Thursday, March 03, 2005

Abortion as freedom

In a useful article in Dissent, Carole Joffe summarizes how progressives should think about moving forward on reproductive rights in the current political climate.

Joffe's basic point is that the narrow issue of abortion rights needs to be contextualized (or "reframed" as her fellow Rockridge Instituters would have it) in wider terms as a matter of reproductive rights. There was one turn in Joffe's argument I considered especially interesting, because it shows the connections between the economic issues and the cultural issues that divide the country:

Eugenic ideas have made a comeback of sorts in the aftermath of the landmark welfare reform bill of 1996. That reshaping of welfare has put time limits on receipt of assistance, imposed "family caps" that restrict the number of children a particular welfare recipient can claim, and above all, reinforced the message that one should only have children that one can afford. Indeed, though abortion rates have recently declined for most women, the one exception to this is low-income black women, and this rise in abortion appears to be closely related to welfare reform.
I'd like to see this point argued and evidenced a little more compellingly. But let's for the moment assume that it is true that cutting off of child welfare support for poor women has in fact resulted not so much in poor men and women amending their sexual behavior (as sexual reactionaries hope), but rather simply in the aborting of the unwanted pregnancies that inevitably ensue--pregnancies they might have taken to term if child welfare had been available to them. In short, so-called "welfare reform" has made more of the pregnancies that happen to poor mothers be unwanted. (This also resonates with international evidence: in general, in OECD countries, the stronger the welfare states, the lower the abortion rates.) This observation suggests a useful wedge strategy for Democrats: talk about the welfare state as a way to hold down abortion rates.

One problem with this strategy is that it implicitly cedes the moral ground on abortion, i.e. it admits that abortion is a bad thing that should be mitigated.

While I am unconvinced by Joffe's claim that an effective defense of abortion rights requires overcoming this moral stigma, she is surely right to connect abortion rights to the defense of sexual liberation (e.g. "the pursuit of happiness"). In any event, removing the moral stigma of abortion would certainly require (as a necessary though not sufficient condition) that Americans admit their commitment to sexual freedom, and to communicate operationalize this freedom requires a defense of abortion rights.

But it's hard to know how this would work politically. Could an American politician look the American people in the eye and say, "How many of you had sex before you got married? If you'd gotten pregnant or gotten the girl pregnant, would you have wanted to be forced to have that baby, to spend your life raising that child with that person you had sex with?" Surveys consistently show that American in practice absolutely and increasingly embrace their sexual freedom and make use of that freedom: 72% of kids have sex before they leave high school, and only 24% of people in 1996 said they considered sex before marriage immoral.

Despite these statistics, it's hard to overestimate the degree of latent sexual guilt and attendant hypocrisy that courses through our culture. Will Americans put up with being told, "Look, 90% of you had sex before you got married, and the only difference between you and the women who want abortions is that you're lucky your activity didn't result in a pregnancy. 'Let he who is without sin among you...' etc. etc." No doubt it would be possible to find a less offensive formulation of this observation, but even so, I think this is a tough political sell. But still, there should be people out there saying it, if not the figureheads of the Democratic Party. Simply articulating and rearticulating the point can move the moral sticks, as it were.

What would it take to recast our ethical culture so that people would recognize that the greatest moral imperative is not to abate sin, but to abate suffering?


Anonymous said...

One of your most useful posts yet, in my opinion. Re ceding the moral ground on abortion rights: so what? Those who favor freedom to abort (myself included) ought not to exacerbate their tough sell by trying to claim moral rectitude on top of it all; 1) abortions (late term especially) are ugly and messy enough to warrant a considerable degree of revulsion, and 2) the social benefits of allowing abortions to take place in a legal context are their own justification. So there's your wedge strategy: abortions are disgusting and unfortunate, all the more so when illegal, and the best way to minimize abortions is to reinforce the services of the welfare state. That should get the wingjobs going.
Regarding your last point, "What would it take to recast our ethical culture so that people recognized the greatest moral imperative is not to abate sin, but to abate suffering?" I think the question answers itself. C'mon, you've read your Nietzsche. It would take abandoning sin as a concept, i.e. the jettisoning of religion. About time, too. -- Lars

zachawry said...

I agree with your points individually, but it's hard to see what you're getting at.

This observation suggests a useful wedge strategy for Democrats: talk about the welfare state as a way to hold down abortion rates.So you are suggesting what? Democrats should advocate giving poor people more money so they can have more children? (So, like, people could come up to City Hall and say "Hey, I had unprotected sex last night and I'm below the poverty line. Give me ten grand to raise this baby or I'm headed to the clinic!")

This not only sounds stupid, it is stupid. You have to mean something else. What is it?

Anonymous said...

Wow, Zak, I never really saw the reactionary streak in you before! How about this take instead: Democrats should advocate giving poor people more money so as to improve ther chances of participating in the American dream (you know, life, liberty, etc.) Oh yeah, and doing so might lower abortion rates, too. How is that a bad thing? Your vision of the empoverished masses marching on City Hall is amusing, but surely you don't mean for it to be taken seriously (you don't really think that would happen, do you?)What is it you're saying? People should be required to have some minimum level of income before being allowed to have children? How much do you admire China's childrearing policies?

zachawry said...

Obviously I was being facetious in the attempt to point out that was Nils was advocating doesn't make sense.

His post reads that he is advocating using abortion and welfare as a "wedge issue". What he doesn't quite come out and say but seems to imply is that people should be given more money as a direct disincentive to have abortions, as though it is in the interest of the state to subsidize the raising of poor children for the primary purpose of reducing abortion rates.

No sane person could argue this. It goes way above and beyond the purpose of welfare of guaranteeing a basic level of income people can live off of, a social safety net, which I thoroughly agree with. Since I don't believe Nils is insane and advocates increasing welfare payments to poor families to prevent them from having abortions (I thought we were pro-choice?), I wonder what he actually was saying.

It's fun being called reactionary, though...

Zak Braverman said...

A simple formulation to clarify matters:

A) Abortion: a (sometimes necessary) evil.

B) The government preventing necessary abortions: even more evil.

C) The government paying welfare families who ordinarily would have abortions (because they can't afford to have kids) not to have abortions: also pretty damn scary.

The government should not be a factor in family planning one way or another. I guess in some eyes this would make me reactionary, but...