abortion absolutism
Advocates seeking to abolish abortion in Oklahoma visited the office of Sen. Jason Smalley (R-Stroud) on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. (Tres Savage)

“What has always made the state a hell on Earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven.”
— Friederich Holderlin

As someone who has been very committed to protecting the life of the unborn, it is painful when I feel compelled to criticize those who should be allies in this effort. I did this in 2017 when I reviewed two pieces of “pro-life” legislation I felt were unnecessary and did not actually protect life. Since then, a growing element of the pro-life movement has pushed for legislation to completely ban all abortions. I am concerned this abolitionist movement will spawn greater extremism on both the left and the right, and were it successful, significantly reduce the civil liberties of our citizens.

In 2018, Oklahoma saw a Republican candidate for governor run on the platform of outlawing and criminalizing abortions. Dan Fisher finished fourth in the field of 10 candidates, receiving nearly 8 percent of the vote in the Republican primary. His candidacy mirrored a movement which calls itself “Free the States,” and advocates for a total ban on abortions.

In this year’s young legislative session, we have already seen the movement’s impact. One bill was authored that would make abortion a felony crime. Another bill (SB 195) has been advanced by Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat (R-OKC). It would automatically ban most abortions in the state should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In addition, HB 1182, which was approved by the House Public Health Committee, would strip the medical license of any doctor who performed an abortion in the state.

This effort to ban abortions entirely has referred to itself as the “abortion abolition movement. Its voice has been published on this site. These are abortion absolutists, which is not only a more strident position, but also a more dangerous one.

The dangers of absolutism

By focusing so rigidly on the single goal of outlawing abortion outright, the abolitionist movement would justify all manner of horrible actions in order to obtain a very limited positive outcome. In refusing to acknowledge any valid reason for terminating a pregnancy, abortion absolutists would have to make criminals of mothers, doctors and anyone with knowledge of the termination who didn’t report it.

Pregnancies, births and miscarriages would all have to be monitored and regulated by the state. Women and their doctors could find themselves in criminal court should a miscarriage occur that an aggressive prosecutor did not believe was from “natural causes.” Law enforcement officers and state bureaucrats would become a fixture in all stages of a pregnancy.

We have plenty of historical experience with absolutist political movements. During the “Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, extremism bred extremism and wreaked havoc on French society leading to the dictatorship of Napoleon. Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward,” aimed at revamping Chinese society resulted in an estimated 45 million deaths. And Stalin’s various efforts at collectivization in order to stamp out any vestiges of private property also caused the deaths of millions of Russians. The damage of these unintended consequences far exceeded the problems those programs were meant to address.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the members of the abortion abolition movement are communists or intending to use physical violence to achieve their ends. But, practically speaking, were such a total abortion ban to go into effect, our civil liberties would be significantly impacted. In their zealousness to protect the unborn, absolutists seem to have overlooked the amount of government intervention required to make their ban a reality.

Would women now be forced to register their pregnancies with the state in order for officials to monitor them and ensure no abortions were performed? If a woman had a miscarriage, would there be some form of investigation to ensure it was not an “unlawful abortion”? Given that many of these absolutists would not even countenance the notion of an abortion to save the life of the mother, would there be law enforcement officers employed to ensure a live birth occurred, regardless of the danger to the mother’s life?

There is more to life than being alive

The pro-life movement should not allow itself to be co-opted by absolutists. A myopic view on only one side of the equation — the life of the unborn — hides the impact on the broader society. The simple, if unpopular, fact is that we allow people to take actions every day that we know will lead to the deaths of themselves or others:

We could take the absolutist position on all of these, as well. But as a society, we believe in the necessity of automobiles, even though we know in many instances their use will result in death, sometimes even for our friends and family members. We think we should be able to eat what we want, rather than banning foods that lead to heart disease and diabetes, which both kill thousands of people each year. And we allow people to purchase swimming pools for their homes, go boating on the lake, and attend water parks, knowing that some of them will die from the activity.

Absolutism, whether in regard to abortion, firearms, diabetes, the drug war or anything else leads to increasing amounts of government regulation of our lives. It also causes a loss of freedom that is greater than the resulting “safety.”

Finding a balance

What the Supreme Court attempted to create (imperfectly to be sure) in Roe v. Wade, and what it improved on greatly in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, was a balance between the life of the child (and the government’s interest in protecting that life) and the freedom of individuals to live their lives without government micromanagement.

Regardless of whether we are pro-life or pro-choice, we are going to have to accept that absolutism on either side is detrimental to us all. This is why I also oppose legislation like measures that advanced in both New York and Virginia that would permit virtually unregulated abortion, even into the last month of pregnancy.

I do not believe the public will support an outright ban on all abortions. Nor do I believe they will support completely unregulated abortion. Absolutism from either side is not the answer.