Reclaiming the morality of abortion and the overdue change to the Democratic platform.

Reclaiming the morality of abortion and the overdue change to the Democratic platform.

Reclaiming the morality of abortion and the overdue change to the Democratic platform.

Women writing about politics, etc.
Aug. 12 2008 6:20 PM

Unnecessarily Evil

Reclaiming the morality of abortion and the overdue change to the Democratic platform.

Justice Anthony Kennedy. Click image to expand.
Justice Anthony Kennedy

The Democratic Party platform of 2008 finally dropped its old abortion language ("safe, legal and rare"), which had asked that women not have abortions unless they absolutely must. The 2008 platform, just announced, says instead, "The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right." Should a woman desire to bear her child, the Dems advocate prenatal care, income support, and adoption programs to help her there, too. But in the world of the new Democratic platform, it's the woman's decision to make.

In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled by a margin of 7-2 in Roe v. Wade that women—not their husbands, their doctors, or their legislatures—must be the ones to decide whether to bear or beget a child. Edward Lazarus, who clerked for the author of that opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun, called the decision "the Emancipation Proclamation for American women." But if Roe was Emancipation, the past three decades have felt like the Jim Crow South. Unable to repeal the decision itself, opponents made abortion as illegitimate as possible. The Hyde Amendment pulled Medicaid financing for the poorest and most desperate women. In 1992, the Clinton campaign reframed abortion as an unpleasant last resort. Last term, the Supreme Court finally broke, affirming the criminalization of certain late-term abortions. And Democratic candidate Barack Obama, in TheAudacity of Hope, compared women's regrets over their past abortions to white people's regrets about past bigotry. This Clintonian compromise—that abortion was a necessary moral evil—had become the most progressives could hope for.


With the release of the new platform, and so long as the Obama campaign doesn't cast the platform into purgatory and pick an anti-abortion candidate—like Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine—for vice president, the emancipation of women may once again become a legitimate political position. It is time to revive the moral argument for protecting a woman's right to choose: Abortion is about the value of women's lives.

Liberals have never won anything by reframing moral questions as pragmatic ones; they end up looking shifty and evasive. Whatever else it has been doing, the Supreme Court has always framed its decisions about the legality of abortion in moral terms. The decision in Roe to protect women's reproductive choices grew out of earlier cases protecting ordinary means of birth control as a matter of "privacy." It was only over the course of its long philosophical evolution on abortion that the court silently changed the meaning of privacy from the morally neutral secrecy to autonomy, a moral claim for the individual's right to shape her own life.

When, in 1986, Justice Byron White attempted to argue that disputed questions of abortion were best resolved by referring these questions to the states, Justice John Paul Stevens insisted that the only proper decision-maker in such a crucial matter was the mother. Similarly, in their landmark 1992 abortion decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey,Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter agreed that "at the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

The gay-rights movement best illuminates the need to emphasize the role of morality in politics. In 1986, the Supreme Court decided Bowers v. Hardwick, upholding the constitutionality of criminal penalties for gay sodomy. Choice, said the five-justice majority, although available for a wide range of decisions (including abortion), was not available for conduct we consider really, really icky. (They didn't say that explicitly; they put the words in the mouth of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition and let the priests say it for them.) Just as Bowers was decided, however, the AIDS epidemic motivated and enabled gay people to tell the world why their behavior was moral. As gay men began to die, they and their loved ones began to write about their relationships, their shared homes, and their desire—going back to Homer—to bury those they loved. At the same time, lesbians, who had been fighting for their children after divorces and for the families they were creating with donor insemination—publicly told the story of their own moral commitments.

By the time the Supreme Court faced the previously sinful gay litigants again in Lawrencev.Texas, 17 years later, the decision went the other way. It is impossible to read the two opinions and ignore the change in moral climate that produced the legal shift. And although recent polling fails to reveal a majority supporting gay marriage, the numbers have been steadily improving.

After 30 years of ghastly representations of abortion by the right and weak-kneed defenses by the left, one would expect public support for abortion to have plummeted. Although most polling experts contend that American beliefs about abortion have been roughly stable, the deeper picture is ominous. About 20 percent of those polled believe abortion should never be allowed, and about 20 percent think it should always be allowed. About 60 percent think it should be allowed under certain limited circumstances.