Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist and anti-choice conservative Catholic, has responded at some length on his blog (parts one and two) to my postelection column, in which I posed some pointed questions for pro-lifers. My format gives me much less space, but I’m going to try to take up his major points here. Then we can move on, which most of you have probably already done.
1) Illegal abortion. What would happen if the United States made abortion a crime? Experts cite very high rates of unsafe clandestine procedures in parts of the world where abortion is banned, but Douthat dismissed my example of Brazil—where, despite a virtually total ban, the abortion rate is higher than in the United States, and more than 200,000 women end up in the hospital each year—on the grounds that it’s in the developing world. I’m not sure that makes Brazil irrelevant. There are places in the United States where poverty is rampant and healthcare for the poor inadequate—large swaths of Texas and the Deep South, for example.
But OK, forget Brazil. Douthat likens Ireland—a country with low abortion rates and a ban so strict that women must travel outside the country to end a pregnancy, unless it’s absolutely sure to kill them—to its neighbor, the United Kingdom, where abortion is legal and widely practiced except in North Ireland. Ergo, bans work. But how similar are these nations? The UK is large, industrialized, urban, multiethnic, and one of the most secularized countries in the world, while Ireland is tiny, homogeneous, deeply shaped by a long history of colonialism, poverty, rural traditions, and the pervasive patriarchal power of the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, as the recent referendum approving same-sex marriage showed, Ireland is changing fast. Its people are wealthier, better educated, and more cosmopolitan; and, as elsewhere, sexual scandals and their cover-ups have weakened the moral authority of the church. The use of contraception is widespread; emergency contraception can be purchased without a prescription; and an unknown but not trivial number of women obtain abortion pills through pro-choice networks. To Douthat, it may look as if the ban works reasonably well, but the Irish don’t seem to think so: Polls show majority support for liberalizing abortion laws, even among Mass-attending farmers. If pro-choice advocates succeed in putting a referendum on the ballot to overturn the constitutional ban on abortion, chances are good that it will pass. I doubt that, in a decade or two from now, Irish women will be risking 14 years in prison for taking a pill that is available online and legal almost everywhere else in Europe.
Douthat’s second point is that illegal abortion, under US (not Brazilian) conditions, would be fairly safe. He points out that when abortion was still a crime here, the death rate went way down well before Roe. Three points about that. First, the death rate went down because of antibiotics, which doctors, who performed a large share of illegal abortions, could prescribe. But Douthat says he wants to put doctors in prison! Pre-Roe, that rarely happened. But an America that banned abortion now would be one with a triumphant anti-abortion movement unlikely to accept the old tacit bargain in which abortion was quietly tolerated most of the time.