After Roe: A Letter to My Teenage Daughter About the Dobbs Decision
My Dearest Daughter,
The last time I wrote you a letter in the form of an essay, you were nine years old. As I’m sure you’ll remember, you came home from school upset that every one of the 44 American presidents pictured on the wall of your third-grade classroom were men. “Why have there been no girl presidents?,” you asked. So I wrote a column at The Week in which I tried to explain this troubling fact to you in a way that made sense of it, while also trying to give you hope for a future in which it would cease to be a fact.
You’re 16 years old now, and the Dobbs decision has just been handed down, overturning Roe v. Wade (1973), the landmark decision that established a constitutional right to an abortion. From talking to you about the news, it’s clear you’re upset by it. I understand why. You were born into a world in which the reproductive rights of women were inviolable, embedded in the country’s fundamental law, protected from the back and forth of politics, like your rights to live, speak, and worship (or not worship) God as you wish. The idea that the police could arrest you for ending an unwanted pregnancy, or arrest your doctor for helping you to do it, or even force you to carry a baby to term under threat of state-sanctioned punishment, has been unthinkable.
It isn’t any longer. As a girl who will soon be a woman, you are less free now than you were before mid-morning on June 24, 2022. The first thing I want to convey to you is that I get why this hurts and why it’s scary. It breaks my heart that you have to endure it.
But I have more to offer you than a bland expression of empathy: I’d like to explain these events in a way that might help you to understand how we got here as a country. In my experience, understanding can be a great consolation. It won’t necessarily make you less sad or scared, but it might make you a little less angry, and a little more confident making your way forward in a newly confusing world where you will need to fight for freedoms that, until now, you assumed were givens.
Democracy v. Rights
In a democracy, citizens get to decide for themselves what laws to live by. But in a liberal democracy like ours, self-government has limits. Those limits are defined by individual rights that can’t be transgressed no matter what the majority wants to do. The majority might want to throw you in jail for saying something that badly offends them, for example. But the First Amendment to the Constitution declares that all Americans have a right to free speech, so the majority is forbidden from acting on its desire to punish you for what you said. You can probably think of many other examples.
At the time Roe v. Wade was handed down, nearly every state in the country placed limits on abortion. The character and severity of those limits varied quite a lot over time, but by the mid-20th century, it was widely held that an abortion ends the life of a baby in utero and so needs to be restricted. Laws in nearly all of the states reflected this conviction.
Roe instantly struck down all of these laws, declaring that every woman has a constitutional right to an abortion up to a certain point relatively late in pregnancy. Many rejoiced at this achievement, but it also angered lots of people—at first, mainly Catholics, who strongly opposed abortion, but they were soon joined by evangelical Christians and even some secular activists. These critics of Roe made two main arguments: first, that the decision was immoral because it declared that women had a constitutional right to murder their babies; second, that the decision was tyrannical because it negated democratically enacted laws.
Before long, those making these arguments came to be called the “pro-life movement.” For the past forty years, it has fought to influence public opinion and gain support in the legal community. That effort finally achieved its goal last Friday, after 49 years, when a Supreme Court majority took its side, declaring, in part, that enough Americans consider abortion to be murder that it should not be treated as a constitutional right; states should be free to permit or forbid the procedure based on the outcome of democratic debate. As a result of this decision, some very liberal states, like New York and California, will continue to allow women access to abortion; staunchly conservative states, like Texas and Missouri, will ban or nearly ban the procedure; and other, more divided states, like ours (Pennsylvania), will become battlegrounds, with the future of abortion restrictions less certain.
Morality, Politics, and Tragedy
Now, I don’t agree with the Dobbs decision. But I do think the pro-life movement gets one crucially important thing right, and that might surprise you.
In my view, an abortion after the first couple weeks of pregnancy is indisputably the taking of a human life, albeit a very tiny, underdeveloped, and (until around 24 weeks—the time when the fetus becomes “viable,” or able to survive outside the womb) a thoroughly dependent one. This view has nothing at all to do with religion. You were a human being the moment you were born, right? Well, weren’t you that same human being a few moments before you were born, too? And a few weeks before that? And a month before that? And so forth, as we wind the clock backward toward the moment a fertilized and developing egg (blastocyst) embedded itself in the lining of mom’s uterus and became an embryo? At every stage, you were you, with the same DNA, only much smaller, more vulnerable, and more dependent than you would be after you were born.
Where I differ from pro-lifers is in insisting that it matters enormously that an unborn baby prior to viability is dependent upon another human being who should be free to determine her own good without state interference. That’s why I would have voted to uphold Roe had I been on the Supreme Court—not because aborting a fetus is a matter of moral indifference, let alone the positive good some pro-choice activists claim. I would have voted to uphold Roe because the government should not be empowered to coerce a free and equal person to do something with her body she doesn’t want to do. I have a hard time thinking of a more fundamentally liberal principle than that.
But something important follows from this way of looking at the issue: It implies that in almost every case, abortion is a tragedy. I don’t mean in the vague sense we often use the word, as a synonym for “really bad.” I mean in the precise sense that derives from the tragic drama of classical Greece, in which fundamental goods contradict and clash with one another, leading to a loss no matter which path is chosen. When it comes to abortion, the rights of the unborn baby and the rights of the pregnant woman, both seemingly absolute and worthy of respect, stand in fundamental, irreconcilable conflict.
Clashing Absolutes and the Possibility of Conciliation
Not only do I think looking at the issue this way is true to the moral and political facts. I also think it can serve as a foundation for a healthier politics—precisely because it recognizes the worthwhile claims on both sides of a polarizing issue.
I mentioned above that Roe declared abortion a constitutional right until quite late in pregnancy—through the second trimester, or 24 weeks, which is around the time of viability. That’s quite late by international standards. Across most of Europe, for example, abortion is freely available to women only through 12-14 weeks, with the procedure allowed after that only in rare, exceptional cases.
Yet in this country, many pro-choice activists would extend access to the procedure even past viability, while the pro-life movement is working to ban abortion outright in many states. We run the risk of becoming a country divided between states where women are permitted to terminate pregnancies after the baby can survive outside the womb and states where women are forbidden to terminate a pregnancy at any stage. And of course the most ambitious on each side also dream of passing a federal law that forces the whole country to adopt its equal and opposite absolutist position.
Wouldn’t it be better to recognize that each side has a point and work to achieve the kind of compromise and conciliation that prevails in Europe? This would grant universal access to abortion, but earlier in pregnancy than Roe guaranteed, and combine it with strictures against late-term abortions—with the policy firmly grounded in democratic public opinion rather than the vicissitudes of Supreme Court appointments.
I don’t seriously expect that to happen in the U.S. anytime soon. We’re too deeply divided, and too many powerful people benefit from stoking that division. But I am firmly convinced that the first, tentative step toward achieving anything approaching such an act of compromise and conciliation is to encourage more people to acknowledge the moral and political truths found on both sides of the abortion divide.
I’ve tried in this letter to open you to those truths as I see them, though you are obviously free to disagree with and dismiss what I’ve written here, in whole or in part. More than anything, I want you to figure out for yourself what you think and believe on this and every contested issue in politics and life. I only wish you were learning to do that work of living and thinking when the stakes were lower, in less troubled times.
With much love, Dad
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