The abortion morality question

It's big, it's bad and it's back. With a vengeance.

Published February 1, 2006 10:06PM (EST)

On Jan. 22, Slate correspondent William Saletan wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times urging the pro-choice movement to "declare war on abortion" and acknowledge what he as a pro-choicer feels to be true: that "it is bad to kill a fetus." Saletan wrote that he has known many women who decided that it was "less bad than the alternatives," but that he has "never met a woman who wouldn't have avoided the pregnancy in the first place."

Saletan went on, saying that "abortion is bad, and the ideal number of abortions is zero." His suggestions for the reproductive rights movement included giving more money to family-planning program Title X, expanding health insurance and access to emergency contraception, and improving sex education. All of which are already major priorities for the reproductive rights movement.

It didn't take Nation columnist Katha Pollitt long to strike back at Saletan and his play to make abortion a moral issue. Pollitt quickly pointed out that the organized pro-life movement fundamentally opposes birth control, which makes the notion of cooperating with that movement on any level, even by granting it philosophical or moral ground, more than a little unsound.

She argued that Saletan's plan to attack "abortion as a great evil means attacking providers and patients" as well. "If abortion is so bad," Pollitt wrote, "why not stigmatize the doctors who perform them? Deny the clinic a permit in your town? Make women feel guilty and ashamed for choosing it and make them sweat so they won't screw up again?" Pollitt argued that if we continue along a path that tells us that virtue can lie only in preventing pregnancy, and never in terminating it, "unwanted pregnancy will join obesity and smoking as unacceptable behavior in polite society." And, she pointed out, "if half of all pregnancies are unplanned, it doesn't make sense to treat them as individual sins."

There will never be, as Pollitt stated, zero abortions in America -- or anywhere else in the world. Women who use birth control experience unwanted pregnancies. Women who don't use birth control experience unwanted pregnancies. Unwanted pregnancies are a fact of life. Why would we stigmatize those who will inevitably experience one of the most basic facts of life?

"The trouble with thinking in terms of zero abortions is that you make abortion so hateful you do the antichoicers' work for them," wrote Pollitt. "You accept that the zygote/embryo/fetus has some kind of claim to be born. You start making madonna-whore distinctions." Injecting antiabortion moralism into the debate isn't going to help anyone except the antiabortion movement, she argued.

Today in Slate, Saletan and Pollitt continue this conversation. Rather than trying to boil it all down here, I urge you to go check it out for yourselves.

This debate is fascinating and crucial as the reproductive rights movement faces a future with a new and dangerous Supreme Court. Saletan's call to completely overhaul the philosophical underpinnings of the pro-choice movement isn't new. It has been brewing for a while, and was kick-started a year ago by a long essay by Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling, and by comments that Sen. Hillary Clinton made in which she called abortion "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women."

Clinton's remarks, along with John Kerry's November 2004 assertion that Democrats need to make clear that they don't "like" abortion -- and Howard Dean's wish that the words "abortion" and "choice" be stricken from his party's lexicon -- demonstrate the ways in which the "morality question" will continue to loom large until, I suspect, the very planks of Democratic Party politics are pulled up.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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