The debate about abortion involves not just a medical procedure but also personal morality, corporate ethics, legal and human rights, privacy, money, medical autonomy and much more. In this complexity “pro-life” and “pro-choice” labels serve only to fever polarization that instead must be pre-empted.
My guess is that the Religious Right and the far left actually agree on at least one thing: fewer abortions would be a good thing. As a pro-choice advocate and former abortion clinic counselor told me several years ago, “Women don’t have abortions because they’re fun.”
The question becomes a matter of how those of us who are on the right or left can work together toward doing away with things that are not fun. It’s analogous to ending terrorism: nobody wants anyone else to feel so desperate that they detonate themselves at the marketplace; nobody wants anyone else to be backed into an abortive corner. What might help people all across the abortion-issue spectrum is a rallying cry not of legislating morality or unlimited choice but of pre-emption.
The language of pre-emption was used incorrectly by President Bush in his “war on terror” as justification for invading Afghanistan and Iraq, actions widely believed to have worsened, not lessened, our nation’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks.
Many—even Bush’s senior staff—questioned the efficacy of this misguided “pre-emption.” In 2007, concerned about our nation’s lack of “commitment to fairness, justice and the rule of law” in the war on terror, David Cole and Jules Lobel wrote in The Nation: “Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld identified the critical question in an October 2003 internal Pentagon memo: ‘Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?’ While there is no precise metric for answering Rumsfeld’s question, there can be little doubt that our preventive tactics have been a boon to terrorist recruitment throughout the world.”
After the antiterror missile strikes in Pakistan earlier this year, The Guardian noted that “Obama, in his first military action as president, sanctioned two missile attacks inside Pakistan, … killing 22 people, reportedly women and children among them. The attacks drew criticism from Pakistani officials. … Pakistani president Asif Zardari told the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad … that the strikes ‘do not help the war on terror.’ ”
Both the just outlawing of terrorism and our government’s practice of both anticipatory and retaliatory military actions, with their inevitable civilian casualties, are ultimately futile. Court and military action will never prevent the fermentation of harmful intentions that culminate in a person’s strapping on explosives. Instead, it will be the truly pre-emptive cultivation of concrete opportunities and founded hopes that will usurp the desperation that lures people into such destruction.
Similarly, efforts both to make abortions more readily available and to limit abortion practices have one thing in common: Neither effort deals with the underlying social ills that supply the abortion industry with clients. Just as fighting terrorism with military action has probably spawned more terrorists, fighting to legalize or outlaw (legally pre-empt) abortion has only caused divisions that have taken focus away from addressing the real problems at hand.
During last fall’s campaign season, Frank Schaeffer wrote, “We can’t [reduce abortions] by concentrating on politics or silver bullets such as trying for that one magic court appointment. It’s the ‘holistic’ approach that is really what’s important if our goal is to reduce the number of abortions rather than just ‘win’ political games. … What kind of care do we provide to mothers and children? What is our educational system like? Is health care available to all? Do our preschool programs and everything from paternal and maternal leave to the economic well-being of our country come first? Or do we argue about abortion rights while we live lives of such supreme selfish decadence that the nature of our country means that no matter what we do with the laws about abortion, life will not be valued?”
Maybe someday abortion rights activists and pro-life advocates will find themselves working side-by-side not because they have been dissuaded from their deep-seated convictions but because they know that improving everyone’s well-being pre-empts the need for much that is unwanted.
Christopher Clymer Kurtz attends Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va.