Sunday, January 24, 2010

Blog for Choice II: boy have I got some opinions

Sometimes, when I’m in the mood for choir-preaching or having mental arguments with imaginary opponents, I like to think about some serious logical gaps in how we, as a culture, think about abortion. More rarely, I like to blog about it.

I’ve been “pro-choice,” as they say, since I found out that abortion existed. First, it was a vague idea that came with the knowledge that my parents voted for Bill Clinton, and therefore I was a Democrat, too, and Democrats, I understood, were pro-choice. By high school, I’d begun to form my own political views, and I thought the standard “it’s a woman’s choice” rhetoric made sense. I mean, who else’s choice was it gonna be? Later, the “A fetus is not a person” justification seemed most salient. At some point, when the idea of actual sperm making contact with my own personal ova became more than abstract, my pro-choice feelings intensified rather alarmingly. But at the bottom of it all was that same bumper-sticker conviction: It’s a woman’s choice.

Along the way, I developed my own logical reasons why abortion was not immoral and absolutely had to remain legal. Much of this happened in conversation with a non-imaginary opponent a few years ago, one of my closest friends, who I’ll call June. June is a very intelligent, well-spoken, argumentative woman, and at the time, she was the only woman I knew who was anti-abortion and willing to talk—and, even more amazingly, listen—to me about it.

(More common—outside my feminist circles—are the people like roommate M, who once commented, over two MSNBC talking heads blathering about Stupak, “I’m so tired of people talking about abortion. I mean, can’t we just agree to disagree and move on?” He apologized, five minutes later, after I’d finished shouting [my contention, in brief: “NO!”]. In retrospect, that’s probably the sort of behavior that leads to people being tired of people talking about abortion.)

June is a logical person, so I appealed to logic. First, theology: June (who was not actively religious and, though spiritually curious, definitely not Christian) said she was convinced that life, including ensoulment, began at conception. Fresh from a genetics class, I argued that thirty percent of pregnancies ended in miscarriage. So, what, God (or the Force, or whatever) snuffed out thirty percent of souls before they’d even had a chance to peek outside the uterus? That wasn’t any kind of God whose world I was willing to live in. Therefore, abortion is okay.

Second: fetal personhood. I argued that there had to be a bright line. Any developmental markers like “heartbeat” or “fingerprints” were inadmissibly subjective. Viability was a moving target and varied with individuals and historical periods. A hundred years ago, babies born three months premature would die; today, they sometimes live: so was a six-months-along fetus not a person in 1900? It was either conception or birth (this was my most dubiously-supported contention, I think), and either God was really mean or conception was out. Therefore, life begins at birth. Therefore, abortion is okay.

Third: legal. I was reading Susan Bordo’s excellent (excellent! I cannot emphasize this enough: excellent) Unbearable Weight and was halfway through the chapter on legal precedent and bodily integrity, so I felt qualified to preach. In this country, we cannot legally force a man to give blood or a kidney or marrow to save his dying brother’s inarguably real life—or his dying child’s: it’s a violation of his bodily integrity. So how could we legally force a woman to do anything with her body, such as, you know, carry a pregnancy to term with it, to preserve something that may or may not be life? Therefore, abortion is okay.

We talked for a long time. June agreed that I’d gone a long way toward convincing her, and that she would think about what I’d said. We haven’t talked about abortion in a while, but maybe logic changed her mind. That’s how it should work, right? Argument A, Argument B, Argument C: therefore, abortion is okay. Did I mention that June and I met in high school debate?

But lately, I’ve been thinking about logic in even plainer terms. Like, seriously: if abortion were illegal in this country, what would that look like?

Most people I’ve ever talked to about abortion are ambivalently pro-choice. Like: “I wouldn’t ever have one, and I think it’s very sad, but, um, I do think it should be legal?” At the very least, even most anti-choice people will make an exception for medical emergencies, rape, and incest.

So imagine this: it’s a five-minutes-into-the-future dystopia, and abortion is illegal except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape and incest. We know very well that whether abortion is legal or illegal has very little bearing on the number of abortions taking place. So aside from women traveling to Mexico and Canada and Mandy’s (hey, she goes to med school!), we would surely have women obtaining abortions in the usual medical settings. It’s allowed for cases of rape and incest, right? Like the sympathetic back-alley doctors in days of yore, like modern heroes like the late Dr. George Tiller, we’d surely have dedicated physicians willing to operate on or prescribe RU-486 for women who needed it (and had the resources to pay out of pocket):

Doctor: “Rape or incest, right?”

Patient: “Right.”

Of course, in our sucky dystopia, this would be an abuse of the system, and lawmakers would surely try to eliminate it. Proof would be required to obtain a safe, legal abortion in the twenty-first-century United States.

Oh yeah, proof of rape, days or weeks or months after the fact. Not like, you know, that’s gonna be difficult. Or causes any trouble for anyone now.

And this is just the inconsistency on my mind this week. It also reminded me of an old Anna Quindlen column on what, in Anti-Choice Dystopia, would actually be done with women who had abortions anyway. Hint: anti-abortion protesters have not, apparently, ever thought about this.

Then there’s the “men’s rights” argument that men should have an equal say in what happens to the fetus they helped make. In a non-patriarchal world where everyone is equal and no one coerces anyone else and everyone has access to safe, legal, and affordable birth control and, oh yeah, men bear an equal share of the pregnancy burden (maybe they get joint custody and carry the fetus every other day?), then sure, men can have an equal say. Until that day, when the non-pregnant partner disagrees with the pregnant partner, the tie’s gotta go to somebody.

Because at the bottom of this whole issue, when an unwanted pregnancy happens, someone has to decide what to do about it. Should it be the U.S. Senate? The Supreme Court? The church? The state? The patriarchy? The Man? The man?

Or... the woman?

Trust women. It’s just plain logic.


  1. Ok, so let me start off by saying that I, too, am pro-choice. One thing I've always wondered about, though, is the legal inconsistency that if a pregnant woman is murdered the culprit can be (and has been) convicted of double homicide. For something to count as a homicide, doesn't the victim have to be human? But if we're going to say the fetus is human, how can we legalize abortion? I'm not suggesting it's ok to murder a pregnant woman (or anyone else), but I just haven't been able to wrap my head around that one.

  2. I believe in the sovereignty of doctors. In pharmaceutical matters the law defers to a practitioner's expertise, and it's important that it remain that way; a doctor who has made a measured study of the patient presenting is the one best able to consider all individual and environmental factors. Any attempt by an outside force--state or federal governments, for example--represents judgments that are incapable of taking such specific factors into account. Any broad rules are going to result in a lower quality of care for the patient.
    This is especially true in cases of pregnancy and abortion. A governmental mandate, after the grueling process of trying to get anything passed on a federal level, is going to be so chewed through by bureaucratic and special-interest factors in Washington that it will have no provisos or reflections on what's actually going on in affected women's lives. Only a medical practitioner will have both the medical understanding and an understanding of the patient's life conditions to make the judgment of whether an abortion is the right decision for the mother, or even the fetus.

    Especially as, as Stake has pointed out, you can't force someone to donate an organ to save a life: even if we totally disregard the arguments that a fetus is not yet human life, the decision here makes clear that you can't legally force someone to make life-saving decisions that would affect the contents of their own body.

    So let's say we leave it up to the doctors. This would result in some doctors being willing to prescribe an abortion, and some not, and what will then happen is what happens today in cases of people wanting Prozac and ADHD meds, or medical marijuana in CA; people shop around for doctors whose willingness to prescribe matches their preference. The point is, some (most?) places would offer it, and at least some hospitals, because they always need money and I'm sure there's money to be made in this somewhere, would offer the service. So yeah, maybe some people would get abortions because they were stupid and should have used protection but didn't, and maybe abortion isn't a necessary or the best decision, but this way we could at least ensure that the people who need it could get it.

    I think that one of the behind-the-scenes problems we have here is that Washington has no cohesive ruling on what it is acceptable to do to save a human life. There's still federally-allowable death penalty, so obviously it's okay to take human life in some cases. Do we sentence criminals to the death penalty in order to keep murderers off the street, thereby saving innocent lives? Sure (among other reasons); so why not an abortion to save a mother's life? Or that argument can be used for the other side, why not cause the mother some temporary inconvenience to save the life of the child... but then we would have to force relatives with blood matches to donate organs to save a family member's life, because clearly we have the right to intrude on people's bodies for the sake of life. Until we have a comprehensive legal definition of (as horrible as this sounds ethically) what a human life is worth, I don't think we can really debate this. The terms that each side is using are based in different scales, which makes talking about it really difficult?

  3. In the case of a woman getting an abortion, the fetus is, well, aborted before it becomes a person. Which means that, yes, it was never a life and so there's no hangups about homicide. But a pregnant woman just walking down the street was, in all likelihood, planning on taking that baby to term. Maybe it wasn't a life at the time of its termination, but it was going to be. The decision of whether the fetus was going to become a baby, as we've pointed out, is finally up to the parents (and, when in doubt, the mother), and someone who has taken that decision away is, in essence, guilty of murdering the child-that-was-to-be. The point is that an external force has no right to make that decision, and we should err on the side of harshness in this case.

  4. @Ozyman: whoa, looks like you have got some opinions, too. I think "but she WOULD have carried it to term, so it is a person!" is murky ground, philosophically. This is actually something June convinced me out of; I was making a completely untenable argument that the "wantedness" of a fetus makes it more of a person, but I'm now convinced that this is too subjective. Either it's a person or it's not; wantedness is not a bright line.

    (By the way, I realize in retrospect that this post makes it look like I just lectured June on the One True Pro-Choice Viewpoint, and she accepted my gospel as truth and immediately went out and started volunteering at Planned Parenthood, due to how awesome I am. Not the case! I convinced her to think about some things, and she convinced me to think about some things. Dialogue!)

    @Dagney: That's actually why I believe that the murder of a pregnant woman shouldn't count as a double homicide. It's a heinous crime, of course, and I could be okay with higher penalties (I understand it varies state to state), but they would have to be justified carefully. There's an interesting article on the subject in Salon:

    Most important quote:

    Dr. Jeffrey Edelson, a University of Minnesota professor and expert on domestic violence, has called such fetal laws "cynical." He believes if women are adequately protected by society, so too will their fetuses.


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  6. @Ozyman: Why do you move right to the sovereignty of doctors, rather than consider the possibility of trusting women? It is unrealistic to expect that doctors will know more about what is right for a patient than the patient herself. Doctors have a long history of taking out all kindsa ladyparts, without any warning or with coercion, just because they don't see why a woman would want to keep her uterus. I know plenty of reasons to keep a uterus. They are easy to find, if one bothers to look for them.
    Who will bother to look?

    Trust women.

  7. It should also be pointed out that in no other treatment does the doctor have the final say on procedures and methods carried out, unless the patient is unconscious or unable to respond. Provided that our pregnant lady is willing and able to make the choice herself, it is the doctor's job only to present options to the patient and educate the patient on the topic. Patient then chooses what should be done. If we are respecting the knowledge and expertise of the doctor, I don't see why it should be that doctor's final decision. He or she should, as in any situation, advise and ultimately, respond.

  8. Also, agreed with Tigers up there, Doctors have a pretty bad history of taking care of pregnant women. See: unwanted episiotomies for the doctor's ease, and the accompanying "husband" stitches. Also Norplant, but that's another story altogether.

  9. ALSO, Oz, I would argue that a seemingly negligible failure of the federal government, or, even the Californian Gov't to legalize marijuana unduely criminalizes minor offenses, which fill our prisons and contribute to the PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX which I have a lot of opinions about. Especially California. California is the WORST.

  10. I think I might have misrepresented my argument. As with cases of other drugs, the actual follow-through of treatment is up to the patient; if a doctor doesn't prescribe Adderall, the patient doesn't get it. But the ultimate procedure, as with most non-imminently necessary surgeries--organ transplants, heart surgeries, etc.--is up to the patient to accept. In general, it is the patients' right to decline treatment.

    I agree that not all doctors come from the land of fairytales and wonder, and some of them can do some quite horrible things that mess people up afterwards, completely overstepping their boundaries. Certainly, they are not good judges of what's going on in a woman's life that would make her want an abortion--emotional immaturity and unreadiness to raise a child, lacking financial resources, etc.--but that is why the woman herself would have to come to the doctor.
    The point is that a doctor's medical training is really important when you think about doing anything that affects the workings of the body, and just because a woman wants an abortion doesn't mean that it's medically safe for her to do so.

    I think to reframe my argument: abortion should be like any other medical procedure--up to the patient, but requires a prescription. Sort of like cosmetic surgery, or taking growth hormones. What I am specifically saying is that abortion pills shouldn't be over-the-counter drugs.

  11. Oz, I'm not sure that we're actually disagreeing on that much. I'm in favor of full and easily accessible abortion services to any woman who asks for them (about like this). I don't think a "prescription" is involved, because the choice is ultimately the patient's, rather than the doctor's--which is what makes abortion a unique procedure without any easy analogs. It's not cosmetic surgery; it's not Adderall.

    And as far as I know, there's never a medical reason for not providing an abortion (if an abortion is going to be dangerous to a woman's health, imagine the risks of a pregnancy!), so I don't see why we should conceive of this procedure as ultimately a doctor's choice. Trust women.

  12. Yeahokay. I was looking around for possible complications to either the pill or the surgical option, which would justify its requiring a prescription. There are potential side effects, which is why I would suggest requiring a prescription, but I certainly don't think there should any kind of barrier to a wanted abortion.

  13. As another formerly pro-life, now Absolutely, 100% Pro-Choice person, I thought the most persuasive argument I ever encountered was the one you listed third --- the one about one person's right to bodily integrity trumping even another person's right to life, if that other person can only survive if the first person undergoes an invasive medical procedure.

    That made a lot of sense to me.

    (Also, now you know two former pro-lifers who've been swayed by rational arguments and/or researching the issue.)