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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Dobbs decision forcing difficult conversations about life and choice

June 29, 2022 Updated Wed., June 29, 2022 at 7:11 p.m.

This is not the time for self-congratulatory cheering from the pro-life faithful, and we definitely don’t need calls to insurrection from the pro-choice army. A whirlwind has indeed been sown by the decision in Dobbs v. Mississippi, a whirlwind of difficult conversations too long postponed.

The labels pro-choice and pro-life don’t reflect the nonbinary nature of American attitudes on abortion, the subject of a previous column written after the foreshadowing of the final decision by the leaked draft opinion. Americans across the spectrum recognize the moral basis for an abortion when necessary to save the life of the mother. Such circumstances are extremely rare, as reflected in what used to be the pro-choice slogan “safe, legal and rare.”

But if a Democrat dares to repeat that slogan today, as former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard did during a 2019 presidential debate, she’ll find herself ostracized by her party. When she was defended by Dr. Leana Wen, who briefly led Planned Parenthood, with a tweet emphasizing “we should reduce the need for abortions by investing in prevention,” Wen was also attacked by NARAL and other pro-choice champions.

The Democratic National Committee dropped “rare” from their 2012 platform and has since embraced the push for nearly unrestricted abortion access. Sen. Patty Murray blocked the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act in 2019, guaranteeing medical care to babies who survived an abortion attempt. Signs prominently displayed at pro-choice rallies this week read “abortion on demand without apology” and “abortion is normal.”

It is the normalizing of abortion that raised concerns during a Braver Angels debate in May on the question, “Do the rights of an adult woman take precedence over the rights of a fetus?” Normalizing ending pregnancy as necessary to carry on one’s life is driven by “paternalistic and disempowering cultural attitudes” according to Sharon G, who identified herself as a member of Feminists for Life. Promoting abortion rights has taken the focus off women’s biological reality and left a society neglecting to support women in child-bearing and child-rearing. Women deserve better.

And it’s hard to believe all those “woke” corporations offering to pay abortion travel expenses for their employees haven’t also calculated the benefit to their bottom line. A round-trip ticket from Boise to a Seattle clinic is a heck of a lot less inconvenient and expensive than accommodating schedules for pregnant women, funding paid family leave, and 18 to 26 years of health insurance premiums for two. Pro-choice advocates would do better to normalize choosing parenting to put real pressure on powerful corporations.

The Dobbs decision didn’t ban abortion, but was one of several cases this session ending decades of a Supreme Court legislating from the bench. The U.S. Constitution deliberately limits the scope of federal authority, leaving everything else to the states and now each state must decide.

When Washington voters faced Referendum 20 in November 1970, 56.5% of voters agreed to permitting abortions “within the four lunar months after conception upon a woman not quick with child,” the archaic term for fetal viability. It also recognized roles in the decision for the man involved and for the parents of a pregnant woman under the age of 18. In 1991, Initiative 120 repealed the 1970 law and replaced it with “the state may not deny or interfere with a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion prior to viability of the fetus, or to protect her life or health.” It barely passed, with a margin of only 4,222 votes out of a total of over 1.5 million.

Science has given us a much deeper understanding of human reproduction since 1970. Ultrasounds of tiny babies sucking thumbs and reacting inside the womb tug at the emotions, but banning abortion isn’t the answer pro-life advocates should be pursuing. Moral dilemmas driven by instances of intrinsic conflict between mother’s interests and baby’s interests do arise, and none of us know exactly how we might react in the face of such personal tragedy. Gray area situations are a very real but very small percentage of the over 63 million lives ended by abortion since Roe v. Wade, each uniquely personal. Legislatures have no business adding their own micromanagement on top of an already ridiculously micromanaged health care system.

Legislatures do have a role to play in establishing the principles by which such personal decisions are made. Zygote, fetus and baby are markers of age, not of humanity. The question is – and it is a moral one, although we tend to rationalize our moral choices using science – when does a human have human rights which the state must defend?

Is it first cardiac activity, first neurological activity, first baby foot jammed in its mother’s ribs, first breath of air? Where’s the line? When is a mother making a decision affecting two lives? And how does our attitude as a society towards the most defenseless among us affect others rendered voiceless by age, disease or disability?

We have medical ethical frameworks for making end of life decisions on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. We have a process in place to the gray areas, while leaving abortion safe, legal and above all – rare.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at Madsen is a Red co-chair of the Braver Angels Central/Eastern Washington Alliance.

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