Showing posts with label abortion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label abortion. Show all posts

Monday, April 19, 2010

abortion and circumcision

I have written at great length about circumcision in the past, so I don't want to go on too long here. I just want to make one point.

I have read, from other opponents of routine circumcision, analogies between the pro-choice position on abortion and the anti-routine circumcision stance. This is a natural enough connection for me, as I fall into both camps, but I am very leery of this kind of equivalency. Political situations are always individual and idiosyncratic, and so political discussions of various issues always have to unfold according to their own internal logic. Analogizing issues like circumcision and abortion too closely invites distortion of each, and people have (understandably) various sensitivities about political "turf." So I would caution anyone against making this kind of comparison too easily or in any kind of comprehensive way. However, there is one set of shared principles that I think are worth looking at in these issues, a facet of each discussion where the political and moral reasoning seem close to identical, to me.

You occasionally will hear from opponents of abortion who wonder what the big deal is about carrying a baby to term. They can't imagine why doing so is seen as such an imposition on the woman. (Lest I be accused of engaging a weak man, this is of course not the only or primary argument anti-abortion advocates use.) Now, to me, such reasoning is entirely unconvincing. I can imagine all kinds of ways that carrying a pregnancy to term is difficult for women, and have read many first-hand accounts from women on just how difficult pregnancy can be. Likewise, I can imagine many ways in which having a baby can be socially or economically crippling to a woman, even if she plans on giving the baby up for adoption.

But the truth is, it doesn't matter what is apparent to me, or convincing to me, or what I can read or understand or imagine. It doesn't matter. What matters is that I respect the right of women to make that choice for themselves and their bodies. I can't inhabit the life of another person, particularly someone of another sex, and so I can't meaningfully understand her choices. I don't have to, to support her right to choose. I only have to recognize that some of the most elementary human rights are the rights to be sovereign other ones own body. Me, personally, I'm compelled by arguments about how hard having a baby or supporting a baby can be. Doesn't matter whether I am or not.

This is where the one similarity to circumcision comes in, and it's important. Often times, in this debate, you encounter people who take it as self-evidently absurd (and, often, funny) that anyone could be emotionally invested in the presence or absence of foreskin. You get these dueling sets of evidence, about STDs and penile cancer, and about pleasure reduction, etc. To me, trying to convince people empirically that the foreskin is important is exactly the wrong way to go about having the argument. Because just as with a pregnant woman and her choice, it is absolutely immaterial that anyone else be able to understand why a man might feel one particular way about his foreskin. It really doesn't matter if anyone on the Internet can be convinced about his feelings. It only matters that we recognize that it is his body.

This is complicated, of course, by the fact that circumcision, unlike abortion, almost always happens to infants who are incapable of choosing or understanding the choice. (Which is interesting.) Unlike some who are opposed to routine circumcision, I can't go so far as to advocate taking the decision away from the parents; parents have to be responsible for the medical decisions of their children, and circumcision remains a medical procedure. But I do strongly urge parents to really think about it, and to give strong weight to the fact that the infant is a human being with a human being's ownership of his own body. Many people seem to circumcise their infant boys out of a vague sense that it's just what's done, not out of religious conviction or appeal to the (seemingly negligible) health benefits for those in the developed world. That seems to me to be a terrible imposition on the right of the child to control his own body, without much justification at all.

And, remember-- the procedure will always be available to him. If he gets to be an age where he notices and cares about the fact that he is uncircumcised, he can always have the procedure performed. If he does, it will be his choice.

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."

Monday, December 8, 2008

compromise is a two player game

James talking with Ross and Conor about Ross's op/ed about abortion:
These seem to me to be suggestive of a single complaint — that even pro-choice Republicans should admit that Roe and Casey are bad law and should be overturned on that constitutional ground alone. Then this kabuki dance of substitutive/transitive cultural cues could be dispensed with, Republicans could reclaim ‘being pro-choice’ as a prudential disposition about which reasonable people can differ in a constitutional democracy (instead of a conviction about the character of abortion as a quasi-human right), and Mitt Romney could pivot movement conservatives away from Palin once and for all.
Uh, what if pro-choice conservatives think (gasp) Roe and Casey are valid law? The central notion that underpins the entire pro-life compromise discussion is that it is simply an article of faith that Roe and Casey are badly decided. But that's not a universal opinion by any stretch of the imagination. Saying "well, if we could just throw out Roe and Casey we could have a conversation about abortion compromise" is like saying "well, if we could just throw out the Second Amendment, we could have a conversation about gun control compromise." Internally consistent statements that nevertheless have little salience for real life.

And the operative question is, why on earth would pro-choice people feel compelled to compromise on anything now? After the most glaring and demoralizing defeat of ideology that supports the pro-life cause? As Ross admits in his op/ed, the chances of Roe and Casey being meaningfully challenged went from slim to very slim on November 4th. This conversation centers around the prerequisites for a "grand bargain" style compromise when the pro-life side is in absolutely no position to negotiate. Ross's hypothetical situation where the pro-life base might compromise has become kind of irrelevant, if you don't mind my saying so. It's someone talking about the conditions in which his movement might compromise, if things break just the right way, while his newly emboldened and empowered opposition goes about the business of advancing its own agenda. The time for conservatives to compromise on abortion was when they held the Presidency, the congress, and were remaking the courts. But, of course, it's the nature of politics to want to act triumphantly in times of ascendancy, so that probably couldn't have happened.

Update: The more I think about all this abortion compromise business, the more it becomes clear to me that this is a simple case of people being upset that they don't have the kind of consensus support they need to effect change they want. Well, look, there's plenty of changes liberals would like to make if we could gin up the support for it. We could abolish the electoral college, which benefits conservatives beyond their numerical support. We could tie Senate seats to population instead of rewarding low-population states like Wyoming with the same number of Senators as California, which does the same. Can't do it, though, because we lack the kind of broad majorities that are required to make that kind of change. Same thing with outlawing abortion. I understand the pro-life side is very passionate. But you lack the kind of broad public consensus necessary to outlaw abortion. I'm sure that's frustrating, but that's the American system.

The whole "nobody voted on it" argument is just a dodge. No conservatives agitate against the Supreme Court case overturning the DC handguns ban, no conservatives agitate against Brown vs. Board of Ed (anymore), few dedicated Republicans complain about Gore vs. Bush. If you want to change the entire court-review system of enforcing constitutionality, that's a project you can start, but when you apply that complaint completely arbitrarily based on the political content of individual cases, you make your argument a joke.

Friday, November 21, 2008

every once in awhile a protest poem

Throughout this abortion debate that I've been taking part in off and on, this poem has sprung to mind. I have no idea if the author was actually thinking of abortion when he wrote it. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. I think it's beautiful and sad, and at once captures the sadness and the necessity of abortion. Your reactions will be different than mine.

I've taken pains to argue that I don't think the "abortion is murder" line works, really, and to point out ways in which many who say so don't actually follow that thinking through to its natural ends. There's a flip side to that, though, that I think has been batted around endlessly (like everything else in this debate): how can we reconcile a belief that a fetus has no rights with a feeling of sadness towards abortion? If a fetus has no rights, and its termination represents no crime, how can someone like myself feel that an abortion is still an unfortunate and unhappy occasion? It's a thorny question, though not an intractable one. For now, all I can do is consider it in the spirit that abortion is far from the only issue in which we look for the least bad choice. I'll think hard for us all.


Traveling through the Dark
William Stafford

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Roe and other democratic decisions

In the comments of this post, James says
The issue is less of the expressions of grievance and more of the way in which those expressions are treated politically. The excess of the left is to say that the simple expression of grievance makes the political treatment a foregone conclusion. But this is to be cashed out as the despotic exercise of political power by fiat. Whereas I am inclined to agree, Freddie, that the purpose of democracy is to “take time” turning the wheels of politics, instead of shortcutting by automatically granting goods, services, rights, whatever to whomever voices a demand for them. Probably it should mean something significant that me and Conor and you and Andrew and plenty of other people with wildly diverging takes on, say, the marriage issue all conclude that the best or proper way to politically treat the grievances expressed is through the actual practice of democratic politics — and at the state level, too, right?

James is, presumably, talking about the complaint that the courts short-circuit the democratic process. This is a classic argument about Roe: not just that it reached the wrong decision (though most arguing this believe that) or that it was poorly argued (ditto), but that it was anti-democratic, because it legalized abortion nationwide without using the democratic process. That's a very popular point of view, even among some who are pro-choice, but it's wrong, and crucially wrong: the use of the courts to resolve disputes is a part of our democratic process

How did we arrive at a system where individuals and groups could challenge the state to have certain rights recognized, or to be enfranchised into preexisting categories of rights? It was created during our constitutional conventions, where the progenitors of the American system determined how our civic governance was going to run. In other words, it is a function of democratic process, and thus the outcome of court proceedings are themselves the products of democratic process. True, the process which created our constitution was of limited democratic value. But if we want to start questioning that process, we might as well tear the whole damn thing down. Meanwhile, we live in a country with a democratically produced system to adjudicate claims for equal rights, which refers to democratically produced state and federal documents which enumerate such rights.

Consider the gay men and women in Massachusetts who sued for the right to marry, based on the claim that they were being denied equal rights enshrined in the state constitution. The complaint immediately rang (often from places nowhere near Massachusetts, natch) that this was an undemocratic change of the law, because the voters or legislature didn't vote on it. Hogwash! The system of grievance-resolution-through-judiciary is a part of our democratic system, and one very few people want to do away with. The Massachusetts state constitution, meanwhile, is a document produced, ratified and amended according to democratic procedures. The decision was the process of a group of judges, sure. The fact that they had the authority to decide this complaint was the product of democracy.

Now let's consider Roe v. Wade. Again, a standard complaint is that the ruling was not the product of democratic process. In this instance too, though, we've got a document in our constitution that was democratically designed, ratified and amended, and the Supreme Court ruled that the constitution has an implied right to privacy which protects the right to an abortion. Now, you can argue that was a terribly decided case, and many have. But it's not "undemocratic". It's the product of a system created by democratic process. We don't have the ability to reformulate every procedure of democracy whenever a controversial issue comes up, so we use the processes we already have, even if they sometimes leave us with decisions we don't like.

Note, also, that's it's not like there's no recourse for those who are opposed to abortion. There's another democratic process that they could attempt to use to get rid of Roe: they could amend the constitution. Yet that's not on the table, and why? Because proponents of such an amendment know that criminalizing abortion isn't possible, politically, in this country, and likely won't be anytime soon. Outlawing abortion just isn't a popular enough position. That means it's like many other policy preferences that don't enjoy enough support to be codified into law. That's democracy. In a more radical vein, you could do away with the court system as a way of refereeing disputes entirely, but there are many reasons why we disconnected the judiciary from direct influence by the people in the first place.

People can and should still argue against decisions they dislike, of course, but I think that saying that court decisions are undemocratic is really just pretense, a way to lend a special sense of illegitimacy to court decisions you don't agree with.

Monday, November 17, 2008

compromising on murder

Ross delves into my problem with abortion compromise.

In the broader sense, he's right that everyone seeks compromise to solve their pet political issues, of course. There's nothing wrong with that. I don't quite think the way he's framing it makes sense, though.

The problem with his analogy, I think, is that even people who are deeply committed to providing health care for everyone don't take that dictate to be as important as "don't murder, or let other people murder." As a matter of fact, preventing murder, it could be argued, is the number one responsibility of a civil society. Again, this is the problem with the rhetorical maximalism of the pro-life mainstream. It's not just agitation against abortion rights. Regarding abortion as plain and simple murder is a mainstream position within the pro-life cause. The phrase "holocaust of the unborn" is not some fringe affectation, and indeed would be pretty apt, if indeed abortion is murder. So, yes, I think incrementalism makes sense for health care reform in a way that doesn't make sense in preventing a holocaust. Unless, of course, you don't really think abortion is the same as murder. (The fact that so many who are pro-life are resistant to prosecuting the mother or doctor for murder suggests that may be the case.) But I imagine Ross doesn't see things that way.

Update:
In a similar vein, I don't quite understand believing both a) abortion is murder and b) let's leave it up to the states. Would even the most ardent federalist not support a national ban on murder? We famously (and at great cost) declared one limit on federalism to be the right to traffic in human lives; slavery was simply too great an evil to be up to the will of individual states. Is widespread murder not a similarly great evil?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Here's something you should never do: try to think out loud about abortion on your blog, and attempt to reconcile difficult feelings and interior conflicts in a way that is open about your confusion and doubt. The results will not be pretty.

Yes, I should have used "person" instead of "human", initially, and that caused confusion. I stand indicted. My position, eviscerate it though you may, is that if a fetus is a person, a human person, then it has the rights of a person, and can not be aborted except when not doing so threatens the life of the mother. But I don't believe a fetus is a person; I believe life begins at the moment of birth, though my justification for that belief is necessarily going to be unsatisfying for others, as it is largely a product of what seems like common sense to me. Despite all the faux incredulity and scoffs from commenters public and private, I don't believe anyone has anything other than the same justification of assumption and first principles to disprove me. Additionally, I could easily have been wrong about whether or not life beginning at birth is a popular position or not. It's not the last time I'll ever be wrong. If that's a problem, you can adjust your RSS feeder accordingly.

I make no claims to being good at this. I do not have perfect certitude about abortion, and if that is disqualifying, then so much the worse for me.

The pro-choice blogger's goddamn name, by the way, is Freddie. OK, John and Ramesh?

Friday, November 14, 2008

you know what we don't talk about enough? abortion

Ramesh Ponnuru has responded to me at the Corner.

There's been some confusion here, and it's my fault. I've been using "human" when I should be saying "person". So while I don't think that the fetus is some different species than human, I also don't believe that it's a person. (Additionally, I think a case can certainly be made that a developing organism that has not been born, or perhaps is not viable, is not in fact a member of that species in a meaning relevant to our discussion.)

Here's the bigger problem: "The virtue of using conception as the dividing line, in my view, is not so much that it is non-arbitrary as that it is, well, true."

That's certainly been in keeping with the tenor of the comments, where (in a gratifyingly civil conversation) many people have been making conflicting statements about what's just true, or about what's self-evident, etc. That seems to be a recurring theme in our abortion discussion. To some people, abortion just is murder. To others, a fetus just isn't a human person. To some, the fetus just has rights. And on and on. All of these things are not only true, to the people who believe them, but are self-evident. So what Ponnuru finds obviously true I find obviously untrue. The debate over abortion is also marked by people claiming to have found the magic bullet, some definition or evidence-- usually scientific-- that, to them, solves the debate, once and for all. The problem is that these notions always end up begging the question somewhere or other. When someone says "See, we detected these kinds of brain patterns at this fetal age, therefore this baby has a consciousness, therefore you can't abort it after this point," they think all of that flows logically. But someone else says "Brain patterns don't really differentiate consciousness, and anyhow consciousness doesn't mean you have adult rights." And so on. Scientific answers are constantly being proposed to ethical or philosophical question. Sadly, we can't use science to get us out of this mess.

I think the postmodern concept is useful here. First, I think that here we may have arrived at true incommensurability. This divide might not be solved. Second, I think we would do well to jettison notions of truth and instead operate according to principles of pragmatics and use. Without a transcendent authority to tell use where personhood begins, or whether personhood entails an absolute right to not be aborted, we aren't going to get at the truth about whether or not abortion is moral. There is no truth about abortion, only what various people think about the issue, and so we should attempt to craft a pragmatic vision of abortion that is necessarily dependent on appeals to popularity. This is bound to be unsatisfying. No one is particularly moved by appeals to popular consensus-- "slavery was popular, too!"-- but in the end, that's what will rule the day. Not to say you don't argue with the consensus. I'm more sympathetic to late-term abortion than the average person. But I think we should give up on magic bullet answers to the question of abortion. Too many committed and honest people have too many inherently contradictory notions about what is "simply true" for me to have faith in any objective truth about the morality of abortion.

Monday, November 10, 2008

the final word on Douthat and Kmiec (I think)

John Schwenkler responds on abortion and the GOP.

Here's the thing: the reason why I find the pro-life position more extreme (aside from the rhetoric) is that it's long been pro-life orthodoxy that a fetus is a human being. Now, that language is explicitly stated in the Republican party platform literature. To me, the question about abortion (and it is a philosophical and moral question, not a scientific one) is whether or not a fetus is a human, and thus deserving of human rights. If the answer is yes, I could never in good conscience support abortion, outside of specific circumstances when carrying the child to term poses significant risk of killing the mother. Not even in cases of rape or incest.

I remain a staunch supporter of abortion rights, however, because I don't believe a fetus is human. I can imagine, however, a compromise position from someone who doesn't believe that a fetus is human; it seems to me much easier for someone who believes that to compromise in the direction of more limitations on abortion, than for someone who believes that a fetus is human to compromise on more permissiveness regarding abortion. I'm just profoundly unmoved by pro-choice arguments that assert the human-ness of the fetus. So it just seems to me that there is greater moral and rhetorical space for the pro-choice side to compromise given our stance on the fundamental question. In order to attract more socially-liberal voters, meanwhile, pro-life conservatives don't have to stop thinking life begins at conception. But I think they do have to stop making that a fundamental litmus test of whether someone is conservative or serious or not, which seems to me to be precisely what Douthat is doing to Kmiec. I guess compromise isn't the right word. What I'm really looking for is less constrictive definition of who sits at the table, and I think it's important to point out that there are some pro-life Democrats who hold seats of real power in the legislature.

But, you know, Schwenkler is probably right, and there just isn't much room for compromise at all here. I do think that's more of a problem for the pro-life party than the pro-choice one, however. It really seems to me that the GOP's seemingly inflexible stances on abortion, gay rights and similar plays directly into the notion of the Republican Party as a restrictive and intolerant organization. Then again, I'm pretty deep in the bubble, so I could be wrong.

Douthat vs. Kmiec continued

Ross pushes back against those who think that he was wrong not to better engage with Doug Kmiec.

Personally, I'm less interested in anyone playing nice with one particular thinker than I am in the GOP recognizing that the Republican Party platform, and Republican party orthodoxy, hold extremist views on abortion that are hurting them with the moderate electorate. Now, I find this position entirely consistent with their rhetoric: if we really are having a Holocaust of the unborn, if every abortion really is murder, then an extreme response is necessary. But that's not the way most Americans seem to feel about abortion, which is that it's a profoundly sad but sometimes necessary practice that should be legal early on in the pregnancy and then more harshly restricted the closer to birth you go. I think it behooves reformers like Douthat to consider whether the extremist option on abortion is politically self-defeating, and if it would make more sense to pursue a compromise position-- particularly given the inability of Republican dominance to produce the kind of law on abortion they'd desire.

Friday, November 7, 2008

GOP abortion reconsideration

I think Ross Douthat buried his lede in this (uncommonly harsh) takedown of Douglas Kmiec. I'm really taken aback, when reading Ross's piece, when he just casually drops this in there: " I understand that the pro-life position on abortion does not command majority support in the United States".

Well!

That seems like a pretty weird line to leave orphaned out there. Look-- guys like Doug Kmiec are trying to figure out how to advance the Republican party agenda, and the pro-life agenda, in the face of this unpopularity. Because the pro-life agenda, as it's been constituted for a long time, isn't working. The Republicans have had the Presidency for eight years, they had the legislature for twelve, they held both at the same time for six. The anti-abortion lobby has had some real victories in that time. But it's an extremist lobby, forever invoking terms like "murder" and "holocaust of the unborn". Broadly speaking, the anti-abortion lobby wants extreme restrictions in turn. And it just doesn't look like that's gonna happen. Large majorities of Americans, with appropriate provisos, believe in a legal right to abortion in the first two trimesters. Americans don't appear to tolerate anti-abortion legislation without exceptions for rape and incest or for the health of the mother. This election, harsh restrictions on abortions were rejected, by broad margins, in states that are ideal places to advance the pro-life agenda.

I think guys like Doug Kmiec are trying to recognize the difficulty of building the Republican coalition when the GOP seems dominated by anti-abortion extremism. He could be wrong about the way to engage more of the electorate without totally compromising on abortion, and his thinking could be counterproductive to both limiting abortion and growing the Republican electorate. But I hardly think that invites the kind of opprobrium Douthat has for him.

I guess Ross's anger towards Kmiec is just the natural frustration a lot of us feel, when we support policies that place us in a small minority, and we feel passionately about them, and we have no realistic avenue to put those policies into place. The problem is, the extremist anti-abortion lobby has become the mainstream in the Republican party, and somewhere along the line they convinced themselves that their policy preferences are popular. That's a notion they seem to have a very hard time questioning. And that instransigence, it seems to me, has become a major drag on the GOP. Pragmatic questions about how the GOP's position on abortion has to change for the party to move forward have to be on the table. A reformer like Douthat is going to have to get used to that, no matter how sure he is about what the right thing is.

Update: In the interest of not burying my own lede-- my read of the situation regarding the GOP and abortion is that the Republican mainstream has convinced itself that the pro-life agenda is very popular in this country. That just doesn't appear to me to be true, and the seeming refusal of many in the Republican Party to consider that, I think, is a genuine problem for the country.

Thursday, October 16, 2008



No one has perfect internal consistency within all of their political views and policy preferences. I certainly don't. That said, I don't understand people who claim to want to get government off our backs who then turn around and would use the power of government to force women to have children that they and their doctors have decided to abort.

Update: Alan Jacobs and Paul point out that, if you think that a fetus is a person, it's no more inconsistent than allowing police to prevent murder. Which is true. It's just that, in my opinion, the fetus most certainly is not a human being.

That's really the crux of the debate, and it's a true binary. Which is part of the reason why, as much as I want a less polarized and more congenial public political discourse, on abortion, there really isn't a middle ground, regardless of what Obama thinks. At least, there's no middle ground on the central moral issue within abortion.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Congress after Roe

Brendan Nyhan makes an understandable error. He criticizes the Obama campaign for saying that John McCain would "make abortion illegal" by appointing conservative judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade. And fair enough; it's true that abortion wouldn't become illegal immediately after Roe was overturned.

But Nyhan goes on to say

In that case, the issue would be returned to the states, who would each create their own abortion policies through the legislative process. The odds of McCain successfully passing a constitutional amendment to create a national ban on abortion are zero -- there is simply no way he "will make abortion illegal"

That's one thing that could happen, it's true. But another thing that could happen would be for Congress to pass a nationwide ban on abortion, without the need for a constitutional amendment. Nyhan is wrong to think that, even after Roe was overturned, Congress would require an amendment banning abortion. Once you've removed the constitutionality obstacle by overturning Roe v. Wade the Congress can pass a law restricting abortion anyway they want to. And passing a regular bill is much easier than passing a constitutional amendment. Do I think either will happen? No, I imagine if Roe v. Wade is overturned that some states will ban abortion and some will not, and the affluent from the states where abortions are illegal will just fly to a legal state or country and get the procedure done, and the poor will get their insides mutilated by unlicensed abortion "clinics". Just like before Roe v. Wade, abortion would remain wholly accessible for the rich; the danger would fall on the poor.

Do I think Nyhan is right that this ad is a little disingenuous? Sure. But he is wrong about the constitutional amendment thing, and when you say "Civics 101" in a post you are inviting a little (gentle) counter-point.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

better off unborn?

This isn't really relevant to any particular post, but I had a conversation the other day that included an argument in favor of abortion rights that I don't buy.

Does anyone wish they had been aborted? I'm sure some tiny number of people genuinely do, and I'm sure many angsty teens claim to. But I occasionally hear something along the lines of "it would be better for some children not to be born into a broken home/drug den/abusive family/etc. etc." Well, look-- I do think that the pragmatic realities of the kind of parents and family situation a potential child is going to be born to are legitimate concerns when considering abortion. In fact, I think they are the paramount concerns. But surely those concerns must be about what is right for society and the people who are already here. I'm not saying you can't argue that an individual situation is unsuitable for child-rearing. But when it becomes a straightforward appeal to what's best for the child, or what the child would want, well... would you rather have been aborted? For those of us not suffering from mental illness, the self-preservation urge is quite powerful. And while the appeal to never being born isn't quite identical to the appeal to death, they're similar enough.

To be clear, I fully support abortion rights, and I acknowledge that this is sort of a straw man. I think though that it's a rather common kind of thinking to wander into, and I don't think it stands much scrutiny.

Incidentally, I'm not one to add that "I favor a woman's right to choose, but with restriction" disclaimer on to everything, in part obviously because I don't really favor any restrictions, but in part because I think those tend to be an unexplained dodge. What kind of restrictions? In how many cases? And, most importantly, how do those restrictions follow from your larger philosophy regarding abortion? I think people tend to say things like "No abortion after the third trimester", and I think the reason is that it's seen as a compromise position. But I find that weird. If you believe that life begins at birth, that a fetus becomes a person at birth, then I don't see how you can believe that at 7 months terminating a pregnancy is worse than doing so at 4 months. Right? If the belief that abortion is moral is founded on the notion that the fetus is not a person, then that belief is true at 6 weeks or 16 or 26.

I suppose some might conceive of a "life begins at viability" argument, where a fetus gains human rights when it becomes viable. But of course, it would be a nightmare to adjudicate, and the right to life would become deeply fickle, dependent on factors like the mother's health and habits during pregnancy, the quality of medical care available, etc.

No, I don't think that many of the restrictions on late-term abortions make sense if you proceed from the assumption that life, and human rights, begin at birth. Which, by the way, seems an essential element to being pro-choice. If a fetus is a person I don't see how you can end that life, no matter what the appeal to pragmatics and societal cost. That's part of the reason why it's so important for pushback against the pro-life question begging about whether a fetus is a person or not. Too often, pro-life people baldly assert things like "of course a fetus is a person". Well, that's exactly the question at hand. Whether or not a fetus is a human or not is the foundational issue of the disagreement.

By the way, for awhile it seemed that the argument du jour for the pro-life set was to assert that legislating that life began at birth was essentially arbitrary, as a baby born much earlier than it's expected due date can live a normal, healthy life. And, in a sense, it is indeed arbitrary to say that life begins at birth. But that's only to recognize that all of the law is a series of arbitrary decisions. For having 19 hits of a drug, you get 6 months in prison. For 20 you get 3 years. Have sex with someone a day before her sixteenth birthday in some states and you'll go to jail; have sex the day after and you won't. We make seemingly arbitrary decisions because life is complicated and we need to establish set rules in order to have a functioning judiciary. And as far as arbitrary distinctions go, defining life as beginning at birth is a pretty good one, with a long tradition.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

more birth control, fewer abortions

On a simple pragmatic level, I find people who are opposed both to birth control and abortion deeply confusing. If you want to limit abortions in a country where they are (for now) legal, it seems to me you have two options. One, get people to limit the amount of sex they have. Two, get people to utilize effective birth control when they have sex so that the amount of unwanted pregnancies go down. Now, I'm not one to suggest that the only goals we should aspire to are ones that we can actually accomplish. But it certainly seems to me that, if you aren't opposed to sex in general and simply want to prevent abortions, it's more likely that people are going to adopt safer sexual practices than give up sex altogether. I know I'm hardly the first to make this point, but it seems that Planned Parenthood has probably prevented many more abortions than they performed, given their distribution of birth control and family planning advice. I mean if you're so animated by abortion that you call it a "Holocaust of the unborn", as some of said... shouldn't you be going door to door distributing condoms?