Michael Gerson: A settlement on abortion

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: July 7, 2013

Wilson was broadly criticized, by both anti-abortion and abortion-rights advocates, for attempting to turn sentiments into principles. As a moral matter, I share that criticism. His gradations strike me as ethically arbitrary, and even universal opinions do not add up to moral rules. But Wilson's theory of “natural moral sentiments” on abortion does seem to describe the way most Americans think about this issue. Which makes it politically predictive.

If Wilson's description is correct, anti-abortion advocates are unlikely to secure legal limits on abortion during the first trimester — the period in which most abortions actually take place. At some point, after late-term abortions are restricted, legislative approaches will become unproductive, and persuasion and the provision of alternatives to abortion will become the main avenues of activism.

But because the Supreme Court imposed a national settlement at odds with natural sentiments, abortion-rights advocates are currently on the defensive. Their political challenge is to prevent the working of politics. Their real opponent is democracy, as state after state considers late-term abortion restrictions.

We have some models of what happens, even in very liberal societies, when public views prevail on abortion. Across most of Western Europe, abortion is legal during the first trimester but heavily restricted later in pregnancy — after the 14th week in France, Germany and Spain. These limits are not a violation of liberal principles but a recognition that the inherent violence of late-term abortion is at odds with liberal principles.

A Wilson-like settlement on abortion in America would be unsatisfying to many. But it would have the virtue of being sustained by consensus, not imposed by fiat.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP