walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 6, 2013
Abortion – Again

January 22, 2013 was the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision by the Supreme Court which declared that abortion was a woman’s constitutional right. The occasion, as every year on that date, was observed by the annual March for Life in which many thousands converge on Washington to protest the legalization of abortion. The event was too large to be ignored by the liberal media, though their sympathies were clearly for another Washington demonstration that occurred a few days earlier, a March for Gun Control (which was triggered by the massacre at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut). Abortion and gun control have been central issues in the American culture war for many years, which makes one doubt whether there was much overlap between the two marches. Actually the pro-life event was preceded a little earlier by Gun Appreciation Day, a celebration of the Second Amendment supported by the National Rifle Association.

This is not the place to discuss the merits of the debates over either issue. [Since you ask:  My views on abortion are not easily labeled as either pro-life or pro-choice.  On gun control they are “un-evolved”, because I am not familiar with the empirical evidence on guns and violent crime.] What interests me here is one curious fact: The discrepancy between public attitudes toward abortion and toward homosexuality. One might intuit that attitudes toward the two topics would strongly correlate. It seems that they don’t.

A Pew Research Center poll released in January 2013 showed 29% of Americans favoring a repeal of Roe v. Wade, 69% opposing a repeal. This might be interpreted as indicating a sizable pro-choice majority. But the situation is more complicated. Different surveys show that, while the overall size of the two camps has remained quite stable over the years (a few points apart in the 40-some% range), there has recently been a slight surge, even among young people, putting the pro-life numbers slightly up over pro-choice. The “salience” of the issue has declined: a slight majority now says that it is “not that important”. Given the very strong pro-life position of the Roman Catholic Church, it is also interesting that more Evangelicals than Catholics say that the issue is very important.

I think that the survey data suggest that a lot of Americans are confused about the issue of abortion. They drift toward a middle position. They are basically against abortion, but they don‘t want it to be illegal again, though they are willing to consider some limitations (such as parental approval for minors, counseling requirements, banning very late-term abortions). In other words, public opinion has remained quite stable, and stably divided, over time. But there has been a slight increase in the pro-life numbers. These findings are puzzling when one compares them with those concerning homosexuality: Public opinion in recent years has become much more positive on all matters involving homosexuality, including same-sex marriage. The Pew Research Center has logged the change: In 2001 about 33% of both white and black Americans supported same-sex marriage, in 2012 the white figure is 49% (African-Americans are behind at 40%).

The data on homosexuality are not surprising: They are in line with a well-documented increase in tolerance toward all sorts of minorities (sexual as well as ethnic and religious), and it is also congruent with an increasing acceptance of gender equality. The data on abortion attitudes are surprising. How could they be explained? I am not sure, but I am prepared to speculate. I can think of four possible explanations.

First, there may be a technological factor. Ultrasound imagery has made it possible to see an embryo as never before. Especially in later stages of pregnancy, both the humanity and the vulnerability of the embryo is strongly conveyed. Such images have been widely diffused, in the media and often by proud parents-to-be. It seems plausible that this may have made for repugnance against aborting this human being in the making.

Secondly, I think that the aggressive insistence by pro-choice activists that abortion is a fundamental human right of a woman, regardless of any circumstances (such as late-term pregnancy), has been counterproductive. This revulsion probably increased after Congress banned so-called “partial- birth abortion” in 2003 (the ban was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007).  This procedure has been used with very late pregnancies: Labor is artificially induced, and the embryo is then destroyed as it emerges (frequently by crushing its head). Not surprisingly, the procedure has seemed barbaric to many people, and its fierce defense by many in the pro-choice movement has been particularly appalling to people otherwise tolerant of abortion. Relevant to this topic is the question of “viability”—the ability of an embryo to survive outside the mother’s womb. Most embryos are viable after the 27th week of pregnancy, virtually none before the 21st week. Aborting late-term pregnancies is thus especially problematic, even if the mother’s health is at issue.

Thirdly, unless survey questionnaires go into very great detail, the wording of the questions is often ambiguous and answers may therefore be misleading. Just what is meant by a respondent claiming to be “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, for or against repealing Roe v. Wade?  The simple self-identification in terms of either category leaves out any complicating circumstance. And individuals may have a more nuanced attitude toward the 1973 Supreme Court decision. Thus one may be broadly in favor of abortion, but not on the debatable grounds on which the decision was based (such as the imputation of a “right to privacy” to the “due process” clause of the 14th Amendment).

Finally, and probably most importantly (at least for more reflective individuals), there is a fundamental ambiguity to the labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice”. “Pro-life”:  Of course an embryo is, biologically speaking, human life. So was my appendix, when it was removed when I was about twelve; it was not canine life. The question is not whether the embryo is human life, but whether he or she is a human person. There are various religious authorities, from the Pope on down, who claim to know. I don’t. This is a mystery (in the full sense of the word) that is not resolved by hoisting a banner that says “pro-life”. I would ask some of those who claim certainty whether they would want to charge a woman with murder (first-degree?) for aborting an embryo one month after conception. “Pro-choice”: Of course a woman has the right to choose what to do with her own body. The question is where her own body ends and that of another person begins—and when. I would ask those who, in tones of certainty, insist on the right of a woman to have an abortion a month before birth whether she also has the right to kill the child a month after birth—and if not, why not. While raising such questions does not lead to apodictic assurance in terms of policy, they may induce a measure of humility—precisely humility before the mystery of the human condition. Needless to say, individuals who ask such questions will have difficulty identifying themselves unambiguously as either “pro-life” or “pro-choice”.

Abortion continues to be a key question in the ongoing American culture war between conservatives and progressives. Various data have shown that it is symbolic of a lot of other questions that divide the two camps. The issue is unlikely to go away any time soon.

show comments
  • Dan

    This biology student is surprised to hear that your appendix constitutes “human life”.

  • WigWag

    As I was reading this post by Professor Berger I was struck by how ironic it is when compared to the post he penned on January 23, 2013 entitled, “Religion as an Activity Engaged in By Consenting Adults in Private”

    Two weeks ago the Professor’s suggested hypothesis was that one of the reasons for the decline in religious observance in the United States was,

    “…many people, especially younger ones, enjoy the new libidinous benefits of this {sexual} revolution. Whether one approves or deplores the new sexual culture, it seems unlikely to be reversed. Yet Christian churches (notably the Catholic and Evangelical ones) are in the forefront of those who do want to reverse the libertine victory. Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians. No wonder they are hostile!”

    In this post, after acknowledging that the data is ambiguous, Professor Berger suggests that the pro-life camp has become slightly larger than it was previously and that it may now be a smidgen larger than the pro-choice camp. He attributes this “small surge” at least in part to the tendency of young people to be more pro-life than they used to be. Specifically the Professor says,

    “…there has recently been a slight surge, even among young people, putting the pro-life numbers slightly up over pro-choice.”

    It’s paradoxical, don’t you think, that all those young people who Professor Berger was telling us two weeks ago were rejecting religious dogma, worried about “chastity belts” and focused on pursuing their libidinous inclinations with abandon are now so much more inclined to reject abortion on demand than they used to be. I would have thought that youngsters, so attentive to satisfying their libidinous urges that they are willing to reject religion, would be more likely to be pro-choice rather than pro-life. I wonder how Professor Berger would explain this paradox assuming he sees it as a paradox at all.

    I think it’s interesting to reflect on how changing demographics affect poll numbers on social issues like homosexuality and abortion. It is easy to assume that the views that young people have about abortion, homosexuality, drug use, religion, premarital sex and other issues are static and that these young people will maintain the same views as they get older. I suspect that it’s not true. Many people of my generation were far more comfortable with drug use and sex outside of marriage when they were the one’s enjoying those pleasures but, now that they are parents or even grandparents, are far less comfortable with the idea of their children or grandchildren doing the same thing.

    Perhaps the real reason young people are less religious is not their fear of chastity belts; it’s that they don’t yet fear dying. As Yeats said, “an old man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick.” As people age and the reality of their mortality becomes acute, aren’t they likely to become more religious? The American population is aging (the same is true in the entire Western world and even China); in time, won’t this have a profound effect on how the population views religion as well as contentious social issues?

    It is also worth noting that while Professor Berger relied on the January, 2013 Pew Center poll and other polls that he neglected to mention, there is better data available than this. In the past few years referenda limiting the right to abortion have appeared on the ballots of several states. Most of these referenda that limited abortion rights failed even in relatively conservative and religious states. In 2011 Mississippi voters rejected a statute that would have defined life as beginning at conception. In 2012 Florida voters rejected an amendment that would have precluded state funds to finance abortions for low income women and would have prevented Florida abortion rights from being more generous than required by Federal Law. The referendum failed by a whopping ten percent. On the other hand, in 2012 Montana approved a parental notification statute.

    Taken together, the results of these referenda call into question Professor Berger’s contention that there has recently been a surge which makes the pro-life group slightly larger than the pro-choice group.

    What is amazing to me is how singularly ineffective religious leaders have been in winning advocates to their point of view. What makes this even more remarkable is that they have an extremely strong case to make. People with progressive inclinations should be appalled at the manner in which abortion is ubiquitous in the United States. The concept of aborting fetuses that have Down’s syndrome or other forms of neurological or physical impairments should be disgusting to all people of good will including women’s rights advocates. Can they really suggest with a straight face that people destined to be born with disabilities have less of a right to be born than children not afflicted with disabilities? Progressive people love to champion the human and civil rights of virtually every group that they can think of. Why can’t they find it within themselves to be concerned about the most fundamental right that the most vulnerable amongst us have; the right to be born?

    I suspect that the reason that religious leaders have been such miserable failures at advocating the pro-life perspective is that they are far more used to ordering their congregants what to do based on religious dogma than persuading people what to do based on civil discourse. No religious institution is more guilty of this than the Roman Catholic Church which has still not come to terms with the fact that they are no longer in a position to demand that people cleave to their religious demands. Perhaps when the Roman Catholic Church comes to terms with the Enlightenment (assuming it ever does) it will be a better interlocutor for the pro-life point of view than it is now.

    In the meantime, if the pro-life community wants to have any success it needs to understand that Americans simply don’t care about whether abortion is precluded by the dogma of some increasingly irrelevant religious institution(s). The pro-life community should switch to progressive and secular arguments about why abortion should be frowned upon.

    Perhaps the pro-life movement should take a page out of the book perfected by anti-smoking advocates. No one thinks smoking should be illegal yet more and more people think smoking is disgusting. If society can be convinced smoker’s right’s should be abridged because of the impact that second hand smoke might have on non-smokers, surely society can be convinced that women should be strongly incentivized to bring their babies to term because of the impact that abortion has on innocent fetuses.

    Of course, moving in that direction would be assisted tremendously if Roman Catholic and Evangelical leaders finally came to understand that enforcing their religious view through statutory law is a dead end strategy that will never work. If they spoke to the American people about this issue with humility and respect they might find that their goals were far easier to accomplish.

    Of course, humility and respect from church leaders is far too much to hope for.

  • Andrzej


    Your appendix is part of your body and shares your unique DNA, while a embryo/fetus is an independent organism with it’s own unique DNA.

    As for personhood, if it is “a mystery” as you claim, then surely the prudent thing to do would be not to kill – especially since there are very strong arguments in favor of the view that all human beings are persons.

  • Gary Novak

    On a first reading, I didn’t quite understand Berger’s puzzlement at the disconnect between young people’s support for homosexuality and their increasing opposition to abortion. Is there some shared essence in homosexuality and abortion that should lead people to support both or neither? But, of course, it is not a question of essences but of symbolic politics. Liberals support gays, and conservatives oppose abortion. If you do both, you have a confused political identity. People’s views on a range of issues tend to cluster by political orientation. There are exceptions: economic conservatives are often social liberals, and vice versa. But homosexuality and abortion are both social issues, and one expects a good deal of political consistency within that domain. So it IS somewhat puzzling. Are Berger’s hypotheses plausible?

    I find it significant that religious people who hold up pictures of aborted fetuses in front of Planned Parenthood clinics or press for legislation to require women to view an ultrasound before having an abortion seem to believe that the images speak for themselves in the absence of any religious dogma. “Don’t take our word for it; see for yourself.” So, yes, I find it plausible that ultrasound could increase the repugnance at aborting humans-in-the-making. If liberals believe their own (symbolic interactionist) story, which holds that what makes us human is our symbolic interaction (language use), then they should not find anything disturbing in pictures of crushed fetus skulls. George Herbert Mead said we do an animal no injustice when we kill it. That’s because animals don’t have selves. Neither do fetuses—or infants prior to the acquisition of a social “me” through parental sociolinguistic socialization. How do we know animals don’t have selves? They don’t have the software necessary for the selfhood app. From the “symbolic animal” perspective, people who believe that pre-linguistic infants have a right to life are as benighted as people who put “Cats are people, too” bumper stickers on their cars. But the preferred liberal method for dealing with religious protesters at Planned Parenthood is not to hand out free copies of Mead’s “Mind, Self, and Society” to encourage civil discourse but to seek a court injunction. Some pictures ARE worth a thousand words.

    Berger’s second hypothesis—that militant overreach can easily provoke a backlash—is plausible across the board.

    Hypotheses three and four deal with the ambiguities in both the terms and the concepts of pro-choice and pro-life. Put differently, it’s hard to know what anyone does or should mean by those terms. There are people (I am one of them) who believe that the Supreme Court erred in finding a right to abortion in the Constitution, but who also believe that it is reasonable for legislatures to create a right to abortion (at least in some cases). Symbolic politics has little patience with nuance.

    To Berger’s four plausible hypotheses, I would add a fifth (it seems plausible to me). Although both abortion and homosexuality are matters of symbolic politics, I suspect that, of the two, homosexuality is “more symbolic.” Without knowing the exact numbers, it is safe to say that there are more women who have had abortions than there are homosexuals. The homosexual who has lived his own version of “Death in Venice” views homosexuality as a substantive, not a symbolic issue. The young person who, when asked if he supports gay marriage, says, “Of course! I’m not ‘prejudice,’ man” is viewing homosexuality as a symbolic issue. Attitudes toward an issue may change when they become more substantive through personal experience. I suspect that after having an abortion (or engaging in girl talk with someone who has), many women find that the experience is not as clinical as they expected.

    In other words, I am suggesting that, just as religious protesters hope to override secular dogma with substantive images, so young people who are generally in line with tolerant symbolic politics sometimes find their liberal prejudices overruled by substance. We are comparing symbolic oranges and substantive apples. No wonder there is a disconnect. (Would support for gay marriage among young people decline if more people were directly touched by it—if, for example, they were raised by gay parents? I don’t know. But if support remained relatively high, its departure from abortion politics would no longer be surprising, because we would have left the realm of symbolic politics, where opinions are determined by ideology.)

  • Marla Singer

    Sir, your appendix must truly have been a medical wonder.

  • mannning

    I approach the abortion question from the view that a fertilized egg contains within itself all of the necessary information and processes to create a unique human being. Thus, destroying that egg, or the fetus that emerges, is destroying a “proto-human being”, which is clearly murder to me. Murder is against the law, as well as against the strictures of the Commandments.

  • Dunster

    Andrzej’s remarks are excellent and bear rereading: “Your appendix is part of your body and shares your unique DNA, while a embryo/fetus is an independent organism with it’s own unique DNA.

    As for personhood, if it is “a mystery” as you claim, then surely the prudent thing to do would be not to kill – especially since there are very strong arguments in favor of the view that all human beings are persons.”

    The construction of a category of independent human organisms with unique DNA who are human enough to exploit (for parts, etc) but not human enough to protect is not morally defensible.

  • Blake

    This is a subject that will most likely always be controversial, no matter what the law regarding it is. I personally follow the majority of Americans in my confusion of my beliefs on the subject and am therefore somewhere in the middle. However, based on my Christian religion, I believe that God has a plan for everyone no matter how they come into the world. I guess this would put me under the label of “pro-life,” but at the same time, I do recognize that there are some situations in which the mother should have the right to choice. The main case I am speaking of here is conception of a child through rape. I understand that it would probably be extremely difficult to raise a child and hide from them the fact that their conception was due to their father raping their mother. At the same time, I do believe once a baby is conceived, even as an embryo, it is a human life that deserves the right to live. It is a very difficult and controversial subject and it’s unfortunate that it even has to be debated over, but I don’t think there will ever be a solution that makes everyone happy. Sorry for the pessimism, but I am just trying to be a realist.

  • Shalom Beck

    Since most Americans voted for Barack Obama, who opposes any restrictions on late-term abortions, obviously precious few find the issue salient.

  • Peter Jessen

    My concern about the “Abortion again” question is how do we address these and other issues so that the polarization can be greatly reduced, whether we do our part as a member of a faith community or a political party or both? Much will depend on how the “definition of the situation” debate is framed by our answers to the “two fundamental questions” raised by Berger in his “Culture of Liberty” essay: “who are we?” and “how are we to live together?”

    I’m reminded of the old cartoon of the little old man sitting at the gates of an Irish cemetery, smoking his cigarette, saying, “I’m the last Irishman left and I can’t remember whether I’m a Protestant or a Catholic.”

    Following my giving a 1980 “futurist” talk, “Pedantic Utopias vs. Predictive Utopias and Ideologies,” at a Global Conference on the future (including chairing a panel on utopias and ideologies), I was asked to key note a regional Planned Parenthood conference in Minneapolis in 1981. I presented “Historically or Hysterically: Two Alternative Building Blocks for Guiding the Future of Planned Parenthood.”

    I discussed the change between pre-modern times of “post-birth abortion” and modern times of “pre-birth” abortions, enabled to a great extent by technology and perceptions about using such technology.

    One of my examples was China. I stated China would have to go capitalist to survive, and that with both technological and material economic progress and advances, a change would come in their “one child” birth rate policy that was accompanied (unintended consequence?) by post-birth abortions for girl babies in China.

    Our late term abortions have a one centimeter/one second moment at the vaginal exit when its/hers/his status changes in our currently accepted legal definitions from woman’s fetal tissue to independing human baby. I further stated that both sides had points worth listening to. Given the imperfection of human beings and evil some bring to bare, the indiscretions of youth as well as of elders, and the social reality of “unwanted pregnancies” (for whatever reason, frivolous or not), I suggested they needed to consider that although abortion as unintended birth control was morally defensible, abortion as intentional fertility control was not.

    Berger reminds us that in our world of pluralism, different groups/races/creeds have to figure out how to live side by side and “get along” (what Cuddihy calls “The Ordeal of Civility”) or devolve into verbal or physical clashes, ranging from what Berger elsewhere has called “implied excommunication,” from the community to physical demonstrations to clashes that can escalate to war.

    In asking Berger’s excellent question regarding where and when does a woman’s own body end and that of another person, [the fetus/baby] begin, we could further ask why is there such a vast difference in meaning for that one centimeter “wall” separating the end of the birth canal and the exit (a whole different kind of “vagina monologue”), stuck with the suggestion that the difference between a non-human embryo and a human baby is just this one centimeter wall.

    Berger offers four possible explanations for the difference in attitudes re abortion (less favorably accepted) and homosexuality (more favorably accepted: (1) “technological” (such as ultrasound imagery which has changed in 30 years to enable the perception of seeing a “baby” not just a fetus, to which we can add over the counter “morning after” remedies; (2) “aggressive insistence” on a woman’s right regardless of circumstances, creating a backlash of public opinion regarding any time “ right to choose” birth control; (3) “ambiguity” of survey questions (as with all surveys), and (4) the “human person” / “mystery” of when an embryo becomes not just “human life” but a “human person” (whether before or after that one centimeter vagina dialogue exit.

    When both scientists and theologians argue over truth, and wind up settling it by taking a vote or getting a judge’s ruling, do we have informed (or uininformed) science and informed (or uninformed) truth, can we not say that we have neither “the” science nor “the” truth?

    To these I would add two. (1) the greater “implied excommunication” (Berger’s term in another book) by believers at the abortion end of the spectrum, and (2) “the new class, ” although the success of these “knowledge manipulators” in K -12 and post high classrooms, mainstream media, and in the entertainment/celebrity worlds of “progressive values” has been slower with abortion than with homosexuality (abortion will catch up as OTC technology enables women to address the morning after without having to get into a debate with anyone).

    Some say science suggests life, biologically, begins at conception (mud for Adam, Adam’s rib for Eve). But is a piece of biology (Berger’s appendix or Adam’s rib) a person? If we say no, then when does personhood begin?

    One of the great curiosities of religion is that of translations. For example, Joseph’s coat of many colors was actually a dull coat with long sleeves (hard to create a musical over dull long sleeves). Hence, the marker for when human life began in Genesis of the Old Testament, was not when the bodies of both Adam and Eve were created (whether out of mud for Adam or Adam’s rib for Eve), but when life was breathed into them, which is what the original Hebrew meaning of personhood. This would extend abortion being “OK” up to the air gasping slap. And so the debate will continue to rage on.

    My sense is that technology will take the wind out of the anti-abortion sails unless OTC technology is made illegal (highly doubtful), and that as homosexuality is accepted by more and more that it is not a choice, its acceptance will grow as well.

    Back when pro-choice was on the ropes, Bill Clinton suggested a middle position: to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” Berger suggested, at the end of his July 1, 2011 blog entry, “A Mormon Moment,” that as Evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews are joined by re-thinking progressive Democrats in the pro-choice camp, along with secular refugees from political correctness, they “will coalesce in an enduring alliance devoted to a repeal of the Sixties.” Their success remains to be seen.

    That and technology will change how unwanted pregnancies are handled: over the counter. And a growing sense of ending discrimination will continue to greatly reduce concerns regarding homosexuality, although the question of “same sex marriage” will take longer to work out, one way or another.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2015 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service