Monday, August 25, 2008

Yeah... An Abortion Post

I don't want to get all political here, or even especially controversial (though it's hard to avoid that with this topic), but I've been thinking about abortion a bit lately, and so I figured I'd post my thoughts.

Primarily I've been ruminating on two pro-choice arguments. First, that a woman should have the right to choose what she does with her body. This is, of course, the central position of the pro-choice side, and while I remain unconvinced, lately I've been having trouble even seeing how an abortion-rights supporter could whole-heartedly embrace this argument (and that's not meant to be an insult; it's just my honest thought-process).

I've had two major strands of thought about this idea: First, we routinely regulate what a person can do with their bodies. And even when we don't regulate we routinely have well-developed opinions about how other people should act. It almost seems to be human nature that we care what other people do with their bodies. I certainly understand the argument from autonomy, but I'm wondering if the philosophical underpinnings there wouldn't unravel with some pressure.

Secondly, with regard to the "woman's body" argument, is a question of just how far that goes. There seems to be a general societal disdain for pregnant women who drink/smoke/eat deli meat, because it can be so damaging to her child. Yet, if people really embrace the "woman's body" argument, then don't they have to be completely hands off with regard to pregnancy behaviors too?

The second general position I've been thinking about is the more laissez-faire abortion approach. I've never understood how someone can say "the woman has to make the decision, so no one else should have an opinion" or the related, gender specific, "I'm a man, so since I will never have to make this decision my opinion doesn't really count and I'll just stay out of it." Why is experience (or potential experience) a prerequisite to a position? Sure, we can qualify those with experience as experts, but only in-so-far as experience is an important element. Surely with a question like abortion other things are going to be relevant, like philosophical, medical, or moral insight. Shouldn't people with views based on those qualifications be entitled - and even encouraged - to share their insights into the problem?

I guess what I'm saying here is that I can respect the pro-life position, and I can respect the pro-choice position, but I have a lot of trouble with the laissez-faire position.

For anyone who reads Zhubin's blog, yes, this was largely prompted by the discussion in the comments section of his latest post.

The summit doesn't differ from the deep, dark valley,
And the valley doesn't differ from the kitchen sink.


Mike said...

I was going to comment on Zhubin's blog, but I figured I would be lost in the shuffle, so I'm glad you picked up the "argument".

"We routinely regulate what a person can do with their bodies." Perhaps, but that still doesn't necessarily mean we should. Can you give an example where we (i.e. the government) do this and it's a good thing? (Admitting that we might very well disagree on said example.)

"If people really embrace the "woman's body" argument, then don't they have to be completely hands off with regard to pregnancy behaviors too?" Honestly, in my opinion, yes, from a legal perspective. We should certainly, through various institutions, encourage proper behavior, but I don't believe in legal enforcement of "pregnancy behaviors".

Which sort of leads me to your laissez-faire argument. I tend to consider myself a laissez-faire type, and I think you misunderstand the position. You ask, "Shouldn't people with views based on those qualifications be entitled - and even encouraged - to share their insights into the problem?" I say absolutely, and that doesn't in the slightest violate a "live and let live" philosophy. Getting advice and critique from friends, family, and professionals is, in the best cases, an essential part of making a life-altering decision. But ultimately, what we laissez-faire types believe is that the decision must be left to the person.

This was typed hastily at work, hopefully there's a coherent thought in there somewhere :)

Zhubin said...

I agree with Mike. I don't think the "laissez-faire" position means you can't have an opinion. Opine away. But with two caveats:

1) At least understand that the value of your opinion is discounted by the lack of your experience with abortion. This applies to any area - I have many insights into Catholic doctrine, from the perspective of an educated man and an outsider, but my opinions over how Catholics should follow their faith is just simply not worth as much as those of an actual Catholic.

2) Share your insights all you want, but the real underlying issue is that pro-life advocates don't just want the microphone for a few minutes, they want control over the woman's decision. Argue your insights all you want - if it changes a woman's mind not to have an abortion, then great, you've made a difference. But to the extent pro-life advocates argue that they should be able to make the decision for the woman herself, that's a nonstarter.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Mike - suicide, drug use, and just about every other prohibitted behavior. I'm not saying they're all good, but surely you can think of some prohibitted behaviors the prohibition of which is a good thing (and if we want to walk down the "effect on others vs. only effect on self" road we can, but I think there are probably behaviors in both categories that you'd approve of). But the point I was trying to make here is that maybe our natural inclination to want to tell people what to do is revealing something that the autonomy argument misses. Maybe the fact that we want to tell people what to do is a reason that we should. There's something there, something within our nature, that directs us to this end. Maybe a further exploration of what exactly that is will reveal more about why we should regulate. I dunno for sure. But it's an interesting thought.

As far as the laissez-faire issue; I didn't mean to include the "live and let live" people in the laissez-faire bunch. I'd say live and let live are pro-choicers. The laissez-faire are people who hold that having an opinion is wrong/pointless. See, for example, Anonoymous's comments on Zhubin's blog.

Zhubin -

To the extent pro-life advocates argue that they should be able to make the decision for the woman herself, that's a nonstarter.

Why is that a nonstarter? We routinely, as a society, make decisions for people. We decide whether or not someone can use drugs, or murder, or gamble, or prostitute themselves, or make income without paying taxes, or any other number of things. What distinguishes abortion from the realm of activities that are subject to regulation?

And I guess what I'm saying about opinion is that I think it makes sense for people to have opinions as to regulations, not just as to whether or not an individual should have an abortion. Heck, it might even make more sense to have an opinion about abortion generally than about whether or not a specific person should. The laissez-faire person that I'm talking about isn't someone who says "hands off" (that's a pro-choice argument), the laissez-faire person is one who says "I shouldn't have an opinion about the government's position on abortion".

Quinn said...

Matt- this would be a wonderful time to ask you again about how this subject should influence a person's choice in the upcoming election, especially if that person is Catholic.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Quinn -

Generally speaking, I think it's just another piece of the puzzle. There are some priests/bishops who think that your position on abortion is the be all and end all. I think those people are wrong, and should re-consult church authority, which says that we're obliged to vote our conscience. Personally, my conscience cares about the well-being of others, and that includes a heck of a lot more than abortion. Does abortion factor into my vote? Absolutely. But it's not the single factor.

This does have my wheels turning a bit, and I might put a full post about it in the near future.

Oh, and you recently got married, right? Congrats!

Mike said...

Matt, I still think you're misusing "laissez faire". True laissez-faire-ness would allow you to express whatever opinion you wanted -- that's what laissez-faire means. But anyway, let's not split hairs over semantics.

Zhubin, you write, "Pro-life advocates...want control over the woman's decision". That's true but misleading. To most pro-life advocates (at least the ones that I talk to), the woman is not at the forefront of their thoughts. The fetus is. They believe they are protecting innocent life, so they only want control over the woman's decision to abort in the same way they want control over a criminal's decision to murder. (This is one reason I wish they would talk more about what the punishment would be for a woman who had an abortion if Roe were to be overturned. Seems to me like it would have to be prison, which troubles me.) There are probably a lot of pro-lifers who are solely interested in controlling women and returning to the days when they were second-class citizens. But most of the ones I know are much more concerned about the baby inside her.

Which brings me to one of Matt's points I wanted to address, where he said, "It might even make more sense to have an opinion about abortion generally than about whether or not a specific person should". I'm not sure it makes any more sense, but it definitely makes the general argument easier for pro-lifers. When you don't take into account individual circumstances, it's much simpler to make a broad sweeping generalization that abortion should be made illegal. Of course, my personal belief is that the decision on whether to abort always depends on individual circumstances. This is why I prefer Bill Clinton's mantra of "safe, legal, and rare." The "legal" begets the "safe", in my opinion. It's the "rare" that's the tricky part, and bringing that about requires approaching things like planned parenthood and sex education with an open mind. I like to think we could reach that point if both sides softened their stances, but who knows?

Finally, I want to applaud your final comment Matt. Ben has heard me rant about voters who vote based solely on abortion, so it's refreshing (albeit not surprising) to hear you refute that position.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Yeah, 'laissez-faire' isn't probably quite the right term. But you do know what I'm actually getting at, right?

I think it's probably also an over-statement to say that there a probably a lot of pro-lifers who are solely interested in controlling women and want to return to the day when they were second-class citizens. I'd actually suggest that it's very few. Certainly more than in the pro-choice camp, but I think ultimately it's a small number.

I think pro-lifers fall into one of two general groups: the group who only care about the fetus' life and the group who care deeply about both the fetus' life and the mother's well-being. One of the primary problems with the pro-life movement is that the second group is so much less vocal, and often their second prong gets lost behind the discussion of the first. But I think there's a wide number of pro-lifers who want everything to be done to help women with unwanted pregnancies, just as much as helping the fetus. I think you can see that periodically in this blog, and just about everyone I know who's pro-life has expressed a similiar position. The problem isn't that pro-lifers overlook the mother, it's that they're just not vocal enough about it.

Finally, to address legal consequences: I don't know that it needs to be prison. That's an obvious punishment, but I think that in cases of unwanted pregnancy there are frequently mitigating circumstances that justify a reduced punishment. I also think that there's a reasonable argument that, although the fetus is a life worth protecting, its value doesn't rise to the level of a full born person, and so that would certainly justify a reduced penalty as well. Maybe social service oriented punishment, like working with children/orphans would be an appropriate penalty for abortion. We've gotta be creative here, since this isn't your run of the mill problem, and the people getting abortions are often in somewhat dire straits.

Quinn said...

Glad to finally see your opinion on the've been a good Catholic far longer than I.

Yes, married, and enjoying the life, thanks.

Mike said...

"I think it's probably also an over-statement..."

Yeah, I know. I should have left out the "a lot". I'm not a fan of pro-choicers reducing the argument to "pro-lifers want to control women", because I don't generally believe that's the case, but I was trying to acknowledge a certain validity to Zhubin's point anyway.

But I like your point about the concern for the mother in addition to the fetus. See, I've always thought that pro-lifers and pro-choicers could find some common ground here -- I think both camps for the most part want to help women faced with unwanted pregnancies make the best decision for themselves and the child. That this includes awareness of ALL the options available (including abortion) seems to be the biggest point of contention. (Hence the reason organizations like Planned Parenthood are mistakenly reviled as abortion factories.) I wonder what sorts of headway moderate members of both camps could make in this arena while the extremist elements shout overhead?

Zhubin said...

My statement didn't intend the connotations you inferred, Mike. Regardless of their motivations, the basic fact is that pro-lifers want control over a woman's decision to have an abortion.

That's also the point where I personally leave the negotiating table. I'm willing to implement any means that we can all make abortion "rare," so long as the "legal" and "safe" prongs are untouched. This talk of how to punish a woman for not remaining pregnant against her will makes me slightly sick.

Matthew B. Novak said...

But why Zhubin? Do you walk away when people talk about punishing a person for putting mind-altering substances in their own bodies? Do you get sick when we punish people for harming others, or for harming animals, or for damaging property? Do you walk away when we decide someone should be taxed? Does it make you sick when we decide people shouldn't be allowed to enter into certain kinds of contracts?

What distinguishes abortion from the realm of activities that are subject to regulation?

I can understand you disagreeing with the particular regulation, but your language so far hasn't been contrary, it's been non-participatory: "non-starter", "leave the negotiating table".

You're saying you're not even willing to engage in the discussion of whether regulating abortion could be reasonable.

Zhubin said...

Matt, you know my position on abortion, and you certainly know why I consider it distinguishable from government regulations over these other areas you mention. If you've forgotten, just google "abortion" on your blog and read the comments. It's not worth rehashing, is what I'm saying - there's nothing new I'll add to what I've said before.

I'm just speaking here with regards to Mike and you pondering about where in the middle pro-choicers and pro-lifers can meet. All I meant to say is that I am willing, out of democratic respect for the huge percentage of our society that in good faith believes abortion is undesirable, to support measures to reduce it. That's my personal common ground - I'll support making it "rare." But I won't accept any criminalization of abortion, so if your expectation of a middle ground includes that to any extent, then we're Palestine-Israeling it here.

Mike said...

Zhubin, that's the point. It's supposed to make you sick. As an avid pro-choicer, you should want pro-lifers to understand the consequences of overturning Roe, one of which would be, we would have to determine what course of action would be taken against women who defy what would then become the law. Most pro-lifers don't really know how to answer that question, and that's the point. I wasn't talking of doing so, I was asking Matt to talk of it, because most pro-lifers dodge the subject.

In my opinion, God forbid we ever take steps to punish any woman for ending a pregnancy. Heaven knows most of them are punished enough emotionally anyway. And thus, in my opinion, God forbid we ever overturn Roe.

Legal, safe, rare. That's the ticket. That's where we will find, if not consensus, then at least compromise.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin -

Sure, I know your position. But it's been a while. I had to go all the way back to March of 2006 before I found any substantial comments from you on the topic, and those were preceeded with "I don't want to rehash the abortion debate". I know, at very least, my thoughts on the topic have continued to grow and nuance. I'd expect the same from you. So it might not actually turn out to be rehashing, but could be quite new.

I'm also going to go ahead and throw out a quote from your last substantial comment on the issue, and my response.

Zhubin: This begs the question of when a fetus becomes a human being, I know. Certainly at birth. Before then, I have no idea, nor do I particularly care.

My response: This strikes me as a particularly interesting view. And frankly, it's one I'm surprised you hold. After all, if fetus is a human being, then the abortion is homicide. Your apathy to this point is astonishing.

In fact, it's so astonishing that I'm gonna throw out a parallel. Back in the day, when slavery was legal, a whole lot of people thought blacks were not full human beings. This was even inscribed in our laws with the 3/5th bit. If you were to say "certainly white folks are human beings, but as regards other people I have no idea, and I don't particularly care", then that would be an awful position. Such a position would help justify treating blacks as property, and not as people. That's a horrible thing. In my mind you must deal with this question. I can understand an argument which says fetuses aren't human beings, but I can't accept a position which doesn't open the inquiry.

Back to the present:

Zhubin, you know I've got a tremendous amount of respect for your views. You're intelligent, insightful, painfully funny, eloquent and accessible. You've got a tremendous amount of integrity and consistency, you take principled stands, you listen to what others are saying, and you address the essential issues.

And that's why I don't get your approach to abortion. You simply refuse to address the question of when life begins (or, more essentially, when life is worth protecting).

I'm perplexed.

I'm not asking you to address the issue here - you're right, it's not the time or place - but I am asking you to personally consider the question. Or consider it again if you have before. Look at it philosophically. Ask the value question: When does life have value worth protecting?

Matthew B. Novak said...

Mike -

I'd argue (and have before) that there's a similiar compromise point that would allow for illegality of abortion. If you can eliminate the "necessity" abortions, then the others are abortions of convenience. There's significantly less reason for those to be legal (and the consequences of a pregnancy/birth are significantly less tragic).

Basically, if you've got an unwanted pregnancy there's two approaches. You can either get rid of the pregnancy or get rid of the unwanted. If we get rid of the unwanted, there's no reason to get rid of the pregnancy.

Basically though, the two compromise points (rare and legal, rarely needed and illegal) are quite close together, and both probably involve comprehensive reform of both the causes and effects of unwanted pregnancies. That's exactly what I've been advocating for some time (and at one point even applied for a grant to write about the idea. Stanford decided they didn't like me I guess.).

Mike said...

I'm familiar with Stanford deciding they don't like someone ;) In my case, it was a GPA under 4.1.

To me the flaw in your suggestion is deciding who determines the "necessity" of an abortion (and its parallel, who defines "necessary"). In my mind, it should be the woman in consultation with her doctor. This is why, while I'm strongly in favoring of sharply reducing the "unwanted" (I doubt we can ever completely "get rid of" it), I prefer keeping the law as it currently is.

Justin Gannon said...

I believe I take a different approach on the subject. Working in the mental health field I see the ways in which people react to prohibited behavior. Addicts will always find a way to support their addiction until they are ready to overcome it, even if it means switching from one addiction to the next (i.e. methadone, doctor shopping for pain killers, sleep aids, etc.).

Abortion is something that has been around for as long as humans have existed. If we as a society should ever prohibit the behavior those who wish will find alternate methods in which to perform the procedure, and I can guarantee you they will not be safe.

For the sake of their own safety I would rather see the procedure performed in a clinical environment by a trained professional rather than seeing them head out to the nearest chop shop to find themselves on the business end of a rusty coat hanger.

On the subject itself, I still argue with myself on the validity of the rights of the woman versus the rights of the unborn. I just don't know where I stand as of yet. I see unwanted pregnancy as something that does not really need to be an issue with the medical technology and knowledge we have today. Preventative measures are widely available, greatly effective and highly affordable.