Commentary Magazine


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Abortion and a Just Society

I wanted to add to the comments of Jonathan and Alana regarding the new Gallup poll showing that just 41 percent of Americans now say they are pro-choice (a new low) while 50 percent identify as pro-life.

In terms of the actual number of abortions in America, the figure had dropped from a national high of more than 1.6 million in 1990 to 1.21 million today, a low not seen since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision legalizing the practice in Roe v. Wade. And as the Gallup survey suggests, America is becoming more, not less, pro-life. (A Gallup poll conducted in May 2009 found 51 percent of Americans calling themselves “pro-life” on the issue of abortion and 42 percent “pro-choice.” This was the first time a majority of U.S. adults identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question more than 15 years ago.)

What explains both the drop in the number of abortions and the shift in public attitudes?

There are undoubtedly several factors at play here, but one, I suspect, is that many pro-life spokesmen changed their rhetorical tactics and began to choose their fights more carefully. Throughout much of the 1990s, the debate became colored by the clear-cut issue of partial-birth abortion, which, although not settled legislatively until 2003, helped to create greater social sympathy for a moderately pro-life position. Also contributing to the rethinking was the more widespread use of sonogram technology, which enables would-be parents to see the developing child and its human form at a very early stage. All in all, not only has the public discussion of abortion been transformed, but younger Americans seem to have moved the furthest on this issue, and this trend seems likely to continue.

But the abortion debate goes beyond practicalities to fundamental issues of justice.

In medical ethics, there is a philosophical divide between utilitarianism, the belief in the greatest good for the greatest number, and the belief in the inherent human dignity of every individual. At bottom, the utilitarian approach is an assertion of the power of the strong over the weak; it treats human beings as means rather than as ends. By contrast, the belief in human dignity is rooted in the Jewish and Christian tradition of regarding the protection of innocent lives as one of the primary purposes of a just society.

Given the increasing technological control that human beings have over their own nature, this conflict has important implications for the future. A utilitarian society will be dramatically different from, and dramatically less humane than, a society that honors the principle of human dignity. We know which one will be better for the weak.

“It was once said that the moral test of government,” remarked the great liberal champion Hubert Humphrey, “is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” These are beautiful and evocative words, and they set a worthy standard for the state. Unborn children are at the dawn of life, and they deserve the protection of government. Incrementally, step by step, year by year, more and more people seem to agree.