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June 13, 2005

How important is abortion, really?

Stormcoming has a brilliant defense of abortion as a core plank of the Democratic platform. Dr. B saw it first and set it up beautifully:

[SC's essay is] in response to a stupid post by Markos basically saying (like Drum before him, and like a lot of other people) "stop making so much noise about abortion, ladies, you're scaring the voters and it's only a fringe issue anyway."

This post is an an attack on the bad arguments that make pro-choice Democrats sell their own ideals short.

(1) The abortion issue is costing us elections. If we take a hard line on abortion, we'll never get power and we'll never get to implement any of our agenda.

First off, it is a myth that abortion is a net vote-loser for the Democrats. Scott Lemieux explains:

It's common to hear people--often for ideological reasons--claim that the Democrats have been hurt badly by their abortion stance, often using the stratgey of collapsing abortion into a general category of "cultural" issues. This disregards the fact that the Democratic position on abortion is highly popular. The public supports Roe v. Wade by a 2-to-1 margin, and has consistently favored legal first trimester abortions since 1967. In addition, it's worth noting that Dems who make this argument generally focus on votes lost without considering votes gained. It is extremely unlikely that New York and California--which keep Presidential campaigns competitive for Democrats--would be solid blue states if the Democrats weren't pro-choice, as the ability of pro-choice Republicans to win state-wide office in these states makes clear.

Factual misconceptions aside, there's a lot of conceptual confusion about what it means to say that choice is "a core Democratic value."

Often Democrats who say abortion isn't important are really just saying that it's not worth cutting off our noses to spite our face. As they see it, we can be pragmatic and viable, or purist and sidelined.

Their position is only tenable given the false empirical premise that choice is costing the Democrats. Notice, however, that this arguments says little, if anything, about whether choice is a core Democratic value.

You could run the same argument on any issue. Arguably, it's not worth shutting ourselves out of power over Iraq, civil rights, the social safety net, or any other core Democratic objective. But nobody uses that form of argument to show those other issues aren't core Democratic values.

The fact is that pro-choice principles don't hurt our electability. We simply don't have to compromise on abortion in order to implement the rest of our agenda. If nominally pro-choice Democrats want to downplay the abortion issue, they'll have to provide more substantive reasons.

2. Abortion isn't as important as [Social Security/defense/labour/trade/the environment/...]

Democrats also downplay choice for non-strategic reasons. When they do, they often succumb to the zero-sum fallacy and/or to defective cost/benefit analyses.

Once you get beyond electoral strategy, it's silly to argue about the relative importance of choice vs. Social Security (or any other core Democratic objective). It's just not a zero-sum game. At the policy level, abortion rights don't take anything away from any of our other core policy objectives. It makes sense to argue about the relative importance of two very expensive programs when you can only afford to fund one, but abortion rights aren't expensive or difficult to maintain. Democrats would just have to keep up the popular status quo. So, being resolute on choice is a minimal investment with a large and certain payoff. Democrats shouldn't worry about whether abortion is "more important" than Social Security. We can have both.

The second confusion arises from misapplication of cost/benefit analysis. When people argue that abortion isn't really important, they're often implicitly making utilitarian arguments about the number of people who stand to benefit from program X vs. the number of women who need abortions.

You can't measure the full value of abortion rights by estimating the number of forced pregnancies prevented per year. By that limited measure, abortion rights seem to benefit relatively few people per annum. Only a small minority of women get pregnant in any given year, and only a fraction of these pregnancies are unwanted. So, some Democrats conclude that it's frivolous to fight for abortion when other issues like Social Security affect so many more people.

If you want to understand the full utilitarian benefits of abortion rights, you have to consider the benefits of having the option. Not taking the value of choice itself into account is like saying fire insurance is worthless because you'll probably never collect any money from your policy. Such an analysis ignores the huge utilitarian benefit of peace of mind. Fire insurance doesn't just benefit the people who lose their homes, it also improves the lives of the vast majority of policy holders whose homes don't doesn't burn down.

If there were no abortion, unwanted pregnancy would hang over the head of every sexually active couple, not to mention every parent of a teenage child. The fear of having your life derailed by a slipped condom or a missed pill is not trivial. Moreover, bodily integrity is essential to human dignity and hence to quality of life. When abortion rights are abrogated, every woman is demoted and demeaned, not just the women who happen to need abortions.

Ironically, if abortion weren't a core Democratic value, we wouldn't have so many of these "strategic" arguments.

If abortion weren't a core Democratic value, we'd be debating whether abortion is right, not agonizing about whether pro-choice politics are expedient.

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Comments

While I'm inclined to agree with Emerson re: Chafee, whether or not he's a good guy is irrelevant in the extreme. For NARAL to not see that getting the Dems in control of the senate (or presidency or house, or more than one) sooner rather than later is extremely important for their issue suggests that they're strategically on auto-pilot, and that's a highly charitable interpretation. I didn't much care for Kos's post, and he's certainly got blind spots as a strategic thinker as well, but even given his antipathy for women's issues I'd put him in charge of strategy for protecting reproductive rights over NARAL seven days a week and twice on Sunday.

Wait a second. When did I ever imply that abortion wasn't an important subject? I consider it a core issue of human freedom.

It's true that I have mixed feeling about notification laws, but I'm pretty sure that's about the only point of difference between me and NARAL on the subject.

I think the reason the abortion issue plays against the Ds when the majority supports its legalization is that fact that abortion rights are current based on Roe v. Wade, not a statute.

Many people feel the freedom to support Rs while knowing that there will be no (major) abortion or sex law consequences. Partial birth ban stayed, only parental notification for minors appears able to pass "Constitutional" scrutiny. Why are you worried about pro-life Ds. They can't pass a law to ban abortion, such laws are now illegal.

But if they were legal, then there would be a terrible cost to those suburban mothers--pregnant teenage daughters with no solution.

Until Bush became a lame duck, social security was off the table. Now the Ds are doing really well in the polls in part because the Rs are being forced into pursuing their own unpopular position--eliminating the New Deal (a statute!).

I believe abortion is a fundamental human right. But that does not mean it is to be divined from the Constitution. The Constitution does not require murder to be illegal. We choose, as a democratic society, to make murder illegal.

The costs of going state by state to pass laws to make abortion legal and fight ones that try to restrict it could be terrible on many women. I am content with the Roe v Wade status quo too, and am not sure the cost of eliminating it would be worth the benefit. But it is worth considering and there is the pure legal aspect.

Just because something is right, like outlawing murder, does not, ipso facto, mean it is in the US COnstitution. Sometimes we have to rely on ourselves and our democracy, not the divined intent of our benevolent, slave-holding, Constitution writers.

Something to think about. I think many Rs, men and women, would be forced to vote D when their party becomes the party opposed to all non-reproductive sex. When they are forced to smuggle condoms from CA to KS. The Rs are anti-sex now, but SCOTUS has saved them from themselves. Sometimes when the Rs have more freedom to consider legislation, they do us big favors. Without SCOTUS holding them back, the R leadership would be forced by their reactionary base to introduce legislation to ban the pill and condoms. Imagine the PR coups for the good guys.

Also, before anyone attacks me and passionately defends Roe v Wade, they should read it first.

I'm willing for abortion to be a litmus test, but I dislike anyone who strong-arms me (or kos) on that issue while being willing to cozy up to Chafee on many other issues. Chafee is not a good guy. This is not an imaginary problem.

I don't understand who strong-armed you John. Here's my view in a nutshell: Blind allegience to the Democratic Party may or may not be the best strategy for me to achieve my policy goals. But I'll make that decision according to my own calculus. Other people, I expect will do the same, and it doesn't surprise me if they reach a different conclusion on whether blind allegiance to the Democratic Party is the most effective strategy for them to reach their goals. I know that's heretical to the Kos wing of the liberal blogosphere. It's also heretical to the DLC wing of the party. But those are the people living in bubbles. Not me.

I agree with Lindsay, the Chafee move was a debacle because the GOP just put in a whole bunch of anti-abortion activists on the Federal Bench. The GOP moves as a block.

Part of the difficulty with the "Prochoice" label is that the Dems have let the Neocons frame the debate. Barry Goldwater was "Prochoice", which is not to say that his position was proabortion. He felt that it wasn't the business of the Federal Government to intrude on people's lives and make those kinds of personal decisions.

I fall into this camp and for me personally it isn't a question of "potential life" that is important. To me it is self awareness, sentience that is the issue. Forget the "ensoulment" arguements, I find them to be unprovable.

The question was raised earlier in this thread about late term abortions. Its a grizzley process by any description and I personally thought that surely there can be no justification for such a procedure.

I had just cozied up to the legal prohibition of this when I was driving in my car and I heard a story on the news. The wife of a National Guard soldier in Iraq was carrying twins. The doctors told her that the umbilical cord of one had wrapped around the neck of the other and it was brain dead. They told the mother that if she didn't have the brain dead fetus aborted it would put the other twins survival and her own life in jeapordy to the extreme. The doctors, however, wouldn't do the procedure for fear of being charged with murder.

At that point I came to the conclusion that the decision has to be made by the mother and her physicians and the government should quit trying to play doctor. You can't pass laws that can cover every medical situation.

As to is "prochoice" a loser as a political stance? Well there is a principle here and that is who is to make the decision... Congress? Right wing religious groups? Not in my opinion... I think the woman who carries the child, her doctors, and the spiritual advisor of her choice (or lack there of if she so chooses).

Jedmunds, what I'm arguing for is not "blind allegiance". (hat's insulting -- I hope you meant it that way.) It's about whether pro-choice people should EVER support a pro-choice Republican against a pro-choice De,ocrat. I say NO! And I've given my reaons.

And NARAL says YES!, and they're creeps.

The Democrats have NOT doubtlecrossed the pro-choice people. But on a lot of issues, pro-choice people HAVE double-crossed Democrats.

Most people who talk of a compromise on abortion are talking about something like what
France and Belgium have (1st trimester abortions are easily available, later-term abortions must meet some standards of medical need)

How is that different than the current situation in the US? We have good, if patchy, access to first trimester abortions. Forty three states have outlawed abortion after viability, but all have to make exceptions for the life and health of the mother. Obtaining a third trimester abortion is largely a matter of finding a state that will recognize your medical need.

Oh wait, I see what you are saying--taking the European model would mean *liberalizing* our abortion regulations. We would fill in the gaps to access to first trimester abortion, and create uniform medical standards for third trimester abortion. The middle ground could stay where it is now.

Of course, that is not a compromise with the right; it is a victory for us.

Most people who talk of a compromise on abortion are talking about something like what France and Belgium have (1st trimester abortions are easily available, later-term abortions must meet some standards of medical need); it seems to me that such a position doesn't compromise women's options too severely, and would help the Democrats.

Er, that's exactly the system we have now: first-trimester abortions are unrestricted, with increasing restrictions in the second trimester and very strong restrictions in the third trimester. The framework was set up in Roe v. Wade and has only been tinkered with in relatively minor ways since then.

Anyone who talks about "compromise" but doesn't realize they're trying to "implement" the exact system we have now is an idiot. Rest assured, pro-life people know exactly what the laws are now and will use that against anyone who tries to "compromise" with the rights we already have.

Wait a second. When did I ever imply that abortion wasn't an important subject? I consider it a core issue of human freedom.

It's true that I have mixed feeling about notification laws, but I'm pretty sure that's about the only point of difference between me and NARAL on the subject.

I think some readers got that sense from your parental notification posts, Kevin. I know I did. I'm sorry if I misinterpreted your position.

I thought you meant that the merits of parental notification was were debatable, and that Democrats should therefore seize whatever political advantage we could get by compromising with the Republicans on this issue.

I saw it as an argument parallel to certain Democrats' suggestion that we crack down on indecency in the media. Most Democrats are at best ambivalent about gross sexism and violence in the media, especially when children might be exposed. Most of us also believe in free expression.

Some Democrats argue that we should back various cultural censorship projects in order to win bipartisan support. When people make these arguments, I often take them as an affront. It seems like some Democrats are patting me on the head and saying "There, there, we all care about free expression in the abstract, but can't you just relax about the First Amendment to win us a few votes in the Red States? Who cares about Janet Jackson's boobs anyway?"

When it comes to abortion, my inclination is to say, "Don't like it? Then don't have one!"

This really pisses some of my friends off. There they are, getting all righteous on the behalf of some pristine innocents, and I just can't see where their interest lies.

The problem is, I can't articulate why they don't have any interest.

What I need to be able to say is something like:

"All the value-added to an embryo is created by the mother; no one else can do what a mother can do: change an embryo into a human being. It's a 9 month process, and a laborious one throughout. Therefore, the decision to create a human being out of an embryo has to lie with the person who can actually create a human being."

For me, as an anthropologist, each individual human being is the product of another individual human being. If you can't honor and respect the power and process by which a few cells become a person, why should anyone listen to you?

Of course, the anti-abortion movement is dead-set on denying women the power to create humans. That has to be reserved for an entity under the control of religious or other social leaders.

[Maybe that's the problem: these pricks try to centralize and control what is by nature a very decentralized process. F#@king commies.]

But none of this is an effective political slogan, and that's what we need: a little clarity, a little salesmanship.


The problem is, I can't articulate why they don't have any interest.

What I need to be able to say is something like:

Dude, you just said it. Say that again. It's good stuff; spot on.

Fritz:

"You split your base and allowed serious religious people to flee the party."

This is a two edged sword. First there are a lot of "serious religious" people who oppose Bush and even ex-Republican congressman Danforth, now an Episcopal minister, expressed his alarm at how the GOP power structure is now dominated by fundamentalist religious radicals.

Nor would I call Father Andrew Greely or the Benedictine Abbess, Sister Joan Chittister casual Christians. Both of them oppose Bush and the Neocons vehemently.

Sister Joan, in a recent correspondence that I had with her was really concerned about the "Dominionist" factions that believe that you can force people to their brand of Christianity and that "Holy War" was permissable.


"People who support the right to abortion mostly do so causually..."

Hasn't much of this thread been devoted to NARAL, who is so militant about the subject that they were ideologically blind to Chafee? NOW? The Feminist Movement? Don't think that anyone would call them casual.

"People who oppose it do so religiosly."

Both sides hit this issue with religious zeal although the fundamanetalist use religious rationals.

A refinement of your statement:


If there were no abortion, unwanted pregnancy would hang over the head of every sexually active couple, not to mention every parent of a teenage child.

If there were no abortion, unwanted pregnancy would hang over the head of every fertile woman. If the hardliners had their way, there would be no abortion provisions for rape.

HelpyChalk and Mnemosyne,

The French abortion laws are considerably more restrictive than the US laws. There are two key differences: first, "medical need" abortions (2nd and 3rd trimester) must be reviewed by multiple doctors, whose decision is reviewable (much like an ethics panel in the US); second, health is defined as physical health only--it excludes mental health. Both these restrictions are impermissible in the current US legal framework.

I don't think it's really fair to say that Roe nationalized the abortion question. Long before Roe, federal abortion legislation would have been completely constitutionally allowable under a Hobbs Act model, and it would be today. Yglesias has made this point a number of times - despite the federalist fantasy most people see from Roe being overturned, I'd bet good money that the immediate likelihood would be at least some type of very restrictive attempted federal abortion legislation. That might be part of why supporting Chafee could make some sense for NARAL - if they're not confident that Roe will survive (which I, for one, am not, and I don't see how anyone is), Chafee could be a really useful guy to have around for their main issue.

I'm not one of the Democratik kool kids who tries to get legal cred by saying Roe was wrongly decided. In fact, the idea that a decision like Roe was flatly impermissible is a horribly dangerous one because of its implications for dynamic constitutional interpretation in general, which protects/could protect any number of other values and interests I imagine most Democrats would like to preserve.

I don't see, though, why you seem to get a scarlet PL affixed to your frock if you suggest that we should look at strategies that would lose Roe but protect other important issues. I'd rather lose 1 than 20 battles over core issues, for now. And we can lose Roe without ever saying abortion is a bad thing - we just might not be wise to be willing to sell the whole village and its livestock in order to make some failing moral gesture to save it.

The French abortion laws are considerably more restrictive than the US laws. There are two key differences: first, "medical need" abortions (2nd and 3rd trimester) must be reviewed by multiple doctors, whose decision is reviewable (much like an ethics panel in the US); second, health is defined as physical health only--it excludes mental health. Both these restrictions are impermissible in the current US legal framework.

I think they are permissible: some states have them, and others have even stricter prohibitions, at least when it comes to third trimester abortions. One of the case studies I teach involves a 12 year old who had to travel from Michigan to Kansas to get an third trimester abortion (after she was raped by her brother) because Michigan law required her to prove that her *life* was at stake, where as Kansas law allowed the abortion on the threat to her mental health alone.

What the French law adds, really, is a consistent framework and opportunity to appeal. This is great, but it is at best tinkering with the current system.

I think the reason Mnemosyne and I got a little pissed off at your statement is that people need to remember that Roe v. Wade is *already* a compromise. It may not be the optimal compromise, but it is better than anything that might come out of deep renegotiation.

Can we stop calling it "Choice"? It's about Freedom, pure and simple. Nothing more American than that.

When abortion rights are abrogated, every woman is demoted and demeaned, not just the women who happen to need abortions.

And it isn't just the woman who is demoted and demeaned; it could ultimately decide the difference between the children the woman already has having an adequate life or not having an adequate life.

Hats off to John Emerson for having the guts to stand here and endure all the rocks thrown his way.

Lets put it simply: was Sen. Chafee of the slightest use to the pro-choice position when it came to approving all of Bush's rightwing judges - all of whom are hostile to NARAL's position on abortion? So why reward him? Would the replace of Chafee and one or two other moderate Republicans with pro-choice Democrats have made a big difference in these fights?

Sorry, but the tone-deafness of NARAL and its supporters to these arguments wins them no friends, and those of us who care about other issues (even as we are pro-choice) will not accept moral lessons from them.

Lets put it simply: was Sen. Chafee of the slightest use to the pro-choice position when it came to approving all of Bush's rightwing judges - all of whom are hostile to NARAL's position on abortion?

Despite what you may think, there's more to reproductive rights than judicial nominations.

People were very civil. I feared much worse.

Alon, judicial nominations is where the action's been at for god knows how long. And with Frist in power hard-right committee chairmen in power, with Chafee's help, nothing good will ever get out of committee. So all Chafee is good for is an occasional NO vote on the floor -- he'll never get a chance to cast a YES vote.

My personal slant on this is that the vote problem is not with the question of choice, but with how it is being sold. Don't expect people to ever think that it is a good thing, because they will not. It is usually viewed as what used to be called a necessary evil, at least in the red states where I am writing from.

The place to sell it and to make political hay is NOT by trying to fight on this part of the issue, but on what happens if it goes away.

The point is that it is not a matter of conjuring images of women dying- it is too easy to ignore these as "them". Better to play to their own paranoia.

Roe v Wade didn't make abotion legal- it said that the government has NO RIGHT to have a say. It would be MUCH more useful to make a statement like:

"I'm pro-choice because if the government
can say you can't
THE GOVERNMENT CAN SAY YOU HAVE TO.
Do you really want washington politicians to have that much power?"

That stopped my anti-abortion minister mother in her tracks (or tracts).

They are the ones worried about government. Lets use it.

I'm also worried about government.

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