Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Framing the abortion debate

Last week, former President Carter said that Liberals need to change our approach to abortion. He said that by focusing exclusively on the question of a woman's right to choose, we have essentially ceded the whole argument to the right, and in particular to people who want to ban abortion.

And he is right.

Now I am not in any way discounting the importance of choice. What distinguishes our society from, for example, the Taliban or other Islamic fundamentalist societies, is that people here, and in particular, women, have choices. And the fact is, the worst and most bitter four years in American history were fought over the question of whether a person owned their own body, or if someone else could tell them what to do with it against their will.

However, when we focus exclusively on this and refuse to consider any argument that abortion may be the wrong choice, we essentially are allowing those who want to ban it to define that wrong=ban.
We have also allowed them to define our position as 'pro-abortion,' as if we believe it is a good thing.

And in fact, liberals DO have a plan for fighting abortion. I blogged on this last July. It just doesn't involve banning it. Abortion went down in the 1990's, largely because of the success of sex education, birth control and family planning. I believe that the best way to solve any social ill is through education. As evidence, look at the success we have had (although there is still a long way to go) against the evil of tobacco. We have discouraged young people from smoking, and the national smoking rate is about half of what it was a generation ago. But no one is suggesting banning it.

I had to deal with this in my own family a few years ago. My then fifteen year old daughter became pregnant. We all think that abortion is wrong (for personal and religious reasons) so we all agreed on day one that she wouldn't have one. Now, if she had chosen otherwise, I would have supported her in making that decision, but I am glad she chose not to. And therein is the inherent reality of the situation-- like most Americans, I support keeping it legal, but find it personally troubling and am glad that in the one case where anything I said might have made a difference, the difference was that it did not result in an abortion.

Now, I believe a ban on abortion would be a terrible policy decision, if actually implemented. First, it would not stop abortion any more than abortion was prevented pre-Roe v. Wade. What it would do would be to create a black market. And based on the kinds of people who ran the illegal alcohol trade during prohibition and who run the drug trade today, I think we can reasonably assume that a black market for abortions would 1) create a boom for gangs and organized crime, 2) probably involve unsanitary, dangerous places, possibly in the same places as you find meth labs, and 3) result in the death, disease or permanent injury to many thousands of women (just as it did in the 1960's and earlier).

The fact is, most Americans believe that killing a fetus is wrong, but they don't want to ban it. Because we on the left have focused on the latter and kept our argument focused almost obsessively on a single line of debate, we have allowed the right to seize the initiative on this issue and define it in black and white terms in which they are slowly using the natural discomfort most people feel about abortion to push them towards the idea that it should be illegal.

And ironically, this should be a winnable argument for us. To acknowledge that abortion is a bad thing which we have a plan to fight (see my July post) in no way compromises the choice argument. I can support your legal right to drink, smoke, engage in risky sexual activity, gamble and engage in all manner of what might be considered societal ills, but still work to get rid of them at a societal level by means other than banning them. And so too, with abortion.


Chris said...

Very good.

And not to mention that life is more than just birth.

I have always thought the Dems have argued the abortion issue wrongly. I am not the biggest proponent of abortion, but I do believe Roe should be left alone. And the main reason for that is because I'm certain that not everyone thinks like me, and until I'm in the position to consider abortion, I have no clue what I would do.

I like this site.

Mark said...

Very good points Eli.

The right also makes a similar mistake. Most who say that they are "pro-life" or "anti-abortion" also have no real desire to arrest and lock up women who have an abortion.

So what is the compromise? Is there any middle ground?

Even if Roe v Wade was reversed it would not "ban abortions". The decision would revert to the states and most states would not crimilize abortion anyway.

Mark said...

criminilize.... that's a word isn't it

Eli Blake said...


There ought to be a middle ground on it, but because of the polarization of the debate, there is not.

The middle ground is essentially, 1. keep it legal, 2. work to make it as rare as possible by means of education, both about how to prevent pregnancy, and about alternatives after the fact.

As for not criminalizing it, tell that to Tom Coburn, a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma who has explicitly called for the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions and thinks it should at least be considered for women who have them. Clearly there are fanatics out there, on both sides.

Eli Blake said...

Also, the idea that it would be done on a state by state basis would make it effectively illegal in large areas of the country. It would almost certainly become illegal throughout the South and the great plains. I remember living in New Mexico and there is a strong enough Catholic anti-abortion base there that it is also very conceivable that that state would join an abortion ban.

When we lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, it was a twelve hour drive just to go to any other state but Texas. And if we assume that the states which would ban abortion if given the option would reflect last year's election map (somewhat of a stretch, I admit, but not completely so, if I give you that it stays legal in libertarian leaning Nevada and Alaska) then it is very possible that a woman in Texas who becomes pregnant and needs an abortion might have to drive to Illinois or California, or a woman in a place like Miami Florida would have to go all the way to Maryland. So, banning Roe and turning it over to the states would effectively make it the exclusive right of the relatively well off in large parts of the country. And then the black market I alluded to takes over throughout the heartland (though not in the Northeast or California). Now it is true that the woman from south Texas (although not the woman from Miami) might have the option to go to Mexico, but is that what we really want-- American women going to Mexico for abortions?

Kiva said...

Not all people agree that Abortion Is Awful And Traumatic. Why do you pretend that this is nearly universal?

Seems to me it's up to the person having the abortion whether or not it's awful. You may choose one thing for you and your family, but don't impose your choice on my family. Allow us to make our decisions as well.

Once you've cast abortion as This Awful Thing Which Must Never Happen, it's that much easier for the Right to push in with "...and it should be illegal because it's so horrible."