Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Thoughts on Abortion

I got to thinking about abortion while reading Freakonomics. Levitt made big news with some empirical work that attributes the drop in violent crime in the late 90s to the widespread legalization of abortion with Roe vs. Wade in 1973. The theory is pretty straightforward – an unwanted son born to a woman not ready to raise a child, and likely to do so without the help of a father, is more likely to be a violent criminal when he reaches his late teens. To the extent that abortion reduces the number of boys born into such circumstances, crime 16 years down the line will be reduced.

It is not a normative argument about the desirability of abortion, though clearly some took it that way at the time. It would be a rather barbaric argument for abortion, and the authors are the first to point this out, saying that it is rather rude to tout the public benefit of a “private sorrow.” And that phrase is what struck me – that abortion amounts to a private sorrow. It seems to me that this a presumption, a big one, on the part of the authors and those with similar sentiments; it is not obvious to me that abortion is a private sorrow for all who choose abortion, and there is substantial evidence that seems to point the other way.

On the National Mall each year there is a pro-choice rally where women hold placards bemoaning the fact that Barbara Bush didn’t have the right to choose, and hawking t-shirts that proudly boast “I had an abortion.” There are those who feel terrible sorrow in the aftermath, and there is even an organized group of such women who try to counsel young women away from the choice, but they are never permitted to participate in the pro-choice rally in any official capacity.

Apparently the sorrow, for some, is permanent and they are willing to make it public to spare others the same, but the pro-choice position is not about making an informed decision, it’s about making the “responsible” decision. The roots of the very movement were eugenicist and racist in nature, seeking to advocate the choice of abortion for those considered incapable of the duties of parenthood, particularly black women. But it has morphed to become a choice that is “right” under any and all circumstances, so long as it is voluntarily chosen.

What kind of person flaunts the choice and wears it as a badge of pride? The familiar bumper sticker is “how can you trust me with a child if you can’t trust me with a choice?” There is a strange internal logic to that bumper sticker that works only under the assumption of an utter lack of kindness on the part of the woman who would think such a thing. The logic is the operative logic of Levitt’s theory: the “right” choice is to abort the baby so that you won’t abuse it as an unwanted child, which would lead only to unhappiness for the kid and perhaps others down the line. It assumes abusing your own child is an unavoidable consequence of having it. The truth is that a woman who thinks such things can’t be trusted with a choice or a child.

That is where the pro-choice position has evolved, but its origins were captured in a slightly different bumper sticker phrasing: “we can’t trust them with a child, so we can’t let them have a choice.” And a large part of that origin still remains. There is a large segment of the pro-choice movement who treat the decision to abort, under certain circumstances, as the moral choice. Whether it be some ailment the child will be known to suffer from, or the socio-economic status of the mother (and it is more often the latter than the former) women are told it is the responsible thing to do. When the attempt is to justify abortion as the right choice, not just for the self-interest of the mother, but for the child, it betrays the deep materialism of the underlying mindset – some lives are worth more than others, and you can tell those worth living by their length and their comfort. If I were an atheist, I’d be right there with them. But I am not, and so I view the materialism of the pro-choice view as a sad philosophy that breeds a culture of death.

The legality of the practice gets so much attention that I think sometimes it obscures the ugliness of the pro-choice philosophy. There is a cold-heartedness to it that it cannot hide behind a banner of freedom as it tries so desperately to do. And the shame of it is this – that young woman, scared and facing the decision that the Supreme Court has granted them, face a culture that is clearly split on the question of the legality of abortion, but fundamentally less split on the issue of the morality of abortion. If I had a dime for every Democratic politician who says they believe it is immoral, but thinks it should nevertheless be legal, I’d be a rich man.

If you believe that, why wouldn’t you be critical of those who advocate the morality of it, who counsel countless women that it is the right choice? It never happens; instead these politicians wring their hands about legislating morality and it being a private choice. When someone claims to be a believing Christian, claims to believe life begins at conception, and then begs off of the issue by saying he doesn’t want to impose his morality on others, I want to scream that it is your duty to try to at least influence people to make the right decision. But for a guy like Kerry, his personal pro-life stance coupled with his laissez faire attitude towards the decisions of others is the equivalent of viewing heaven as being like a posh private school that he is entitled to attend, but let’s face, not all are worthy of it.

We rightly look at a woman who has abused her child and regretted her birth with moral disdain. Should we applaud the woman who, sensing she will do the same, aborts her child instead? I’d like to think that there aren’t many women who fall into this category; certainly many of them who choose to abort could and would be loving parents if they decided otherwise. That’s the choice, and the behavior, that should be encouraged and applauded. Print up t-shirts that say “I didn’t have an abortion.” That should be the badge of honor. As it stands, the “choice” has boiled down in many cases to the crassest of consumer choices.


Blogger Professor Vic said...

Very nice article, Hatch. It's nice to read a pro-life column that is thoughtful and intelligent and that isn't screaming "baby-killer" while waving dead fetus at me.

And by the way, I appreciate your use of the term pro-choice rather than pro-abortion. I'll return the favor by calling you pro-life rather than anti-choice. I'll also try to say something intelligent in reply without waving a coathanger and shouting "back-alley butcher."

I think you'll find many pro-choicers don't think the morality question is quite so black and white as you suppose. I guess I have few moral qualms about aborting a small clump of cells, and therefore for early term abortions, the "cost" side of the equation is pretty small if I may be so crass as to boil this choice down to a simple cost-benefit analysis.

As the fetus grows, the moral cost of an abortion grows until by the third trimester very few abortions would pass muster. That's basically the underlying concept of the current national laws as well.

I think a bunch of pro-lifers probably have a bit of this thinking in them. For example, do you think that fertility doctors, who fertilize a dozen eggs at a time to make sure a couple will be suitable for implantation, should be prosectuted? The other fertilized eggs are often discarded. If you really think that life begins at conception, fertility doctors are among the biggest mass-murders in history. In my book, however, there is a big difference between these medical heroes and Joseph Mengele.

So when you say accuse pro-choicers of believing that "some lives are worth more than others," I would say that indeed that is true. The life of a mother is worth far more than the "life" of a newly fertilized egg, and deep down, I suspect a lot of pro-lifers think so, too.

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hatcher writes, "Whether it be some ailment the child will be known to suffer from, or the socio-economic status of the mother (and it is more often the latter than the former)" . Please. I am tired of this point. Having taught for a number of years in one of the poorest cities in the country, I had my share of middle school students who had no money and no burning desire to be mothers in the seventh grade. And yet, they did not 'choose' abortion, nor was it chosen for them. Instead, they became mothers, some of them several times over before reaching high school, and quite a few of them under less than desireable conditions -ie - their babies were fathered not by their own boyfriends but by stepfathers, 'friends' of the family, etc. And while they may have struggled, most of them were and are good mothers who love their babies. They get help from the school district with daycare so that they can finish school, and they get help from the government so that they can care for their children. I admit it's not an ideal life or system of support, but let's compare it to some of the women I know who have chosen abortion. In college, they were the girls from well-to-do families who just didn't want to deal with the 'hassle' of a baby at such an inopportune time. One girl who lived in my dorm and was from a wealthy North Jersey family wasn't sure who the father was, so she chose to tell the one whom she felt would make the 'best' father, which she defined as the one who could most easily afford to pay for the abortion. I heard that she went on with her life, became a lawyer, and now has a happy, well-planned "American as Apple Pie" family (her words, not mine).

So, I don't think that money has as much to do with choice as some people argue. And according to the obstetrician of a friend of mine (in a private practice with 'upscale' clients), we wouldn't believe how many women choose abortions over the slightest thing (including possible problems with the baby, the 'is it a boy or a girl' factor, a pending move, job change, etc.).

Pro-life or pro-choice, I wish people would be honest about their reasons and stop trying to defend choice in the interest of the 'underpriveleged.' To me, that frequently sounds like a cover up for the 'inconvenienced.'(By the way, one of my former students, whose children are older than my own, was recently featured in the newspaper as she prepares to enter medical school!)

10:21 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

I can't disagree with Anonymous, who makes some very good points, but I will point out that the actual distribution of abortions by socio-economic status, whatever it is, is independent of the use of the poor teenage single mother as the justification for both the legality of the practice, and more importantly for the purposes of the post, for the morality of the practice. Your observation that it is young women (who have much more to sacrifice in having the baby) who are more likely to choose to make that sacrifice only supports my larger point: that the choice, for many who make it, is a selfish one that deserves that label. It doesn't deserve moral indifference, and it is disgusting that anyone would think that it deserves commendation.

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Jim O said...

Excellent essay. Best I've ever read on the subject.
The Professor and anonymous may disagree with specific points of your argument, as may I, but overall your article is the least inflammatory, most well-reasoned article I have ever seen.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Incredible Dirigible said...

Excellent article, Hatcher.

This might surprise you, but as I get older, I have less & less to say about the abortion issue. Typically I just say, "I am pro-life". I feel as strongly about it as I ever have, I really just don't have much else to say about it. Abortion arguments rarely change minds. I believe life begins at conception, & therefore to destroy the embryo is to end the life. To me, the other issues are secondary.

11:14 AM  
Anonymous michael young said...

professor vic, at what point do you decide that the small clump of cells changes into something else? when is that magical moment for you? unless you can answer that definitively, i think your whole theory is very week.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Professor Vic said...

Responding to Mr. Young, I simply can't put a nice number on when a egg becomes a person. That is like asking me when the magical moment when "gray" turns from black to white. Sometimes the real world isn't so tidy that convenient answers easily present themselves, and sometimes the right answer really is "gray".

This isn't necessarily a failing of my argument. It's a realization of the complexities of life.

7:55 AM  
Anonymous michael young said...

professor vic, that was very clever. still, i think you are ignoring what a huge leap you are making from a small clump of cells to a third trimester baby. i don't think your statement was very well argued or thought out. this is not a complexity of life. it is either a life or it is not. it is either wrong or right. not right on some occasions as judged by a cost-benefit equation and then wrong on some other occasions. please don't hide behind cleverness. if you can't pin down a time in the three trimesters that that small clump of cells becomes a human being, than to my way of thinking you must start at the logical point, the conception.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Incredible Dirigible said...

I have to agree that if you assume life begins sometime between conception & birth, the safest assumption (at least for the baby!) is that life begins at conception.

I wonder how a pro-choice politician would be viewed if he said, "I simply believe life begins at birth." I've never heard anyone say this.

6:34 AM  
Blogger Professor Vic said...

I completely agree with both of you that the easiest and safest thing to do is to simply declare that life (or maybe more accurately, personhood) begins at conception. But while that would be the easy thing to do, I'm just not at all convinced that it is correct.

Mind you, I'm equally as uncomfortable with a definition that life begins at birth. That doesn't really fit with my whole continuum of gray argument either. I mean if birth is "black", then in that hour before birth, to quote the great Fletch, "we have a gray area."

"How gray?"


10:28 AM  
Blogger Incredible Dirigible said...

"Ya got the whole fist up there, Doc?"

10:41 AM  
Blogger John Wolfram said...

Well I thought for sure that someone out there would criticize those politicians (notably on both sides of the aisle) who say "I oppose abortion except for cases of rape and incest." Where is the Hatcher on the 'exception' arguments?

I hope the answer isn't "Charcoal"

8:56 AM  
Blogger Incredible Dirigible said...

There are some people who really do disapprove of abortions except in cases of rape & incest (although I'm not one of them, I'm opposed to all abortions based on the 'life begins at conception' premise). But when pro-life politicians say that, often it's sort of like the pro-choice politician who is "personally opposed to abortion"--it is a cushion so that they don't get labeled an "extremist". Being pro-life, I'd vote for a politician who is against abortion except in cases of rape & incest, since as far as the pro-life politicians go, that's typically as good as it's gonna get.

10:40 AM  
Blogger mrbunsrocks said...

I disagree with your opinion, but I admire your ability to state it in such a manner that it is both clear and eloquent. So many pro-life arguments are obscured by a fanatical faith that they are difficult for a non-believer to take seriously.

Thanks for the food for thought!

11:50 AM  

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