Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Why I Am Not Pro-Life (But Not Pro-Choice Either)

This post has been kicking around since last month, when a lot of fine bloggers were putting forward their defenses of abortion rights as part of "Blogging for Choice" Day. As it had been quite a while since I'd last written about abortion, I considered putting together a contrary post, titled "Why I Am Pro-Life." But I couldn't, because I'm not.

I've probably called myself "pro-life" in the past, maybe way back when I was in high school or an undergraduate. But I have no specific memory of doing so, and I wouldn't today. Part of this is, simply, because I'm not the hardline, simplistic, killing-a-fetus-is-murder opponent of abortion that I was raised to be. (Reading The Cider House Rules will do that to a person.) Do I still want to deter abortion, including--but not limited to--limiting abortion rights where I think best? Yes, definitely; the revulsion I feel towards the concept is still there. When I first learned about what an "abortion" was as a child, the mental image in my (ten-year-old, perhaps?) mind was of that of doctor wielding a butcher knife, stabbing a baby within a mother's womb...and frankly, the straightforward medical facts of what an abortion involves don't lead me to feel that that disturbing image is in any principled way flawed.

But while I would insist that is both impossible and irresponsible to pretend that such sentiments and feelings either could or should be excluded from political discussions, I also acknowledge that you have to be able to at least provide some reasoned account of the roots and parameters of one's revulsions for political purposes; standing alone, they provide few details and fewer answers. As time went by, the answers provided in particular by hardline abortion opponents, the one's who for reasons of religious doctrine or natural philosophy have determined that a fetus or embryo is fully human from the moment of conception, became less and less satisfying to me, both logically and theologically. And, perhaps most importantly, as I came to value more and more the (just as often left-leaning as well as "conservative") arguments for a genuine culture of life, I became similarly disturbed at the fetishism and obsessions often displayed on the "pro-life" side. A comprehensive and decent affirmation of "life" at all levels is a worthy ideal, but it lends itself idolization. One does not automatically reject moral realism and truth by realizing that reducing one's notion of life to the simple question "just when does it begin?" hardly does justice to the whole phenomenon. Opposing abortion is definitely a part of doing justice to it, but only a part.

So, I don't use the phrase "pro-life"--it's limiting, often inaccurate, and does the debate little good. The attachment of many opponents of abortion rights to it is, I think, symptomatic of one of the larger problems in the debate: the desire on their part to stigmatize the act of abortion as always and uncomplicatedly a crime against a living being--an act of murder, in essence--is at least partly reflective of the desire to get around the reality that millions of women (and, indirectly, men) choose abortion every year. Far better to address the thing itself, rather than the context within which the thing arises, is quite often the underlying, unconscious thinking here, I suspect. And which is, of course, the same sort of underlying thinking that led millions of basically decent people in the 19th-century to oppose slavery, but feel no need to reflect upon their own racism, or the social and economic structures that they benefited from and which kept freed slaves and their descendants from enjoying any sort of real equality with whites for over a century. That's not to say that ending slavery wasn't a legitimate end in itself; and by the same token, I wouldn't say that facts about the real viability of unborn babies are irrelevant to legislation on abortion. For certain they are not. Yet one should not get away, as some pro-lifers seem to want to, from the central point that it is the context of choosing that matters most. The medical knowledge that makes abortion possible is not going to go away; all that can be affected by agitation over the issue are the circumstances under which the desire, the wish, to make use of this knowledge is to be considered justified, or regulated, or permitted, or condemned, or denied. And that means talking about choice.

You have to hand it to advocates of abortion rights: the rhetoric of choice is perfect for advancing their cause in the modern world. Who doesn't want more choices, after all? Or, more particularly, who wants "the state" or "the government" or "fascist Christians" (they're all pretty much the same to the abortion lobby in this day of Bushist theocracy, right?) to make choices for you? Nobody does, that's who. Abortion as a supremely individualistic, personal, private, even affirmative act makes perfect sense--you control your own body, you determine your own sex life, you weigh your own feelings, you chart your own future...it all fits together. The availability of abortion is a technology, a tool; it gives you more options, it leaves open more doors you can go through--or go back through, if a relationship or opportunity or lifestyle doesn't appear to be turning into what you thought it would back when you first chose it or unthinkingly went along with it. And please, let's not get waste our time talking about how depicting "choice" in such terms is terribly harmful and/or disrespectful to those obviously and indisputably tragic cases when abortion arises as an option in the contexts of violations like rape; I will quite willingly shut the hell up and listen with an open mind if someone wants to attempt to explain to me why it is they believe that any possible form of democratically determined, revulsion-grounded abortion restrictions (parental notification laws, mandated counseling and waiting periods, etc.) will always weigh terribly and entirely upon exactly those women who are most in need of society's protection, but I have little patience for people who wish to pretend that the alignment of abortion rights with "choice" is somehow wholly and solely tied up with those awful few cases. Because it's not; in the minds of the overwhelming majority of abortion-rights advocates, it's about allowing people--almost always white, middle- and upper-class, secular people--more and freer sexual choices than previous generations enjoyed. Being able to rely on a technology that makes it somewhat easier to choose whether or not to have the baby, or to marry the guy, or to stick with the relationship, or to remember last night, or to finish the degree, or anything else, also means it's somewhat easier to choose more sex, period. (Let us praise the honesty of Matthew Yglesias here: "That legal abortion encourages premarital sex is feature, not a bug.") And again, what could be more modern than that?

Nothing, I suppose, if you're of the (in some ways almost misogynistic, if you think about) opinion that the biologically male model of sexual behavior--that is, being able to have intercourse often with no physiological or (one hopes?) psychological consequences whatsoever--is normative and ought to be available to everyone regardless of gender and indeed ought to be enabled through legal guaranteed rights. And there's equally nothing wrong with it if you view one's sexual choices as indistinguishable from any other set other commodified choices, ideally having no ramifications on one's living arrangements, extended family, position in society, obligation to future generations, unacknowledged dependence upon unwritten moral standards, involvement in collective goals, etc. (And no, I haven't plucked that list out of thin air; while it would be, of course, ludicrous to claim that every single sexual act that evades or ignores its own inherent and/or conventional consequences and obligations is therefore a crime against civilization--human beings would have never made it out of the hunter-gatherer stage if such were the case--anyone who maintains the opposite and equally ludicrous view that, all things being equal, women and men ought to be able by right to enjoy sex without their futures or thoughts or relationships being messed up by any of that communitarian crap in any way, clearly has only ever had sex on the starship Enterprise's Holodeck.) Obviously, I think both of those beliefs pretty flawed on their own terms. But if you do nonetheless believe either of those things, however slightly, however unconsciously, then at the very least one really ought to consider how the embrace of such a plainly individualistic ethos might, say, infect one's other political commitments.

Two excerpts here, both which refer to experiences which took place during counter-protest "defenses" at abortion clinics by abortion rights advocates. One comes from an e-mail sent to me by Crooked Timber blogger (and atheist lefty) Harry Brighouse, used with his permission; the other from an essay by DePaul philosophy professor (and atheist Maoist) Bill Martin, titled "A postsecular contribution to the debate on abortion," from his book Politics in the impasse: Explorations in postsecular social theory. First Harry, responding to a comment I made about the way mainstream liberals sometimes get in the way of religious and atheist leftists from connecting with one another:

[I should tell you about] my experiences at abortion clinic defences in the late 80's and early 90's. I used to be much more confident than I am now that abortion was permissible, and was in a milieu which participated in the defences--I must have gone to 15 or so in my time. I HATED them for several reasons. The most striking were these--I hated being in a demonstration in which the police were on our side; I hated being in a demonstration in which my side was visibly composed of wealthier more privileged people than the other side; and I hated the fact that I knew that, my socialist contingent excepted, the people on my side were less committed to my ideals of social justice than many of the leaders of the other side; who were often leading lay Catholics and Catholic priests whom I'd seen at meetings and demonstrations in support of our Central America work and helping to organise community support for strikes of low paid workers (this was in Southern California)--you never saw the NOW or NARAL people at such things.

Now, from Bill Martin:

Most people in the anti-abortion movement associate the pro-choice movement with the middle class. This is not entirely accurate, but I think that the dominant rhetoric of the pro-choice movement is very much a product of the middle-class point of view. This is mere empiricism, of course, but I might mention some things I've seen at various pro-choice demonstrations. At a demonstration at the state capitol in Topeka a few years ago, a woman was carrying a sign that said, "Choosy mothers choose choice." That seems to sum up the whole consumerist ideal right there. Although some fellow demonstrators said that they found this slogan "cute," I found it disgusting—just the sort of thing that says that, out of concern for "my choices," I don't want to deal with any of the hard questions that should be at the heart of the abortion controversy....[T]he point is that the rhetoric of choice is embedded in a general ideology that has it that there can be no larger struggle over values. Of course, in one sense, that is true—in an anti-participatory society such as the one we live in, there certainly is not going to be any substantive official debate over values. But the rhetoric of choice simply accepts this state of affairs—and therefore has nothing more substantive to tell the people who are genuinely concerned about the moral questions of abortion than, "don't tell me what to do"—accepting that the best solution is simply for each person to be able to decide what they want, in the atomistic isolation and serialization that is the stock-in-trade of anti-participatory society....

Many people in this society who identify themselves as conservative are worried about a society, and especially an economy, that seems to simply rip up the fabric of life for no good reason. Many of these conservatives who take their frustration and resentment in the direction of fascism (whatever it is officially called) do not see the ideology of "just do what you want" as any kind of alternative to a community structure. And, in fact, for that part of this group who are not wealthy members of the middle class, the ideology of choice can't have any great appeal, because these are people who are not used to having all sorts of choices in the first place. The liberal response is to simply see this as an impoverished form of life, and to treat these community-minded poor and/or working-class people as ignorant....[But] when I see poor and/or working-class people lined up in the anti-abortion ranks, I see a willingness to sacrifice over fundamental value questions that I do not see on the side of the rhetoric of pro-choice. I see an engagement with values that is denied by the pro-choice rhetoric. Frankly, I'd rather argue and struggle over what our values ought to be with someone who believes in values than with some "choice" advocate who doesn't, who isn't primarily motivated by values....

I wouldn't want to pretend that either Harry or Bill Martin (whom I the good fortune of meeting with a couple of times, long ago; he was visiting BYU because he was fascinating by the "illiberal" elements of Mormonism) are on my side in this debate. Clearly, both are at least a little troubled by abortion, if only because, as best as I can tell, they recognize that the defense of abortion rights as first and foremost a personal choice very clearly enunciates a particular (and close-mindedly liberal) position regarding a host of complicated issues arising from sex, family life, parentage, cross-generational obligations, the raising of children, etc.--and that all of those things are, contrary to beliefs of some egalitarians, inextricably tied up with achieving a just, fair, and loving society. Yet both, so far as I know, still basically believe that abortion rights are worth defending because of the never-entirely-sharable-or-transferable costs which opposing them would sometimes force onto certain classes of women. (And in case it's not clear, let me say again: I completely agree that the fact that many opponents of abortion rights care not a whit for addressing the costs their policy preferences would have on the social fabric through greater education and social spending is simply despicable. And the fact that even greater numbers of abortion opponents are unwilling to think critically about the way the alienating, disposable, work-and-play-centered as opposed to family-centered pace of modern life has exacerbated inequalities in the set of mutual relations and responsibilities between women and men which they envision is just as bad. As Stanley Hauerwas has observed (via Kim-loi Mergenthaler), "if you think that you can be very concerned about abortion and not concerned about the privatization of American life generally, you are making a mistake.")

Having rejected the simplistic judgment that "abortion = murder" in (almost) all its variations, I can't dismiss what I assume to be Harry's or Professor Martin's ethical concerns. I struggle in trying to figure out what, if anything, I can or should do with my revulsions; and I suppose the consistent majorities of Americans who say that, while they don't want abortion outlawed, they are still are bothered by it and would like it to be rare, are in my same boat.

The rhetoric of choice, of course, provides an easy recourse here: "You say you feel revulsion at the thought of abortion? Great! I don't. So how about we pass laws that allow you to follow your revulsions and not have an abortion, and me to follow my lack of revulsions and perhaps choose one if I'm so inclined, and everyone's happy?" A wonderful response, that. Except that to affirm it is to affirm the sort of comfortably pluralistic world--a world which above all follows the preferences of those psychologically and materially in a position to benefit from the safe navigation of that pluralism--which abandons the engagement over values and the effort to build something common, something shared. Choice, as an ideological priority, is rather commercial: it is about managing one's options, about taking care of business. The matter of which choices are right or wrong, which are to be valued and made plentiful and which are to be hopefully turned into an option which--as Hillary Clinton put it--"does not ever have to be exercised," requires more than liberal privacy and individual preference can provide. It requires collective engagement, and a willingness, perhaps, to "sacrifice over fundamental value questions." Simplistic "pro-life" mantras surely won't get you that, but treating the whole matter of sex and family and life as--at least as it manifests itself in the lives of the large majority of those who appear to actually do most of the marching under the "pro-choice" banner--something which, well, gosh, you just have work it out for yourself in the moment, gets you even less.

I'm not a pro-lifer. I'm a Kansas voter now, and I was happy to see Phill Kline booted out of the attorney general's office. But neither does that mean I think Wichita's own George Tiller ought to get a pass, just because in our present world I can't see my way clear to dismissing him as evil incarnate. What he does is, to be sure, at least in part, revolting. Trying to spread and strengthen and situate that revulsion, and working to responsibly and democratically incorporate it into the shared norms and laws of our society, is complicated and difficult, with numerous political and legal challenges along the way. Maybe it won't ever happen; maybe it's a foolish and indefensible goal. But at least, in trying, I'm engaged in a genuine social project--whereas the rhetoric of rights and choice is mostly non- or even anti-social. Not that that hurts it as a movement in contemporary, non-participatory, my-your-own-business America; anything but, in fact. Still, it's a point for liberal defenders of abortion rights to keep in mind, next time they wonder why so few people from the office or the grad seminar show up to walk the picket line with the janitors.

69 comments:

Matt said...

Russell,

I've not had time to read all of the long post. I hope to do so later. But I'll comment on one point- the idea that the desire to have lots of sex without bad results is in any mysoginistic or 'male' in any intersting sense at all is, frankly, dumb. Many, many women and girls like to have sex just as much as men do, and they too don't want the bad results. What's mysoginistic is to think otherwise, that women _couldn't_ really want this. Of course many don't want it and that's fine. But many do, and they are not suffering from any delusion or under the thumb of men. I hope that's obvious.

Steve LaBonne said...

Well, Russell, I feel much the same way about religion as you do about abortion- except that I'm confident I can make a far stronger case that religion seriously harms society than you've even begun to do for abortion. So when, in the spirit of working together in the service of shared values, I join with my fellow secularists to fight the influence of religion in our politics, I assume you recognize that as a project just as legitimate as yours? (Naturally I expect you to be working for the opposing team- that's not the question.)

Alison said...

Your argument is that the desire (or perhaps the ability?) to have sex without pregnancy is exclusively 'male', so if a woman attempts to have sex pregnancy she is being misogynistic?

Would you say contraception is misogynist? And people who ban contraception are combating misogyny?

Alison said...

I meant 'have sex without becoming pregnant'. Damn I read it twice too

mpowell said...

Russell,

You recognize early on that you are in some sense obligated to "provide some reasoned account of the roots and parameters of one's revulsions for political purposes". And your argument to that extent seems to depend on sex having greater social consequences. But its not clear to me that is necessarily relevant. One of the consequences of having sex is pregnancy. Abortion allows you to eliminate this connection. How does this affect family life or raising children?

I read a good critique of the pro-choicers claim that abortion rights must be absolute to protect the most unfortunate women needing them... but I am missing a positive defense for limiting abortion rights.

Anonymous said...

I read the whole post through, carefully. And I don't have a problem with any of it, when considered as a valid perspective of *a man*. But. Nowhere here is there a consideration of the perspective of the woman, who is actually physically carrying, and psychologically caring for, and in my experience sometimes herself physically suffering greatly for, the fetus. There is no consideration at all of the fetus as a serious if completely normal medical condition, with all the risks and positive possibilities it contains, and that's a blind spot in your rhetorical approach that renders your communitarian derived argument in the end unpersuasive.

(I'll sign here, since it looks like your commenting system wants to make me anonymous)

Russell L. Carter

Erik said...

Hi

Have just read your blog (linked from CT) and find it interesting and hopeful (that you have grown to accept that abortion may sometimes be justified seems to me to indicate a willingness to think for yourself I admire). However, having grown up in Sweden I find it very hard to relate to your line of argumentation.
Am I right in thinking that your main argument against abortion is that easy sex erodes the nuclear family as the foundation of your culture? Or is it just that you do not accept casual sex as something women choose willingly and on equal terms with men?
From my perspective the first, fighting the dissolution of the nuclear family, seems a doomed struggle against the more or less inevitable evolution of societal structure, and I find the second somewhat ridiculous. The sexual drive is at least as strong in women as men and any theory of how would women are predisposed to monogamy while men prefer to have as many partners as possible would require a lot of scientific backup to make me belive it.
As for your revulsion at the thought of abortion I fully understand it, but would also like to ask whether the feelings of some should be allowed to infringe upon the life and feelings of others. In many areas of life the answer would be a straightforward no, but I accept that this emotive issue may require debate. I would however suggest that the best way of getting abortion figures down would be to make sure sex ed is mandatory in schools and to make sure contraceptives are easily available to all. If I have misunderstood you or if you feel you would like to respond please feel free to email me on elundbom[at]gmaildotcom

Anonymous said...

There is a big difference between trying to build a social consensus about when abortion is justified and when it is not and going further by trying to enshrine that in detailed legislation. Because the social consensus (if you could get one at all) might be (as one example): 'a woman is justified in having an abortion if it would cause her severe detriment to her mental health'. As a social norm that may work - as a way of making a legal decision as to whether a woman is allowed to have an abortion, it's not much use.

I am 'pro-choice', not because I am enthusiastic about abortion, but because I don't see a way to make general restrictive laws that won't accidentally hurt some women unfairly. Moreover, if you want to impose extra restrictions you are effectively making two extra claims to a pregnant woman: I know better than you do what you should do in this difficult situation. And I therefore have the right to stop you making your own decision. I'm not sure I (or any other individual or group) am wise enough or compassionate enough to have that right to overrule other people's decisions.

magistra

Greg said...

Choice, as an ideological priority, is rather commercial: it is about managing one's options, about taking care of business. The matter of which choices are right or wrong, which are to be valued and made plentiful and which are to be hopefully turned into an option which--as Hillary Clinton put it--"does not ever have to be exercised," requires more than liberal privacy and individual preference can provide.

A thoughtful piece, Russell, but I think that part badly misunderstands the liberal conception of freedom as excercised by goups and, more importantly, by individuals. Liberal autonomy demands exactly the opposite. We must endeavour to label any private choice to be right or wrong, so long as such an exercise of liberty does not interfere with the freedom of another. These vaguely communitarian apeals to engagement and cross-generational duty don't do nearly as much work as you seem to think they do.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Excellent comments all; more than I'll be able to keep up with, I'm sure. Thanks for the link, Harry (and thanks for letting me use your e-mail to me).

One thing that needs to be said that Matt, Alison, Russell, and probably others have focused on: my claim (which was just a tossed-in parenthetical comment, really) that the model of cost-free sexual behavior that, I allege anyway, lurks in the background of the thinking of a great many people who call themselves pro-choice, is "almost misogynistic." That almost certainly isn't the best word to use, but I couldn't think of what might work better. My thought wasn't that men like sex and women don't; my thought was that, biologically, males are capable of approaching sexual activity in a certain way, and that to take that way as something of a template for how people ought to be able to behave if they so choose, really kind of marginizes the female biological perspective on sexual activity. Do I think such biological realities should be our destiny? No; I'm not engaging in that kind of natural moral philosophy. (I say nothing against birth control in my post.) I'm just observing that the choice-driven rhetoric behind many defenses of abortion only makes sense if one has kind of taken as normative the capacity of human beings to engage unencumbered sexual consumption...and given that it is males that seem biologically enabled to benefit most from such an open sexual marketplace, one has to wonder (or at least I wonder) who really shapes that normative presumption in the first place.

Saying that also leads me to mpowell's observation that what I've done here is critique pro-choice rhetoric, not provide a "positive defense for limiting abortion rights." And that's completely true. This post is really just about why I reject both the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" labels, not a complete explanation of why I believe the way I do.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Steve,

"So when, in the spirit of working together in the service of shared values, I join with my fellow secularists to fight the influence of religion in our politics, I assume you recognize that as a project just as legitimate as yours?"

Yep. Forward the secular communitarian polity! Heaven knows we'll need one, since there'll always be people who will find my hoped-for-but-unlikely-to-emerge polity stifling in the extreme (even if, in my utopia, we will have universe health coverage). Puritan Massachusetts needed its Rhode Island.

Farah said...

Hi Russell, came here via Crooked Timber. A good, reasoned post.

But we don't have the evidence that abortion leads to more sex. We do have the evidence that abortion leads to fewer poor families. I don't mean those two statements as opposite and equal by the way, just to lead into dealing with the first issue.

Lack of abortion lead to many unwanted children and a lot of abandoned women. Many children were placed in care. I realise that the desire for babies to adopt is often used by those who are against abortion to argue that the babies are wanted by someone, but the collapse of the "baby market" pretty much speaks for itself both for the prevalence of sex before abortion, and the fewer lives ruined since.

Ages ago I heard someone say that the loss of moral retribution was a bad thing. That might have been so if it had been handed out evenly, but it never was. An unwanted child was, and remains, a much greater threat to women than to men.

Many of your arguments would work for me in a much more evenhanded world, but for many women sexual choice is a bit of a myth.

I discovered something recently that shocked the bejeezus out of me, because as a Brit, it simply hadn't crossed my mind: American women without medical insurance cannot afford the cost of the Pill.

Suddenly, all the rhetoric about "responsibility" and abortion being the final option collapses. Condoms are not that successful, particularly where women are young or are in relationships where the man is emotionally or socially in control.

Steve LaBonne said...

Russell, thanks for the response- which is in fact the one I expected, since I know you value intellectual seriousness and, therefore, consistency. That deserves real kudos because it's not always found among communitarians- it's easy to be one when you're confident that your values will prevail but becomes less comfortable when the shoe might be on the other foot.

Now, on abortion- the "misogyny" thing is a very weak argument indeed, as the comments have exposed. And without it, all you thus far have in the "values" department to put up against the liberal value of individual freedom is your personal "yuck" factor. So I'm afraid your criticism doesn't even get off the ground without a much more cogent explanation of "why you believe the way you do". Your ordinary pro-lifer has a far more powerful case by making the eqaution, which you have commendably rejected, between abortion and murder (though he or she nearly always goes on to undermine that case by refusing to draw many of the logical consequences of such an equation, calling the sincerity with which it is asserted into serious question.) If you're interested in leading a "values" movement you need to articulate some actual values!

Russell Arben Fox said...

Steve,

Thanks for your compliment; it's much appreciated.

"Now, on abortion- the 'misogyny' thing is a very weak argument indeed, as the comments have exposed."

Do you still feel that way after my comment trying to explain myself further? I'll agree that it's a word that probably doesn't support what I was trying to say; I'm not convinced that the argument itself is weak.

"Your ordinary pro-lifer has a far more powerful case by making the equation, which you have commendably rejected, between abortion and murder."

This is true. The people who make it all about the sacredness of this one embryonic life, period, no other considerations allowed, can logically go much further in the direction of discouraging abortion than I can.

"If you're interested in leading a 'values' movement you need to articulate some actual values!"

Fair enough. As I said above in response to mpowell, this post really doesn't do much positive articulation; it condemns "choice" (as well as simplistic notions of "life") as a value, but it doesn't propose a particularly strong value-based argument of my own. Partly that's because I already write posts that are way too long anyway; partly that's because I think that I'd be doing my own thinking a disservice to pretend I'm sure of how to get beyond simple sentiment (which, as I say, is nothing to knock on it's own terms, even if those terms are clearly limited).

Steve LaBonne said...

"Do you still feel that way after my comment trying to explain myself further?" Yes. It rests on unsupported assertions about female sexuality, does little or nothing in any case to convincingly connect those assertions with societal wellbeing, and ignores the problem, already pointed out in the comments, that opposition to contraception (which is implicit in your argument, whether that's intended or not, since the argument is about "consequence-free sex")is bound to have the unintended effect of increasing the demand for abortion, licit or illict. I don't think it's an argument that even gets you to first base, frankly.

"simple sentiment (which, as I say, is nothing to knock on it's own terms"

You said it, but you haven't supported that either, that is you've done nothing to show that your "yuck factor" is a defensible ethical ground for wanting to use the coercive power of the state to restrict someone else's behavior. A yuck reflex is simply not the same thing as a value.

Anonymous said...

Well, I sort of admire your willingness to admit that part of your opposition to abortion stems from a desire to ensure that consequences for sex are inflicted upon women. I think its a stupid desire, but I admire the honesty. Tons of people feel that way, and say things that suggest that attitude, but won't admit it when you ask.

Sebastian Holsclaw said...

"We must endeavour to label any private choice to be right or wrong, so long as such an exercise of liberty does not interfere with the freedom of another."

I agree with this statement, but the whole problem with abortion is that the question of "freedom of another" is directly implied. Both sides try to finesse the problem by focusing on the part of pregnancy that works best for their argument. The pro-choice side tends to focus on the first few weeks of fetal development--where it looks least like 'another' being harmed. The pro-life side tends to focus on moments before delivery--where the fetus looks and seem as much like 'another' being harmed as most newborns. What neither of the extreme sides seem to accept is that their idea of personhood isn't obvious to everyone, and that their examples don't obviously hold across the entirety of a pregnancy.

I'm of a mostly pro-life bent, but I can clearly see that my concept of personhood becomes less and less obvious the earlier you go back in a pregnancy.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Steve,

"It rests on unsupported assertions about female sexuality..."

You're using "sexuality" there to, I assume, get at something which includes not just the act but also the desire for sex and the fulfillment which comes from it. I don't think I made any such assertions. I made an assertion about the biological fact that (hetero)sexual activity is going to often involve different effects on the participants. If you think that assertion needs support, then there's a scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian that you need to see.

"...does little or nothing in any case to convincingly connect those assertions with societal well-being..."

True; that's something that I threw in there, but did not really argue for. That "societal well-being" does come into play when one is discussing an attitude towards sexual behavior such as was nicely described by Matt Ygelesias in the original post is something I believe on the basis of not just my own intuitions, but a good deal of research on families, some of which Harry has discussed on CT on occasion. (Again, if I'm not being clear: I know I'm not advancing a conclusive argument here. The whole post was designed to explain why certain attitudes and justifications don't work for me. I would not claim that the existence of abortion rights is necessarily or always bad for "societal well-being," but I would argue that a purely choice-driven conceptualization of sexuality and abortion rights most definitely is.)

"...and ignores the problem, already pointed out in the comments, that opposition to contraception (which is implicit in your argument, whether that's intended or not, since the argument is about 'consequence-free sex')..."

But my argument against a (I still think rather male) idealization of consequence-free sex is an argument against an particular kind of attitude and a rhetoric in support of such; it's not a specific argument about how each and every consequence of sex therefore must never be avoided. I don't believe that. If the post does read as though I do believe that way (and I don't think it does, but still...), then I recant. What I distrust, and what I think is damaging, is the reconceptualization of all sexual activity--and all the possible dealings with the consequences of such--as purely matters of personal choice. Do that, and pretty soon there's no meaning to sex at all. (Which is a condition, given today's depressing hook-up culture, that appears to have come about anyway.)

Anonymous,

"I sort of admire your willingness to admit that part of your opposition to abortion stems from a desire to ensure that consequences for sex are inflicted upon women."

Change that sentence to read "to ensure that there are consequences for sex," and you're basically correct. It seems to me that, in the long wrong, changes in a sexual environment--or any kind of social environment, for that matter--that encourage people to believe that can and should assume a pose of (at least partially) consequence-free consumption is going to rebound to the benefit of those who shaped the terms of consumption in the first place--in terms of contemporary America's sexual scene, that mostly means Hugh Hefner and his ilk--and leave everyone else the poorer for it.

Steve LaBonne said...

"Do that, and pretty soon there's no meaning to sex at all." A worry I might well share with you (though I think your reference to Hugh Hefner shows a very dated perspective that doesn't necessarily have much to do with the current state of play!) I don't particularly want to live in Brave New World, where 90% of our heritage of art, music and literature has become incomprehensible, myself. Nor do I personally have any use for meaningless sex (but reproduction is certainly not the only "meaning" sex can have! It's of the highest value as an expression of love within a relationship regardless of whether reproduction is in prospect.)

But I don't see how any of this is getting you even a millimeter closer to justifying why you would make common cause with those who want the state to impose criminal sanctions on those who commit an act (abortion) about whose wrongness there is not anything close to a near-universal consensus (as there is, say, with actual murder.) Because after we get past the fine sentiments, the enforcement of criminal penalties via the state's monopoly of violence is what we're talking about here. You need arguments that rise to the level of moral seriousness of that consequence of your views.

Russell Arben Fox said...

"A worry I might well share with you (though I think your reference to Hugh Hefner shows a very dated perspective that doesn't necessarily have much to do with the current state of play!)"

Plainly, I'm not exactly hip.

"But I don't see how any of this is getting you even a millimeter closer to justifying why you would make common cause with those who want the state to impose criminal sanctions on those who commit an act (abortion) about whose wrongness there is not anything close to a near-universal consensus (as there is, say, with actual murder.)"

Well, the matter of the coalitions one feels a part of or that one can work with is a somewhat different discussion (though pretty close to the one between Harry and I which kicked off our e-mail exchange: where can or can't religious and secular leftists find common ground?). But, seeing as how you've brought it up, I don't think I've ever advocated the sort of "criminal sanctions" you're referring to. Parental notification laws, mandatory counseling and waiting periods, perhaps partial-birth abortion bans (though I have some real doubts about the sorts of arguments used to support that last one); these are the sort of things I've considered before. Deterring abortion, discouraging abortion, not outright banning it as a criminal act. I suppose there's some gray area there, and you could argue that the above are "sanctions" all the same, but I think the democratic argument for supporting some of those as potentially legitimate ways for society, through the state, to express its conflicted feelings about abortion, is on fairly solid ground.

Steve LaBonne said...

That makes me feel a lot better, and I could even go a considerable way with you since I think reducing the number of abortions is potentially a reasonable goal (even for purely medical reasons, routine use of abortion as a substitute for contraception would be undesirable). But I think it is better advanced- and certainly you will get more collaborators of the kind you want, as opposed to hellfire-and-brimstone pro-lifers- by reducing the demand for abortions, by way of improving the availability of contraception and sex education- lots of liberals would willingly make common cause with you there. And that's exactly where the "Hugh Hefner argument" starts working against your goals, not toward them.

Steve LaBonne said...

P.S. The communitarians have yet to persuade me that the use of coercive state power (be it ever so mild) as some kind of educational tool to promote "desirable" values is either effective or justifiable, which is why you will have no success persuading people like me into your coalition and will in the end pretty much ONLY find pro-lifers (who will merely be using you to promote an agenda way beyond anything you say you support) making common cause with you, if you rely on that sort of argument.

Lee said...

Hi Russell, good post as usual.

I do still have a bit of trouble wrapping my head around the argument, though. If I read you right, you seem to want to prescind (to a certain extent) from making judgments on the value of fetal life while simultaneously wanting to deter certain sexual lifestyles that you think abortion encourages or makes possible. So, the idea is that discouraging abortion will make these kinds of lifestyles less prevalent. And these lifestyles are bad because ... ? In other words, I think you need to show a tighter connection between the adoption of the kinds of lifestyles you say abortion on demand encourages and other bad things (e.g. a diminished capacity to form families and nurture children).

I agree that our society falsely valorizes the adolescent personality - the person with no unchosen obligations and no dependencies, whereas the "normal" human being is quite the opposite. And I also agree that abortion is an evil (though in my own case primarily for "right-to-life" type reasons), but I'm not sure you've shown that the connection between abortion and the normalization of the adolescent is quite as tight as you need it to be. I.e. that legally deterring abortion (bracketing RTL reasons) is necessary or at least justified in order to avoid diminishing people's capacities for family-forming and child-nuruturing.

Anonymous said...

This argument seems like that of Deaf Culture extremists who oppose cochlear implants.

"My thought wasn't that men like sex and women don't; my thought was that, biologically, males are capable of approaching sexual activity in a certain way, and that to take that way as something of a template for how people ought to be able to behave if they so choose, really kind of marginizes the female biological perspective on sexual activity."

You take the lack of a capability as a perspective, and therefore interpret the granting of that capability as an attack on that perspective.

Steve LaBonne said...

I also think that if Russell some day finds himself single at my age (50s), as I find myself after the end of a long marriage, he may be a bit surprised to discover that post-menopausal women (who no longer need to worry about unwanted pregnancy) are a good deal more interested in sex than is dreamt of in his philosophy of female sexuality. I must say that's been a rather pleasant discovery for me. ;) Speaking more seriously- yes, most want it to be in the context of a real relationship. But so do I, and so do many men, stereotypes notwithstanding.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Steve,

"The communitarians have yet to persuade me that the use of coercive state power (be it ever so mild) as some kind of educational tool to promote "desirable" values is either effective or justifiable..."

The campaign against smoking? To change the nutrition level in elementary school lunches? To oblige businesses to recycle? To report suspected domestic abusers to the police? To eliminate racist texts from high school reading lists? The number of communitarian projects out there is nearly endless (and appropriately so--since, despite what philosophical liberals would argue, we remain essentially communal in the way we live our lives), so I guess I'd need to know just what standards of proof you'd require to allow that something is "effective or justifiable" before I could choose an appropriate example of moralistic state power to defend.

Lee,

"If I read you right, you seem to want to prescind (to a certain extent) from making judgments on the value of fetal life while simultaneously wanting to deter certain sexual lifestyles that you think abortion encourages or makes possible....I think you need to show a tighter connection between the adoption of the kinds of lifestyles you say abortion on demand encourages and other bad things (e.g. a diminished capacity to form families and nurture children)."

Of course, part of my whole conceit in this post was that my feelings about abortion begin with a revulsion that does not map directly onto typical "pro-life" arguments; showing the sorts of connections you're interested in seeing wasn't my primary intention. What was my primary intention, given the quotations I included from Harry and Bill Martin, was to show that similarly the rhetoric of "pro-choice" doesn't map particularly well onto the other liberal causes that other defenders of abortion rights presumably support. That said, you're correct that should I ever get around to writing a post specifically about why I think what you correctly described as an "adolescent" approach towards sexual activity is bad for the social fabric, I'd have to show more connections than are on display here.

Anonymous,

"This argument seems like that of Deaf Culture extremists who oppose cochlear implants...You take the lack of a capability as a perspective, and therefore interpret the granting of that capability as an attack on that perspective."

I don't think I'm attacking it; indeed, to read it that way seems to me to show a presumptive desire to defend it, and therefore an admission that one already holds this kind of a capability to be a good, and that interfering with its extension is a de facto harm. However, you're comparison to the Deaf Culture extremists is telling; I suppose that my employ of that little original aside to leap from the physical conditions of sexual activity to social judgments about was a little too neat. Given how many people have responded to it--leaving the other stuff on choice and class alone--I'm beginning to suspect that it's just a flawed comment entirely.

Steve LaBonne said...

"The campaign against smoking? To change the nutrition level in elementary school lunches? To oblige businesses to recycle? To report suspected domestic abusers to the police? To eliminate racist texts from high school reading lists?"

Poor examples, Russell. I support anti-indoor-smoking laws on the straightforward ground that others have no right to force me to breathe their poison- no communitarian argument required. School lunches are irrelevant; where's the coercion there when it's the state that's providing the lunches in the first place? I'm against mandatory recycling (which only prevented the development of a functioning market for recycled materials by flooding it) and also, I have never seen it promoted on "values" grounds as opposed to utilitarian arguments about claimed environmental benefits. Domestic abuse- are you serious? Do you really think only communitarians believe that crimes ought to be reported? High school reading lists are like schoool lunches- I also don't see how political input into how an existing government institution functions has anything at all to do with communitarian arguments about using the government to regulate PRIVATE behavior- such as abortion- for "values promotion" purposes. Sorry, you're really not making sense to me here.

lee said...

Steve L.,

I think Russell's point isn't that only communitarians support those things but precisely the opposite - that we are all communitarians at some level. In other words, all government actions incorporate value judgments. The difference between liberals and communitarians is that the latter are up front about their value judgments whereas the former portray theirs as the deliverances of pure unbiased reason.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Steve,

Wow, we've really moved off topic here.

As I understood you, you stated your resistance to communitarian arguments for certain kind of "values legislation" by saying that you're unconvinced that any of such ever work or are defensible. I gave you a bunch of examples of apparently successful legislative acts that have been justified on the grounds that they promote collective values and ends that society has embraced. Those may not have been sole justification for any of those laws, but they were certainly always present.

For example, regarding anti-smoking laws: do you really claim that all the laws which have been successfully and popularly passed and implemented in numerous cities across the country (and which have often gone far beyond simply banning smoking indoors) have been premised entirely on protecting individuals like yourself from second-hand smoke? I don't think so; clearly, anti-smoking legislation has been about the state using its coercive power to stigmatize certain "private" choices which it finds unattractive, unhealthy, and unwise. As for school lunches and coercion, I think anyone who has been around for a while will recognize that the efforts of state governments spend more money on improving the food fed to children by local school lunch programs is often framed in fairly communitarian terms, all the better to fight off the inevitable local libertarians who think the interference of state health boards is creeping socialism. (Which, of course, in a sense it is--that's the point.) As for mandatory recycling, well, I guess if you can make an economic argument against I won't stop you, but I'd suggest that one of the primary reasons many Americans have adapted to and now value (there's that word again) recycling is because the government obliged all its agencies to do so, and passed laws making it in the interest of businesses to similarly do so, thus setting a pattern which taught us about its importance. (All those public interest ads on television--paid for by your tax money!--probably helped too.) As for the sort of domestic abuse laws I'm talking about--well, if Good Samaritan laws that oblige people to report crimes and assist people in distress aren't an example of communitarianism in action, I don't know what would be.

(Yes, I know, those sort of Good Samaritan laws in the U.S. are basically toothless. They're much more aggressive in Germany and France. The things we still need to learn from Europe...)

Lee,

Very well put; thanks.

Steve LaBonne said...

If what you're trying to say is that there are Left as well as Right communitarians, I agree- and I don't like them, or the identity politics with which they're usually associated, either. (Nor am I a fan of nanny-statism in general- I abhor the "war on drugs", for example, and equally I don't care if people smoke tobacco as long as they don't blow their smoke in my face.)

True liberalism- as so eloquently defended by, for example, Isaiah Berlin- is about the understanding that there exist different and sometimes incompatible conceptions of human flourishing. A liberal order is an imperfect, never entirely satisfying compromise- as, inevitably, is any human institution- that endeavors to allow as many such conceptions to be pursued by people in their private assocations as possible- consistent with keeping a reasonable degree of public order (you don't get to kill or imprison me by just pleading that I am in some way offenssive to your conception of human flourishing).
That conception is where I'm coming from, if that helps to clarify. And here endeth the off-topic excursion, or at least my aggravation thereof.

Anonymous said...

"I don't think I'm attacking it; indeed, to read it that way seems to me to show a presumptive desire to defend it, and therefore an admission that one already holds this kind of a capability to be a good, and that interfering with its extension is a de facto harm."

I didn't use the word "attacking" to refer to your position--I put you in the defending position--defending the perspective of women who cannot choose to terminate pregnancies.

Regardless, the passage I just quoted sounds exactly like what a cochlear implant opponent would say. I'm not saying that automatically makes you wrong--I'm just noting the similarity.

"Given how many people have responded to it--leaving the other stuff on choice and class alone"

I think that's for two reasons.

The idea that sexual liberation has worsened the situation of women is both old and not particularly well backed up by data. Even the anecdotes about women forced into abortion by poverty seem weak--the problem is not the availability of abortion, but the prevalence of poverty. The liberal solution is to make abortion more rare both through increased usage of birth control, greater economic equality, and perhaps greater support for mothers during and after pregnancy. --to solve the problem by adding capabilities rather than penalties and liabilities.

The other reason is that your deeper point of choice being anti-participatory--well, frankly, it's too deep. Liberals believe in choice, but we don't necessarily believe in it for the same reasons.

I believe in both communal and individual autonomy that must be weighed against each other. In economic matters, I think the community should have more power than in personal sexual decisions.

I recognize that humans are social creatures and we grow empty and sick if we are not connected to some kind of community. But I also recognize that communities grow static and insular if they are not forced to contend with individual choices.

sidereal said...

Russell, I was also directed here by CT. Thank you for a thoughtful and honest struggle with a topic that invites thoughtlessness and dishonesty.

I suspect you and I share more feelings in common on abortion than either of us share with either of the movements that serve as the official spokespersons in our national debate. In summary, I am deeply uncomfortable with abortion in and of itself, based on the belief that a developing fetus deserves protection to some extent (less than an extant human and more than a pet rat), and yet I am very sympathetic to choice arguments, because the alternatives are all worse.

In particular, I want to address your framing of the choice argument:

"You say you feel revulsion at the thought of abortion? Great! I don't. So how about we pass laws that allow you to follow your revulsions and not have an abortion, and me to follow my lack of revulsions and perhaps choose one if I'm so inclined, and everyone's happy?" A wonderful response, that. Except that to affirm it is to affirm the sort of comfortably pluralistic world--a world which above all follows the preferences of those psychologically and materially in a position to benefit from the safe navigation of that pluralism...


Your approach the conflict from the perspective of advantages. Specifically, that those who draw advantage from a choice-driven system are the same forces who reinforce the breakdown of communitarianism (if I understand you correctly and you don't mind a little oversimplification).

That's a reasonable argument, but I think it's frankly immaterial when weighed against the consequences at the negative end. Meaning: who is harmed in the absence of a choice-driven system, and in what manner are they harmed?

You are still free to apply consequences to abortion in a choice-driven system. You can foment opprobrium, you can label every recipient of an abortion a slut, you can refuse to dine with them, and so on. For a choice-driven system to fail to satisfy you, you must necessarily want more. Something with teeth, as it were. And what it comes down to, when all the rhetoric is wiped away, is the willingness to deprive women of life or liberty as punishment for having an abortion.

Law is a brutal and blunt instrument, and the fact that most abortion opponents look first to law and only secondarily or (most often) never to the sort of social education and support efforts that would otherwise reduce the incidence of abortion without such collateral damage should be chilling to anyone genuinely interested in the welfare of women and families.

I recommend that in our opposition to abortion we work together to support organizations that actually support and provide alternatives to pregnant women rather than demonize them or take the lazy and cruel way and look to incarceration.

T. Paine said...

I don't doubt that Mr. Fox is serious about what he says, but I do doubt that what he says is in any way serious (as in, a meaningful contribution to the "debate" about abortion).

Once more we have a man trying to reinforce the idea that women simply don't know what's good for them, with an added implication that women are also hurting society (somehow) by having abortions. I'm not buying.

We should all know that women were having abortions before Roe. It's just that the possible problems (sepsis, subsequent infertility, rape, cost) were worse. And we should all know that anti-choicers are only too willing to choose when they feel the need. So really it seems like this piece is just one big meditation on how Mr. Fox finds abortion to be icky, and how he'd like to make it harder (and more dangerous, through the use of parental notification, waiting periods, "informed consent," and the like) for women to have an abortion.

So, yes, there is a fair amount of misogyny in play here: Mr. Fox's communitarian values, whatever they might be, are offended that a woman might make a decision without considering his opinion also. That's called patriarchy, not community.

Steve LaBonne said...

sideral, organizations that "counsel" women about the medical risks of abortion while soft-pedaling the very significant medical risks of pregnancy are quite simply being dishonest and deceptive, and are doing so to promote their own agenda to particularly vulnerable people. Personally I find that rather reprehensible. Have you really thought through your enthusiasm for the outfits to whose sites you linked? Is YOUR "yuck factor" about abortion- which, commendably, you realize is not an excuse for supporting the use of the law to intervene- really sufficient to justify one-sided propagandizing of a vulnerable population?

Once again, I think people who are really serious about reducing the incidence of abortion (rather than just covering it with opprobrium to scratch the itch of their poorly argued discomfort with it) should focus on reducing the need for it by supporting access to contraception and information about how to use it successfully. Not on one-sided "medical" propaganda.

Russell L. Carter said...

Ok, sidereal gets a skewering here.

Second link:http://www.optionline.org/

I quote:

"What Are Some of the Other Risks of Abortion?

Abortion may increase the risk of Breast Cancer"

The Mayo Clinic says:

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/abortion/AN00855

"no credible evidence"

Spreading lies, to mislead women in vulnerable circumstances is ah, not communitarian.

sidereal said...

mea culpa. I intended to link to Backline rather than Optionline, but misremembered the name. I do not endorse Pearson Foundation - style crisis pregnancy centers designed to avoid an abortion by misinforming and hounding women, which Optionline seems to be.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Anonymous,

"Your deeper point [about] choice being anti-participatory...frankly, it's too deep. Liberals believe in choice, but we don't necessarily believe in it for the same reasons."

Fair enough--that observation emerges from a socialist/communitarian critique of liberal society that is, I would insist, accurate, but also depends upon pro-choice people having an understanding of and commitment to liberal society that most of them probably do not have. (One could argue that such is part of the problem--that not only does pro-choice rhetoric assume and promote a non-participatory and non-obligatory view of social and sexual life, but also that it does so unknowingly--but that's less than helpful when speaking to actual choice-oriented abortion rights activists.) It's possible that introducing the argument the way I did, in the context of a post on the rhetoric surrounding abortion, was simply flawed. (Thank you, though, for having read thoroughly enough to have caught the point!)

Sidereal,

"[You say] those who draw advantage from a choice-driven system are the same forces who reinforce the breakdown of communitarianism....That's a reasonable argument, but I think it's frankly immaterial when weighed against the consequences at the negative end....[The] law is a brutal and blunt instrument."

You do understand my argument about abortion--to the extent that I'm seriously advancing one here, as opposed to primarily just indicting the two dominant approaches to abortion--correct, and moreover you rightly point out the costs. By guaranteeing choice to all, whatever that does to the social fabric, you do at least provide options that are needed by those few for whom the lack of such choices could mean life-wrenching or health-threatening changes. All I can say in response is 1) that I hope I made it clear in my post that I have nothing but contempt for those pro-lifers who think only about fetal life and never spend a penny to change the economic and cultural contexts within which the choice to perhaps end it arises; 2) that the sort of means for discouraging or deterring abortion I've considered as part of an attempt to address the social and sexual degeneration which is at least in part abetted by abortion rights do not aim to completely and arbitrarily close off that choice, at least nowhere in the near future; and 3) that while there are many and available ways to address community breakdown besides the law, to insist that the law itself should never be employed towards such ends--even if the law is democratically determined--is to concede that the social game must be played entirely on the (philosophical) liberal playground. That I'm not willing to do.

Russell Arben Fox said...

T. Paine,

"Once more we have a man trying to reinforce the idea that women simply don't know what's good for them."

Please don't limit your criticisms on my account--the truth is, I simply don't think men who buy into the sexual presumptions which are at least partially enabled by the ideology of "choice" regarding abortion rights know what's good for them either.

"With an added implication that women are also hurting society (somehow) by having abortions."

An interesting implication to draw, seeing as how I never say that the fact of abortion is leading to the breakdown of society. My argument was about the choice-driven assumptions behind common defenses of the legal right to the procedure, not that the knowledge for the medical procedure itself exists.

"And we should all know that anti-choicers are only too willing to choose when they feel the need."

Some are, some aren't. The existence of hypocrisy to attack an argument seems rather ad hominen to me.

"Mr. Fox finds abortion to be icky, and how he'd like to make it harder (and more dangerous, through the use of parental notification, waiting periods, 'informed consent,' and the like) for women to have an abortion."

Of course, I also wrote that I was very open to every argument that comes my way which may purport to show how there can't be any possible parental notification, etc., type of law that wouldn't be directly to every one of those few women who genuinely need an abortion for the sake of their lives or safety. And I'll stay open, because I think I'll have to wait a very long time for such an argument. Would parental notification laws have harms? Yes. Is there no possible way to ever write parental notification so that those harms are both minimized and properly balanced against the social and moral benefit of deterring abortion? I sincerely doubt it. In the real world, there are (and should be) trade-offs; but within the ideology of choice, abortion rights easily become absolutes.

Russell Arben Fox said...

"...how there can't be any possible parental notification, etc., type of law that wouldn't be directly to every one of those few women..."

"directly harmful," that is.

Greg said...

Sebastian,

I think you still got my point, but I notice now that I left out a really crucial word. I meant to say:

We must endeavour not to label any private choice to be right or wrong.

Steve LaBonne said...

Too many promissory notes here, Russell. You need to explain how to write a parental notification law that avoids or at least minimizes harm to daughters of abusive parents. Without that, your advocacy of such laws is, on your own premises, morally irresponsible- you're willing to risk inflicting harm that you yourself admit to be real based on the empty promise that somebody somehow will find a way to eliminate most of the harm. (Not to mention a blithe assumption that such a mechanism, in the unlikely event there really is one, would survive the messy political process of actually writing the law.)

That's my problem with your whole position. It's basically a moral holiday in which you get to impose the consequences, potentially serious, on others without any risk of having to face them yourself (unless you have a uterus you're not telling us about)- all to satisfy what, thus far, remains nothing more morally grounded than your personal yuck reflex (plus some thoroughly unconvincing communitarian handwaving which adds nothing to your case*). Sorry, that position is deeply unattractive.

*Indeed, yet once again, I tell you that it actually damages your cause if that cause truly is reducing the number of abortions, because your "Hugh Hefner argument" makes it very awkward for you to advocate the one thing that would actually be effective in reducing the demand for abortions: dissemination of contraceptives and of training on their use.

T. Paine said...

I simply don't think men who buy into the sexual presumptions which are at least partially enabled by the ideology of "choice" regarding abortion rights know what's good for them either.

What sexual presumptions have I advanced? None. That's part of my point: When I'm pro-choice, I don't have to "enable" any sexual presumptions, because it's really none of my (or your) business what people (including women) do with their private lives. I don't presume to know what's best for the woman in 3B because it does me no injury whether she has two children or two abortions or both.

My argument was about the choice-driven assumptions behind common defenses of the legal right to the procedure, not that the knowledge for the medical procedure itself exists.

And if the issue is the choice-driven assumptions, why are we even talking about abortion at all? Why not decry the implications of our choice in car-ownership, a much more pervasive and harmful societal structure that affects everyone, rather than just women who are able to bear children? It's not just the ideology of choice your writing about here, it's your own personal discomfort with the fact that women are able to make choices you don't like, and that they are able to do it without giving you the opportunity to express your displeasure to them.

I also wrote that I was very open to every argument that comes my way which may purport to show how there can't be any possible parental notification, etc., type of law that wouldn't be directly [harmful] to every one of those few women who genuinely need an abortion for the sake of their lives or safety.

And here's that argument: Abortion becomes more dangerous the longer you wait. Any delay, once the decision is made, has the potential for serious adverse consequences. These laws all delay the abortion. Therefore, they all have negative health consequences.

Perhaps more importantly, with your point about "lives or safety," you've given away the game: You want to be able to control under what circumstances women get abortions. For her life or safety: OK. Other reasons: Not OK. As others have pointed out this isn't terribly respectful or consistent (and you acknowledge the inconsistency in your post). The trade-offs that you so blithely wave away are ones that I am unwilling to make, because they involve loading all of the burdens onto some women, while asking men and society at large to give up precisely nothing.

Damon Linker said...

An interesting post and discussion.

I think there's a point worth making here. The reason why liberalism upholds personal choice in sexual matters is not because men have made the rules for the sake of maximizing their sex lives, as I think Russell implies. Rather, liberals uphold choice because there is nothing more personal than what people do together sexually. If anything is a private matter, this is. (Eros can subvert all public attachments and duties, as any reader of Romeo and Juliet is well aware.) And so, to the extent that liberalism seeks to protect the private lives of citizens from public oppression, sex is a (perhaps the) prime candidate for such protection. And that leaves individual "choice" as the appropriate (default) guide in such matters.

Now, as a communitarian, you may lament this and pine in your romantic way for a much more robust public sphere. But do you really want a more robust public sphere in sexual matters? I bet even you don't want public authorities -- whether it's the state or your church or neighbors -- rendering judgment about what you and your wife do in bed. And if not, then you, too, are a defender of "choice."

Anonymous said...

"Fair enough--that observation emerges from a socialist/communitarian critique of liberal society that is, I would insist, accurate, but also depends upon pro-choice people having an understanding of and commitment to liberal society that most of them probably do not have."

I can see some of the theoretical validity of that critique. It's easy to construct game theory situations in which giving a player options actually hurts their position. And a lot of people calling themselves "pro-choice" would find it easy to understand how "choice" means "everyone for themselves" in labor markets, health insurance, pensions, and education.

On the other hand, that very same critique can, misapplied, take you to some very totalitarian places. Even in the economic situations in which I would constrain choice, the argument that constraining choice enables corruption and inefficiency--in local governments, schools, hospitals, unions, etc--isn't entirely without merit.

And I don't think it's fair to condemn the liberal society and choice as middle-class only, at least not always. Look Grameen Bank's system of micro-credit and self-help groups. It blurs the distinctions between individual and collective responsibility in a way that challenges both liberalism and socialism. Participants are empowered against both exploitative multinationals (too much choice) and corrupt local bureaucrats (too little choice).

So, constraining choice is a defensible, yet perilous path. If it's a matter of economics--constraining choices today ends up giving people greater choices or at least greater income later--then I'm willing to do it. If it's a matter of subjective values, or if it's something deeply personal--like abortion or end of life decisions--then I think constraining choice betrays deep hubris.

Still, perhaps "pro-choice" could be replaced by "pro-responsibility", a movement that's directed more to avoiding unplanned pregnancy than dealing with it after the fact. Something similar could happen with the pro-life side, and then the fight would not be over abortion but over birth control vs. abstinence.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Steve,

"Too many promissory notes here, Russell."

Do I get any credit from you by pointing out that I acknowledge in my post that my social aspirations in regards to abortion legislation may be very difficult to achieve? Or, does it count for anything that, given the approach I assume throughout the whole post, any such achievements will be democratically instituted? To say nothing of the fact that I also state that I consider myself fully committed--unlike, I acknowledge, many other opponents of abortion rights--to taking seriously all the entirely legitimate economic and cultural factors that can make, on occasion, my preferred social outcomes potentially exceptionally burdensome to a few seriously victimized individuals.

In short, Steve, I get the sense--and please correct me with my apologies if I'm wrong--that your position is simply "No; it's impossible; nothing to be done; full stop." And that position leads me to think that, not only do we have a basic disagreement over the relative badness of abortion (that much is obvious), but that we further disagree sexuality's place in society. Seeing as how, despite your professed admiration for Berlin's liberalism, I'm doubtful that you truly reject every possible form of community- or morality-based legislation, that must mean that opposition is not primarily philosophical, but arises because you regard the whole matter of sexual activity to be entirely a super-duper-double-secret-probation-private sort of matter--one that, whatever else, ought never be the subject of even the most considered and democratically administered legislation. And I guess this is where the Hugh Hefner thing comes in because, frankly, prude that I am, I really don't believe that at all. (This, of course, connects with Damon's comment below.)

Steve LaBonne said...

"In short, Steve, I get the sense--and please correct me with my apologies if I'm wrong--that your position is simply "No; it's impossible; nothing to be done; full stop." "

Why is the burden on ME, Russell? Show that it's possible, and I'll have to concede that much. Of course, T. Paine has made another important point (the medical cost of delaying abortions) that you'll also have to deal with. Go to it; don't let me stop you!

Russell Arben Fox said...

T. Paine,

"If the issue is the choice-driven assumptions, why are we even talking about abortion at all? Why not decry the implications of our choice in car-ownership, a much more pervasive and harmful societal structure that affects everyone, rather than just women who are able to bear children?"

1) Actually, I think I've bagged on SUVs and their drivers before, haven't I? If I haven't, that's been a total oversight on my part. Most of the people who purchase and drive SUVs are making bad choices, and should have been discouraged from making them in the first place.

2) I don't highlight it, but my post does begin with explaining that while I'm not a hardcore, life-begins-at-conception pro-lifer, much of my distaste for abortion is nonetheless grounded in the undeniable biological reality of what takes place when a fetus is aborted. Hence, I get to thinking about these issues, more often than I do about cars. I'm afraid I have no larger justification than that.

"The trade-offs that you so blithely wave away are ones that I am unwilling to make, because they involve loading all of the burdens onto some women, while asking men and society at large to give up precisely nothing."

Well of course you would be unwilling to make them: you do not, I assume, believe society (including both women and men), actually would gain anything by the creation of an environment where abortions formally discouraged. That is, you see no upside to the trade. I do: a more restricted and less present abortion culture, with concomitant consequences for how people interact with and assume responsibilities for one another both sexually and socially. Since I actually see a trade here, I try to think about how I could reasonably justify or arrange such a trade. I may fail. But how could I explain my reasons for even contemplating certain costs when my interlocuter acknowledges only costs, and no possible gains?

Steve LaBonne said...

Correction: You, personally, are NOT making any "tradeoff", again unless you have a uterus you haven't been telling us about. Since you have a potential stake only in the alleged social-benefit side of the equation but not in the sacrifice, you lack moral standing to lecture women on what their tradeoffs should be. If I'm wrong about that, what's your argument that I'm wrong?

Russell Arben Fox said...

Anonymous,

"On the other hand, that very same critique can, misapplied, take you to some very totalitarian places....I don't think it's fair to condemn the liberal society and choice as middle-class only, at least not always....Constraining choice is a defensible, yet perilous path....Perhaps 'pro-choice' could be replaced by 'pro-responsibility,' a movement that's directed more to avoiding unplanned pregnancy than dealing with it after the fact."

All very good points, Anonymous; all worth pondering over. I think claim that philosophical liberalism and "choice" will invariably rebound in a bourgeois, middle-class direction is well attested by history, but that is an entirely different debate. I appreciate that you acknowledge the role limits of choice can and should play in the construction of our lives, even as I need to acknowledge the totalitarian risk in any such argument. And I think a shift in rhetoric to "pro-responsibility" would do wonders for the debate over abortion; if nothing else, arguing over what "responsibility" means when it comes to sexuality would reveal much more clearly (and, I think, productively) what is and isn't present in much of the current debate: on the pro-life side, a frequent unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of teen and pre-marital sexual activity; on the pro-choice side, an equally frequent unwillingness to acknowledge that sexual choices always involve a greater social reality than two choosers.

Damon,

Thanks for stopping by!

"Liberals uphold choice because there is nothing more personal than what people do together sexually....As a communitarian, you may lament this and pine in your romantic way for a much more robust public sphere. But do you really want a more robust public sphere in sexual matters? I bet even you don't want public authorities...rendering judgment about what you and your wife do in bed. And if not, then you, too, are a defender of 'choice.'"

This is absolutely correct, as you know as well as anyone: I do embrace individual liberty and choice. The difference is, I think (or at least I like to hope that I think) that individual liberty and choice comes in at a different stage than you do. You see it as both and foundational; I see it basically as just prudent. So, as I wrote to Steve above, I'm dubious of any foundational reason to think that the consequences of sexual activity need to be thought in a categorically different way than any of social concern when considering what democratic majorities should or should not be allowed to do. Where does my prudence come down? In regards this whole discussion, I haven't ever said anything (despite what has been implied about my post) about birth control, or sodomy laws, etc. Do I think abortion--the option of disposing of what might well be a living being when it appears necessary to do so--is a grave enough challenge to the way I believe human beings ought to responsibly think about and relate to one another so as to justify acting to discourage it, whereas I wouldn't so think about the logical steps which exist before that option presents itself? Yes. Is that inconsistent? Probably? Prudentially defensible? If you agree abortion is a bad thing in the first place...yes. (If you don't think so, then the whole conversation never gets off the ground.)

Steve LaBonne said...

But you still have a severe consistency problem wrt abortion being a bad thing. I note that you have once again pointedly avoided engaging the fact that the most direct way to reduce the rate of abortions (and while I don't have any links handy, I believe there are empirical data to support this) is to promote the use of contraception. Essentially, you're going to have to decide which of the two mutually incompatible parts of your position is more important to you. To promote your "sexual responsibility" communitarian project, you can hardly be an enthusiastic supporter of contraception. Yet if you aren't, you're effectively refusing to take a practical measure that can assuage your discomfort with abortion by making sbortions rarer. So which is it? Is it more important to you to actually reduce the number of aborted fetuses, or to satisfy your urge to impose sexual discipline on society by seeking to make women "bear the consequences"? I don't see how you can do both. You really have placed yourself in a cleft stick.

Anonymous said...

Russell, A very fine post. I'm in agreement with your basic position, though I don't know why you don't consider yourself pro-life. The fetishism of many pro-lifers, and you not wanting to be associated with some of their views, doesn't seem to be enough, especially for someone who wants a 'seamless garment', culture of life politics. You profess sympathy for 'conservatism', even though you have almost nothing in common with what conservatism means in America right now. Then why not "pro-life"?

If your abortion position is basically rooted in communitarianism (and concerns about the privatization of life in general), then I guess there is a place where we part company. Linker's point is a good one here--the concern with the unborn, with strengthening our attachments and responsibilities is an awkward fit with some general communitarian or republican project against 'privatization' (since I won't malign you or communitarianism by asserting that it wants nothing to be private, nothing to be a matter of personal choice). Restrictions on abortion will inevitably involve women having to carry their child to term before giving it up, and, I hope, men being required to support their child's mother until the child is born and a separation is made between all three. That's often the best-case scenario under conditions where abortion is not legal. Even pro-lifers (perhaps especuially pro-lifers), I think, need to recognize that the difficult questions about abortion are connected to extreme circumstances where basic rights and obligations, mere life and welfare come to the forefront and the network of social connections and public meanings fade into the background somewhat. So I actually think even though American liberalism doesn't talk about abortion in a very good way, the solution is a different kind of liberalism (organic liberalism?), rather than (necessarily) communitarianism.

Steve: "you lack moral standing to lecture women on what their tradeoffs should be."

Do you really think that you have to be a woman to make an anti-abortion argument? It seems that there should be some special attempt made in moral arguments to try to understand the prespective of the weak, or those most effected by our policy proposals or general moral positons. This is because, as you note, these perspectives are most frequently pushed aside and ignored in moral arguments. But I don't think you show that Russell is refusing to make such an attempt (unless you're saying that opposition to abortion rights is itself evidence that a man is ignoring the perspective of women), and I don't think that you want to say that you actually have to be someone most effected by a moral position in order to advocate it. If that were true, Russell could similarly say to you that you 'lack the moral standing' to defend abortion rights because you are a man who stands to benefit substantially by being freed from the obligations of paternity.

Jeremiah J.

Steve LaBonne said...

"Do you really think that you have to be a woman to make an anti-abortion argument?" That all depends on how you're framing the argument. If you stake out an absolutist moral position such as "abortion is murder", then clearly not. Russell's problem is that he's talking about tradeoffs- but it's a "tradeoff" where he doesn't have anything to contribute to the pot. So with that kind of argument- yes, I would say it cannot be made by a man.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Steve,

"Since you have a potential stake only in the alleged social-benefit side of the equation but not in the sacrifice, you lack moral standing to lecture women on what their tradeoffs should be. If I'm wrong about that, what's your argument that I'm wrong?"

Well, for starters, I could point out that I have no potential stake in the sacrifice which anti-smoking legislation places upon smokers. Or in the social costs I impose upon my children by forbidding them to attend certain parties. Or in the burdens which I place upon small businesses by voting for a minimum wage. Or in happiness lost to addicts when dope is made illegal. Or in the wealth which home owners lose when the city appropriates an empty lot beside their street under eminent domain and decides to build low-cost housing there, along with the halfway house for parolees and drug addicts.

All costs, all trade-offs, all personally and, I suppose, arrogantly supported--not always, but often, in many different situations--by me in the name of "family values" or "community standards" or "justice" or some such thing. Do you oppose each and every one of those actions above? If not, do you believe the sexual behavior of two people categorically different in every way from all of the above? If it is, then even something comparatively minor like a parental notification law will obviously be a complete non-starter, because there will be no way to ever even begin to discuss how one might address the (admittedly real!) costs to such a law.

"To promote your 'sexual responsibility' communitarian project, you can hardly be an enthusiastic supporter of contraception. Yet if you aren't, you're effectively refusing to take a practical measure that can assuage your discomfort with abortion by making abortions rarer. So which is it?...You really have placed yourself in a cleft stick."

There are degrees of "enthusiastic support," Steve. I'll admit, I'm not crazy about condom demonstrations in junior high schools (though that has more to do with my belief that the schools are to be more flexible with regards to the religious beliefs of parents then because of a particular ethos I think showing off a condom in the classroom necessarily involves). But really, have I ever I want to discourage contraception? Have I said a word about abstinence? I have opinions about those things, sure, but I don't believe those choices trigger the same effects that the choice of abortion does. I allowed in my response to Damon above that it may be "inconsistent," but is it really unreasonable? Is it impossible for someone to say, as part of promoting a different and (I think) more responsible sexual ethic, "think about what you're doing, and take precautions, because one possible result is a situation whose apparent remedy is troubling enough for society to make it rather difficult to obtain?" I just don't see what's supposedly divided and therefore impossible about that.

T. Paine said...

I think I've bagged on SUVs and their drivers before

Let's not narrow it - where's your long, serious condemnation of the pervasive negative outcomes of car culture generally: Atomization (one person per car, even at rush hour); individual health (lack of exercise, toxic chemicals in the air and water, 50,000 road fatalities a year); environmental consequences (global warming, sprawl, etc.)? These consequences are at least as bad as the possibility that a woman somewhere might decide to have an abortion without acknowledging your discomfort with it. And if the "biological reality" is so bad, where is your condemnation of open heart surgery or organ transplants? Or is this just a euphemism for "killing babies?"

This is all beside the point though, because you're right, there are no benefits to be gained from formal discouragement of abortion. We have a demonstration project in Mississippi to prove it, along with information from other countries. And we know that abortion rates before Roe were comparable to abortion rates after Roe, so perhaps formal discouragement doesn't do much other than make people like you feel better about themselves for the serious way in which a serious society expresses its displeasure with women's choices, while making it more dangerous for the women who actually have abortions.

I'd also like to highlight that you think that people do not take responsibility for each other sexually and socially, and you attribute this to "abortion culture." I'm not quite sure what an "abortion culture" is (is society designed around abortion like society is designed around cars?), but frankly, this is extremely offensive: Do you imagine that women do not see an abortion as an important decision? Do you think that few women discuss their decisions with their romantic partners or families? And if they don't, is it more likely because they are simply irresponsible ne'er do-wells, or is it perhaps because of anti-choice folks (like you?) who have been telling them that they are bad, irresponsible people for having abortions?

I'm also still very interested in your response to my point above about the health consequences related to delaying abortion.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Jeremiah,

Like Damon, thanks for stopping by.

"I don't know why you don't consider yourself pro-life....You profess sympathy for 'conservatism', even though you have almost nothing in common with what conservatism means in America right now. Then why not 'pro-life'?"

I think mainly it's just that I can make rhetorical and philosophical sense out of being "conservative" after a fashion. I can't do the same with "pro-life," except in the most banal sense (I'm in favor of it). In the context of the debate over abortion, "pro-life" constructs itself against a presumably somehow "pro-death" position, and no, I don't think D'Souza's "party of death" is at all accurate. Though perhaps I'm just making too big a deal about nomenclature.

"I actually think even though American liberalism doesn't talk about abortion in a very good way, the solution is a different kind of liberalism (organic liberalism?), rather than (necessarily) communitarianism."

Again, this may be a matter of being too hung up on nomenclature. What's "organic liberalism," anyway, except a liberalism that allows that identities have some sort of organic (communal) basis that must be recognized?

I'm afraid I'm going to have to back off the thread now; too much to do. Maybe I'll come back later, maybe not. If that means Steve gets the last word, well, he deserves it; he's put me through a workout.

Anonymous said...

on the pro-choice side, an equally frequent unwillingness to acknowledge that sexual choices always involve a greater social reality than two choosers.

That may be real when limited to abortion, but I think if expanded to feminism in general there is a strong faction that applies choice-skeptical thinking to domestic relationships generally--treating stay-at-home moms--or just women who do too many chores in a marriage--as the equivalent of the patriarchy's scabs in a grand labor vs. management dispute. Traditionalists, feminists, and liberals are three different factions, and it just so happens that with abortion liberals and feminists find themselves on the same side (grossly generalizing, of course).

Anonymous said...

"What's "organic liberalism," anyway, except a liberalism that allows that identities have some sort of organic (communal) basis that must be recognized?"

By organic liberalism (sorry--not a common term, I know) I mean an outlook which still holds human freedom as the basic political value, and recognizes an important sphere of individual rights and individual choice (even to some extent arbitrary choice), but acknowledges many of the critiques of consumerism and individualism, and asserts that many positive duties and institutions are necessary conditions for substantive freedom. In the U.S., I know this is likely considered a kind of communitarianism (since that term often means 'critics of American liberalism'), but I think it's more precise to call it a liberal view.

I think there is a real distinction, though. If the concern is basically for the community, our duties to one another and the public good, there are good grounds for being repulsed by a vulgar elevation of choice, but not, I think, quite as much ground for a positive protection of the each unborn life (in more communitarian times and places the "right to choose" would have seemed absurd but tolerating a good deal of abortion and even infanticide, not always). So I think the best kind of pro-life position is basically a certain liberal one.

Jeremiah J.

Camassia said...

Russell, getting back to the "misogyny" point (which I know you dropped but bear with me), I wonder if you're trying to get at the same point I wrote about here and here on my own blog; namely, that a lot of the terror over losing abortion rights seems to be based on the assumption that women in our natural state (i.e. easily impregnated) can never be socially equal to men. In our society that's probably true enough, but it doesn't seem to really be valuing women as complete equals. That's not the only reason people support legal abortion, of course, but it does seem to underlie why abortion is primarily a feminist issue, as opposed to an overpopulation issue or a poverty issue or what have you.

Anonymous said...

It's nice that you are attempting to make an argument based on communitarianism rather than on religion, but when you get right down to it, you're still saying that you are in a better position to dictate to women the course of their lives than they are.

You're entitled to that belief, but what I would like to know, what exactly privileges your feelings over that of a woman (or a man for that matter) who may feel differently? Your personal yuck factor is neither here nor there.

You can cloak it in all of the erudition you want, but when you get right down to it, it still sounds very much like you're saying that since women got the short end of the stick biologically, they should just suck it up if they should find themselves unwillingly pregnant, because it's better for society if they do so. Your somewhat convoluted explanation about the middle class basis of the pro-choice movement doesn't provide enough of a foundation for the abrogation of an individual woman's ability to control the path of her own life.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I should respond to other comments, but first, I've got to thank Camassia for those links. Camassia, thank you; while I think I was going after something slightly different from what your discussed on your blog, what you wrote expresses one of my basic concerns far more effectively than my "biologically male" talk did. I can't do any better than to quote from one of Camassia's posts, for anyone who actually reads this far down:

A Catholic blogger recently wrote an anti-contraception post, which led a commenter to accuse him of thinking women are "reproductive cattle"....I'm not Catholic, have no problem with birth control and am ambivalent about abortion. Still, there's something about the commenter's attitude, which I've encountered a lot from various people, that irritates me. It's this idea that women NEED these modern medical technologies in order to be something other than livestock. Yeah yeah, in our society people have a right to avail themselves of technologies that are available, but that's not really a gendered right. The obvious reason why so many women are so terrified of losing their right to abortion is that they're afraid their equality with men will go with it. But what does this say about women's inherent worth?

The presumptive sexual rule of that society implied by the ideology of "choice" is one in which sexual activity and its attendant consequences can be chosen, or not chosen, or re-chosen, on the basis of one's preferences. That's not something that women--at least not most women, for much of their lives--can do...absent contraception and abortion rights, that is. Hence, to claim that choices of these sorts are necessary for a decent and equal life for women in society is to have assumed that the way biology often works for women is incompatible with social decency and equality. In other words, to accept a somewhat gendered definition of society.

The more I think about this, the more I'm coming to agree that the whole "misogyny" suggestion wasn't just weak, but simply wrong. There may not necessarily be any misogyny present at all in the desire to live in a sexual environment which reflects a particular gendered norm. Still, it is a desire that deserves more reflection than simple incantations of "choice" allow it, as Camassia rightly implies.

Scott Lemieux said...

Russell: My response is here:

http://lefarkins.blogspot.com/2007/02/abortion-choice-and-communitarianism.html

Anonymous said...

"Hence, to claim that choices of these sorts are necessary for a decent and equal life for women in society is to have assumed that the way biology often works for women is incompatible with social decency and equality. In other words, to accept a somewhat gendered definition of society."

Wouldn't we all agree, though, that a society in which it were not necessary to have such choices in order for women to live a decent and equal life would require huge changes from our current society? Motherhood is culturally and economically undervalued, and women are forced to choose between having children and participating in society outside the home.

It seems to me that abortion and contraception are complete distractions from that issue. Discouraging abortion and contraception gets us not one step closer to a world in which mothers are treated with equality and decency.

Anonymous said...

Trackback. I've tried to address some of the themes in your original post which worry me. The post is excessively long by my standards, but I still think I haven't quite done justice to the complexity of your arguments. Still, I had a stab at it.


Cast Iron Balcony

Anonymous said...

A pox on both houses is the cheapest of stands.

-Adam Greenwood

Anonymous said...

Party of Death was Ramesh Ponnuru, not Dinesh D'Souza.

-Adam Greenwood

Russell Arben Fox said...

Adam,

"A pox on both houses is the cheapest of stands."

Except I'm not saying "Pox!" on both positions, am I? As my arguments in the long thread here hopefully show, I want to deter make rare abortion; I find it revolting; I think it is alienating and impersonal, to say nothing of wrong. What I am saying "Pox!" to is a couple of labels, including one whose substantive policies I'm likely in agreement with. I may be opposed to abortion, but I am unsatisfied with the pro-life strategy and justification for opposing it. I am not convinced by arguments which place all the anti-abortion arguments in the basket of "life!," because I think the choice of abortion is more complicated, and deserves more considered thought, then labeling it a choice for "death!" would imply.

"Party of Death was Ramesh Ponnuru, not Dinesh D'Souza."

Thanks for the correction; I should have checked.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is just a different approach to syntax--in my mind, "pro-life" connotes a broad political position and not a particular set of justifications for that position. But it would not be unlike you and your distaste for politics to refuse to identify with a political grouping whose aims you share.

Anonymous said...

It is curious to me that so much of the argument here, on all sides, focuses on the social and political consequences of prohibiting or allowing abortion. Why no greater focus on the question of whether it is ever intrinsically wrong to terminate the life of the fetus? Some people might suggest that we could never agree on that question and so should focus on others, but I don't see how we're more likely to come to agreement on the other questions. So why not focus on the question that ought to be primary, anyway?

Someone in this impressively long list of comments said the following:

We must [not?] endeavour to label any private choice to be right or wrong, so long as such an exercise of liberty does not interfere with the freedom of another.

There are a dozen or so problems with this, especially if it comes from the mouth of anyone but a libertarian. The first problem that arises with applying this principle to the abortion debate is whether unborn children count among those people who ought to be protected. I don't think I've ever heard a convincing argument that they shouldn't. If I, too, fail to be "pro-life" in the normal sense of the term, it is not because I think fetuses fall outside the range of moral concern, but because I think that the considerations determining whether or not an abortion is the best among available courses of action are so complex that the law should not address it.

What troubles me most about abortion has nothing to do with the law. It is, rather, that our culture's obsession with the legal dimensions of abortion has left all of us without a strong, coherent, and viable framework for considering the practical, moral question. On the left, people mouth the word "choice" and leave everything up to an individual woman's feelings; on the right, people talk about the law of God or nature, as though abortion must either be categorically impermissible or completely unobjectionable. No wonder the decision ends up being so hard for so many women to make.

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled upon this post and these comments now, and thought I'd add my two cents, particularly about this issue:

" 'The obvious reason why so many women are so terrified of losing their right to abortion is that they're afraid their equality with men will go with it. But what does this say about women's inherent worth?'

The presumptive sexual rule of that society implied by the ideology of "choice" is one in which sexual activity and its attendant consequences can be chosen, or not chosen, or re-chosen, on the basis of one's preferences. That's not something that women--at least not most women, for much of their lives--can do...absent contraception and abortion rights, that is..."

First of all, I would say that biologically, women have always had abortion "rights". What I mean is that historically, a woman could induce a miscarriage by altering her diet or exercise routine, "massaging" her abdomen, and other (now obscure and unreliable) techniques. "Rights" doesn't enter into it until people start making judgments about it. Biologically it has always been possible - not easy - but possible.

"Hence, to claim that choices of these sorts are necessary for a decent and equal life for women in society is to have assumed that the way biology often works for women is incompatible with social decency and equality. In other words, to accept a somewhat gendered definition of society."

First of all, these choices *are* necessary for an equal life for women in our society configured as it is today (i.e. still deeply patriarchal). Second, to say so is not to assume that biology is incompatible with social decency and equality, but to argue that until we accept the biological reality that women have control over their own bodies, society will never be equal.