Invisible Women

Achieving “moral clarity” is easy. First, take a firm and inflexible position on a moral question. Then, studiously ignore any factors that might call that opinion into question. If the factors refuse to go away, make up lies to neutralize them.

See? Nothin’ to it.

If you are foolish enough to take all facets of an issue into account, you risk not being clear. In fact, the more gut-level honest you are about a messy, unpleasant issue, the less clear you are likely to be. And this is a problem for conservatives, who by nature cannot stand ambiguity. One of the most basic traits of conservatives, in fact, is a compulsion to sort the world into rigid binary categories — right and wrong, good and evil, white and black. Any muddling of categories sends them into nervous fits. But once all things and all issues are properly sorted, they can relax and bask in their moral clarity.

Liberals, on the other hand, are far more interested in being fair. Conversely, they hate unfairness. Conservatives will refuse to see whatever suffering or injustice their binary sorting might have created. Indeed, they get mightily annoyed when you bring such things to their attention. But to liberals, any system of “morality” that is unfair to anybody is not moral at all.

The liberal compulsion to balance scales can be taken to extremes. At the far end of the continuum there’s a tendency to assume that which is powerful and privileged must be evil, and that which is downtrodden and poor must be righteous. This is the leftie version of moral clarity. In the real world the powerful are not always in the wrong, however, and the poor are not always innocent. And I felt compelled to write this paragraph because I’m a liberal. I have to be fair.

I bring this up because of a couple of op eds about abortion published this week. The first, by Hugh Hewitt’s blog partner Dean Barnett, was in the Monday Boston Globe. Barnett places much importance on the “great moral question” of when life begins, which I’ve said many times before is a stupid question. Barnett then explicates the abortion issue with the most narrow and rigidly linear logic imaginable and concludes that abortion is immoral. But in true conservative style, he leaves out anything that might complicate his equation. Like women. Digby writes,

This is not the first time I’ve heard this argument and it’s always quite compelling to hear a man make such a stark and simple logical argument about something which others seem to find so complicated. I suspect that is because there is one person involved in this great moral question who is rarely mentioned in such pieces. In fact, if you read the whole thing you will find that this man has managed to write an entire article about fetuses, pregnancy and abortion without even noting in passing the fully formed sentient human being involved so intimately in this that the whole argument takes place inside her body.

The “great moral issue” of when life begins is fascinating I’m sure. Much more fascinating than whether the state can compel people to bear children against their will. But I guess that’s an argument for another day. Today, we are talking about the meaning of “life” and that has no bearing on the vessel that contributes its DNA and lifeblood, incubates it for nine months inside itself and potentially bears its siblings. Certainly that vessel’s personhood and agency is irrelevant to the much greater issue of blastocyst rights. Why even bring it up?

Of course Barnett couldn’t bring it up. It would have muddied his moral clarity.

I spent a large part of Monday composing a response to Barnett and zapping it off to the Globe, but since I haven’t heard back by now I assume my response was rejected. I don’t want to post it here because I plan to tweak it a bit and try to get it published elsewhere. Most of the points I made were in this old post, anyway.

The other op ed I want to discuss was in yesterday’s Washington Post. Michael Gerson says Rudy Giuliani’s stand on abortion is “muddled.” These days it is muddled, because he’s been trying to explain his pro-choice record in a way that won’t spook the social conservatives, and in doing so he’s twisted himself into some amazing rhetorical knots.

But to Gerson, the only reason Giuliani fails the moral clarity test is that he breaks the first rule of wingnut abortion logic. To his credit, Giuliani doesn’t leave out women. Gerson writes,

In early debates and statements, he has set out his views on this topic with all the order and symmetry of a freeway pileup. His argument comes down to this: “I hate abortion,” which is “morally wrong.” But “people ultimately have to make that choice. If a woman chooses that, that’s her choice, not mine. That’s her morality, not mine.”…

… But the question naturally arises: Why does Giuliani “hate” abortion? No one feels moral outrage about an appendectomy. Clearly he is implying his support for the Catholic belief that an innocent life is being taken. And here the problems begin.

How can the violation of a fundamental human right be viewed as a private matter? Not everything that is viewed as immoral should be illegal; there are no compelling public reasons to restrict adultery, for example, or to outlaw sodomy. But when morality demands respect for the rights of a human being, those protections become a matter of social justice, not just personal or religious preference.

I’m sure you see what Gerson is doing here. He frames the issue as one of “rights of a human being,” and then without explanation or excuse he awards all of these rights to the fetus, thereby changing the woman’s status from “human being” to “major appliance.”

Gerson then dredges up the ghost of Dred Scott and tells us that in his debates with Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas declared slavery to be a “right” protected by the Constitution, whereas Lincoln based his argument on “faith” and “conscience.” That’s an oversimplification of the position of both men, but I’ll leave that for another post. Gerson continues,

Giuliani’s doctrine of individual sovereignty goes much further than did Douglas, logically preventing even states from restricting abortion. And this raises a question about Giuliani’s view of the law itself: Can it be a right to violate the basic rights of others? Given American opinion, progress toward the protection of unborn life is likely to be incremental and partial. It would be foolish to prosecute women who have abortions — and the law struck down in Roe v. Wade did nothing of the kind. But recognizing these limits and realities is different from asserting that the law should have nothing to do with the defense of the weak.

Ah, where to begin? I’ll skip past the point where Gerson renders recognition of the humanity of women into a “doctrine of individual sovereignty,” although there’s plenty of social pathology to be be mined there. Instead, let’s go straight to the claim that the “law struck down by Roe v. Wade” did not punish women. This statement is false on several counts.

First, according to “Lessons from Before Roe: Will Past be Prologue?” by Rachel Benson Gold (Alan Guttmacher Institute, March 2003), among the several state laws struck down by Roe v. Wade, fourteen made obtaining an abortion a crime. Women were sometimes convicted; often they were given a choice between prosecution and testifying against the abortion provider. I’m still searching for information on the penalties provided in these laws, but one suspects some punishment was involved.

Second, it’s simple fact that many nations that ban abortion today impose criminal penalties on women who obtain abortion; see old Mahablog posts “Under the Rug” and “Under the Rug II” and also Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column of April 7, 2004. Kristof wrote,

To understand what might happen in America if President Bush gets his way with the Supreme Court, consider recent events in Portugal.

Seven women were tried this year in the northern Portuguese fishing community of Aveiro for getting abortions. They were prosecuted — facing three-year prison sentences — along with 10 ‘’accomplices,’’ including husbands, boyfriends, parents and a taxi driver who had taken a pregnant woman to a clinic.

The police staked out gynecological clinics and investigated those who emerged looking as if they might have had abortions because they looked particularly pale, weak or upset. At the trial, the most intimate aspects of their gynecological history were revealed.

Think that can’t happen here? Remember the Kansas attorney general who subpoenaed abortion clinic patient files so he could go on fishing expeditions for crime?

And then there’s the mountain of testimony and data revealing the suffering, mutilations, and painful deaths endured by women who don’t have access to legal abortion. For just a few examples see Molly Ginty, “Life Before Roe v. Wade” and Marianne Mollmann of Human Rights Watch, “Abortion lessons from Latin America.”

In researching this post I came across an article by Heather Boonstra titled “The Antiabortion Campaign To Personify the Fetus: Looking Back to the Future” (Alan Guttmacher Institute, December 1999). Bookstra examines anti-choice rhetoric to reveal how it renders embryos into children. At the same time, of course, women are rendered into toasters. Earlier this week, Scott Lemieux discussed claims from the Fetus People that they want to “protect” women from their own irrational choices.

Jill Filipovic points us to this Times article about the new strategy to justify using state coercion to force women to carry pregnancies to term by claiming that women are too irrational to know what’s good for them, and offers a modest proposal. I would also urge you to read Reva Siegel and Sarah Blustain (see also here.) Quite simply, these justifications are premised on 19th-century conceptions of women as not being rational agents. And such justifications evidently underpin a great deal of anti-choice discourse and policy (most obviously seen in the fact that the official Republican position is that abortion is murder but women who obtain them should be entirely exempt from legal sanctions.)

So, we come full circle. Michael Gerson claims Giuliani’s pro-choice arguments are “muddled” because Rudy must believe an embryo is human but not deserving of human rights. Gerson wants to make abortion a crime, yet the person initiating that crime cannot be guilty of it; only the people who enable her are subject to prosecution. Women are thus passive instruments in the hands of others; we cannot be free-willed captains of our own fates. Your average embryo, on the other hand, is just one “Mommy and Me” class away from running for Congress.

I do occasionally run into pro-choice people trying to clarify their moral judgments by downgrading the fetus to something like a tumor. It’s rare, but I have seen it. Anyone who doesn’t feel some regret at the elective termination of a pregnancy is a bit out of touch with humanity, also. Abortion is a difficult issue; making it simpler by blurring the reality of it is not being honest. And anyone who sees a bright, clear line between right and wrong needs glasses.

People at any stage of development are not mathematical equations. We lead messy lives entangled in webs of relationships and responsibilities. We are infused with dreams and delusions, and limited by what we can bear and what we cannot. Not every problem we face has a painless solution. But unless there is a compelling civil reason to get government involved, the people who need to make moral decisions are the ones who must live with the consequences.

And if you long for unambiguous clarity, go balance your checkbook.

6 thoughts on “Invisible Women

  1. Well, I just balanced my checkbook, and it was pretty unpleasant.

    People who are absolutely certain of their moral superiority send me running off screaming, and nothing cranks them up more than this topic. Thanks for providing a moment of reason, maha.

  2. Maha, you should have included a paragraph of background on Michael Gerson. He’s not your run of the mill Fetus person who’s trying to express an honest view. He’s an accomplished distortionist/deceptionist who has mastered the art of hiding behind words to beguile the unsuspecting. He was the one who framed and fueled Bush’s was on terror in evangelical overtones. Even today Bush is invoking visions of a Caliphate that eminated from Gerson’s cunning deceptiveness. His only prize and pride is in how well he can deceive..and he couldn’t give a shit about life or it’s value outside of himself

  3. But unless there is a compelling civil reason to get government involved, the people who need to make moral decisions are the ones who must live with the consequences.

    Actually, that’s where I believe there is a bright moral line :-).

    That’s really one of the biggest issues about this. The question isn’t so much “is it moral or not?” but “is the question of morality so clear cut as to make it an area for government intervention?”

    And I think that unless it is sufficiently clear cut, a just society must butt out.

    That’s very different from saying that the action is *okay*… it’s possible that those who believe in a vengeful god think that their deity will slamdunk your ass into hell for something. But that’s for their god to handle, not for the government.

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