News here of a new drug with the cutesy name "Ella", that is being hailed as a new "morning after" pill--that is, a pill that a woman can take in the days (in this case--five of them) after unprotected sex to create an "inhospitable" atmosphere for any for potentially dividing cluster of cells, otherwise known as a "zygote" or a "blastocyst" depending on how soon after fertilization one discusses it. Some refer to this mass of cells as a "human being", but we'll drive past that one for the now.
This new drug is already available in 22 countries, and there is a likelihood that it will soon be introduced here. "Plan B", which works in a similar manner, is already available here without prescription. If the FDA finds "Ella" (gag) to be safe, then I am for its introduction into the American pharmaceutical regime, and here's why.
Abortion is a terrible thing, a tragic thing. Yet we are a nation of laws, and under our laws, it is legal. Its legality however, in no way diminishes its tragedy.
Yet--here we are, nearing forty years since Roe v. Wade, and as ridiculously ruled as that case was, it remains in force. I think a rational look into the future would reveal that it is unlikely to be overturned. It does not matter that an increasing number of Americans call themselves "pro-life". What matters is the percentage who would support Roe v. Wade being overturned--and that is not anywhere near a majority.
So we are left with a dilemma--a country that increasingly finds abortion to be distasteful and horrific and a great moral tragedy--though there is little stomach to dispense with the legal framework that protects it. The great symbols of the Pro-Life movement--in utero videos, abortion clinic protests, revealing the evil of "partial birth abortion" to those who simply don't know--are meaningful and help stoke the fires of what often appears to be an insoluble debate. This is where drugs like "Ella" and "Plan B" come in.
Some Pro-Lifers would suggest that at the moment of fertilization, a being is created entitled to all the protections the law would extend to that entity outside the womb. This is--I believe--an extreme position--and I use that term only to describe its distance from a "moderate" position--it is not a value judgment. It is this group for whom even drugs like Plan B and Ella are as evil as partial birth abortion. To them, a four day old proto-human is as worthy of legal protection as a six month old fetus. Morally--I agree with this view; that is, philosophically, either a human is formed worthy of protection at fertilization, or such protection essentially means nothing. Why not three months? Why not six months? If the dividing line is the womb itself, isn't that just a little too confining? I mean, in the grand scheme of things, it isn't a big step to suggest that a partial birth abortion on an eight month old fetus is just a stone's throw from tossing a newborn in the dumpster.
But this isn't only a moral of philosophical question. It is also a legal and political one, and this is where the search for compromise takes me. Yes---in a late-night dormroom conversation or a dinner party throwdown--I could make the case I just did--that abortion is a pre-echo of infanticide--but I would invariably run up against the continuing inconvenience of Roe v. Wade. Plan B and Ella offer a useful "compromise" to those who remain open to it--the possibility of shuttered abortion clinics, the elimination of angry crowds shaming women who are already in a fragile state, the neutralization of fetal videos showing fingers and toes and lips and noses.
I realize there are some in the US for whom contraception of any kind is anathema--these people will not be part of reaching compromises on this issue that ultimately remove it from the political stage. The overwhelming majority of Americans support a woman's right to pre-emptively prevent pregnancy through the use of hormones ingested as oral contraceptives or through the skin. It seems to me that the use of similar chemicals to prevent a zygote from attaching to the uterine wall--is not demonstrably different from the pre-emptive use of such chemicals. Yes--to those who see conception beginning at fertilization EVEN AS A LEGAL AND POLITICAL ISSUE, this is unacceptable. But for the rest of us who are able to make this distinction, the act of a woman ingesting a pill to prevent a pregnancy (not fertilization--they appear to me to be different--the distinction being the attachment of the zygote to the uterine wall) OF WHICH SHE IS ALMOST CERTAINLY NOT AWARE is not fundamentally different from the act of preventing that pregnancy through oral contraceptives. In this similarity lies a path to compromise, a path in which a woman's "choice" really is a choice between her and her conscience, one that does not involve the rest of us (through the need for abortion clinics and the concomitant desire to protest them). Of course, the wide availability of such drugs would not eliminate the "need" for abortion clinics, but it seems quite clear that "abortion" as we know it today would dramatically decrease.
There are no easy or perfect answers here--there are just less bad answers. It seems to me that Plan B and Ella are less bad answers, and the sooner we are able to accommodate them into this debate, the sooner we'll be able to remove abortion as a divisive and insoluble issue from the political discourse.