Abortion seems to be the ultimate "no man's land" of conversation. The mere mention of it in any politically mixed company is met with groans and rolling eyes. Conventional wisdom tells us that it's well-nigh-impossible to have a civil conversation about it, that it riles up all our emotions relating to politics and religion, but I can't help but wonder, is that really true?
I'm of the opinion that such a civil conversation can, and in fact must, happen, but it requires a reconsideration of the way we're taught to approach the issue.
First, how are we "taught to approach the issue?" We're taught that there's a simple dichotomy of opinion: you're "pro-life" or you're "pro-choice." I imagine all of us at some point or another have been clubbed over the head with those monikers: "Oh, well I'm pro-choice (implying: "so unlike you, I believe in women's rights")." So let's begin by pointing out the obvious: the two terms are not only fallacious, but also incendiary, because they're intentionally misleading.
It reminds me of an occasion last summer. I was walking down Wells St. in Chicago with a group of fellow trainees, when we passed the building housing the Anti-Cruelty Society. My buddy Gabriel then turned toward me and, mustering all his cheesehead snark, quipped, "so I wonder where the Pro-Cruelty Society meets?"
The same applies to abortion. Pro-lifers are no more "anti-choice" than pro-choicers are "anti-life."
The national conversation on abortion has been driven into this rut because it's in the interest of the big two political parties to keep it there. The Republicans want this bipolar debate because it helps keep Christian conservatives on their side. As long as they can railroad religious discourse toward abortion, they don't have to worry about it veering off into territory that Republicans aren't as comfortable with, like Social Security, environmentalism, capital punishment, and tax cuts for the wealthy. The Democrats want such an abortion debate because they want to shore up the progressive vote, and hope to win more votes based on the fact that a majority of Americans favor Roe v. Wade in one form or another. Sticking to the old abortion meme means Democrats don't have to talk about religion. Both parties fear that they stand to lose votes if the conversation develops the kind of nuance that makes it more, well, honest.
The link above is especially useful in this conversation. What that survey does is allow for a multitude of viewpoints in the abortion debate, and it finds that most people lie somewhere between the pro-life and pro-choice poles, showing both to be straw men (in my opinion, at least). For instance, while most people (57%) believe abortion should be legal in "all or most" cases, that majority disappears in the cases of partial-birth abortions (23%), 3rd trimester abortions (11%), and abortions had solely "to end unwanted pregnancy" (42%; this is, by the way, the most common reason for abortion, according to the same article).
Thankfully, some national figures are starting to get the hint. Jim Wallis (the author of God's Politics) notes that it would be more productive for Democrats and Republicans to try seeking common ground, "that is, really targetting the problems of teen pregnancy and adoption reform, which are so critical to reducing abortion, while offering real support for women, especially low-income women, at greater risk for unwanted prgnancies" (300). Howard Dean commented on July 16, on the Democratic party being "pro-abortion": "I served on the board of Planned Parenthood for five years. I don't know anybody who's pro-abortion. Most people in this country would like to see the abortion rate go down. That includes Democrats and Republicans."
On the other side, Republicans in 2004 were actually more ecumenical in their approach to abortion than Democrats. A number of the speakers at the Republican National Convention were pro-choice, among them Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani (in fact, if I'm not mistaken, John McCain is, too). If Republicans stop treating those politicians' stances like dirty little secrets then the national debate could really start getting somewhere.
So, brushing aside all the crap, how do we deal with abortion? I assume most everyone would like to see it happen as rarely as possible, but how do we make that happen? Criminalization (and if so, for doctors/women/both) or not? What kind of sex ed, and how much? What about availability of birth control? Programs to help pregnant women afford health care? Improving adoption programs?