I just watched Juno and heartily recommend it to one and all. Ross Douthat has also seen it, and waxes abortionistic:
And while Juno may not be moved by thoughts of her embryo's "hallowed rights," exactly, she certainly seems to be moved by the unremitting grossness of the abortion clinic . . . and more importantly, by the declaration, from a pro-life Asian classmate keeping a lonely vigil outside the clinic, that her child-to-be "already has fingernails." (Careful viewers will note that while Juno sits in the clinic, filling out paperwork, the camera zooms in on the fingernails of the other people in the waiting room.) . . .
None of this means that movie is a brief for overturning Roe v. Wade; far from it. But like Knocked Up, it's decidedly a brief for not getting an abortion.
I agree – and it’s a powerful brief too. But I think Douthat has the wrong audience in mind. He thinks the audience who most needs to digest Juno’s complex themes is the pro-choice camp. Perhaps, but I think Juno has more to say to the pro-life camp. Specifically, it illustrates why the pro-life movement would enjoy far more success if it made its peace with Roe v. Wade. (To avoid spoilers, I’ll focus on the argument rather than the plot of the film, which you should go see right now).
The fundamental problem is that the Roe debate is only tangentially related to abortion. Instead, it’s about penalties. More precisely, it’s about whether (and what) penalties are appropriate for having an abortion. For this reason, the linguistic labels of the various camps – pro-life and pro-choice – don’t reflect the essence of the political debate very accurately. One can, for instance, oppose abortion personally, while simultaneously opposing efforts to ban or criminalize it. The Roe debate then, stripped to its essence, is about allocation of power. Does the individual get the final say? Or does the state?
My “pro-life” friends have often asked why Roe supporters appear so inflexible. Why, they ask, won’t people at least admit that abortion is a tough issue. One reason is that some people simply don’t think it’s a tough question – they disagree with the premise that the embryo is “life” in a morally or legally relevant sense.
But I suspect most Roe supporters privately concede that abortion is a tough question (that camp includes me). The reason, though, that they hesitate to acknowledge it is because – within the current penalty-focused Roe debate – acknowledging moral complexity gives political ammunition to a political movement that seeks to ban and criminalize abortion. The potential penalties are so abhorrent that they are unwilling to give ground.
This latter camp, however, would be far more receptive to pro-life arguments if the debate shifted away from allocation of decision-making power to the merits of individual abortion itself. In other words, if progressives were convinced that individuals would retain the freedom to make such complex and personal decisions themselves, they would be more open to the arguments of the “lonely vigil.” Once progressives are convinced that teenagers will not be coerced by threat of prosecution to give birth against their will, I think pro-life advocates would be surprised how dramatically progressive attitudes would shift.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m for keeping Roe (on reliance/stare decisis grounds, not because I think it was originally correct). And I’m certainly not saying that abortion is a universally bad act. It’s not. It’s an individual decision that turns on an infinite number of varying circumstances – and one that should be respected.
But that said, it’s a tough issue. As a new parent, it’s difficult to articulate the depths of affection that I’ve felt over the past two years. For the lack of a non-trite word, parenthood is a beautiful thing. And given the number of parents longing for a child, I wish that more people would opt for adoption, so that others can experience what I have. But that said, I recognize that this option is not possible or desirable for many others – and I completely respect that. I also recognize that my situation is considerably different from, say, a poor 15-year old who lacks family support.
But getting back to the point, the pro-life movement would be more effective – i.e., it would persuade those inclined to be hostile to it – by turning from the political arena and instead focusing on individuals. The challenge should be not to bully people through draconian laws, but to persuade people on an individual level – just like the “lonely vigil” did. Yes, the risk is that abortion would still be legal. But by persuading (rather than coercing) individuals, pro-lifers would increase the size of their “camp,” and make in-roads into a part of the public that (to be honest) loathes them for their coercive efforts.
And let’s face it. The political efforts have achieved very little. Seven Republican justices couldn’t end Roe, and all signs point Democratic in 2008 (especially if Romney or Huckabee get the nod). More importantly, the political efforts to seek a ban have tainted the social conservative movement in the eyes of many progressives, and mainstream America more generally. People just don’t support abortion bans. In fact, the very idea of them frightens people. That’s why Bush wouldn’t say openly what he thinks about Roe v. Wade, while John Kerry would. (Same deal for rabid anti-homosexuality – among progressives, the latter is one of those “deal-breaker” issues that ensures that they will never support, or even listen to, the social conservatives agenda).
People like their freedom. Rather than fearing it and attempting to eliminate it, maybe the pro-life camp should try embracing it for a change.