Far too many abortion debates are framed in the most simple, black and white terms: "Are you for abortion or against it?" However, there are many shades of gray between the two extremes of an absolute ban on abortion from the moment of fertilization vs. abortion on demand up until birth for any reason. For that reason, I have started to make a very simple request to abortion advocates in discussions: Please spell out for me exactly when you believe abortion should be legal, and when it should not be legal.
While that may seem like a very basic starting point, I think simply making sure we clearly understand where exactly our opponent stands can make discussion far more productive than if we just try to debate the issue in a general way.
We have plenty of real-world examples of situations where abortion has been restricted while not being outright banned. In many European countries, abortion is restricted after the first trimester, while in the United States, abortion advocacy groups fight hard against late-term abortion bans. Some readers may be too young to remember the long and difficult fight in America to ban intact dilation and extraction abortion (a.k.a. Partial Birth Abortion or PBA), but I remember that fight well. Once the partial birth abortion ban finally was upheld by the Supreme Court, abortion advocates quietly let their defense of PBA drop after a while. Despite dire predictions at the time that banning partial birth abortion would "undoubtedly harm the future reproductive health of some American women," nowadays you generally do not see people arguing that partial birth abortions need to make a comeback. The partial birth abortion ban shows the value of looking at abortion in terms of a spectrum, rather than pure black and white. Even many people who might have considered themselves pro-choice recognized partial birth abortion as too extreme to justify or defend.
We know from Gallup polling that even though a bit less than half of Americans identify as pro-choice, only about 26% of responders believe that abortion should be "Legal in all circumstances." There are many scenarios that frequently make even pro-choice people uncomfortable:
- Abortion for so-called "convenience" or "birth control" reasons.
- Sex selection abortion (aborting a female fetus for being female, as is commonly practiced in some cultures).
- Late term abortions that are clearly for elective reasons.
- The same woman having multiple abortions. It has been my experience that most abortion advocates are not aware that about half of women who have abortions have already had a previous abortion
I am reminded of a quote that is very popular among atheists with respect to monotheistic religious adherents: “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
Similarly, I say to those who oppose abortion in at least some cases: "I contend we are both against abortion. I just oppose abortion in more situations than you do. When you consider why you oppose these abortions, then perhaps you will understand that I am not your enemy simply because I draw the line in more cases or a bit earlier in pregnancy than you do."
We are used to thinking of abortion as a polarized, black and white issue. But I believe in many, many cases our disagreement is actually just about where to draw the line and matters of degree.
Now, what about abortion advocates who truly do believe abortion is a valid choice right up until the moment of birth? Finding out that someone takes that stance offers a great opportunity to discuss with that person what rational basis there is to abort a third trimester fetus yet protect the life of a newborn infant. Starting at the point where you can both agree that there is a life worth protecting and working backwards from there may be more productive than trying to convince someone who does not see even a third trimester fetus as a "person" that a newly formed zygote deserves to live.
In the effort to change minds and reach people, I think it is very helpful to try to find some form of common ground and use that as a foundation to build on. We need to look for opportunities to meet people at whatever point they are at along the spectrum of abortion beliefs.