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Is abortion on the way out?

If Roe v. Wade was intended to resolve the question of abortion in American law, it failed miserably. More than 45 years after the Supreme Court decision that (together with a companion case, Doe v.  Bolton) effectively legalized abortion on demand in the United States, the abortion wars rage on. Far from settling the matter once and for all, Roe turned abortion into perhaps the most unsettled subject in American politics.

Public opinion is as conflicted as ever. Asked by Gallup whether they consider themselves pro-choice or pro-life when it comes to abortion, Americans split right down the middle. Only a narrow minority (29%) of the public thinks abortion should be legal under any circumstances; an even narrower minority (18%) thinks it should be banned in all cases. A large majority of Americans consistently says that Roe should not be overturned. Yet large majorities also support specific restrictions on abortion, such as a 24-hour waiting period, parental consent before a minor can have an abortion, and requiring that patients be notified about the risks of, and alternatives to, abortion.

Had the Supreme Court in 1973 left the making of abortion policy up to the states, it is likely that the political process would long ago have muddled its way to a compromise that would have satisfied enough voters to remove the issue from the spotlight. But by yanking abortion away from legislators, the Roe majority more or less guaranteed that Americans would continue fighting about it. It certainly polarized the two parties. Republicans became officially and explicitly antiabortion, writing language into their national platform that proclaims the inviolable right to life of the unborn and endorsing a constitutional amendment that would ban nearly all abortions. Democrats became adamant defenders of abortion on demand, with their platform taking a hard line against any limitations at all. Most of us now take this political distortion for granted: The Democrats insist that Roe is sacred and mustn't be tampered with, while the GOP blasts it as rampant judicial activism, overdue for overturning.


Now state legislatures are pouring even more fuel on the abortion bonfire.


In New York, a new law signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo codifies abortion rights through all nine months of pregnancy, and eliminates the legal duty to provide standard medical care for babies born alive after a botched abortion. In Virginia, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam endorsed a similar measure (since tabled), using language so blunt as to imply support for infanticide: If a mother goes into labor with a late-term fetus that has “severe deformities,” Northam said in a January interview, “the infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

Bookending such pro-choice abortion absolutism is the pro-life absolutism of new laws just passed in Alabama and Georgia, which would effectively outlaw abortion in both states. Unless you’ve spent the last couple weeks in a bathysphere deep in the Marianas Trench, you know how deafening the media-amplified din of protest against the Alabama and Georgia laws has been. You probably also know that neither law is going to take effect, since they will promptly be challenged in federal courts, which will — in deference to Roe — instantly enjoin the states from enforcing them.


To be sure, some pro-life activists hope that the new laws will eventually end up before the Supreme Court, and that the five conservative justices will use them as a vehicle to overturn Roe. “The sponsors of this bill believe that it is time, once again, for the US Supreme Court to revisit this important matter,” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said when she signed her state’s law on Wednesday, “and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur.”

Conceivable? Maybe, in theory. Likely? Not at all. As Stephanie Mencimer explained in Mother Jones, the Supreme Court rarely agrees to hear a case when there is no disagreement among the US Circuit Courts of Appeals. And no circuit court will uphold any of the new state laws outlawing abortion, since Roe v. Wade requires that they be struck down. Mencimer writes:

[T]hese laws are unconstitutional. The legislators know it. Federal judges know it. That’s why they’ve consistently and repeatedly struck down such bans — even conservative judges, who have conceded that as much as they hate Roe, they are still required to follow it as Supreme Court precedent. The legal record on this front is so universally settled that last November, a federal judge struck down Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban and asked in frustration, “Why are we here?”

If a majority of Supreme Court justices is inclined to revisit Roe, it has other and better cases through which to do so, some of which are already in the SCOTUS pipeline. The most recent “heartbeat” laws change nothing. They merely guarantee that the shrill hostility of our abortion debates will grow even shriller and more hostile, and will stay that way right through the presidential election next year.


It is interesting to speculate on how abortion law would have unfolded in America if the Supreme Court had never intervened in the first place. If not for Roe, observed Megan McArdle in The Washington Post, a center-right nation like the United States would not have ended up with one of the most liberal abortion regimes in the world, and 50 million unborn babies would not have been aborted over the past half-century.

Maybe you think that would have been a good thing. Maybe you don’t. Whatever happens with abortion law going forward, however, it seems clear that 50 million unborn American babies will not be aborted in the next half-century.

In the Bill Clinton era, liberal Democrats used to say they favored making abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” But “rare” was dropped from the Democratic platform in 2012, and leading Democrats now argue explicitly that no stigma should ever attach to ending a pregnancy through abortion. And yet the practice is, gradually but unmistakably, becoming rarer, while the conviction that most abortions are morally wrong continues to be widely held.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2018 that abortion hit its lowest rate since the Roe decision in 1973: 11.8 per 1,000 women of childbearing age (15 to 44), a striking drop from the early 1980s, when the abortion rate approached 30 per 1,000 women. The decline can be attributed to numerous reasons, including broad use of contraceptives and delayed sexual activity among young people. And there is an added reason: a change in attitude toward abortion itself among millennials and post-millennials, who have grown up in a world in which vivid ultrasound images show babies in the womb, and in which miracles of neonatal medicine make it possible for even babies born very prematurely to flourish.


“Young Americans — voters under 30 — were once the most gung-ho in support of unfettered legal abortion,” I wrote in 2015

In 1991, fully 36% believed abortion should be legal under any circumstances. But by 2010, 18-to-29-year-olds had become more pro-life than their parents — only 24% still wanted to keep abortion legal in all cases.

In a more recent 2014 PRRI survey, 52% of millennials said they “personally” considered abortion to be morally wrong, while just 36% called it morally acceptable. They have never known a time when abortion wasn’t legal, yet they have not grown up indifferent to the thorny moral and ethical qualms involved in destroying a healthy unborn baby.

Vox, the liberal website, recently asked a group of thinkers to answer the question: “What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?” Abortion, answered Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University. Gazing past the current skirmishing, she argued that Americans of the future will look back on elective abortion as “primitive and cruel” — much as we now look back on slavery and racial segregation as shameful aspects of our history.

Falling abortion rates reflect, at least in part, “a growing inability to deny . . . the insuppressible personality of the child in the womb,” Prior wrote. “Abortion is becoming less necessary and less desirable,” a trend she sees reflected in everything from the declining number of doctors willing to perform abortions, to the popularity of “extravagant gender-reveal parties,” to the emphasis on providing more flexible options for women in the workforce.

Every age has its blinders, constructed, usually, through a combination of ignorance and self-interest. Many things such as bloodletting and wet nurses that are seen as good or indispensable in one age are unthinkable in another.

Our modern-day willingness to settle for sex apart from commitment, to accept the dereliction of duty by men who impregnate women (for men are the primary beneficiaries of liberal abortion laws), and to uphold the systematic suppression of sex’s creative energy and function are practices that people of other ages would have considered bizarre. As we enter late modernity and recognize the limits of the radical autonomy and individualism which have defined it, the pendulum will correct itself with a swing toward more communitarian and humane values that recognize the interdependency of all humans.

When we do, we will look back at elective abortion and wonder — as we do now with polluting and smoking — why we so wholeheartedly embraced it. We will look at those ultrasound images of 11-week old fetuses somersaulting in the waters of the womb and lack words to explain to our grandchildren why we ever defended their willful destruction in the name of personal choice.

Maybe she’s wrong. But with the American abortion rate drifting ever lower, I wouldn’t bet to heavily on it.

The retreat of American racism

For Martin Luther King Day in January, I wrote a column that sketched an optimistic picture of race relations in the United States.

Its main point was that, although we are constantly bombarded with reminders of the racial tensions and unfairness that still exist in America, racism is no longer the deadly cancer on our society that it once was. Over the past 50 years, racism “has grown steadily less toxic and less entrenched,” I wrote. “King predicted confidently that America would surmount its benighted racial past, and his confidence was not misplaced.” I offered a variety of data to illustrate the point, such as the change in public opinion on interracial marriage: In King’s day, Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of blacks marrying whites, while in our day, Americans overwhelmingly support it.

“None of this is to claim that racial ugliness has vanished outright, or that racial concerns can be safely ignored,” I concluded. “It is to claim that despite the occasional eruption of racist hatred or cruelty . . . the American people are far removed from the bigots of yesteryear.”

Somewhat to my surprise, that column set off — at least in some quarters — a storm of ridicule, anger, and indignation. I was bombarded with tweets and emails informing me that I must be deluded or blind or an outright bigot if I could imagine that racism in America isn’t every bit as corrosive and entrenched as ever. I was reminded of all the ways in which black American citizens experience worse outcomes than nonblacks — many of which were laid out in a Boston Globe Spotlight series last year.

Yet I am hardly the only observer to remark on the improvement in race relations in America. In a 2014 interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, President Barack Obama was asked if the country is “more racially divided than it was when you took office six years ago.” The president answered without hesitation. “No, I actually think that it’s probably in its day-to-day interactions less racially divided,” he said. There may be a perception to the contrary, he acknowledged, but that has more to do with the media-driven focus on particular events, “like Ferguson or the Garner case in New York.”

All of which I bring up by way of calling attention to a recent article in The Economist. The socially liberal newsmagazine noted (as I had) the contrast between the steady drumbeat of worries that race relations are getting worse — and the actual data that confirm they aren’t.

“More than a decade after America elected its first black president, fears of worsening racial tensions are palpable,” the essay began. It cited a Pew poll’s findings “that 58% of Americans think race relations are ‘generally bad’ and 45% believe it has become more acceptable to express racist views since Donald Trump was elected president.”

But those impressions, however sincere, are mistaken, as The Economist explained:

Over the past ten years, racial biases have become less pronounced in America. It is possible that its citizens are more tolerant today than they have ever been before.

America has faced two major barriers to racial equality, one of them legal, with slavery and racial discrimination at its core, and the other psychological. The first of these walls was mostly knocked down with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevents employment discrimination on the basis of race, though struggles against racism remained long after. A harder-to-solve barrier to fairness is the prevalence of bias against non-whites.

Researchers call known attitudes — such as agreeing with the statement “I think black people are lazier than whites” — explicit biases, and hidden beliefs — such as unintentionally associating African-Americans with fear or evil more often than whites — implicit biases. Both kinds are a problem. Scholars have found that implicit biases impede impartiality in the education system, for example, and can cause police officers to stop black drivers for no good reason much more often than white ones.

In gauging the extent of such biases, we don’t have to rely on hunches and anecdotal evidence. They can be measured scientifically. The Economist cites the work of Harvard University psychologists Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji, who analyzed millions of results from a test of biases called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. “The authors found that implicit biases based on race have decreased by approximately 17% in a decade. They also found that explicit biases have declined by an even-larger 37%.”

Why such a noteworthy decline in racial bias? Or as Lincoln might have put it, why have more Americans been touched by the better angels of the nature? Charlesworth suggests that commentary by pundits and politicos about improving racial tolerance might play a key role. “The more times we talk about trying to change an attitude,” she hypothesizes, “the more likely we are to succeed in actually doing so.”

At all events, the diminution of racial bias has produced a host of positive changes:

Housing patterns show some of the clearest signs of thawing attitudes. Whites are steadily moving into predominantly black neighborhoods in search of lower house prices. The share of non-whites in suburban and rural areas is increasing too. Pew’s data show that the share of Republican-aligned Americans who say the country needs to do more to ensure equal rights for blacks and whites climbed from 30% in 2009 to 36% in 2017. That shift is even more pronounced in the Democratic Party.

Unfortunately, as this racial improvement has taken place, racial politics have gotten worse. The American electorate has grown more polarized by color. “As high-school-educated whites have abandoned the Democratic Party, racial identity has melded with political preferences,” The Economist writes. But, it cautions, this does not mean that support for Trump is motivated by racism, as many on the left would like to believe. Even among white voters who say they identify more with whites, Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina has found, testing does not show high levels of racial bigotry.

Bottom line? “America has become politically polarized along racial lines. America has not become more racist.” That’s good news, even if some people can’t bring themselves to see it.

Herman Wouk, RIP

I hope you had a chance to read my personal reminiscence of the author Herman Wouk in the last edition of Arguable. I didn’t intend to bring him up again, certainly not so soon. Alas, America’s oldest living literary treasure passed away in his sleep on Friday.

When he turned 100, Wouk published his final book, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author . Here are a few lines from its epilogue on the subject of death:

The view from 100 is, to this centenarian, illuminating and surprising. With this book I am free: from contracts, from long-deferred to-do books, in short, from producing any more words. I have said my say, done my work. At 30, I was retiring from the USS Southard, an old destroyer-minesweeper, to go ashore claim my bride, and set out for fame and fortune. She was six years younger and irreligious, but she took on my Judaism with me. She saw me through most of my hundred years. . . . In general, I am rather a head-in-the-clouds fellow; Betty Sarah, beautiful and deep, with an unshakably level head, saw me through the multifarious temptations and traps for a writer in publishing, theater, and films. Her lifelong task done, she left me at 90. I will join her in God’s good time, to rest on the other side of our firstborn son, Abe [who drowned in a swimming accident when he was 5].

God’s good time came just 10 days short of Herman Wouk’s 104th birthday. May his memory be a blessing.


I was off last week, but my May 7 column took a look at the outbreak of panic among some Democrats that when Donald Trump’s term as president is over, he will somehow find a way to cling to power and stay in the White House. I pointed out that anti-Obama zealots said the same thing about the 44th president, and so did anti-Bush partisans about the 43rd. Nowadays, conspiracy-mongers right and left always find reason to worry that the incumbent will refuse to step down when his term is up. But no president has ever stayed past his expiration date. If Trump loses his reelection bid, he won't either.

Site to See

Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are alluring islands of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to one of these online treasures.

Here’s a humble website for those days when everything seems to go wrong and you need reminding that blunders and fiascos have value too: The Museum of Failure [URLs: https://failuremuseum.com/ and https://museumoffailure.com/]. Managed by Samuel West, a psychologist in Sweden, the museum is a collection of more than 100 failed innovations meant to teach the lesson that the acceptance of failure is necessary in order for innovation and progress to succeed.

The online museum is slight but entertaining. Short texts and amusing videos will introduce you to (or remind you of) such classic commercial duds as the Hawaii Hula Chair, Coca-Cola BlāK, Bic’s “Her” line of pens for women, Colgate Beef Lasagna — and perhaps the most renowned product flop in American history, the Ford Edsel.

My favorite in the Museum of Failure collection is something I’d never heard of until discovering this site: the Rejuvenique Facial Toning Mask. This is the description:

This beauty mask tones facial muscles with electricity. According to the instructions, the mask should be strapped onto the face for 15 minutes, three to four times a week. Linda Evans, the woman on the package, is an American television star known from the Dynasty series. In Rejuvenique’s instructional film, she congratulates the owner for their exciting purchase and ensures them that it is a good investment. However, according to one user review, the mask “feels like a thousand ants are biting my face.” The mask seems to be taken straight from a horror movie. Also, the device was never safety approved.

“If Plan A doesn’t work,” reads a sign at the Museum of Failure, “the alphabet has 25 more letters.”

Recommend a website for this feature! Please send me the link and short description ( jeff.jacoby@globe.com), and put “Site to See” in the subject line.

The last line

“Well, nobody’s perfect.” — Some Like It Hot (1959)