The New Abortion Debate

First Things, April 1996.

Over the last few months, certain intellectuals on both sides of the debate over abortion have publicly expressed newfound doubts about their side’s positions and tactics. Notable defenders of the abortion license, such as Naomi Wolf, have conceded that abortion is no ordinary surgical procedure but is the deliberate taking of a human life (a concession that arguably makes their continued defense of that license more, rather than less, ominous in its implications).

On the other side, some of those who have long understood the literally homicidal nature of abortion are raising questions about the advisability and even the legitimacy of seeking its legal prohibition. That unavoidably divisive effort, they believe, hinders the formation of a broader coalition that would seek to lower the abortion rate by changing the culture. The pro-life movement would do more, they argue, to reduce the number of abortions by stressing the need for teen abstinence, easier adoption laws, and crisis pregnancy centers than by continuing to push (ineffectually, so far) for a general prohibition of abortion. And reducing the number of abortions, they reason, is after all the pro-life goal. Legal restrictions are merely a means toward that end.

Some of those making this argument do, to be sure, advocate legal restrictions on the most widely reviled abortions, especially those taking place in the third trimester. Most on the pro-life side—ourselves included—agree that these restrictions should be the immediate objectives, not least because the effort to enact them would educate the public about the radicalism of the current abortion regime and establish principles that, by logical implication, demand a general prohibition of abortion. But we also believe that such a prohibition should remain the ultimate goal and that the arguments against it undermine the case for even modest restrictions….

First Things