Thomas Reston: Abortion Has Always Been a Difficult Question for Democrats

Narration: On January 17, 2017, New York State passed the Reproductive Health Act. The act amends the public health law regarding abortion. With a medical professional’s “reasonable and good faith judgment,” the Act permits abortions when “the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, or there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”

However, New York’s new law does not explicitly define “health.” In the Doe v. Bolton case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “medical judgment may be exercised in the light of all factors — physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age — relevant to the wellbeing of the patient. All these factors may relate to health. This leads people to think any of these factors could be used as a valid reason to abort a moving and feeling baby.

When asked on a radio program what happens when a woman is going into labor who desires a third-trimester abortion, Virginia governor Ralph Northam said that in this scenario, “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.” He also noted that this kind of procedure only occurs in cases of severe deformities or nonviable pregnancy.

Simone Gao: New York passed a law to allow potential abortion of a moving and feeling baby. Virginia governor Ralph Northam said a baby could be aborted after being born. Where are you in all of this?

Thomas Reston: Well, this question of abortion is a very difficult one for the Democratic Party. It has always been a difficult question for the Democrats to come to grips with. And I think it is now reviving again because of the change in the composition of the justices on the Supreme Court. There are many people in this country who now believe that the Supreme Court might actually overturn Roe vs. Wade, which is the national Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion throughout the United States. In my judgment, I think it’s unlikely that the Supreme Court is going to overturn its precedent legalizing abortion. I think most people in this country want to keep abortion rights, but they might want to cut back on the circumstances where abortions are available, ever so slightly. But as people on both sides of this debate become more afraid that the Supreme Court will do away with Roe vs. Wade, I think both the conservatives who are against abortion and the liberals who favor continued abortion rights in each of the states where they have the political majority, they are trying to get the state legislatures to either enact more restrictive abortion laws or less restrictive abortion laws than Roe vs. Wade might have allowed. And therefore, I think you’re going to have a renewed debate about it in the United States now.

Simone Gao: Abortion to me goes beyond politics. I wonder how people really feel about it. Do you believe an unborn baby has the right to life? I mean, an unalienable right to life?

Thomas Reston: You know, I think people are troubled by this. I think people on all sides of this debate, in the privacy of their own hearts, are troubled by it. And I think you find all kinds of odd polling results about it. For instance, I’ve seen polling figures that indicate that, of all the communities in the United States, Latinos are the most opposed to abortion. And yet the statistics show that the Latino community in this country is the heaviest user of abortions of any of our ethnic communities. So I think there’s a lot of deep grappling going on among individual Americans about the morality of this question. And I think in trying to reach a resolution to it, I think all Americans should be trying to understand and be more sympathetic to those on the opposite side of this debate from them rather than snarling at them and calling them names and essentially making everybody dig in even more than they’re already dug in.

Simone Gao: I agree. We need to listen to both sides. But for each individual, when a decision needs to be made, you can’t accommodate both sides. So it comes down to whether you think the mother’s right to choose how to live her life is more important than the babies’ right to live. Which one of the two is more imperative?

Thomas Reston: Well, you see, this is the problem with the debate. And I’m not—this—both of these sides of the debate have a strong moral claim: the right of the unborn child and the right of the mother to decide whether she wants to carry the baby through or not. It gets down to the rights of individuals that come into conflict.

Simone Gao: When you have to choose, which one is imperative?

Thomas Reston: Well, as a matter of where Americans are these days, I think most people in the Democratic Party would say to you that they believe, ultimately, under most circumstances, not all circumstances, but under most circumstances, certainly in the early part of a pregnancy, it is the mother’s right to choose which should predominate over the other side of the debate. Toward the end, I think that’s a different question. It becomes more and more troublesome for people to sort out that question toward the end of a pregnancy. And I don’t think the Supreme Court is going to wind up overturning Roe vs. Wade, but people are uncomfortable with it. And I think Democrats ought to listen to their opponents about this and realize that there are legitimate moral questions about abortion.

Simone Gao: Do you think this law will hurt or help the Democrats?

Thomas Reston: I can’t really answer that on a nationwide basis. I think, again, what is happening is people are afraid that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned. And I think in various different states people are trying to get ready for that. And in states which are very pro-abortion, I think you might see a loosening of rules. And in places where people are very much against it, I think you might see a restricting of the rules on abortion, if Roe vs. Wade is overturned. But as I say, I don’t believe that it will be overturned. And I think the vote of Mr. Chief Justice Roberts yesterday indicated that he is very cautious about moving the Supreme Court too far in the direction of overturning Roe vs. Wade.