This Country Needs to Stop Beating around the Bush on Abortion

You’ve all heard the brouhaha surrounding Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame, and you’ve also probably heard the somewhat emerging consensus that he handled the controversy well, mostly by doing that “Obama” thing that he does, which, according to this John Dickerson piece in Slate, is this:

“Here’s how he explained this approach as it applies to his decision-making: “[Opponents] might not, at the end of it, agree with me, but having seen how I’m thinking about a problem, having a sense of how I’m making decisions, that I understand their point of view, that I can actually make their argument for them, and that that’s part of the decision-making process, it gives them a sense, at least, that they’ve been heard, and … it pushes us away from the dogmas and caricatures that I think get in the way of good policymaking and a more civil tone in our politics.””

This is all well and good, except it does not address the underlying normative question: whether the coercive powers of the state should be used to either allow or prohibit abortions.

Having a fair interpretation of your political/philosophical opponents’ arguments might be necessary to resolve political/philosophical questions, but it surely cannot be sufficient. Let me give an example. In any undergraduate philosophy course on applied ethics, abortion is usually taught. And in such a typical course, the student usually reads two papers, considered paradigmatic, by Don Marquis (PDF version here) and Judith Thompson (regular HTML version here), arguing against and for abortion, respectively. And in this typical undergraduate philosophy course on applied ethics, you can expect a typical essay assignment to be defending either Marquis’ or Thompson’s position regarding abortion. Now, at the very least, a competent paper at the undergraduate level will provide a fair reading of the two papers, examine their various premises, and then critique one or the other to support the student’s own position. If the student does well, the paper usually gets a decent to good grade.

If this were the case, the student would be acting exactly the same as Obama says: he has taken his opponent’s arguments, gave them a fair reading, critically examined them in depth, critiqued them cogently, and made a normative argument. But would anyone consider this, by itself, sufficient to resolve the underlying philosophical difference?


So really, Obama is dodging the issue big time here. One can easily demonstrate one’s good faith in taking one’s opponents’ arguments seriously, but what does this have to do, ultimately, with taking a stand one way or another? How does this really resolve the question at hand?

But here, one must give at least a crude account of what it means to “resolve” the questions. My own crude account is that there are at broadly two ways of conceiving a resolution to the question. First, there is the realist conception: namely, one can resolve the question by arguing that either one side or the other is TRUE in a normative sense. That is, either abortion is right, or it is wrong. The history of the debate shows that this question isn’t likely going to be resolved soon on this realist account, but nothing in the question itself suggests that an answer is conceptually impossible. One thing is for sure: knowing the other side’s arguments, giving them a fair reading, and showing the other side that you have given their arguments a fair reading, aren’t enough to resolve the question.

Which leads me to the second broad conception of resolving the abortion question: the political resolution. In this conception, the question of whether abortion IS right or wrong is bracketed aside. The appeal to one’s opponents is no longer based on the truth of the normative claim, but on consensus. Take, for example, the right to free speech. A citizen who happens to be a Christian, an utilitarian of the Millian persuasion, or a dyed-in-the-wools Kantian might all agree that free speech should be protected, but their reasons for their conclusions are probably very much different from one another’s. But nevertheless, the question of “should the state protect free speech” is resolved politically because the resolution does not depend on harmony between the differing and conflicted normative schemes these citizens hold.

Is such a political resolution possible for abortion? Again, Obama simply evades the issue, by talking about how both pro- and anti-abortion folks can agree on the fact that we should institute policies that decrease unwanted pregnancies. Sure, there might factually be a consensus, but what does this have to do with the question at hand?

In this case, the history of the intractability of the abortion debate does constitute very strong evidence that perhaps a political resolution is not possible for abortion, because the history and the content of the debate both show that inevitably, debates about abortion could not bracket aside these differing, conflicted, and fundamental normative schemes that each side holds.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us in a stalemate, both philosophically and politically. At least philosophically, we have not closed the door on the possibility of resolving the questions, but for all intents and purposes, politically, abortion is at a stand still. Obama can do all he wants to make the debate itself not acrimonious in how it is carried on, but he can’t do anything about the intractability of it. We can all be very civil, but civility ultimately does nothing to answer the question.

What will ultimately answer the question, at least on a political level, is coercion: coercion in the form of a fair vote with the majority, whichever side that might be, “winning.” But this result isn’t going to satisfy anyone, because the losing side will feel alienated from the decision and feel that it is illegitimate. And political winds change over time, so the majority will also change. But this isn’t going to be something that the losing side, whichever it might be, can reasonably accept. No matter who “wins” politically, the losing side will feel the “win” to be illegitimate and arbitrary.

And in a sense, it is arbitrary, because we have simply not answered the question. But the existence of this arbitrary conclusion, for a question of this magnitude, both normatively and politically, presents a challenge to our notions of political legitimacy.

And this is the possible conclusion that this country, Obama included, has been trying so hard to push to the bottom. This country simply refuses to acknowledge even the possibility of this conclusion, but given all the history, all the evidence, I don’t see how anyone can simply brush the possibility of this conclusion aside.

No matter how much Obama talks about the need to find common ground, to make the debate civil and not acrimonious, this possibility exists. And it is time that we, as citizens, start to think seriously about its implications.