Sunday, December 07, 2008

Pushing For A False Center On Abortion

Ross Douthat is not a stupid man, so what am I supposed to make of this? Is there any way to assume that this is offered in good faith?

His editorial starts with a false premise - that factions within the Republican Party are blaming the pro-life movement for its election failure. Initially, it should be noted that when Republican stalwarts such as Kathleen Parker reach the point of being uncomfortable with "The evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the G.O.P.," it is a sign of trouble. Parker doesn't represent the center - she's considerably to the right - but appears concerned about a faction of the party that is unwelcoming to her.

It was one thing, during the election campaign, to turn a blind eye to Sarah Palin's version of campaigning and sneer that anybody who criticized her was "elitist". (Incredibly, Douthat suggests that "post-feminist realities" of Palin's lifestyle make it surprising that she was embraced by the religious right, as if Palin weren't a Pentacostal Christian, and as if he hasn't hear a single word she has ever said.) But now some of those within the Republican party who recognize science, accept evolution, want access to birth control, and see room for a certain level of abortion freedom - and perhaps even want people who are openly pro-choice to be comfortable as members of the Republican Party - are questioning their own fit. As Steven Waldman, co-founder of, stated,
More problematic, Waldman tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross, were Palin's comments about God's will and the construction of an Alaska natural gas pipeline.

"That's exactly the kind of religion and politics-mixing that the founding fathers were terrified of — and with good cause," Waldman says. "The slippery slope is when politicians claim to know what God's plan is, and try to figure out the policy in order to match it up to God's plan."
No surprises here - Republicans like Parker see the factions that reject science and call for a complete ban on abortion rights as "the other" who doesn't really fit with the party, while Douthat seeks those like Parker as "the other". It's silly and dishonest to caricature their concerns as suggesting that "If the Republican Party would only jettison its position on abortion, it would be back on its feet in no time".

Douthat later addresses anti-science factions associated with the pro-life movement,
As for the movement’s supposed antipathy to science and social change - well, no doubt you’ll find more believers in young-earth creationism or divinely ordained patriarchy at a pro-life rally than you would at the Harvard Faculty Club. But here, too, the easy stereotypes are increasingly detached from reality.
How does a factual description of people Douthat concedes actually exist become an "easy stereotype"? Douthat presents the following argument to suggest that it's unfair to view pro-lifers as anti-science:
For example, we’re coming off a decade in which pro-lifers responded to the embryonic stem-cell controversy by becoming better versed in the relevant science than their miracle-cure-promising opponents. They insisted, presciently, that scientific advances with non-fetal stem cells, rather than legal restrictions, would eventually offer a way forward.
Except for the fact that their early arguments, parroted by President Bush, were false and held back scientific research. And the subsequent arguments have been variations on a theme - that if we wait long enough we'll see alternatives to fetal stem cell research that are just as good as fetal stem cell research - something that's every bit as "miracle-cure-promising" as believing that stem cell research will bring about immediate miracle cures. Douthat sees every headline suggesting an alternative source of stem cells as vindication for obstructing science; but he neglects to mention that "we're not there yet".

Further, people who hope for miracle cures from stem cell research are not necessarily pro-choice or pro-life. Often they're people who are hoping for a miracle cure for themselves or a loved one. They're egged on by sensational media coverage of potential developments in medicine, just as Douthat is egged on by every article that suggests we will eventually be able to perform unimpeded stem cell research with stem cells derived from non-fetal sources. But neither side is giving any real heed to the science.

But beyond that, Douthat has changed the subject from the anti-science pro-lifers he admits exist, to another group that uses a lay understanding (and oversimplification, and often misunderstanding) of science to argue against stem cell research, without showing that there's any overlap. He presents no evidence that the anti-scientific factions of the pro-life movement have shifted even slightly in favor of science. There's also a maxim he has surely heard, "Even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose." It's one thing to learn to recite "scientific arguments" in favor of limiting stem cell research (or opposing the theory of evolution, or arguing that men and dinosaurs simultaneously walked the Earth), and quite another to actually understand and argue from science.

Douthat whinges that the pro-life movement is familiar with the criticisms of Parker and others:
Most abortion opponents can recite the litany by heart. Their movement should focus on changing hearts and minds, rather than the law. It should be more consistently pro-life, by helping human beings outside the womb as well as those within it. It should cease trying to roll back the sexual revolution and standing athwart science yelling “stop!” And above all, it should be less absolutist, and more amenable to compromise.
But Douthat next attempts a sleight of hand, claiming "pro-lifers have already taken much of it to heart"
Compromise, rather than absolutism, has been the watchword of anti-abortion efforts for some time now. Since the early 1990s, advocates have focused on pushing largely modest state-level restrictions, from parental notification laws to waiting periods to bans on what we see as the grisliest forms of abortion.
That's false, and Douthat writes about these issues with sufficient frequency that he has to know it's false. While there are unquestionably people within the pro-life movement that have embraced goals that fall well short of a reversal of Roe and a national ban on abortion, the largest pro-life organizations and their leaders unabashedly advocate for a 100% ban on abortion. How did Operation Rescue, for example, describe its goals in South Dakota?
Let there be no mistake. The Abortion Bill is an incremental approach to a ban on abortion. It does not represent the total ban sought by many for the sake of the unborn child, but it creates a prohibition of those abortions we can achieve at this time while laying the foundation for the long term goal of an abortion-free America.
So, basically, a law that came close to banning abortion and required doctors to make a highly misleading and inflammatory statement to women in order to discourage abortions, even if they believed it to be medically, factually and legally wrong, was part of a larger scheme to effect a complete ban. And this, to Douthat, represents "largely modest state-level restrictions"? Would he respond that it's an "exception" that is somehow beneath his notice?

Douthat makes no mention of contraception rights, and opposition to contraception and "the morning after pill" within the pro-life movement. Doctors should have the right to choose not to provide accurate, valuable medical information to their patients, without warning them up-front, "I'm pro-life and I won't fully inform you in relation to your legal choices"? And that "right" may even extend to informing patients about birth control? Again, where's the compromise? For that matter, does Douthat support broad contraception rights, given that in his book he is scornful of contraception and its effect on society? What's his level of "compromise" on that issue?

Douthat also describes the conflagration over "partial birth abortion" as "bans on what we see as the grisliest forms of abortion". I recognize that this was sold to the public on the basis of gore, but what sort of basis is that for public policy? Have you ever seen a cesarean section? The surgeries to treat severe craniofacial disorders such as Crouzon Syndrome? A pneumonectomy to remove a cancerous lung? When a doctor devises a treatment that he considers to be the best for his patient, the concern should never be whether somebody might pop into the surgery from the street and find it "grisly".

As for Douthat's claim that efforts have largely shifted from a "culture of (sometimes violent) protest" to "pro-life energy is being channeled into grassroots efforts, from crisis pregnancy centers to post-abortion counseling", how exactly do those "crisis pregnancy centers" typically work? Mostly, it seems, by masquerading as objective providers of information and assistance, then attempting to indoctrinate pregnant women with pro-life propaganda. You don't believe that they're out to lie and deceive? Then tell me, why of all names did pro-life propagandists start publishing under the name "":
Abortion... When is it safe?

No medical procedure is 100% safe so the answer is never Completely,
and less safe than many procedures. To be 100% safe don't have one.
Risks are:
  • Severe Bleeding
  • Having problems in future pregnancy
  • Becoming sterile
  • Needing a Hysterectomy
  • Not completing the job
  • Severe infection
  • Developing Breast cancer
  • Psychological issues
  • Death
Is there truly a moral high ground in spreading falsehoods and using dishonest scare tactics? Also, as Steven Waldman suggests, those of faith who argue for abortion reduction over anti-abortion absolutism are, in many pro-life circles, viewed as allied with the enemy. Where can I find Douthat putting in their place those of his pro-life peers who accuse Obama of supporting infanticide?

In relation to the Supreme Court, Douthat questions whether the pro-life movement can stop attempting to impose "an abortion litmus test for Republican presidential nominees", and then suggests that the real problem is "the inflexibility of the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence." He argues that there are many alternatives to the U.S. model of abortion rights, an argument he's made before:
The trouble with seeking common ground on abortion is that the legal regime enacted by Roe and reaffirmed in Casey permits only the most minimal regulation of the practice, which means that any plausible "compromise" that leaves Roe in place will offer almost nothing to pro-lifers. Even the modest restrictions that prevail in many European countries (and that, not coincidentally, coincide with lower abortion rates) are out of the question under the current legal dispensation.
Did you catch that? Things coincide with each other, but not by coincidence? He's an editor, and he didn't catch that? Or was that the best alternative word he could find for "correlate", and he wished to avoid telegraphing that he is arguing that correlation equals causation. Douthat seems predisposed to present sweeping claims as fact, without any indication that he's actually tried to find out if what he's saying is true. Another consistency? If he has evidence to support his sweeping claims, he is consistent in his failure to present it. Perhaps somebody whispered a few facts in his ear, as European policies don't merit mention in his Times editorial.

Douthat next feigns interest in compromise:
The public is amenable to compromise: majorities support keeping abortion legal in some cases, but polling by CBS News and The Times during the presidential campaign showed that more Americans supported new restrictions on abortion than said it should be available on demand. And while some pro-lifers would reject any bargain, many more would be delighted to strike a deal that extends legal protection to more of the unborn, even if it stopped short of achieving the movement’s ultimate goals.

But no such compromise is possible so long as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey remain on the books. These decisions are monuments to pro-choice absolutism, and for pro-lifers to accept them means accepting that no serious legal restrictions on abortion will ever be possible - no matter what the polls say, and no matter how many hearts and minds pro-lifers change.
Unless I assume that Douthat has absolutely no familiarity with the court rulings in Roe and Casey, how can I regard that as anything less than intentional dishonesty? Roe gives broad protection to first trimester abortion rights, but allows for significant state regulation beyond 12 weeks. Casey reviewed several state restrictions on abortion rights - parental consent, "informed consent" with 24-hour waiting periods, spousal notification, and certain reporting requirements on abortion providers - and found only the spousal notification requirement to be impermissible. There's obviously a lot of room for regulation that makes it difficult for many women and girls to obtain abortions, even as the basic right is upheld. Fundamentally, Roe isn't much broader a protection than exists under the "modest restrictions" Douthat describes as being in effect with Europe, where abortion is generally available during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy (although a woman may have to recite a talismanic phrase, such as "I'm in a state of distress", in order to trigger that right).

There's really only one reason to wish to overturn those cases - to open the possibility to a complete ban on abortions. That, of course, is Douthat's personal goal, so it should be no surprise that it's his conclusion. But what a treacherous web he weaves in trying to make his maximalist position consistent with "compromise". Was he chuckling when he wrote "that if Americans want laws that better reflect their muddled sentiments on abortion, it is pro-choice maximalism, not the pro-life movement, that’s really standing in the way"?

There are highly principled people on both sides of the abortion debate, presenting cogent arguments. The majority of Americans are torn on the issue, respecting that there should be some basic right to abortion but being uncomfortable articulating what that right should be or what restrictions should be allowed. Women who face abortion still face stigma, and thus even in largely pro-choice communities it's often kept secret. Within this context, it is a shame that Douthat is choosing to be disingenuous, as his brand of faking moderation while working for an abortion ban makes it much harder from those who are trying to reach honest compromise.

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