Further Thoughts on the Abortion Issue

In politics, issues evolve over time. New information, new points of view, and combinations of both can either bring new solutions to old problems or – just as important – reveal problems with old solutions. Yet somehow, for half a century, arguments over abortion have remained stuck on a narrow spectrum that ensures more heat than light whenever the issue arises. This sort of thing doesn’t happen with any other issue. Indeed, it may very well have been the contours of “debate” on this issue that made the concept of compromise such a toxic word in 21st century politics. It has defined the culture war in a way nothing else has. The lone thing both sides can agree on is complete scorn at anyone who asks: why does it have to be this way?

But I’ll ask it anyway, because we simply don’t behave like this on any other issue – at all.

The Fundamental Principles

So…why? Well, for most folks, the two competing principles usually answer the question. They are these – (1) The pre-born child is a human being deserving of life and (2) A woman’s right to personal autonomy must be respected. For obvious reasons, neither of these are what we could call trivial matters.

Again, most Americans (and thus, Virginians) pick one over the other and move on. Indeed, they’ve been doing it since the first discussion of “abortion reform” began in the late 1960s. The first attempt to square the circle came from the Supreme Court in 1973 (please note: I said attempt) by using the trimester system as a way to measure when one held prominence over the other. The Court tried again in 1992 with a more precise and dynamic balancer – the independent viability of the pre-born child – but I would argue they still fell short.

The reason – to me, at least – is fairly simple: the Supremes use of time as a balancer limited the debate to effectively one dimension – one in which policy can enshrine (1) or (2) at different times, but never both at the same time. In fact, I’m guessing that for most readers, the phrase “both at the same time” is now utterly alien and unthinkable.

The False Choice

Yet when two interests, or even two principles, collide this violently, the purpose of politics (at least when it’s healthy) is not to venerate one and vanquish the other, but to figure out how best to maximize both. This is, in truth, what compromise is: figuring out how both sides can get the most out of a particular situation. Our adversarial system has become so polarized that Americans (and Virginians) now confuse compromise with a balance of concessions. The latter is a type of the former, but not the only type.

Again, we look to the judicial branch as the author of this error. For reasons known only to them, the Justices of 1973 (and 1992) went with a balance of temporal concessions (or at least tried to do so), when other dimensions could easily have been available to them. This was more than merely a failure of intellect; it also helped create (or exacerbate) the all-or-nothing atmosphere that surrounds this issue.

From Time to Money: The Compensation Angle

This is simply not the sort of thing that happens on other issues where rights and the greater good conflict. While arguments about the use of eminent domain continue to flourish, no one seriously considers the idea that government should seize private property with no compensation whatsoever (even for, ahem, a border wall). Not only would the Constitution take issue with that, it’s also (rightly) seen as unfair.

I don’t see how we can’t use a similar concept of compensation for rights infringed to apply to abortion. Indeed, I could argue that a personal infringement on women is far more worthy of financial compensation. In my case, for what it’s worth, such compensation would – and, in my opinion, must – include.

  • All pre-natal impact cost (care of the pre-born child, medical impacts on the mother, impacts of lifestyle changes, etc.) – this could most easily be done by moving the start date for child support to conception (no matter where one defines when life begins, I would humbly submit it is obvious that the impacts to the mother begin at this point).
  • Compensation for direct loss of wages – In theory, this is where “family leave” policy comes in, although we would need to make sure it fully covers wage loss
  • Compensation for loss of income due to career impacts – this goes back to the property example, in this case, easements. Conservatives have said (rightly) for years that loss of land value should guide compensation, not mere loss of use. I humbly submit that should apply here as well.

I won’t be foolish enough to claim that this will settle the debate. No debate ever gets “settled” – especially this one. However, it would shift the debate to one where, instead of arguing which fundamental principle is more important – (1) or (2) – we would be arguing about what is the best way to acknowledge both.

Incentives and History Matter

This would also be a recognition on the part of the pro-life movement that incentives matter, and that the state of the law is merely one of them. As an economist by training, I see legal changes as addressing the supply of abortion, but they don’t impact the demand for it at all. Compensating women for rights infringed does impact demand, and could do so dramatically.

It is even possible that the compensation listed above could reduce demand for abortion to such an extent that legal changes would be unnecessary (note I said possible, not probable). However, we know for certain that mere legal changes alone won’t be enough – because they weren’t enough 50 years ago. If they had been, the laws wouldn’t have been changed…

…nor would anyone be trying to change them further today.

Again, I don’t expect the argument surrounding abortion to disappear. I am hoping that the argument will, at long last, evolve – past the angry rhetoric, the manufactured outrage, and the panic-inducing moralization that permeates it on both sides. I am hoping that we remember that politics isn’t war: one side can win without the other losing; one side can accomplish their objective without denying the other side of the same.

Or, to be precise, we can save pre-born children without erasing women’s rights.

Is that really impossible?