Monday, July 25, 2016

Washing our hands in the abortion debate

It’s one of those periods when lots of people are talking about abortion in the United States. With one political convention over and the other just beginning, pundits and even some real people are thinking about the positions of the two major parties—one absolutely abolitionist, the other nigh on celebratory—and the four candidates. All of this had me thinking a little bit in the gym about not abortion, but the two main positions: Pro-life/anti-abortion and pro-choice/pro-abortion, to give them both their preferred and disdained names.

I don’t want to argue about the ethics of abortion here. I’ve done that before and probably will do so again. I don't want to argue about whether men should have opinions on abortion. I don’t even want to argue about the politics of abortion or what the law should be. My views on all of those questions would be upsetting to almost anyone.

What I want to point out is something I have noticed about many of the most ardent proponents of both views. Now, of course, this doesn’t apply to you necessarily, so you don’t need to explain to me why I am wrong about some or even most of the people who hold whatever view you have. What I have noticed is that there is often a kind of washing-of-the-hands that goes along with both positions.

There are, of course, many people who are opposed to abortion and who work either to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies or to share and alleviate the burden that comes with bearing and raising those children. Whatever your view on abortion, these people show a commitment to their beliefs. 

There is another—I fear, more common—opponent of abortion. There are many exemplars of this sort in the political class. This opponent is adamantly opposed to abortion, but isn’t invested in changing social structures either to lower the number of unwanted pregnancies or do anything for those women who would have to bear the costs of bearing and raising children. They won’t support the kinds of safety nets, whether governmental or private, that would make having children part of a flourishing life. In a real way, they wash their hands of these women who are not their concern. Their opposition to abortion is easy and morally lazy, because it makes no actual demands on them. For them, the right-to-life is merely a negative right that places no positive moral responsibility on the rest of us. 

I think this moral laziness occurs on the other side, too. Of course, people who are in favor of abortion access tend to vote for progressive policies, so they will at least tend to support a social safety net at the governmental level and such things as wider access to childcare. Many of these people also work to help those women who decide to keep their children to thrive. Whatever your opinion on abortion, you should praise such efforts. 

I say that such people will tend to support such policies, but there are also many libertarians who support access to abortion without supporting any of the policies that make it easier for women to keep and maintain their children. There are also supporters of abortion access who are quite happy to see the social safety net shrink; the age of welfare reform in the nineties was also one of demonization of single mothers by conservatives and liberals. That kind of demonization is related to my point. Support for abortion rights can easily bleed into an attitude, if not a belief, that the woman who chooses to keep a baby—even or especially when that decision will impact her life negatively or she can’t quite afford to raise it as well as she or we would like or that child is going to require extra help—should be fully responsible for the consequences of that decision. After all, if she couldn’t raise the child, she shouldn’t have had it. This is an attitude that also washes its hands of these women and their children. (And, it’s an attitude I’ve heard expressed sneeringly by good liberals.) For those in this camp, the right-to-choose is a fully individual right with material support only for one possible choice. It is in this camp, too, that you find the slightest unease with abortion equated with misogyny.

This tendency to let people fend for themselves may be the true American character of individualism: no one's decisions make any personal demands on us. 


Andrew S said...

Not saying I agree with this, but isn't at least some pro-life rhetoric based in a worldview in which people are expected to have personal discipline, with the implication both that someone who doesn't want children should just not have sex, and someone who has children shouldn't expect society to bail them out of this responsibility?

Tyler Hower said...

That's exactly right, but let me say a couple of things about that argument. First, I think it underestimates the way that we are in control of our fates. A woman—because this an argument about the need for the woman to have discipline—might well be responsible and ready to accept a child, but situations can make that much more difficult after conception, e.g., a changed financial situation, tragedies in the family, the discovery that the child is going to be handicapped or disabled or need many surgeries. If you aren't doing something to help those women raise their children, then I'm not sure you were pro-life at all. Second, that argument will only work if you make rape and incest exceptions and I suspect you are going to need to make some other ones, too. Third, if a child is viewed as something like a punishment for misbehavior or a chastisement for a lack of control, then I'm not sure there's anything pro-life in your outlook. It's definitely anti-abortion, but that was part of my point.