The centrist fantasy on abortion rights is a dangerous farce

09 Apr 2015 06:36 am
Posted by: Donna

The folks at Vox commissioned a poll on attitudes toward abortion, asking more nuanced, and specific, questions than are usually asked and the results are fascinating.

Vox’s Sarah Kliff was intrigued enough about the responses that she contacted some of the respondents for further clarification.

“From my point of view, I believe all babies go to heaven,” King told me when I asked him to explain how both labels fit his viewpoint. “And if this baby were to live a life where it would be abused … it’s just really hard to explain. It gets into the rights of the woman, and her body, at the same time. It just sometimes gets really hazy on each side.”

King’s perspective is, in a way, unique: he has a distinct and nuanced view on when abortion should and shouldn’t be legal, one that takes in all sorts of personal and circumstantial factors. He’s generally anti-abortion, but not completely. He doesn’t fit neatly into either side of the debate.

In another way, though, King’s viewpoint is common: in our poll, we found that 18 percent of Americans, like King, pick “both” when you ask them to choose between pro-life and pro-choice. Another 21 percent choose neither. Taken together, about four in 10 Americans are eschewing the labels that we typically see as defining the abortion policy debate.

Vox also asked some people on the street how they felt about abortion:

Almost everyone in those interviews came across as kind, empathetic, and respectful of the rights and boundaries of women seeking abortion, whether they supported abortion or not. Except for one guy who was terrible. If you watch the video you can probably tell who I’m talking about. Judging from social media, this Vox project is bound to spawn at least a thousand think pieces by abortion centrists insisting that we simply must find “common ground” on this divisive issue. I hope at least some of the centrist pundits paid attention to where considerable common ground lies beyond things that are usually asked about, like late-term bans and parental notification.

Anti-choicers lately have been pushing hard on how some of their legislation, such as 20 week bans and eliminating “taxpayer funding” of abortion, enjoy majority support in the polls, making them “common sense”. But centrists have been proposing “sensible compromises” with anti-choicers since forever. Their utopian delusion is that if we just throw the antis a few limits they’ll reciprocate by leaving first trimester abortions alone and possibly even embracing sex ed, contraception, and social support for parenting. It’s nonsense, as Ed Kilgore explained in 2013:

…Suppose it were possible to engineer a permanent national deal (it’s not, but just consider it as a thought experiment) wherein in exchange for a strictly enforced ban on post-viability abortions that didn’t involve direct threats to the life of the mother, we’d also start treating all forms of contraception and pre-viability abortions not only as legal, but as medical procedures that would be publicly funded just like other medical procedures, under normal (not prohibitive) inspection and regulatory regimes? I suspect a large number of pro-choice folk would go for that kind of deal, which isn’t that different from the situation in much of Europe. It would reflect the fact that most late-term abortions happen not because some bad girl has had sex and now finds motherhood inconvenient, but because she hasn’t had meaningful access to contraception, Plan B, or early-term abortions.

But would any antichoice activists go along with it? No. Because they don’t really care about late-term abortions other than as a lever to move public opinion away from legalized abortion generally. I mean, if late-term abortions were really what upset you, wouldn’t you perhaps be even more adamant than the Planned Parenthood folk in trying to make sure steps short of late-term abortion were not only tolerated but encouraged?

Despite how obvious all of that is to anyone paying attention to the anti-choice movement, it has proven impossible to dissuade centrists from their near-religious refusal to see that anti-choicers see inches ceded to them as miles for which to aspire. The other (scary) problem with the centrist fantasy is that laws are real and arbitrarily enforced against real women. And they don’t even accomplish what purported intentions are, as legal expert Scott Lemieux (and others) explained back in 2006:

There is a further problem here, however: the complete disjuncture between the purported goals of abortion “centrists” and the actual effects of the regulations they support. It’s important to make a distinction between the moral and legal position of abortion centrists, which they constantly blur to disguise the fact that there’s no rational connection between the two. It’s defensible, whether one agrees with it or not, to believe that some abortions are more morally problematic than others, and that it varies based on context. But abortion regulations have nothing to do with that. In some cases, they’re openly contradictory: Patterico argues that “many of us who are uncomfortable with abortion become more so as the fetus advances in age”–a common argument among both the center-right and center-left–but of course creating regulatory obstacle courses makes later-term abortions more likely. But even when there isn’t an obvious contradiction, there’s no rational connection between the regulations and the moral position (and in the case of arbitrary bans on medical procedures given scary scientifically meaningless names, no rational connection with any purpose.) Abortion regulations don’t inscribe “centrist” moral positions into law: they just give more decision-making power to third parties for no good reason, and make abortion access more inequitable. Lizardbreath recently made this point very effectively:

(1) Regulations of this sort don’t discourage abortion in any targeted way. If you believe that abortion is always a wrong decision, regardless of the woman’s individual circumstances, I’m not talking to you right now – go over and sit with the committed, consistent pro-lifers. If you think that there are circumstances where a woman should be able to decide for herself whether to have an abortion, whatever you think those circumstances are, you have to recognize that these regulations aren’t going to preferentially discourage the abortions you disapprove of. Regulations requiring waiting periods are going to discourage poor women, who can’t get consecutive days off from work or can’t afford an overnight stay near the provider. Spousal notification regulations are going to discourage women with bad or fearful relationships with their husbands. Nutty “safety” regulations (such as those requiring an abortion clinic to have a written transfer agreement with a hospital to accept emergency patients — what, the hospital would otherwise refuse to accept emergency patients because they came from an abortion clinic?) raise the costs, travel and otherwise, of abortions, and so discourage poor women. None of them are going to preferentially discourage women who don’t take abortion seriously, women who use abortion as birth control, or any other category of women whose abortion decisions you disagree with.

If you think that abortion is always a difficult moral decision, but is sometimes the least of the available evils, regulations like this don’t bear any relationship to discouraging abortion when it’s the wrong decision and allowing it when it’s the right decision. All they do is serve as obstacles, making abortion available for affluent women in comfortable circumstances, and closing it off for poor women or women in difficult family situations. This isn’t right, and it isn’t just.

(2) Taking these regulations at face value, people who favor them don’t trust women. If we take mandatory counseling, waiting periods, and spousal notification regulations at face value as regulations intended to address the concerns of moderate pro-lifers (rather than assuming that they are cynically favored by pro-life absolutists who know that they can’t pass absolute abortion bans, and so favor any regulation, however irrational, making abortion more difficult to obtain) they reflect a mistrust of women as moral decision-makers.

The nominal goal of such regulations is to make the woman concerned consider additional information and opinions or spend additional time thinking about whether she should or should not have an abortion. Isn’t it clear that this reflects an opinion that women, if unregulated, will make abortion decisions flippantly or thoughtlessly? It’s not a simple case of saying that the woman involved has interests that are opposed to those of the fetus, and that she therefore, as an interested party, can’t be permitted to make the decision. These regulations still leave the decision in the woman’s hands – they just assume that women, as a class, can’t be trusted to inform themselves of the relevant facts and make abortion decisions thoughtfully and after moral deliberation. That assumption, made by someone who has considered it explicitly, reflects a profound contempt for women as moral decision makers.

Both of these points are exactly right. First, abortion regulations do nothing to ensure that women will only have abortions under conditions that either Patterico or Will Saletan will find acceptable (leaving aside the question of why their opinion on a highly contestable moral choice should matter more than the woman whose life is actually at stake in the first place.) Rather, as I’ve argued before, the effect of these regulatory obstacle courses is abortion-on-demand for affluent women in urban centers and highly restricted abortion for other women (even if these women are having abortions for reason Lord Saletan finds tolerable.) And the elitism here is again manifest: some women can be trusted with the decision, but others cannot…

Nine years passing have fully vindicated these arguments. Centrists seemed to believe that late term abortion laws would be simple admonitions to pregnant women not to wait too long to get an abortion, with no criminal penalties awaiting who violated it. Yet women are already being arrested and tried, convicted, and sentenced for decades-long prison terms for (alleged) self-induced late-term abortions. Neither Jennie Linn McCormack of Idaho nor Purvi Patel of Indiana had received any prenatal care, and thus lacked the knowledge of how far along they were. That didn’t stop third party authorities from targeting them for prosecution. It is horrifying to think what women experiencing pregnancy complications face when the decision over whether they get terminations or not is made by an anti-abortion hospital administrator or a nervous bureaucrat and not by themselves and their doctors.

Parental notification was another “sensible compromise” centrists urged pro-choicers to embrace. Leaving aside how divorced from reality it is as a policy, consider how anti-choicers are proposing things like appointing attorneys to fetuses and exposing judges who grant judicial bypasses.

Many of the young women who use the bypass system have been physically abused by a parent or have a mother or father who threatened to kick them out of the house if they ever got pregnant. Some are caretakers for their parents. Others are estranged from them: “Mom’s dead, Dad’s in prison, they never liked me much anyway,” is how Hays, the attorney, has described these cases.

But if the state were to start naming judges, many would become unwilling to participate in the process, Hays argues. “Some of these courthouses already refuse to hear the girls’ petitions, which is eight shades of illegal, but what are we going to do about it?” she says. “Now, if it’s going to be public which judges are doing these, you’re going to have girls with nowhere to go.”

Texas Republicans have tried before to out the judges who make these sensitive rulings. In 2005, Republican Rep. Phil King introduced a bill that would have not only publicized judges’ names and rulings, but also would have altered the law to make transcripts of the hearings available to the public. Opponents of the bill objected, noting that bypass hearing transcripts often contain enough information about a minor, such as the name of her school and a description of her home life, to make her identifiable to people who know her.

But one opponent of the bill was also concerned about the safety of the judges: Craig Enoch, a former Texas Supreme Court justice and a lifelong Republican, warned the Legislature that naming judges could place them and their families in danger from violent parents or extreme anti-abortion groups.

Parental notification isn’t exactly working out to be the “reasonable” olive branch that centrist fantasists have sold it as.

And then there’s the Patient Zero of Centrist Abortion Policy Fantasy: Bans on taxpayer funding of abortion going back to the Hyde Amendment of 1976. Centrists have been down for that all the way. In 2009 they insisted on reinforcing Hyde in the Affordable Care Act, while also insisting on granting religious organizations an exemption from the contraception mandate. Strangely, these concessions have not appeased the anti-choice lobby. Instead, they led to things like the Hobby Lobby decision and and a new Arizona law banning private insurance coverage of abortion. I’m sure that centrists would blanch at the suggestion that they have played a role in a North Carolina bill to ban funding to medical schools that train doctors to perform abortions but it’s hard to deny they have.

If abortion centrists have a single accomplishment of theirs that they can point to, that has improved and not worsened the status of reproductive health outcomes for women, I am very interested in seeing it.

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