Commentary

On abortion, we’re learning civic engagement again

August 30, 2022 7:00 am

Anti-abortion and abortion rights activists line up on the Indiana Statehouse steps on July 25. (Whitney Downard/ Indiana Capital Chronicle)

This is how civic engagement is supposed to work. Indiana took one path on abortion, Kansas another – though their demographic and political profiles are similar.

Other states will move down different paths still, or stay where they are for a while, serving either as cautionary tales or as examples to be followed by legislators and voters elsewhere. Indiana and Kansas likely will take up the issue once more themselves, since many of their people will insist on it.

Things already are complicated and will get much more so. Good.

Where abortion in the 50 United States is concerned, public opinion matters again. Debate matters again. Politics matter again. Fifty years in judicial limbo left us with atrophied legislative muscles and poor understandings of the problem. As a result, the U.S. stands well behind the rest of the world in figuring out a way forward on an issue that demands widespread civic engagement. 

Small numbers of disproportionately vocal people – the ones most visible in chat forums and other social media – believe that abortion is beyond public opinion, debate, and politics. Almost nowhere on earth, however, does that belief prevail – least of all in the liberal-democratic countries.

The patchwork of abortion laws globally is worth a look. Across cultures, political systems, and religious traditions, most countries regard abortion as an agonizingly complex moral and legal standoff between protections for unborn children and protections for the women who carry them to birth. These societies look for guidance to their philosophers, religious leaders, scientists, and people who have considered and experienced abortion personally – and in return they receive complicated, evolving, non-monolithic responses. It is not easy or simple.

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These complicated matters, on which good and experienced people disagree, cannot be resolved by dictates from on high. Abortion and similar issues must be grappled with at society’s ground level. In the U.S., our “ground level” is the states – a built-in set of policy-political laboratories.

If you are among the millions of Americans who care about abortion, then prepare for your share of disappointments. Only a few states will position themselves at the poles of abortion on demand throughout pregnancy or exception-free bans of the practice. The rest may start out in one direction only to pull back once that pesky stuff of public opinion, debate, and politics come into play. 

Indiana demonstrated the pattern already, as a first mover. The legislative debate and testimony around SB 1 was complex, comprehensive, and serious. The path to the pole was not taken. Many Hoosiers clearly believe that SB 1 goes too far, nonetheless, while others regret that any pullback occurred. In such cases, we can express ourselves in the many peaceful and effective ways encouraged in a free society, and work to influence our representatives to reconsider the law. We can encourage the many private organizations that work, appropriately and legally, to offer alternatives for women across the range of their attitudes about abortion. We can vote.

Corporations can express themselves, too, though perhaps they would be wiser not to. Their leaders know what is tightly protected in their own heads and hearts about abortion. They know that the strident views shared in chat forums and town hall meetings do not represent the attitudes of most of their employees, let alone their customers. So, there may be an unused set of muscles to be tested in C-Suites as well. Instead of picking winners on non-business matters, perhaps corporate leaders should encourage viewpoint diversity, debate, and civic engagement on the part of their employees – who are the actual voters, after all.

Public opinion, debate, and politics are good things – and not just on abortion. These things are the stuff of societies that want to remain intact and free, and it is high time that we practice them again broadly in America: 

  • The people who disagree with me are not evil or stupid; they might even have something to teach me. 
  • The defeat my side just experienced does not mean that all is lost; we will have another chance, with new information and fresh arguments. 
  • No one is better off if I flee my neighbors or the entire state over a political setback; they need me here more than ever.     

“Agonizing” does not begin to describe it at times. But this is how it is supposed to work. 

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Gary Geipel
Gary Geipel

Gary is an Indianapolis author as well as a communications consultant with professional experience in the biopharmaceuticals industry and national-security research.

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