A little respect

by Ted on April 1, 2005

I’ve got to take Juan Cole to task for what reads like a rather antagonistic misunderstanding of the pro-life philosophy:

Anti-abortion activism is essentially patriarchal. It insists that the woman’s egg, once fertilized, is immediately a person and that the woman loses control over her body by virtue of being impregnated by her husband’s sperm. It is men who dictate to the woman that she must carry the fertilized egg to term, must be a mother once impregnated by a man. For extreme anti-abortionists, even a woman who has been raped or is in danger of losing her life if she tries to give birth must be forced to bear the child. A rapist can make a woman be a mother whether she likes it or not, because his maleness gives him prerogatives not withdrawn by his mere criminality.

I’m pro-choice, but that’s just not a good representation of the other side. People who are opposed to abortion generally have a pretty simple reason. They believe that life begins at conception, and that there’s no bright-line moral distinction between a baby and a fetus. Therefore, we should extend the same considerations re: life to fetuses as we do to babies. It’s not hard to understand. Again, I don’t agree with it, but if you believe that a fetus has a soul- more precisely, if you believe that God told you that a fetus has a soul- it’s not hard to see why you’d be so motivated to ban abortion. There’s definitely overlap between individuals who are opponents of abortion and individuals who don’t respect women, but there’s nothing “essential” about it.

As Cole correctly notes, strict pro-lifers would force a woman who was impregnated by rape to bear the child of her rapist. Cole proceeds to take a disturbing consequence of his opponent’s philosophy, and constructs his own bad-faith explanation involving patriarchy. I don’t see how this rhetorical strategy differs from smearing opponents of the Iraq war as objectively pro-Saddam, or airily accusing critics of Clarence Thomas of racism.

Cole’s interpretation would imply that women are much more likely than men to be pro-choice, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In this ABC poll, 54 percent of men, and 58 percent of women, say it should be legal in all or most cases. According to this poll of college freshmen, men favor abortion rights more than women by 3%.

Our positions do not necessarily become more persuasive if they’re expressed more abusively.

UPDATE: We’re blessed with intelligent commenters, but the comment thread here is better than average. Don’t miss it.

{ 85 comments }

1

Steve LaBonne 04.01.05 at 2:34 pm

Our positions do not necessarily become more persuasive if they’re expressed more abusively.

What, you only just noticed that Juan Cole does that all the time?

2

C. Schuyler 04.01.05 at 2:43 pm

The Cole posting struck me in pretty much the same way. Having once been pro-life, and gradually shifted to a (not entirely happy) pro-choice position over a period of several years, I don’t have much trouble seeing how one can be either without depraved motives.

I have found more than once that Cole will weaken, if not spoil, some pretty sharp observations with a piece of gratuitous silliness. His recent smackdown of juvenile know-nothing Jonah Goldberg was marred, I thought, by a needless and foolish version of the chickenhawk argument.

3

Christopher M 04.01.05 at 2:46 pm

I don’t quite get the argument that no consistent pro-lifer could permit abortion in the case of rape. Why couldn’t a pro-lifer hold the following views?

(1) Requiring a woman to go through a pregnancy is a serious imposition on her freedom.

(2) A fetus is a full-fledged, morally valent person.

(3) People are generally responsible for the clearly foreseeable risks of their conduct.

(4) Thus, a woman who chooses to have sex and creates a new life bears a certain responsibility to protect that life; that obligation outweighs her interest in controlling her own body.

(5) However, a woman who is raped did not assume the risk that this new life would suddenly begin to grow inside her. Her responsibility toward that life is therefore diminished, and the interest in controlling her own body is sufficient to permit an abortion.

This model would predict that pro-lifers would become less willing to permit abortion in the case of rape as the pregnancy advances. I have no idea if that’s true, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

4

clew 04.01.05 at 2:48 pm

I agree with your respectful reading of the pro-life belief, but I always point out that a lot of people seem to act on it only while the offspring is in the womb; anyone who doesn’t also support policies that reduce as many born-child deaths really doesn’t hold Life as the absolute value they claim.

And if they support Life only while another woman is wholly committed to the support, they can fairly be tarred as patriarchal, whether female or not.

5

Robin 04.01.05 at 2:49 pm

In re, “They believe that life begins at conception, and that there’s no bright-line moral distinction between a baby and a fetus.”

I know this is stated, but something in behavior suggests that there are differences. Pro-lifers don’t hold funerals or memorials in the wake of miscarriages, for example. The beliefs that life begins at conception, at that the life is a human life, and has equivalent moral standing and the same degree of personhood as an infant should be linked to beliefs and practices, or at least feasible practices, that cover post-birth infants. This is not meant as a ah-ha, but to note that there are inconsistencies in behavior, and if behavior implicates beliefs, then there claim to equivalence is not as neat as the claims suggest.

6

Mark 04.01.05 at 2:52 pm

Perhaps factoring in how many of the anti-abortion folks are also against any form of contraception would help explain why Cole is generally right.

7

bi 04.01.05 at 2:53 pm

As someone else pointed out, condoms can also break and contraception methods can fail, and these can also result in unwanted pregnancies.

Christopher M: the notion of “responsibility” is also problematic. I’m not responsible for George Bush’s livelihood. Does that mean I should be free to murder George Bush whenever I want?

8

Rasselas 04.01.05 at 2:54 pm

“People who are opposed to abortion generally have a pretty simple reason.” Are philosophers supposed to accept people’s professed simple reasons without investigation? I think this one time I read this German guy making fun of that habit for like a whole book.

9

bi 04.01.05 at 2:56 pm

Rasselas: which book?

10

shinypenny 04.01.05 at 3:02 pm

Pro-lifers don’t hold funerals or memorials in the wake of miscarriages, for example.

Some of them do. (link to the Google-cache text since The Nation’s website is down for some reason.)

11

abb1 04.01.05 at 3:03 pm

…what reads like a rather antagonistic misunderstanding of the pro-life philosophy…

He’s being polemical and rhetorical. That’s what most people expect to find in a blog, I think. If he wrote a 400-page book, he’d probably explore other angles too.

12

Rasselas 04.01.05 at 3:05 pm

Seriously? German guy? Mustache? Not possessed of a robust constitution? “A Protestant minister is the grandfather of German philosophy”? Is any of this ringing a bell?

13

Iron Lungfish 04.01.05 at 3:07 pm

Sorry, but as a former pro-lifer who knows more pro-lifers than pro-choicers, I have to disagree. I don’t know anyone who is pro-life who doesn’t hold that belief without an attached commitment to sexual puritanism. Hence the widespread pro-life rejection of the “safe, legal and rare”/”fight abortions with birth control” position. The notion that a woman is “responsible” for her premarital sex and thus her pregnancy is a form of punishment runs very deep indeed on the right, and is also very strongly attached to conservative opposition to welfare and Medicaid. To believe that all of this stems from a mystical belief in the origin of humanity at conception is pure naivete.

14

C. Schuyler 04.01.05 at 3:13 pm

“Are philosophers supposed to accept people’s professed simple reasons without investigation?”

No, but there’s no excuse for just makin’ stuff up, either.

Or for conclusory, unsubstantiated generalizations about motives–typically complicated things not easily pinned down with a single descriptor.

Is Cole “generally right”? I think his generalization is likely to be wrong; but I won’t pretend I know as much without quite a bit more evicence.

15

Rasselas 04.01.05 at 3:18 pm

Really? I think it cuts intriguingly close to the heart of things to identify the desire of men to rule and punish women as the source of most modern “social” issues.

16

Bob McGrew 04.01.05 at 3:28 pm

Bravo, Ted, for sticking up for the other side. I wish people did this more often (liberals and conservative alike).

17

Thomas 04.01.05 at 3:35 pm

Your original explication of the prolife position (“They believe that life begins at conception, and that there’s no bright-line moral distinction between a baby and a fetus. Therefore, we should extend the same considerations re: life to fetuses as we do to babies.”) is accurate enough (which isn’t to say it’s completely accurate).

But then you state the argument a differently: “if you believe that a fetus has a soul- more precisely, if you believe that God told you that a fetus has a soul- it’s not hard to see why you’d be so motivated to ban abortion”.

Is there a suggestion that these are equivalent positions? Where does this business about a “soul” come from? It seems to me entirely possible that one could believe that no one has a soul, but still believe that there’s no morally relevant difference between a baby and a fetus.

You say “There’s definitely overlap between individuals who are opponents of abortion and individuals who don’t respect women.” Which implies that there’s definitely overlap between individuals who are supporters of abortion and individuals who don’t respect women. (I’d do the venn diagram, if I knew how to do that in comments.) (I recognize this was meant as a defense of your ideological opponents, but nonetheless…)

More relevant to an analysis of Cole’s post is the recognition that even if one accepts that he’s right, that these disputes are about hierarchy, it needn’t (and oughtn’t) result in one agreeing with Cole. The prolife position is an egalitarian one–founded in a recognition of the moral equality of each human individual. It is Cole’s position that establishes a hierarchy–these over here, protected in law, and these over here, because of these facts about them, not.

Now, maybe the moral hierarchy Cole supports is just fine, but that takes an argument. Cole’s position, with its implicit criticism of hierarchy, would be made incoherent by any such argument, but that just means he’s not in particularly good shape here. Perhaps someone else can advance the argument better.

18

Natalie Solent 04.01.05 at 3:35 pm

Kudos for your respectful treatment of an opinion you do not hold.

But when you say

“They believe that life begins at conception, and that there’s no bright-line moral distinction between a baby and a fetus.”

-it doesn’t have to be that simple. Pro abortion people might believe in a “bright-line” (is this a term of art? You mean “sharp division,” I take it?) distinction between baby and fetus at birth, or they might not. They might think a drawing of the line necessary for practical reasons at 24 weeks or birth or at some other point without believing that it marked any essential change. On the other side of the fence, generally anti abortion people might or might not believe in a sharp division as to persohood at conception. I, for instance, don’t see the extinguishing of the little lump of cells a day or two after conception as remotely similar to partial-birth abortion, though I would support a legal limit far lower than the current one.

19

Glenn Bridgman 04.01.05 at 3:36 pm

Nice. I’ve been pointing this out for a while and I think it’s important to realize that both sides have good faith on the abortion issue.

20

Iron Lungfish 04.01.05 at 3:42 pm

The percentage of pro-life Americans who believe that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances – rape, incest, health of the mother, health of the fetus, etc. – is, mercifully, incredibly small. It is also very small compared to the rest of the pro-life movement. That is, most Americans who are pro-life believe that abortion is justified under certain circumstances. While these Americans are claiming that “life begins at conception,” they’re willing to accept that it’s fine to terminate a human life just because its father was a rapist.

This isn’t consistent with the strict “life at conception” view. It is, however, consistent with a puritanical anti-sex worldview, which would hold that promiscuous women should be punished for having sex, but that rape victims have been punished enough already.

Again, if the far right really did have a “pro-life” sentiment operating behind its anti-abortion movement, you’d see Jerry Falwell and James Dobson agitating for more money to Medicaid and welfare to help out single mothers, instead of heaping shame on them for not sticking it out with often-abusive and neglectful partners.

21

C. Schuyler 04.01.05 at 3:48 pm

Like Ms. Solent, I find abortion more and more troubling the closer one gets to birth. I can’t prove this of course, but my botherment does not arise from a desire to keep women under my patriarchal thumb.

22

Paul Orwin 04.01.05 at 3:50 pm

It seems to me that, and I may be parsing words too finely, but Juan seems to be saying that activism is based on patriarchical motivations. Given the confluence of actors, I don’t see how you can argue that he is wrong here. That is not to say that the pro-life position is inherently patriarchical (although it might be, I haven’t given it enough thought), the statement is not about the philosophy, but rather about the motives behind the action. Someone (Rasselas?) above is making the same point more cleverly and obliquely, but I am, above all, a simple man…

23

Natalie Solent 04.01.05 at 3:50 pm

I don’t know why some of my earlier comment has come out with lines struck through it. And “persohood” is a typo for “personhood.”

While I’m here, iron lungfish should widen his/her acquaintance. Although I suspect I would probably fall within his/her definition of a sexual puritan, I have known several working class women who combined a disapproval of abortion with no tendency at all to sexual puritanism.

A similar belief is held in a more intellectual way by such groups as Libertarians for Life.

24

pedro 04.01.05 at 3:51 pm

David Velleman, over at Left2Right, has written thoughtful and thought-provoking posts on Roe v. Wade. The key concept in his articulation of a defense of limited abortion rights is that of personhood. I’m not risking misrepresenting his ideas on this comments thread, so please go and read him if you care. The threads there are quite interesting, particularly because they also offer the perspectives of a few quite articulate conservative and libertarian commenters.

I think–but again, I may be misrepresenting voices absent from this conversation–that an important source of apprehension for pro-lifers is the irreversibility of development. What they understand as “life” is not personhood, but simply the natural, irreversible course of the life cycle. It is that which they sanctify, not personhood.

25

mq 04.01.05 at 3:51 pm

“People who are opposed to abortion generally have a pretty simple reason.”

I agree with Rasselas above that this is a huge simplification, almost anti-intellectual in its unwillingness to examine the nature of ideological motivation.

“if you believe that God told you that a fetus has a soul- it’s not hard to see why you’d be so motivated to ban abortion.”

What *is* hard to see is why you would believe that God told you a fetus had a soul. This is a very non-obvious position, and believing that God has told you what to think is itself a phenomenon that could use some examination. Of course, once you have adopted the ideology it is “easy” to see why you follow it.

26

mq 04.01.05 at 3:53 pm

“I have known several working class women who combined a disapproval of abortion with no tendency at all to sexual puritanism.”

Disapproval of abortion is a totally different thing than active membership in the pro-life movement to make all abortions criminal.

27

Daniel 04.01.05 at 3:58 pm

I always think that the elephant in the living room of this debate is the Catholic Church (which, by the way, accounts for a fairly high percentage of these anecdotal working class women). If there’s a major world religion that you absolutely can’t be part of unless you take a particular stance on this issue, then it’s only partly a political issue, and it doesn’t help the political debate that there are a lot of people who appear to be taking part in it but who are actually taking part in a theological debate of their own.

28

Thomas 04.01.05 at 4:02 pm

I think Daniel just suggested that Catholic working-class women are more likely to be…how to put this delicately?…other than sexual puritans.

I think I’m losing track of this thread…

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abb1 04.01.05 at 4:08 pm

What they understand as “life” is not personhood, but simply the natural, irreversible course of the life cycle. It is that which they sanctify, not personhood.

That’s right, they feel that killing an acorn is akin to killing an oak. I heard this one before. It’s a reasonable thought, but it doesn’t seem to make much sense to equate abortion with murder under this concept.

30

Ted 04.01.05 at 4:11 pm

Just two points, leaving many other worthy questions dangling (sorry):

1. It’s a fair approach to question the professed reasons for a philosophy, if you do it with, you know, reasons. It’s not a fair approach to simply throw the other side’s philosophy off the table, and insert your own, more sinister explanation. To repeat myself somewhat, imagine that you’re in a debate with someone who ignores your reasons for opposing the war in Iraq, because he’s convinced that your opposition is really motivated by your anti-Americanism. There is no way on Earth to reach that guy. Talking with him is just a waste of your time.

2. Thomas makes a good point that it isn’t necessary to believe in fetal souls to oppose abortion. It’s easy to get that out of what I wrote, but I didn’t mean that the two ideas were necessary or equivalent.

31

Sebastian holsclaw 04.01.05 at 4:24 pm

“I don’t know anyone who is pro-life who doesn’t hold that belief without an attached commitment to sexual puritanism.”

Well I’m actively pro-life and would like to make nearly all mid/late term abortions illegal, and I don’t give a damn about sexual puritanism. People can have sex all they want, but I don’t think there is a particularly good excuse to have elective abortions past the fourth month (which is to say by the time I think people could generally recognize that the fetus is more like a baby than the infamous ‘lump of cells’.

“The notion that a woman is “responsible” for her premarital sex and thus her pregnancy is a form of punishment runs very deep indeed on the right, and is also very strongly attached to conservative opposition to welfare and Medicaid.”

This is so wrong that it almost seems like a willful misrepresentation. Especially if you were to talk to the women in the pro-life movement (and they are at least half of it) you would find that they see surprise pregnancies as a gift not a punishment. They see it as a wonderful challenge with both difficulties and great rewards. Very few see it as a ‘punishment’ for sex.

I have a discussion on the subject here and here.

32

murdoch 04.01.05 at 4:26 pm

Before the discovery of the human egg about two hundred years ago, it was believed that the male emission (sperm were also undiscovered) was the whole of the new life, a seed planted in a field. The baby, in other words, was entirely the man’s. The woman was only a incubator.

There is still this overtone of male ownership of the new life. Demonstrators hold up pictures of fetuses, as though they were separate from the woman. But you can’t valorize the fetus without devalorizing the woman.

How to balance the interests of the fetus and the woman? You can’t. It’s an old truism that you can’t do only good — every action has results you want and results you don’t want. (There are no side effects, only effects.) You have to choose as best you can.

People who elevate the interests of the fetus may not realize how patriarchal they’re being — but they are. Unconscious doesn’t count.

33

Michael H. 04.01.05 at 4:28 pm

Consider this:
Half of Americans oppose abortion and half support it.
There is little correlation between this view and gender. There is probably little correlation between this view and intelligence or education. There might not be much correlation in this view and objective measures of virtue like never going to jail. So where did these views come from? Why is (at least) half of America wrong on this issue? Perhaps all of America is wrong on this issue, but even the most brilliant among us are incapable of determining the truth.

I think we use our intellect not to determine our views on such issues as abortion but to rationalize views we have already made and acted on in our formative years. We have a lot invested in proving to ourselves that our view of abortion is right because maybe we would be bad people if our view were incorrect. So we easily believe that those on the other side are evil people with evil motives. And maybe that view is half right: maybe we’re all evil people with evil motives.

Please don’t interpret that last line as a classic Christian “We’re all sinners” argument. That isn’t what I am talking about. I am talking about the human tendency to rationalize our behavior so that we no longer hate ourselves. We need to ask ourselves, “if my view on abortion were wrong, would I hate myself – would I be evil?” If you cannot honestly answer that question, you might have a problem.

34

nikolai 04.01.05 at 4:33 pm

Cole proceeds to take a disturbing consequence of his opponent’s philosophy, and constructs his own bad-faith explanation involving patriarchy.

I’m not sure that what Cole wrote implies that anti-abortionists are anti-abortionists because they are patriarchal. He seems to be saying that the effect of their activism is essentially patriarchal, because of the reasons he states (which are pretty much correct). That doesn’t mean patriarchy’s the reason anti-abortionists hold their beliefs. He seems to be talking about the effects of beliefs, rather than their causes.

There have been a lot of mention of the personhood aspects of abortion, but this isn’t the only aspect of difference between the two camps. Those who are pro-abortion can accept that a fetus is a person, but disagree with anti-abortionists over the circumstances in which it is permissible to kill someone. This is the whole basis of the sick violinist analogy.

This is quite an interesting route to go down. Only a small minority of people don’t think it’s permissible to kill people at all. Many anti-abortion campaigners are fine with others being allowed to kill people in a range of other circumstances.

35

lou 04.01.05 at 4:48 pm

I would also point out that a portion (albeit small) of pro-lifers oppose not only abortion in cases of rape and incest, but even when the mother’s life is at risk. If you read Christianity Today or any of the other rightwing Christian literature, there are lots of stories of the heroic woman who either sacrificed her life “for the life of her baby,” or had some last minute miracle where neither died.
And many of the most fanatical supporters of putting fetus before mother are women, so I don’t know if it can be called misogynistic. Maybe self-hatred? That a woman should be so in denial of self that she sacrifices her life for another?
I also speak as someone raised in a pro-life family.

36

Yusuf Smith 04.01.05 at 4:50 pm

People who are opposed to abortion generally have a pretty simple reason. They believe that life begins at conception, and that there’s no bright-line moral distinction between a baby and a fetus.

This isn’t always so, in fact. Yes, some Christians say that life begins at conception (some even say that using some birth control methods amount to killing babies, because they say they are abortifacients). But surely everyone can agree that a “fetus” late in pregnancy is a baby, not just a bundle of cells or a body.

37

Brett Bellmore 04.01.05 at 4:58 pm

“Half of Americans oppose abortion and half support it.”

You should have the subtlety to recognize that just as not everyone who’s pro-choice is a Singerite who’d allow abortion on a whim right up to the moment the cord has been cut, or maybe the baby is weaned, not everyone who’s pro-life is a “life begins at conception” zealot. There are a fair number of people, even atheists such as myself, who reason that, just as the fetus develops into a person continuously, rather than undergoing a binary transformation at some instant in time, so should it’s legal rights develop over the course of the pregnancy.

“Oppose” and “support”, in other words, doesn’t even begin to describe the positions people hold in the real world.

38

Peter Northup 04.01.05 at 4:59 pm

I agree that Cole’s remarks were overstated and uncharitable, but I think there’s an important distinction that’s being overlooked in this discussion: the difference between pro-life philosophy and pro-life activism. The Cole quote is specifically discussing the latter; Ted’s remarks, and those of most commentators, are about the former insofar as they reference “people who are opposed to abortion.”

My very limited knowledge of the subject is that the classic study on the topic of pro-life *activism* is Kristin Luker’s “Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood”, which draws on hundreds of in-depth interviews with activists to reach the conclusion that, in fact, involvement in the pro-life or pro-choice movement isn’t so much about whether or not life begins at conception as it is about differing worldviews about the place of women in society and the structure of the family in general. “Patriarchal” has seriously pejorative connotations, but my sense is the claiming that pro-life *activism* is driven by traditionalism concerning family structure is plausible. (A further caveat: the book is two decades out of date; the sociology of pro-life activism may have changed dramatically since then.)

39

Scott Lemieux 04.01.05 at 5:08 pm

The problem, of course, is that very few “pro-lifers” are willing to apply the contention that the fetus is a human life with any consistency. When you look at how abortion laws are actually written and enforced, it’s plain that controlling female sexuality is a far more important motivating factors for abortion laws than protecting fetal life (although this isn’t true in every case, of course.) The best example is the fact that the Republican platform contends that abortion is the equivalent of first degree murder, but that a woman who gets an abotion shouldn’t be punished; women, apparently, lack even basic moral agency in Republican eyes. While what Cole said is not *inherently* true of a pro-life position, as a description of a majority of American pro-lifers, it’s perfectly accurate.

40

Bruce Wilder 04.01.05 at 5:11 pm

Historically, there has long existed a fundamental division of opinion regarding the institutions of marriage and family. An authoritarian regime held sway for over a century, lasting into the 1950’s. All sexual conduct outside marriage could be, and often was, legally prohibted. Marriage entailed a license from the State; divorce could be difficult. Homosexual conduct was a serious felony. Laws against abortion was part of that institutional regime.

Over the course of a twenty-year period, centering on 1967, a “sexual revolution” took place, which entailed a number of legal reforms and cultural and social changes. The constitutional legalization of abortion was part of that shift toward an institutional regime, which gives an individual great freedom of choice. Marriage became a contract freely entered into, and divorce was made easy. Sex outside of marriage, even homosexuality, is now considered a private matter.

Only on the subjects of abortion and euthanasia, do those, who favor an authoritarian regime have hope of persuading a political majority. On abortion, the anti-abortion activists have a simple argument against the potential of a terrible slippery slope.

Whether anti-abortion activists, in the main, make their simple argument with unalloyed sincerity, or whether, as seems plausible to me, they make it, in the hope of implementing a slippery slope of their own, a slope toward authoritarianism, ought to be a legitimate question. There’s plenty of signalling going on all the time, to indicate that anti-abortion advocates hope to implement an authoritarian regime. They have a general program, of discrimination against gays, of censorship of popular culture, of opposition to feminist equality, etc. And, the pro-life principles of many anti-abortion activists do not extend, for example, to opposition to the death penalty.

It is not uncommon in politics for a strong argument to be used as a club. In recent history, the U.S. was pushed into war by an argument regarding W.M.D. It was a difficult argument to counter, even when it was clearly supported by weak evidence (evidence we now know to be non-existent, though some advocates of war have never acknowledged their own deceptions).

Juan Cole evidently believes that “life begins at conception and human life ought to held sacred” is a strong argument, being used as a political club, by people with a far broader agenda and a weak fealty to the principle they so loudly espouse. It’s a position, with good supporting evidence. The people he means to attack are routinely abusive of those they oppose. Criticizing Cole for being abusive in turn shows too little respect for the substance of his argument.

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Susie from Philly 04.01.05 at 5:27 pm

If it’s about belief in life at conception, why do so many of the anti-abortion crowd insist birth control is equivalent to conception? I can’t believe so many of you miss the large vein of anti-sex sentiment running through the “pro-life”

42

Brackdurf 04.01.05 at 5:28 pm

Now we’re getting somewhere. A number of commentators are now making a distinction between the basic anti-abortion position, and the anti-abortion activist. Both sorts may claim to believe the same thing, but obviously something must account for the distinctive behavior of the latter, and that seems to have something to do with especially strong beliefs about traditional family values and the place of women and children in society. It probably also is connected to the feeling common among conservative activists that the world is falling to pieces due in large part to the damaging activities of liberals, and so a lot of the motivating anger is directed not just at the women having abortions, but at the liberals doing the abortions and passing the laws protecting them.

That said, I don’t think the distinction between the activist and the basic anti-abortion position is necessarily that great. Somebody above suggested that the anti-war liberal could just as readily be seen as acting out of anti-Americanism as the pro-lifer could be seen as acting out of pro-patriarchy. And in fact this is kind of true: those liberals who are motivated enough to go out on the street and protest the war do generally seem to feel that the country is going to pieces and being turned into the wrong sort of America (into a “homeland,” say). Obviously *they* wouldn’t call it anti-American, but it is certainly connected to the larger system of beliefs about the nature of America.

But the thing with abortion is, like the war, it does seem to affect how people vote, even non-activists. That is, many many people seem to believe these things strongly enough to take significant action based on them, often regardless of the politians’ other commendable positions. In this sense, the abortion thing gets a lot of people really worked up, and saying the pro-life position is just due to a different definition of life is missing the point as much for all the masses of pro-life hot-button voters as it is for the activists. And for all these people, I do think the larger-scale explanations, connecting to pro-family/patriarchy, need to be wheeled in. Why object to the abortions, yet spend so little time upset about miscarriages? (Because those babies aren’t being *killed* by liberals.) Why vote based on aborted babies but not on starving children? (Because those abortions are being done by selfish, uncaring women–who in fact are also largely at fault for their starving childrn.) Just as the war makes even a fairly moderate liberal so mad because she or he sees it as connected to so many other evils, the basic question of abortion–not why is there a disagreement, but why is it so vehement, even among non-activists–has to look out into the broader cultural war that’s going on.

Which, of course, a lot of posters here have said in many fewer words.

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MrM 04.01.05 at 5:34 pm

I could never design a coherent pro-life position, which always errs on the side of life.

– How do pro-lifers view hundreds of thousands of fertized eggs stored frozen in fertility clinics? (Somehow there are no rallies encouraging women to implant these “unused” eggs in their wombs to save these unborn children)

– How many of pro-lifers are also in favor of death penalty (or in favor of pre-emptive wars for that matter)?

44

Keith M Ellis 04.01.05 at 5:37 pm

To offer a different aspect of the subject of this thread, I’ll say something from the perspective of someone who’s written and spoken with quite a large number of people for many, many years now about abortion with the aim of getting both sides to understand that they each start from different premises, each typically are certain the other takes their position in bad-faith, and generally to get people to respect people and conclusions with which they disagree. (I do this so much, I have no desire at the moment to do it here, especially since so many others, from Ted’s good example, are doing so.) I should also state that I’m adamantly pro-choice myself, though favor restrictions on late-term abortions.

The interesting thing I have to report is that I’ve been more successful with pro-lifers than I have with pro-choicers. As a pro-choicer myself, this has left a bad taste in my mouth. I guess the reason is that the position the pro-lifers think the pro-choicers are taking, and the bad faith in which they think the pro-choicers are taking it in, is relatively straightforward (if a little undefefined), and I don’t think there’s as much diversity of opinion and ambiguity of belief on the pro-choice side as the pro-life side.

But on the pro-life side, as people have so well expressed above, both things are true: many people take this position completely in good faith; that is, it really is about protecting what they believe is human life. Still, though, many others really are much more “anti-choice” than they are “pro-life”, and this seems to be especially true with the most prominent activists. So when you try to argue (as people are asserting and disputing above) that a pro-lifer isn’t necessarily anti-choice hiding behind pro-life rhetoric, you have the problem that, in fact, a bunch of them are.

45

Keith M Ellis 04.01.05 at 5:40 pm

(But to offer my contribution to this argument, briefly, I’ll say that assuming your opponent is taking their position in bad-faith, even if you have good reasons to do so, poisons the resulting debate. Engage people as if they’re honest, and the rest will work itself out. Also, just beging generous about judging other people’s nature and motives makes productive civil discourse much easier.)

46

Natalie Solent 04.01.05 at 5:51 pm

Brackdurf, you say, “Why object to the abortions, yet spend so little time upset about miscarriages? (Because those babies aren’t being killed by liberals.)” Many liberal posters on this blog (and not only them) have objected strenuously to torture while spending very little time upset about natural deaths by illness that might well be as painful as torture. Do you think the CT posters’ ojection to torture was just because of their political disagreements with the torturers?

You also say, “Why vote based on aborted babies but not on starving children? (Because those abortions are being done by selfish, uncaring women—who in fact are also largely at fault for their starving childrn.)” In fact there is not universal agreement on which political parties or measures will reduce the number of starving children.

47

Kalkaino 04.01.05 at 5:53 pm

The Pro-Choice faction gets its collective ass handed to it all the time, partly because too many are reluctant to heap the deserved opprobium on their opponents. The Pro-Lifers’ almost universal militarism, love of punishment and police power, and most of all their disdain for any kind of humane initiative, should alert us to the fact that people who get exercised about other peoples’ abortions are malignant deviants. They take up the cause of the Fetus because it’s the Holy Innocent whose transcendent goodness makes necessary the evil they so delight in doing. The “unborn” are precisely analogous to the virginal Southern Belles whom the Klan were so vigilant in protecting.

The Pro Lifer doesn’t give a damn about life. A hundred thousand people die every day from poverty (easily preventable or treatable disease and/or malnutrition) and war, but the Pro-Lifer doesn’t care a jot about them. They slip into oblivion like the numberless salmon smolt, while the Neo-Puritan sleep soundly. If he or she did care about these actual living, feeling, hoping, dreaming, human beings it might require some sacrifice or consistent action on his or her part. Not likely. On the other hand, Pro-Lifers can indulge their lust for power over other peoples’ most private matters, and the tooth-grinding meth-like high of righteous indignation, merely by claiming to feel a ripple in the force for each fetus not brought to term. Please.

Abortion is a morally queasy option, granted. So, if you don’t like abortion, don’t have one. But don’t tell me that the people who want to see them outlawed feel that way humanely. That’s bullshit and should be called bullshit, shouted down, spat upon and laughed at always, everywhere, forever.

48

Natalie Solent 04.01.05 at 5:56 pm

Actually, mrm, I heard a Radio Four programme a few days ago about a pro-life group in Italy who do advertise for adoptive mothers to take on unwanted fertilised eggs. Not my position, I just thought it was interesting.

49

steve132 04.01.05 at 6:11 pm

I am one liberal who believes that Juan Cole’s comments – and several of the messages in this thread – illustrate perfectly why liberal Democrats fare so poorly on cultural/social issues, even when their cause probably has the support of (a small majority of) the population. If Cole’s position is that abortion expresses or represents support for a “patriarchal” ideology, he needs to explain why women’s views on the subject do not differ appreciably from men’s. Anyone familiar with pro-life activists knows that at least half of them (including the most extreme militants) are women.

Stigmatizing pro-lifers as agents of the patriarchy is not only false as an empirical claim, but also a conversation-stopper. It leads many moderates as well as conservatives to tune out and decline to listen to anything further that the speaker has to say. Is this really what Cole wants?

50

Tom 04.01.05 at 6:11 pm

“I think Daniel just suggested that Catholic working-class women are more likely to be…how to put this delicately?…other than sexual puritans.”

Freud thought so, speaking of Germans with facial hair.

And who was the Englishman who said something about how, even though reason must always yield to revelation, only reason could determine what was revelation and what was not?

51

BigMacAttack 04.01.05 at 6:21 pm

Darn it just when I think I have the thread they go and change it on me. Darn liberals.

I thought the Republican elite didn’t really believe in a right to life but was just using it to cynically manipulate the masses. You know, the rubes in Kansas.

Now, from this thread, I learn that the Republican elite really, truly, and deeply believe in a ‘right to life’ as a key component in maintaining the ‘correct’ hierarchy. (Hopefully unconsciously. Hopefully commentators are at least that generous.)

Look, there isn’t anything wrong with examining motives and beliefs. With digging beneath the surface. I am sure that to some degree people can be falsely conscious.

But you need to be careful. You need to exercise caution and charity. Juan Cole doesn’t. And neither do a number of commentators on the thread.

It is nice to know that some folks like Ted do.

52

BigMacAttack 04.01.05 at 6:40 pm

Some odd and ends.

‘Still, though, many others really are much more “anti-choice” than they are “pro-life”, and this seems to be especially true with the most prominent activists. So when you try to argue (as people are asserting and disputing above) that a pro-lifer isn’t necessarily anti-choice hiding behind pro-life rhetoric, you have the problem that, in fact, a bunch of them are.’

I would think that the bigger problem is that many of them aren’t and thus gross and insulting generalizations of the type made by Juan Cole should be avoided.

‘And many of the most fanatical supporters of putting fetus before mother are women, so I don’t know if it can be called misogynistic. Maybe self-hatred? That a woman should be so in denial of self that she sacrifices her life for another?’

Dear heavens are you making fun of liberals? I would call that woman Mom! I would think any Mom would do just that. And I hope that any Dad would try and prevent her from doing that. Call me patriarchal protector of my baby making machine. Or say I love my wife. The motive is all in the eye of the beholder.

Bruce Wilder,

Are you arguing for or against sexual authoritarianism? Before I tell you if making a man free is good thing, first tell me what the man will do with his freedom. Break homes and sire penniless bastards?

Everyone does realize that the sexual revolution is patriarchal plot by men to get as much trim as possible while avoiding the responsibilities of fatherhood? Right? No one is laboring under the false consciousness that it is about empowering women or some such nonsense? Everyone here is much too self aware for that, right?

53

Yevgeny Vilensky 04.01.05 at 6:42 pm

As a former pro-life activist (I am now pretty pro-choice), I completely disagree with those who are trying to defend Cole in this thread.

In response to the people who say that pro-lifers don’t support Medicaid, welfare, etc… Most of the pro-life activists I knew volunteered at women’s shelters, soup kitchens, etc. because they wanted to make the choice to have a baby easier for those women. Part of the problem that many pro-lifers (and I) have with government redistribution programs like welfare and Medicaid is that a) they’re not actually effective in achieving their goals, b) they create perverse incentives to engage in irresponsible and unproductive behavior, and c) private charity can handle things like helping the poor better than the government can. Just because I oppose welfare and Medicaid doesn’t mean that I want to see poor children starve to death or die of malaria. Natalie Solent hinted at that in comment #46.

Also, most of the pro-life activists I know opposed the death penalty. Those who were in favor of it, struggled quite a bit to reconcile those views. In the end, I think they supported the death penalty because the “just” thing to do with someone who committed heinous murder for no reason other to satisfy his own present urges is to take that person’s life. A baby did no such thing. Plain and simple. But again, most of the pro-lifers I knew were opposed to the death penalty.

In response to the people who argue that the fact that some pro-lifers also oppose birth-control means that they are anti-woman. No, that is also not true. Some pro-life activists did oppose birth control and while I disagree with their position, I think that it is a respect for a husband-wife relationship rather than a desire to hurt women that motivates them. My understanding of their beliefs is that contraception seriously distorts the inherent love between man and woman (and the culmination of that love in the unative and procreative act of sex). That love is a reflection of God’s love for us which created us and gave us an immutable soul. I am not doing this argument justice, but I would refer you to The Pope’s famous Humanae Vitae, for a full explanation of this idea.

Those of you who criticize pro-life activists, why don’t you spend a day with a group of pro-lifers like Birth-Right. Sure, there are many nuts in the movement (e.g. Randall Terry, Rev. Phelps, etc.), but most of the pro-life activists I knew were earnest individuals dedicated to preventing what they viewed as a tragic destruction of human life.

54

Anthony 04.01.05 at 6:50 pm

I would have to look it up, but I distinctly remember a study on Canadian pro-life activists.

Catholics were characterized as tending to concentrate on the belief that a fetus is a human being. Evangelical Christians were characterized as tending to concentrate on opposing abortion within a context of preserving sexual morality.

Now, I think that abortion is actually a pretty simple issue, in theory. Either a fetus is a human being or it isn’t. If a fetus is a human being, then abortion should be illegal. If a fetus is not a human being, then abortion should of course be illegal.

However, determining whether or fetus is actually human happens to be a point on which neither side has been able to put together a 100% compelling.

Accusations of patriarchy and anti-woman sentiment commit the sin of the genetic fallacy. It may be true that opponents of abortion are patriarchal, but that does not affect the quality of their arguments, many of which could be easily stated by a non-patriarchal individual. Likewise, it is false to claim that a fetus can’t be human and abortion must be legal because otherwise women are put in adverse economic situations. The logic is similar to the argument that global warming can’t possibly be occurring because otherwise corporations would lose money and people would lose jobs. Both arguments deserve snickering.

Of course, neither of these fallacies means that the pro-choice position is inherently flawed, it just means that some people of that persuasion are illogical. The pro-life position also includes some illogical talking points, but I somehow think that the readers of this site are probably quite familiar with those and don’t need me to go over them.

55

Tom Doyle 04.01.05 at 7:14 pm

I think Daniel just suggested that Catholic working-class women are more likely to be…how to put this delicately?…other than sexual puritans.

*{:8^0=>+

Quisquis sciat, non dicat.
Quisquis dicat, non sciat.

56

Keith M Ellis 04.01.05 at 7:24 pm

“The pro-life position also includes some illogical talking points, but I somehow think that the readers of this site are probably quite familiar with those and don’t need me to go over them.”

Yep. But if I may get sappily earnest here, what’s happening here goes right to the heart of why it’s really hard to have productive civil discourse. People are constantly arguing against what I hesitate to call a “strawman” because that criticism is so cliched I don’t think it means anything to people anymore. Hmm. The thing is, our caricatures of the “opposing side” are built out of features that are essentially true (as caricatures are), but that are emphasized selectively and together draw a picture of an idealized, coherent opposing viewpoint that doesn’t, in fact, really exist. Okay, so that’s a strawman. But one oft-overlooked extension of this that I see all the time is the accusation of hypocrisy against that strawman. People pick one prominent view of the opposing faction, and then show how it’s contradictory to another prominent view of the opposing faction. Thus, the opposition is a hypocrit and can’t be trusted to argue in good faith. Rarely does anyone acknowledge that, hey, the opposing “faction” is made up of individuals who very likely aren’t identical to our idealized (and conveniently for us) hypocritical strawman version. We’re very sure of our identification of evidence of bad-faith, and now we know what those rascals are really up to.

This is exactly what’s happening in this particular argument, but it happens everywhere. People who are conservative have a caricature of what they think liberals are, and vice-versa. And everyone spends all their time arguing against these caricatures. If anyone says, “hey wait, you’re mischaracterizing my position”, the response is either something like “you may claim that’s not what you think, but I don’t believe you” or “well, you’re the exception”.

This is why I was arguing above that even if you have good reasons to suspect that someone else is arguing in bad-faith, it’s really very destructive to argue as if you’re pretty sure that this is the case. It’s much more productive to argue as if you think you’re opponent is arguing in good faith, even if you strongly suspect they aren’t.

57

agm 04.01.05 at 7:27 pm

I’m always amazed about one thing. Why is it that some people cannot fathom that there are many people who hold beliefs akin to these:

1) Abortion is seen as murder, period, even in the case of rape (see below for my thought). You are ending the life of an innocent human being, not a fetus, to call it such is not showing respect for a human being. In this view, the day abortion will be ok is the day God comes down and says, “Meh, forget what I said before about murder. Human season is now open.” For these people, it really does boil down to the equation of abortion with murder, and logical consistency with other social problems is not an issue, why waste time on that because, dear god, don’t you realize people are being murdered, thousands of them, every day…

2) Abortion and contraception are seen as an escape from responsibility by many pro-lifers, one which ought not be condoned by society because everything that society lets slide damages the fabric of society, imperils your spiritual health, and brings other undesirable effects. “Hey, we warned you crazy kids, but did you listen? No, you did it anyways, good luck raising the kid.” It is puritanical, but the belief is strongly held by many and reinforced by the community these people place themselves into (e.g., non-denominational evangelical churches, people who go to the same sort of church, people you meet at anti-abortion rallies and clinic protests).

3) Rape is not considered since we’re talking about voluntary behavior. The woman holds no responsibility since she did not choose to engage in sex, which is as close to a consideration of the subject of rape as many pro-lifers are willing to get other than saying, “How could you be ok with the murder of a baby who did nothing wrong?!”. When one’s opponent in debate/activism mentions rape, one can rationalize one’s unwillingness to treat the matter by assuming one’s opponents are trying to avoid the “REAL ISSUE” — “crying rape” is seen as akin to waving the flag as an argument.

4) In the evangelical movement, which dovetails unbelievably well with the vocal part of the pro-life movement, the prohibition of sexual activity extends to males also. While the same prohibition applies in the Catholic church, many Catholic communities just look the other way, recalling just how different are the people who compose the pro-life movement. (Especially in the Hispanic world, cause those crazy Spaniards, they got around. There’s nothing like the creation and subjugation of a new race to make one feel like a real hombre. Anyways, yeah, at least on the border premarital sex is viewed (tolerated?) differently by gender among many Catholics.) Proponents of this view feel misrepresented when they are called patriarchal, when people accuse them of being out to control women. Or, to put it more blatantly, BOTH the father and the mother are repsonsible for the pregnancy. If I father a child, I am responsible to feed, clothe, and house the child, pay for neonatal care, etc. A man does not just get off scott free.

*Thanks to the previous commenters and any who got in while I was writing this, it’s certainly thought provoking. The author of this comment may be ascribed to holding the above positions (it won’t be true, but you can accuse me of it), but generally gets pissed off when people consistently misrepresenting the views of his mother and her associates over the past 20 years, suggesting instead that they have more sinister motives in place of what they actually believe. And thank a supreme being that I haven’t had to hold one of those stupid signs since I was a little kid!

58

Mill 04.01.05 at 8:05 pm

Just a note for MQ — it’s not that hard to see why people would think God told them fetuses are people. In Isaiah 44:2 God refers to himself as “the LORD that made thee, and formed thee from the womb” (KJV) or “the LORD… he who made you, who formed you in the womb” (NIV). He doesn’t say “the LORD who formed a clump of cells that later became thee”. He specifically says “you”.

You can insert the standard rant here about how modern Christians pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to believe are eternal truth (gays: wrong forever! lobster: now OK! that’s just an old health regulation!), but their reasons for believing in divinely backed fetal personhood ARE right there in the magic book for all to see.

59

Ted 04.01.05 at 9:50 pm

Daniel —

What if I say that even if the people making the arguments are not themselves patriarchal the consequences of those arguments reinforce patriarchy and therefore I should oppose the arguments and those making them on anti-patriarchal grounds?

Ted

60

Thomas 04.01.05 at 10:46 pm

Ted, I think that’s dangerously close to suggesting that discourse doesn’t matter. (Is this the kind of group you can get away with saying that in?)

I think we should follow arguments where they lead. I’m skeptical that prolife arguments lead to patriarchy, because I think that morality coheres, or should. But perhaps that’s not what you mean, and you mean something more like: this argument may be true, but recognizing the truth of the argument may have bad consequences (in society). I’m skeptical of that position–as I said, my bias would be to following arguments where they lead–but even if such arguments might have occasional prudential force, why would we think that this is such an occasion? How would we weigh the injustice (assuming that the prolife arguments are right) of the legal regime in this country today with the injustice of the consequences of righting those wrongs?

Could those who are on the other side reasonably make a prudential argument in favor of patriarchy, if antipatriarchy arguments reinforced prochoice laws?

Finally, in light of the many interesting posts on family at CT the last couples of days, why should we believe that any particular result from prolife legislation would result? Couldn’t antipatriarchy legislation, in conjunction with prolife legislation, counter any supposedly natural effects?

61

donna 04.02.05 at 1:09 am

It’s all about control, and who has it. Any other argument is horseshit.

62

Jane Galt 04.02.05 at 4:21 am

As (I think) the first commenter who has gone the other way — from radical pro-choice activist to the mushy middle, I’d point out that there is (at least in the polls) a coherent view on abortion that pretty consistently polls a majority: first trimester abortion should be legal in the case of rape, incest, or the life of the mother, and not in other cases (although I suspect that in practice, most of those people would also want an “out” for very young girls).

However, people who hold this belief do not consistently define themselves as pro-choice or pro-life. Some of them, because they think abortion should be legal in some circumstances, call themselves pro-choice; others, because they think that almost all abortions currently being obtained should be illegal, call themselves pro-life. The extremes–the belief, on the one hand, that abortion should be legal until well into the third trimester, a right so sacred that it overcomes the right of parents to be informed of their children’s medical procedures; and, on the other hand, that if your baby will kill you, the state should get right in there and force you to have it anyway–are prevalent among the activists, but relatively rare among the people who vote on the issue. I might argue that one of the big problems that the pro-choice side is having right now is that, having basically achieved its dream legislation, it is having to fight for the hard core extreme view, while the pro-life side has the luxury of arguing for “mushy middle” things like parental notification and partial-birth abortion bans.

The characterisation of pro-life groups as being opposed to birth control, and therefore obviously trying to control women, is more than a little tendentious. Social conservatives are, obviously, trying to preserve a familial structure that they think is valuable and good. But one could as accurately argue from the pro-life side that the pro-choice side contains a lot of people who are trying to break down that family structure, and are in favor of abortion rights because women will not be able to get out of that family structure unless they are willing and able to kill their babies. This is certainly one of the elements in feminist support of abortion, but it is not the only one, and reducing this to a war over family roles misses the main point, which is that we are in a genuinely difficult area where there are simply two conflicting sets of goods: the fetuses right/need to get born, and a woman’s right/need to conduct her life without being a prisoner of biology. These rights are not mediable; one has to give. I find the belief, on both sides of the debate, that people have discovered some obvious transcendental supremacy of one over the other, to be incredibly arrogant, and I include myself in that, during my more radical days. This is reflected in the language: each side casts their preferred “winner” as having rights, while denigrating that the loser might have any.

63

Natalie Solent 04.02.05 at 6:14 am

Or: it’s all about the power to kill inconvenient people and who has it. Any other argument is horseshit.

“Any other argument is horseshit” always wins friends.

64

nikolai 04.02.05 at 6:32 am

I’m going to make one more attempt to derail the personhood focus of the thread.

I think that abortion is actually a pretty simple issue, in theory. Either a fetus is a human being or it isn’t. If a fetus is a human being, then abortion should be illegal. If a fetus is not a human being, then abortion should of course be illegal.

Almost everyone believes that, in some circumstances, it is permissible to kill human beings: conscious, sentient, aware human beings. You can all think of your own examples. If you accept this, the argument that, if fetus is a human being, then abortion should be illegal simply does not hold any weight. There are plenty of circumstances where it is morally permissible (and legal) to kill people. Abortion may be in the same class as killing in self defence and similar acts. That the fetus is innocent makes no difference. There are circumstances where it is morally permissible (and legal) to kill innocent people. Again, there are lots of examples which you can come up with yourself.

I really don’t think that personhood arguments are all that useful.

65

abb1 04.02.05 at 8:36 am

If I could try to defend Mr. Cole again:

To repeat myself somewhat, imagine that you’re in a debate with someone who ignores your reasons for opposing the war in Iraq, because he’s convinced that your opposition is really motivated by your anti-Americanism.

And would this be a dishonest and demagogical argument, or rhetorically expressed but legitimate statement?

Most opponents of the Iraq war are motivated by humanism – which is a doctrine most of the American proponents of ‘my country right or wrong’ identify as ‘anti-Americanism’.

‘Humanism’ and ‘anti-Americanism’ are just different words describing pretty much the same phenomenon, same doctrine – in this context, anyway.

You feel that ‘anti-Americanism’ and ‘patriarchal’ are abusive terms, but this is just how polemics go – you don’t describe your opponents and their motives in flattering terms. I don’t mind being labeled ‘anti-American’ so much and pro-life people shouldn’t mind being described as ‘patriarchal’ – and maybe most of them don’t.

66

Iron Lungfish 04.02.05 at 9:15 am

Sebastian, you are not in any way typical of the pro-life movement (in that you allow for any abortion to be legal at all). Nor do you believe, judging from your ObWi posts, that personhood begins at conception. My comments were specifically directed at that idea and in regards to Ted’s assertion that the pro-life movement stems from a belief that “life begins at conception.”

In fact, the suggestion made by you – along with many other anti-abortion commenters in this thread – that abortion becomes less comfortable as the fetus develops stands in stark contrast to the view asserted by the majority of the pro-life movement (and ascribed to them, initially, by Ted) – namely, that human life begins at a single moment. As I note in my second comment, the vast majority of the pro-life movement doesn’t behave in accordance with this statement (allowing for abortion in the case of rape and incest, etc.).

67

Tim Worstall 04.02.05 at 9:41 am

“Perhaps factoring in how many of the anti-abortion folks are also against any form of contraception would help explain why Cole is generally right.”

That would be the Catholic view sure, although most evangelical churches are fine with contraception. The Catholic Church is against capital punishment (although not with the same vehemence that it is against abortion) while again, many evangelical churches are just fine with executions.

I agree with Singer’s basic idea, that there is a process from gamete to adult and that only the adult has all of the rights and responsibilities of being fully human (sorry if I’m misquoting him, this is how I understand what he’s said). I also agree with the idea that what one may do or may be done to you changes according to where you are in that progression, with obvious examples like drink, getting laid, married, voting, all of which have different ages of consent in different places.
What puts me in the pro-life camp is that the right not to be done away with comes very early in the process of change, to my mind somewhere shortly after the gametes meet.
I have no problem with abortion being decided on the same basis as the only two valid reasons for killing that I accept, immediate self defense and in the course of a Just War. Obviously abortion is more concerned with the first rather more than the second of those two.
None of that addresses Cole’s point that I think this way because I am a patriarchal type of course.

68

Keith M Ellis 04.02.05 at 11:50 am

Geez. I’m speaking to deaf ears, huh? “Any other argument is horseshit.”

“That the fetus is innocent makes no difference. There are circumstances where it is morally permissible (and legal) to kill innocent people. Again, there are lots of examples which you can come up with yourself.”

So what? The same argument could be used against the pro-choice position’s focus on reproductive rights (that is, they’re not absolutley protected in all cases).

Personhood is at least as legitimate a core issue in this discussion as reproductive rights. It’s obvious to most of us, I think, that finding some way to balance the two is the very core of the problem. But, as we see above, pro-choice activists tend to simply deny that personhood is an issue, and pro-life activists tend to simply deny that reproductive rights are an issue. In both cases, as jane galt says (curses! agreeing with mcardle!), “tendentious”.

69

Ken C. 04.02.05 at 11:59 am

“What puts me in the pro-life camp is that the right not to be done away with comes very early in the process of change, to my mind somewhere shortly after the gametes meet.”

I believe, as I think you do, that a freshly-fertilized egg is definitely not a human being, and that a new-born infant definitely is.

What puts me in the pro-choice camp is that I don’t have a very clear idea of what happens in between, and I believe my particular judgement about that carries much less weight than that of the woman within whom all this is happening.

You, on the other hand, seem to believe that you should make the decision for the woman. In the sense that you are discounting the primary decision-making role of the woman involved, people might see you as a little, well, patriarchal.

And I have to ask: as mentioned already, a large fraction of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion. If each one of those miscarriages is a human death, then this phenomenon (miscarriage) is the single largest public health problem, by far. Yet we hear so little about it from anti-abortionists. Why is that? (Responding to an earlier comment on this logical incoherence of anti-abortionist: most people opposed to torture are also in favor of continued funding of medical care and research, and even universal health care, to lengthen lives and reduce human suffering. I know I am.)

70

Functional 04.02.05 at 12:35 pm

I am one liberal who believes that Juan Cole’s comments – and several of the messages in this thread – illustrate perfectly why liberal Democrats fare so poorly on cultural/social issues, even when their cause probably has the support of (a small majority of) the population. If Cole’s position is that abortion expresses or represents support for a “patriarchal” ideology, he needs to explain why women’s views on the subject do not differ appreciably from men’s. Anyone familiar with pro-life activists knows that at least half of them (including the most extreme militants) are women.

Exactly on point. As the Center for the Advancement of Woman (headed by former Planned Parenthood guru Faye Wattleton) found, 51% of American women claim to be opposed to abortion in all cases except life, rape, and incest. (See page 10 of this PDF report.) Why is Cole (and his ilk) so dense that he thinks it helps his side if he bashes the majority of women in this country as “patriarchal”?

71

Natalie Solent 04.02.05 at 12:52 pm

Nikolai (Comment 64),

I take your point about the fact that personhood does not imply an absolute right to life. Most people agree that there are circumstances (Just War, self defence, crowded-lifeboat scenarios etc) when undoubted persons can be legitimately killed.

However you can’t jump straight from there to “abortion is OK”. The question becomes: *does* abortion fall into any of the categories of situtation where it is legitimate to kill a person? Those cases where the continuing life of the fetus/child imperils the mother might well. But very few abortions are so clear cut.

BTW, just in case it wasn’t clear, my “…any other argument is horseshit” comment was meant to be a parody of and riposte to comment 61. I hope no one thinks it refers to comment 62, which wasn’t visible to me when I pressed “post”.

72

JRoth 04.02.05 at 2:17 pm

Keith, would it make you feel better about agreeing with McArdle if you could simultaneously point out that her initial statement is…tendentious?

You don’t just get a solid majority with her no-abortion-with-limited-exceptions formula. You also get it with simple “limited abortion.” The country is closely divided, and pro-lifers get the good press these days, but the polls haven’t changed significantly in decades, and the polls are pretty clear: most Americans favor abortion rights. Note the careful use of the term “rights,” with its implication of freedom of action for the woman. The strict no-abortion position doesn’t even poll in the 30s, suggesting that Megan’s one step shy formulation is a home run, and the Clinton formulation – safe, rare, legal – is actually the solid majority view.

Far fewer people support elective abortion in the third (or even second) trimesters than support an absolute ban; more importantly, there is no national politician who supports abortion rights beyond what’s outlined in roe v. wade, while there are literally dozens of anti-abortion absolutists in the House and Senate.

None of this is directly relevant to the rather more intellectual discussion going on here (all horseshit aside), but I think it’s important to have a grasp on what Americans believe, and who has what position. Extremists win by pretending that the other side is equally extreme. With abortion, as with many other issues right now, the Republican position – as measured by where their elected officials stand – is the radical one. The Democratic position is not. Strict “pro-lifers” may insist that any abortion-accepting position is murderous and thus inherently radical, but that’s Humpty-talk. Radical means out of the mainstream, and Republicans like Santorum & Coburn are out of the mainstream on abortion, not Dems like Boxer or either Clinton.

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Keith M Ellis 04.02.05 at 4:09 pm

I know exactly what most Americans believe, it’s what I believe. Most Americans strongly support abortion in the first trimester and moderately to strongly oppose abortions in the third. This is contrary to both the pro-choice and the pro-life positions, which are extreme in comparison. The Dems are as beholden to the pro-choice extremists as the Repubs are to the pro-lifers.

But that’s neither here nor there. That’s not the subject. Pro-choicers get so incensed because they think that pro-lifers are trying to pretend like the woman’s rights issue doesn’t exist or effectively doesn’t matter. But they also assert that the personhood issue doesn’t exist or effectively doesn’t matter. How convenient. Of course the other side does the same thing in reverse.

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murdoch 04.02.05 at 4:12 pm

Life doesn’t begin at conception. It’s passed on at conception. Life began long ago and has been developing in myraid forms ever since. Human beings, carrots, amoebas, ducks, turtles, all have common ancestors. All is process, development.

A fertilized egg is human. What else could it be? It’s a human in its first minute, hour, week, month of development. All “stages” are arbitrary. This doesn’t mean that all fertilized eggs have the right to be born, grow, and become president.

All eggs and sperm are human, and have the potential to grow into persons if combined and nurtured. Obviously this is impossible.

Former folklore identified a moment called “quickening,” when the baby could be felt to move in the worm. Before that, it wasn’t a part of the community, of the community’s consciousness.

One becomes a “person” in community. All our kids had strong personalities that we could recognize, looking back, even before they were born. But they became “persons” only in family, in community. Conception doesn’t supply personhood, only potential.

As I said before, people who elevate the interests of the fetus regardless of the interests of the woman involved are in effect patriarchal, whether or not they’ve thought through the implications of their beliefs.

We can argue whether patriarchy is a good or bad thing. (Tribal society is usually led by a strong male, hopefully backed up by elders and wise women. Kingdoms are tribes with trappings. But kings aren’t necessarily the only form of government possible, or in modern conditions, the best. We can depart from our heritage for good reason.)

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Keith M Ellis 04.02.05 at 4:52 pm

First of all, you’re lecturing not discussing.

“A fertilized egg is human. What else could it be?”

Is a blood cell human? Well, yes, it’s “human”, but not “a human”. Neither is a fertilized egg.

“It’s a human in its first minute, hour, week, month of development.”

…but you assert differently. At least the pro-lifers who are pro-life for metaphysical reasons have good reason to assume personhood of a fertilized egg. Your view, on the other hand, seems completely irrational and insupportable.

“All ‘stages’ are arbitrary.”

Sez who? You? There’s no reason that this must necessarily be the case and, indeed, it isn’t. There is a point before which cells aren’t differentiated but after they are. That seems like one very non-arbitrary change that could be used to define “stage”.

“But they became ‘persons’ only in family, in community. Conception doesn’t supply personhood, only potential.”

This would support the pro-infanticide view, which I personally think is a reasonable view. Almost no one else does because almost no one else questions the magical immediate personhood of a newborn baby. But if personhood is a social construct, then we’ve really got a lot of leeway here. Maybe women aren’t persons in a given social context. Then there’d not be any rights of theirs to protect.

“As I said before, people who elevate the interests of the fetus regardless of the interests of the woman involved are in effect patriarchal…”

“Regardless”? Maybe so, because that’s equivalent to denying the interests of the woman. But elevating the interests of the fetus above the interests of the woman for good reason is not patriarchal. It’s not even patriarchal in effect necessarily, which would be important to your practical argument.

You’ve got a good rap there, it’s like something from a pamphlet. But it’s not an argument.

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Michael Blowhard 04.02.05 at 5:40 pm

This may be my own intellectual inadequacy speaking here, but a number of commenters seem to think that their opponents are either A) Stupid (because they can’t see the brilliance of knock-out debating points), or B) Arguing in bad faith (because how else to explain the way they continue to cling to wrong-wrong-wrong positions?)

Do y’all really believe that these questions can be argued out once and for all, and that a conclusion can be arrived at that will serve as a once-and-for-all, rock-solid policy foundation? I mean, not just as far as you personally are concerned, but in some larger, more general, the-truth-has-finally-been-arrived-at kind of way?

A-ha-ha-ha.

Sorry. It seems to me that, especially on topics like abortion, we knock up against the limits of debate pretty quickly. Are there arguments on either side that haven’t been rehearsed, elaborated, and revisited a zillion times? Is this discussion really going to go anywhere it hasn’t already been? Is this a case where arguing further stands any chance of really advancing the discussion?

Especially in the case of something like abortion, you run up against feelings and experiences at a certain point, and pretty damn quickly. I’m not sure how susceptible these are to argument or analysis. (Or how susceptible to analysis they should be.) But, past a certain point, I’m not sure what the point of going after these feelings and experiences in analytic/intellectual/debating ways is either.

An example? A woman I know — Jewish, liberal, ’70s-feminist — came out of Oberlin and went straight to work at a NYC abortion clinic. She lasted about a year. I asked why she left. She told me that nothing had prepared her for the reality of abortion. Many of the women experienced horrible moods and remorse. And in the procedure room she saw little fingers and feet being swept out of the women having abortions. She told me that the picture the pro-choice people who’d filled her with enthusiasm for the abortion cause had given her hadn’t included any of that.

These days, she continues to think — regretfully – that abortion should be legal and available, but she also thinks it should be discouraged. But it isn’t a position based on debate, consistency, intellectual rigor, or any such thing. It’s a position based on experience, intuitions, sympathy and feeling. Try to engage her in debate about abortion, and this woman — every bit as bright as you and I are — will tell you she doesn’t want to argue, her position is based on her experience and her feelings. She doesn’t want to debate; as far as she’s concerned, what she’s seen and how it made her feel have given her the material she needs to come to a (fuzzy, regretful, admittedly imperfect) policy stance. Make very single brilliant debating argument you want, you aren’t going to budge her. You’re just going to annoy her with your lack of respect for her experience and her feelings. And, in this case, I’m very much on her side — brilliant though your arguments may be, I’ll still think you’re totally missing the real point.

Anyway, perhaps it doesn’t hurt to remember that for many people the realities they encounter are far more important than the abstractions that arguments and debates over principles throw around. Rehearsing all the familiar old arguments … I mean, have fun doing so if you find it entertaining or enlightening, or it gets your blood stirring, or something. I’m not sure what you hope to accomplish, though.

I look forward to having this observation defeated by dazzling intellectual debating points …

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tad brennan 04.02.05 at 9:35 pm

re comment 58:

“Just a note for MQ —it’s not that hard to see why people would think God told them fetuses are people. In Isaiah 44:2 God refers to himself as “the LORD that made thee, and formed thee from the womb” (KJV) or “the LORD… he who made you, who formed you in the womb” (NIV). He doesn’t say “the LORD who formed a clump of cells that later became thee”. “

I don’t get why anyone would think this tells in favor of an earlier gestational date for personhood or ensoulment as opposed to a later date.

Suppose I think (as e.g. Aquinas did–and he *had* read Isaiah) that there is no soul and no person until sometime after “quickening”, i.e. after the first trimester. So, sometime in the fourth month or later, the LORD (damn, caps-lock stuck again) made me and formed me in the womb. He certainly didn’t do it elsewhere, and someone else didn’t do it: I was formed by God, and in the womb. Yup. In the fourth month, or thereabouts. Prior to that, it’s a clump of cells. Course, God made the clump of cells, too. And at some point, God formed me out of the clump of cells, by implanting a soul in those non-ensouled cells. That view is perfectly consistent with Isaiah (as Aquinas and most of the history of the Roman Catholic church very well knew).

So all these passages say is that whenever I was formed, it was sometime before birth (i.e. in the womb), and it was done by God.

How is this supposed to show Biblical evidence that personhood begins at conception?

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liberal 04.02.05 at 9:37 pm

keith m ellis wrote, Most Americans strongly support abortion in the first trimester and moderately to strongly oppose abortions in the third. This is contrary to both the pro-choice and the pro-life positions, which are extreme in comparison. The Dems are as beholden to the pro-choice extremists as the Repubs are to the pro-lifers.

That’s silly. What fraction of those of us who consider ourselves pro-choice fit your outline of a “pro-choice extremist”? I’ll wager it’s at least one order of magnitude lower than the fraction of pro-lifers who fit your definition of “pro-life extremist”.

The Democratic position, AFAIK, is to support Roe v. Wade, which (again, AFAIK) doesn’t provide much legal support for abortions in the third trimester (except perhaps for the life of the mother). The Republican position, AFAICT, is to support the “Human Life Amendment” or whatever they’re calling it, which is pretty consistent with what you’re describing as the extremist pro-life view.

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Keith M Ellis 04.02.05 at 9:53 pm

RvW does support, nevertheless, third trimester abortions and the majortion of Americans do not. The pro-choice movement’s activists will not budge on this point.

I agree that there are more people who are extreme at the the pro-life side of the spectrum than the other. So? What has that to do with anything?

As long as the pro-life activists deny the right to an abortion in the first trimester, and as long as the pro-choice activists defend the right to an abortion in the third trimester, they will both be out-of-step with majority sentiment and will be opposed or ignored. And the two opposing factions have absolutely no ground for compromise. So the status quo will not change, except that the pro-life forces are more organized and more zealous and are more motivated to make gains in their position wherever they can, and they have.

As someone says above, most people will identify as “pro-choice” or “pro-life” but their actual position is almost invariably more nuanced than the “official” pro-choice or pro-life position. Neither movement, as an activist movement, has room for someone who does not take the extreme position. In regard to politics, which is the context here, the pro-choice position and the pro-life position can be fairly characterized as protecting the woman’s rights to her body and reproductive choice absolutely in the case of pro-choice, or protecting the fetus’s right to life absolutely in the case of pro-life. Both positions are dogmatic and both deny the legitimacy of the claims of rights the other position makes.

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liberal 04.03.05 at 6:19 am

Keith M Ellis wrote, RvW does support, nevertheless, third trimester abortions and the majortion of Americans do not.

Without more details, that’s misleading. You’d have to detail what third trimester abortions RvW allows, and then look at polls on that topic.

For example, my impression—though I don’t see that anyone has firm numbers on this—is that quite a few third trimester abortions are done in cases of anencephaly. I’d wager that people’s opposition to third trimester abortions would on average change in that case.

I agree that there are more people who are extreme at the the pro-life side of the spectrum than the other. So? What has that to do with anything?

You’re claim that Dems are as beholden to the pro-choice extremists…

As long as the pro-life activists deny the right to an abortion in the first trimester, and as long as the pro-choice activists defend the right to an abortion in the third trimester, they will both be out-of-step with majority sentiment and will be opposed or ignored.

You again appear to be conflating an uncondition right to a third trimester abortion with a conditional one. I would wager that a majority is opposed to an unconditional right to an abortion in the third trimester, but I’ll also wager that a majority is in favor of third trimester abortions where the life of the mother is in danger.

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liberal 04.03.05 at 6:21 am

BTW, am I the only one who noticed that around 2005-04-02 10 pm, it was impossible to post a comment here?

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liberal 04.03.05 at 6:33 am

keith m ellis wrote, The Dems are as beholden to the pro-choice extremists as the Repubs are to the pro-lifers.

Here’s what the 2004 Democratic Party platform says on abortion: We will defend the dignity of all Americans against those who would undermine it. Because we believe in the privacy and equality of women, we stand proudly for a woman’s right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay. We stand firmly against Republican efforts to undermine that right. At the same time, we strongly support family planning and adoption incentives. Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.

Here is the 2004 Republican Party platform’s position: As a country, we must keep our pledge to the first guarantee of the Declaration of Independence. That is why we say the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and we endorse legislation to make it clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. Our purpose is to have legislative and judicial protection of that right against those who perform abortions. We oppose using public revenues for abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it. We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.

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Jane Galt 04.03.05 at 12:13 pm

I think liberal and Mr Ellis are getting tangled up in the written word v. the practice

In writing, Roe allows for restrictions on third trimester abortions. In actual practice, however, my underestanding is that they have not been allowed. Moreover, large majorities support restrictions on second-trimester abortions, which are not restricted in practice; it’s safe to say that Democrats who oppose partial-birth abortion bans and parental notification laws are on the fringe of public opinion.

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liberal 04.03.05 at 1:05 pm

jane galt wrote, …it’s safe to say that Democrats who oppose partial-birth abortion bans and parental notification laws are on the fringe of public opinion.

Not clear.

Left out of the so-called partial birth abortion debate is why partial birth abortions are being performed.

Suppose, for sake of argument, a large number of such abortions are performed for anencephaly. Suppose the polling question is rephrased as “do you support this procedure, described by groups opposed to abortions as ‘partial-birth abortion’, and by medical practitioners as X, in cases of anencaphaly, a condition in which much or all of the baby’s brain is missing and in which case the baby has zero chance of surviving?”

Similarly for questions on parental notification: what if the girl’s parents are abusive (in the limit, we could posit a situation where the father is the girl’s stepfather)?

Finally, look at my post from April 3rd, 2005 at 6:33 am and tell me who’s more out of step with the average American.

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Joshua W. Burton 04.03.05 at 5:12 pm

_You are ending the life of an innocent human being, not a fetus, to call it such is not showing respect for a human being._

For some reason, the argument always bogs down on the “human being” part of the formula; I’d like to see more skeptical discussion of the “innocent” part.

Gestational diabetes is a clear demonstration that the fetus is utterly unscrupulous about the welfare of its own mother; in time of famine, it would cheerfully starve her for that extra pound of birth weight. Now, obviously, this selfish behavior is not the reasoned, conscious choice of a moral actor. But the proper reach of the law extends to protecting citizens from unlawful assault, even by the use of proportionate force against maniacs who aren’t legally responsible for their own actions. Nor is the personal right of self-defense conditioned on the mental state of the attacker.

At _most_, a fetus might be endowed by the state with a right to safe haven in an incubator, if it can survive there. I can’t see how it can _ever_ have an unconditional right to continued adverse occupancy of a womb.

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