Thursday, October 20, 2005

WaPo Columnist: Let's Dump Roe To Ease My Guilt

I respect Richard Cohen's honesty in describing his long-ago experience with abortion and his recent second thoughts about it in today's column in WaPo. Unfortunately, those second thoughts have produced no useful new insight but just a muddle of feelings and ideas that only confuse the discussion, along with a policy prescription that would be downright disastrous.

Here's the heart of Cohen's column. It follows his description of how, decades ago, he fairly casually helped a girlfriend get an abortion:

I would do things a bit differently now. I would give the matter much more thought. I no longer see abortion as directly related to sexual freedom or feminism, and I no longer see it strictly as a matter of personal privacy, either. It entails questions about life -- maybe more so at the end of the process than at the beginning, but life nonetheless.

This is not a fashionable view in some circles, but it is one that usually gets grudging acceptance when I mention it. I know of no one who has flipped on the abortion issue, but I do know of plenty of people who no longer think of it as a minor procedure that only prudes and right-wingers oppose. The antiabortion movement has made headway.

That shift in sentiment is not apparent in polls because they do not measure doubt, only position: for or against. But between one and the other, black or white, is a vast area of gray where up or down, yes or no, fades to questions about circumstance: Why, what month, etc.? Whatever the case, the very basis of the Roe v. Wade decision -- the one that grounds abortion rights in the Constitution -- strikes many people now as faintly ridiculous. Whatever abortion may be, it cannot simply be a matter of privacy.

For the moment, I'll ignore the somewhat high-handed tone of Cohen's "I would do things a bit differently now." (Hey, Richard--it was your girlfriend's body that was involved here, not yours. At a fundamental level, the abortion decision was not yours to make and certainly wouldn't be yours to make today. For any male talking about this issue, humble recognition of this basic fact is an essential starting point.) Instead, I want to focus on the leap from Cohen's misgivings about abortion to his conclusion that Roe must go.

Since abortion strikes Cohen as in some sense a life-or-death decision, he concludes that "it cannot simply be a matter of privacy" (as, he concedes, birth control is). Suppose we grant that. Then what? What compelling interests other than privacy are at stake? How do we define those interests? Who should represent them? In what way? How should those interests be balanced against the wishes and needs of the mother, and her right to (yes) privacy?

All of these questions are deeply contentious. Cohen offers no answers to any of them. He simply bemoans the fact that the word "privacy" seems too flimsy a reed on which to base the concept of choice. On that basis, he appears ready to jettison Roe and allow the states to regulate abortion independently--despite the fact that, as he recognizes, this would certainly create hardship for women seeking abortions and could in fact dramatically curtail or even eliminate the right to choose.

This is casual gamesmanship with women's lives, not serious reasoning. Of course abortion decisions are tough and painful, involving shades of gray rather than black or white. How would eliminating Roe help matters? Does Cohen actually think that getting fifty state legislatures involved would clarify the moral choices faced by real, individual women? Would the life of his long-ago girlfriend have been improved by taking away the abortion option--or forcing her to drive a thousand miles to find an abortion provider?

The principle of privacy is crucial in this debate precisely because abortion is such a complex, shades-of-gray issue. Most people agree that the rights and wrongs of any particular abortion involve many variables. The world's religions differ greatly in how they judge abortion, and individual ethical attitudes differ even more. Under the circumstances, it makes no sense to turn the decision over to a state government that will draw up Procrustean-bed regulations based on which party, pressure group, or lobby happens to be in the ascendancy that year. Instead, we should let women make their own decisions, since they are the individuals who are vitally affected. Call that "privacy" or "autonomy" or "freedom of conscience" or what you will--in any case it strikes me as obviously the American way to handle the issue.

It's nice that Richard Cohen has evolved over time into such a sensitive, thoughtful, philosophical guy, one who wishes he had agonized more over his own (second-hand) abortion decision all those years ago. That's not a good reason for wanting to restrict the freedom of women to make their own tough decisions in the future.

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