Hilzoy and Megan McArdle have had an exchange over abortion, which includes, as these discussions always do, a ton of talking-past-each-other. This tends to happen, because anti-choicers tend to ignore the pregnant woman, and put all their attention on the well-being of the embryo (and my friend John B., a member of George Tiller’s church, has a great post showing how this framing of the issue has influenced our national discourse on abortion). Pro-choice advocates are focused on the pregnant woman’s rights, and have diverse views on the moral status of an embryo. This results in one person trying to talk about the woman’s right, and the other hectoring the first about the embryo. No one resolves anything because, at the end of the day, anti-abortion activism isn’t about abortion or choice or women or embryos. As Slacktivist elegantly lays out, it’s about political power and the advancement of a broad theocratic/politically conservative agenda.

Slacktivist points out the simple proof of this point. The opponents of abortion, from the occasional picketer to the committed ideologue on TV, claim that “abortion is murder,” analogize Dr. Tiller to Joseph Mengele, refer to abortion as genocide, and so forth. If they really believed that, then the solution would be, in fact, insurrection and mob violence. Murder is intolerable, and genocide is even worse. If they believed half of what they say about Tiller, they’d be applauding Tiller’s murder, not decrying it.

Recalling similar denunciations of an anti-abortion murder in 1994, Slacktivist writes:

What I realized then, in 1994, as I watched these groups line up to condemn violence against “mass-murderers” and to renounce armed opposition to “the Holocaust,” was that these folks didn’t really mean any of it. They were horrified by the spectacle of someone taking their own rhetoric and arguments seriously. “We don’t really mean anything we say,” these groups rushed to announce. “We don’t really believe any of that.”

And since they no longer bothered to claim they believed it, I stopped trying to believe it too.

Now here we are again, 15 years later, as the arguments of the anti-abortion movement are again being proved disingenuous by their own self-refuting statements condemning the latest lethal fruit of their rhetoric of “mass-murder” and “Holocaust.” Once again some sad, disturbed man has committed the error of taking their rhetoric more seriously than it was ever meant by the people who supposedly believed it to be true.

Didn’t Scott Roeder realize that it was all just a game? Didn’t he appreciate that all this talk of Holocaust was just a gimmick to get his fellow Kansans to support a repeal of the estate tax? Didn’t he understand the difference between really believing that abortion is “mass-murder” and just indulging in the smug posturing of self-righteousness that makes the members of the Anti Kitten-Burning Coalition feel a little better about themselves?

No, apparently, he didn’t. Apparently he was just crazy enough to believe that these people meant what they said, crazy enough to believe that they believed their own words and that he should believe them too.

To believe these people — to believe that their words matter or that their words are truthful or that their arguments are made in good faith — is madness indeed.

McArdle waves in this direction a few times, but misses the point. She writes, “I don’t think abortions before, say, eight months weeks are even arguably murder. Moreover, I don’t think many other people believe it’s murder, either, for all that they profess to.” And she justifies that claim on largely the same grounds. But then she asks what we should do about the few people who do believe it, concluding, “if you actually think late-term abortion is murder, then the murder of Dr. Tiller makes total sense.”

Indeed:

We accept that when the law is powerless, people are entitled to kill in order to prevent other murders–had Tiller whipped out a gun at an elementary school, we would now be applauding his murderer’s actions. In this case, the law was powerless because the law supported late-term abortions. Moreover, that law had been ruled outside the normal political process by the Supreme Court. If you think that someone is committing hundreds of gruesome murders a year, and that the law cannot touch him, what is the moral action? To shrug? Is that what you think of ordinary Germans who ignored Nazi crimes? Is it really much of an excuse to say that, well, most of your neighbors didn’t seem to mind, so you concluded it must be all right? We are not morally required to obey an unjust law. In fact, when the death of innocents is involved, we are required to defy it.

McArdle here is garbling matters, and continues to do so throughout her discussion. Publius’ point is well-taken, the law here is not “powerless,” it is simply different than Roeder wishes it would be. And as a style of argument, “people a century from now might agree with Roeder about abortion” is hardly an argument at all. Hilzoy also hits that first point, emphasizing the divided discussion by writing: “The law is not ‘powerless’ in this case. It is not trying and failing to prevent abortion. On the contrary: our Constitution, as presently interpreted, grants women the right to seek an abortion.”

This, fundamentally, is McArdle’s error.


The reason that you can’t take the “abortion is murder” argument seriously is that it leads to morally revolting consequences. The women who obtain abortions would be sent to prison for contracting a hit, the doctors would go down as murderers, and the nurses, the person who drives the woman to a clinic (often a husband, father, brother, or other family member), and other people who help the woman find the clinic would all be charged as accessories and accomplices. Garbage haulers who collect from clinics would be charged for destroying evidence and obstructing an investigation. And so forth.

The reason no one takes that seriously, that even avid anti-abortion activists don’t want laws which punish women who obtain abortions, is that the moral questions around abortion don’t depend only on the embryo. There is an embryo, and it may or may not have reached the same moral status we give to an adult human being, or what we accord to a newborn baby. There is also a woman, and no one can really dispute that she deserves the full moral status we accord to an adult human being.

This is why it’s pretty easy for me to use the term “anti-woman” for the folks who want to shutter abortion clinics. Near as I can tell, they put more moral weight on a clump of cells growing in a woman’s uterus than they do to the woman carrying the pregnancy. If you think a human life, with all the moral status accorded to an adult human being, begins at conception, abortion ought to be a complicated topic, pitting the life of the mother against the life of the embryo. If you find the moral status of the embryo cloudy, the morality of abortion becomes less fraught. Only if you maximize the moral status of the embryo and diminish the moral status of the woman can it possibly be easy to reject abortion as inherently wrong. For all her concern about how people view an embryo, Megan McArdle gives no thought to where women stand in all of this, despite Hilzoy’s efforts to raise the issue.

McArdle writes, though, “My argument is that abortion, like slavery, is becoming in this country an issue upon which people have no reasonable political recourse.” She calls the Roe v. Wade decision “borderline illegitimate.” To sustain this outlook, she derides the most obvious form of “reasonable political recourse.”

Yes in theory pro-lifers could pass an amendment. And in theory, the Palestinians have access to the political process too ? a sufficiently remote possibility of political access is not political access.

The analogy fails, and fails badly. Constitutional amendments banning abortion have been proposed in Congress, and have done tolerably well, but not well enough to pass. South Dakota tried to challenge Roe v. Wade, putting an anti-abortion initiative on the ballot, and it, too, failed.

No one is banning anti-abortion/anti-woman voters from the polls. They aren’t able to convince enough people, even in South Dakota, that their take on abortion is correct. Any analogy to slavery or the Holocaust fails right there, as does the analogy to Palestinians. Palestinians don’t vote for the Knesset (any more than US citizens vote for the leadership of Venezuela), and Jews in Nazi Germany could no more vote than slaves.

Anti-abortionists are free to avail themselves of the political process. If they can convince people, they can overturn Roe and end legal abortion. I hope they don’t, because I think that result would be deeply immoral, hurting women and treating them as second class citizens.

I can speak with some confidence about that result, because it’s happened before. During the period when abortions were banned, women died from complications of their pregnancies. They died from septic shock when they took the law into their own hands and obtained back alley abortions.

Some brave people took it a step further. In Chicago, a small group of women (full disclosure: my mother was part of this group) decided that, rather than referring women to the rotating cast of doctors willing to give a safer back alley abortion, and rather than paying off the police and the mob to look the other way, they would just learn to perform the basic procedures themselves. The group referred to their clients as “Janes,” and the project is often referred to as Project Jane, though they did not call it that. This group created an underground railroad, and underground clinics with trained, though unlicensed, staffs, who provided safe abortions for women in need.

Faced with a law they regarded as unjust, they did not murder people who disagreed with them, or those who operated within its strictures. I suppose they could have. If doctors who refused to perform abortions faced pickets, anthrax hoaxes, bombings, and the threat of murder, perhaps a few would have agreed to break the (immoral, unconstitutional) laws of the day. By making those threats, perhaps someone could have saved the lives of women by giving them a safe venue for a necessary medical procedure. This logic is hardly different from that employed by murderers like Paul Gunn or (allegedly) Scott Roeder. But it didn’t happen. It would have been wrong, and there were other forms of civil disobedience available.

In the case of anti-abortion activists now, the problem is not lack of access to the political process. They are politically involved, but unsuccessful. The problem is that they are ultimately interested in interfering with people’s autonomy, and that’s hard. The Janes just needed to create an alternative, and let women make their choice. If no one showed up, the project would have failed. But women did show up, because they needed the service and their lives were on the line.

A member of Jane wrote in 1973:

We believed in life and we dealt with death ? and with all manner of religious and political rhetoric in-between.

Is a fetus a person? Is abortion murder? If so, when does it become murder? Two days? Six months?

We heard the views of Catholic priests and right-to-lifers, and the calculating statistics of population fanatics. Black revolutionaries accused us of genocide, while weary black women pleaded for “no more kids!”

We could never resolve the contradictions, but we held fast to the political principle that freedom of choice for living women was our first priority.

Anti-abortionists avoid this issue by largely ignoring the woman. They rarely acknowledge the broader issues, the balance between a woman’s life and the embryonic life she is sustaining. The closest they’ve come is a bait-and-switch, “crisis pregnancy centers” where evangelicals try to scare women out of abortion. Such groups’ success is apparently limited, despite healthy subsidies in some states, and heavy advertising. Nor have efforts to promote adoption appreciably reduced abortion rates. This is hardly surprising, since abortion is not a decision people make lightly, and is often driven by medical necessity or overwhelming inability to carry a pregnancy to term, let alone to care for a child afterward. Against such pressures, it’s hard to imagine that abstract arguments about the moral status of embryos would do much good, and scare tactics only make a bad situation worse.

President Obama has offered an olive branch, suggesting policies that would make it easier for women to carry pregnancies to term, including prenatal care and expanded family leave, while leaving abortion as an option. But morally blinkered anti-abortion activists still trot out the notion that they have “no other outlets for their legitimate moral beliefs,” and self-proclaimed pro-choicers pick up the lie.

They have outlets. People listen to them, and watch their works. And, at the end of the day, their views on abortion are rejected by the public. They are free to keep talking, but public support for a woman’s right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy remains strong. That’s not a failure of the political system, it’s a failure of their argument. Why should we take them seriously?

Comments

  1. #1 Orac
    June 3, 2009

    One little technique I like to use with some of my conservative friends when this topic comes up is to ask them what should be done with women who have abortions. After all, if abortion really is murder, then the woman who has one is just as guilty of murder as the doctor who does it. Indeed, in that sort of world view, abortion could be likened to the hiring of a hit man to eliminate someone. The person who hires the hit man is viewed as just as guilty of premeditated murder as the hit man himself. So what to do with the woman? I then start challenging. I ask, then, what should be done with the woman? if the answer is nothing, then I ask why not. I point out that people who commit first degree murder are often put to death. At the very least they are put in prison for many years. So why should women who have abortions not be tried for first degree murder and locked up?

    True, there are a few whackos who will say that, well yes, such women should be locked up and even executed. But most people, even the most conservative and religious, are usually appalled by the idea of locking up women who have abortions. They’ll usually say something about education or teaching them that it’s wrong. So, to drive home the point, I ask them why they don’t want to try women who have abortions for murder. (You aren’t soft on murderers, are you?) After all, we don’t try to teach murderers that murder is wrong. No! We lock them up! The stammering and yammering that usually answers me tells me that even the most die-hard anti-abortionist at some level realizes that there is a difference morally, scientifically, and by reason between a 10 week old embryo and a human being.

    I know it’s not the most original ploy in the world, but it’s shocking how few anti-abortionists have actually thought about this.

  2. #2 Larkspur
    June 3, 2009

    Oh lord. Josh, tell your mother how much I revere her and her friends.

    “…We could never resolve the contradictions, but we held fast to the political principle that freedom of choice for the living woman was our first priority.

    “…The object of counseling was to make abortion available, but never to promote abortion; to provide the woman with an alternative, and then to give her support, whatever her choice….”

    Anti-abortion rights people continually talk past the “choice” part of pro-choice. It keeps breaking my heart over and over.

    When I heard the news about Dr. Tiller’s murder, I was upset but had no immediate way of doing anything except for donating to some group that supported his work. I ended up sending money to Medical Students for Choice http://www.ms4c.org/

    First I tried to check them out via Charity Navigator http://www.charitynavigator.org/ , but the group hasn’t yet been evaluated (they’re “in the queue”). But while checking them out, I ran across a charity called Our Lady’s Inn http://www.ourladysinn.org/ , which Charity Navigator rates highly in terms of its organizational integrity (i.e., the ratio of funds going to programs versus operational expenses or salaries). It’s located in Missouri, and its purpose is to support and assist pregnant women, without offering abortion services.

    While my cursory look isn’t enough to vouch for this particular group, there’s a need for organizations like this, and I only wish that anti-choice people could find enough compassion to support those groups instead of stoking the rhetorical fires that result in murder and intimidation, while leaving pregnant women and girls desperately alone, and infants and children suffering.

  3. #3 Dunc
    June 4, 2009

    Anti-abortionists avoid this issue by largely ignoring the woman.

    Indeed. I once read a 20-page esoterically philosophical article on the subject which did not so much as mention the pregnant woman even once.

  4. #4 Live Free
    June 9, 2009

    What good does it do to kill an abortionist? None. It is the law of supply and demand. It would be like killing a drug dealer. Someone else is going to pop up and resume the industry in his stead.

    On the other hand, aborting the fetus of someone who in this century is too stupid or lazy to prevent getting pregnant, is doing the population at large a favor. Stupidity and laziness (or even the inability to make good decisions) are not traits that should be passed on. Unplanned pregnancies should not only be aborted by law, but the woman should probably be sterilized as well.

    There is no distinction as to the value of life whether or not post-partum, at least from a purely scientific point of view. The only issues in that regard are moral, political, and legal. I’m not qualified to discuss that, and since those things can arbitrarily change over time, they don’t matter much anyway, in the big picture.

    Politically, the only reason to outlaw abortion seems to be to encourage large families which provide a ready source for altar boys and cheap labor to build pyramids.