WASHINGTON — Much time is spent during abortion debates on the imputing and impugning of motives. Without it, coverage of the Texas legislative battle over late-term abortion, for example, would consist mainly of blank pages and dead air.
But political outcomes are not always reducible to the intentions of the winner. Results are often influenced by deeper trends that neither side of a debate can do much to change or control.
The national abortion settlement declared by Roe v. Wade — rooting a nearly unrestricted right to abortion in the right to privacy — has been unstable for 40 years. The reason is a tension between the state of the law and a durable public consensus that human life has an increasing claim on our sympathy as it develops. This view does not reflect either anti-abortion or abortion-rights orthodoxy. But it predicts a more sustainable political resolution.
The media have a slothful tendency to place Americans into rigid categories of pro-life and pro-choice. The reality is more complicated. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 79 percent of people who describe themselves as pro-choice support making abortion illegal in the third trimester. “One of the clearest messages from Gallup trends,” concludes Gallup's Lydia Saad, “is that Americans oppose late-term abortion.” Saad adds: “A solid majority of Americans (61 percent) believe abortion should generally be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, while 31 percent disagree. However support drops off sharply, to 27 percent, for second-trimester abortions, and further still, to 14 percent, for third-trimester abortions. Gallup has found this pattern each time it has asked this question since 1996, indicating that Americans attach much greater value to the fetus as it approaches viability, starting in the second trimester.”
An opinion this consistent and nearly universal must be based on something. The late political scientist James Q. Wilson gave the most persuasive explanation. In his 1994 essay, “On Abortion,” he argued bluntly that “people treat as human that which appears to be human; people treat as quasi-human that which appears quasi-human.” Sympathy, in his view, grows with resemblance.
“Life emerges,” said Wilson, “or more accurately, the claims that developing life exert upon us emerge, gradually but powerfully.” As a fetus becomes more recognizably human, it invokes “attachment that is as natural as any sentiment that ever enters the human breast.” Wilson placed the decisive stage of development, as many Americans seem to place it, at 10 to 12 weeks of gestation.