As an atheist and a secular kinda guy, I practice moral relativism regularly. Still, I always have struggled mightily with the ethics and politics of abortion. Apparently, I'm not alone.
A new Gallup Poll claims that for the first time since 1995 -- when the question was first asked by the organization -- most Americans consider themselves to be "pro-life" rather than "pro-choice."
The straightforward question asked of participants was this: "With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?" Fifty-one percent responded that they were pro-life, and 42 percent said they were pro-choice. These percentages are the reverse of what was found in the same poll in 2006.
What happened? Is it possible that the nation has undergone a gigantic attitudinal shift on the fundamental issue of abortion in only three years' time? Logically, it seems that the entire framing of the debate has become antiquated and far too simplistic for the questions we face. Anecdotally, I would say it's possible. I know I've changed my views.
After a life of being pro-choice, I began to seriously ponder the question. I oppose the death penalty because of the slim chance innocent people will be executed and because I don't believe the state should have the authority to take a citizen's life. So don't I owe a nascent human life at least the same deference? Just in case?
Now, you may not consider a fetus a "human life" in early pregnancy, though it has its own DNA and medical science continues to find ways to keep the fetus viable outside the womb earlier and earlier. It's difficult to understand how those who harp on the importance of "science" in public policy can draw an arbitrary timeline in the pregnancy, defining when human life is worth saving and when it can be terminated.
The more I thought about it the creepier the issue got. Newsweek, for instance, recently reported that 90 percent of women whose fetuses test positive for Down syndrome choose to abort. Another survey showed that only a small percentage of mothers even use the test. So what happens when 90 percent of parents test their fetuses? Does it mean the end of the disorder, or are we stepping perilously close to eugenics?
What about future DNA tests that can detect any defects in a fetus? What happens when we can use abortion to weed out the blind, the mentally ill, the ugly or any other "undesirable" human beings?
Recently, Sweden's National Board of Health and Welfare ruled that women are permitted to abort their children based on the sex of the fetuses. In the United States, a woman can have an abortion for nearly any reason she chooses. In fact, a health exemption for the mother allows abortions to be performed virtually on demand.
If you oppose selective abortions but not abortion overall, I wonder why? How is terminating the fetus because it's the wrong sex any worse than terminating the fetus for convenience's sake? The fate of the fetus does not change; only the reasoning for its extinction does.
Now, I happen to believe (as civil libertarian and pro-life activist Nat Hentoff once noted) that the right to life and liberty is the foundation of a moral society. Then again, I also believe a government ban on abortion would only criminalize the procedure and do little to mitigate the number of abortions.
Obviously, these are a few of the complex and uncomfortable issues to ponder. Maybe this poll tells us that the dynamics of the abortion debate are about to change, that Americans are getting past the politics and into the morality of the issue.
Then again, it's entirely possible that I'm just projecting.