America has been embroiled in a seemingly endless debate over the
issue of abortion for four decades now, but the most fascinating
dispute on this issue may now be among those who consider themselves,
in one way or another, advocates of abortion rights.
An unprecedented view into this debate is available on the pages of Slate.com–a
prominent Web site that features some of the liveliest reporting
available anywhere today. Nevertheless, this exchange between writers
William Saletan and Katha Pollitt did not begin on the Internet, but in
the pages of The New York Times and The Nation.
Saletan fired the first salvo, suggesting in an op/ed commentary published in The New York Times
that pro-choicers should admit that abortion is “bad” and that those
who support abortion rights should work toward a truly dramatic
reduction in the total number of abortions.
Saletan’s argument is not exactly new, either for himself or for the movement he supports. In his 2004 book, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War,
Saletan offered some of the most incisive and perceptive analysis of
the national abortion debate. In essence, Saletan argued that America
has settled on a fragile consensus he described as “conservative
pro-choice.” Americans are quite squeamish about abortion itself, but
have resisted efforts to eliminate access to abortion altogether.
Even those who disagree with Saletan must take his argument
seriously. Those of us who yearn to see America affirm the sanctity of
all human life, born and preborn, must acknowledge that we have much
work to do in terms of changing public opinion–the task of reaching
the hearts and minds of millions of individual citizens.
That process of reaching hearts and minds is Saletan’s concern as
well, even as he is a strong defender of abortion rights. As he sees
it, support for abortion rights is diminishing as the pro-life movement
has been largely successful in focusing upon the moral status of the
fetus and the objectionable–even horrible–nature of abortion itself.
Writing on the thirty-third anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Saletan boldly argued: “It’s time for the abortion-rights movement to declare war on abortion.”
That was a rather amazing statement, and Saletan clearly intended to catch the attention of abortion-rights advocates.
“If you support abortion rights, this idea may strike you as nuts,”
Saletan acknowledged. “But look at your predicament. Most Americans
support Roe and think women, not the government, should make
abortion decisions. Yet they’ve entrusted Congress and the White House
to politicians who oppose legal abortion, and they haven’t stopped the
confirmations to the Supreme Court of John G. Roberts Jr. and . . .
Samuel A. Alito Jr.”
In terms of political analysis, Saletan reminded his pro-choice
readers that abortion may have been a “winning issue” for their side
sixteen years ago, but no more. “You have a problem,” he advised.
His candid analysis was offered so that the pro-abortion movement
might awaken from its slumber. “The problem is abortion,” he
summarized. In order to make his point, he raised the Partial-Birth
Abortion Ban Act and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act–both passed
overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by President Bush–and
reminded: “And most Americans supported both bills, because they agree
with your opponents about the simplest thing: It’s bad to kill a
Significantly, Saletan then offered his own moral analysis. “They’re
right. It is bad,” he confirmed. “This is why the issue hasn’t gone
away. Abortion, like race-conscious hiring, generates moral friction.
Most people will tolerate it as a lesser evil or a temporary measure,
but they’ll never fully accept it. They want a world in which it’s less
necessary. If you grow complacent or try to institutionalize it,
they’ll run out of patience. That’s what happened to affirmative
action. And it’ll happen to abortion, if you stay hunkered down behind Roe.”
Instead, Saletan argued that the pro-abortion movement should
coalesce around an agenda of lowering the total number of abortions and
increasing the use of contraceptives.
All this was just too much for Katha Pollitt, a fire-brand liberal who serves as a regular columnist for The Nation, one of America’s most influential journals of liberal opinion.
Pollitt was shocked–absolutely shocked–that Saletan was
ready to speak of abortion in moral terms. This is a move she
emphatically rejects. “Inevitably, attacking abortion as a great evil
means attacking providers and patients. If abortion is so bad, why not
stigmatize the doctors who perform them? Deny the clinic a permit in
your town? Make women feel guilty and ashamed for choosing it and make
them sweat so they won’t screw up again?”
Furthermore, she warned that abortion might soon “join obesity and smoking as unacceptable behavior in polite society.”
Taken by itself, this is a truly amazing comment. At the very least,
it suggests that, in Katha Pollit’s social circle, obesity and smoking
are taken as genuine moral issues, when abortion–the killing of an
unborn human–is not.
But there’s more. Consider this statement: “The trouble with
thinking in terms of zero abortions is that you make abortion so
hateful you do the antichoicers’ work for them. You accept that the
zygote/embryo/fetus has some kind of claim to be born.” Did you get
that? Any honest reading of her words would lead to the inevitable
conclusion that Pollitt believes that the unborn human has no “claim to be born.”
Pollitt was responding directly to Saletan’s op/ed in The New York Times.
In her view, Saletan was simply giving away the store by admitting that
abortion was indeed a serious moral issue and that it is a “bad”
reality in and of itself.
From their initial exchange in the Times and The Nation, Saletan and Pollitt continued their debate at Slate.com.
Their exchange took the form of lengthy letters addressed to each
other, with Saletan first clarifying what he really intended to say as
he argued about abortion in moral terms. “I’m no fan of the language of
sin,” he clarified. “But I don’t see why we have to shrink from words
like good and bad. It’s bad to cause a pregnancy in a situation where
you’re going to end up having an abortion. It’s bad to cause a
pregnancy in a situation where you can’t be a good mom or dad. Our high
rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion are a collective moral
problem. If we don’t want the government to tell us what to do, we’d
better address the problem individually.”
Beyond this, Saletan also told Pollitt that his purpose was not to
create a movement that would combine pro-choicers with the pro-life.
Instead, “I’m trying to form a coalition with the public,” he
Saletan is an ardent supporter of abortion rights, but he positions
himself in something of a centrist position–at least his position
looks somewhat centrist with Katha Pollitt as background. He is
concerned that when Pollitt dismisses any claim to life on the part of
the fetus, she confuses the fetus with the zygote, “alienating people
who see the difference and might support us if they realize we care
about it.” This is an interesting move, and a move I believe to be
destined to fail.
Why? Because Saletan’s effort to suggest that the fetus might
have some claim to life while the zygote evidently does not, is based
in no clear or compelling scientific definition of life. The human
continuum begins with the union of the sperm and the egg and continues
throughout gestation and life until natural death. At no point along
this continuum does the life suddenly “become” human. Such arguments
are based upon convenient abstractions or arbitrarily chosen capacities
or characteristics. Pollitt’s position is truly abhorrent and radical,
but it is at least consistent.
Responding to Saletan, Pollitt accuses him of offering no real
rationale for why abortion should be seen as “so outrageous, so
terribly morally offensive, so wrong.” She is willing to speak of
abortion as a “difficult” decision, but that is about all. She explains
that opposition to abortion is really an extension of an effort to deny
sexual freedom to women, and to stigmatize sex outside of marriage. She
identifies this with what she sees as the nation’s “already broad, deep
strain of sexual Puritanism, shame and blame.”
Responding to Pollitt, Saletan clarified his position: “This is why
I use the word ‘bad.’ It upsets many people on the left, but for the
same reason, it wakes up people in the middle. It’s new, and in my
opinion, it’s true. (I don’t use the word ‘wrong,’ because to me that
implies a prohibitive conclusion. ‘Bad’ is a consideration. Abortion
can be a less-bad option than continuing a pregnancy. In that case,
it’s bad but not wrong.)”
Pollitt remained unmoved. “Morality has to do with rights and duties
and obligations between people,” she insisted. “So, no: I do not think
terminating a pregnancy is wrong. A potential person is not a person,
any more than an acorn is an oak tree. I don’t think women should have
to give birth just because a sperm met an egg. I think women have the
right to consult their own wishes, needs, and capacities and produce
only loved, wanted children they can care for–or even no children at
all. I think we would all be better off as a society if we respected
women’s ability to make these decisions for themselves and concentrated
on caring well for the born. There is certainly enough work there to
keep us all very busy.”
In the end, Saletan appeared to have retreated somewhat from his
argument about the moral status of abortion, but the very fact that he
addressed the issue so clearly and candidly is telling in itself. As
for Pollitt, she was eventually willing to admit that abortion is
“icky.” As she explained this term: “I think that expresses rather well
how lots of people feel about abortion: They may not find it immoral or
want to see it made illegal, but it disturbs them. It just seems like a
Why should pro-lifers pay attention to this debate among advocates
of abortion rights? The answer to that question is simple–the exchange
between William Saletan and Katha Pollitt demonstrates the inherent
weakness of the pro-abortion argument, or its pro-choice variant.
Lacking any objective definition of human life and the status of the
unborn, the pro-abortion movement is mired in a pattern of endless
internal debates and confusions. Saletan’s argument is less radical
than Pollitt’s, but his position is morally arbitrary, based more in
pragmatic concern than in moral philosophy.
In any event, the exchange between William Saletan and Katha Pollitt
indicates that the pro-abortion movement knows that it has work to do
in reaching the hearts and minds of Americans. The pro-life movement
had better remind itself of the same challenge. Both sides are locked
in a race to reach the hearts and minds of those still stuck in the