Transcript: The New Politics of Abortion

On this issue of abortion, our nation has long stood divided. Currently, 40 percent of registered voters say they're pro-choice, 39 percent pro-life and 18 percent say 'neither.' But there may be something different about today's divide. While advocates on each side do exist—liberals who fear a reversal of Roe by a conservative Supreme Court, conservatives who fear a rampant culture of abortion—NEWSWEEK's Debra Rosenberg argues that much of the country seems more ambivalent than adamant. Rather than screaming at opponents in the abortion debate, our country is searching for a quieter way forward. Will our nation ever reach consensus on this challenging issue? Rosenberg joined us on Wednesday, Oct. 3 at for an hour-long discussion on where we stand on abortion and where we are headed.

Debra Rosenberg: Hi everyone. This is Debra Rosenberg, an assistant managing editor at Newsweek. I oversee the magazine's coverage of health, medicine, social issues and family stories. I have also covered the abortion debate for (I hate to admit it) the last 15 years or so. I'm happy to take your questions on this week's piece, "A New Ambivalence," or on the abortion debate in general.

Los Angeles, CA: I'm interested in the documentary you write about. Is it released yet? Where can it be seen? What did you think were its most interesting points?
Debra Rosenberg: The documentary we write about in this week's issue, "Lake of Fire," is opening this week in New York. It will then open in Los Angeles and more than 20 other cities across the country in the coming weeks. Director Tony Kaye says he's also exploring a television deal and has plans for DVD version. So you should be able to catch it one way or another.

What was most surprising about the film was how far it was willing to go on both ends of the spectrum. It shows both actual footage of several abortions (including a late-term one) and footage of extremists who went on to kill abortion providers. Kaye spent 16 years making the movie. He had so much footage of abortion protests—including film of some who turned violent—that the FBI confiscated his film at one point. Those scenes will be the most likely to shock people no matter what their personal beliefs. But you've got to be committed. Watching "Lake of Fire" is not exactly fun viewing. And it takes two and a half hours.

Spokane, WA: I'm interested in this film you wrote about, "Lake of Fire." When you spoke to its creator, did you get any indication of why he was so interested in the topic? I know that you write that he cannot say, but I was wondering if you got any sense of what drove this person to be so involved with this issue.
Debra Rosenberg: It's interesting. Kaye was tight-lipped about that. His actual quote was "I don't know the answer to that," which was so vague I didn't include it in the story. But I don't think someone spends so much time and money ($7 million of his own!) without some passion. He claimed to be neutral and "confused." But I felt there was a slight pro-choice tilt to the movie, if only because he makes the pro-life side seem very extreme. There's really only one thoughtful person with a pro-life perspective shown.

Kaye also said he finished the film only because he had to stop at some point. He wants to add to the DVD version and even make another abortion film. So I suspect there is a deeper story about his interest in the subject, but for now I can only speculate about that.

Skokie, IL: You write that this might be the first presidential election where abortion is not a divisive issue between candidates and the Supreme Court does not have any abortion cases on its docket right now. So where can we expect the abortion debate to continue? With individual state legislation? Or legislation that is more national? More local?
Debra Rosenberg: Depending on who gets the nod from the Republican party, it is possible that both major candidates could be pro-choice. Of course, some social conservatives are so upset about this possibility that they're talking about running a third-party candidate, which could at least keep abortion in the news. But it is unlikely to be front and center as it has been in other recent elections.

Even if the current Supreme Court did take it up again, many court watchers think they know how it would rule—a close 5-4 decision, with Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote, either narrowly upholding Roe (as he did in Casey) or supporting some kind of narrowing of Roe (as with the "partial-birth" abortion case this year).

Now all the action is at the state level. More than a dozen states have introduced restrictions in the last two years and some of these will eventually make their way to the high court. I doubt that a Democratic Congress will take on abortion in a head-on way. There are initiatives that will set aside more money for prevention and birth control. And some Dems do want to essentially codify Roe as a law so that it wouldn't be so vulnerable to court challenge. But because there's little real political pressure to do that right now, I'd be surprised if that effort got off the ground.

Pro-lifers, on the other hand, hope to have a raft of state abortion bans and other restrictions in place—both to test Roe in court and to be ready if and when Roe is eventually overturned.

Terre Haute, IN: Do you think that Roe v.Wade has any chance of repeal at this late date and after all the abortions that have already been performed?
Debra Rosenberg: Because it's a Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade wouldn't be repealed (like a law) exactly. The Supreme Court could reverse its earlier decision overturn it. But even that wouldn't outlaw abortion nationally. It would return us to what we had pre-Roe, which was a patchwork of state laws. In some places abortion was legal; in others not. Few legal observers expect the current Supreme Court to go that far, at least not in one swoop. What the justices are more likely to do (and have done so far) is allow more and more restrictions. Abortion-rights advocates say these limits "chip away" at Roe so that even if the decision itself is technically not reversed, it will be rendered meaningless. Congress has never had any luck passing either a ban on abortions or a law that would codify Roe and protect it from the court's tinkering.

Part of the reluctance to overturn Roe head-on is, as you hint, the fact that we've all lived with it for more than 30 years. It's hard to reverse course that way, though not impossible or without precedent.

Clayton, MO: Do you think that abortion will ever cease to be a polarizing issue? Is there any scientific advancement that might tell us once and for all when life begins? It seems to me that the pro-life and pro-choice sides have irreconcilable differences that no piece of information or legislation could change. Do you agree?
Debra Rosenberg: I could see the vast majority of most Americans coming to agree on some middle ground around abortion. If you were to spell it out, it might be: abortion could be legal in the first trimester, plus allowed in certain other circumstances (say fetal deformities, health problems for the mother) after that. There might be other restrictions like parental notification that people could agree on as well. But I don't see the two extreme sides in the abortion debate signing on to any sort of compromise any time soon.

Pro-choicers think those restrictions will be a slippery slope that will one way or another keep women from getting safe and legal abortions. Pro-lifers believe abortion is murder and should never be permitted. It's hard to find any middle ground between those two.

I think scientific advancement—particularly ultrasound and advances in treating the youngest preemies (as early as 22 weeks in one unusual case)—has changed what many Americans think about fetal development and what's acceptable in terms of abortion. But the question of when "life" begins and when "personhood" begins and how you balance that against the rights of a person already living (the mother) is a much thornier problem. I don't think science will ever solve that in a way that both sides can agree on. I think you're right that there are some irreconcilable differences here.

Livonia, MI: You say that this debate is ambivalent, but on the pro life side there has always been and still is a strong push today to save children from the pain and suffering of death through abortion. I don't think the pro life side is ambivalent at all, so what leads you to your conclusion?
Debra Rosenberg: I was trying to make the point that there's a growing ambivalence in the center of the abortion debate, not really on the two extreme ends of the spectrum. Particularly, as you note, on the pro-life side, there's little movement toward any sort of compromise. (Though interestingly, some people who consider themselves pro-life say they favor allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest or when the mother's life is at risk—not a hard and fast absolute.) If you look at vast majority of people in the middle of the debate, they favor allowing legal abortion, but agree that there should be some restrictions on it. That seems to me to signal there's some ambivalence about the issue.

Bloomington, IN: Do you put much stock in the idea being floated these days that religious conservatives, unhappy with the GOP presidential field's stance on issues like abortion, are going to back an independent for president?
Debra Rosenberg: I think they may well decide to run a third-party candidate. Or perhaps they are just trying to convince the GOP that it should nominate someone who's not pro-choice to avoid losing their votes. How many voters are we talking about? Karl Rove famously calculated that George W. Bush lost 4 million evangelical votes in 2000 because he didn't reach out to them and they just stayed home. I don't think anyone has a really accurate count. This is a risky strategy for religious conservatives for several reasons. If they split what would normally be the GOP vote, then presumably the Democrat (who would be pro-choice) would win. Also, if not everyone is committed to this strategy—say some worry about electing Hillary Clinton so go ahead and vote for Rudy Giuliani—and support for the third party social conservative candidate looks tepid, it could jeopardize their ultimate political clout. One idea that could avert this sort of showdown: if Giuliani is the nominee, he could pick a veep with street cred among pro-lifers, perhaps someone like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

Rochester NH: Recently in NH we repealed the Parent Notification Law, which would have required an abortion provider to notify the parents of a minor seeking an abortion. What is the general attitude of a parents involvement with this issue?
Debra Rosenberg: I think everyone on all sides agrees that it would ideally be nice for parents to know what their teenagers are up to, especially when a major life decision like abortion is at stake. The debate is over the best way to do this. But in some families—say where a teen is a victim of rape by her father—this might not be productive. Most parental notification laws offer some legal "out" for this—say getting permission from a judge. But some put so many restrictions on how that can be done that the law effectively keeps teens from accessing abortion. The polls I've seen show that most parents support some kind of notification, but it probably depends on the specific law.

Plano, TX: It seems abortion wouldn't be such an issue if we focused on sex education. How do pro-lifers feel about this subject? Why are we so afraid to talk about sex education and birth control?
Debra Rosenberg: Democrats in Congress now are trying to shift the debate from abortion to preventing unintended pregnancies, largely through birth control and sex ed. But many pro-lifers are squeamish about these subjects too. They object to some forms of birth control either on religious grounds or because they seem like very early forms of abortion (if the pill or an IUD prevents a fertilized embryo from implanting in the uterus, for example). There's also been a huge push from the Bush administration to teach abstinence rather than more comprehensive sex education. Some opponents of regular sex ed (which would teach, possibly in great detail, about birth control methods) think it actually encourages teens to have sex, though I'm not aware of reputable research that backs up that idea. I think you'll be hearing more about sex ed and birth control as the Democrats on Capitol Hill try to shift the abortion debate there and away from the specifics of the abortion procedure itself.

Danville, PA: Pro-life advocates call abortion murder. Does that mean the appropriate punishment is sending women who have abortion to jail? If not what is the punishment?
Debra Rosenberg: Most laws that would ban abortion tend to penalize the doctor, not the woman. The "partial-birth" abortion ban upheld by the Supreme Court last spring would give doctors jail time and a hefty fine for performing the banned procedure. I think the pro-life strategy on this has been to go after the less sympathetic figure—the doctor—and not the woman. I don't think they believe that throwing women in jail will help their cause. That said, there are more and more states passing laws that feature separate penalties for killing a fetus during another crime. So if you shoot and kill a pregnant woman, you could be charged with two counts of homicide. And some states have tried to press charges against pregnant women for, say, taking illegal drugs and harming her fetus. But those are slightly different issues.

Fort Myers, FL: Since the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision, there has been great technological changes, that leads to the detection of pregnancy within two weeks and at the same time increasess the viability of the fetus earlier than the first trimester. Why can't both camps realize that neither can determine when life begins and agree on "what is reasonable" with the responsibility of the woman to make a choice at the earliest possible date? Those people that would prohibit contraception and the morning after pill do not even belong in the discussion.
Debra Rosenberg: I think that may be where the vast bulk of voters are headed. But the two camps, as you call them, don't have a lot of incentive to meet in the middle. It could be that science one day helps us a draw a bright line on viability outside the womb, for instance. Right now that is around 24 weeks for most babies, though in some rare cases they have survived earlier than that. States are already free (under the Casey decision) to restrict abortion after the point of viability. If science tells us that there's no way to survive earlier than that—mainly because fetal lung development doesn't allow it—that might help define the debate. But then there's always the sci-fi idea of an artificial womb, which we'll probably see one day. That would of course change the debate entirely since a woman's body would no longer be involved. Her genetic material presumably would, though, so I doubt it will end the argument either.

Phoenix, AZ: Has there ever been a survey on whether a woman who gives birth would have an easy time giving up the baby for adoption? My opinion is in most cases there is such a strong natural motherhood that most cannot.

My sister had nine children and the tenth was on the way. Her marriage was on the rocks and adoption would have destroyed her family. She made the right decision to not have the tenth.
Debra Rosenberg: There has been research on the effects of giving babies up for adoption as well as on what women feel after they have an abortion. I don't think either one is an easy decision for anyone. sonal situations and sort out which option is best for them.

Bloomington, IN: It would seem that the pro-life stance is more of an anti-choice. It also implies that pro-choice people like abortions, which certainly isn't the case. It's about choice. How can "pro-lifers" be convinced that it's about choice, not life?
Debra Rosenberg: The language of the abortion debate has gotten so entrenched over the years that many people aren't sure what the terms mean anymore. In the Third Way poll we wrote about this week, nearly a fifth of voters said they were "neither" pro-life nor pro-choice. Some may say they would not personally have an abortion but wouldn't get in the way of someone else's decision to do so. Is that pro-life because of their personal stance or pro-choice because of what they feel about others? I think the labels have come to be just about meaningless, but we still use them because we need some kind of shorthand way to discuss all this.

Pro-choicers do like to call the other side "anti-choice." And pro-lifers like to call their opponents "pro-aborts." I don't use those labels since that's not what the groups call themselves. Pro-lifers would argue that murder is not a "choice" we can make in our society. And pro-choicers argue, as you do, that they are not in favor of abortion. But you can see in those efforts that each side is trying to focus on what they see as the main point in the argument—choice vs. abortion or life.

For a while I tried to write using more neutral terms like "abortion-rights advocates" and "anti-abortion groups" but that got a little cumbersome. But thinking about this does tell you a lot about the public relations strategy each side has in mind.

Sliver Springs, MD: Do you find it difficult to write about such a polarizing issue? Surely you must have your own views on this issue - does that make it a challenging subject to cover? How do you deal with that as a reporter?
Debra Rosenberg: It is often difficult to write about this kind of polarizing issue. Over the years I've managed to offend people on both sides of the debate, sometimes over very subtle language I've chosen, as I mentioned above. And of course, like anyone, I do have personal views on the matter. But my job as a reporter is to try to keep those out of the way and be fair in my coverage. Based on the equal numbers of complaints I get from both sides, I think I do that most of the time. But I am always trying hard to get that right.

Debra Rosenberg: Well everyone, looks like we are out of time. Thanks for all of your thoughtful and intelligent questions.