It’s pretty clear that a large majority of women are pro-choice. An in-house survey quoted in the May 20th edition of the Wall Street Journal found that “84% of women with college educations oppose overturning” Roe v. Wade, and 73% “strongly oppose such a move.” And that’s the Journal, a notably conservative paper.
And, in spirit, many men are with those women. I am one.
In fact, I feel so strongly that I have become something of a single-issue voter. All I need to know about a candidate is whether they are pro-choice or anti-abortion, and I’m good to go. It’s true, beliefs tend to cluster, and someone running for office who is pro-choice is also likely to favor things like educational spending, gun restrictions, and so on. But I would take a pro-choice, pro-gun contender over an aspirant who is anti-choice and anti-gun.
Why do I feel this way? Two basic reasons.
One, I am a populationist, believing that many of the ills visited on our world today — pollution, species extinction, resource scarcity, poverty, political and military strife — are a function of population. It’s not that they wouldn’t exist without overcrowding, but population pressure exacerbates them all. The human species should be taking any avenue — other than war — that leads away from overpopulation. If that’s not intuitively obvious, I cite my own “beer yeast” article in Forbes for the underlying argument.
Two, I and my relatives have made extensive use over the years of family planning services, both birth control and abortion. In every case, we went on to have families, typically with two children, who were raised thoughtfully and backed by sufficient resources.
I’ll start the litany with my grandmother. She had two daughters, my mother and my aunt. There was an eight-year gap between the two, which struck me as unusual, but not unheard of. Before my aunt died, she told me that there was a pregnancy between the two sisters. My grandmother was depressed and didn’t want to bring it to term. So, she had an abortion. That was probably around 1920. Obviously, it was illegal, but there were doctors in New York who knew how to perform the procedure safely. After a few years’ rest, she and my grandfather conceived my mother. All’s well that ends well! For me, anyway.
While my aunt — who had two boys — was telling me this story, she casually mentioned that she also had an abortion. That would have been somewhere before 1950. Something about the timing not being right. Both her boys got graduate degrees and went on to have successful careers. One raised a family. The other took on his wife’s disabled child from a previous marriage. Upstanding citizens, all!
When I was in college, I got my girlfriend pregnant. That was 1972, a year before Roe v. Wade, when the only state that had legal abortion was New York. We went down there, toured the facility (which the staff said was unusual), stayed overnight in a fleabag hotel right next door (we kept the lights on to prevent the cockroaches from dive-bombing us from the ceiling), and had the procedure done the next day. I was the only male in the waiting area. Today, I have three children, all thriving, and a couple of grandkids to boot.
When she was young, my wife also terminated a pregnancy. Wrong guy, wrong time. Once she got it right, she had two, a boy and a girl. Although I’m biased, I would say they are thriving.
If we dial back the clock from today to the turn of the recent Millennium, we can see an articulation of the compromise case between the anti-abortionists and the pro-choicers. It was set out by a fellow named Gregg Easterbrook in an essay published in The New Republic and reprinted in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2001. When I read the only public Web citation I could find (I have the original piece in print form), the comments indicated that his argument, reasonable at the time, is now taking fire from both sides, neither of which can see their way toward the middle. No surprise there. But once upon a time, we were within grasp of a solution that (almost) everyone could live with.
Simply stated, Easterbrook would make people seeking abortions in the third trimester jump through a lot of hoops, since by the 27th week, more than 90% of premature infants can survive with proper care. This view acknowledges the state’s interest in the individual. In return, he suggests that women be offered abortion on demand for the first two trimesters. There. Problem solved. We can all go home now.
The science behind this conclusion is compelling. Easterbrook takes us on a walk through the highly lossy human reproductive process.
Exhibit A is the male, which in a single hundred-million-sperm ejaculation — assuming a gargantuan army of specialized medical personnel, who rush in at the first squirt to capture each and every living sperm, and quickly get them into their own stable pods, where they can await the universe of female eggs that will be delivered pronto so that all the happy pairs can produce a human — could theoretically populate the East Coast of the United States. Now, obviously, not all of that genetic material is going to get put to use populating the planet. Most of it — we hope well north of 99% — is going to be wasted from a reproductive point of view.
On to the female. Women have (thankfully!) somewhat of a throttle on the system since their top potential is 7 million, the number of eggs females have while still in the womb. By the time they are born, that number has already fallen to 1 million. And this loss continues. At puberty, women have only 300,000, and of these, just 300–400 will be ovulated in a lifetime. Three orders of magnitude more will be lost. Some don’t get follicles (sheaths they need to survive). Some lose out to the dominant follicle, of which there can be only one in each ovary every month. So, even within the woman, life is fighting it out, with winners and losers.
But that level of throttle is still not nearly enough, since 300–400 children would strain the resources of even the largest daycare facility, not to mention any household budget involved. Well, what happens to the rest?
Some lose their turn when a woman is pregnant. And fewer make it to the gate with age. But many are simply left at the alter by timing and events. No sperm makes it all the way up one or the other fallopian tube in the time allotted. The woman’s body flushes the unfertilized eggs out, and they’re gone.
At which phase shall we weep? All this life that will not be.
And we haven’t even gotten to the part where the sperm and egg join to form first a cluster and then a zygote, which is free-floating until it implants in the uterine wall and becomes an embryo. At each stage, some drop out. Some clusters don’t take, half of all zygotes never implant, and around 35% of all embryos are lost through miscarriage, which often happens so early that the woman detects nothing unusual. In the majority of cases, even conception does not lead to a live human. The biological connection of a sperm and egg is just another triage moment in an ever-diminishing pipeline. “Only about one-third of all sperm-egg unions result in babies,” says Easterbrook, “even when abortion is not a factor.”
The inefficient human reproductive process moderates overpopulation, but despite this fortuitous design, we’ve pretty well managed to fill up the biosphere anyway. Easterbrook argues that “the tenuous link between conception and birth makes a strong case that what happens in early pregnancy is not yet life in the constitutional sense.” Thus, abortion is a reasonable way, particularly compared to war, to keep our population in check and give every child who does make it into this world the best shot at a good life.
In the Netherlands, the law gives a woman the right to an abortion on demand, no questions asked, for the first 21 weeks of pregnancy (with a five-day waiting period). Until 24 weeks, a pregnancy can be terminated for medical reasons.
France has a simple, measurable line of demarcation. For 14 weeks after the last menstruation, the law grants abortion on demand. After that, a conversation begins with medical personnel, but the service is available.
Germany maintains a fiction. Abortion is technically illegal. But it is de facto permitted in the first trimester (with a counseling requirement and waiting period). All this must take place in state-owned facilities. Go figure.
Because of our sad history of abortion litigation here in the United States, we are tangled up in subjective judgments involving things like “viability” and “undue burden,” which by their nature are hard to pin down.
As I said, I am pro-choice (with reservations about the third trimester). For the past three years, I have been putting my money where my mouth is by volunteering as a sidewalk escort for Planned Parenthood, helping patients get past the protesters (who are always there, often calling to the patients). In addition, I threw my lot in with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund this past fall to elect Tram Nguyen, a pro-choice representative in the 18th Essex District in Massachusetts, and send to the dressing room an inveterate anti-choice incumbent, Jim Lyons.
In a world where even a well-resourced family can really only raise a handful of kids, it makes sense to plan that little troupe with as much care as possible — so that there’s a stable place for them to live, food on the table, healthcare available, educational resources on tap, and, with any luck, enough parental attention to bring up children who become good future contributors.