prohibition futile, no matter how many meth labs are destroyed or how many dealers are imprisoned.

Of course, some government regulations have actually enjoyed a large degree of success. Take for example laws that require helmet use for motorcycle riders or seatbelt use for motorists. These statutes have saved countless lives without imposing onerous restrictions on our personal liberties.

But there’s an immense gulf between prohibiting a public activity and banning one that occurs away from prying eyes. Ride your Harley with an uncovered head in Tennessee or Alabama and you’re likely to get a ticket. Purchase marijuana in those same states and chances are strong that you’ll never see the inside of a jail cell.

This same distinction applies to abortion. Even if we closed every clinic in America, nothing would stop pregnant women from visiting one of the many countries where terminating a pregnancy is a simple matter of walking into a facility, offering an acceptable reason, and paying a fee. Yes, it works even if you’re a foreigner.

Anti-choicers may argue that criminalizing abortion would at least prevent a few women from going through with the procedure, since traveling to another country can be difficult and costly.

But pro-choice advocates can easily cover these expenses simply by starting a KickStarter campaign. Left-leaning celebrities and politicians would fall over each other in the rush to donate funds.

Also, an American abortion ban would have little effect on parents with the financial means to send their daughter away for a few weeks to take care of the “problem.” Imagine hearing this comment at your next school board meeting: “We felt that Christy needed a break from all the heartbreak she’s suffered. So we sent her to Sweden for a while to get her thoughts together. She’s always wanted to go there, you know. As for that belly bump you noticed, it was just a little weight she put on. Can I have another cup of coffee, please?”

Despite these facts, let’s say that the United States not only criminalizes abortion but takes extreme measures to keep pregnant women inside the country. This will do nothing to curtail the countless underground clinics that will surely pop up coast to coast, just as they did prior to Roe V Wade.

Of course, these unlicensed providers will probably ignore the stringent safeguards that make abortion in the United States relatively safe, which defeats the pro-life purpose. A ban that leads to the death of both mother and child is no better than handing out coat hangers to pregnant women and wishing them the best of luck.

Another problem with outlawing abortion is the fact that any such law must include exemptions for women whose life is at risk. This opens the door to endless chicanery fueled by personal conviction or outright bribery.

To see what I mean, ask yourself what it would take for a willing doctor to fill out the forms needed to obtain a legal abortion. Who would challenge the verdict of a qualified medical professional, especially when a woman’s life may be at stake?

Here’s an example of what I’m saying from recent American history: Winston Churchill was on a visit to the United States in 1931 when he found himself wanting to take a drink, which was a federal crime under the Volstead Act.

His solution was both simple and ingenious. He asked his physician to sign a note saying that he needed alcohol to treat a serious medical condition. A waiver was granted and Winston kept right on drinking, even while the government struggled in vain to put bootleggers out of business.

Later Churchill quipped, “I’ve taken much more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” As for the Volstead Act, it was repealed in 1933 and the good times just keep rolling.

Speaking of Prohibition, the only people who benefited from that particular moral crusade were gangsters. What would happen today if we tried to outlaw abortion? Do we really want the Mafia reaping the profits of our well-intentioned blunders?

Point number two: Banning abortion will inflame our ongoing political polarization

Anyone who believes that the Civil War could never happen again need only look at the events of January 6, 2021, when a mob of insurrectionists stormed Capitol Hill. It was a sobering sign that the deep partisan divisions in our country are far from extinct.

This creates the specter of an America in which left-wing revolutionaries learn from the example of their right-wing counterparts. They need only a justifiable cause, such as rescuing America from anti-choice religious fundamentalists. “Pass me that Molotov cocktail, Melvin. I’m going to chunk it through the window of that church.”

This concern transcends any single issue. Democracy can only function in an environment where general consensus exists among the majority of citizens. Nothing will destroy the dream of the Founding Fathers faster than an endless ideological war in which each side is equally convinced that it, and it alone, is on God’s side.

With this in mind, imagine the political fallout of the Supreme Court throwing out the results of Roe V Wade. Those on the pro-life Right may rejoice. But those on the pro-choice Left, not to mention countless libertarians, will take it as a sign to revolt.

Ardent liberals may claim that their people are incapable of carrying out the kind of violence seen during the January insurrection. But they’re wrong. All human beings have the capacity for committing horrendous evils in the name of an alleged “greater good.” We can deny this fact all day long. But that won’t make it any less true.

Point number three: there’s only one way to stop abortion — and it has nothing to do with the law

Actually I should clarify that last point. In reality, stopping abortion has nothing to do with human law. On the other hand, it has everything to do with natural laws, especially the law of cause and effect.

If everything (including abortion) has its cause, then ending abortion should be as simple as addressing the reason why women terminate their pregnancies in the first place.

And why do women have abortions? We all know the answer to this question. Women abort their pregnancies because they’re unwilling, or unable, to carry their child to term.

So the solution to the problem is clear. Eliminate unwanted pregnancy with sex education and common-sense birth control, provide for those who cannot raise children on their own, and the issue resolves itself, without the need for shouting matches or physical violence.

At this point some anti-choice activists will argue for banning abortion based on principle alone; and these people have a valid point. If aborting a pregnancy is the same as ending a human life, then shouldn’t our justice system outlaw the procedure?

But this position overlooks the essential role that pragmatism plays in the judicial process. One may as well try to ban other injurious practices, such as spouting racist slurs or using office politics to get a coworker fired. The results obtained will never justify the resources wasted in the attempt.

The same is true when it comes to abortion. You’ll never legislate it away, no matter who sits on the Supreme Court. It’s time to try something else.

Like all worthy causes, the crusade to protect unborn children stems from largely noble motives. But it also comes from a darker side of human nature; namely, the eternal impulse to exercise power over others.

Those who embrace this instinct rarely lay their cards on the table. Rather, they hide their true motives behind lofty rhetoric designed to put their opponents on the defensive. This occurs on a regular basis among all zealots, atheists as well as Christians, Democrats as well as Republicans, pro-choicers as well as pro-lifers.

Look beneath the skin of a self-righteous crusader and you’ll see the face of a conniving control freak, one who thinks that the world would be a paradise if only the rest of us were exactly like him or her. Hence Hitler. Hence Stalin. We’ll never cultivate our better angels by encouraging our inner demons.

Achieving consensus on the issue of abortion won’t happen overnight. Humans are terrible at cultivating empathy or engaging in civil dialogue. Those things are far too time-consuming. We’re much more creative when it comes to inventing excuses to hate each other.

Turning this situation around will not be easy; in fact, it will be hard as hell. It will require us to rethink the way we do public discourse. It will mean putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. It may even force us to admit when were wrong.

Nonetheless, those are the only ways to build a society which is both pro-choice and pro-life, which is the only real choice we have.

The past is unchangeable. The future is open. Let’s get started.

A folk philosopher, freelance writer, and lifelong gadfly.

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