Abortion and Democracy

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, May 31, 2019

[The above graph is borrowed without permission from this webpage.]

This essay is not about a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy but the impact of passing laws on abortion on our democracy. Right now, many states are passing restrictive laws limiting abortion or even trying to ban it outright. According to the latest Gallup polls, 29% of Americans want abortion legal under any circumstances, 50% legal under conditions, and 18% want abortion made illegal under all circumstances. That means 79% of the nation want women to have the right to choose to some degree, and 18% want to take that right away completely. It also means 68% of the country want to limit abortions in some way. And it also means 47% of the population occupy both extreme ends of the spectrum.

We’re living in times where politically active special interest groups can get laws changed, often against the majority’s will. Is that fair? Shouldn’t the laws in a democracy reflect the will of the majority?

We often teeter between extreme positions rather than compromises. Shouldn’t a law that demand absolutes be suspect? Having laws that demand no abortions under any conditions or laws that say abortions are legal under any conditions only make extremists happy. The same religious people who demand that there should be no exceptions to Thou Shalt Not Kill regarding abortions often make exceptions with the murder of adults – self-defense, war, capital punishment, law enforcement, etc. And if we asked the 29% of the population that believe abortion should always be legal about specific instances wouldn’t they make exceptions too?

It’s doubtful we can make laws that 100% of the population accept. But what percentage of the population should we aim to please to create a stable society? A simple majority leaves half the country unhappy. Even a two-thirds majority (66%) leaves one-third dissatisfied. A three-fourths majority (75%) to four-fifths majority (80%) should be our goal, but it’s doubtful Americans will ever agree that much.

I believe we should always work to have a minimum of a two-thirds majority. Right now, 68% of the population want some limits on abortion and 79% want women to have the right to choose. That suggests we could find a compromise that satisfies a large portion of the population.

Passing laws that only 29% or 18% want seems unethical, undemocratic, and oppressive.

Many believe that men should have no say whatsoever regarding abortion. But like I said, this essay isn’t about abortion, but democracy. Could we have voting by one gender only for a special issue, or restrict voting to a subset of the voters for unique voting situations? Should men have any say in women’s issues after hundreds of thousands of years of enslaving women? Or should democracy always be by all the people all the time?

The reason why we can have minority rule on certain legal issues is that special interest groups have played the representative political system to their advantage. It’s possible for millions to game the system when only dozens or hundreds pass the laws, even when those millions are a small minority of voters. I’m not sure that would be possible if we made decisions by referendums.

And even if we did decide by referendum, is a simple majority enough to maintain a stable democracy? I believe controversial laws should be based on a two-thirds rule. Although shouldn’t we really should strive for three-fourths compromises?

Is there a date after conception that 66-75% of the population would agree on where abortions could be restricted? We know that 18% percent of the population want conception as the cutoff. Ensoulment is a controversial issue, and religion and philosophers have been speculating about it since pre-history.

People who want the date of ensoulment to be at conception is base it on the idea that the soul exists, and there’s never been a shred of evidence that souls do exist, or that they come into existence at conception. This means a belief in a myth from ancient times by a small minority is being imposed on a much larger modern majority. Is that constitutional, democratic, or ethical? Our democracy is based on freedom of religion, but what happens when a religious belief demands that the entire population follows its beliefs?

The social conflict is between the rights of women to control both their bodies and their fate, and the freedom to hold religious beliefs. The extreme religious voters will not allow women to make their own moral decision as to when to have an abortion. This minority demands that 100% of the population follow their beliefs. This begs the question: When does a minority in a democracy have the right to decide for the majority?

Right now, because we have a representative democracy, an extremely tiny fraction of the population decides for the whole. We assume our political representatives are voting on laws based on what their constituents want. However, corruption has distorted representative democracy. Would a referendum system remove that corruption?

If the United States had a referendum on abortion how would it work? Up till now, referendums pass with a simple majority. But they often leave half the voters unhappy. Wouldn’t it be better to create referendums where we all try to find a compromise? Could we find a compromise on abortion that satisfies 66% of the voters, or even 75%? For example, would 75% of Americans agree on unlimited abortions for the first 12 weeks? (I’m not taking a position here, just an example.)

Too many voters are all or nothing with their opinions. Is it even possible to create a large consensus? Since the voters who want no abortions and the voters who want no restrictions on abortion are adamant and won’t compromise, and their totals equal 47%, that means there’s no way to reach a 66-75% compromise. Would some of them change their minds if they knew the 53% wanted a larger consensus? What if the laws of referendums demanded a two-thirds majority to pass a law? Are we to be held hostage by voters with extreme positions?

Representative democracy works well when our political leaders are wiser than the population. If you look at the history of our laws, it’s obvious on every issue the goalpost is always moving. We’re never satisfied with our final decisions. If we had a referendum democracy, we’d probably need to revote on laws periodically. Maybe once a decade, or generation. Could over time we learn how to compromise as a whole? To make group decisions that make a significant majority of voters satisfied.

Our current system has distilled into a political stalemate, resulting in a contentious polarized population. We need to work together to make each other happy. We need to let go of our extreme positions. We need to learn to compromise in the middle. There will always be extremists who think in black and white terms. We can’t let them rule us. I’m assuming 66-75% of the population aren’t extreme thinkers. That’s just a guess. If it’s true, we should find ways to work together.

JWH