Thursday November 9, 2006
Someone must have slipped a textbook on quantum mechanics into the offices of the Democratic Party. Careening desperately toward a more “moderate” stance on abortion rights, centrist Democrats are now hard at work searching for Schrödinger’s Fetus: alive and dead at the same time. Indeed in a trend that has been developing for years, a few high-profile anti-choice Democratic candidates, including Heath Shuler in North Carolina and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, won election on Tuesday.
John Kerry rankled pro-choice activists during the 2004 campaign by suggesting that his party should recruit more pro-life candidates–advice that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee apparently took to heart, offering primary endorsements to pro-lifers such as Casey this year. A speech by Hilary Clinton, describing abortion as “a tragic choice” that she hoped one day would “not ever have to be exercised,” won kudos from Slate columnist Will Saletan, who wrote: “Once you embrace that truth–that the ideal number of abortions is zero–voters open their ears.”
The idea that abortion should be, in Bill Clinton’s memorable formulation, “safe, legal, and rare,” is appealing, if only because it would be clearly preferable if effective sex education and broad access to contraception made unwanted pregnancies less common. But framing that worthy goal as a means to the end of reducing abortion would be both a moral and strategic mistake. Solomonic attempts to split the difference will collide unpleasantly with the reality that Schrödinger’s Fetus, like its feline predecessor, is always either alive or dead under scrutiny.
Abortion raises deep questions about the origins and basis of moral personhood, so one’s position on abortion should be “radical,” in the etymologically precise sense of “going to the root.” Abortion is a difficult and complex question if we suppose that the fetus is a person with interests and rights that must be weighed against those of the mother. But the proposition that fetuses are not moral persons is both true and worth defending loudly. Even very late in pregnancy, when a fetus may have some sort of rudimentary awareness, it lacks all the features traditionally advanced as moral distinctions between humans and other animals: a sense of self or identity, the capacity for abstract thought and reflection, and the capacity for moral choice. But the vast majority of abortions, about 98 percent, take place before the 20th week of gestation, well before the cerebral cortex is “wired up” to the rest of the nervous system. At this stage, the fetus has nothing that could reasonably be described as conscious awareness.