Tuesday, February 14, 2012
A Hypocritical 'Solution' to Abortion
One slow afternoon in the late 1970s a reporter was going through the “exchanges,” the out-of-town newspapers that arrived at our office in each day’s mail. He picked up a paper from several hundred miles away, where he once worked, began reading, and after a couple of minutes said, loudly enough to wake up everyone else in the room: “Hah!”
Not being overly busy at the time, I asked what prompted the exclamation. He pointed to a front-page story and asked me to read it. It was an obituary of a prominent family practice physician who had practiced in that town for decades, won numerous community service awards, was widely beloved, and had died surrounded by his family at a ripe old age. I looked up, and said, “So?”
“So,” he replied, “what they left out of the story was that he was the town abortionist. Everybody knew he was the guy to see if you had a problem.”
Once upon a time in America there were hundreds, probably thousands of doctors like him. Some were highly respectable and some ran seedy back-alley operations that threatened the lives and health of the women they served. Everybody knew about them and nobody talked about them. Abortion, though ubiquitous, was nonexistent as a political issue.
Lately I’ve been having some nostalgia, no doubt unwarranted, for those times. I’m pro-choice, with reservations, but find myself more and more believing that our political dialogue is being poisoned by debate over an issue that consumes far too much attention and can never be satisfactorily resolved.
Resolved? It can’t even be satisfactorily debated because there’s no common ground for framing a debate. Activists on one side say it’s murder; on the other side a personal moral decision. Too often, neither side respects, or even acknowledges, the other’s fundamental premise.
Between those two extremes is a broad middle, probably 70 to 80 percent of the population, which is conflicted. There are pro-lifers who would make an exception in the cases of rape, incest or medical danger to the mother. There are pro-choicers who would support a reasonable parental-notification law for minors seeking an abortion. They have no chance of being heard, and, as the issue is highly situational, they often tune out the debate, except when they or someone they know is facing the decision. In the end, most people don’t want abortion criminalized, and whether it is or not, people will make their own decisions.
A while back I was talking with a local police chief about prostitution and how his department enforced the laws. He told me that the trade is now almost all outcall, and that given all the other crime issues in his town, prostitution is handled on a low-priority, respond-to-complaints-only basis.
Part of me would like to deal with abortion that way: Declare it illegal again then never enforce the law. Sort of like Senator George Aiken’s suggestion in 1967 that we declare victory in Vietnam, then pull out. Planned Parenthood could stop doing abortions and do discreet referrals instead, and everybody could support it for the other 97 percent of what it does. Politicians on both sides could stop pandering on the issue. A little hypocrisy here could be a good thing.
But it wouldn’t work. There would always be prosecutors who would see votes in going after the providers; there would be women outside the loop who couldn’t get served, and so on. It’s a pipe dream born of frustration over a political war that will probably still be fought a hundred years hence, with no winner in sight.