Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The illusory "common ground" on women's choice

Sarah Posner has been following the "common ground on abortion" meme in her weekly FundamentaList column at The American Prospect Online, most recently in her May 13 edition. Obama's Notre Dame appearance

Last night, the PBS Newshour featured a segment with Amy Walter of the National Journal and Steven Waldman of Beliefnet. Waldman is one of those whose nominal calls for "common ground" seem more like efforts to stigmatize the pro-choice movement. Those who think the anti-abortionists are ready to sit down and dialogue together or whatever they call it would do well to pay attention to what Waldman sees as a commendable compromise:

Now, in the middle, there definitely is a debate, I mean, is a dialogue. People, you know, on Beliefnet, we see this all the time, women who say that they're pro-choice, but go in heart-wrenching detail through the moral calculation they made where they do try to figure out where life begins.
Yes, the sacred "middle". But what Waldman points to here is not a "middle" ground on women's right to choose on abortion. It's about the personal decisions that individual women have to make.


Which is the whole point of choice on abortion: individual women should be free to make those choices about their own bodies based on their own values and situations.

You could make either family planning or unintended pregnancies less likely. You could make it easy for women to put babies up for adoption. That could actually reduce the number of abortions. It wouldn't resolve the fundamental philosophical questions, but that's a real impact.

There's another issue which we see all the time on Beliefnet, and which is also reflected in the polls, which is that people don't just want there to be fewer abortions. They want them to be earlier. In a way, it's not safe, legal and rare. It's safe, legal and early.

And they would like to see policies that make it so that those abortions that do happen, happen in the first trimester instead of in the third trimester. [my emphasis]
That's the so-called "common ground". The Christianists should "concede" on, well, something-or-other than Waldman doesn't really specify beyond the vague concept of pregnancy reduction. Better education, sure, the fundis are all for that: they favor "abstinence-only" education that teaches those damned sluts they shouldn't be screwing around or they'll be punished by God by getting pregnant or maybe contracting some horrible disease. (Boys should abstain, too, but boys will be boys, you know.)

Then, once the anti-abortionists agree to keep supporting the "abstinence-only" scam they already support, the pro-choice advocates (the vast majority of the public) should agree to ban abortion in the second trimester, i.e., embrace a major "incremental" goal of the anti-abortionists.

But banning second-trimester abortions isn't just "incremental" when it comes to women's right. The Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade was based on a biological fact that hasn't changed since 1973, despite claims to the contrary by anti-abortion zealots, whose Christian values don't exclude bald-face lying when it comes to what they claim to see as the higher cause of saving innocents. It was based on the fact that up until the end of the second trimester, a fetus cannot survive outside the mother's womb and is therefore in a medical sense a part of the women's body. Abortions in the third trimester are essentially banned everywhere I know of with exceptions only in the case of the mother's health being seriously endangered. And pro-choice advocates support that restriction.

But a "compromise" that embraces a ban on second-trimester abortions is no compromise when it comes to the basic right to choose. The fetus is clearly part of the woman's body at that point. If a woman's right to make that decision in the second trimester can be rejected, it can be rejected at any point during the pregnancy. Accepting the principle under American law that the state can ban second-trimester abortions is to reject the idea that women have a legal right to abortion. It makes it the option of the state.

Sarah Posner explains the problem with Waldman-style "common ground" proposals on abortion this way:

Obama has consistently advocated for a prevention strategy as the best means of reducing the need for abortion, and that's why he supports Prevention First, a bill that increases funding for comprehensive sex education and contraception. Meanwhile, another coalition of mostly evangelicals convened through Faith in Public Life and Third Way has supported blending the goals of both the PWSA [Pregnant Women Support Act] and Prevention First ["a bill that increases funding for comprehensive sex education and contraception"] approaches[.] While these "common ground" advocates often boast they will end the "culture wars" ... they often mask their real goals by claiming they don't want to fight over Roe anymore. Because these religious leaders are disappointed by what they view as the impossibility of Roe's reversal, they believe the government should then make abortion less available, less accessible, less affordable, and more stigmatized. Obama faces these pressures from the very religious groups that he's made a concerted effort to court as he moves ahead with both the 2010 budget and reproductive-health policy. [my emphasis]
Not that I'm reluctant to criticize Obama. But I do try to keep in mind that politicians are forever dealing in "the art of the possible". And if pro-choice advocates allow the political discussion to drift into the "compromise" of basing policy around the idea of keeping those loose women from having babies all over the place and not on the centrality of the abortion-rights issue to women's rights more generally, then even the most sympathetic Democratic politician will find it convenient to drift in that direction. After all, the archetypal liberal President Woodrow Wilson opposed the Constitutional Amendment to recognize women's right to vote back in the day.

The Christianist movement is really dedicated to the notion that women should be second-class citizens, if even that. The anti-abortion movement is one of their major clubs in this fight. And they are very good at using incremental measures to make abortion more and more a practical problem for women while they work on banning it altogether. I don't doubt that most anti-abortionists are sincere in their beliefs. Polls also show that white fundamentalist Christians are the most loyal supporters of torture, and I don't doubt that most of them are sincere in their beliefs. It doesn't mean small-d democrats or supporters of the rule of law have to embrace either of them.

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