The Times's US editor, Gerard Baker, whom I have known a long time and respect, drew an extraordinary analogy in his column on Friday (emphasis added):
After years of wondering whether we’ll ever change society’s permissive attitude towards abortion, I’m convinced that we will some day come to view it in the way we now view slavery, a moral abomination that generations simply became inured to by usage and practice.
The big difference, of course, is that abortion is worse than slavery. Not just in the obvious sense that it involves the taking of life rather than liberty. But because our current debate suggests that deep down most of us really know there’s something quite wrong with abortion.
Say what you will about the slaveowners, I doubt many of them sat around agonising about their decision to keep Uncle Tom and his family chained to the shack at the end of the drive. I doubt they justified it, after much soul-searching, by saying they were only painfully exercising their “choice” to own slaves so they wouldn’t have to sacrifice their standard of living.
I'm convinced - as convinced as I am of anything in the realm of ideas - that the conviction that abortion is comparable to or worse than slavery will ever be the preserve only of a determined but minuscule minority. That minority will have, and ought to have, no purchase on public policy. I hold this conviction not on grounds of when, beyond the point of conception, life begins; no one can answer that question, and I'm far from competent even to frame it. That question is metaphysics (or theology, which is not a branch of human knowledge at all). You either believe it or you don't. Western society is well beyond the historical stage where it was possible to have widely shared, let alone universal, convictions about such questions - any more than we have universally shared convictions about first and last things, or the foundation of ethics. Unless we are defeated by the forces (themselves heterogeneous) agitating for the repeal of the Enlightenment - notably, but not only, militant Islam - we'll never get back there.
That's a good thing. The Enlightenment extended our ideas about obligations, and gave rise to the notion of universal human rights. But we can't invoke that principle to settle political disputes over abortion legislation, because there is no such shared assumption - as there self-evidently is in the case of slavery - that a pregnancy terminated at an early stage involves any violation of human rights. The "of course" in Gerard's analogy supports the whole structure yet is entirely out of place.
The reason we regard abortion as a weighty issue of individual conscience is not that we all, deep down, regard it as wrong; it is that abortion, by definition because it disposes of a foetus, is a destructive act. That doesn't make voluntary and freely chosen abortion immoral. I dispute that abortion below a certain time limit (about which there is no obviously right answer and plenty of room for legislative deliberation) is a moral issue at all, other than in those cases where abortion is morally required. Most of all in this debate, I share a view articulated by an exponent of a tradition that Gerard is as familiar with as anyone: American conservatism. The late philosopher Robert Nisbet wrote some years ago (Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary, 1982, p. 5) of:
... the danger to the social fabric and to individual liberty that is posed by the ranks of the aggressive antiabortionists. In denying the right of the woman or of her family to terminate pregnancy, these soldiers of righteousness strike at the heart of both family and individual rights.... The moralizing and sentimentalizing about embryo and infant has reached its highest point of intensity in human history in the United States, and there is no sign that its ravaging of the social bond and its wanton commitment of the issue to the centralized state will abate.
I put the greater stress on individual liberty. The legal and cultural shifts since the 1960s regarding abortion, homosexuality and other issues are to my mind obviously an enhancement of liberty and of a civilised society. But the greatest impediment to the spread of Gerard's argument is that it's inimical to family life. Parents will always support a daughter's choice when she has an unwanted pregnancy. It's the humane and commonsensical thing to do, and it's right that our legislation incorporates that common sense.