July 25, 2003

Feminist Heterodoxy: The Abortion Issue

Eszter has responded to an email from a reader who prefers not to support Planned Parenthood (Eszter's charity of choice for the upcoming Blogathon). "The reader's comment," she writes, "made me think that perhaps people are not fully clear on what the organization does so I thought I'd say a few words about it."

That reader was me.

As Eszter quite rightly points out, though "Planned Parenthood does work in the area of pro-choice advocacy regarding abortion rights," the organization also does a good deal of advocacy and education in other areas surrounding reproductive health and reproductive rights (eg, education about birth control). However, I would like to take the opportunity to point out that I already knew this about Planned Parenthood. And I am a little bit taken aback by the insinuation that if I don't want to give financial support to Planned Parenthood, then I must be ignorant of its goals and in need of education on this score.

I don't often talk about my position on this issue, and I may regret doing so here. But since the pro-choice position amounts to an orthodoxy within feminism, I think it's worth pointing out that there are self-identified feminists who deviate from the official line. To repeat what I said to Eszter in my email, I am personally profoundly uncomfortable with abortion and cannot actively support abortion rights organizations. At the same time, I am prochoice insofar as I am unwilling to impose my personal views on others, much less actively work to have my views imposed by the state. This is in part because I believe the question of when human life begins is basically theological in orientation, and in a pluralistic society, theological views should not be imposed by the state. Perhaps my position could be described as passively pro-choice.

I should add that from my perspective, many opponents of abortion oppose it for the wrong reasons. There's no question in my mind that many anti-abortion activists are indeed, as prochoice activists charge, concerned with controlling women's sexuality and policing women's private lives. I'm as creeped out as the next feminist by these anti-feminist activists. But for me, the fact that some (probably many) anti-abortion activists oppose abortion rights on grounds to which I object does not translate into an active support of abortion.

More specifically, despite my own personal unease over the practice, I support legal abortion during the first trimester. But once we get into the second trimester, I am morally uncomfortable enough to be unable to actively endorse or support the practice of abortion. I am opposed to abortion during the third semester with the exception of those increasingly rare cases where the life of the mother is at stake. I support the ban on partial birth abortion, which ban Planned Parenthood opposes, which is one reason why I cannot give them my support.

In other words, after struggling with this issue for many years, I now hold what I think of as a compromise position in two respects. First, my support for first trimester abortion represents a compromise between my own personal unease over the practice, and my deep unease over the regulation of women's bodies and women's private lives by the state. Second, my position eschews what I think of as the absolutism of advocates on both sides. Just as I cannot give the developing zygote/embryo the same moral status as a fully conscious human being, neither can I agree to the claim that the fetus at 6 or 7 or 8 months is merely a clump of cells. Clearly, anything less than an absolute position either for or against abortion must rely on an arbitrary cut-off point. For me, that cut-off point more or less corresponds to the old-fashioned notion of the "quickening."

Again, with the exception of partial-birth abortion, which I actively oppose, I am not willing to impose my position (e.g., my personal opposition to second trimester abortion) on others. But neither am I willing to actively support any organization that advocates for abortion beyond the first trimester, no matter how much good work that organization does in other areas (e.g., birth control education) that I do endorse and support.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 25, 2003 11:03 AM
Comments
1

I have reached exactly the same position as IA, and I find myself embattled from two sides. As a Catholic, I feel coerced to support an outright ban of abortion in all cases; as an academic, I feel coerced by the feminists to support the "right to choose" in all cases. The thought of abortion after the first trimester fills me with horror, but the thought of back-alley abortions at any stage provokes an equally strong reaction. It seems that the extremists control the discourse (but I can see some reason in their behavior if their aim is to straighten a bent stick by bending it in the other direction or to avoid beginning the descent of a slippery slope).

Posted by: Thomas Hart Benton at July 25, 2003 12:16 PM
2

I think what you describe as a "compromise position" is shared by many people. In fact, outside of the university, I don't know any women (or men, for that matter) who have an absolutist position on abortion and choice. Anecdotal evidence isn't any kind of foundation to build truly solid arguments on, but the position that I seem to hear the most frequently goes something like this: "I don't think I would be able to go through with an abortion myself--except in the most extreme of circumstances--but I don't want the government eliminating that option."

As for the possibility that you "may regret" expressing your opinion on this issue, what have we come to in the academic world (whether on the margins, in the center, or somewhere in between), when we have to be afraid (or even mildly reluctant) to express opinions that are really quite mainstream and unremarkable (in terms of shock value, rarity, or even eccentricity) in the larger world "out there"? We seem to have developed an Orwellian "Crimethink" response in our world of academic "Newspeak." Don't think--and if you do think, by all means, don't say--anything that stands with even a single toe outside the ever-tightening circle of what is allowable (as in, what will mark you as a tenurable member of the club) in terms of academic, social, and political discourse.

Posted by: Michael at July 25, 2003 01:24 PM
3

A sticking point about the abortion debate, especially with partial-birth procedures and trimester limitations, has always seemed to me to be as follows: don't have one if you're against it.

The more fundamental problem is the conditions into which children are born; and, if you are not actively working to improve those conditions, as the vast majority of those who favor limitations on reproductive rights are not, then you have no moral basis to be concerned about the unborn. In fact, a strong percentage of abortion opponents seek actively to increase the misery of future generations by advocating social policies that further concentrate wealth. Their opposition can thus only be described as sadism, conscious or no. Perhaps enlightened self-interest in terms of maintaining a permanent service-class, but it is important to note that abortion restrictions mean nothing directly except inconvenience to those of means.

No one, I suspect, is too sanguine about abortion in any aspect, but the issue is the imposition of (often) hypocritical ethical values onto others. I think it's a terrible, ghastly thing, but I wouldn't for a moment support a law restricting it. I trust physicians not to perform superfluous abortions.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 25, 2003 02:12 PM
4

Indeed, IA, while you may feel that your views are the minority, they do actually represent the majority view on abortion.

Most people are not aware that second and third trimester abortions are rarely performed, and are banned in most states (see here for a summary).

I feel the same way you do about second trimester abortions, but I understand Planned Parenthood's stance on them (summarized here) better after a friend of mine worked there after college.

Particularly after she had an 11 year-old client who was in the second trimester of a pregnacy, pregnant by her own father. It's cases like this where any desire I have for moral certainty melts in the face of a complex moral dilemma. PP sees a lot of very young, abused, and indigent clients. So I guess while I am opposed to second-trimester abortions in many cases, I can understand why PP would like to make acceptions for the very young, the abused, and cases where serious fetal anomolies are detected after the first trimester.

Posted by: Matilde at July 25, 2003 02:33 PM
5

I was going to say that you're brave to post on this issue, but then I read these comments and was heartened by the thoughtfulness and careful consideration of your posters. (It's one reason I keep coming back.) So, maybe not brave in the sense of daring a flamewar, but brave in the sense of being willing to defend your convictions, and to do so in a way that is thoughtful and intelligent rather than knee-jerk ideological.

My thinking is probably most clearly aligned with that of Matilde -- I agree with just about everything you've written, IA, but will politely disagree when it comes to not supporting PP, for much the same reasons she notes. (Not that I am saying that you should, but rather that I myself don't have a problem with it.)

I do agree that the presumption of ignorance on the part of those with whom one disagrees is often not warranted -- or at least shouldn't be until you have a better sense of just what that person does believe and why.

Posted by: Rana at July 25, 2003 02:46 PM
6

The bottom line is that the position you outline here is exactly where a solid majority of the public lands. Planned Parenthood, for all their self-righteous posturing to the contrary, is as far outside the mainstream of American opinion on abortion as any Catholic Bishop--in fact, even farther. There are fewer pro-choice absolutists than pro-life absolutists, and a vast majority of people are neither.

And it is very, very unserious to say that if you believe X to be murder, then it's ok to support those who want to spread X far and wide, just so long as they're also engaging in something you don't mind so much. This kind of "built a lot of roads" argument is not all that indistinguishable from the argument that to finance the political wing of Hamas isn't necessarily the same as supporting their terror operations--even if the political wing exists for the sole purpose of making the rest of their agenda possible.

(And no, I'm not comparing PP to Hamas, directly--only pointing out that it is more than a little bit disingenuous and self-serving to ask donors to ignore the most critical and well-funded plank in your platform, without which you would barely exist at all.)

Posted by: Sage at July 25, 2003 03:08 PM
7

Since IA has taken our private communication public (which I realize is in line with her disclaimer on her blog that she may do so), I thought I'd add my bit here.

In no way did I mean to imply that IA or anyone else who does not want to support PP financially is ignorant of its goals. That was not my intention and I apologize if my message/entry came across as such. I was addressing what IA had sent me in an email. She had addressed one particular area of PP's activities so I thought I would respond to that. I wanted to point out the larger goals of the organization, regardless of whether someone cares to support them or not.

Again, apologies if my reaction seemed offensive, it was not meant in that way at all.

Posted by: Eszter at July 25, 2003 03:21 PM
8

"Indeed, IA, while you may feel that your views are the minority, they do actually represent the majority view on abortion."

I realize that my views are in line with mainstream opinion. But I firmly believe that my views represent a minority position within feminist and academic feminist circles. I also agree with you, Matilde, on the moral complexity of the issue, which I believe is reflected in my language (unease, discomfort, and so on).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 25, 2003 03:24 PM
9

Sage,

If you're an American citizen, are you advocating income tax evasion? Because, as spreaders of murder go, Hamas is insignificant compared to the U.S.

I'd like to, as a futher response, repeat my earlier statement about the sufficient moral basis for advocating banning abortion.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 25, 2003 03:29 PM
10

"Since IA has taken our private communication public (which I realize is in line with her disclaimer on her blog that she may do so), I thought I'd add my bit here."

I did so only after you posted a blog entry on our communication, though of course without naming me. Since you had already publicly reported on our private correspondence, and named yourself as one of the participants in our exchange, I did not feel that I was violating any sort of confidence in naming myself as the other correspondent.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 25, 2003 03:30 PM
11

BTW, I wanted to add that I think this discussion is very interesting. I will spend at least part of my blogging during the Blogathon posting information about reproductive health and reproductive rights if anyone cares to stop by. (I've linked my Blogathon page to my name here.)

Posted by: Eszter at July 25, 2003 03:34 PM
12

Could someone explain this upcoming "blogothon"?

Thanks.

Posted by: Chris at July 25, 2003 03:56 PM
13

Blogathon: http://www.blogathon.org

Hundreds of people from across the globe have committed to blogging 24 hrs straight to raise money for charity.

If you're not comfortable donating to PP, perhaps you'll consider sponsoring another blogger? There's a list of participants here with lots of other important charities:
http://www.blogathon.org/BrowseUsers.php

Posted by: Eszter at July 25, 2003 04:04 PM
14

"I realize that my views are in line with mainstream opinion. But I firmly believe that my views represent a minority position within feminist and academic feminist circles. " IA

"More specifically, despite my own personal unease over the practice, I support legal abortion during the first trimester. But once we get into the second trimester, I am morally uncomfortable enough to be unable to actively endorse or support the practice of abortion."...."At the same time, I am prochoice insofar as I am unwilling to impose my personal views on others, much less actively work to have my views imposed by the state. This is in part because I believe the question of when human life begins is basically theological in orientation, and in a pluralistic society, theological views should not be imposed by the state. Perhaps my position could be described as passively pro-choice." IA

Although I am a feminist and an academic, I imagine that as an economist I don't qualify as traveling in the 'feminist' or 'feminist academic' circles, so my opinion about the views of feminists and academics might be completely irrelevent to this discussion ;). But certainly you've said nothing here that I would describe as a minority opinion among the feminists and academics I know.


Posted by: Matilde at July 25, 2003 04:19 PM
15

You're right. There is a difference between pro-life and anti-abortion. Pro-life is pro-all life. You won't catch me bombing clinics or judging people. Their lives matter too.

Posted by: Heather at July 25, 2003 04:24 PM
16

By the way, I'd like to take a moment to thank IA for carefully articulating her views on a controversial subject. Iíve enjoyed reading the post and responses here.

Iíve often envied the moral clarity of the pro-life camp on the abortion issue: killing is wrong, life begins at conception; ergo, abortion is murder.

For those of us who do not believe that life begins at conception, that a woman should have some degree of rights over her body, that there are certain circumstances: rape, incest, a fetus with a fatal and painful birth defect, where the psychic cost of the pregnancy might be too great to continue it: holders of such beliefs are on much shaker, murkier, and shifting ground. Such opinions do not easily fit on a signboard, and are often too complex to easily articulate. Kudos to IA for being brave enough to voice hers here.

Posted by: Matilde at July 25, 2003 05:11 PM
17

I think that "hard cases make bad law" is often applicable to this particular issue. In particular, if abortion is murder, then it's murder whether or not rape or incest is involved. The embryo is still an innocent human being, and in particular, not way guilty of rape or incest.

I'm on the pro-choice side, but I agree that this issue is one of the messiest.

Posted by: zizka at July 25, 2003 07:15 PM
18

Chun...you said: "Because, as spreaders of murder go, Hamas is insignificant compared to the U.S."

Do you really, seriously believe this, or is this just the kind of thing that is considered cool in the circles you frequent?

Posted by: David Foster at July 25, 2003 11:28 PM
19

I like to think that people in the circles I frequent pay attention to facts about the world around them. One is that Hamas, an organization responsible for many terrorist atrocities with death totals numbering in the several hundreds, cannot begin to rival the terrorist actions of the U.S. Take a minor and much-debated example, the Al-Shifa bombing. The number of deaths attributable to the destruction of the majority of a poverty- and disease-stricken country's veterinary and human medicine supply and manufacturing capacity is not clear, but even the lowest estimates dwarf those caused by the Hamas suicide bombers.

The obscenity of the comparison becomes clearer when you consider the U.S.'s role in Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Panama, East Timor, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Chile, to name only a few of the more prominent examples. You and I did not order that bombing, this coup, or that weapons sell. But we are certainly responsible for the system that did. You can apologize for it, argue that it's bad-but-necessary, or perhaps try to change it.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 26, 2003 03:21 AM
20

"The number of deaths attributable to the destruction of the majority of a poverty- and disease-stricken country's veterinary and human medicine supply and manufacturing capacity is not clear, but even the lowest estimates dwarf those caused by the Hamas suicide bombers."

Who invited Noam Chomsky to this weblog?

Seriously Chun, quite apart from the fact that, as you concede, the numbers are "not clear," this type of equation -- direct, intentional murder and indirect, unintentional death are morally equivalent -- does not work for me.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 26, 2003 02:12 PM
21

IA,

Chomsky is a visible and heroic figure, but it's a mistake to think that all conclusions derive from him.

The actions are not morally equivalent; those of the U.S. are worse for at least two reasons: 1) Hamas's despicable tactics are used in the context of a war against an occupying power; the Al-Shifa bombing had the tactical significance of abacinating a caged dog. 2) Our intelligence agencies get a lot of bad press, for reasons deserved and not. I'm not sure that their harshest critics, however, would hold that they could fail to predict the obvious consequences of this bombing, which forces me to conclude that "indirect" and "unintentional" are either terms of propaganda or casuistry.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 26, 2003 04:30 PM
22

"Chomsky is a visible and heroic figure..."

So Chomsky himself would seem to believe. But I certainly do not view him in this light. He may be a brilliant scholar in his field, but when it comes to political analysis, I think he is either a liar or a moral idiot, or possibly both. Are you quite serious?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 26, 2003 05:38 PM
23

Chun you say that the deaths attributable to Hamas amount to "several hundreds." Surely this "low" number is reflective only if the means at their disposal. It seems to me very likely that if it had the means to do so, Hamas would murder the entire population of Israel. Certainly it is doing the best it can to indoctrinate the Palestinian population with hatreds which will take generations to go away.

You attempt to draw some kind of moral equivalence with the attack on Al-Shifa, which had as its purpose the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Had it succeeded, 3000 American lives might have been spared, and far worse future terrorist operations might have also been prevented.

People who have actual responsibility for real actions must frequently make conditions under decisions of uncertainty and time pressure. This is something that many academics do not seem able to grasp. Not everything is visible or foreseeable. Chess is a poor model for the real world.

Your comments seem to me to reflect poor reasoning and/or a lack of moral seriousness.

Posted by: David Foster at July 26, 2003 07:16 PM
24

IA,

By "heroic," I mean that he possesses qualities of endurance, commitment, and brilliance that far exceed those of say you or me. Those who call him such things as "moral idiot" or "liar" tend to be careful to add such qualifications, as he rather clearly deserves them whatever you happen to think of his views.

I'd be happy to read your reasons for such judgments, as they are the polar opposite of what I happen to feel. Their bare assertion strikes me as intemperance mixed with ignorance, however.

And yes, I was one of the founding members of the Chomsky cult, and I believe that he will ascend to demigodhood once the project is complete.

David Foster,

I'm curious to know why you think Al-Shifa was an attempt on Bin Laden. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever offered such a justification, for what I suppose are evident reasons.

It is wrong, I think, to judge a group on the actions you suppose they would take if they had the power to do so. I'd be uncomfortable turning you loose with omnipotence, however even-keeled you may happen to be. We're on better ground sticking to what groups have done and have not done when making moral judgments, I believe.

Regarding time constraints and real actions, I agree with you fully. I hope, however, that you are not suggesting that the Al-Shifa bombing would fall under this category. If you happen to be living in a parallel universe where U.S. intelligence believed that Bin Laden was camped out in a large Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, I'm interested in the mechanisms that allow us to communicate across these quantum gulfs, but am wary of assuming sufficient homology.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 26, 2003 08:11 PM
25

The Al-Shifa plant was a suspected chemical weapons plant and terrorist training facility, not a place where OBL had been located. My bad. A chemical weapons plant in the hands of terrorists would be a pretty ugly thing.

You say: "It is wrong, I think, to judge a group on the actions you suppose they would take if they had the power to do so." Even if they have clearly shown their intent to take such actions? Do you think the West should have ignored Hitler's threats in "Mein Kampf?"

Posted by: David Foster at July 26, 2003 08:29 PM
26

DF,

It's important to note that Al-Shifa was indisputably a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant that the Clinton administration argued may have also been used for chemical weapons manfacturing. There is no evidence to support this. None. No one has ever, to my knowledge, claimed, besides possibly you just now, that it was a terrorist training facility.


When Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, it was plausibly ignored. Afterwards, large sections of the West believed they could come to livable arrangements with Hitler, his plans regarding various uentermenschen being not much of an object of concern. It's still not much of an analogy.

I agree with you that the chemical weapons support provided to South Africa and Iraq by the U.S. were not pretty things.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 26, 2003 09:04 PM
27

As I understand it, while Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion, Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services gutted Roe's three trimester framework:

In the first place, the rigid Roe framework is hardly consistent with the notion of a Constitution cast in general terms, as ours is, and usually speaking in general principles, as ours does. The key elements of the Roe framework - trimesters and viability - are not found in the text of the Constitution or in any place else one would expect to find a constitutional principle. Since the bounds of the inquiry are essentially indeterminate, the result has been a web of legal rules that have become increasingly intricate, resembling a code of regulations rather than a body of constitutional doctrine....In the second place, we do not see why the State's interest in protecting potential human life should come into existence only at the point of viability, and that there should therefore be a rigid line allowing state regulation after viability but prohibiting it before viability.

http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=492&invol=490

This is not a covert criticism of IA's position; I understand her unease even if I do not share it. However, I think it's important that all parties to the discussion know the current status of abortion law. Roe's three-trimester framework may have been artifical, but a doctrine that asserts the state has an interest in potential human life prior to viability--and this no matter how viability is determined--is extremely disturbing.

Posted by: Curtiss Leung at July 28, 2003 10:39 AM
28

"a doctrine that asserts the state has an interest in potential human life prior to viability--and this no matter how viability is determined--is extremely disturbing."

But isn't "potential human life" the main point of contention? You use the term "potential" as if this were self-evident, when in fact this is exactly the issue at the heart of the controversy. Some insist that human life begins at conception. Others insist that human life begins at birth. There will never be a consensus on this point, which is why I say the issue is basically theological. Most Americans are in the middle: they do think there is a difference between a 6-week old embryo and a 6-month old fetus.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 28, 2003 07:13 PM
29

You misunderstand me--or I'm not making myself clear, an ever present possibility! My concern is that Webster vs. Reproductive Health states that viability should not be the determinant of the state's interest in a fetus. Even with advances in medical technology since Roe, the criterion of viability is not as open to interpretation as that of potential life. But to apply the viability criterion with complete accuracy, it would have to be determined for each fetus, and so Roe's three-trimester framework was a one-size-fits-all attempt at defining the state's interest in terms of viability. It was not perfect, but it at least appealed to a criterion that was not open to broad and conflicting interpretations.

Webster changes that. The doctrine now is that the state has an interest in the fetus, be it viable or not, and I think that must mean from the moment of conception. If this is so, it opens the door to legislation that does not deny the core of Roe, but would place innumerable obstacles to a woman getting an abortion even at the earliest stages of pregnancy.

Posted by: Curtiss Leung at July 28, 2003 11:05 PM
30

The Webster case (referred to above) was decided in 1989. Its significance was that it did not expressly affirm Roe v. Wade, thus signalling (or so it was thought at the time) that Roe might be ripe for overturning. (Webster itself did not overturn Roe.) However, a few years later, the Supreme Court decided another case--Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992). That case reaffirmed Roe. And there the matter currently rests, for good or ill depending on your point of view.

Posted by: Random Reader at July 31, 2003 08:10 PM
31

Followup: Those who haven't read it may wish to look up an article by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson of MIT, titled "A Defense of Abortion" (1971) and often called "The Famous Violinist" case. (It was originally printed in Philosophy & Public Affairs and was reprinted in a collection by Peter Singer called "Applied Ethics.") It contains a philosophical justification for the total pro-choice point of view. (It's interesting that the academics writing here have been basing their positions on personal feelings, rather than logical explications--just as "regular people" mostly do.)

Posted by: Random Reader at July 31, 2003 08:26 PM
32

i don't think people understand that being able to perform abortions has allowed the state to put a non-human clause on our womens unborn but mosr wanted children. This in turn has given doctors the right to push termination on a child he thinks is not worthy of a life but his parents do. In my case i was having twins that a specialist said were going to be born with multiple anomolies in both babies and that they were deformed and without fingers and toes. He pushed me to terminate. I went into labour at 23 weeks and because of what this doctor said they did nothing to help my babies. One baby died in the birth canal the other was born alive and without any problems. But they still did nothing for my living baby because he was born before the gestational period needed, 24weeks to be considered human. A period of time set up by the government so that you could not have an abortion past that week.But now they give say so to the doctors about hows human and who's not. So they gave me my baby and let him die in my arms. They did this because we have given those who do not want kids, but are irresponsible, the right to kill thier kids, and put a human clause on the rest of out unborn babies

Posted by: Naomi Aiken at August 11, 2003 08:40 PM