12/13/2005

pro-choice AND anti-abortion?

I read an op-ed piece in the Glob [omission of the "e" entirely intentional] by Joan Vennochi last week. All of the paper’s "conservative" columnists are such caricatures you’ve gotta wonder if they aren't really ultra-liberals out to take the piss. I mean, Jeff Jacoby is not for real. Can't be. And—though she doesn’t write for the Glob—I'm thoroughly convinced Ann Coulter is a brilliant pomo rad-lib parody of the frigid reactionary post-feministic fascist.

Anyway, Vennochi's column last week was about an anti-abortion Democrat the national party is backing in Pennsylvania because they feel he can topple Republican reptile Rick Santorum, who is also, among other things, anti-abortion. So, to recap: two candidates, one a Democrat, one a Republican, both apparently anti-abortion. Vennochi sees a conflict in the Democrats backing Robert P. Casey, Jr. for the US Senate in PA while opposing Samuel A. Alito, Jr., who is also anti-abortion, by all accounts, for the supreme court in DC.

One thing pundits never tire of is pointing out whatever they perceive is a politician’s hypocrisy. And God knows there’s no shortage of it out there on both sides of the aisle. Politics is a species of hypocrisy, after all. But there are degrees. The nature of representative democracy is such that a legislator is called to reach a compromise between his individual conscience and the consensus of his constituency. And further, when it is an issue of constitutionality, he is sworn to uphold the law regardless of current consensus. We are, after all, “a nation of laws.” This is the apparently too-nuanced argument John Kerry made on the abortion issue when questioned by that awful, whimpering Stepford blonde in the second debate, which Mr. Bush could not, for the life of him, decipher.

So the big question here is whether a political party, or those who pledge allegiance to it, can be pro-choice and anti-abortion at the same time, and the answer is very simple: yes. The moderate "pro-choice and anti-abortion" stance is nothing new, in fact. Robert R. Bowers argued over a decade ago in his book, Pro-choice and Anti-abortion: Constitutional Theory and Public Policy, that the Constitution itself required the government to reject the current pro- versus anti-abortion endgame and seek a moderate solution.

Organizations, religious and secular, have sprung up to address the issue from the middle ground as well. Respect for Life, for example, is a faith-based organization that acknowledges that "almost all abortions are caused by unwanted conceptions. Methods of preventing these conceptions are numerous, and... their availability and use would reduce the number of abortions performed." One of Respect for Life's top priorities? "Promote reproductive freedom and responsibility." Sounds strangely… reasonable, doesn’t it?

As with everything in politics (it’s a cynical business, people), we have to ask, cui bono? “Who benefits?” Who benefits from hammering home the idea, at odds with reality, that there is a Culture War on that demands absolute allegiance to the opposing orthodoxies of Left and Right? The fact is, the further we get from playing into the ideological framing of this and other issues, and political and religious orthodoxy in general, the better off we'll all be.

So Vennochi is assuming, increasingly wrongly as it turns out, that we are all on the same page when it comes to how the debate is framed. She’s arguing as if we all agree that orthodoxy is the chief criterion by which we should judge our lawmakers. That is the right's biggest triumph in redefining governance in our era. Nowadays orthodox politicians of either persuasion proudly refer to themselves as "profile". But this is precisely what's wrong with party politics. It leaves nothing to the individual conscience. And that's what we American individualists should esteem, not sexual purity and ideological orthodoxy. The good news is, you can only function as a party in purity-and-orthodoxy mode for so long, before fissures and cracks appear, hypocrisies are exposed, and individual conscience reasserts itself. What's happening is the extreme right is wearing out its welcome, with its unrecognizable alternate reality and its pig-headed rigidity, just as the extreme left did long ago (though part of the right’s shtick is that its extremism is simply a reasonable reaction to the left’s—but the radicals are tilting at windmills—there is no “liberal conspiracy” afoot and no “liberal threat” looming).

What is happening is the terms of the debate are changing, subtly but surely. And subtlety is the operative concept here. There is a feeling amongst lawmakers and pundits that We, The People lack the ability to decipher nuanced arguments, or see shades of gray. Inflammatory and accusatory rhetoric is always a winner in public debate. Pig-headed and hypocritical rigidity is taken as evidence of some ridiculously vaunted, unshakable "core values." But pragmatism informed by conscience is how most of us live our dynamic daily lives—why on earth would we want a government even rhetorically mired in the bog of orthodoxy? The one unshakable core value that matters in a democracy is precisely the commitment to seek out varying opinions in search of a just compromise.

Really, the battle is still between progressivism and orthodoxy, but so far, the Democratic Party (and a significant number of cartoon liberals) have basically submitted to orthodoxy: they are just the flipside of Republicans and cartoon conservatives. There are as many "profile" politicians on the left as on the right. Political Correctness is the most obvious and unimaginative example of liberal orthodoxy (and the most doggedly overused by their disingenuous critics on the right), but orthodoxy is not only about beliefs (or substitutes for them), it’s also about the way the whole discourse is framed. The abortion debate is only one of many going on at the moment (but always more fiercely in election years) that assume an overarching orthodoxy.

Can you be for and against abortion at the same time? Well, one thing "yes" would imply is an idea of a public realm and a private realm with a sort of firewall between them. It would also imply the existence of citizens rather than automatons. Automatons have no inner or private lives. Citizens come complete with complicated upgrades like a conscience and the ability to deliberate. Automatons never make the wrong choice, because they aren’t offered any and, anyway, they have no capacity to choose. Citizens do, but they then have to cope with the consequences of whatever they choose. As for citizen-politicians, “yes” would acknowledge what we all know to be true, which is that, as with most jobs, theirs often requires a suspension of self-interest.

"Yes" would not only be an acknowledgment of the Other's private, autonomous existence, and his or her right to make his or her own way in the world, an idea ostensibly advocated by conservatives, but would also be an acknowledgment of a shared reality where those private selves intersect in sometimes very significant ways, as equals, in the crucible of lived experience. Ideology and orthodoxy are static, and set out to impose that stasis on the dynamism (or chaos) of life as it is lived in real-time. The goal is order through social control.

* * *

But back to abortion. The most enduring and compelling argument against legal abortion is that while pro-abortion forces argue for the acknowledgment of a woman's right to make her own choices, they ignore the fetus's "right to life". No such right exists in law as of yet. Roe v. Wade dealt with the issue thusly (in section IX of the ruling, which I quote here at length):

The appellee and certain amici argue that the fetus is a ‘person’ within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. In support of this, they outline at length and in detail the well-known facts of fetal development. If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant's case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment. The appellant conceded as much on reargument. On the other hand, the appellee conceded on reargument that no case could be cited that holds that a fetus is a person within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Constitution does not define ‘person’ in so many words. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment contains three references to ‘person.’ The first, in defining ‘citizens,’ speaks of ‘persons born or naturalized in the United States.’ The word also appears both in the Due Process Clause and in the Equal Protection Clause. ‘Person’ is used in other places in the Constitution: in the listing of qualifications for Representatives and Senators; in the Apportionment Clause; in the Migration and Importation provision; in the Emolument Clause; in the Electors provisions; in the provision outlining qualifications for the office of President; in the Extradition provisions; and in the Fifth, Twelfth, and Twenty-second Amendments, as well as in 2 and 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. But in nearly all these instances, the use of the word is such that it has application only postnatally. None indicates, with any assurance, that it has any possible pre-natal application.

All this, together with our observation, supra, that throughout the major portion of the 19th century prevailing legal abortion practices were far freer than they are today, persuades us that the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn.
This is, of course, the final frontier for abortion foes. Remember, it was nearly a century after its ratification that the Fourteenth Amendment was extended to women. One thing Roe v. Wade did do to get the ball rolling on fetal rights was to allow states to consider the fetus’ rights as distinct from the woman’s. Since Roe there’ve been a multitude of rulings in criminal law, particularly in cases of substance abuse by pregnant women, and third-party fetal killings, that may come to be used at some point to extend the Fourteenth Amendment to fetuses, too. The implications are obvious.

I'm not particularly moved by hysterical cries of "murder!" outside clinics, though, because my gut tells me the ones screaming the loudest have ulterior motives. Otherwise they wouldn't have time for their self-righteous protests, as they'd be too busy helping find educational resources and providing job counseling for men and women "at risk," offering alternatives to women in abusive relationships, lobbying for more public resources for kids growing up in poverty, etc. There is too much demonizing of women in anti-abortion cant for it to really be about the fetus, though the fetus is symbolically significant. It is a campaign fueled by so much unmitigated hatred for what you'd imagine from the rhetoric was an army of devil-women born with one purpose—to abort babies—led by a cabal of evil doctors—a campaign so dependent on the self-perception of the righteousness of its base and the irredeemable malevolence of its enemy, that it seems very likely it's at least as much an expression of a social need for a scapegoat as anything else. Otherwise, it might occur to protesters that education, access to resources, and compassion get better results.

Part of the problem here is that the people who are most recalcitrant on the issue, whatever their stance, aren't looking for a solution, because the issue itself is really secondary. The conflict itself serves a deep-seated, psychological need. Some aspects of the anti-abortion crusade remind me of the dynamic described by San francisco psychiatrist Steve Karpman in his "drama triangle" theory. In other ways it's obviously straight-up, flat-out scapegoating we're dealing with. Again, I say this because their methods don't match their stated motives. What motivates and mobilizes them is the evil of the enemy, full-stop. They could devote themselves to working in their communities, encouraging alternatives to abortion, providing the education and tools people need to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and so on, but that would require hard work, developing a sense of empathy--looking on The Other as something other than evil, and it just doesn't match the high you get from demonizing them. There's nothing like self-righteous indignation to get the blood pumping! Scapegoating is very energizing.

And prohibition is a concession to propriety, not reality. It's no secret that prohibiting abortion doesn't stop abortions. As with other prohibitionist moves (big P Prohibition and the drug war leap to mind) there are a couple of enduring truths: supply and demand persists, but with no effective regulation except possibly by elements of organized crime. There's another fact that applies, and that's that the wealthier you are the less of an issue the legality of whatever it is you wish to obtain (drugs, abortions, child-prostitutes, whatever) is. Americans from the upper classes will have no difficulty getting their abortions, safely and speedily, regardless of legality, and regardless of their political affiliation.

And that's another thing about orthodoxy: aside from being a total drag, it breeds hypocrisy. That's why whenever you find a despotic regime that imposes orthodoxy on the masses, you will always find a decadent and totally corrupt upper crust. Because people who preach orthodoxy expect the masses to adhere to it, while they, themselves are exempt.

To be against abortion, or indifferent to it, personally, but to acknowledge the need to keep it legal, regulated and safe where the alternative is not the cessation of abortions but a proliferation of illegal, unregulated, and doubly deadly ones, is a perfectly reasonable, pragmatic stance, and once you've abandoned the idiocy of orthodoxy, really in no way contradictory.

There are seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in the right's orthodoxy, too, though. On the one hand many self-proclaimed conservatives are for removing restrictions hindering the free market, which would, of course, encourage the very social vices they profess to abhor. Hmm. Their answer is to punish the dog for devouring the t-bone they've thrown in its bowl. It's a little disingenuous is all I'm saying.

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