August 1, 2018 by Anders Ingemarson
The prospect of another conservative Supreme Court judge has predictably rekindled the Roe v. Wade debate. Those who desire an overturn are getting their hopes up, while those wanting none of it are taking to social media to fuel the “resistance.”
Whatever the likelihood of an overturn, it is interesting that over the past few decades Roe v. Wade has become somewhat of a litmus test on both sides of the aisle when judging the qualifications of a Supreme Court nominee.
On the surface, and as portrayed in much of mainstream media, the two sides appear deadlocked with no middle ground between a total ban on abortion and no restrictions at all. Yet, according to the 2017 Pew Research Center survey “Public Opinion on Abortion” the American public has a more nuanced view of abortion with 57% saying it should be legal or illegal in most but not all cases:
Nor are the views extremely polarized when looked at by religious affiliation or party ideology:
These numbers have held relatively steady since the Pew survey was first done in 1995.
With the range of views being closer to a bell curve than what media talking heads would like us to believe, is there an opportunity for breaking the supposed deadlock and come to some level of mutual understanding? Perhaps not tomorrow, next year or in a decade, but maybe in a generation?
In terms of faith, the outcome of some of history’s great intellectual battles indicate that there is hope. A recurring historical theme is that people of faith who are also committed to reason (an overwhelming majority) tend to adjust their faith-based views as new scientific and other facts are discovered.
In 1633, Galileo Galilei was sentenced to house arrest for life by the Roman Inquisition for his advocacy of heliocentrism, the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, because it was against the teachings of the Catholic church. But sentencing Galileo did not stop heliocentrism from spreading. On the contrary, his discovery quickly became central to future scientific discoveries, for the most part spearheaded by scientists who themselves were religious. When faced with the newly discovered facts that contradicted their faith, they went back and reexamined and often reinterpreted the religious texts and teachings, and adjusted their faith accordingly.
In the early 1800s the new science of geology was all the rage. William Smith, the father of geology, examining fossils in different strata of the earth, concluded that our planet had been around a little longer than previously thought. The religiously based accepted view before William Smith was that of Bishop Ussher who in 1654 had calculated the night preceding Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC as the date of creation. The debate between the proponents of the new science and the people of faith that supported Bishop Ussher’s view was as heated as today’s abortion debate. But over time the facts were accepted, and religious people gradually adjusted their views.
History is full of examples of this process at work, with faith and facts initially clashing but eventually being reconciled. And eventually official doctrine catches up although it may take a while: it took the Catholic church until 1835 to see the (sun)light and drop Galilei’s Dialogue from the List of Prohibited Books.
In the past half-century or so similar ground-breaking and controversial discoveries have been made that over time may result in a reconciliation of the different views on abortion. The 20th century philosopher Ayn Rand identified the relationship between rights and human nature. She demonstrated that rights only apply to actual, not potential human beings: the concept of “rights” presupposes a being that has the capacity (mental ability) to reason (to think) and the free will to exercise that capacity, including the possibility to err—to be or do wrong—consciously or by mistake. Only when this capacity is physically developed can we talk about an actual human being with rights. It follows that the “right to life” doesn’t apply until that point is reached. Determining when this point is reached during pregnancy is a scientific question, but we know already that it occurs past the first, and probably well into the second or early third trimester.
The bell curve of opinions on abortion, with a majority believing that abortion should be legal or illegal at some but not all times during pregnancy, may indicate an opportunity for Ayn Rand’s discovery to take hold over time. And someday first trimester abortions may become factually, if not emotionally, uncontroversial, facilitating the process of reconciliation.
And just as people of faith will reconcile their views with Ayn Rand’s groundbreaking discovery, individuals at the other end of the abortion spectrum will soften their stance; as pro-choice hardliners realize that a gray zone exists in the development from a potential to an actual human being, they will come to understand that morally and legally erring on the side of caution may be warranted in the later stages of pregnancy.
Having an abortion is a difficult decision. The vast majority of women facing this tough choice want it done as quickly as possible. According to the CDCs latest statistics from 2014, 67% of abortions take place the first 8 weeks. Another 24% are performed week 9-13, bringing the approximate first trimester total to 91%. Only 1.3% take place in the 21st week or later, which translates to a little more than 10,000 per year in the United States. As the moral stigma around early stage abortions diminish, making the decision less agonizing, and as contraceptives continue to improve (including adding male contraceptives to the mix), the number of late stage abortions are likely to continue their downward trend.
And some day, most of us will understand the relationship between rights and human nature—and share a fact-based view on abortion—as surely as the earth revolves around the sun. And Supreme Court nominees will look forward to hearings without the Roe v. Wade litmus test.