An Honest Abortion Debate

By Alexandra DeSanctis:

A response to Caitlin Flanagan’s essay in The Atlantic.

In the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan has an incredibly thoughtful essay called “The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate.” In it, she takes the pulse of what continues to make our disagreements about abortion so intractable — and though her conclusion misses the mark in some respects, she comes quite close to the truth.

Much of the piece deals with the gruesome reality of older abortion methods, primarily those involving Lysol, which resulted in pregnant women facing severe medical complications and, in some instances, death. Some abortion opponents are inclined to ignore these horror stories, afraid that acknowledging them cedes too much to the argument that restricting abortion would take us back to when it was “unsafe.” (On this view, keeping abortion legal means keeping women, who will want abortions regardless of the law, alive.)

A better pro-life tactic would be to acknowledge and lament the suffering caused by older abortion methods, even as we insist that no abortion method — no matter how supposedly modern, sanitary, or safe — is good for women.

Others who oppose abortion ignore a second point Flanagan makes effectively: Many women, for a very long time and for very many reasons, have desired not to be pregnant. “To be a woman is to bear the entire consequence of sex,” she writes. At least in a biological sense, she’s certainly correct. Women have plenty of (often good) reasons for wanting to avoid pregnancy, especially given that we often bear the significant risk of being left to raise a child alone.

A better pro-life tactic would be to recognize the unique trials of pregnancy and child-rearing, even as we insist that those trials are never properly solved by extinguishing a life that has already come into being.

But the most powerful part of Flanagan’s essay comes in its latter half, a challenge to supporters of abortion rights, when she discusses the technology that enables 3D ultrasound imaging of the fetus in utero. “These sonograms are so richly detailed that many expectant mothers pay to have one made in a shopping-mall studio, much in the spirit in which they might bring the baby to a portrait studio,” she writes. “They are one thing and one thing only: baby pictures.”

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