Friday, September 26, 2008

Why Both Sides of the Abortion Debate Are Disingenuous

The panel question this week over at the Washington Post's “On Faith” blog is whether or not John McCain and Sarah Palin would be right to overturn Roe v. Wade. It's an uncomfortable question, for sure, probably the biggest and most emotional political issue of my lifetime--and it's often hard to get to any legitimate discussion about abortion because of the screaming going on on both sides.

Further, I'm not terribly convinced by either side. 95 percent of the abortion debate comes down to an unprovable philosophical conviction: At what point does life begin? Consensus cannot and will not be reached on this question because both sides have a point. The pro-life crowd (I will use the terms the group members themselves use, incidentally, rather than saying “anti-abortion” or “pro-abortion”) claims that life must in fact begin at conception because the zygote has a different genetic makeup from its parents. The pro-choice crowd counters that the zygote and the fetus are not self-sufficient--that is, they are wholly biologically dependent upon the mother in whom they reside.

Notice that these arguments are waged on totally different grounds; they have two different qualifications for determining when life begins. For this reason, the question underpinning abortion is philosophical rather than scientific. Pro-life activists can tell pro-choice activists that the fetus has a beating heart, but it won't do any good if the latter's definition of life involves self-sufficiency. Likewise, the pro-choice conviction that a genetically individual being is not technically alive because it is not self-sufficient sounds chilling to someone who is pro-life.

Now, the fact that the entire abortion debate rests in the difference between these two definitions of life gets obscured by rhetoric on each side. When I was in high school, there was an organization called “Rock for Life,” in which Christian rock fans got together and devised slogans like “Abortion Sucks” (because they use a vacuum to conduct the procedure--get it?) and to make t-shirts with pictures of aborted fetuses on them. I suspect RFL's tactics got a reaction from people—but I am reasonably sure that this reaction did not involve thinking through the issue and coming to an informed conclusion. Pro-life protesters tend to preach to the choir in this way, and the “Abortion Is Murder” school of debate does not, I think, win very many people over to their side.

If the pro-life camp relies way too much on emotionalism, pro-choice activists use a tactic that's flat-out disingenuous. We see it in full force in Gardner Calvin Taylor's response:
Government has a right to attack Roe v. Wade only when it guarantees that the fetus will have a quality education, adequate food and housing, quality healthcare, and a favorable community in which to advance. Anything short of this is infanticide in stages and wanton hypocrisy.
Well, yes, it's wrong that so many babies are born into families that do not want them and cannot take care of them; and it's wrong that society at large--either in the form of the government or in private or religious-based charities--does not step in and help out. But the difference between not having much chance for a good life and having no change--that is, having no opportunity to live at all--is literally infinite, and Taylor's response makes sense only if you already accept the pro-choice reasoning about self-sufficiency. I've always hated this particular argument--certainly when I considered myself pro-life, and even more now that I consider myself reluctantly pro-choice.

The other pro-choice argument I hate shows up in the comments section almost immediately. A user named “Tonio” (and, oh, how I hope it's legendary L.A. punk musician Tonio K.) claims that “The idea that overturning Roe v. Wade will magically do away with abortion is simply fantasy.” Of course, he's right, and I don't think many pro-life advocates would disagree with him. But outlawing murder didn't keep people from killing other people, and outlawing theft doesn't keep people from losing their car stereos. Society does not outlaw things because doing so makes those practices disappear; we outlaw things because we do not want to sanction what we consider immoral behavior. (For more on the inherent moralizing behind laws in a secular state, see my post on libertarianism.)

I do think there is a better solution to the problem of abortion, one that both the pro-life and pro-choice camps could and should get behind. So here's my three-step plan to improving the discourse around the unborn in this country:

1) Get rid of abstinence-only sex education. Study after study after study has proven this program to be ridiculously ineffective. Teen pregnancy rates actually increase in its wake. Here's the deal: Teenagers have been having sex out of wedlock almost since the day sex was invented, and other than a personal religious imperative, I don't think there's much convincing reason they shouldn't, not in the age of birth control. Let's teach teenagers how to have sex responsibly--how not to put out to cement a relationship, how not to have sex with people they don't love, how to think it over before they decide to go all the way, and how to use birth control every single time they have sex.

2) Make adoption a viable option. I think this is one thing that pro-life activists get right. The “crisis pregnancy centers” and hotlines across the country make it clear to pregnant teenagers that their pregnancy does not have to ruin their lives forever. But many women do not like the idea of having a child--biological bonding begins immediately, of course--and then having to give it away. To really make adoption a viable option, we will have to change American culture to the point where women who give their children up for adoption because they cannot or do not want to take care of them are considered heroes—because they are.

3) Promote the morning-after pill. I am not talking about RU-486 here, which actually is an abortion pill. The morning-after pill--marketed as “Plan B” or under other names--is a double dose of the normal birth-control pill, taken up to three days after unprotected sex, and it reduces pregnancies by 75 percent. It works on the same mechanism as the conventional birth-control pill, which is to say that it prevents an egg from being released rather than preventing a fertilized egg from being implanted (which would, of course, be abortion under a pro-life schema). One reason I distrust Sarah Palin is that Feminists for Life, an organization which she belongs to, ignores the science on this issue and calls birth-control pills “abortifacient”--an assertion which is demonstrably untrue. Birth-control pills, both conventional and emergency, could end abortion in this country.

But this is another area in which pro-life activists are, I think, often disingenuous. Feminists for Life, Rock for Life, and other Right to Life organizations oppose hormonal birth control and search for reasons to do so. You will hear them say that women who are on birth-control pills have a much greater likelihood of developing AIDS than women who are not. Well, of course they do--they're often having sex without condoms. You'll also hear about the negative health effects of hormonal birth control, which is another demonstrably false claim; women on birth control pills actually have lower incidences of cervical and ovarian cancer, fewer ectopic pregnancies, and, some evidence suggests, a decreased risk of breast cancer.

But many on the pro-life side—and particularly the visible and loud members of that crowd—are happy to twist data. And that's because, I think, that they're not really that concerned about abortion. If they were, I would think they'd be interested in effective sex education and in effective birth control. That they are not suggests that the issue is not abortion but sexual morality, an issue they are welcome to argue but that they should admit they are arguing.


Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I imagine I'm one of the few people who's anti-abortion for leftist reasons, but I know that I recoil in horror when people play the "let's just reduce the number of them" card. It's reminiscent of the passage in Thoreau's Resistance to Civil Government when he says that if people wait for the government to outlaw slavery, there won't by then be much slavery left to outlaw.

My hunch is that he wasn't pleased with that prospect, though I agree with him that investment in the federal government probably isn't going to bear much fruit.

Incidentally, I do call myself anti-abortion, preferring to keep my eye on the ball rather than on sloganistic abstractions. Everybody knows that people make decisions, and very few people want everybody dead. So as far as I can tell, nobody really objects to choice or to life. The question is the practice of abortion.

My own take on things isn't rooted in anything pretending to be science but in the ways that we name things. If the staunchest pro-abortion advocate is trying for a baby and gets pregnant, I don't imagine she'll say that she has a parasitic tumor that she hopes will turn into a person at some point. The only time that the nomenclature changes is when somebody has intent to destroy the entity that in other circumstances is a person.

I suppose I see this as parallel to the slavery debates of two centuries ago: I understand that declaring a vast renewable resource human-in-all-contexts caused economic hardships for those whose estates relied on them, and I also know that the fallout caused race-relations situations that we're still dealing with. But such are the fruits of that vast and systematic crime that we call slavery. Likewise I know that biological bonding and having to take a semester off college due to a declaration that unborn children are human-in-all-contexts will cause inconvenient and sometimes painful situations, and I know that the population would likely spike if the government criminalized abortion, but such are the fruits of that vast and systematic crime.

Incidentally, I also avoid "pro-life" because that label so often used to make people assume I'm also in favor of nuclear weapons, more state executions, a more warlike foreign policy, proliferation of domestic firearms, and all the other things that McCain is in fact in favor of. I prefer to keep my labels precise and defined, thank you.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Also, for what it's worth, I'm in favor both of facilitating the adoption system and a legal code that calls the same entities human in all contexts.

And as I hinted at earlier, that includes the unborn but also criminals, enemies, and all entities that are in some contexts persons.

Michial said...


You're absolutely right that “pro-life” and “pro-choice” terms are essentially rhetoric (or “sophistry,” as our good friends Plato and Aristotle might say). And you're right that “pro-life” becomes a ridiculous term when applied to the Grand Old Party's other, very anti-life, policies. But I still use the approved terms, if only to avoid adherents to those opinions losing sight of my actual point.

I think what “choice” refers to is the choice of what term to apply to a fetus. Roe v. Wade didn't so much declare the fetus to be non-human (after all, if I kill a pregnant woman, it's a double homicide) as it left it up to the individual to declare the fetus one way or the other. That sounds sinister, and maybe it is.

I suggest lowering the abortion rate because the alternatives leave neither side happy—if we overturn Roe v. Wade, the left is going to go nuts; but the right gets progressively angrier every day we live under that decision. In meeting in the middle, we can (ideally) all but eliminate the demand for abortions while not removing a woman's right to declare her fetus one way or the other. This plan is idealistic, maybe to a fault, but it's the best thing I can come up with.

I would never, ever support abortion for population control. If we're going to control the population—and I don't think that's a bad idea at all—I'd rather we do it by raising taxes for families with more than two children. That way they pay for the extra federal and state resources those children consume. But that's another topic for another time, and I'm not at all set in my ways on the subject.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I think what “choice” refers to is the choice of what term to apply to a fetus. Roe v. Wade didn't so much declare the fetus to be non-human (after all, if I kill a pregnant woman, it's a double homicide) as it left it up to the individual to declare the fetus one way or the other. That sounds sinister, and maybe it is.

About as sinister as letting plantation owners deciding which human bodies are really people.

Michial said...

This exchange is exactly what I mean when I say that no discussion about the legality of abortion is possible. It all hinges on that unproveable philosophical point. And because no side is ever going to concede that point, I think the wiser move is reduction of abortion.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Out of curiosity, what's your historical evaluation of the nineteenth century abolitionist movement?

Michial said...

Honestly, I don't know enough about it to have an informed opinion.

The difference between an African-American and a fetus, however, is that the former is capable of surviving outside the body of another person.

I'm not exactly arguing for abortion, however; I'm just saying that abortion and slavery are not the same thing.