While much of the journalistic and blogging world was centered on the results of the election on Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the so-called "partial-birth abortion" ban. My local paper even had a short piece, focusing mostly on the fact that testimony was "graphic" (any surgical procedure, even a tonsilectomy, if described verbally, is pretty gruesome). A couple months or more ago, over here, I wrote a bit in general about my own evolving position on abortion. In the time that has since passed, it has continued to evolve, and I want to link that evolution to what may just be an opportunity for an entirely new debate in this country.
First, I would just like to say that I do not believe that abortion is a right, protected by the First Amendment. I do not believe that there is such a thing as a generalized right to privacy, nor do I think abortion is or ever could be considered part and parcel of what we call rights. It must be remembered that, as understood by the framers of our Constitution, a right was not something an individual possessed for personal use; rather, a right was communal, something people used together for the common good. Speech is a protected right not so I can say "Fuck you!" to the President. Freedom of speech guarantees all of us the freedom to demand of our leaders better action. Freedom from illegal searches, the necessity of warrants, freedom from unusual or cruel punishments, the right to trial by jusry - that bundle of rights most often castigated by conservatives as "coddling criminals" are in place because there is close to 5,000 years of human history testifying to the tendency of the state to abuse any grant of power, including the police power. Again, these rights are communal; they exist to protect not so much the individual, but to protect the state, in these instances from its own worst tendencies.
A generalized right of privacy, and specifically a right to abortion confuses the entire idea of what a "right" is, introducing all sorts of contemporary notions of individual expression and autonomy, ideas not only unkown to the framers, but with little philosophical or existential grounding. We are not, nor should we ever consider ourselves as being, absolutely distinct from others with whom we share social existence, linked only through voluntary agreement, and limited as such to contractual agreements, enforcement of which is the sole legitimate business of government (this is the classic libertarian argument, an argument based neither in reality nor philosophy). We are bound together, whether we like it or not, and the obligations we share, sometimes even against our own interests or preferences, are necessary to ensure society continue to exist.
That being said by way of introduction, what are we to make of the past generation's debate on abortion? For my part, I find it so muddled, liberals and progressives often making racist arguments, conservatives often making arguments for empowerment, men standing up for a right to choose while women demand an end - the end is listless, as they say, of the confusing, contradictory way the argument has gone on. I hope, in all honestly, that the Supreme Court decides that, in fact, the states can legislate concerning abortion (which is, incidentally, all overturning Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v Thornburg would do; it would end legilsative silence, it would not outlaw abortion). If this is done, a real debate, one not muddied and muddled, one reflecting a moderately pro-choice consensus would be where most states would end up.
Many pro-choice advocates insist that this is unacceptable. They insist that there be a general availability, with as few restrictions as possible, nationwide. The alternative, they insist, is back-alley abortions, with women bleeding to death, or dying of septicimia or peritonitis. The old bogey of incest is waved, to make sure that minors are not hindered by parents (as the father of two daughters, all I have to say to this is that my kids can't have a tooth removed without my signature on about a dozen forms; I will most assuredly not be silent if my children can have any medical procedure without my knowledge or consent). The problem, of course, is that these arguments are based on a fundamentally anti-democratic belief that the people are not intelligent enough to legislate in their own best interests. If all the pro-choice demands are not met, we are often treated to the specter of hordes of unwanted babies, either aborted in back alleys or born and abandoned, or born and raised in resentments (all of these happen already, but never mind that).
Of course, I am no happier with the pro-life side of the argument. I shall say it as plainly as I can, and only once: NEITHER AN EMBRYO NOR A FETUS ARE OR COULD EVER BE CONSIDERED A PERSON UNDER LAW, OR EVEN COMMON SENSE. Uncomfortable as I am with the intransigence and elitism of the pro-choice crowd, the ignorance and self-righteousness of the the pro-life crowd is even more repellant. The most ridiculous "bumper sticker" of the pro-lifers is "If you're pregnant, it's a baby, not a choice". First of all, she might not be pregnant by choice; until the baby is able to live outside the mother with minimal assitance from machines, it is not a baby (as Roman Catholics are often those who spout this nonsense, and as they are supposed to be knowledgeable in Aristotelean philosophy, can someone please explain the distinction between potential and actual to them, for God's sake?).
My hope is that, with a renewed, vigorous debate, not on judges or justices to the Supreme Court, but rather over real public policy - and at the state level, where it belongs in the first place - we can grow as a society, and deal with this, and a whole host of other issues, in an adult manner. Until the Constitutional lock is removed, however, the extremes will hold the debate hostage.