Even before the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down (34 years ago today), mass media was fond of presenting the abortion issue as a dichotomy of absolutes. For years the shtick was to present two (and only two) viewpoints from the opposite ends of the opinion spectrum. Editorial pages would “balance” an op ed calling for the criminalization of abortion against one advocating no legal restriction whatsoever, for example. On television and radio, advocates of criminalization (let’s call them “crims” for short) would be pitted against advocates of legalization and given eight minutes to shout each other down before the commercial break. [*] As a result, Americans have not had the rational and dispassionate debate we need to have if we’re ever going to reach a consensus.
But this picture is skewed, and it’s becoming more skewed every day. Increasingly, the real debate — not the debate staged by mass media, but the debate the rest of us are having on the web and among our acquaintances — is not between two groups of absolutists. It’s between rational people and fanatics.
Last week Ellen Goodman wrote,
We offer you advance word from the troops preparing for Monday’s annual March for Life marking the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The parade’s theme this year is “Thou Shalt Protect the Equal Right to Life of Each Innocent Human in Existence at Fertilization. No Exception! No Compromise!”
No exception! No compromise! Lots of exclamation points!
It’s true; it’s on their web site.
But gradually, from Terri Schiavo to Plan B to stem cell opposition, the right wing overreached. In that reddest of states, South Dakota, voters in November repealed an abortion ban that echoed the theme: No exception! No compromise!
Meanwhile, pro choice groups spent those same years with their ear to the middle ground, listening to the people who want to keep abortion legal but less numerous. If there are 3 million unplanned pregnancies and half of them end up in abortion, you do the math. The point on which most Americans agree is reducing unplanned pregnancies.
But when it comes to reducing unplanned pregnancies, crims are a tad wobbly.
According to Priya Jain (“The Battle to Ban Birth Control,” Salon, March 20, 2006), crim activists are increasingly opposed to birth control as well. They fight a host of standard birth control methods — including IUDs and the pill — as “abortifacients.” They fight against legislation to provide insurance coverage for contraception. They advocate laws that allow pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions. They spread propaganda about the “dangers” of condoms.
It’s easy to dismiss the anti-birth control activists as being from the deep end of the whackjob pool. But Cristina Page writes (“The War on Sex,” TomPaine.com, May 17, 2006),
The pro-life groups who are the most committed to ending legal abortion—and gotten the furthest in their goals—are also leading campaigns against the only proven ways to prevent abortion: contraception. Shocking as it may be, there is not one pro-life organization in the United States that supports the use of contraception. Instead the pro-life movement is the constant opponent of every single effort to provide Americans with the ability to prevent unwanted pregnancies. If the South Dakota ban is upheld and Roe v. Wade is toppled, it’s safe to say the pro-life movement is not going to send out a brigade to furnish Americans with the most effective contraceptives. In fact pro-life groups’ most recent activities suggest the exact opposite.
Not one pro-life organization in the United States that supports the use of contraception? If you cruise around their web sites, you see that even those groups that don’t explicitly oppose the use of birth control don’t support it, either. For example, you can search the National Right to Life web site for a kind word on the responsible use of birth control until you turn purple; it isn’t there. But as Cristina Page documents, many state chapters have taken firms stands in opposition to any form of birth control.
Is there a corresponding degree of fanaticism on the pro-legality side? Not that I have found. No pro-legality association suggests that abortions should be forced on women who don’t want them. No pro-legality group I know of advocates abandoning the gestational limits on elective abortion set by Roe v. Wade. Not NARAL, not Planned Parenthood, not any of their affiliates. Instead, “legals” work to preserve the legal rights outlined in Roe v. Wade. And Roe v. Wade allows states to ban late-term elective abortions and place some restrictions on mid-term abortions. The notion that Roe v. Wade allows a woman to waltz into an abortion clinic and terminate a third-trimester pregnancy just because she feels like it is not, and never has been, true. Yet pro-legality organizations often are accused of being just as absolutist and extremist as the crims.
Unfortunately, these days crims run the government — Stacy Schiff writes (“Sex and the Single-Minded,” The New York Times, January 20, 2007),
How to get a job in Washington, that balmy, bipartisan town: Direct an organization that opposes contraception on the grounds that it is “demeaning to women.” Compare premarital sex to heroin addiction. Advertise a link between breast cancer and abortion — a link that was refuted in 1997. Rant against sex ed. And hatch a loony theory about hormones.
You’re a shoo-in, and if your name is Eric Keroack you’re in your second month as deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. Dr. Keroack, a 46-year-old Massachusetts ob-gyn, today oversees the $280 million Title X program, the only federal program “designed to provide access to contraceptive supplies and information to all who want and need them, with priority given to low-income persons.”
The loony theory about hormones is Keroack’s contention that premarital sex suppresses a hormone necessary for long-term relationships. (How an endocrine system knows whether one is married or not seems, um, mysterious.)
Even before Roe v. Wade many crims claimed that rape can’t cause pregnancy, which would be a big surprise to the estimated 32,000 or so American women who annually become pregnant as a result of rape. More recently the crims have promoted a much-debunked claim that abortion causes breast cancer. And they’re fond of fudging the phrase “late-term abortion” so that it means second trimester abortions, which is really “mid-term” on most planets.
For years, crims have falsely claimed that abortion causes mental illness. Emily Bazelon writes (“Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?” The New York Times Sunday Magazine, January 21, 2007) that crims have fabricated a connection between abortion and mental or emotional disturbance purely as a tactic to win sympathy for the cause of banning abortion. (See Ann at Feministing and Jill at Feministe for more discussion.)
Crim behavior at abortion clinics is an old story. On Kos Diaries today redmcclain writes in”Why I Escort” about how he handles the lunacy: “My past employment includes stints at a psychiatric hospital and correctional facilities so the verbal barrage bounces off of me.” See also “A History of (Pro Life) Violence” at AlterNet. Read “A Mother’s Story,” about a mother whose daughter died from a back-alley abortion because of parental notification laws, and what the crims did to her —
Bill and I decided to speak out; we thought we could prevent other girls from dying. We appeared on 60 Minutes. The anti-choice crowd came after us. They followed us. There would be crowds of people with their fetuses in a bottle, and some would say that Becky didn’t die the way we said she did. They loosened the lug nuts on our car. In Arkansas, they shot a hole in the building where we were speaking. They cared more about a fetus than about my daughter. I thought, “I’m not afraid of anybody, because my daughter is dead and you can’t hurt me anymore.”
And from this old Mahablog post, read about a woman who went to an abortion clinic —
As I exited the car like some kind of odd celebrity, I wasn’t prepared for the older woman who shoved her face an inch from mine and screamed that I was murdering my baby. I wasn’t prepared for the looks of pure hate, no, the looks that could kill. I seem to vaguely recall being warned not to make eye contact, but I did, and I saw what I thought was someone who would gladly murder me to keep me from entering the clinic.
For too long the “legals” have allowed crims to keep them on the defensive. We’re told we don’t know how to talk about abortion. We’re told we should be more sympathetic to the fetus or to whatever emotional repercussions a woman might experience. The fact is there is no way to talk about abortion without pushing somebody’s buttons, and crims have a lot of buttons. As long as we are supposed to tip-toe around the tender sensibilities of crims, we “legals” are going to look like losers.
Bleep that, I say. Crims are whackjobs, they are out of step with the enormous majority of Americans. From now on, whenever the clueless wonders in mass media talk about the “two sides” of the abortion debate being equally extreme or absolutist, slap them down. Because it’s not even close to being true.
And as far as talking about abortion is concerned, I say the pro-legality side has nothing to apologize for. To talk about any topic related to sexuality is to walk through a mindfield of Issues that will set off somebody. There is no way to avoid this. But we don’t have to be defensive; we’re the majority. 62 percent of Americans support Roe v. Wade. 53 percent of Americans call themselves “pro-choice” (as opposed to 39 percent who call themselves “pro-life”). From now on, let’s put the crims on the defensive. It shouldn’t be that hard.
[*] Of course it’s highly inaccurate and inflammatory to frame the debate in terms of being pro-abortion and anti-abortion. The phrase “pro-choice” isn’t entirely accurate either, however, because where abortion is illegal women still choose to have them; they just have to go underground to have them. And underground abortions are far more dangerous to women. The real difference is whether one believes abortion, including abortion for medical cause, should be criminalized in all or most circumstances; or whether one believes elective abortion should remain legal for at least part of the pregnancy and abortion for medical cause through all of it. For that reason I’d rather talk about criminalization versus legality rather than pro- or anti-choice. But we should not forget that many people fall somewhere in between the two ends of the opinion scale.