Persuasion? Legal Prohibition? Legal Influence?

by Rachel MacNair
(Penn Valley Monthly Meeting, Kansas City, Missouri)

Responding to: Abortion and Civil War (1988, 1998).

     Friend Chuck Fager has written a very thoughtful and well-reasoned essay which includes the idea that, while abortion is violence and therefore to be opposed, a legal prohibition is counter-productive, and a persuasionist approach much better. I don't think that there's much doubt that persuasion is far superior to legal bans, and if we had to pick one over the other, we'd take persuasion. After all, cannibalism is not banned in many places, yet it happens rarely because people are persuaded it's revolting. Long experience shows that legal prohibitions that people are not persuaded are necessary don't work well. The Prohibition with a capital "P" is often cited, and Chuck cites it, as the prime case.

     But of course all laws require persuasion. Most of them have it.

     In the case of prohibition of alcohol, there were also no victims who complained to police. In abortion, the baby may be a victim of violence, but in days of yore was completely unable to make a case for herself before she was killed, and still today can't make a complaint afterward. She's not recorded so as to be seen to be missing, and what's left of her body is easily disposed of. So previous to the legalization of abortion, the same problems as legal bans on alcohol applied.

Civil Rights

     However, there's another analogy on legal prohibitions: the civil rights laws. For decades, segregation and other racist indignities were done with impunity because while the victims were obvious, most didn't dare complain, and those that did complain weren't taken seriously. Is this not really a closer analogy? Alcohol consumption, after all, is not in and of itself violent. It can lead to violence, which was a major part of the case against it, but it doesn't have to. But racism is necessarily a form of violence -- structural violence -- and abortion is necessarily a form of direct violence.

     When civil rights laws were contemplated, some complained that you can't legislate morality. You can't make people see other races as equal by law decree. One counter-argument is that the law is a teacher. While there is still a depressing amount of racism because it is in fact true that the law couldn't banish it by decree, it is also pretty clear that attitudes have changed dramatically from what they were before. Civil rights laws were part of that mix of things that helped that to happen – not by themselves, by any means, but they helped directly, and they helped indirectly by influencing the other things that also helped.

        That the model of civil rights legislation is better than the John Brown approach with civil war is a point that is not only obvious to most Friends, but to the vast bulk of the right-to-life movement as well. Much of that movement seems more impressed with what the legal status of abortion can do than I am, but I still see legislation as having a role.

     The basic core of the problem for me is that as long as abortions are legal, then the government is participating in the deception of women. Many women reason that it can't be killing if it's legal, and when they found out better after it's too late, it can be quite traumatizing. The legal status bears part of the blame. It also deprives such women of adequate legal recourse.

     After all, the idea that there was no victim to complain in an abortion is based on pre-legalization practice. The woman would rarely turn in the abortionist; they were co-conspirators. Furthermore, prosecutors were as uninterested as they were in rape and domestic abuse cases, and for similar sexist reasons.

     But that was then, this is now: women are filing malpractice suits against abortionists, and even suing for being told inadequate information. If, in the United States, Roe v. Wade were overturned and some states banned it and other states did not, any illegal abortionists would no longer be able to count on the acquiescence of their clientele – legal abortion doctors can no longer do so 100% now.

     But it goes deeper than this. Chuck points out that a woman in a state where abortion is illegal will always be able to go to a state where it is. It's true that most likely states like New York and California are not going to be talked into banning abortion – or ceasing having tax dollars pay for it – any time soon. Yet we already know that within states where large cities have abortion clinics and smaller ones don't, rural or small-town women who live within half an hour's drive of that clinic have more abortions than women who live a four-hour drive away. That long drive is still considerably more convenient than a full pregnancy, and would surely be no major obstacle to someone bound and determined. Yet it seems to be a discouragement nevertheless.

     The image of the bound-and-determined woman only fits a portion of women currently getting abortions, and probably not the majority. Studies show many if not most women are pressured by others, and the distance to the clinic impacts that pressure. The distance also says something about the desirability or normalcy of doing things that way. Distance matters.

The Coming Collapse

     When Chuck first wrote this essay, abortions numbers had hit a plateau and were maintaining at a very high rate. Yet during the 1990s and since, there has been a steady annual decline in abortions. Even that downward turn hides a dramatic downturn where it matters most demographically: first-time abortions are extraordinarily subsiding. The numbers are being kept up by a greater number of repeat abortions. But those will of course subside eventually; women will at least hit menopause and drop out by attrition. Since being a first-timer is a prerequisite to being a repeater, the supply of repeaters is not be replenished. We are looking at a far more dramatic downturn coming on, and fairly soon.

     Why the downturn? A major factor is where Chuck is right: persuasion. People see the ultrasounds. There are people coming into parenting age now who have not merely seen excellent ultrasounds of unborn babies, but have photos of themselves at fetal stage. Reports are that women (and men) who see their own children in ultrasound tend to decide against abortion in droves. Such ultrasounds are much more common these days, and there's now a move for legislation to require that abortion doctors give women the option of seeing them beforehand to help in decision-making.

     But there have also been laws that have helped in the downturn, especially informed consent and parental notification. Law without persuasion is no good, but law that helps persuade is another matter.

     Additionally, pressures to close down specific clinics means the supply goes down. This is one area where supply does not rise to meet the demand, but rather intentionally sets out to create the demand; see former clinic director Carol Everett on her experience with high-pressure sales tactics.

     Fewer clinics (down from over 2,000 at its height to only around 700 now), fewer places other than clinics that do them, fewer doctors – I do not say that the abortion business is going to collapse, but rather, that it has already begun the process. I expect it to continue.

     Anyone whose preference on preventing the violence of abortion is to work on alternatives and on persuasion are doing work that is vital. I myself do hardly any work on legislation. But just as in any other form of peacemaking, it will take all different kinds of approaches working together.

The Problem of Politics

     Yet Chuck has one other very important point: the politics of abortion is truly depressing. In most cases, and especially for higher office, the more anti-abortion candidate will be worse on war, death penalty, poverty programs, etc. Yet even their anti-abortion credentials are pathetic. Presidents Reagan, Bush and Bush have damned the right-to-life movement with faint praise. It's one thing to say abortion should be a choice because it's not killing, but another entirely to say it is killing but that tax policy is more important. They have hurt the right-to-life cause by reinforcing the stereotype, without making up for it by actually doing much of anything -- just some little things at the margins.

     So, unlike the situation when Chuck first wrote this, the abortion business is collapsing, young people are joining the pro-life movement in droves, technology of ultrasound is persuading many, and the progressively accelerating downturn of numbers, rate, and ratio of abortion will leave people looking for reasons why this should happen, which will help it happen more (see my book, Achieving Peace in the Abortion War). Actually, the long-term outlook for the pro-life cause is pretty good at this point.

     But there is still the major obstacle of politicians and the stereotypes of pro-lifers. Yet a major reason those exist is not just that right-wingers are welcoming people of tender conscience with a concern for babies into the movement and thereby being persuasive for other right-wing ideas. It's also that left-wingers aren't hopping into the movement in droves so as to be persuasive for their own ideas and to dispel stereotypes. (This is inasmuch as right and left wing make any sense, which I question, but I'll use it for shorthand). There are many of us in the left wing trying to do so, but not enough. If there were more, then we could get this major problem taken care of as well.

      I'll say it more strongly: it's not a good idea for us peaceniks to be ceding the moral high ground on the tearing-apart of little babies to the politicians with pro-war policies. As long as we remain silent on abortion, that's what we're doing.