July 22, 2004

Is this the way to defend abortion rights?

Barbara Ehrenreich attempts to write a strong op-ed in favor of abortion rights. Her final paragraph is this:
Choice can be easy, as it was in my case, or truly agonizing. But assuming the fetal position is not an appropriate response. Sartre called this "bad faith," meaning something worse than duplicity: a fundamental denial of freedom and the responsibility that it entails. Time to take your thumbs out of your mouths, ladies, and speak up for your rights. The freedoms that we exercise but do not acknowledge are easily taken away.
Interesting imagery there. You wouldn't want to "assume the fetal position," of course, because you'll be quite vulnerable to people who would like to take away your rights--like a fetus.

Okay, but let's look at the rest of this piece and examine the tone and see how helpful it is. Ehrenreich is irked that so many women, even those who support abortion rights, still feel a lot of ambivalence about abortion. She complains that the HBO show "'Six Feet Under,' which is fearless in its treatment of sexual diversity, burdens abortion with terrible guilt." She puts the words "liberal media" in quotes as she wonders why they're not helping the cause of abortion rights by portraying abortion as an "acceptable option." She complains about the women who have abortions because of a health defect in the fetus and think they are superior to women who have abortions for economic reasons.
It would be unfair, though, to pick on the women who are in denial about aborting "defective" fetuses. At least 30 million American women have had abortions since the procedure was legalized, mostly for the kind of reasons that anti-abortion people dismiss as "convenience" - a number that amounts to about 40 percent of American women. Yet in a 2003 survey conducted by a pro-choice group, only 30 percent of women were unambivalently pro-choice, suggesting that there may be an appalling number of women who are willing to deny others the right that they once freely exercised themselves.
Her point is: people need to be honest. If you would have wanted abortion as an option when you were very young or in economic need or if pre-natal tests showed the fetus suffered from a serious health problem, you ought to think hard before denying that option to other people. It's much easier to think about abortion in the abstract and to adopt a severe position when you are not facing the occasion for making the decision. This is an important point, but it doesn't go as far as Ehrenreich thinks it does. It shows why the right to an abortion ought to remain intact, as a decision made by the individual who is facing the pregnancy. But it doesn't show why people should refrain from making moral judgments about abortion. It doesn't justify telling people to grow up and start promoting abortion as a guilt-free option. And there is nothing "dishonest" (to use Ehrenreich's word) about having an abortion and also believing it was wrong.

The ambivalence that women maintain about abortion ought to be seen as a reason to support abortion rights. If women had no qualms and misgivings and serious moral struggles about abortion, it would make more sense for government to deny them the right to choose. It is precisely because women experience torment over choosing abortion that people who feel abortion is wrong can reject the paternalism of an abortion ban. Supporters of abortion rights should not try to sanitize the difficulty and the guilt out of abortion. It is the very difficulty of the decision that makes it the domain of the individual.

And by the way, let me make a side point about Ehrenreich's use of the word "grubby":
I was a dollar-a-word freelancer and my husband a warehouse worker, so it was all we could do to support the existing children at a grubby lower-middle-class level.
"Grubby" means:
1. Dirty; grimy: grubby old work clothes. 2. Infested with grubs. 3. Contemptible; despicable: has a grubby way of treating others.
Being lower middle class doesn't make you dirty or despicable.

UPDATE: Prof. Bainbridge quotes my paragraph that ends "It is the very difficulty of the decision that makes it the domain of the individual" and asks: "And how would you differentiate infanticide or euthanasia of the elderly, both of which presumably present the actors with moral qualms too? Should they be in the realm of the individual, as well?" I understand and respect the pro-life position on this issue, even though I don't think abortion should be re-criminalized. Those who are strongly pro-life, like Prof. Bainbridge are similar to Barbara Ehrenreich in their exasperation with the large number of people who take a middle position. Most Democratic candidates take the middle position too: They say abortion is wrong but should be legal. In the case of candidates, one has to wonder whether they have a reason for their position other than the desire for political gain. But what about all these other people in the middle? Are they just not thinking clearly? Ehrenreich thinks these people ought to abandon the idea that abortion is wrong, because if they don't, abortion rights could be lost. Bainbridge thinks these people ought to face up to the consequences of their perception that abortion is wrong and make it illegal.

I am trying to say something about the middle position, which views abortion as wrong, but wants it to remain legal. Surely, making it illegal won't make it go away. What is the best way to reduce the number of abortions? I believe the most important thing is to foster moral decisionmaking in the individual. You could impose a lot of rules from above, which people would resent and look for ways to break. Abortions would continue, of course, and those denied legal abortions would feel defiant and oppressed about it. Women would feel outraged that the government was intruding its will into the interior of their bodies. I would prefer to see pro-lifers reorient themselves and, instead of working to force women to carry out their pregnancies, work to convince women to see the reason to choose to do so.

As to how I would differentiate infanticide or euthanasia of the elderly: Pregnancy is a great physical intrusion on the body of a single individual. If a decision is to be made, it is best to leave the decision with the person whose body is being subjected to that intrusion.

ADDED ON 7/28: No response from Prof. Bainbridge. Or, really, from anyone who stakes out the extreme ends on the abortion issues. I maintain a semi-fantasy that I'm talking to everyone across the whole spectrum of positions on this issue that people are so passionate about, yet I realize that the people at the extreme ends will almost surely stay exactly where they are. Realistically, I know I can only hope to reach people in the middle on the abortion issue, but I think this is where most people find themselves. We can't help referring to the people who speak from the extremes, but perhaps we can't seriously expect them to engage with our responses to them. LATER THE SAME DAY: Prof. Bainbridge has a response up now.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Patrick Brown (in the Psychology Dept. at University of Western Ontario) emails, raising questions about the 30 million/30 percent/40 percent numbers Ehrenreich uses as a basis for her analysis:
I was struck by Ehrenreich's comparison of a snapshot with a running total. The snapshot is a 2003 survey that suggests 30% of women in the US were unambivalently pro-choice. The running total produces the proportion of women who have had abortions since the procedure was legalized 30 years ago.

The problem with this method is that the pool of women who are "eligible" to have abortions was not constant over those 30 years - some moved out of the pool and others moved in. This matters when you're calculating the proportion. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests the following. Assume Ehrenreich's claim that "30 million = 40% of American women" is true at any one time. Then 100% would be 75 million. (Since the 2001 census showed 107 million women lived in America, I assume that the 75 million refers to women of child-bearing age.) Now, suppose that lifespan = 80 years so that each year 1/80th of women leave and another 1/80th join the pool (I think that will serve as an approximation). That's about 940,000 per year. Over 30 years, that's 28 million. Added to the 75 million base, that means that the pool of women who might have had abortions over the past 30 years has included 103 million individuals. If this logic is roughly correct, then we get a value for the proportion of eligible women who actually had abortions that is very close to the proportion in the survey who are unambivalently pro-choice: 30/103 = 29.1%.

So it seems to me that Ehrenreich's claims were not only elitist, they were wrong arithmetically, too.
I asked our blogging sociologist Jeremy Freese about the math, and he wrote back:
It's a smart point, but it's hard to know. There is too much missing information in Ehrenreich's column to figure out what's going on with that number so precisely. As he notes, thirty million is not 40% of American women. It's fairly close to 40% of women aged, say, 14 to 50 today. You could count who was in the abortion window over the past 30 years as abortion-eligible, but that's a little misleading, as some of those women were only in that window for a short period of time in their mid-to-late 30's. For that matter, some substantial number of the women who have not had abortions yet will have abortions.

The bottom line is that Ehrenreich's stat is impossible to figure out without knowing more about its provenance, since she can't literally mean all American women. I don't know where the numerator of her statistic (the 30 million) comes from, either. Which is not to say that it's wrong. Her abortion attitudes figure should be adjusted to the same population, whatever it is, although I don't know if it would make any difference. But there are undeniably a lot of unambivalently pro-choice women who have never had abortions, so this is all kind of moot anyway: if there were 30% of women in-some-population who were unambivalently pro-choice and 30% who had abortions, this would not indicate the absence of hypocrisy, just that the number of unambivalently-pro-choice-no-abortion-women was equal to the number of non-unambivalently-pro-choice-women-who-have-had-abortions.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Several emailers have noted that the assertion that "[a]t least 30 million American women have had abortions since the procedure was legalized" seems not to take into account that some women have had more than one abortion. I assume that medical records are private enough that we don't know the actual number of women who have had at least one abortion. I haven't tried to research the abortion statistics, but I have a feeling that a lot of assertions about statistics are made in the arguments for and against abortion. This would be a good subject for a "How to Lie With Statistics" sort of article, I think. Email me if you know of one.


goboghopping said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
goboghopping said...

You had a very good argument and a lot of good points, but no matter what anyone thinks or what they say it will not change the way one feels.

Now I have a question for you....

If one is for abortion should they be for capital punishment, or is there no difference?