The political debate on abortion has for several decades focused on the wrong moral question: Does life begin at conception? Those who believe it does, oppose abortion. Those who don't, or think the question is unanswerable, believe the pregnant woman should make that choice.
Yet consider this statistical couplet. According to a 2007 survey commissioned by a progressive think tank called Third Way, 69 percent of Americans believe abortion is the "taking of a human life," but 72 percent believe it should be legal.
Let that soak in. Most people think abortion is taking a human life and yet most favor the procedure being legal. How grotesque! Are we Americans utterly immoral?
Actually, what the data proclaim is something that politicians and activists can't: Most Americans believe there are gradations of life within the womb. Some living things are more alive than others, and so the later in the pregnancy it gets, the more uncomfortable people become with the idea of ending it. But in reality they believe both that a life stirs very early on and that a one-week-old embryo is more "killable" than a nine-month-old fetus. For them, determining whether "life" begins at conception really doesn't determine anything.
A handful of surveys get at this. According to a 2003 Gallup poll, 29 percent of the people surveyed believed abortion should be illegal in the first three months of pregnancy, 68 percent thought it should be illegal in the second trimester, and 84 percent in the third trimester.
Many women who have had abortions wished they could have the procedure earlier. In a 2006 survey of 1,209 abortion patients by the Guttmacher Institute (a pro-choice but widely respected nonprofit group that researches reproductive health issues), 58 percent said they would have preferred to have done it earlier--including 91 percent of those who had abortions in their second trimester.
Surely part of the reason for this preference is that later abortions are more complicated, dangerous and expensive. But that's not all. Consider the reasons offered to researchers in that study by this 21-year-old, low-income woman:
"I do [wish I had had the abortion earlier] because when I came here last Friday and they told me, like, 'You're in your second trimester,' and I'm like...'Goodness, now what am I going to do?' Because I didn't want to go into my second trimester, because it's like, basically, really becoming a baby, you know. I just really didn't want to do it that late."
She did have the abortion. Her failure to get the abortion right away didn't lead her to carry the pregnancy to term but rather to end it -- uncomfortably -- when her fetus was, in her own eyes, "basically, really becoming a baby."
This belief that life within the womb is on a continuum is not explicitly reflected in the political debates about abortion. We debate whether we should have parental notification--not when we should have it. We question politicians on whether they'd provide government funding for abortion, not ever asking whether subsidies should be provided for early abortions but not late.
The debate has evolved that way in part because of the fundamentally religious nature of the pro-life activist position. The essential point about the position of pro-life activists -- including the Catholic Church and conservative evangelicals -- is not that they believe "life" begins at conception. It's that they believe a life that God creates on Day One is morally equivalent to a life at month one or month nine or 18 years. "The whole point of pro-life reasoning," says Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life, "is to encourage people toward intellectual, ethical and scientific consistency: A life is a life, no matter how small."
Meanwhile, many pro-choice leaders have embraced a mirror image of this approach. The woman has a right to choose, whether the pregnancy is in its first day, first month or ninth month.
Instead, an abortion policy matching the values implicit in the polls would focus less on rights or numbers and more on timing. Success would be measured on the basis of moving abortions earlier in the gestational cycle -- even if that conceivably means more overall abortions. It would be not about whether, how or how many, but when. Not "safe, legal and rare" as Bill Clinton once said, but "safe, legal and early."
In a longer piece that first appeared on PoliticsDaily.com, I argued that:
--Some pro-life policies actually lead to more abortions in the second and third trimesters
--Some pro-choicers have abandoned the true spirit of Roe v. Wade, which did not envision an inviolable, 9-month-long right to choose
--Policies should be geared toward shifting abortions earlier in the cycle.