The Big Social Issue — 19 March 2012

Further to last week’s discussion on the GOP’s so-called War on Women: it strikes me that this is really just code for another round in the abortion debate.  In other words, strict Republican moralists want to deny women birth control for the same reason they want to deny them access to abortion: control, over women, their bodies, their health.  At least, that’s what they seem to be saying over there on the left.

The resurgence of social issues in the Republican primaries makes it almost inevitable that abortion itself will return to discussion, so let’s get a jump on the national zeitgeist and hash it over a bit now, shall we?

First of all, I find it amazing that Democratic politicians make approval of abortion such a litmus test for respectability that they make themselves look ridiculous defending it.  I’m thinking in particular of spectacles like Arlen Specter asking Supreme Court Nominee John Roberts if he thought Roe v Wade was not merely a precedent, or even a super-precedent, but a “super-duper precedent” and as such as close to inviolable law as it’s possible to get.  They will accept all kinds of dodging answers on other topics but want a  commitment on abortion.

And of course, the fear-mongering sparked by any attempt to discuss Roe v Wade is simply hysterical: “Rick Santorum wants to outlaw abortion!!!” the feminists will screech, oblivious to the fact that a) the president has no power to do that, and b) neither does the Supreme Court.

But the problem with the pro-abortion (excuse me, pro-choice) position is that it’s so illogical in so many ways.  First of all, its proponents do not really believe in choice – witness the way they condemn traditionalists, Sarah Palin, for example, for carrying an eminently abortable baby to term.  They certainly didn’t support her choice.

Secondly, their argument is that outsiders, especially male outsiders, and extra-especially conservative male politician outsiders, have no right to tell them what to do with their bodies.  But to the anti-abortion crowd, women’s bodies are not the point at all.  Their concern is for the little body inside the woman.  And you would have to admit that pro-choicers stand on pretty shaky ground when they maintain that they have the legal – and more importantly moral – autonomy to decide on their own to kill that baby, often for no more substantial reason than that they don’t want to be inconvenienced.

This is where the apologists begin to tie themselves in knots.  “But a fetus is not viable!” they will cry.  Explain, then, how it is that in 35 states a man who beats a pregnant woman and kills the baby can be charged with murder, but if that same woman went earlier the same day to Planned Parenthood and had an abortion, she would suffer no consequence at all.  The fetus is just as dead – can it possibly make sense that it’s up to the mother to decide if that’s a capital offense or an outpatient procedure?

And once you accept the viability logic, you’re stuck with the boundary question – when does the growing life cross the threshold to viability and pass beyond its mother’s legal power to destroy it?  With the advances of modern medicine, that boundary is shifting ever earlier.  The Burger Court that decided Roe v Wade set it at 28 weeks, but babies have been born recently as early as 22 weeks.

Advances in medical technology are blurring the boundary yet further.  Improvements in ultrasound imaging enable parents to see ever more clearly the hands and fingers of the growing infant.  With home sonogram kits they can hear the baby’s heartbeat whenever they choose.  Pro-life advocates argue that these developments are one reason why the incidence of abortion is on the decline.  They make it easier to affirm the fetus’s innate humanness, and make arguments about viability seem legalistic and self-serving.

Another argument the pro-choice crowd will make is the social utility argument: that the world is better off without all those unwanted babies, whose mothers could not or would not care for them and who would doubtless end up as a burden on society one way or another.  To that, the first response is that for most of the last decade, 20,000 families every year would go to the expense and difficulty of adopting a child from a foreign country, so great is their desire to have a family.  Thousands of those unwanted babies might very well be wanted after all.  Incidentally, one relatively low-cost, high-value effort this country could make would be to make the path to adoption in this country less arduous.

The second response to the social utility argument is the social breakdown I mentioned last week.  I think the ready availability of both contraception and abortion has led to a revolution in the way society looks at sexual activity.  The risk of pregnancy and its consequences used to drive men to vows of fidelity and women to hold out for marriage (admittedly, there was lots of pre-marital sex, but if pregnancy occurred there were consequences).  Today, sex is recreational.  Indeed, one can argue that the sexual revolution liberated men more than women, since they could now indulge with no fear of entanglement, and if the woman got pregnant – well, it was her fault for not taking the Pill and she can fix it with an abortion.

This works fine for the upscale crowd who write the opinion pieces, but it has been a catastrophe for those at the lower end of the social ladder.  There, the ethic of sex without consequences has led to a culture of irresponsibility and an explosion of babies born out of wedlock.  As contradictory as it seems, I think a strong and coherent case can be made that the cultural attitudes that descend from the reproductive health revolution have led to more, not fewer, babies born to women who are unwilling and unable to care for them.

There is a third element to the social utility argument.  Societies that do not grow stagnate and decline.  This is the demographic doom that threatens both Europe and Japan; the main reason the US has been spared thus far is immigration.  The millions of lives lost to abortion over the decades constitute one piece of the puzzle, but it is not one that will help our country thrive.

Finally, pro-choicers will point to an apparent inconsistency:  if conservatives are so adamantly pro-life, why do they favor the death penalty?  The answer should be obvious – the death penalty is meted out to those who have done something to deserve it, whereas a life in the womb is totally innocent and deserving of protection.  One could more reasonably turn the accusation around – why are liberals so against the death penalty for heinous criminals when they are so casual about passing such sentence on unborn babies?

I have said nothing about religious dictates, and the word “moral” has appeared infrequently here.  I think one’s religious conscience is a matter for oneself and his or her creator, and I think anti-abortionists who campaign under the church’s banner do their cause a disservice in some ways.  They make it easier for the less-faithful, or the non-faithful, to characterize them as brainless Christian soldiers.

But my point here is that even on grounds of pure Cartesian logic, the case for abortion is weak.  Pro-life advocates don’t care to interfere with what a woman does with her own body.  But they care mightily what she does with the life growing inside her womb.

I think the Supreme Court made a mistake in deciding Roe v Wade as they did.  I can’t tell you if it was on sound legal footing, but I can say that rather than settle the issue, it ensured that it would remain a perpetual battleground and one of the big issues dividing this country asunder.

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