Friday, January 18, 2013

To abortion foes

I caught a special report earlier tonight on The Rachel Maddow Show about abortion rights on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Four states — Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota — have only one clinic that performs abortions. These states are down to one clinic each because of intimidation and harassment of such clinics (and, presumably, individual doctors who offered such services) — not just by private anti-abortion organizations, but by the state governments.

Maddow, as most pro-choice advocates do, believes that there is a need for women to have safe and legal access to abortions.

Anti-abortion/pro-life advocates have a very simple and very compelling basis for their beliefs:

Abortions are murder.
The idea that an unborn fetus is as alive as an infant outside the womb is, to put it mildly, a controversial one. Nevertheless, if you accept that idea as axiomatic (it is unprovable given our current level of scientific knowledge, so it must be taken as an axiom if it is taken at all), the pro-life position needs no elaboration.

I am deeply uncomfortable condoning abortion. Nevertheless, I don't know the minds of the women who seek one. I can only call on my sense of empathy to believe that these women did not make their decision lightly. Whether or not you believe an unborn fetus is alive, after all, doesn't alter the truth that aborting it stops a potential child from being born. I think most if not all women would agonize if faced with the decision to abort. The caricature of women casually seeking abortions after heedless unprotected sex, imagery that persists in the shadowy recesses of the pro-life movement, is grotesque and inhuman, and says much more about the cruelty of the speaker than the supposed barbarism of the subject.

Enough of the abstract political blather. Here's my question for pro-life advocates, particularly those in Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota. You want to end abortions. Okay. What do you want women to do instead?

Illegal abortion providers existed before Roe v. Wade, and not because abortion is such a fun or lucrative practice. Clearly abortions fill some need in society. Yet I have never heard pro-life advocates address that need themselves. They only wish to criminalize, or at the very least make practically impossible, the practice of abortion.

New York City Mayor William J. Gaynor (1849-1913) was once asked to address the problem of prostitution in the city. Mayor Gaynor said he would understand if the petitioners wanted him to drown the prostitutes in the East River, but that they weren't asking him to do that: the concerned citizens were simply asking him to force the prostitutes out of New York City, not caring that the prostitutes would simply ply their trade elsewhere.

Mayor Gaynor understood that simply driving an undesirable practice out of your back yard doesn't address the underlying reason for the practice. Do pro-life advocates understand this?

How about trying to understand why some women feel the need to get an abortion, instead of trying to scare the hell out of them and the specialists who try to meet that need?

To my knowledge, the state of Mississippi — which is on the verge of driving its one remaining clinic providing abortion (among other women's services) out of business — is not a paradise for women seeking an alternative to abortion. How much public support (that is, favorable opinion and actual funding) exists there for contraception? What protection is afforded to young women whose spouses, significant others or relatives would punish them for an unplanned pregnancy? How good is the state's foster-child program, or its adoption program?

Are these even the primary reasons women seek abortions? (I genuinely don't know.) Are there other reasons pro-life advocates should address as well?

The dedication to life that pro-life advocates like to display would be a lot more admirable if they didn't focus so singlemindedly on potential life rather than the existing lives of women. If I were a pro-life advocate, I would be a lot more concerned with the big picture of how to make abortion unnecessary, rather than myopically and cruelly focusing on making it impossible.

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