Do you ever suspect that some issues exist merely so that we can argue about them?
Lewis Black surmised as much, in one of his stand-up routines, about the scuttlebutt surrounding “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The ongoing national debate about whether the appositive phrase is unconstitutional, Black dryly assured his audience, is the kind of contention we should “save for a peaceful time when it makes sense to have an argument.”
Which brings us to abortion.
It was forty years ago today that the U.S. Supreme Court established the right to a first trimester abortion in Roe v. Wade. We have been fighting about it ever since.
One reason I include abortion among the subjects destined for eternal argument is the fact that it is a practice about which one is almost not allowed to be neutral or conflicted. Nuance is highly frowned upon.
Consider Mitt Romney. Running for president in 2008, the former Massachusetts governor attempted to reconcile his perceived shiftiness on the subject by saying the following: “I’ve always been personally pro-life, but for me, it was a great question about whether or not government should intrude in that decision. And when I ran for office, I said I’d protect the law as it was, which is effectively a pro-choice position.”
This is a wholly consistent and honorable position to assume—recognizing the difference between individual views and the purpose of government—but few let Romney have it. It was just too darned complicated.
And why is complexity so often the enemy of all sides in the abortion discussion? A big, fat clue can be found in the language we employ.
As we know, neither side views itself as being “against” anything. Those who support a right to abortion call themselves “pro-choice,” while those who oppose call themselves “pro-life.”
As though such terms were not loaded enough, neither side accepts the other’s self-classification, opting to up the ante further: The “pro-choice” group describes its adversaries as “anti-choice,” while “pro-lifers” tar their dissenters as simply “pro-abortion.”
For something that is a literal matter of life and death, those on the rhetorical front lines can be forgiven for intemperance. But that does not make them any less unhelpful in the process of grappling with this most serious and personal of concerns.
Abortion is a subject that demands the rigorous intellectual work of adults. It would be nice if such people would cease behaving like children.
It is therefore my humble wish, on this anniversary of a Supreme Court case that turned out to be the beginning of a great national debate rather than a conclusion, that we temper the language with which we conduct this argument, showing each other a bit more respect. As it stands, we don’t.
To wit: By calling foes of abortion rights “anti-choice,” one is effectively laying a charge of authoritarianism. I ask: When was the last time calling someone authoritarian made him or her more sympathetic to the logic of one’s argument? I hazard to guess that precisely the opposite is usually the case.
To call oneself “pro-life” is no less incendiary, as it dismisses the other side as a gaggle of unholy nihilists. Of course, as the “pro-life” crowd regularly refers to abortion itself as “murder,” it cannot be faulted for a lack of ideological clarity.
But what these purveyors of rhetorical fireballs equally project is a deep-seated immaturity that hurts their own cause as much as it might puncture that of the opposing team.
The success of any movement ought to rest on the strength of its arguments, not the passion of its participants.
If the “pro-life” side truly believes in the validity of its case—that a fetus is a human being entitled to the rights and privileges of any other human being—it should not need to call its opponents cold-blooded murderers.
If the “pro-choice” clan truly thinks abortion is justified, it might consider acknowledging that not everyone who disagrees is a fascist and a misogynist.
These are not concessions. They are mere recognitions of reality that would do wonders in civilizing and clarifying a debate that deserves worthy debaters.
This week we marked the second inauguration of a man who sought to “change the tone” of American politics. Thus far, he has failed, but that does not mean the rest of us cannot succeed.