In Pursuit of the Lawful Neutral

How difficult it is to say just what I mean! I wanted to continue my thoughts from last week on the legal status of abortion before I lose my train of thought completely: specifically, why I don’t think that one can truly oppose abortion personally while still supporting it legally.

I’ve lost count of the times recently I’ve heard the claim that banning abortion has no effect on the number of women who get them; it simply makes women less safe. This apparent fact is often given as common knowledge without evidence to support it; others glibly claim that “multiple studies have shown” it to be true without reference to said studies. I found Google unhelpful in identifying “studies,” plural, but when journalists cite a source at all they point to this paper published in 2012 in Lancet, sponsored by the WHO and that statistic-producing organ, the Guttmacher Institute. The authors subsequently published an updated assessment in 2016.

Just seeing the authorship of the papers makes me question how unbiased this study can be; despite the fact that the authors “declare that they have no conflict of interest” I struggle to see how the research arm of Planned Parenthood could not have a conflict of interest when studying abortion trends. But bias aside, the paper seems hardly to merit the sweeping claims made on its behalf. The authors attempted to document abortion trends worldwide and compare rates between countries, and in doing so, found no correlation between restrictive abortion laws and the number of abortions per 1000 women annually. Lack of correlation doesn’t necessarily mean lack of causation, however, though it certainly indicates that more factors are at work here. At the time, Ross Douthat made the excellent point that the study failed to compare truly comparable populations. Many South American and African countries have high abortion rates despite restrictive laws, yes; however, this seems to say more about the extent to which the rule of law holds in those countries, than about whether the law affects human behavior at all.

It also merits remembering that numbers don’t come out of thin air. As the paper notes, only “57 of the 84 countries and territories with liberal abortion laws have a mechanism for collection of statistics about procedures done” (pg 5), and illegal abortions obviously can’t be counted in any official way at all. So how did they calculate rates? A variety of means: in some countries they surveyed women and looked at hospitalization rates for complications due to miscarriage (since surely some of those miscarriages were intentionally induced); the resulting number was then adjusted upward to various degrees depending on the opinions of local ‘experts’. Elsewhere they extrapolated based on contraceptive availability and birth rates, since the availability of contraceptives surely affects the abortion rate (never mind that this is one of the conclusions of this paper, so this method amounts to assuming the conclusion as a premise). One of my favorite quotes: “A few small countries for which no information was available were assumed to have the same abortion rate as other countries in the region with similar abortion laws, fertility and contraceptive use, or the average rate of other countries in the region to which they belong” (pg 8). So, to paraphase: we took very incomplete data and adjusted it until it seemed correct.

I’m not accusing the authors of this paper of falsifying information; I’m just calling attention to the fact that these numbers are only estimates, and can’t be considered definitive proof of anything. More research, by different authors and using different methodologies, would certainly help here. In the meantime, we can’t throw common sense out the window. By analogy – if rape were made legal, would any woman ever enter a club or walk home alone again? If murder were legalized, wouldn’t you consider hiring a personal bodyguard? We expect laws to affect human behavior: that’s one reason we make them. It’s not foolish for a pro-life advocate to believe that legalized abortion has in fact resulted in more abortions.

Despite my reservations about this particular paper, I have to acknowledge, though, that there are many factors that affect demand for abortion, and merely banning the procedure is a far cry from creating a culture of life. Reducing numbers isn’t a sufficient argument to support pro-life laws. So why do I still believe that being pro-choice isn’t neutral ground? Aren’t I forcing my moral values on others?

Legalized abortion is often defended on the grounds that we shouldn’t legislate morality: but frankly, we always legislate morality, insofar as we pass laws to promote the common good and enable us to live in society. Laws reflect what we believe that ‘good’ is, and speak to the nature of reality and how a life should be lived. How is that not morality? Another comparison: the Russian parliament recently voted to decriminalize some kinds of domestic violence. Supporters of the new law say it protects parents’ rights to discipline their children, while opponents say it’s giving wife-beaters a hall pass. But if you’re trying to protect women from domestic abuse – can you call this law neutral? Opponents would say of course not, because it allows the exploitation of the weak and disenfranchises the abused. It says that the right to discipline one’s family overrides said family’s right to be protected from abuse. A law that allows abortion likewise would have to rank ‘goods’ in declaring that the good of personal autonomy for adults outweighs the good and rights of the unborn. That’s not neutral. To call it so is to pretend that the act of abortion only affects the individual, not the common good – when to the pro-lifer, at least, it has far-reaching effects on society.

In theory, abortion access is good for a woman’s rights because it gives her the absolute right to determine what goes on inside her own body. In practice, though, it seems to be the opposite of equalizing or liberating. Easy abortion access can hide and enable incest or sexual abuse, while sex-selective abortion disproportionately targets unborn girls. Abortion can go hand-in-hand with racism and ablism, as it was promoted historically with eugenicist aims, seeking to reduce minority populations or targeting the disabled.  Then there are the women everyday being pressured by others to just take what seems (to everyone but the woman who actually has to undergo the ordeal) the easy way out. This doesn’t look like autonomy or the common good.

I understand that the above examples are merely anecdotal evidence, and the anecdotes can cut the other way, too. Like I said above, correlation is not causation, and it’s difficult to say which attitudes are caused by abortion being legal and which simply coincide with it. But regardless of cause and effect, a law at the very least seems to have a normalizing effect on a behavior by defining what we see as permitted, and therefore ordinary and socially acceptable, behavior. I oppose legalized abortion because I don’t want to normalize the idea that women’s fully functioning reproductive systems interfere with our ability to be equal. I don’t want to normalize an attitude that makes the mother the enemy of her child. I don’t want to normalize an injustice: to promote abortion in the name of women’s equality seems inconsistent to me, as if to say: “we’re all equal, but some of us are more equal than others.” The weak, the helpless, are treated as less deserving of respect than the able.

The pro-choice argument often runs that men have control over what they can do with and inside their own bodies, so women ought to have the same privilege. Unfortunately, men can’t ever have another person growing inside said body, so equality in the sense of being-the-same simply isn’t possible here. Indeed, the convoluted violinist analagy (which has its own logical problems) defending abortion just further demonstrates that this unique relationship between a mother and her unborn child truly is a special case. Here are two people whose lives are connected in an extremely intimate way, and the needs of the one will often affect the well-being of the other. Pro-choice advocates try to resolve any conflicts, legally, by granting all the rights and privileges in this relationship to the mother. Pro-life advocates are sometimes accused of being biased entirely for the other side, valuing the baby’s life over that of the mother carrying her. There are certainly laws & practices that can make that the case – say, if women who suffer miscarriages were made to prove that they hadn’t done anything to cause that miscarriage, or if women and their doctors are prevented from inducing a premature labor for serious health reasons. But isn’t there a middle ground? Can’t we recognize that the unborn do have independent rights, but that as long as they are drawing lifeblood from their mother via umbilical cord, that mother should have the autonomy to make most decisions for the both of them freely and without suspicion?

I said at the end of my last post that I had hope for common ground with pro-choice advocates. This is true, but I sometimes find that this hope is easily discouraged. For example, I’m saddened by the exclusion of pro-life groups from the women’s march, but if I’m being honest with myself, it makes sense. The abortion issue isn’t like, say, welfare or emissions caps, which are important political matters but are less pertinent to the feminist cause. In this case women on both sides of the aisle see their views regarding abortion as inherent to their views about women’s rights: on the one hand are those that see abortion as sometimes necessary for a women to be equal (and that personal autonomy is necessary for equality), and on the other hand, those that see abortion as a glaring example of woman being expected to check her uterus at the door if she wants to keep her place in the world. Pro-life and pro-choice feminists will always have this conflict of interest. Perhaps we can acknowledge that to each other as a first step to getting out of neutral and maybe, someday, onto the same track.

 

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