Thursday, December 29, 2005

Something New In The Abortion Debate

An evenhanded discussion of the logical aspects of the abortion issue can be found at Asymetrical Information. Scroll down to November 9.

With all the ink that has been spilled over the abortion issue, you wouldn’t think there’d be much new to say.

I have something new to say.

Pro-choice advocates frequently use the language of invasion, even though this makes no rational sense. The clearest expression of this was Cameron Diaz’s TV appearance in the runup to the 2004 election, explicitly equating the pro-life position with rape. Very similar language makes its appearance in prochoice advocacy and fund-raising material. Somehow this resonates with some women. For society to forbid an abortion is perceived as a sexual assault. When something is this irrational but this strongly felt by intelligent women, my initial supposition is that the feelings are not about nothing, but that the attribution (or blame) is misplaced.

The more rational issues of the abortion debate I leave aside here, not because they are unimportant, but because they are covered in many other places, by people far wiser than I. We are unable to get to these rational issues because something irrational, but not necessarily ridiculous or contemptible, is in the way.

Abortions don’t take place in people’s bedrooms. That’s fairly obvious, but the objection persists that the “government has no business in people’s bedrooms.” Initial guess: If I am visibly pregnant, then everyone will know I’m having sex. No one has the right to know if I’m having sex. Therefore, I should be able to have an abortion to prevent this information from becoming public knowledge. That’s not a rational approach to whether someone should be allowed to have an abortion, but it’s not bizarre, either. It’s an understandable sentiment, and may be a more driving consideration among younger or unmarried women.

Note: I am making no attempt here to understand or comment on all the feelings a woman might have when considering abortion. My focus is on this single anamoly or set of related anamolies on this issue of women believing they are being “forced,” in some way, and how this colors the discussion.

Governments do not force pregnancies to proceed. Biology does that. Not-allowing-people-to-stop something is similar, but not quite the same. The phrase “making someone be pregnant” has several possible meanings, but that doesn’t make those meanings logically equivalent. It doesn’t take much sophistication of thought to see that forcible impregnation is simply a different act from staying the hand of someone who wishes to abort. But that connection is powerful for some women, and I don’t believe it is a mere rhetorical device to cheat the argument. Additional guess: Having to continue a pregnancy is reminiscent of the Bad Old Days, when women were culturally “forced” to have children. In the Bad Old Days women were denied status and resources if they didn’t have children, and if a woman were raped there wasn’t much she could do about it. It’s a package deal of old values, and if we can’t have abortions it will be like having to endure rape again. The connection with rape is not logical, but it’s not absurd, either. There is a perceived association of one value with another based on "In the old days, both were more common. Therefore a person holding one of these older views likely holds both of them."

There is also the sense of being invaded by another human being. This accords with the language of rape, even though the baby is clearly not raping the mother. But this presence, this invasion at an intimate level has some analogy to sex. Third guess: I don’t want another person intimately in me without my permission. Being in me without permission is rape. If the government does not allow me to abort, then the government is not allowing me to defend myself against intrusion. Related to this would be the idea that It is intolerable to me to have another person inside me. Therefore, it's not a person.

Less obviously sexual, but carrying some of the same suggestion, is “I get to do what I want with my body.” We don’t mean that about our bodies in actuality, but we do generally mean it about sexual behavior. We don’t believe that doctors should be made to help teenagers pierce their tongues because they’re going to do it anyway and we want them to be safe. We don’t allow people to demand that doctors amputate limbs for no reason. But when it comes to sexual behavior, we are pretty solidly in the camp of "No one should make you do or not do anything. It's entirely up to you."

I have been using the phrases "not logical" or "not rational" throughout. I think I will back off from that here. These associations are not logical in the sense of 2+2=4, but they do fit another kind of reasonableness. On a color wheel, yellow is not red, but the entire path between them is orange. Yellow is close to red in that sense; closer than if you went through green, blue, and purple. I see the connection but less than half understand it.

1 comment:

Steve Burri said...

If they outlaw abortions, only outlaws will have wire coathangers. That's pretty close to red, isn't it?