Liberalism and abortion

January 7, 2010

Flipping through the new issue of The American Prospect, I saw a blurb about an article from last month's issue that I missed amid the end-of-year craziness: Ann Friedman's commentary
on the need for different left-leaning political interest groups to
work together. It’s a simple point but a smart treatment, arguing that
liberal “special interests” are in fact not separate; rather, “labor
rights are tied to gay rights are tied to women’s rights are tied to
immigrants’ rights.” She goes on:

The people most likely to
identify with the liberal worldview—women, people of color, LGBT people,
disenfranchised workers—are those who have experienced a lack of
freedom and opportunity themselves.... It is the progressive movement’s
commitment to these people—its base, its core—that will ensure its
long-term survival. If we continue to compromise on the concerns of
those people, or dismiss them as “special interests” working against an
imaginary greater good, we will ultimately render our shared concept of
liberalism totally meaningless.

Hear, hear. If liberalism
isn’t for all disenfranchised people, what is it for? Yet I’m struck by
how neatly Friedman’s argument highlights the difficulty for those of us
on the left who are generally not moderates or third-way types but who
remain deeply ambivalent about abortion rights (not
about women's rights generally). For us it begs this question: should
the unborn somehow fit into this idea of absolute support for all the
disenfranchised? I don't know the answer.

The question leads to
other, familiar ones: if an abortion is morally weightier than an
appendectomy (a private matter) but less weighty than a murder (very
much not private), just how
much more and how much less? How do we decide this, and what concrete
difference does it make? Can "not quite human yet" really be a helpful
ethical category? Would I be asking different questions if I were a
woman? And so on.

Friedman takes as an example the Stupak-Pitts
Amendment to the House health insurance bill, a set of restrictions on
abortion coverage that the House leadership accepted in order to get the
bill through. I opined against Stupak-Pitts in the Century on the grounds that it further perpetuates a status quo
that effectively assigns people different rights based on economic
class. That’s an easy one: I oppose all laws that treat people with
money (and political power) differently than those without.

I'm
on board as well with Friedman’s call for liberal advocates and the
disenfranchised groups they represent to unite and stop selling each
other down the river. What's harder for me is knowing how to apply this
idea to abortion rights in particular. The best I can come up with is to
continue to ponder and pray, and to listen to what others—especially
women—have to say.

(See also Sherry F. Colb on the differences between Jewish and Catholic thought on abortion [via Mark Silk].)