NATION FACES CHANGED ABORTION LANDSCAPE
—Headline, the New York Times, June 26, 2022
Sure enough? The Times, the Times!—America’s narrow-eyed bearer of meat-slab tidings and truths wouldn’t tickle us under the chin with a feather, would it, hoping to provoke a giggle? What’s this that the revered Times appears to have in mind—a new landscape in which to contemplate the meaning of life awaiting its share of sunlight? Just when we thought legal guarantees of such an opportunity were off the table forever?
We are in a sense back where we were on January 21, 1973, before the United States Supreme Court, on a vote of seven against two, kicked the table over, declaring abortion a constitutional right, on grounds having less to do with the moral authority of the seven than with the deference their power commanded.
The new state of things, judicially speaking, is a good thing. We are about to have the national conversation, so to speak, that we never had in the beginning, before our highest court imposed on us a belief-regime for which we were unready: morally, religiously, culturally, politically. Maybe politically most of all, as matters worked out.
We don’t know what’s ahead, today’s Supreme Court having put in our possession that new landscape to which the Times alludes: a replacement, its features still undetermined, for the shrubbery and overgrowth which the old court countenanced in Roe v. Wade. We will talk and talk and talk, and plan and plan and plan, concerning the ways our civilization—if we may still call it that—apprehends and teaches about obligations to unborn human life. Or the lack of obligations. That would be another approach to the discussion.
What a perfect time for the appearance of Ryan T. Anderson’s and Alexandra DeSanctis’s Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing (Regnery Publishing, $29.99, 296 pp). It is one richly researched, easy-to-read conversation-starter, that’s for sure. Just as intended, I can only assume.
Somebody, whether publishers or authors or all at the same time, divined what was coming—namely, the overthrow of the ever-more untenable Roe v. Wade regime. But there was more to the project than that. And I don’t mean the salivating prospect of filthy lucre tumbling into parched pockets. Financial profit is what flows from rightly judging, then satisfying, a public need. Few public needs seem to me so obvious as the clearing away of growth and moral tangles from the abortion landscape willed us by the 1973 court.
We know the new landscape will teem with activity. Our formerly pro-life friendly (by his own account) president declares that “This decision must not be the final word. My administration will use all of its appropriate lawful powers. Congress must act. And your vote? You have the final word. This is not over.”
Vice President Harris seconded the motion: “You [the voters] have the power to elect leaders who will defend and protect your rights.” Then there’s Sen. Elizabeth Warren, writing with a collaborator in the Times: “We must restore our democracy so that a radical minority can no longer drown out the will of the people.”
What does all this portend? Something that has never happened—but should, for all kinds of reasons, not least the vindication of democratic processes shut down, tied up, garroted during all the bleak years since January 22, 1973. It is fun to pick up from Sen. Warren the idea of restoring “our democracy”—which is to say, the notion that here, in one form or another, the people rule. Democracy, we are going to re-learn during the debate ahead of us, is a governmental species rather different from krytocracy—the Greek for government by judges.
Perhaps you have noticed we never debated, once Roe v. Wade came down from on high, the claimed merits of weaving into the Constitution a right that entailed the extinction of unborn human life. We took the Supreme Court’s word that 1) abortion is, at worst, a thing morally indifferent and not worth much conversation and 2) the Court enjoyed the princely right to say so without contravention. This was not exactly how previous generations had thought and acted. In 1861, the princely approach was tried. It failed, to say the least.
It has done rather poorly since then. What was the idea in 1973—that unborn children enjoyed no rights important enough to offset the claims of mothers and self-ordained apostles of women’s demands for equality and politicians with an interest in placating both aforesaid categories? That would about sum it up, I think. Protests against the Supreme Court’s exercise of “raw judicial power,” as one dissenter in Roe called it, came too late. The thing was done. Contravening arguments were too late: That portion of the community fixated on the fruitfulness of allowing unborn babies to be wiped off the map had won—juridically speaking.
Let’s get back to the book I am reviewing. I have spent time talking about democracy and the need for respectfully debating large questions because I see the value of Tearing Us Apart as consisting in its potential as a resource for the task of reshaping the abortion landscape. It needs to be, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested. It is an evidence-based, a posteriori assault on what the Supreme Court wrought in Roe. You can undertake such a project, if you like, in an angry, vengeful spirit; but Anderson, who is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and DeSanctis, a well-known conservative commentator, are not playing that game. They want to argue, not rant and rave and name-call in the manner of polemicists on each side of the question. They bring to the conversation, if I am not overusing that hopeful word, a spirit of forcible restraint.
Their idea is that the abortion regime of the past five decades has messed us up in seven distinct and highly dangerous ways. To wit: It “harms the unborn child”; “it harms women and the family”; it “harms equality and choice”; it “harms medicine”; it “harms the rule of law”; it “harms politics and the democratic process”; and, with all that, it “harms media and popular culture.” How do you like all that, as sweeping indictments go? I would say Anderson and DeSanctis have pretty much cleared the field of defensible locations for pro-choice sentiments: which is of course a different thing from clearing the field of defenders. Any number of Bad Ideas always survive attempts to uproot them. See: “Russia, 1989-2022.” Have not pro-choice elements for half a century chafed at the survival of, as they see it, antiquated notions of disdain for a woman’s sovereignty over her body? There seems, merely on the evidence of what the Elizabeth Warrens are presently saying, no chance whatever of a sword handover by Planned Parenthood at Appomattox Courthouse.
I do not see Tearing Us Apart as a proclamation of cultural/moral triumph after a long dark night. I see it as a summons to understand what the Roe regime has meant in American life, and on that basis to work with all diligence for its replacement, to whatever extent proves possible.
The summons is manifestly compelling. The reader needn’t run all seven declarations up the flagpole and salute gaily. Two or three will do: say, the one on all the harm the Roe regime has wreaked on women. Women! Wasn’t this thing supposed to be about doing good things for the put-down half of American society that couldn’t control—legally control, I mean—their own wombs, their own proclivities for sex, and for just plain privacy? “I should be the one to decide if my body creates a life,” according to Amelia Bonow, the founder of the action group Shout Your Abortion, in a video meant for young girls.
Well, as Anderson and DeSanctis would have it, relying on medical evidence and, inter alia, the testimonies of women: “Abortion pits women against their children, telling pregnant mothers that violence against their unborn child might be necessary for them to flourish,” furthermore “enabling [them] to behave like irresponsible men who walk away from their unborn child.” And it plays into the “eugenic” notion that we improve the human race by ridding it of the mentally challenged and the otherwise unfit. “Unfit” by whose standards? By the standards of the purifiers, pouring poison into lives meant originally for love.
The purifiers include the media and the entertainment industry, who, we are coming to understand, align themselves with the top money-earners and private jet-buyers who see abortion as a social good. “The less riff-raff we have to put up with, the better for us all,” could be their slogan. Because it sure turns out that blacks are heavier users of the abortion option than are whites. I have long wondered why that indisputable point seems not to resonate with progressives opposed to blacks being killed by cops but not by abortionists. It must be a factor of age.
You will readily understand that Tearing Us Apart is anything but a labcoat, wire-rimmed-spectacles production, meant for small-volume publication in the Journal of This-and-That. The authors have points they would wish to make. They make them well and concisely—overwhelming us in a sense by the sheer compilation of the damage wreaked upon society— wreaked upon humanity—by the political-governmental enforcement of a policy not so much as discussed before its sudden imposition.
The service this book provides the community is thus considerable. It lays before said community the essential points for the sharp narrowing, if not, ideally, the extinction, of abortion. Used rightly for the public purpose I see as intended, it invites response: Yes, all right, you say this; but look at it this way. That would be, it seems to me, the essence of the task in front of us after the High Court decision of June 2022 and its landscape-clearing effects. Something old is gone. Good riddance, many of us would say, but that isn’t the present point. The present point, in a democratic society more than nominally devoted to the governance of the people, is to find what the people actually want, and to give effect to that policy.
We converse all the time these days about “conversation” and the need for more of it in difficult situations. The need for it, where sincerely asserted, makes good sense. Its techniques are, well, democratic: a position stated, a countering argument offered, a solution, or half-solution, or quarter-solution arrived at. Or maybe the whole thing deferred a bit, until tempers have cooled and circumstances of one sort or another have had their way.
The idea in democratic debate is Show! Persuade! Talk others into a belief or course of action. Democratic measures—the division of powers, say, among branches of government at both state and federal levels—brake the zeal of the off-with-their-heads coterie, those devoted, as the Wall Street Journal’s indispensable Dan Henninger recently put it, to “this now-constant style of bullhorn politics—with its shaken fists and denunciations of normal deliberation and process.”
What we clearly need is a bullhorn moratorium. We need debate. Which is where Anderson and DeSanctis come in. They have ideas. Ideas different from, say, those of Elizabeth Warren. Nonetheless, ideas thought through, researched, and presented in reasonable terms. (For present purposes I draw no metaphysical contrasts between the Anderson-DeSanctis portfolio and ideas that stand in stark contrast.)
Free speech—the right to propose and oppose—is supposedly an essential element of the American accommodation to the reality of life away from, say, Mount Sinai and its smoking tablets. We have less and less free speech in our time: those with the bullhorns having sketched out for us their rectitude and brains, and everybody else’s corresponding need to sit up and listen. My life in the journalism profession has instructed me in the wisdom of the Founders, who wove free speech into our constitutional fabric. I can say with all honesty I have not the slightest problem with listening to countervailing ideas on any subject, from a West Texas hailstorm to a campaign in support of my professional eradication. I might learn something. I might see something a different way. Might the same be said of some (not all, we are learning) who are dismayed by the Supreme Court’s new abortion jurisprudence, yet fear to ram their views down others’ throats?
Better for democracy and civic peace that both, or all, sides in important controversies receive a respectful hearing. As didn’t happen with abortion, a top-down knock-’em-out job if ever there was one. A rape of sorts. For which reason, as Justice Antonin Scalia observed, Roe “destroyed the compromises of the past, rendered compromise impossible for the future,” and left the whole question to national, as opposed to local, determination, rendering compromise all the harder.
Anderson and DeSanctis have a nice chapter pertaining to the damage inflicted by abortion upon politics and the democratic process. Large numbers of Americans, after Roe, continued to oppose the decision and its instrumental work. Tough! The court was in charge, see, pal? As in an Edward G. Robinson flick, the judges packed gats—of the judicial sort. Wasn’t nobody telling dem guys in the black robes they was wrong. Small wonder, as the authors note, the Court’s longtime intractability on the issue of its authority “undermined the Court’s own credibility, turning judicial confirmation hearings into circuses.” What an interesting notion, would you not say so, Mr. Justice Kavanaugh?
Ryan Anderson and Alexandra DeSanctis are deeply—and intelligently— committed to their analyses and positions. That is the secondary point here. The primary point here is that they have wrestled together most of the salient points requiring debate as to the justice of a judicially enforced abortion policy. There are other things that might be said, but these suffice.
If we are going to talk about such a policy, and we have to, here is the place to start. What has the pro-choice side to say about what the pro-life side says here? Some of us would truly love to know. No swear words, please, on either side. Just, well, First Amendment conversation.