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February 23, 2006

Won't Somebody Please Think of the Puppies!?

I think Digby goes a little far here. Confused polling on abortion is evidence that Americans have confused views on abortion, not that the cover story obscuring their Handmaid's Tale instincts is insufficiently clever. So while the Mysterious D offers as convincing a logical condemnation of a conflicting position as one could hope for, I'm not sure that's quite the right lens to use.

Now, I'm about as anxious to enter the abortion debate as Tom Cruise's agent is to talk about Thetans, but it seems to me that the whole method we use to understand the conflict is flawed. Efforts to conceptualize the conflicting positions tend to push supporters onto a binary choice: either you do believe the fetus is a life (0), or you don't (1). From there, Digby's point makes perfect sense. Murder is wrong, even when the life is caused by rape or incest, so if you profess to be a 0 but support exceptions for assault or familial relations, you're probably a liar, and your real agenda is probably rather ugly. True that.

But my guess is that most folks (though obviously not all) fall midway on that scale -- .2's, .4's, .6's and so forth. The fetus, to them, is a quasihuman, analogous to dogs or cats. Either animal, when kept as a pet, gets anthropomorphized to a rather absurd degree, attaining rights we don't grant to other animals but not quite reaching the human degree. Thus we enact animal cruelty laws but allow euthanasia in case of abandonment. We believe the animal shouldn't be hurt, but if no one gives it a home, society is happy to kill it. It's a rather confused view of the subject, both legislating to protect the creature's life and rights but allowing its murder when humans won't facilitate its existence. But if the thinking is almost criminally muddled, it's not really disingenuous. Society values the life, but not too much. And that, I think, is a pretty good map to the abortion debate as it plays out among those not deeply involved in the discussion. Wrong and confused, but not in a premeditated fashion.

February 23, 2006 | Permalink

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» Truths from Shakespeare's Sister
I agree that a black and white scale of measurement on the issue is flawed, but I believe it has less to do with any sense of "quasihumannness" and more to do with truths that no one likes to talk about. [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 23, 2006 12:00:21 PM

» Ezra Klein: Wont Somebody Please Think of the Puppies!? from Outside The Beltway | OTB
Ezra Klein has a thoughtful post on the abortion debate entitled, Wont Somebody Please Think of the Puppies!? While he agrees with Digby that, intellectually, it makes little sense to argue that life begins at exception but abor... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 23, 2006 7:08:58 PM

» Chao-chous Dog Has Puppies from The Mahablog
I see that Lance Mannion has taken up the question of when life begins. I see that Shakespeares Sister mostly agrees with Lance; Jedmunds of Pandagon mostly doesnt. Now I want to confuse everyone by arguing that wh... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 25, 2006 12:11:16 PM

Comments

Yes, people do have confused feelings on abortion, often depending on the stage of fetal development and whether the mother retains rights to her own life and health.

The puppy analogy doesn't work for me. While pets do represent a time and money committment for their owners, owning a puppy is not like having a fetal parasite within their body for a substantial period and then 20 years or more of commitment to nurturing a child from the cradle through high school or college.

What does work for me is acknowledging that this is a tangle of moral, economic, and personal autonomy issues and the key question may be whether to substitute the judgement of society for the judgement and welfare of the particular mother (and father, in many cases) involved. On that basis, it is easy for me to say that those directly involved are the only ones that can assess and decide what is correct for the situation. Life is abundant with choices, and those choices don't end at birth of a child. Society's control over post-birth offspring is limited, acknowledging a wide sphere of parental choice. Surely that same freedom (and limited constraints) should apply to pre-birth as well.

Although the biology seems clear: life begins at insemination and womb implantation, the stakes in that life are minimal in the beginning and substantial just prior to birth. The public gets this, and while favoring maternal choice generally, it rejects late-stage abortion except for maternal health and life issues. This is, really, quite sensible.

I'm a dog lover and former dog partner-in-life, but I don't see substantial parallels in that experience to the choices and burdens associated with human pregnancy.

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Feb 23, 2006 10:59:20 AM

Yes, I'm sure that the re-conceptualization would have definitely altered the South Dakota Legislature's vote significantly. They didn't have exceptions for rape and incest, so I guess I should send them a gift basket for being more concerned about the fetus than about controlling women?

Posted by: norbizness | Feb 23, 2006 11:18:48 AM

I don't think that these people are liars when they say they are pro-life except in cases of rape or incest. I think they haven't thought much about what they are saying. When they think it through, they often understand something about themselves --- that it isn't the innocent life they were concerned with, it is the fact that girls were being "irresponsible." That is a step toward greater understanding of the issue and moves the argument forward.

Many pro-choice people need to unravel years of internalized "pro-life" rhetoric before they can reconcile themselves to the simple fact that abortion is too complicated for the blunt instrument of the law. Other institutions --- medicine, church, family -- must be the forums within which an individual decides whether or not to proceed. Accomodation to a generalized "ick" factor will not get that job done.

Posted by: digby | Feb 23, 2006 12:03:34 PM

The problem with this whole subject is that fuzzy term 'life'.

And all the different meanings the word conveys to the people who use it.

Because if by 'life' you mean 'being alive', then 'life' begins before conception, because sperm are living tissue and so is an egg. They are 'alive' in every possible sense of the word except possibly that they are capable of independent life.

Then again I know that sperm continue to live past the point where they are uh 'separated from their host organism' (how's that for a euphemistic description of ejaculation?), and though I'm not sure about an egg, the point remains basically the same and that is that 'life' -- in the sense of something being composed of living tissue -- is far too broad a term to be used.

Even the old 'at what point does a fetus become viable' argument still begs the question of whether or not it can live on it's own, when does this living organism acquire whatever that special quality is that makes it a life of the 'thou shalt not kill' variety?

And that brings us to the religious belief in the soul, and at what point does living tissue that is on it's way towards being a separate and distinct human being in it's own right, become 'invested' with a soul, making it 'LIFE' and not just some thing that's composed of living tissue?

So all of this is a long way around saying that I think you've gotten this exactly right. People have a confused view on this subject because whether they are consciously aware of the contradictions or not, they are -- on some level -- not able to really put a finger on how exactly this whole process actually works.
Therefore they pick and choose their positions based around the way a given question makes them 'feel', and not any more considered stance.


Posted by: mrgarza | Feb 23, 2006 1:38:03 PM

While I understand where you're coming from with the fetus/pet analogy and would agree to a certain extent, a fetus is an unknown potential, while a pet you have loved for many years is imbued with a life experience and memories.

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Feb 23, 2006 1:53:35 PM

But it's a little more complex--anti-abortion politics is deeply, deeply interwined with reactionary conceptions of human sexuality and gender, and various aspects of the SD legislation and the panel that produced it (most obviously the excuplation of women from punishment) make this abundantly clear. Some "pro-lifers" may have subjectively convinced themselves that it's all about protecting fetal life, but in addition to the fact that they aren't remotely consistent about protecting fetal life there's no question there's a lot about sex-as-pleasure and women's role in the world going on here. (When American pro-choicers have the choice between protecting fetal life and regulating sexuality, a majority of them choose the latter, which is inexplicable if proecting life in the only agenda.)

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Feb 23, 2006 2:34:26 PM

A new perspective on abortion occurred to me recently. Others have doubtless made the point before, probably much better, but I'll trot it out anyway.

Imagine the fetus as a person A needing simple but very specific medical care which can only be provided by one person B over nine months. Throw in all the details you need to finish the analogy: Person A's condition is the unintentional result of person B's (possibly coerced) activity; Caregiving may have numerous side effects on B, ranging from minor and temporary to terminal; A and B have never met and may never see one another face-to-face; etc.

The point of the analogy is this: Should we have laws that require Person B to provide that medical care? Would we even consider such laws if B could be a man?

Posted by: jackd | Feb 23, 2006 2:55:13 PM

The discussions above would be relevant if a bill were being discussed and debated about abortion....there is no bill. I think you are all missing the point that this is now a LEGAL issue.

And as a legal issue, I can tell you that Roe probably will, at some point, be overturned. The majority opinion of Roe is weak and the opponents keep bringing this up with different members on the court. At some point, maybe just out of sheer repetitive numbers, it will be overturned.

And that is probably a good thing for everyone in the long run. When overturned, it will mean that it is not a protected right and is subject to state regulation. So what? Some states will and some won't. Every state gets to please their citizens. It's called democracy and is a far cry from the way abortion was legalized.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 23, 2006 2:58:22 PM

Easy for you to say, 'so what' Fred, YOU will never be the one getting pregnant.

Posted by: fiat lux | Feb 23, 2006 4:20:55 PM

I think the "Abortion illegal except in cases of rape or incest" is more political compromise than anything else. I don't think they really believe that. It's also my belief that those who say they technically would support abortion in cases of rape or incest, if they had the chance, would try to persuade the woman to have the baby anyway and have it adopted. I don't doubt many who oppose abortion also support traditionalist views on women & sexuality, but I seriously doubt their sole interest in the abortion issue is because of that.

We also need to drop the "If they really were pro-life, they would support X" canard, in this case condoms in schools. The idea that you aren't really pro-life if you don't agree with my ideas about what will reduce unwanted pregnancies. Pro-Life people have their own ideas about reducing unwanted pregnancies.

Since we're discussing whether someone who opposes abortion, except in cases of rape or incest is really pro-life, what about someone who opposes abortion except in the first trimester? Are their views more conducive to protecting fetal life, or trying to regulate sexuality?

Posted by: Dustin R. Ridgeway | Feb 23, 2006 4:30:09 PM

I think part of what drives this is that most people have moral qualms about abortion, but feel it might be justifiable in some circumstances. The result is that they are receptive to the vague idea of opposing "abortion on demand" or "using abortion as birth control" or whatever.

In practice I think many of the same people would not be comfortable actually saying whether a particular abortion is justifiable or just "on demand." It's a bit like the Terri Schiavo fiasco, where IIRC polls showed that many people who personally thought the tube should be left in also opposed the government intervening to put it back in.

As for the "democratic will of the people" argument, I'll note that polls show that South Dakota is split evenly between pro-life and pro-choice people, yet their legislatures voted overwhelmingly for the most draconian abortion ban possible. Clearly the will of the people is not reflected in the legislatures on any one particular issue. If I vote for legislator X, it doesn't necessarily mean I'm voting to give him the right to force my wife to have babies.

Posted by: M.A. | Feb 23, 2006 4:45:02 PM

I think part of what drives this is that most people have moral qualms about abortion, but feel it might be justifiable in some circumstances. The result is that they are receptive to the vague idea of opposing "abortion on demand" or "using abortion as birth control" or whatever.

In practice I think many of the same people would not be comfortable actually saying whether a particular abortion is justifiable or just "on demand." It's a bit like the Terri Schiavo fiasco, where IIRC polls showed that many people who personally thought the tube should be left in also opposed the government intervening to put it back in.

As for the "democratic will of the people" argument, I'll note that polls show that South Dakota is split evenly between pro-life and pro-choice people, yet their legislatures voted overwhelmingly for the most draconian abortion ban possible. Clearly the will of the people is not reflected in the legislatures on any one particular issue. If I vote for legislator X, it doesn't necessarily mean I'm voting to give him the right to force my wife to have babies.

Posted by: M.A. | Feb 23, 2006 4:45:12 PM

Oh, and not to go Jonah Goldberg on you (God forbid), but The Simpsons obviously summed up American attitudes best:

Kang: Abortions for all!
Crowd: Boo!
Kang: Very well -- no abortions for anyone!
Crowd: Boo!
Kang: Hm. Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!
Crowd: Yay!

Posted by: M.A. | Feb 23, 2006 5:00:50 PM

"And that is probably a good thing for everyone..."

Umm, yeah, except for the women killed or maimed by illegal abortions, and the women forced by state coercion to carry pregnancies to term because of reactionary, aribtarily enforced laws.

By the way, since you believe that any decision that is less than a model of legal craftsmanship and has been frequently criticiaed should be overturned, I assume that you also favor overturning Brown v. Board of Education too, right? Every state can decide whether to have apartheid or not, very democratic according to the Fred Jones model!

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Feb 23, 2006 6:30:30 PM

Maybe it's more like owning a parrot.

Posted by: Faux Real | Feb 23, 2006 9:44:15 PM

"...that this is now a LEGAL issue."

Well, since I really do not distinguish between law and politics, law simply being the majority expression of preferences, I would say it was a political issue, and duh. Now it might be a useful rhetorical strategy to claim there are rights that are beyond politics, but that is bullshit. Same rhetorical bullshit can be usefully called morality. But it is always about power and violence.

"...that polls show that South Dakota is split evenly between pro-life and pro-choice people..."

So why is my side losing, over and over and over? For thirty goddamn years I have watched choice whittled and chipped and lathed and limited. Maybe because one side cries and whimpers and says it is a right and it is all just so unfair? And the other side blows up buildings and shoots people? Or uses it as a potential threat? Not that I am advocating violence, not me, no never would I advocate violence. Never.

Ya gonna persuade away the patriarchy? They gotta nice deal, ya gonna ask em pretty please?

Ya got to make em pay. Ya got to make em really frigging scared. Bunch of wimps.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 23, 2006 10:46:18 PM

bob, I suspect the reason is that our side won. A determined woman can get an abortion more or less on demand. The law is on the pro-choice side of the issue, given the spectrum of popular opinion, so there's little we can do but lose or hold ground until the country moves leftward.

Posted by: rilkefan | Feb 24, 2006 3:42:06 AM

A much less confused way of handling the semi-humanity of a fetus is to peg the respect we pay its potential humanity to a simple time scale. At conception you have essentially zero humanity, and not much better than a 50 50 chance that that particular fertilized egg will in fact attach itself in the right place in the uterus, develop viably, and be born over the course of the next 9 months. Furthermore, no one knows this is happening at the time. If then we accept that a fetus is a _potential_ human being, and it becomes _actual_ only through the sacrifices made by the mother, then clearly it is _her_ decision whether to make this potential life actual or not. In a society which gave her no choice and attempted to coerce her to carry all known pregnancies to term, whenever she did not feel good about this coming baby, she and hence the developing fetus would suffer. Conversely if she is in complete control, recognized by law and custom, of the outcome, then she will decide early either to end the pregnancy before it costs her too much, or if she decides to bear the costs and have the baby, she is unlikely to change her mind and will instead do her best to make it the best baby she can.

Therefore it makes sense to have something like the Roe V Wade frame, which assumes there are stages of legal status--in early pregnancy, it is the woman's choice and no one else's. Midway through various elements of society start weighing in since the woman has presumably decided this _will_ be a child, and late in the pregnancy the fetus is granted provisional full humanity, and abortion can be restricted _except_ to protect the mother's health--which is a valid exception even to people who believe the fetus is a fully human soul from the moment sperm meet egg. Aside from the sheer arbitrary usefullness of a time frame method, it also corresponds to the increasing ability of the fetus to be kept alive without the mother's help.

I think this is a better way of handling the issue of partial or quasi-humanity than comparing a fetus to a pet.

Posted by: Mark Foxwell | Feb 24, 2006 3:58:31 AM

I think some here are being over-critical and/or over-literal in response to Ezra's pet analogy. I think it is interesting and valid for one part of the abortion issue, and that is all he really claims.

I commend the attempt. This is a complex issue, and no matter what you say, you are guaranteed to offend/annoy/piss-off a portion of your audience, even among those who agree with you...

Posted by: Mr Furious | Feb 24, 2006 10:38:50 AM

Here's a suggestion for all of you who think abortion is just fine and dandy and wish to preserve it for your preserve it for your grandchildren: Pass an amendment to enshrine this 'right' explicitly into the constitution. It's been done before with large issues such as slavery, Womens suffrage, etc. Why not this one?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 24, 2006 12:37:18 PM

Ezra, your comparison to attitudes towards animals fails immediately when you consider the level of passion expressed by "pro-lifers".

I started thinking, years ago, that there was more to this than met the eye. The best explanation I can come up with is a subconscious need to control reproduction, or to not cede control of it. Very hindbrain, very reptilian, very conservative.

Posted by: Rob G | Feb 24, 2006 1:07:12 PM

It is, unfortunately, not that complex an issue. It is confounded by highly emotionally charged side-issues, but the nature of the deal is evident in the different terminologies each side uses.

The reds would have us believe it's all about 'life'. But in fact, it is all about 'choice'.

I dislike the reality of abortion intensely, and would try very very hard to talk anyone I knew out of having one, for any reason. But I'm all about the idea that people have an absolute right to decide what happens with and to their bodies, and absolute base, that is what this issue is about. If one legislates against abortion, one has surrendered the individual's right to decide what they can do with their own body.

It's easy to lose this distinction in amidst all the layers of emotionalism, because, after all, we are talking about cute li'l babies here... well, no, we're not, there's nothing cute about a fetus, but still, you say 'unborn baby' and you can't help but get a warm and fuzzy, if you're remotely human.

More important than this, though, to how the right views the conflict, is that they do not see access to abortion (or even birth control) as being a human issue, they see it as being a woman's issue. This automatically makes it a liberal/left wing issue, because the right simply isn't concerned with 'vagina politics' as such. To them, a woman's issue automatically equates to feminism, which they categorically and irrationally reject out of hand.

But, again, the question of choice... privacy... control... over our own bodies, of being able to decide what medical procedures we will have, and what we will and will not allow to happen to and with our physical selves, is not isolated simply to those of us with concave genitalia. If the government can control a woman's reproductive rights, it won't stop there. The precedent is appalling, and will impact all of us. It's no more about saving babies than it is about puppies. Saying that this is a matter of choice is not just clever spin or deft framing; it is the essence of the matter.

Posted by: Highlander | Feb 28, 2006 8:10:44 AM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 1, 2007 4:32:12 AM

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