“In politics,” wrote Orwell, “one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the less, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic.”
In the real world, political issues never offer themselves in hermetically sealed containers of moral righteousness. All one can do is choose which side weighs heavier on the side of notions like liberty and equality, and then fight like hell to ensure such a side comes out the stronger.
But complex moral arguments don’t make for good political slogans, including the concession that your side is just a “lesser evil,” so it’s inevitable that even the most principled of political factions will have to reduce their arguments to an oversimplified sound bite or two. As any successful demagogue or populist will tell you, successful political strategy requires a clever chant and a bit of fiery rhetoric, not a nuanced justification for your position.
In this context, I can hardly blame either side of protesters on Saturday’s rally for the oversimplification they brought to the interminably oversimplified issue of abortion. The protest and counter-protest were called in front of the Madison Surgery Center in response to yesterday’s vote by the UW Hospital Authority Board vote regarding the clinic’s decision to offer second-trimester abortions.
From what I could tell, the “pro-life” side was comprised mostly of right-wing Christian fundamentalists who aren’t interested in the legalization of any kind of abortion, second-trimester or otherwise. Like their representative organizations, most of them probably oppose contraception as well. In their view, sex and its consequences cannot be separated from more divine considerations, so the clump of cells that constitutes an early pregnancy (or “life,” as they would have it) is their only concern. According to their signs and sloganeering, the woman carrying this “life” is an irrelevancy.
Upon asking one of their members what he thought about the countless dead civilians in Iraq and those on death row, he replied that, “No life is more precious than a human infant. We have a holocaust going on in this country.”
Those on the “pro-choice” side were a more sympathetic bunch. These are the same type of progressives who also participate in the daily fight against racism and war, so their views on the sanctity of human life were at least consistent. Still, their mistake mirrored those of the anti-abortionists: Their concern was only with “women’s rights,” not even bothering to consider that a fetus may be entitled to some type of “rights” as well.
As Noam Chomsky states, in the abortion debate, “there are conflicting values. And taken in isolation, each of the values is quite legitimate.” In a crude summation, these conflicting values are a woman’s right to control her own body and the fetus’ right to avoid pain and destruction.
Reducing the debate to one of women’s rights is proven to be misleading since about half of those on both sides were women, and polls show this is mirrored on the national level. Not all those who oppose second-trimester abortion — including progressive European governments as well as a solid majority of the American people — are bigots, as many at the counter-protest on Saturday would have you believe.
The truth is there are legitimate reasons to oppose the termination of second-trimester fetuses, a being that has developed facial features, engages in many normal bodily functions and can experience physical pain. Who can really look at a photograph of a 5-month-old fetus and state that, at the very least, this doesn’t deserve some type of moral consideration?
By the ethical standards of our society, second-trimester abortions of any kind are utterly gruesome. Depending on the method, the fetus may be poisoned, burned or crushed. Often, the fetus will come out of the uterus still alive, forcing the doctor to finish it off on an operating table.
It seems to me that the performance of such a procedure requires not just an acknowledgment of its realities, but a strong justification for its necessity. In this context, second-trimester abortions are, in my mind, only defensible if the life of the woman is threatened, or in extreme health-related situations. Forcing a woman to carry on with an unwanted pregnancy for several more months may violate her personal liberty in the most intrusive way, but this seems to be inevitable if the fetus is given the consideration it is due.
Though even the most intuitive political position may still be a “lesser evil,” I can’t think an issue with more of a moral gray area than abortion. A healthy politics should always be cutting and divisive; ethics and truth are most closely reached through an engaging debate, not an endless search for “middle-ground.” But in the 12th round moral boxing match that is the abortion debate, the extremes on both sides should recognize that, as Chomsky states, there are “conflicting values,” both legitimate.
Kyle Szarzynski (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in history and Spanish.