Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Abortion Debate on Demand

There have been some very good posts on abortion over at the Daily Kos, FireDogLake, Digby, LG&M, and Lance Mannion in the past several days.

The Lance Mannion post is particularly interesting in that it represents a lefty blogger admitting to feeling conflicted about abortion and of even more significance is the almost reasoned debate that gets carried out in the comments between advocates and opponents of abortion rights. There are a number of comments with the post and if you're interested in a healthy debate about the topic I heartily encourage you to go on over and give it a read.

For those more inclined towards the snarkier side of things, I would recommend the other postings. Digby discusses the contradiction inherent in the fact that anti-choicers claim that abortion is murder, but yet don't seem to have ever thought about what the penalty should be for women who illegally obtain an abortion, or in the case of policymakers, such as the ones in S.D., who haven't even bothered writing them into the anti-abortion law they just passed. Digby provides several good links regarding this. Note especially the Tweety interview with Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidate Pat Toomey from 2004.

The other point of interest is the tendency of those on both sides of the debate to refer to the most extreme situations to demonstrate their opponents' unreasonableness.

For anti-choicers, the favored highlight reel is the partial birth abortion, with their emphasis, real or hypothetical, on cases where the doctor basically punctures the infant's head with scissors after withdrawing it from the womb.

For pro-choicers, its the overstretched logic on the part of anti-abortionists that demands that life begins at "conception" and that any abortion, or contraceptive that interferes with this is tantamount to murder. So, for the most rigid anti-abortionists, an infant, or a living adult, is no different than the zygote or blastocyst. So if abortion has to be outlawed, so do IVF and s stem-cell research. FireDogLake has a pretty good riff on this:

Whenever I hear wingnuts arguing about stem cell research I always get the feeling that they are doing so under duress, like reluctant Visigoths who’ve been forced to carry the battle into a town they really don’t care about sacking. But having made the argument that women should not have control over their own bodies and be entitled to an abortion because even the littlest zygote amongst us is sacred, and not because they hate and fear women and want to relegate them to the social role of biological functionaries, they have to naturally extend the argument and oppose embryonic stem cell research as well. You know, for consistency’s sake and all.

But Lance makes the point that the decision on when life begins is an ambigious one, putting both supporters and opponents of abortion rights in a difficult position. Tring to take it back to the moment of fertilization-conception (see PZ Myers' discussion at the Daily Kos for more detail) results in the argument that the zygote or blastocyst is a person, while abortion rights advocates basically end up demanding abortion access at any point in time for any reason. Lance seems to feel, and I tend to agree, that the extremes here are equally hard to identify with. And I'm afraid I can't agree with LG&M that a partial birth abortion--regardless of what it is called--is morally neutral.

But if life isn't a life at "conception", it certainly seems to be one by at least by the third trimester, making the middle periods the time of doubt and decision. At the same time, I've come to feel as if the trimester demarcations, and the viable-not viable delineations are problematic. Yet they may be all we have if we don't want to make abortions or contraceptives illegal at the zygote-blastocyst stage but want to restrict the practice nearer to birth.

Which brings us to one of the columns that kick-started some of the discussion, the column by William Saleton, which appeared in the WashPost Sunday and may have been cross-posted on Slate. Saleton, whose critics think he's too much an appeaser of the anti-abortion right, seems eager to dispense with the rationales of Roe with the hope that education and contraception access will do the job of eliminating most abortions, giving both sides some of what they want.

But it does beg the question that if contraception here in the U.S. is basically widely available, and if contraception access is what has limited abortion in Europe, why does the U.S. still have relatively high rates of abortion? While unapologetic pro-choicers don't seem to have a problem with this, much of the public may, particularly if the anti-abortion movement continues to make, however temporary, gains in state legislatures and state houses in dramatically restricting abortion rights. Because if they do, and if the actions taken by S.D. and those under consideration in Mississippi have ripple effects, access to contraception will emerge with even greater importance.

One final point. Some pro-choicers are making the point that although illegal, abortions in Latin America are much higher than in the U.S. The point being that even if abortion was to be outlawed in the U.S. it would undoubtedly still continue, probably even at high levels, but just more widely available to wealthier women.

I'm not sure this conclusion is warranted. I don't know a lot about the media or pressure group politics in Mexico, but if anti-abortionists succeed or have succeeded in reducing the availability of abortion providers, the remaining ones could easily be isolated by many of the same groups that have laid seige to abortion clinics in the past, making abortion access much more difficult. Add to that any influence right-wing media outlets might provide in isolating and highlighting abortion providers, and the illegalization of abortion in the U.S. could in fact be more enforceable than in other countries where it is currently illegal but in which abortions continue to be obtained at high levels. Call it the new case of American Exceptionalism.

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