Would overturning Roe save democracy?

| Thu Apr. 21, 2005 12:46 PM EDT

There's a lot to pick through in David Brooks column today on Roe vs. Wade. (Shorter: "If we had just handed women's bodies over to the whims of majority rule, this country wouldn't have had all these problems over the years.") But let's just settle in on the key phrase:

If [the abortion issue] had remained in the legislatures, we would have seen a series of state-by-state compromises reflecting the views of the centrist majority that's always existed on this issue.

Now in some senses this is right, and liberals have suffered somewhat for relying on the courts; they've grown fat and lazy, which has made it easier for the pro-life movement to chip away at abortion rights in the legislature. But that's very different from arguing that Roe has torn this country apart, which seems plainly wrong. As Barbara O'Brien writes, well before Roe vs. Wade the hardliners on both sides "were engaging in the same shouting-past-each-other arguments they engaged in after Roe v. Wade." Indeed, I'm not sure what country Brooks thinks he's living in if he thinks that state legislatures always produce "compromise" laws that everyone views as legitimate. (Would clinic-bombers go quiet down if "fetus murder" was enshrined by legislatures instead of the courts? Of course not.)

Even more interesting, though, is his contention that there's a "centrist majority" view on the issue. What exactly, I've always wondered, is that view? Polling usually shows that around one-fourth of Americans favor "abortion on demand," a small percentage think it should be banned outright, and a majority of Americans think it should be legal with certain restrictions. No doubt that middle position is what Brooks had in mind.

But as Christopher Caldwell argued a few years back, that middle two-thirds or so probably isn't going to favor the compromise solution Brooks thinks they will. The crowd that supposedly wants abortion to be "sometimes legal" is likely just saying that to feel good about themselves, and when push comes to shove, won't actually favor that sort of thing. For example, Americans claim to back abortion only for "serious" reasons: i.e. not "lifestyle" abortions. But only about 14,000 women per year get abortions for rape, incest, or life-saving reasons. That means the vast, vast majority of the roughly 43 percent of women who have had abortions—a figured put out by the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute and not seriously contested—have had them for these so-called "lifestyle" reasons. It seems pretty obvious that people try to take a stern stance towards the issue when polled about it—a little harmless finger-wagging is good for the conscience—but when it's their own body involved, most women want to make their own decisions. Caldwell made another argument along these lines elsewhere that's too good not to quote:

Americans say they are against late-term abortions [about 73 percent], but they favor, by wide margins [about 70 percent], allowing abortion for the "health of the mother." A significant number of those who call themselves pro-life would even grant exceptions for the mental health of the mother, which is a third-trimester loophole you can drive a truck through.

So Brooks can't hide behind a "silent majority" here. Indeed, the odds are overwhelming that if Roe v. Wade was repealed, most legislatures across the country would eventually pass law after law re-legalizing abortion. And yet the far-right would still be protesting and bombing abortion clinics and the like. The political climate would still be poisoned. In other words, life would go on… exactly as it does now. The main difference is that certain women in certain particularly conservative states would not have the right to choose. Of course, that too isn't significantly different from now, where abortion is so costly or remote or impractical for a shamefully large number of low-income women that it's all but illegal. So no, even setting aside all other arguments, I just can't see the country transforming into some grand democratic utopia all because Roe vs. Wade gets overturned.

MORE: Michael Berube's response to Brooks is marvelous.

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