Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Failure to Think Abortion

I find myself increasingly frustrating with my own opinion on abortion. I just can't seem to develop a robust, directly stated opinion on the matter. The only way I can think about the subject is basically an equivocation; both/and. I consider that a pretty major failing.

First, I guess, the pro-choice side of my both/and problem. It has become an increasingly common pro-choice argument that pro-lifers are not so much concerned with the issue of homicide and the life of the fetus as they are with controlling sexuality, specifically women's sexuality.

I find this to be a fairly compelling argument. Pro-lifers will insist they believe that the fetus is a person, and that abortion is murder. The problem is, pro-lifers simply don't act as if they live under a regime with a higher civilian body count then Stalinist Russia. Stalin was responsible for 40 million dead Russians; the U.S. alone has had 48 million abortions over a slightly longer time period. There should be constant horror and outrage; how can daily life continue as usual for someone that believes they live in the bloodiest society in history?

But there isn't. The outrage over abortion is no greater than the usual moral outrage over, say, homosexuality.

The other piece of the argument is all the empirical data that feminist blogs collect concerning the activities of pro-life groups; persistent interference with contraception, persistent moral condemnations of (usually female) sexual activity, etc. Or the constant insistence on "responsibility," which is just an extension of the double standard and whore/madonna split women have always had to deal with. If you'd like to see these discussions, visit Pandagon - there's a link on the side of the page.

So anyways, I'm convinced that concern over women's sexuality is the excessive real of the pro-life movement. By excessive real, I mean the ideas and concepts that show through the cracks in the surface (in a previous post, when I say that "hate the sin..." is really "just following orders," I'm pointing out another example of the excessive real).

Because of this, I think pro-choicers are correct when they say the pro-lifers don't so much care about the life of the fetus, but when and for whom a woman opens her legs. And so I consider the pro-life groups to be basically insidious. The forces of domination, as it were.

It needs to be stressed that that this excessive real, this obscene, disavowed underside, is built into the pro-life position. It can't be chased away by logical syllogisms and a body of correct facts. The explicit pro-life position, that of the rejection of murdering babies, is sustained by and dependant upon this underside. It is this underside that allows pro-lifers to go about their day without being overwhelmed by the horror of living in a Stalinist regime; the underside is what provides the distance from horror so one's life can function.

Of course, that isn't the end of the issue. Just because the pro-life position carries with it an obscene underside, doesn't mean pro-choicers are let off the hook when it comes to thinking the homicide issue. Just because your opponent is incapable of being completely forthright doesn't mean you can ignore his explicit position.

In our culture, in our particular place and time, any claim that abortion is murder will carry with it the obscene underside of the domination of women. I know this won't seem like a satisfying statement, but I think it is true. All the valid logic and correct facts in the world won't change it. But for the sake of completeness...

Empirical data will never be able to settle the issue of the fetus' legal status. There is no scientific test for personhood. No body of data can tell you when the fetus becomes a person, and so is entitled to protection under the law.

Any time chosen, from conception to the third trimester to birth, is going to be arbitrary. Sure, empirical data can be interpreted to support some of these positions over others, but empirical data will always leave room for dissent among reasonable people.

The cautious position, which I favor but can't argue forcefully for, would be that conception confers legal personhood. The problem is, "cautious" is not a serious endorsement of a political or ethical position. And "cautious" does not mean "less arbitrary."

None of that erases the importance of grappling with the question, "is abortion murder?" It is the great failing of the pro-choice side that they refuse to do so. They've found out the obscene underside of the pro-life movement, and they think this makes their argument for them. It doesn't.

In the end, my pro-life sympathies are based on something I find compelling, but intellectually weak. I think there could come a day in which a pro-life position can be directly articulated, without the obscene underside. If that day comes, then the primary pro-choice arguments will dissolve (not proven illogical or incorrect, but will simply dissolve into the winds of history) and the abortion issue will be settled. On that day, we'll all wake up, and our hands will be covered in blood, and that blood will never wash off.

The problem is, I refuse to submit the present to the judgment of history. The preceding paragraph, while compelling, is simply unacceptable by any rigid intellectual standard. We live and move and have our being in the present; some pseudo-messianic future cannot help us in the present.

So this is my problem. I have both pro-choice and pro-life sympathies. That isn't acceptable; sitting on the fence is a cop out. I just have no idea how to resolve this. Sometimes I think that learning to do a proper dialectical analysis would solve this problem for me, but dialectics is a game for the big boys. It is hard to do without just being facile, or just making a more sophisticated equivocation.

17 comments:

Mac said...

I can sympathize with your dilemma. Certainly, we all need to think and rethink our positions constantly to be sure we're taking all sides into consideration and arriving at a rational outcome.

From my point of view, the 'pro-life' folk and their interest in controlling sexuality is particularly troubling in light of this: if they were really in it to save the unborn, they'd be much more interested in comprehensive sex ed and easy access to birth control and reproductive health for the underserved. They'd also be all for legal abortion - every study indicates a correlation between lower abortion rates and safe and legal abortion. Even here in the States, the states with the higher percentage of abortion providers have the lowest abortion rate.

Whether or not abortion is murder is not my concern for a very simple reason: women will always find a way to terminate a pregnancy if that's what they want. In countries where abortion is legal, the maternal mortality rate is astronomical because women turn to unsafe alternatives. So if you've taken the side that abortion is murder, instead of the murder of one person you're now dealing with the potential death of two people.

On top of that, there's the issue of using babies as a punishment for women who become pregnant when they're not ready for a child [or another child]. Forced childbirth isn't good for anyone, just as forced abortions are bad.

There are so many ways this can be looked at, but those are many of the reasons why I am pro-choice.

Step2 said...

I wouldn't have figured you to have any pro-life sympathies. I apologize for that mistake.

As far as abortion itself is concerned, there are a number of different areas that overlap, and each one should be dealt with individually. For me, the most important issue involved is the matter of consent. Second, the legal matter of personhood. Third, the philosophical matter of telos.

Consent is important not only because of rape or incest, but also because of the violinist argument. Coerced life support can be an extension of the right to life, but it has some exceptions and limitations.

Personhood is the main point upon which the legal arguments revolve around. There is no Western legal tradition that I know of that has considered the unborn to have the legal value of citizens. For me at a personal level, viability seems like a reasonable point to create a new legal standard. Not only is there physical autonomy, the brain complexity at that point is sufficient for there to be some minimal level of intentional awareness or what I prefer to call agency.

Last is the issue of telos, which sort of circumvents the whole question of personhood by assuming a normal development path. The future like ours argument is its best format. There are three ways to deal with this argument. One is that the woman has a future of her own that will be disrupted by giving birth. The other is that the point of conception is arbitrary under this system, since we could say that any particular sperm or ova has a future like ours. The last is that the material cause for a telos is not an automatic right - which is dangerous territory for liberals to be in.

Step2

Mike said...

Whether or not abortion is murder is not my concern for a very simple reason: women will always find a way to terminate a pregnancy if that's what they want.

But we don't use this kind of logic in any other area of law. A hypothetical crime does not become trivial because it is "inevitable." I'm an advocate of the legalization of drugs, and I don't use this logic in any serious way.

A crime becomes trivial when that activity is a common, banal part of the culture - see drug use and digital piracy. Murder, in other contexts, has yet to become a banal occurrence for us.

To be clear, nothing in the last two paragraphs hinges on the truth or falsehood of the statement "abortion is murder."

And yes, I agree babies are used as punishments for women who break the "rules."

I don't have time to respond to your post at the moment, Step, but I'll get to it as soon as I can. Apologies.

David Grant said...

http://www.afterabortion.info/MAR/MAR_linkpage.htm

The best pro life / pro woman book written is by a Catholic priest David Reardon.

Pro lifers don't like his approach at all since he writes to defend women and not against murdering babies.

David Grant said...

Oops. The book is called Making Abortion Rare.

Mike said...

I wouldn't have figured you to have any pro-life sympathies. I apologize for that mistake.

Well don't worry. They are few and far between. After all, I'm the guy calling for the wholesale execution of all patients that malingers a day too long!

Can you reword your paragraph on consent? I'm having trouble understanding what you mean.

So you want to base personhood on physical autonomy and intentional awareness? The problem is, various medical conditions can destroy physical autonomy in an adult. I doubt anyone is willing to argue that this also affects legal personhood.

Intentional awareness can't really be equated with agency. I guess maybe I read too much phenomenology, but in my books, intentionality is a relation with an object, not an ability to make choices. Even animals have this minimal intentionality. I'm no vegan, and I doubt you are either.

The telos argument, as best as I can understand, is based not so much on purposeful ends as it is on potentiality. I'd appreciate it if you expanded on this argument, because as it stands, I think I already discounted it when I said the present can't be subjected to the prophetic judgment of history. I might be completely misunderstanding you, though.

Mike said...

David, what is the main point of that book? Both you link and Amazon.com are pretty vague about it.

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Mike said...

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Step2 said...

"Can you reword your paragraph on consent?"
I'll give it a try, but Dr. Boonin said it better. If the woman invites the fetus into her life/body, there should be no reason for an abortion barring very rare medical conditions. If she does not welcome the fetus, it is in some weird sense trespassing upon her life/body. Since both sides agree that the best way to reduce abortions is by reducing unwanted pregnancies, her consent to the initial sex act and to the consequences if she becomes pregnant are the basic standards you use to determine whether the pregnancy is wanted. The reason I made this the top priority instead of legal personhood is that context always matters, and the context of consensual sex and preparing or striving to get pregnant is so important to a healthy family structure that I find it strange that so many casually dismiss it as irrelevant.

"The problem is, various medical conditions can destroy physical autonomy in an adult." True, but in viability we are primarily talking about the ability to breathe. Considering your stance on malingering patients, I think it is safe to say that an unconscious patient requiring a ventilator for survival is low on the priority list for continued life support. That is a partially false dilemma, since in one case we have high certainty the patient will "recover" but the opposite in the other case. For the purpose of this part of the argument, I only want to concentrate on the current state of the fetus and not some future state.

"Intentional awareness can't really be equated with agency. I guess maybe I read too much phenomenology, but in my books, intentionality is a relation with an object, not an ability to make choices. Even animals have this minimal intentionality."

I guess I would question what it is the books say is the subject if there is a relation with an object, it must be an agent. Under my view of humans, we simply have a higher dimension of intentionality than animals. I am willing to accept that many animals have a higher number of instinctive and learned responses than a viable fetus but cannot match its innate unused capacity, and although I would not grant them a legal right to life, they deserve some protections from cruelty like the late term abortion techniques involve.

"The telos argument, as best as I can understand, is based not so much on purposeful ends as it is on potentiality."

Well, I obviously disagree. I will also note that I consider this the most difficult abortion argument to defend against, because it implies personhood from the start of the argument.

Step2

David Grant said...

The book argues from the perspective that women should be cared for better by the system.

A few examples:
Abortion clinics are not regulated whereas hospitals are. This leads to some pretty shoddy practices at the abortion clinics resulting in poor care for women.

A proper follow up procedure should be in place post abortion but once a woman leaves the clinic they wash their hands of her.

Abortionists stridently fight to keep out any form of regulation whereas the medical community as a whole demands some form of accountability. The clinics argue that it would affect their bottom line (dollars). ie. Care for women should not supercede making the most money possible.

Collecting info on botched abortions is difficult because when a woman goes to a hospital because of an infection caused by the abortion it is listed as simply an infection with no mention of the abortion.

Women who struggle emotionally after an abortion and voice their feelings are considered the enemy by the pro choice camp and are silenced. Pro choice ideology trumps pro women.

The sheer money making machine of abortion clinics makes their high values suspect.

Their are many more points that I think you would find useful if you really want to give this topic a fair look.

Reardon doesn't get a lot of accolades from hard line pro lifers but he certainly makes a significant case for better care of women who are faced with the decision of an abortion.

The prochoice camp gives the impression that all is well in the delivery of abortions but that is simply not the case.

Mike said...

Well, it seems like a lot of those issues are bureaucratic failures that could be solved though due diligence. They simply don't strike me as constitutive elements of a pro-choice position.

For example, it is entirely possible that abortion clinics are more interested in profit than anything else. I'm just not sure what that point could contribute to a wider debate about what abortion is, and what place it holds in our culture. It just means there are some business people out there finding a new source of profit.

That being said, the issue of post abortion trauma is a difficult one for pro-choicers to deal with. I think you're right, that post abortion guilt is something that is often hushed up. Of course, women who have abortions and don't feel guilt are just as likely to be seen as callous, cold hearted baby killers.

Over at the pop feminist blog Feministe, there was a recent discussion about this very issue. The main point of the post was that this issue is complicated, without any easy answers.

I would use that link to suggest that, while post abortion guilt happens, and while it is often hushed up, the pro-choice ideology is capable of moving past this.

In other words, just like the bureaucratic failures, the hushing of abortion guilt is not a constitutive element of the pro-choice position - it is a contingent, statistical event. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't.

Compare that with what I've said about the pro-life side being necessarily dependent on its obscene underside.

David Grant said...

I haven't been in this discussion for a while so I'm trying to clear out some cobwebs as well. I was using the words pro choice as an exclusive camp. The truth is that there is a pro choice camp and a pro abortion camp. The pro choice truly want to strengthen a woman's voice. Pro abortion isn't about women but about money.

Prolife has two camps as well. The extremists are the one's that would want everyone including the woman, who had the abortion, to be hung for murder.

David Reardon and myself would be in what I would call a real choice view. Informed consent with true follow up care for the women who chose to have the abortion.

The battleground is that the moderates on both sides of the issue are the least listened to and definitely don't make for snappy press releases.

I have had wonderful, thoughtful conversations with those who were genuinely pro choice. I don't find the extreme pro lifers or pro abortionists desiring meaningful dialogue. Sadly they are the ones who are generally controlling the public view.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

"The problem is, pro-lifers simply don't act as if they live under a regime with a higher civilian body count then Stalinist Russia. Stalin was responsible for 40 million dead Russians; the U.S. alone has had 48 million abortions over a slightly longer time period. There should be constant horror and outrage; how can daily life continue as usual for someone that believes they live in the bloodiest society in history? But there isn't."

Sure there is.

"So anyways, I'm convinced that concern over women's sexuality is the excessive real of the pro-life movement."

Perhaps for some, but can you really justify such a totalizing narrative?

"Because of this, I think pro-choicers are correct when they say the pro-lifers don't so much care about the life of the fetus, but when and for whom a woman opens her legs."

Caring for the one doesn't rule out caring for the other, and again, what basis to you have for totalizing the whole of the pro-life movement's motivation?

"The explicit pro-life position, that of the rejection of murdering babies, is sustained by and dependant upon this underside."

Maybe I missed it, where did you prove the veracity of this construct?

Mike said...

Good questions, but I think my insistence on the historically bound nature of what I'm saying mitigates the claim of totalization.

We need to be careful about using the word "totalization." Totalization is, in the technical sense as developed by phenomenologists like Heidegger and Levinas, the process of seeing something as something. So it isn't a synonym for generalization, yes?

I would argue I'm not making cheap generalizations. Yes, what I am doing is a totalization, but from my perspective, that is not a philosophically important critique.

I don't claim there is any logical necessity for my position here, because as I've said, this is a historical situation. It is a logical possibility that a pro-life position could exist without the underside. But logical possibilities do not create social possibilities.

Maybe I missed it, where did you prove the veracity of this construct?

The argument is, that since daily life continues for even the most outraged pro-lifer, the true horror that the pro-life position entails is not really experienced by any pro-lifer. No matter how intellectually convinced of their position they are, there is still something attached to that position that gives them the breathing space to go about their business.

It is a logical possibility that there are pro-lifers out there that directly experience this horror, but I can honestly say I have never come across one. I can only imagine what the life of such a person would look like; we'd all (pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike) probably think they were raving lunatics.

The only other option for that element that offers breathing space is apathy, but calling pro-lifers apathetic strikes me as kind of boring and pointless. It also doesn't fit with the well documented North American distaste for female sexual pleasure.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Point taken on the use of “totalization.”

As for pro-lifers not experiencing the true horror of their position, I’d say many do in fact experience it, but it isn’t experienced as a perpetual emotional crisis that suspends all daily life activities. There’s only so much one can feel without exhaustion, and I think most pro-lifers are sensible enough not to let their abhorrence at abortion drive them into lunacy.

One possible sign of their facing the experience of abortion is that in many cases pro-lifers will treat the abortion issue with such gravity that they tolerate or ignore number of evils, such as torture or pollution.

I haven’t detected the underbelly you describe within the pro-lifers with whom I’m befriended or acquainted. That said, there is a dark history of the oppression of women in Western Civilization that the pro-life camp would do well to recognize more than it has. I see the pro-choice camp as basically responding to the failure of society for so long to respect the rights of women. They’re not passionate about killing babies, as some anti-abortionists rhetoric holds.

Frankly, I think we’d progress on the abortion issue more if both sides made more attempts to understand the other side as the other understands itself.