An Unnecessary Evil

Article excerpt

When William Wilberforce rose in Parliament on the evening of May 11, 1789 to give his maiden speech against the slave trade, he argued that the trade was both inhumane and unnecessary for the British economy. His words were part of a conscious strategy that began in 1787, when the British Abolition Committee "concluded that the general, moral case against the slave trade had been made and that the way to induce a positive readiness to end the trade was to demonstrate that it was impolitic as well as unjust and inhumane." Consequently, the Committee "more particularly directed their attention to the plea of political necessity which is frequently urged to justify . . . this traffic." As the historian Roger Anstey observed, this was the beginning of a conscious program of "advocacy which was henceforth to be frequent in the whole abolition campaign." That program took twenty years, until Parliament abolished the slave trade throughout the Empire in 1807.

The cause for life in America has yet to reach the second stage. The argument that the unborn are human lives has been largely won. It is now time for a coherent, sustained, and concerted effort to demonstrate that abortion is "impolitic"-bad for women as well as the unborn. As was the case with the slave trade, such a program is needed to counter the notion among many Americans that abortion is a "necessary evil." In carrying their argument to Middle America, pro-lifers must go beyond preaching to the anti-abortion choir: they need to make their case in ways that appeal to those who are currently undecided or conflicted on the issue. As Chesterton put it, "We must either not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds, and not ours."

A 1991 Gallup Poll on "Abortion and Moral Beliefs" found that 77 percent of Americans believe that abortion is at least the taking of human life, if not murder itself. More specifically, 49 percent considered abortion "murder," while an additional 28 percent thought of it as "the taking of human life." Several more recent polls confirm that virtually half of all Americans consider abortion to be "murder." As sociologists James Davison Hunter and Carl Bowman rightly conclude, "The majority of Americans morally disapprove of the majority of abortions currently performed."

Yet while many Americans believe abortion is wrong, they also believe it should remain legal. The Chicago Tribune aptly summarized the situation in a September 1996 editorial: "Most Americans are uncomfortable with all-or-nothing policies on abortion. They generally shy away from proposals to ban it in virtually all circumstances, but neither are they inclined to make it available on demand no matter what the circumstances. They regard it, at best, as a necessary evil."

If Middle America-as Hunter calls the 60 percent in the ideological middle-sees abortion as an evil, why is it thought to be "necessary"? While the 1991 Gallup Poll did not probe this question specifically, it did make clear that it is not because Middle America sees abortion as necessary to secure equal opportunity for women. For example, less than 30 percent believe abortion is acceptable in the first three months of pregnancy if the pregnancy would require a teenager to drop out of school (and the number drops below 20 percent if the abortion takes place after three months). Likewise, less than 20 percent support abortion in the first three months of pregnancy if the pregnancy would interrupt a woman's career (and that support drops to 10 percent after three months).

Instead, many Americans may see abortion as "necessary" to preserve women's health-and this despite the fact that such a view is based on easily refuted misperceptions. In fact, during our unprecedented experiment in abortion-on-demand over the past three decades, the health of untold numbers of women has actually been damaged. This is thoroughly documented in a recent book by Elizabeth Ring-Cassidy and Ian Gentles, Women's Health after Abortion: The Medical and Psychological Evidence (2002). …