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November 15, 2006

Abortion Musings

I tend to buy the idea that abortion is an agonizing choice and the Democratic response should be empathetic and tolerant, not blase and laissez-faire. But my friend Julian Sanchez makes a compelling case in the opposite direction:

Treating fetuses as persons has harmful consequences, even if we simultaneously insist that their interests are trumped by women’s right to control their bodies. For one, it means endorsing the notion that the one-third of American women who will have an abortion will be killing a child. And in the political realm, how uneasy we are about abortion will determine what measures short of an outright ban we are willing to entertain as means of ensuring that abortion remains "rare." Hillary Clinton, for instance, has suggested that because "religious and moral values" are strong predictors of abstinence, we should "support programs that reinforce the idea that abstinence at a young age is not just the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do." But if there is nothing seriously immoral about abortion, then this sort of unseemly government-sponsored religious indoctrination would gain little of importance even if it were effective.[...]

When enough people self-consciously move to the political "center," it ceases to be the center and becomes a new pole. A "mainstream" of political discourse defined by the shared assumption that all abortion is morally suspect should be regarded by all advocates of reproductive freedom as a rough beast, slouching toward 2008 to be born.

I'm very comfortable with choice and profoundly uncomfortable with abortion, though not for any reasons that strike me as intellectually coherent. Instead, my discomfort stems from a fuzzy impression that the act is morally ambiguous, albeit not actually wrong. But that view, on consideration, is weak. Indeed, I fear I hold it in no small part because others like me hold it, and so the impression that abortion kills something recognizably childish has snowballed, and I'm now part of the avalanche of unfocused moral opprobrium. Which is bad, both from a political perspective, and because it causes women making a choice I agree with to suffer unnecessary personal anguish.

November 15, 2006 | Permalink


I, for one, have never really understood what's so bad about "abortion on demand." That just speaks of freedom (and it's not like I or anyone I know supports the Kang/Kodos platform of "abortions for all.") Also, I tend to think the abortion debate, such as it is, just greatly ignores the "facts on the ground." The fact is, lots of people have abortions in this country--LOTS. And, the other fact is that LOTS of parents want their daughters to be able to have said abortions. Which, really, is why the South Dakota ban fell. Then again, even now you can't get an abortion in South Dakota--I think there's only one clinic in the whole state on an Indian reservation.

anyway, this ends this schizophrenic post. The point remains that I'm with Julian that it's a very bad thing to think of abortion as a bad or icky thing.

Posted by: Goldberg | Nov 15, 2006 5:38:41 PM

Yeah, I always cringe when pro-choicers bust out the ol' "I personally would never get an abortion, but I think women should have the right to decide for themselves." Gee, thanks for not standing in the way of our irresponsible whoring. So do you want to literally kneecap us, or is metaphorically good enough for now?

Posted by: clarke | Nov 15, 2006 5:44:25 PM

I don't know, I think abortion is icky. I'm supposed to pretend that I don't think that so women will feel better about themselves? I'm not an asshole(and I pro-choice after all) so I'm willing to play along, but it seems kind of silly.

Posted by: tim | Nov 15, 2006 5:51:20 PM

I guess it's icky, but so is a heart transplant. And, of course, I don't mind that Tim thinks it's icky, or even morally problematic. But I think it's a very bad message to send someone who had a abortion that what she did was wrong. She's already dealing with enough emotional issues that feeling like society condemns her decision is not another one she needs.

Posted by: Goldberg | Nov 15, 2006 5:55:23 PM

This is really muddled Ezra - I really don't know what point you're trying to make...

...which is why I agree that your discomfort and "fuzzy impressions" are something you may want to refine a bit.

I decided a long time ago - when I really started thinking about the vagueness of "pro-choice" - that I am actually pro-abortion. I am in favor of women having the right to seek an abortion. It is a necessary, difficult part of the options for birth control. I don't want something vague like "choice", and I think "safe, legal and rare" is lovely rhetoric but not really a position - anti-abortion forces don't really care if it's 1, 100 or 10,000 (and it's far more than that, each year).

For each of us, I think, our take on this is driven by experience, and mine was formed early when a good friend in high school got pregnant at 16 by a first-time boyfriend and decided to have an abortion (and, as was her right at the time, didn't tell her parents). I knew she was doing the right thing then, I still think it was the right thing now, and it's why I know that the decision to have an abortion is an individual decision that belongs to the woman who makes it. It isn't easy, and it is certainly almost always a painful decision, but sometimes it is simply necessary.

I think a lot of people sit on various fences about abortion - it seems icky; it's uncomfortable to realize that a potential human life will be given up; it would be nice if a woman didn't wind up in the position of having to have one. Unfortunately, there are women who do have to make the decision, icky or not, about ending a pregnancy. I don't want to be part of the problem. And limiting, inhibiting or legally stopping a woman from getting the medical care she needs is just unconscionable to me. So I am pro-abortion. You may need to figure out, at some point, Ezra, where you fall on this with more clarity - just a suggestion.

Posted by: weboy | Nov 15, 2006 6:03:41 PM

Aren't you making a few logical leaps there, Ezra? It seems to me that saying "abortion is an agonizing choice" is not equivalent to "treating fetuses as humans" and saying that abortion is "killing a child". Abortion can be viewed as something that should be avoided without being viewed as murder, and earlier abortions can be viewed as better than later ones. The world is not binary.

Posted by: KCinDC | Nov 15, 2006 6:03:57 PM

Tim, the point is, why do you think that? I'm not saying the position's indefensible, just that I was on the "icky" side of the argument until I took some knee de-jerker and realized that I'm actually value-neutral about abortion.

As far as pretending that you feel otherwise, well, no, you should feel free to speak your mind, but I would think that in a one-on-one with a woman who's undergone the procedure, maybe that would be one of those better-part-of-valor type situations.

And I must vigorously disagree with your assertion that being pro-choice and being an asshole are mutually exclusive. I contain multitudes!

Posted by: clarke | Nov 15, 2006 6:08:59 PM

She's already dealing with enough emotional issues that feeling like society condemns her decision is not another one she needs.

This seems right to me on a personal level, but it strikes me as odd that we're supposed to decide how we express our beliefs based on whether or not it's going to hurt someone's feelings. It seems like abortion is the only issue where people want this standard applied, which is particularly amusing in the blogosphere, where everything else is fair game.

Posted by: tim | Nov 15, 2006 6:11:16 PM

I, for one, think you're embarking on a very mature process, Ezra. Mulling over our assumptions to determine whether they have a rational basis or not is always good -- and no assumption should be immune from the process. By identifying your feelings about abortion, and discovering that they are to some extent not intellectually coherent, you've made an important step as a moral actor. Question all the assumptions, starting with the assumption that abortion is (or should be) an "agonizing" choice. Perhaps in some instances it should be. But I can think of many others in which it shouldn't be agonizing at all. Indeed, weboy's example fits the bill, and I'm amazed that weboy felt constrained to describe the decision as "certainly almost always painful" while at the same time acknowledging that it was absolutely the right decision for his friend to make. If she had spontaneously aborted or miscarried, which happens to a lot of pregnancies, would we consider that a "painful" experience for her as well, or would it have been an unqualified good? And if we draw a distinction when the outcome is the same, why is that?

Posted by: nolo | Nov 15, 2006 6:25:59 PM

Much the same point as Julian's can be made about killing people in war, that it's best not to treat it as morally fraught because that makes it harder to do, makes trauma to soldiers more likely, and so on. Does it follow from such a concern that killing in war isn't morally a heavy act, or shouldn't be treated that way? (I've also heard a similar point made about rape, that if we didn't treat it as so traumatic it wouldn't traumatize so many people.)

What I'm saying here doesn't assume that killing a fetus is equivalent to killing an adult. It's just a comment on the kind of argument Julian uses.

Weboy, I don't think Ezra's view is as muddled as it seems to you, or at least no more than yours, which I think he agrees with.

"Icky" isn't an apt descriptor here. Jell-O on the floor is icky.

I think "safe, legal and rare" is lovely rhetoric but not really a position - anti-abortion forces don't really care if it's 1, 100 or 10,000 (and it's far more than that, each year).

Whether it's a distinct position doesn't depend on what pro-life people think. The position seems clear enough to me. It's the position that Julian is opposing, and that you seem to edge toward more than Julian wants you to, that abortion is a serious, difficult matter (the part you seem to agree with to a degree) that should be prevented as much as possible (not sure what you think about that) while not removing the right of women to choose it without legal or practical encumbrance (something Julian, you, Ezra I assume, Clinton and I all agree on).

Posted by: Sanpete | Nov 15, 2006 6:30:10 PM

I don't think it's so simple as being either the fetus is alive and thus abortion is murder, or the fetus is not alive so its the same thing as an appendectomy.

I don't think a fetus is "alive", per se. I don't think it has the same rights as a full human being. On the other hand, if you leave it alone, it will be alive in a matter of months. And that's not nothing. If a woman is pregnant and loses the fetus through a miscarriage, she (and her partner) don't just shrug it off and say "Hey! Maybe next time." We're never going to be able to treat fetuses like nothing because they AREN'T nothing. They are a meaningful thing, with great and imminent potential for life.

Abortion is a sad but sometimes necessary procedure, and suggesting (as Julian does) that we should pretend that it has no emotional or moral implications is silly. And frankly, it's a bit disrespectful of life. I favor a woman's right to choose, and if I was in a situation where my girlfriend/wife and I decided we couldn't raise a child, I wouldn't refuse to make that decision. But it would a tough and emotionally trying decision, because the fetus in there CAN be a human being, and that's something Julian needs to remember.

Posted by: b. schac | Nov 15, 2006 6:36:15 PM

I want to throw out a mea culpa, I guess I'm just being a contrarian since I agree with the sentiment in this thread. My only real gripe is the double standard that exists.

I read liberal blogs like this every day, and I've never noticed a great concern about how one's opinions will make other people feel, except for when it comes to abortion.

With everything thing else, it's full speed ahead, but with abortion, everyone wants to break out the kid gloves (sorry).

And I must vigorously disagree with your assertion that being pro-choice and being an asshole are mutually exclusive. I contain multitudes!


Posted by: tim | Nov 15, 2006 6:36:42 PM

I don't think a fetus is "alive", per se. I don't think it has the same rights as a full human being. On the other hand, if you leave it alone, it will be alive in a matter of months. And that's not nothing. If a woman is pregnant and loses the fetus through a miscarriage, she (and her partner) don't just shrug it off and say "Hey! Maybe next time." We're never going to be able to treat fetuses like nothing because they AREN'T nothing. They are a meaningful thing, with great and imminent potential for life.

If I were thoughtful and articulate, this is what I would have said instead of "icky".

Posted by: tim | Nov 15, 2006 6:39:16 PM

I have rather strong feelings against abortion. I am definitively pro-choice because I think that a woman has a right to maintain control over her own body. I also think that neither the woman or child should be punished for mistakes or circumstances outside her control. But at the same time I have serious distaste for abortion and will not apologise for it.

I understand that this is a painfull and difficult thing for many women to deal with, I don't shove my attitude about it into anyones face and have even been supportive of friends who have had them. That doesn't make it unhealthy or more foolish, politicaly dangerous for me to feel the way I do about it. It is action not feelings that impact the political landscape.

I am not a fan of abortion for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which being that one of my partners, many years ago, got pregnant and then mis-carried. Neither of us was in the best position to have and raise a child at the time, but it was still very hard for both of us.

I also have serious issues with people having irresponsable sex. It is not just abortion, VDs are prolific and often deadly. I realize and sympathise that mistakes happen - I also think abortion should be legal. But I will not try to claim I believe anything but they should be legal and rare. Just as I would love to see other negative consequences of sex become rare - such as AIDS. In fact I look forward to the day when abortion and all VDs are an odd historical footnote.

But until that day, I will not pretend that I am a fan of abortion, though I will vote and fight for it to be legal.

Posted by: DuWayne | Nov 15, 2006 6:58:30 PM

As an actual woman who has had an actual abortion in 1990 (I was 44, my youngest was under two, no health insurance, no wish to have another, and fertilization under something less than complete consent) please let me join this conversation which is apparently occuring among mostly menfolk. You don't know, you just don't know.

Actually, a surgical abortion is absolutely no ickier than a gynecological exam, only thing is the anesthesia is a little better.

I don't regret it for a moment. It was the right thing for me to do at the time and I was damn grateful that it was legal. When I was in college I knew several girls who had had illegal abortions, pre 1973. Some of their experiences were truly horrifying, like being forced into the floor of the back seat of a car, covered with a blanket, to some rural, literal "kitchen table" with god knows who sticking god knows what into her. This was my good friend. A girl on my floor in the dorm was hospitalized with septic fever after one of these abortions, she could have died.

It's a RIGHT, to have a CHOICE. And it's the WOMAN's choice.

End of discussion.

Posted by: A boomer Woman | Nov 15, 2006 6:59:00 PM

Abortion is a medical proceedure, it's always best to prevent needing one but if you need one it's best to have it be as safe as possible. It also, like all invasive medical proceedures carries some risk. I've never known a woman who was happy about needing to have an abortion but they were happy to have it available. When that became possible.

I also knew women who had them before safe, legal abortions were possible in the United States, that was infinitely worse.

The only way the issue should be argued is to contrast if abortions are going to be safe and legal or unsafe and illegal, abortions are going to continue under either circumstance. The "no abortions" argument is a fantasy that serious people should have called fraud to in the beginning.

Women own their bodies, if they don't then someone else does. The anti-choice side think womens' bodies belong to them.

Posted by: olvlzl | Nov 15, 2006 7:00:20 PM

You don't know, you just don't know.

It's a RIGHT, to have a CHOICE. And it's the WOMAN's choice.

Thank you, A boomer Woman, for the pointless bad attitude. Apparently you didn't notice that everyone in this thread is committed to the pro-choice position.

Unfortunately, in order to keep this a WOMAN'S choice, we need to make sure that the laws are not changed. So it might offend you or whatever to see men discussing this, but abortion as a CHOICE and a RIGHT for WOMEN is under ATTACK by MEN and WOMEN. So quit jerking around with all the people who SUPPORT your RIGHT to have had that ABORTION and are only trying to work out the best way to SAFEGUARD that RIGHT for all WOMEN.

And the discussion is disappointingly NOT over, and never will be, which is why we discuss and fight for this.

Posted by: Stephen | Nov 15, 2006 7:08:15 PM

Fetuses are alive - what a fetus is not is that it is not a person. After 9 months, possibly less, you will have a person, but at conception and at least for the first three months, you do not have a person who could survive outside a mother's womb. I think we should try to be accurate in our terminology, because I think the one fair criticism that comes from anti-abortion folks is that muddy language is sometimes employed by pro-choice folks to minimize what an abortion actually is.

Second, sanpete, I don't worry about whether abortion will be "rare" or not, because I think the term has little relevant meaning in this context - are x number of abortions okay? What about x+1? or x*100? What is the upper limit of "rare" where we start to have a problem?

I guess my point is I'm not conflicted at all here - a woman who needs to have an abortion should be able to get one. It should be safe. I think it is legal (no "should be"), and I have no use for "rare," really. I think as rhetoric the phrasing helps introduce the notion that abortions can be reduced, in some measure, by increasing access to birth control (and the point is that abortion is a form of birth control, and part and parcel of that larger discussion); but ultimately, women will still have abortions.

I think abortion is "difficult" because we are talking about ending (see above) a potential human life, and that decision is fraught with emotional and moral implications that I think few women are cavalier about. I don't think we should try (or not try) to make it harder for a woman emotionally - but to me, this isn't about emotions, at least not as a policy or political matter. What would I do for a woman I knew? I'd try to be there for her emotionally, help her think through the issues, and support whatever decision she made. I hope that answers the question, because I'm really not fuzzy on this.

Best - Wesley

Posted by: weboy | Nov 15, 2006 7:10:11 PM

The argument that abortion should be "rare" need not depend on any moral squimishness. I think appendectomies should be rare. I'd support efforts to make appendectomies more rare.

That having been said, I'm more and more convinced that "conception" doesn't make a child, a woman's body makes a child. A zygote or young fetus is not all that different from a sperm. Both only have the potential to become a full human if a woman's body does all the work. So relatively early abortions or abortions where there's a threat to the health of the mother (and essentially all abortions fall into one of those two categories), thus present no moral dilemma. A woman should not be forced to make a child.

Posted by: Noah | Nov 15, 2006 7:50:53 PM

I have a lot of sympathy for "A boomer woman" because...well, she's right. Sorry if Stephen feels that all the symapthetic guys wrestling with their feelings about someone else's problem should get lots and lots more attention. I never offer my opinions on other people's operations. No one asks me if I think its "icky" that their father in law had open heart surgery at 81. No one asks me if I think insurance should pay for heart transplants or liver transplants for people who have abused their bodies while refusing to cover children with pre-existing conditions. And quite properly no one cares what I think. If I were to clutter up a thread about other people's operations with my own masturbatory accounts of how bad I felt because I had a relative who didn't get open heart surgery, or because I never needed to use my insurance to get it, or some other personal story--well, I wouldn't be surprised if people got ticked off.

I find DuWayne's bizarre comment that his and his partner's miscarriage somehow informs his opinions about abortion and its rightness just, frankly, downright bizarre. I had a sister who died when I was eight and she was six--does that give me the right to decide (or even, frankly, to feel strongly) that all little girls should be given sisters? That every single child is really suffering because her parents are too selfish to give her siblings? Women have abortions. Wow! Sometimes they have them because the fetus is anencephalic, suffering from a terminal condition that would doom them to unimaginable pain and torment post birth, deformed, brainless, dying, you name it. What on earth does duwayne's partner's miscarriage have to do with that?

Sometimes a woman who has had hard labor decides her body can't take it any more. Sometimes she decides her family can't take another mouth and that she doesn't think that the duwayne's of the world are going to step up and take her mixed race, unhealthy, difficult, unknown genetic, wrong sex whatever fetus off her hands. How does duwayne's partner's miscarriage figure into the public debate about this? I'm picking on duwayne because I've heard this line before from infertile women who seem to think they are owed a child because of their miscarriages.

No one takes responsibility for the fetus but the mother (and sometimes the father). No one is legally responsible for its care, no one is physically responsible for its care, and no one can determine whether that burden is too great but the woman involved. I'm sorry if that makes all the boy-talk irrelevant, but it does.

Thanks for all the support, though! And I mean that (truly) especially to weboy. Its not that its not a difficult issue--for men as well as women. But its just that when you have been pregnant and born children (and I have), known women who've been raped or abandoned who've chosen abortion (and I have), seen women carry fetuses to term who were doomed to die post birth (and I have) all this hypothetical talk just seems insultingly young, and distant, and ultimately self indulgent in a way that no adult woman can really relate to. Ezra is young, of course, so he's just doing what comes naturally and I appreciate his sincerity.


Posted by: aimai | Nov 15, 2006 7:57:47 PM

Weboy (I've wondered where the name came from), I wasn't intending to imply your view is fuzzy (or not), only that if Ezra's is, yours is too, because I think they're essentially the same. You speak of abortion as "difficult," he as "morally ambiguous," but it seems to me you're both thinking about the same kind of complexities. Maybe not.

Your objection to saying abortion should be rare applies to all uses of words like "rare," not only this use. I think the meaning is clear enough.

I think as rhetoric the phrasing helps introduce the notion that abortions can be reduced, in some measure, by increasing access to birth control (and the point is that abortion is a form of birth control, and part and parcel of that larger discussion); but ultimately, women will still have abortions.

The rhetoric typically means more than that, but aren't you at least in favor of that much? I don't see why should object to this rhetoric to describe a view like yours, given what you've said so far. Maybe there's more involved.

Posted by: Sanpete | Nov 15, 2006 8:01:24 PM

I have a little different reason for being pro-choice. I am an adoptee, born in the mid-1970s to a teenaged mother in a relatively provincial place. Did my biological mother have me because she got pregnant and wanted to -- for whatever reason -- have a baby (that she couldn't keep), or was she forced to have me? Could she have gotten an abortion if she had wanted one? Were they available there, then? I don't know. If abortion was available, did she not have one because friends, family, her boyfriend, a paternalistic doctor, the government, whomever, shamed her, guilted her, stonewalled her, or otherwise forced her into childbearing?

I find the prospect that I could be the actual physical product of coercion to be horrifying. It's really disturbing, and that knowledge will stay with me for the rest of my life. It also isn't an abstract. It oftentimes has real-world consequenses (blogwhore to a post where I write about them). I don't know what the situation was, but I can think of any number of scenarios. I'd really rather not, and I'd really rather not have to.

Posted by: Interrobang | Nov 15, 2006 8:05:51 PM

aimai -

My expierience is what actually made me more open and supportive of legal abortion, even as it contributes to my distaste for them. My entire desire to see less abortion rests on my desire to see people have more responsible sex. I do not want people to have abortions or get HIV/AIDS. I am not against sex. I am not against a woman's right to choose, should she find herself pregnant for whatever reason. Ultimately, I find abortion moraly questionable only when precautions aren't taken to prevent the pregnancy in the first place.

What exactly is bizzare about finding abortion disturbing after having expierienced the loss of a fetus? I don't really see her expierience as relevant to the debate of whether or not abortion should be legal, but I do think it is relevant in a discussion about how we are supposed to feel about abortion - as it shaped both my old partner's and my feelings about abortion. But I am not remotely saying or implying that abortion should be illegal - just that I would love to see it decline. As I would like to see the incidence of HIV/AIDS and every other VD decline.

My whole point is that it makes not a whit of difference whether I approve of abortion or not. It is my actrions and votes for politicians that won't attack that right that count. On a cutural level, I would say that my actions in lending my support to friends who are having an abortion that count. I just don't see why I should be expected to say or try to make myself feel that abortion is just great - I don't and won't - just as I really think AIDS sux and would love to see less of my friends and aquaintences getting it.

Posted by: DuWayne | Nov 15, 2006 8:13:06 PM

Aimai, you complain when DuWayne refers to the experience of himself and his companion, yet you seem to think that the experience of yourself and those you've known really matters. I can't really follow what you're getting at, whether you just don't like men or those younger than you to take a position on abortion, or what. I take your experience seriously, and that DuWayne speaks of too. And I do think it legitimate and even my responsibility to have a view on this, based not only on hypotheticals, which do matter, but also on the experiences of others.

Posted by: Sanpete | Nov 15, 2006 8:18:37 PM

lest anyone forget, Roe is a disgusting compromise. no woman shld have to be restricted at any point in her pregnancy. the entire 9 months shld be free of government interference

Posted by: dick mulliken | Nov 15, 2006 8:34:51 PM

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