Should Abortion Be a "Difficult" Decision?

A new book proclaims that the left should stop giving in to the temptation to "awfulize" abortion and declare it an unequivocal social good. It argues the issue is nowhere near as complex or thorny as it's often portrayed. Is the moral and logical debate that cut-and-dry, though?
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A new book proclaims that the left should stop giving in to the temptation to "awfulize" abortion and declare it an unequivocal social good. It argues the issue is nowhere near as complex or thorny as it's often portrayed. Is the moral and logical debate that cut-and-dry, though?
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It's hard to write anything about the complexities of the abortion debate without first offering a disclaimer or at the very least a declaration of intent. The entire subject is such a third rail within our politics and culture that it often seems as if there's no other opinion but an extreme one. We hear largely from those who are staunchly pro-choice or staunchly pro-life, with the voices in the middle either drowned out or simply resigned to not getting involved. In the years I wrote steadily for my blog, Deus Ex Malcontent, I broached the subject of abortion once and only once and it was to say essentially what I'm about to say here. My disclaimer, then, is this: Whatever opinions I express on what's obviously a delicate and highly personal matter for so many are offered in good faith and I'm more than willing to consider alternative viewpoints. I'm a guy talking about what women do with their bodies here and I'm well aware of the implications of that. If there's any issue for me to avoid being an all-out ideologue on, it's this one.

That in mind, there's an article running at Slate right now that takes a stance that's nowhere near as nuanced as my own, and that's kind of the point. Its title alone, "Abortion Is Great," is bold, unequivocal and without a doubt editorially engineered to troll the hell out of the pro-life crowd. In the two-page piece, feminist writer Hanna Rosin examines a new book which claims that the left needs to stop the "awfulization" of abortion and fully embrace it as an unqualified social good. Katha Pollitt's Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights argues that a handful of anti-abortion activists have controlled the media narrative by casting the decision to have an abortion as one that's complicated and thorny.

Rosin states immediately at the top of the piece that she's had an abortion and suggests others who've done the same follow suit, in the spirit of the book.

Any woman who’s reading this piece and has had an abortion, or any man who has supported one, should go in the comments section and do the same thing, until there are so many accounts that the statement loses its shock value. Because frankly, in 2014, it should be no big deal that in a movie a young woman has an abortion and it’s no big deal. We shouldn’t need a book explaining why abortion rights are important. We should be over that by now.

Pollitt's -- and apparently Rosin's -- take on abortion is that by buying into the idea that abortion is something that needs to be carefully considered and even discouraged at times, the left has allowed anti-abortion activists to cleverly upend pro-choice dogma, which states that a fetus isn't a human life and therefore, by reason, isn't deserving of any self-flagellation. In Pollitt's view, "This is not the right time for me," should always be a valid enough reason to have an abortion and it should be declared proudly by those who claim to be pro-choice. The book confronts and attempts to sway the "muddling middle," which Pollitt and Rosin think have been infected with an unnecessary "fog of regret" to the point where the viewpoint of many abortion supporters borders on confused and neurotic.

Pollitt would appear to make some interesting points, including this one, which sounds like a religious argument until you realize that it's actually pretty strict logic: If a fetus is a human being then aborting it to save its mother would be equal to killing a toddler to accomplish the same thing. By sparing a hypothetical mother in jeopardy, you're automatically conceding that her life is worth more than that of the organism growing inside her, which in essence puts you on the pro-life side. This kind of thinking is designed to shake people who consider themselves liberal out of a willingness to indirectly give an inch to the right in the abortion debate. I admit that I haven't read the book in full and I certainly don't want to put words in anyone's mouth, but Pollitt seems to be reverse engineering the conservative stance, saying that the only way you can be truly in favor of abortion is to accept that a fetus isn't a child -- and if a fetus isn't a child then there's little reason to hem and haw over the decision to abort it. Anything else would be a logically untenable paradox.

And that's what brings me to my own personal dilemma. I'm one of Pollitt's "muddling middle," which tries to somehow swallow that logically untenable paradox without choking on it. I believe that at some point during a woman's pregnancy it becomes undeniable -- medically, scientifically and rationally -- that what's growing inside of her is a human being. And yet in spite of believing this, I without equivocation support a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. I'm staunchly pro-choice and can't and won't attempt to in any way interfere with a woman's dominion over her own body, nor will I withhold support from a woman who chooses to abort a pregnancy. It's her choice, always. It has to be her choice.

When considering the issue of abortion, I try to apply the same logic Pollitt does given that I'm an atheist and would never entertain fanciful notions like the idea of a human soul being created at conception. Reason to me dictates that the only difference between the organism that someone chooses to terminate at 16 weeks into a pregnancy and the organism that someone is anxiously awaiting at 16 weeks into a pregnancy is -- well, there isn't one. It's merely a matter of perspective and perspective doesn't change physical properties. At 16 weeks, a sonogram done on a pregnant woman will reveal an entity that very much resembles what it would seem to be: a baby. Separate brainwaves, a separate heartbeat, separate limbs, a separate life. To deny this is, as Pollitt seems to imply, the only way to prevent a cognitive dissonance that's positively paralyzing.

But here I am, not seizing up and overloading, despite the contradiction. Like a lot of people who I'm sure feel the same as me -- the people Pollitt is attempting to sway -- I inexplicably pass the test F. Scott Fitzgerald famously set for determining a first-rate intellect: I'm holding two opposing thoughts in mind at the same time and retaining the ability to function. I can't even begin to explain how I'm willing to protect a woman's right to demand an abortion no matter the reason while believing that after a certain point it means the life of a child. Not potential life, but actual life. And I can't even begin to delineate between what's a zygote or fetus incapable of being considered sovereign and what's a human being. But I am. I do.

Maybe all of this is why, in spite of Hanna Rosin's assuredness and Katha Pollitt's critical thinking, I'm still stuck believing that the abortion debate is a complicated and thorny one; it's not something to be cavalier about, even if millions of women can proclaim that they've had safe abortions for myriad reasons, even if women should continue to be guaranteed that right and even if it's a political and cultural imperative.

Absolutist notions of logic and morality and right and wrong feel elusive on this one and it aggravates the hell out of me -- but that doesn't change my view of what a woman should and shouldn't be allowed to do in this case. It's her body and not mine.