Friday, June 01, 2007

Abortion: The hysteria which divides the US

Anti-abortion campaigners in the US will tell you their crusade is about the sanctity of life. But really it is about upholding a singularly unhealthy tendency in American public life - the exploitation of a divisive social and ethical issue to further the ambitions of a single political party...abortion has been the Republican Party's best tool for enlisting grass-roots support...The problem is that the majority of Americans support the notion of a woman's right to choose.

The problem for the Democratic party is that Americans do not support women's right absolute to choose abortion in all circumstances, at any stage of pregnancy and without any restrictions. And they shouldn't. There's surely a morally significant difference between an embryo and a viable, late-stage fetus. It's debatable whether even given that difference there should be an outright ban on late-term abortions, but it's still a difference that any reasonable person will regard as morally significant.

Political rhetoric aside, no one really buys the idea that abortion is simply and uncontroversially a purely self-regarding action or that controversy about abortion is really nothing more than a debate about women's "right to choose." Abortion is an animal rights issue. We ask: do these organisms have, at any given stage of development, rights that override women's right to choose? and, if so, under what conditions? We don't worry about killing germs, swatting flies or even salting slugs. There's controversy about whether culling the deer population or slaughtering cows and pigs for food is morally ok. There's even more controversy about the conditions under which it would be morally permissible, or obligatory, to put down a dog or cat.

This is the way in which most people who are not ideologues of the left or right correctly "frame" the abortion issue. Even in America, very few people seriously believe that slugs or blastulas--or trees--have rights. However, very few people anywhere seriously believe that putting down a dog or aborting a late-term fetus is simply a harmless "choice." And they shouldn't believe that.

In response to conservatives' wedge strategy, the Democratic Party has gotten itself locked into the position that this way of framing the question, means victory for the Religious Right, and that any restrictions whatsoever on the availability of abortion are a dangerous slide down the slippery slope to an outright ban. Moreover, abortion is popularly identified as THE central feminist issue (because, I suspect, "pro-choice" is easier to sell to the public than the enforcement of anti-discrimination regulations or affirmative action). This has alienated lots of Americans who might otherwise support the Democratic Party's policies, discredited feminism and put liberal Catholic politicians in a close to impossible position. If the Terri Schaivo affair and the current administration's idiot opposition to stem cell research are a drag on Republicans, this no-compromise-no-surrender view on abortion discredits Democrats.

The linked article, from a UK newspaper, suggests that Brits, and presumably Europeans generally, who haven't so far regarded abortion as a central political issue or opposed all restrictions on the availability of abortion as features of a fundamentalist, anti-feminist conspiracy, should look to the US as a model. I don't think so.


Brian Berkey said...


I think much of what you say here is importantly correct. It's true that the Republican party uses the abortion issue to mobilize religious voters (and, I suspect, that they don't really expect or want Roe vs. Wade overturned, since that would likely lead to Republican election losses), but the sad state of the abortion debate in America is primarily the fault of the so-called "pro-choice" side, since they fail to recognize that the issue really hinges on, as you point out, the moral status of embryos and fetuses. Of course some may be aware of this and simply choose to employ the "choice" rhetoric for reasons of convenience (it makes a better talking point than "fetuses aren't persons like you and me").

I often use the abortion debate as an example when talking with my students about the pathetic state of our public political discourse generally. You say that Democrats who support a "no restrictions" policy discredits the party. Now I agree with you that often this is the case, since they use only the language of choice in their attempts to justify such a policy. But if Democrats were to support that policy on the basis that even late-term fetuses don't have sufficient moral status to be entitled to protection under the law (a controversial claim, but one that I think a case can be made for), then I don't think their support for such a policy would discredit them (though it may cause them to lose some votes).

The worst of the Democrats, in my view, are those who claim that they believe that life begins at conception, and that therefore embryos are persons with the same moral status as healthy adults and children, but also claim that it is not the government's business to interfere with a woman's right to choose, or to legislate on the basis of moral beliefs that others don't share. Mike Huckabee was basically right when he claimed that to take this position is like saying back in the early 1800's that one believes that blacks are morally equal to whites, but also that it's not the government's business to legislate moral beliefs that slaveowners don't share (or saying in the 1950's that blacks are morally equal to whites but it's not the business of government to tell restaurant owners that they must treat everyone equally). If embryos and fetuses are persons with the same moral status as you and me, then abortion should be illegal (I don't buy Thomson's argument based on the violinist case). Those on the pro-choice side of the abortion issue must take on the question of the moral status of fetuses in order to be credible. If they do that, I think they can support a "no compromise" view without undermining their credibility.

H. E. said...

Brian, you wish and I wish that the debate would go this way. But the pathetic state of public discourse here is intentional--a commitment to evading philosophical issues in the interests of realpolitik. And unlike most of the other stuff I write on this blog this isn't a priori conjecture but is actually based on (gasp) empirical facts.

I first got burned politically when I volunteered to go door to door for Zero Population Growth, before Rowe v. Wade, to campaign for the liberalization of abortion laws. I thought that as a (sophomore) philosophy major I was just the person to set people straight on these matters: I was going to trot out proof texts from Locke's Essay and explain about the difference between persons, human beings and masses of matter, enlighten the public about rational parrots and oak trees, etc. At our training session however we were cautioned not to allow ourselves to be drawn into "philosophical arguments." If anyone brought up "philosophical issues" we were told to dig in and simply repeat that abortion wasn't a "philosophical issue" but a "women's rights" issue. We told to repeat the formula, "If you support women's rights then you should support women's right to choose."

As we know, one person's modus ponens is another's modus tollens, and the rest is history.

I've been involved in political action groups over the years since then and the fundamental policy remains the same, not only when it comes to pushing policy on abortion but on other issues as well. We don't do argument--we do spin, slogans and sound bites. And this is a self-conscious, intentional commitment. The received view is that this way of operating is hard-nosed, sophisticated and effective--and that rational argument is hopelessly naive and ineffective. This assumption corrupts and degrades public discourse. It's a characteristically though not exclusively American phenomenon and part of the explanation why Americans regularly vote against their own interests.

What eats me isn't that this cynical way of operating discredits Democrats intellectually, but that it invariably backfires on progressives, and the way in which the abortion issue has played out is the most egregious case. What most Americans want are regulations comparable to those you find in Western European countries--no problem with stem cell research or morning after pills, ready access to early abortion for adult women, more stringent restrictions on abortion after the first trimester and an outright ban or something close on very late abortion (I agree with this). They also want parental notification regulations of some sort for minors because they want to control their adolescent daughters (I don't agree but could live with this).

But no politician dares to take this position because for the past 40 years abortion has been "framed" as a women's rights issue, indeed the central women's rights issue. According to non-negotiable political dogma, any restriction on the availability of abortion will lead to an outright ban and any politician who could accept any restriction is a shill for the Religious Right. So no progressive politician dares to advocate what most Americans really want since, if he did so, he (or she) would lose the progressive base--and the election. Again, I was just reading in Selling Women Short an account of the Walmart sex discrimination class action suit, that whereas 90% of American women believe that pay equity is an important issue for women, only 41% think that abortion is. You would think that any progressive politician with the guts to give on abortion but push pay equity would be a shoo-in--90% of American women and, I'd bet lots of their husbands, sons, fathers and male friends. Furthermore, here is an issue that cuts across the Red-Blue divide. Of the 6 plaintiffs, 4 are conservative Christians and the chief plaintiff, Betty Dukes, is an active church lady who opposes Walmart's decision to sell beer and wine. But again, any progressive politician who adopted this stance would lose the activist base.

Here is market failure in the political arena on the grand scale. No one can get what they want. No one acts as a rational chooser because according to the entrenched view of the political power brokers it is hopelessly naive to believe that anyone is a rational chooser or could be persuaded by argument. Indeed most seem to believe that argument, nuanced positions, anything that deviates from the official spin, slogans and sound-bites, is just a smokescreen for the conservative agenda.

The Gay Species said...

Wow! Someone who pulls the political, moral, ethical, benevolent, biological, social, and medical into focus, and no howls from the extremists? I'm here to howl for both sides!

While I agree with your comments generally, I believe you are under-estimating the "values" of each side involved, and the reasons for their fervent zeal. Not that others might be "using" this zealotry for their own ulterior political motives (let's get real), but at core are two, critically-important, primary values are in conflict, and you rightly point to the conflict, but seemingly reduce the conflict to political manipulation. Let's return to the conflict of values.

For example, a preeminent Harvard-trained empirical scientist without any known religious affiliation is virulently pro-life and frequently avails himself to speak to what he genuinely considers the most serious moral question of our day, when humans could so indifferently slaughter other humans. He seriously sees abortion as intrinsically immoral in that it harms another (zygote, woman, both) not only in itself, but equally important, where it might lead.

Conversely, many of NARAL's advocates cite those exceptional cases that it then insists we must allow for total freedom of choice and a woman's self-determination in her freedom to act in her best interests. Freedom of choice is one of our most cherished values, including the freedom to act, and if a woman is "at risk" for constraining her freedom of self-determination, freedom itself is at risk! If a woman does not have the freedom to exercise self-determination and to make choices over her own body, what next? How can we compromise?

Different ontologies and/or first principles, but they both go to two of our most basic and fundamental values: Protecting humans (including ourselves) from genocide, and extolling human liberty to make those choices within our freedoms absolute.

The "conflict" is not abortion, per se, so much as what abortion also represents. That's not to undermine how each extreme party views the act, but it's nearly always its larger implications by extrapolation that strengthens the extremists' zeal. Two very important, indeed primitive, values are in conflict, (i) being alive without arbitrary killings, (ii) and the human freedom to choose and be self-determined, not other-determined.

As you observe, most of the public is not on the extreme margins. But is it due to indifference (yikes) or due to pragmatic compromise? If the latter, I have not encountered any sustained claim for their "middle" position or where they propose to draw the lines of compromise. How can one compromise between two primary values in an articulate, coherent, and plausible way? (Okay, my hubris knows no bounds. infra) It's damn difficult to navigate compromise when two very important, albeit different, primary values conflict, and if most of the public has a "sense" that the solution is not on the extremes, but along the mean, it does not seem to know where the mean lie.

The extremists have dominated the conflict, the politicos have exploited the conflict and split the difference, the Court divines rights no one else can find, and the great middle is left without much of a voice, much less with the words to articulate a compromise or middle position that resists compromise from both sides. Maybe abortion is one of those issues which we should delight that still energize the extremes (for good reasons, I believe), but when those primary value conflict, then we need Solomon's wisdom. In my articulation of a compromise, I do divide Solomon's baby (so to speak)! But the solution remains in tension, because compromise of these two primary values is never easy. That also explains why men are just as involved as women in a woman's choice. The issue is a conflict between two of our highest human values, not just when or not to terminate a woman's pregnancy. If that were the issue, there is no issue there, just the techniques.

A suggested compromise:

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