Sunday, December 14, 2008

Planned Parenthood and pragmatism

Ross joins John Schwenkler in attacking the idea that Planned Parenthood is an organization that should be valued by the pro-life cause:
...that makes it sound like Planned Parenthood almost never performs abortions. Of course, the reality is rather different.... And even if they weren't massaging the numbers - even if their non-abortion business were enormous enough to make that three percent claim legitimate - they would still be performing more than 250,000 abortions a year. That's a 2, a 5, and four zeros....
In other words, the good Planned Parenthood might do in preventing abortions is outweighed by the evil they do in preventing abortion. Isn't there something missing in this equation, though? The people who are arguing that someone like Ross should value Planned Parenthood aren't saying merely that Planned Parenthood does good that should outweigh what Ross perceives as the evil in the abortions they provide. They're saying that Planned Parenthood, on net, prevents more abortions than it provides, from the massive amount of birth control, family planning and emergency contraception they provide. (Before you jump down my throat, please be aware that there is no evidence Plan B ever acts as an abortifacient.)

Now, you can argue with whether or not that's true. Unfortunately, we're talking about hypotheticals here. Ross can count up all the abortions performed by Planned Parenthood, while I can't ever know exactly how many were prevented by the birth control and education provided by Planned Parenthood. How would you even go about defining that? Every time someone has sex while using contraception provided by Planned Parenthood, would that count as a prevented abortion? If so, then Planned Parenthood's number of prevented abortions is orders of magnitude bigger than than the number it has provided. I imagine that Ross wouldn't define it that way. I think the number prevented is a lot higher, but it's unknowable. In this, supporters of PP are kind of disadvantaged in the same way that Conor says economic conservatives are disadvantaged: we can't ever know precisely the amount of good, only the amount of bad.

So I don't think Planned Parenthood is like Hezbollah, building hospitals here, murdering innocent Israelis there. I think, if you believe abortion is murder, it's more like a drug that inoculates against a plague, but kills some of the people who take it-- sometimes it's a killer, but many times it saves lives. (Uh, I think. I'm kind of on shaky ground with this analogy.)

Also relevant-- Ross is the same person who said that the politics of abortion is part of the art of the possible, and stated matter-of-factly that the goal of a pro-lifer is to be pragmatic and reduce the number of abortions in the United States, regardless of whether or not doing so was perfectly in line with pro-life philosophy or principles. So which is it? Is the pro-life cause's duty to lower the net number of abortions or not? If the answer is yes, I can't see how Ross can argue against holding his nose and supporting Planned Parenthood. That's what a pragmatic opponent of abortion's duty would be, and that's the kind of pro-life Ross asserted he was in that older post responding to me.

Update: Hmmm, well the last paragraph doesn't quite follow-- the way Ross could be both an abortion pragmatist and not support (whatever that means) Planned Parenthood is if, as I said was possible, he doesn't actually think they prevent more abortions than they provide. Which brings us back to the unknowability problem.

Update II: "Award-winning columnist, reporter, editor, author, bon vivant and raconteur" Robert Stacey McCain responds to me, or really, responds to my comments on John Schwenkler's response to me, so check both out. Worth saying that I didn't actually call myself a pragmatist; I don't think a fetus has human rights, so there's no conflict for me at all. I have just said, and will continue saying, that if those who are pro-life put on the mantel of pragmatics in the face of genuine philosophical or argumentative inconsistencies, I don't see how they can be so hard on Planned Parenthood. But then, this has been a deeply unhelpful conversation all around, so maybe we should drop it.

Incidentally, I think the problem with Robert Stacey McCain's position is the same one with the conservative position against sex ed: people enjoy having sex and are not going to stop anytime soon. Yes, I know that sometimes politics involves seemingly unlikely dreams; as you know, I'm a big believer in those things. But if I had to make a bet on which political aim was least likely to succeed in the near future, I'd probably go all in on "getting people to have less casual sex."


Dave Hunter said...

You seem to be missing that neither Douthat or Schenkler care if Planned Parenthood lowers the abortion rate. They only care that they perform abortions. If you ever do figure out how to count the number of angels on the head of a pin, they wouldn't care how your equations balance.

When these guys claim to be "abortion pragmatists", it's a smokescreen to cover up the fact that they very obviously don't believe in the high-minded principles they claim to be driven by.

John Schwenkler said...

When these guys claim to be "abortion pragmatists", it's a smokescreen to cover up the fact that they very obviously don't believe in the high-minded principles they claim to be driven by.

Huh? I sincerely don't understand. Isn't the problem that we believe in TOO MANY principles?

That first paragraph nicely sums things up, though - and again, pragmatism clearly doesn't mandate a willingness to compromise on EVERYTHING ...

James said...

That first paragraph nicely sums things up, though - and again, pragmatism clearly doesn't mandate a willingness to compromise on EVERYTHING .

Really? How can you tell? This is the problem with the concept of "pragmatism": it's meaningless. It amounts to the claim that your viewpoint is, ipso facto, reality.

Anonymous said...

It's worth noting that Ross is a pretty serious Catholic. I'm unaware of his position on contraception, but if he adheres to the Vatican line, that may change the moral calculus yet again. -K.

Dave Hunter said...

John Schwenkler;
My problem with a lot of pro-life argument is that it rests on the claim that human life at all stages has an equal value, and that we should enact laws that reflect an ethical requirement to not discriminate between born and unborn life.

But, I feel that, whatever the value of this claim, nobody actually believes it. Somebody who did would want to ban abortion in all situations, whether or not the mother had been raped, or her health was at risk. He'd want to ban in vitro fertilization, or at least the practice of creating a surplus of fertilized eggs. He'd want strict sentences to punish women who had abortions. Police investigations into miscarriages. Stuff like that.

I don't see anyone arguing for this slate, so I can only infer that nobody fully believes that we shouldn't discriminate against unborn life.

However, it is useful if the pro-lifer movement is seen to be founded on a vastly different conception of life from the pro-choice movement. So, the image is maintained. "Pragmatism" and "The art of the possible" are terms that let Douthat or Ramesh Ponnuru maintain the image that they believe unborn life holds the same value of born life, while never actually having to live this principle out in any remotely meaningful way.

My problem with Freddie is that though he's ostensibly pro-choice, he's so squishy about it that he ends up always having the argument on pro-life terms.

For instance, when he says that the pro-life worldview and the pro-choice worldview are so radically different that there's not much hope for a rational conversation between the two camps, he is conceding ground to the pro-life movement. He's buying in to their inaccurate self-representation.

In this last post, he's actually reinventing your arguments for you. He's even somehow managed to lose this debate to himself! Love the blog, but he's basically the pro-choice Washington Generals.

Jake said...

While we're at it, we should congratulate big tobacco on their efforts to fight teen smoking. I'm sure they have discouraged far more smokers than they have created. Hell, there's no way to know!

with due respect, I *hate* your "abortion as vaccination" metaphor because it picks up on a common but fatuous argument in support of abortion rights-- that abortions will occur, regardless of whether the law prevents them, so better to make them legal and safe than to drive the practice underground. the same argument can be used to support: legalization of all drugs, eliminating all restrictions on immigration, unfettered right to sell your own internal organs or your even your child, or any currently illegal product or service. allowing a practice because it is difficult to stop is allowing the inmates to run the asylum.

also, you didn't respond to ross' point that the numbers are misleading b/c PP divorced each abortion from abortion related services.

DH/anon- as a pro-lifer, i'd prefer you didn't assume that I hold other beliefs because of my position on abortion.

raft said...

from the linked post by John Schwenkler: "Now, you might argue that Jim should fire away, but from my perspective such a judgment would make you a moral monster."

jesus, it's a real-fucking live deontologist. how can you argue with someone who would let a billion people die because he's too pure to kill an "innocent"?

there may be nothing scarier in this world than true, fanatical moral absolutism.


Dave Hunter: the official position of the Catholic Church--1 billion adherents worldwide--is EXCOMMUNICATION for everyone who haves or performs an abortion. This is a slight step up from burning in hell but not by much. Goes without saying that the Church wants to outlaw contraception, in vitro fertilization, etc.

Don't mistake these guys: people like Douthat and Ponnuru are zealots. They only reason they talk about the "art of the possible" is because they don't have enough power to actually impose the doctrines the Church. But if they ever did, watch out!

BP said...

'But if I had to make a bet on which political aim was least likely to succeed in the near future, I'd probably go all in on "getting people to have less casual sex."'

Hahahahaha, right on.

James tell Rorty 'pragmatism' is meaningless. Indeed tell Obama, whom it helped become President.

The problem with Douthat's view is he doesn't care about the women. Therefore: we should ignore him.

Also how does he know whose taxdollars are paying for the organisation? Now that we have a liberal gov't and a liberal voting majority, PP is unquestionable Democratic. The only question is how to tag registered Republican taxdollars so they go to things like ... abstinence programs. Or the military.

BP said...


Anonymous said...

I am pro-choice, but your argument doesn't stand. I'm sure Douthat, et. al. would be happy to pass a law that would require that goverment-funded Planned Parenthoods use all of their funding for "abortion preventing" services, such as birth control, counseling, etc. I am sure that pro-lifers would be happy to accept a deal where all the money that previously went to Planned Parenthood would now go to an organization that would provide every service Planned Parenthood once did, save for abortions. If I don't like the politics of Curves, I will use the same amount of money toward a different gym. I am pro-gym either way. The pro-lifers oppose the necessity of linking those other services with abortion (as if you can't have one without accepting the other). It is possible to have one wiithout the other. Planned Parenthood chooses, rightly or wrongly, to provide both.

Dave Hunter said...

Raft, when I think of a "zealot" I imagine somebody who explicitly doesn't make political compromises, no matter the circumstances.

But, even so, the reason those hypothetical compromises take the shape that they do is that the vast majority of Americans have muddled, self-contradicting views about the death of unborn life, believing it to be okay in some situations, but not in others.

It seems to me to be more likely that Douthat and Ponnuru belong to this mass of people and simply affect their "pragmatism" to disguise the fact that they are not "zealots" (in your conception) or "principled" (in Freddie's.)