Tens of thousands marched for life on the national mall today. The crowd was large and diverse enough that the pro-life movement cannot be dismissed as a radical fringe movement, notwithstanding its shadowy and ignominious roots. It must be taken seriously. Unlike the anti-gay-marriage movement, which is driven entirely by bigotry and the desire to impose religious beliefs on others, the pro-life movement actually advocates some defensible positions. In particular, they ask the very reasonable question: where do you draw the line between embryo-hood and person-hood? There are only a few bright lines: conception. First heartbeat. Birth. The pro-choice side rejects the first two, and no one argues for the third one (see below), so what we are left with is the arbitrary trimester lines plucked from a hat by Harry Blackmun in Roe v. Wade.
On the other hand, having a defensible position is not enough. It is incumbent on the pro-life side to start advancing some serious policy proposals that align with reality. It doesn't work simply to state as a principle that life begins at conception, and therefore abortion is murder. It is, alas, much more complex than that.
For example: excess human embryos are routinely produced and frozen during fertility treatments. Reliable figures of how many such embryos are currently on ice are not available, but estimates put the count at about half a million. If you are pro-life, what exactly do you propose to do with those? Are you going to start conscripting women to carry these "innocent babies" to term?
Even without modern technology, the thesis that life begins at conception is deeply at odds with reality: miscarriages in the first trimester are common. 15-20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and many more surely go unreported and possibly even unnoticed. Even God seems to be OK with killing babies as long as it's early enough. Then there's the fact that there are certain behaviors that increase the risk of miscarriage. Are you really going to start investigating every miscarriage as a possible homicide?
Abortion appears to be a clash of absolutes but it's not. There is quite a lot of common ground between the two sides. For example, everyone agrees that an hour or a day or a week or even a month before a baby is born that it's a baby, a person, and it's not OK to kill it. The debate is only over whether to draw the line between embryo-hood and person-hood at conception or somewhere else. And as I've noted above, drawing the line at conception leads to a lot of difficulties for which the advocates of this position seem to have no answers.
It is for this reason that I believe that being pro-choice is at the moment the only principled stand. Until those who argue that life begins at conception come up with acceptable answers to these and other questions (What about rape and incest? What about pregnancies that endanger the life and health of the mother? What about encephalitic fetuses?) the only principled position is to err on the side of the interests of the party whose personhood is not in doubt: the mother, and let her decide based on the totality of her circumstances.
Note that being pro-choice is absolutely not the same as being pro-abortion. No one is pro-abortion. To be pro abortion would mean that you advocate abortion as a good thing in its own right, and no one believes that. Everyone agrees that all else being equal the world would be a better place if there were fewer abortions.
Unfortunately, there are vested interests on both sides who benefit from the on-going conflict and so refuse to allow the fact that there is agreement to be acknowledged, because this would cost them power. The path forward is clear: ditch the extreme rhetoric on both sides, acknowledge the the issues are complex, but that there is a consensus that, all else being equal, reducing or even eliminating abortions would be a Good Thing. Then we can start to talk about how best to achieve that goal rather than vilifying each other as baby-killers or enslavers of women. It seems pretty clear to me (and I think it's clear to most people) that throwing women and doctors in prison for murder is probably not the most effective strategy. Providing them with better education and alternatives (like easy access to birth control) would probably work better.
Despite the fact that there exists a path to reconciliation, I prophecize that this war will continue for a good long while. Sometimes I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness.
(Interesting side note: as I went looking for links for the above I found this story all over today's news: scientists have successfully implanted human stem cells into pig embryos which were then allowed to develop for up to 28 days. What would be the status of these human-pig chimeras if abortion were made illegal, I wonder.)