|Protestor’s sign reads “Choice is the American Way”|
Raise your hand if you’ve heard this argument in favor of Roe v. Wade:
If a government can force women to gestate, it can also force them to abort.
There’s some pathos here. It’s a nice, balanced sentence that sounds good to the ear. But strip the pathos away, and what you have is “Pro-life laws invite forced abortions.” I posit that this makes no sense at all.
I am a citizen of the United States. As a pure matter of military muscle, my government can do whatever it wants. To be clear, that’s not a good thing. In theory, the Constitution and other laws limit the government’s power. In practice, constitutional violations happen, and the primary limit on governmental power is the collective outrage of the people.
What if I told you that this collective outrage is what currently prevents my government from forcibly sterilizing people? It’s true. The Supreme Court found forced sterilization to be constitutional in Buck v. Bell. Fun fact: it then cited Buck v. Bell with approval in Roe v. Wade (see section VIII). (Sorry to spoil your innocence if you still thought Roe was all about “choice.”) Another fun fact: the Court has never formally revisited Buck v. Bell and overturned it. It’s merely considered obsolete because the public overwhelmingly disapproves of it, and therefore as a practical matter no elected officials are going to follow it.
Thankfully the United States never adopted a policy of forced abortion, even in the forced sterilization heyday. Thus, the legalization of abortion had no impact one way or the other. It did, however, have a major impact on abortions being coerced by non-government parties, i.e., the father of the unborn child.
But let’s take a look at some other nations. China is of course notorious for forcing its citizens to undergo abortions. It’s also a country where abortion is freely available on demand. What about more more moderately pro-choice nations, like the U.K.? The ugly specter of government-enforced abortion has reared its ugly head there, too.
I’m sure if a pro-life government like Ireland or Chile coerced someone to have an abortion, the media would make that a front-page story. So far, silence.
In the face of these facts, why does “If a government can force women to gestate, it can also force women to abort” gain any traction? It makes about as much sense as “If a government can force people to join labor unions, it can also force people not to join them and thereby destroy the unions” or “If the government can force you to buy health insurance, it can also force you to remain uninsured.”
The answer is that many abortion advocates distrust the pro-life movement’s motives. They’re convinced that we can’t actually be in this because we see abortion as a violation of the right to life. They’re certain that we’re just out to control women’s bodies, and if that’s the case, naturally forced abortions would be part of our misogynist scheme.
As pro-choice author William Saletan, trying to talk some sense into his colleagues, put it:
[W]hen public opinion turns toward reproductive freedom and equal rights for women but continues to oppose abortion, it punctures our dismissal of pro-life sentiment as a vestige of right-wing sexism. Spin and soundbites won’t make the evidence go away. Sooner or later, you’ll have to face it.