We waste time on abortion issue

DAN RODRICKS

July 01, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

The conviction, the passion, the resolve, the physical and intellectual energy, millions of hours of protest, millions of words spoken and written -- all that has been invested in the battle over abortion still cannot claim for this society a consensus. And it will be another generation that judges whether we have wasted too much time on the point.

In one sense we haven't. Debate, a wise man said, is the music of democracy. The music is often harsh and shrill and prolonged, but, to paraphrase Jefferson, debate is as necessary to the political world as storms to the physical.

Most storms come and go. But the abortion debate seems to be a permanent cloud, an ugly mass that hovers over the land, gobbling up the nation's attention.

Most Americans choose not to engage in this debate because they feel the answer to the abortion question is deeply personal, as individualistic as the most profound choices human beings make in life. Most Americans, in making the choices that affect their life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, would rather be left alone.

What complicates the issue -- indeed, what makes it an issue at all -- is the deeply held conviction that abortion is murder. The ardent opponents will not be satisfied until this personal conviction, formed primarily in religious context, is accepted as the law of the land.

The Supreme Court this week attempted to give the nation a compromise, the only solution reasonable people should ever expect.

But as long as uncompromising abortion opponents continue to fight, we will have this civil war. And men and women, well-meaning people, will continue to invest their time, energy and passion in the abortion battle while many other more pressing human needs go begging for attention.

Infant mortality, the lack of access to quality health care, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, substandard public education, illiteracy, malnutrition, homelessness, increasing poverty, the spread of AIDS -- these should be the problems we commit ourselves to resolve.

These problems encompass the important unfinished business of the wealthiest society in the world. They require political leadership that can cultivate a level of public interest like the one we have seen in the abortion battle. We have not had such a call to arms in two decades or more.

On Monday, the Supreme Court did not reverse Roe vs. Wade. It let the right to abortion stand but further restricted that right. A woman must either opt to get an abortion before the 23rd week of pregnancy -- that's more than five months into it -- or risk forfeiting that right, except in a certified medical emergency.

Can the two sides in this battle accept that?

Can a soldier in the anti-abortion army admit that compromise is the most peaceful solution? Can he or she relinquish personal convictions -- or at least reprioritize them -- and move on to another challenge? Or will that soldier continue to push and push on the abortion front, investing time and energy better spent tutoring a neighborhood child? Or teaching an illiterate adult to read? Or volunteering at a soup kitchen? Those are all life-affirming deeds.

Can a soldier in the pro-choice army do the same?

Only through compromise.

Only by stepping back and seeing a larger picture.

What further complicates matters is the same Supreme Court that on Monday let Roe vs. Wade stand, with qualifications. Obviously, the court is one vote away from reversing Roe and throwing abortion into what Justice Harry A. Blackmun calls "the darkness." And there is every indication that it will get another chance to do it.

That is the nation's misfortune.

However shrill or harsh it has been, however frustrating, however much we wished it would go away, the battle over abortion seems to have resulted, as a practical matter, in a compromise described in Monday's ruling.

The anti-abortion advocates, in particular, have been engaged so long it doesn't see what it has gained -- the rejection of unrestricted abortions. It can't see that we have talked the matter out, and there is nothing new to say.

I respect their attitudes. I respect their rights to protest and to demonstrate. They probably will look right past Monday's ruling and continue to demand an end to all abortions.

It's too bad. They are well-meaning people, many of them Christians who trust the guidance of Christ. But their obsession with this cause has distracted them from the hard sweat of real social progress. All that time, all those words, all that conviction, all that passion could have been harnessed for the greater needs of society.

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