After Tiller: Envisioning A Compromise

Last week the family of murdered Dr. George Tiller announced that Tiller's controversial late-abortion clinic will be closed permanently. This is one in a series of three commentaries looking at the debate over abortion after Tiller. Hear from the president of NARAL Pro Choice America, from an anti-abortion doctor who works next door to Tiller's closed clinic, and from a Catholic writer who envisions compromise on this contentious issue.

Ultrasound image of a 5-month-old fetus i i

Is there any compromise to be had on the issue of abortion? Above, an ultrasound image of a 5-month-old fetus. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
Ultrasound image of a 5-month-old fetus

Is there any compromise to be had on the issue of abortion? Above, an ultrasound image of a 5-month-old fetus.

iStockphoto.com
Paul Baumann

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal magazine, an independent journal of opinion edited by lay Catholics. Courtesy of Paul Baumann hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Paul Baumann

Where will the debate about abortion go in the aftermath of the horrible murder of Dr. George Tiller?

Is there a way forward that will help ensure that such senseless violence ends?

The murder, like previous violence against abortion providers, certainly damages the anti-abortion cause. But it will not derail it, nor should it. As recent public opinion polls indicate, the American people have become more uneasy with abortion, not less. Much has changed since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Thanks to the widespread use of ultrasound during pregnancy, the demand for infertility treatments, and the educational efforts of the anti-abortion movement, the average American knows more than ever before about the biology of embryonic and fetal life. It is no longer possible to dismiss unborn life, even in its earliest stages, as merely a "lump of cells."

At the same time, Tiller's murder reminds us that those who denounce abortion in the most inflammatory language risk reaping a bloody whirlwind of their own. Anti-abortion advocates have done a good job of making their fellow citizens aware of the plight of the unborn. They have not done a good job of coming to terms with the concerns of women, or the complexity of abortion as a social problem. Legal reforms are necessary, but insufficient. Abortion was common enough before it was legalized, and outlawing it will not end the practice. It is a stubborn biological, legal, and moral reality that abortion is not just about the rights of the unborn. It is also about the moral autonomy, physical integrity, health and well-being of women. There is no other situation in which one human being is as dependent on another as is an unborn child on its mother. If abortion is starkly drawn as a battle of competing rights — of the rights of the unborn versus the rights of women — the unborn will always lose. We need a different approach, one that will promote the flourishing of both mother and child — an approach that recognizes that their individual well-being is inseparable.

In thinking about this dilemma, the most illuminating historical analogy is the debate over slavery, and specifically Abraham Lincoln's stance. Lincoln opposed slavery and denounced it, but he was not an abolitionist. Lincoln recognized that politics and the law could do only so much to eliminate the scourge of slavery in his lifetime. Yet he was also convinced that the institution of slavery would eventually die of its own internal contradictions. Lincoln's position, as the historian George McKenna has written, was to "tolerate, restrict, and discourage" slavery, an approach that if applied to abortion would move the argument toward debate and negotiation in state legislatures.

As President Obama reminded us in his commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, demonizing those we disagree with is a failure of charity and imagination. If we reject the idea of political compromise — and compromise is what is needed from both sides of this now 35-year-old conflict — we have in essence given up on the democratic process itself. It should be evident by now that the courts cannot resolve the abortion question. It is the sort of bitter stalemate that will not go away until the law of the land reflects the convictions of the people.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.