Thursday, June 11, 2009

Thoughts on Abortion

A few months ago, on my way through the train station as part of my evening commute, I was forced to wade through a throng of young people carrying posters and plackards and wearing similarly sloganed t-shirts. It quickly became clear that they had descended on Washington for yet another anti-choice rally. I quietly moved through the crowd, contemptuously rolling my eyes as I walked to my train.

The next morning, waiting for the bus, I asked my bus-riding friend, a middle-aged white woman, where she'd been the previous day. She enthusiastically announced that she'd been at the rally in DC. I immediately clamped up: the last thing I like arguing about is abortion. And I admit that I felt a little embarrassed, as I remembered my contempt from the previous evening. Our other regular companion, a male scientist from Bulgaria who loves to argue, immediately started engaging her in a debate, as I looked on in dismay, sure that things were going to become unpleasant. How was it possible she was anti-choice, he wanted to know. And indeed, she had decided to come right out with it, because usually she is quiet about it. Apparently she is the only person she knows who is not pro-choice. I listened to them talk, continuing to feel uncomfortable, when suddenly the conversation made a turn that allowed me to enter into it easily, quietly. The question of the moment was, what should be the legal consequences of abortion? This had always been a question that had troubled me, so I said something. I've long sensed that very few people actually want to have women sent to prison for having an abortion. My friend admitted that this was a problem, that it was an issue that too few anti-abortion people thought about. She maintained that being anti-abortion is not about punishment.

I have another friend, this one of long-standing, basically liberal with leftwing tendencies, but who has always prided himself on being pro-life, it being important to him that he have this one "conservative" position (presumably so he can't be pigeonholed). But for him, the matter is both emotional (he was adopted) and abstract, in that he has never had any intention of campaigning against abortion, nor does he attack his friends' views on abortion. I've always argued that this means that, his personal feelings on abortion notwithstanding, he is effectively pro-choice.

Now, there is a difference between my two friends. Both consider themselves anti-abortion, but one goes to organized anti-choice rallies, the other does not. And yet it seems that neither of them believes women should be punished for having an abortion. Indeed, for years I have suspected that very few people who claim to be opposed to abortion actually think through the implications of their opposition. They'd tell you it should be illegal, but what does illegal mean? Illegal means against the law, which means that it is punishable under the law. In what way should it be punished? Of course I've already gone well past the point where most have long since stopped pursuing the question. My suspicion was confirmed when I watched this video of an anti-abortion protest, in which protesters were asked, "what do you think should happen to women who have abortions" (video originally seen several years ago, via Bitch Ph.D.). Basically, the answer was either "I don't know, I haven't thought of it" ("that's not my department, you should ask so-and-so") or that it "was between them and God".

My friend maintains that being anti-abortion is not about punishment, and the responses given in the video suggest that, for most, she is right. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Because, of course, there are those who do believe punishment is in order, the punishment of doctors in particular. These are the people who really drive the movement against abortion, the lunatics who blow up clinics, who harass women, who kill abortion providers, such as the asshole who recently killed Dr. George Tiller. These are the true believers; these are the people who can and will be pushed over the edge by irresponsible political rhetoric, the kind we get from the American Right every day.

One such rhetorical gambit is the idea that "abortion is murder"--worse, it's the murder of babies. This gambit has great emotional power and has both proven effective in swelling the ranks of the anti-abortion and led directly to violence against abortion providers. The day after Tiller's assassination, M. LeBlanc posted an excellent entry at Bitch PhD on this very topic. It's well worth reading. (The idea was also explored by Adam Kotsko at both The Weblog and An und für sich; in both posts, and comments, Adam highlights the utter moral insanity of the formulation.)

I'm posting this nearly two weeks after the event, because--apart from being frankly too slow to respond quickly even were I inclined--it's never a bad time to make it clear what you stand for. As BitchPhD says in another recent post, it isn't enough that the truth is available, somewhere: people need to hear it again and again, from all sorts of different sources. People need to hear about the experiences of women (many of which are provided in the comments to that post; and here is one woman's account of her own abortion). People need to be able to counter the lies and misinformation with actual facts about, for example, late-term abortion (also). As an avowedly feminist man, the very least I can do is stand and blog in solidarity.

I admit that I don't keep up with the feminist blogs as much as I once did, or would like, so Bitch PhD remains my primary portal for other links and stories. The post linked to in the beginning of the preceding paragraph, along with Bitch's own typically trenchant commentary, contains numerous links to articles and factsheets and blogs, as does this one and this one. But I also want to point to two older posts that helped me clear away some of my own baggage about abortion. I've always been pro-choice, but I'd have to say that I was fairly glib about it. Later, though I argued that, as with so many other areas of public discourse in recent decades, the right has been all too successful in changing the terms of the debate--being able to call themselves "pro-life" is only the start of it--I nevertheless found myself succumbing to some of the slippery rhetoric resulting from this shift (for example, the idea that abortion is "always" an agonizing decision for the woman; it's not). Anyway, the first of these posts is from 2004 and is an excellent piece on how her own attitude towards abortion shifted when she herself became pregnant with her son. The second is from 2005 and simply asks Do you trust women? The latter post in particular is very valuable. Indeed, in light of this question and her exploration of it, it seems to me that the label "pro-choice" itself is ultimately counterproductive. Perhaps the right to choose sounds too much like the language of consumerism. Really, at minimum, we believe, first, that women are people, and, second, that women are capable of making their own decisions.

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