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Opinion | A Hard but Real Compromise Is Possible on Abortion

While essentially all abortion providers outside Texas offer their services to women in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, there is a sharp decline after that point. Roughly half of clinics don’t offer abortion by Week 15, the limit set by Mississippi. At Week 24, fewer than 10 percent of clinics do so. (The important exception is Texas, where providers were recently prevented from offering abortion after six weeks of pregnancy — though that law surely will not stand for long.)

Why have so many providers restricted abortion access in ways that are roughly consistent with the sensibilities of most Americans? And why have they continued to do so even in the face of decades of pressure from fellow pro-choicers to offer abortion on demand and without apology? Partly because providers share Americans’ moral intuitions. As a large body of research shows, providers usually dislike providing abortions at some point in the second trimester when the fetus becomes more recognizably human.

A good example is Dr. Susan Wicklund, a hero of the abortion-rights movement. In the face of death threats, she gained attention for going to work with a loaded revolver at the ready. Less noted was her decision to limit her practice to first-trimester abortions. Recalling her decision, Dr. Wicklund, who is now retired, wrote: ‘‘Seeing an arm pulled through the vaginal canal was shocking. One of the nurses in the room escorted me out when the color left my face.” She continued, “From that moment, I chose to limit my abortion practice to the first trimester: 14 weeks or less.”

In her willingness to face murderous abortion foes but not second- trimester abortions, Dr. Wicklund embodies our clashing impulses.

Anti-abortion groups have been less inclined to make such compromises, as Dr. Wicklund knows all too well. But that might change if Roe is scaled back to protect a narrower range of abortions and our legal regime shifts to a compromise like Dr. Wicklund’s — one that grants broad access to abortion in the first trimester but largely restricts it in the second and third. Despite the recent drama of the Texas abortion law, I suspect that in post-Roe America, the same moral intuitions that have long moderated abortion providers might eventually temper abortion opponents as well.

Since the pro-life movement coalesced, its most important mobilization tool has been images from second- and third-trimester abortions. They’ve emboldened countless activists, giving them the confidence that they are waging a war for basic human rights. Such images have been plentiful in the movement because Roe created legal space for a minority of specialists in late-term abortion, some of whom have been a thorn in the side of the pro-choice movement. Without such clinics and the images that leak out of them, it may be harder for pro-life leaders to sustain the moral passions of their movement — as well as the fiction that most aborted fetuses resemble newborns.

That conclusion is born out of experience. Movement leaders had an easy time rallying their base against “partial birth” abortion, but struggled to mobilize it against embryonic stem cell research. Like their pro-choice counterparts, pro-life activists simply can’t muster much feeling for embryos that are not recognizably human. And as any activist knows, it is emotions, not just principles, that make movements move.

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