September 20, 2022
"This has nothing to do with concern for babies. It has to do with power over women." The second sentence (from a letter to the New York Times) is clearly true, the first sentence is demonstrably false – just talk to some of those passionate, committed women on the picket lines outside abortion clinics. Their concerns may be sentimental, biologically incoherent, and often rooted in an unquestioning religious faith, but they’re genuine. What purpose is served by blurring them to nothing but a rigid patriarchal intent? Or does the rhetoric of power become a mechanism for erasing them from the debate altogether?
"The Republicans don't give a hoot about what happens to an unwanted baby after it is born. They don't give any thought to a young woman's life being entirely derailed by a forced birth." Also demonstrably untrue. Witness the various organizations and people devoting time and resources to pregnancy centers that purport to supply pre- and post-natal care to mother and child. These efforts are pathetic, inadequate, stupidly idealistic, and have next to no useful political backing. But they are part of the complexity of the people who are committed to the anti-abortion cause. Why deny it?
Kathryn Janus, the letter writer I've been quoting, ends her piece "If women don't turn out in droves to vote these people out, then we deserve what we get." She is surely correct about that and her anger is surely a much better motivator than my musings about the worldviews of the heartsick women tramping around outside the abortion clinics harassing other women who are likely even more heartsick than they.
Why does it matter to me? Surely any political strategist would school me on the necessity of crisp and compelling messaging. But I'm not campaigning here. I'm trying to understand why people believe the things that they do, particularly when those beliefs are so contrary to my own.
That the sole intent of the anti-abortion movement is to exert control over women has been a standard rhetorical trope for decades. Certainly the image of elderly white guy politicians piously declaring that they know best what should be done for all women in all cases exemplifies this. And perhaps it’s only these politicians that Janus has in mind when she rails against “the Republicans” (but I hope she’s not forgetting the very many women who echo them). Maybe she’s not thinking at all about the rank-and-file who actually make up the movement. But if it weren’t for the muscle, the voices, and the boots on the ground provided by those who are passionately devoted to protecting the innocent babies, those politicians wouldn’t have anyone they’d feel the need to pander to.
There’s a little more traction to the claim that the anti-abortion forces don’t care what happens to the babies after they’re born. Let's say they don't seem to care enough. In the wake of Dobbs there was a brief flurry of articles by anti-abortion activists about the need to expand pre- and post-natal care and to do a better job of providing safe alternatives to abortion, but those people are a faint minority within the movement. Their efforts are hamstrung by the fact that marshaling the resources required to do those things well conflicts with conservative anti-government views. It’s one thing to use government to make abortion illegal, it’s quite another to use government funding to expand financial assistance to poor women. So the efforts that exist are community and church based, without sufficient financial backing, and rife with manipulation and deceit. Judge Coney Barrett’s belief that all these unwanted babies can be happily adopted may be grotesquely ignorant of the facts and those pregnancy centers may provide just a pale shadow of the support that many pregnant women actually need, but some degree of worry for the well-being of mother and child is undeniably a part of the psychological complexity of those who would still willingly force both into lives of misery and regret.
Why do these nuances matter to me? Is there any practical benefit? The immediate, practical need is to motivate enough people to get to the polls in key races to insure that the Senate, at least, remains in Democratic hands after the midterms. Lindsey Graham’s ham-fisted attempt at pandering was a welcome gift, highlighting the dangers that a Republican majority in the Senate will bring. Surely nit-picking about the varied motivations driving those in the anti-abortion movement is a waste of energy and effort?
But I don’t seem to be able to help it. It’s not that I think recognizing and acknowledging these complexities will lead to some tactical advantage in the fight. Maybe even the opposite – if we grant that some of our antagonists are motivated by other desires than simply crushing women, does that make it harder to get the voter turnout that, at this particularly critical moment, is the thing that matters most? We don’t need to change anybody’s minds (at least in the short run). Poll after survey after poll after survey consistently show that the majority believes that abortion must remain available. Protecting that right isn’t a matter of persuading the electorate; it is entirely a matter of getting people out to vote.
Nonetheless, there is something corrosive in burnishing away the complexities of the arguments of our political opponents. It might feel like clarifying the issues, cutting away the extraneous material and getting to the heart of what’s most important. The abstraction creates a clearer target, one that’s easier to strike. But it’s not the truth. We demean those we disagree with when we turn them into caricatures and we weaken the force of our own arguments. I'm not willing to go there. I’m not trying to understand those people because I think that’ll make me feel more kindly to them. I just want to see things as they really are. So I cringe when I read pieces that engage in that over-simplification. Those on the right and the far right and the fringe right have always been so good at demonizing their opponents through caricature. How can those on my side of the fight justly revile those excesses if we fall into them ourselves?
The inescapable dilemma of the abortion question is the lack of a shared understanding of what moral and legal rights the fetus has and how those rights develop during the period of fertilization to birth. The anti-abortion forces, in their aversion to ambiguity, have decided that those rights are fully inherent from the moment of conception. Dilemma solved. But there is at least as much logic and science and history in the position that those rights are not fully in place until birth (or at least, viability). In the absence of any consensus about which of these views is “correct”, the state has to stay neutral. It may not be the most comfortable position, but it’s the only one that obeys the principle of not privileging one particular religious or ethical point of view. That this is completely unacceptable to those who “know” in the core of their being that the zygote is a full human being is no surprise. They’ve simplified all the ambiguity out of their position. It leaves them no choice but to act as they do.
Insisting that the issue is entirely one of maintaining power over women is an equivalent simplification. It scrapes away the difficulties around handling competing rights in a secular society. Those complexities make the pro-choice position a challenging one. In every individual case the choice to have an abortion requires making predictions about likely futures, balancing rights and potential outcomes. It’s serious stuff, very different from the satisfying simplicity of those who claim to be pro-life. It’s not always a difficult decision – often the circumstances make the right choice very clear. But whether she agonizes over it or not, the choice requires a series of judgment calls that have to be made in full consideration of the impact that the decision will have on the mother and everyone in the mother’s orbit. Only she has the ethical standing to make those calls. When the state interferes, it takes a side, imposing the frightening moral certainty of the abortion foe. The ethics of our Constitution demand that we resist. Fortunately, most Americans agree. Now those same ethical imperatives require that they vote. If not, as Janus writes, "then we deserve what we get!"
Thanks, Scott for an intelligent look at the topic. I'm "pro-choice" but find it so easy sometimes to characterize those who have opposing views (on this and other topics) as totally wrong and totally concerned with power. Thanks for reminding me that people usually have complex reasons for their views.
Posted by: Melissa Nasea | September 24, 2022 at 01:20 PM
Thanks. I think it's worth struggling with. I'm always trying to get a better handle on what's really going on in the minds of people who have views so fundamentally opposed to my own. Most people believe that they're doing "the right thing," even when it's something that causes pain to other people.
Posted by: T Scott | September 24, 2022 at 06:36 PM
First let me disqualify myself by saying that I'm an old white male and have no right to tell a woman what to do with her body. I also consider myself very liberal and hue to the "party line" on most issues including abortion.
BUT I confess to some sympathy to the rank and file prolife people, maybe because I grew up in a house where my mother lectured on the immortality of abortion on a daily basis. These people see it in exactly on a moral plane in the same way the abolitionist saw theirs.
Further let me quote my ex- father-in-law who was a Obygyn MD "I believe in abortion but I don't do them because I find them disturbing." If you had to look at the actual aborted fetus wouldn't you?
In addition to the upsetting fact that the fetus looks an awful lot like baby is the issue of medicine continuing to extend backwards the time period where it is viable outside the womb. The truth is that from conception to birth there is no bright line where it becomes a human. Few reasonable people would consider a newly fertilized egg a person, but at 12 weeks, 15? 20?
Posted by: John Mertz | September 30, 2022 at 01:13 AM
John -- thanks for the comment. There are, of course, millions of people who do believe that the newly fertilized egg is a person with full human rights. Many of the new anti-abortion laws are explicit about this. Your comment suggests that you do not think these people are "reasonable", which, I suppose, depends on how you define "reasonable".
Certainly the reality of an aborted fetus may be disturbing and upsetting, but the long thoughtful literature on human rights would suggest that basing those rights on the degree to which a fetus resembles a baby may not be sufficient.
You're right that if you disallow the moment of conception, there is no bright line to bring comfort to the decision to abort. That ambiguity is very hard for people to deal with. But the only way to eliminate the ambiguity is to stick with the moment of conception. And that ultimately requires a religious basis for giving the zygote full human rights.
Posted by: T Scott | October 02, 2022 at 05:18 PM