Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Too Big to Concur?

Kavanaugh Burns Down His Home Just To Get It Over With
 —Headline on the satirical newspaper web site The Babylon Bee, June 24

Is the United States simply too big to hold together?

Americans, like most everyone else in the world, tend to take the size of their country for granted, but when you live for a while in a smaller country, you begin to notice things. For one thing, a national consensus seems easier to achieve.

For example, let’s take the abortion issue. Historically, Ireland was predominately Catholic, socially conservative country. Yet when social mores evolved, people went to the polls and voted to legalize the procedure through a change to the country’s constitution.

Is there any possibility something like this could happen in the U.S.? It’s hard to imagine, despite the fact that in the U.S. abortion could be legalized (or banned) nationally simply by an act of Congress. The cumbersome constitutional amendment process would not even be necessary.

One of the arguments for overturning the Roe v. Wade precedent was that abortion is mentioned nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. By contrast, the issue actually was addressed in the Irish constitution. That document’s 1983 Eighth Amendment said, “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

Four years ago Irish voters repealed that amendment, making it possible for their elected representatives to legislate on the issue. That was seen as a huge victory for women’s abortion rights. Ironically, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling, America is now in the same situation as Ireland (abortion being a legislative matter), but because of the different context, it is seen as a setback for women’s abortion rights.

Upon the Eighth’s repeal, Ireland’s government promptly legalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. That’s pretty standard in Europe. The UK and the Netherlands permit the procedure during the first 24 weeks, and Sweden 18 weeks. Other countries range between 10 and 14, except Malta, where abortion is outlawed altogether, and Poland, where it’s allowed only in the case of rape, incest or saving the mother’s life.

Ireland’s law actually matches fairly closely the general U.S. opinion. Polls have consistently shown Americans favor legal abortion during the first trimester but not in the second or third ones. So why doesn’t Congress or state legislators simply put that into law? Why does the public debate always seem to be conducted between those who either want abortion banned entirely and those who want it guaranteed until the day before a baby’s birth?

Simply put, it’s hard to compromise when your position is tied to your core beliefs about humanity. If you truly believe a zygote has a human soul, then you’re going to consider its elimination murder. That makes it a public matter. If you believe that a woman’s physical autonomy is paramount, then you’ll conclude the fate of a zygote, embryo or fetus is a concern only for the woman carrying it. That makes it a private matter.

How do you reconcile public policy when society is divided between those two world views? Obviously, it happens because we can see that democratic countries, like those in Europe, arrive at legislative solutions—and as it happens, ones not so far off from the polling in the U.S. I mentioned.

Here’s the rub. The overall national opinion in America is not uniform in every geographical sector. Some states already have very liberal abortion laws on the books, while others have laws (old and new) that ban the procedure. (Some of the so-called trigger laws may possibly be revised since Roe’s revocation is now a reality and not merely theoretical.) So, is that the solution? A patchwork of abortion policies decided (ultimately) by the voters in each state? That may satisfy people who look at the issue with a certain legal detachment, but it does not make people happy who have strong beliefs in the human values mentioned above. Living in a state with an abortion policy you agree with is small consolation when people just across the state line have the opposite situation.

To a certain extent, the same is true about how people feel when talking about national borders—but there may be more detachment in that case. I don’t think, for example, Germans fret about the lack of abortion rights in Poland in quite the same way that Washingtonians think about the situation in Idaho. Washington and Idaho, after all, are part of the same country.

Or are they? I mean, in a cohesive, social sense? That brings me back to my original question. Is the U.S. too big to contain its diversity of world views and human values? It all comes down to how strongly people are tied to certain beliefs and how motivated they are to defend them—or impose them on others.