Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Poison Pill: Just how toxic is the litmus test for abortion?

I rarely write at length about abortion. It is not that I don't have opinions on the subject, as I do, nor that I do not think the issue is of real importance, I do. Clearly, the debate regarding the right to life of the unborn vs a woman's right to make her own life and medical choices is of real import. The reason I don't write on the topic is because my views have very little to do with the highly polarized consensus reality existing on the topic and I feel that the political debate regarding abortion has very little to do with the genuine issues at the root of the argument. Regardless of their outrage over the possible loss of life of the unborn, the anti-abortion side of the argument is clearly less than sincere in their 'pro-life' agenda. While certain religious groups communicate that agenda quite ably, consistently, and forcefully (as the Catholic Church has done), most political debates on the issue do not.

The Catholic Church's Pro-Life position (and it is the label communicated by the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II that has been expropriated by American anti-abortion activists) is anti-abortion, certainly... but it is also anti-death-penalty, anti-euthanasia, and anti-war. The American political anti-abortion position (though usually accompanied by anti-euthanasia sentiments as well) is most often communicated by conservatives who advocate an aggressive, militant foreign policy and a law and order position that puts great value of the deterrent value of capital punishment. A truly 'pro-life' stance on issues of human life and dignity is rarely offered in US politics and the defense of individual choice advocated by those who do believe in abortion rights is generally presented (dishonestly) as a support for abortion itself. Furthermore, American 'pro-life' groups frequently dismiss the value of life after birth nearly entirely. They frequently oppose welfare, medical programs for children, education spending, health care, or any other programs that effect the quality of life of the human beings in question after they are born. Worse, by opposing medical exceptions, they advocate a 'pro-life' position so stark that a high risk childbirth in which a critically damaged fetus becomes a stillbirth and the mother is left comatose for life as an outcome of the birthing process is preferable to an abortion allowing the mother to live a healthy life.

Despite the 'personal responsibility' mantra of conservatives, they also generally oppose exceptions for rape, incest, and child abuse. 'Personal responsibility' is a poor excuse to force a victim of sexual violence to carry the living reminder of that violence to term just to give the child up for adoption, as valid an alternative as adoption may be. A rape victim did not ask to be pregnant, 'personal responsibility' does not apply. The argument that the unborn is innocent does have some merit, but claiming that society has the right to force the victim of sexual violence to carry a child to term undermines many core conservative principles. Many opponents of abortion, when pressed, admit that they would give their own child a choice were they the victim of violent crime or pregnant with a seriously damaged fetus. There is a dishonesty in this approach. They believe abortion is wrong, but they are less opposed to abortion than they are opposed to sanction its removal from the unpleasant closet of family life in which it has always belonged throughout history.

On the flip-side of the issue, however, many advocates of abortion rights do not give proper weight to the view that life really might begin at conception and certainly does begin at some point in the womb. In their desire to bring it out of the closet and protect the lives, health, and respectability of women and their exercise of the same freedom of life choices as men, they deny the possible humanity of the fetus entirely. While this attitude has lessened over time, and more and more focus has turned to the medical and individualist reasons behind legalized abortion, it is not entirely gone.

Now, this is a biological fact: in order to enjoy the same freedom of life choice as men, women must have access to birth control and this ultimately includes legal abortion. Men do not have to deal with the consequences of their sexual actions in the way that women do, and this affects their sexual choices. Nor has male promiscuity ever been stigmatized in the way female promiscuity has been throughout history. A successful lecher is often admired in his male social circle, and is certainly forgiven minor peccadilloes, while the sexually active woman is branded a 'slut.' This is a clear case of culture prejudice, regardless of what pretty paper one chooses to wrap it in. We can debate the ins and outs of sexual morality for eternity, but the fact that birth control and abortion are necessary for a woman to enjoy the personal, professional, and social freedom enjoyed by men is not really open to argument. One can argue that sex is not treated with its proper seriousness in modern culture, one can argue that women should not have the same personal, political, professional, and social prerogatives as men, or one can stand on a picket line and throw blood on pregnant women trying to make a difficult choice... but one can't deny the biological necessity of birth control or abortion in an egalitarian world. The only possible response is to argue against the value of an egalitarian world.

No one on the mainstream of either side of the abortion debate is willing to face this core fact, though there are extremists on the right who do argue against the position that a society practicing gender-equality is desirable. On the left, however, the extreme response (publicly at least) is not to bear the burden of egalitarian society but to deny that a fetus is life. This is another way of avoiding the issue.

Naturally (to anyone who reads my stuff, at least), I support an egalitarian society in which women enjoy full private and public social and civil rights. This means that I am a strong advocate of birth control and recognize the necessity, for reasons of public health and freedom of individual choice, of abortion.

This brings us to a second important argument. There are those who recognize the necessity of legal abortion, for reasons of public health and individual choice, but do not want the federal government to pay for it in any way. Many pro-choice Republicans (those left, at any rate) advocate such positions. This was John McCain's argument in the past, as well as that of George H.W. Bush. It is, to them, an individual right in which the government has no right to interfere but also an issue of personal responsibility which the government should not support. Of course, McCain has since backed down on his advocacy of this position and achieved a more common Republican anti-abortion position. George H.W. Bush did the same in his bid for re-election.

The problem with this position is that it is based, as many conservative positions are, in the theory that other rights derive from property rights. One has the right to own and acquire property and to do with it what one pleases, but one's freedoms are dependent on one's means... in other words, one's freedoms are incumbent on one's wealth. The rich have more freedoms, the poor have fewer freedoms, and this legal inequity is not antithetical to conservative views of natural rights.

Which brings us to the question of just how the abortion debate and various positions taken by the participants poison nearly every other issue in American politics. No one has forgotten how the question of abortion and birth control invited right wing criticism of the health care programs in President Obama's economic bill. Now the question of abortion is proving equally toxic to the question of health care reform.

This is serious for a couple of reasons. First and most obvious, of course, is the barrier it poses to the passing of comprehensive health care reform legislation. Democrats opposed to abortion rights are threatening not to support the reform bill unless it explicitly forbids providers participating in the national exchange proposed by the administration from providing abortions. Should self-styled 'progressive' Democrats refuse to compromise on this issue, then the health care reform bill would implode as 'pro-life' Democrats defected to vote with the Republicans in opposition to the bill. In the House, this might not make a significant difference. In the Senate, it could.

Second and more importantly, we all know that there will be compromise on this issue. Senate Democrats, wishing to find a consensus policy and seeing themselves as the last line of defense against the 'radicalism' of House liberals, will find a compromise position that will make the anti-abortion Democrats happy with the Senate bill. Even liberals in the House (such as the genuinely admirable Henry Waxman) are talking compromise in the interest of preserving party unity to save health care. The current compromise being thrown back and forth (which I am sure will be accepted in some form) is allowing the participants in the national exchange from providing abortion... but forbidding them from spending federal funds on same.

This is almost certainly going to happen, and one can make a pragmatic argument that it is necessary to save health care. House leadership will need at least some conservative Democratic support to pass a bill. Democratic conservatives in the Senate will have the power to champion the interests of House conservatives and force a compromise that makes them happy. Based on the priniciple (the very true principle) that health care reform is desperately needed and the abortion debate is of less political import (which it is, as a debate solely about abortion in the manner it is seen in Washington) there will be compromise. We will get some kind of health care reform bill and it will improve the situation.

The problem is that the Democratic Party will be validating a key Republican argument... that all other rights are inherently based on one's ability to make use of them as determined by one's property. The wealthy will enjoy access to the exercise of natural rights that those less affluent will enjoy under the law but cannot afford to use. We will go from one health care system in which one's choices are determined by one's ability to pay to another, and we will have reaffirmed the principle that it is legitimate to limit the complete exercise of one's natural rights based on questions of property.

The real problem, of course, is that the Democratic Party does not really question this either. Rather than adopt a bold position of opposition to the conservative position that property rights determine the share of all other rights an individual possesses, liberals waffle on it and centrists unequivocally share it. 'Equality before the law' becomes a patriotic phrase much as 'freedom of choice' and loses its heft as a real idea.

There will always be economic divisions. They are not going to go away. Economic principles of scarcity mean that there will always be more and less affluent and that those more affluent will have priveleges the less affluent do not. This is why the social safety net is so important, and why health care reform is so desperately necessary.

The problem is, you can bet your bottom dollar that Blue Dogs in the House will refuse to consider a 'medical exception.' Which will put the decision squarely in the court of the administration and conservatives in the Senate.

Do you trust Ben Nelson with the life of your aunt, daughter, girlfriend, grandaughter, mother, niece, or wife?

That's what Blue Dogs in the House are asking you to do.

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