What We Don’t See

Of all the conceits common to humankind possibly the most insidious is that any of us are entirely rational. And often the most irrational people are those who brag about how rational they are.

Even if a person’s basic reasoning skills are sound, the outcome of his reasoning nearly always will be imperfect. That’s because nearly all of us “live” within limited conceptual frameworks that filter and sort information in artificial ways. The way we conceptually interface with reality is based partly on our own experience and partly on how we are culturally conditioned to understand things.  And most of us are blind to this, because if we and everyone we know is artificially filtering and sorting information in pretty much the same way, we assume our understanding of reality is the only possible one.

(I wrote quite a lot about this in my book, by the way, explaining the way our limited conceptual frameworks have impacted religion and have largely rendered it ridiculous, but it doesn’t have to be that way.)

Breaking out of the conceptual box we live in usually takes some extraordinary experience — and often a shocking one — to see that we’re living in an artificial world and that the “real” one outside the limits of our awareness is largely alien to us. And most of us amble through life without ever having that experience.

Even though few of us ever perceive that we’re living inside a conceptual box, if we run into people whose conceptual boxes are very different from ours we think those people just don’t understand the real world (meaning our “real world”). I could define maturity, even wisdom, as the ability to appreciate  and respect that other people’s “worlds” are just as valid as ours even if they are wildly different. I wrote a few years ago,

My view is that everything we think comes from a complex of psychological discriminations and impulses, little of which have anything to do with “logic.” The way we understand ourselves and the world begins to be shaped from the moment we’re born and continues to be shaped by the culture we grow up and live in. In other words, all of our understandings are biased. This is pervasive and inescapable. Often the difference between “logical” and “empathic” people is that an “empathic” person has at least a dim appreciation of his own biases, whereas a “logical” person is utterly oblivious to them. …

… Our conscious, cognitive understandings of things are based on internalized models of what we’ve been conditioned to believe is “normal.” We may be able to articulate our ideas and perceptions in a coolly logical way, but the process by which we arrive at our ideas and perception is “complex, unconscious and emotional.” This is always true, whether we want to admit it or not. …

… Generally being “fair” is not losing one’s biases, but perceiving one’s biases as biases. If you recognize your biases as biases, you are in a position to overrule them as the facts dictate. But if you are so unconscious of yourself that you don’t recognize your biases as biases, then your “thinking” generally amounts to casting around for support for your biases. Then you put the biases and the cobbled-together “support” together and call it “reason.”

And this takes me to what we don’t see. I’ve written before about the “default norm” syndrome, also called the invisible baseline fallacy, which in our culture means white maledom is the default norm, and perspectives and experiences that deviate from those common to white men are not respected as legitimate. If you are a woman or racial minority in this country you have bumped into this iron wall of assumption many times, but the iron wall is invisible to a lot of white men. Not all, thank goodness.

This is basically the same thing that people are calling “male privilege” or “white privilege,” although I don’t like those terms. The degree to which one’s assumptions, biases and experiences are “privileged” depends on a complex of factors that include health or physical condition, class, and wealth. A white male lower-income paraplegic is considerably less “privileged” than the Koch brothers, for example. As wealth inequality becomes more extreme a whole lot of white people are being left behind to a degree I believe is unprecedented in American history, and I assure you most of these people don’t feel all that “privileged.”

Money is privilege. People who have always been financially comfortable have no idea how much lack of money can be an obstacle to basic functionality in our society. The poor are taxed in myriad ways, from paying higher bank account fees on their meager balances — causing the very poor to not use banks at all, but then one must use check cashing services that also take a bite. Without a car you take public transportation, which eats a lot more time out of your day. And if you don’t have money for a bus you simply don’t go anywhere out of walking distance, which puts a huge limit on your job opportunities. Those left out of Medicaid expansion still have limited access to health care, and chronic, debilitating conditions often go untreated. Poor parents often are caught in the day care trap — they aren’t paid enough to afford reliable day care, but without that it’s hard to hold a job at all. So one is perpetually making seat-of-the-pants arrangements with people to watch the children, and then worrying if the kids are safe. Etc. etc. Many conveniences people with money take for granted are not available to the poor, and the inconveniences pile up and make day-to-day life an exhausting exercise in barely coping.

And then it is assumed the poor can’t get ahead because they are lazy. And it is just about impossible to explain the problem to someone who has been cocooned from it. It’s not part of his, or her, experience; therefore, it isn’t “real.”

As a woman I am sometimes surprised at how much even liberal men are oblivious to the extreme misogyny that still lingers in our culture. I wrote earlier this year,

Even those of us who have never experienced physical assault have experienced sexual intimidation, belittling and humiliation, aimed at us only because of our gender. And most of the time we put up with it, because what else can we do? Confronting some sexist bozo could turn an unpleasant situation into something genuinely dangerous. So how has the political Right responded to #YesAllWomen? Mostly with more belittling. Charles Cooke at NRO, for example, dismisses the social media phenomenon as “groupthink.” We women can’t possibly know our own experiences, apparently, and simply imagine misogyny because we’ve read about it.

Especially to conservatives, problems that middle- and upper-income white men rarely if ever encounter are not “real” issues worthy of being addressed by society or government, but are exceptions that the individuals affected must take care of on their own. The fact that these issues may impact all of us, directly or indirectly, and that the cause may be widespread cultural and institutional bias that upper-income whites feed on a daily basis, is invisible to them.  And you can’t explain it to them. No amount of real-world data or well-constructed logic makes dent in the iron wall. If it doesn’t conform to the conceptual box they live in, it can’t be true.

This is why it is good to have diversity of experience represented in decision-making bodies such as governments, for example. White men like to tell themselves they can make decisions that affect everybody else just fine because they will apply reason. But their reason is based on biased perspectives that fail to take many things into account. Publius provides a good example here — many rape laws used to require a woman to show she had resisted an assault to prove she had not consented. But this is a male-centric view. A woman understands that if she is being assaulted by a violent man much stronger than she is, her only hope of surviving may be in not resisting. (I remember a bitter joke from many years ago that the only woman almost certain to win a rape case is a dead nun.)

And don’t get me started on reproductive issues. Just a few days ago I was told I was too emotional because I passionately disagreed that abortion must be criminalized. Naturally it was a man, who will never be pregnant, who said this. Yes it’s easier to be emotionally detached from a issue when it’s not personal, and when the real-world experiences and consequences of that issue are merely hypothetical. It’s easier to be emotionally detached when you’re behind the iron wall.

Michael Brown is being buried today. If his killing, and what we’ve learned about Ferguson, hasn’t given us a clear picture of the evils and pervasiveness of institutional racism I don’t know what else will. Yet just last week I encountered a forum populated largely by white men who couldn’t understand why people are always going on about race. Why is race such a big deal? Isn’t it  all about making white men feel guilty?

But I certainly don’t give a rodent’s posterior whether anybody feels guilty. Guilt doesn’t so much as butter toast. Our country is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, in part because our institutions, especially government, increasingly reflect the views of only the most sheltered and privileged among us. And it is increasingly unresponsive to everyone else. And, weirdly, a big chunk of the population being left behind still clings to the cognitive biases that support policies that are hurting them.  Their collective conceptual frameworks are not adjusting; they still can’t see past the iron wall.

See also: Andrew O’Hehir, “White Privilege: An Insidious Virus That’s Eating America from Within.”


A right-wing blogger, responding to my last post on abortion, wrote,

And this notion of “underground abortion providers” is a myth in the U.S. There are untold clinics in the U.S. providing abortion services.

Let’s see if I can explain this simply enough so that a garden vegetable, or maybe even a rightie, can grasp it.

Abortion is still legal in the United States. So, there is not much in the way of an underground abortion industry here, because women prefer to get abortions in nice, legal clinics and hospitals. In countries where abortion is legal, generally there are little or no “underground” abortion services.

However, in countries where abortion is illegal, abortions are performed by “underground abortion providers.” This was true in the U.S. before Roe v. Wade. It is still very much true throughout Latin America, which has higher rates of abortion than the U.S. even though abortion is illegal nearly everywhere in Latin America.

It is true of all countries in which abortions are illegal. Well, except maybe Ireland, where women can just take a ferry ride to Britain. I’m not sure about Ireland.

If abortion were criminalized in the U.S., there would be a thriving underground abortion industry in no time, just as there was before Roe v. Wade.

I hope that is clear.

Ross Douthat’s “Stricter Legal Regime”

Today’s New York Times column by Ross Douthat begins sanely enough. He acknowledges that the late-term abortions performed by the late Dr. George Tiller were done for hard, and heartbreaking, reasons — “women facing life-threatening complications, on women whose children would be born dead or dying, on women who had been raped, on ‘women’ who were really girls of 10.”

Then he goes south a bit, insinuating that Dr. Tiller also performed abortions for frivolous reasons, even though Kansas law requires two independent physicians to sign off on a late abortion to prevent that from happening.

And then Douthat gets into the heart of his argument — women must not be allowed to have abortions unless the government decides they have a really, really good reason.

Yes, many pregnancies are terminated in dire medical circumstances. But these represent a tiny fraction of the million-plus abortions that take place in this country every year. …

… The argument for unregulated abortion rests on the idea that where there are exceptions, there cannot be a rule. Because rape and incest can lead to pregnancy, because abortion can save women’s lives, because babies can be born into suffering and certain death, there should be no restrictions on abortion whatsoever.

No, the argument for legal and medically safe abortions — which would still be regulated, as is any medical procedure — is that there are times when pregnancy and childbirth would place an unbearable burden on a woman’s life, and so women will seek abortions. Their reasons are as infinite as the details of their lives. If abortions are not legal, they will either abort themselves or they will find underground abortion providers, medically trained or not.

And if the worldwide statistics on abortions in countries where abortions are illegal tell us anything, they tell us that making abortion illegal has little impact on the rate of abortion, just on how they are done. Instead of a medically regulated clinic, women take black market drugs, or perforate themselves with sharp objects, or flush themselves with caustic chemicals, or have themselves bludgeoned in the stomach. They take their chances on abortion providers who may have little training and even less interest in antiseptics.

And we know this is true because it happens in many parts of the world, every day, in places where legal abortion is not available.

Douthat continues,

[T]he law is a not a philosophy seminar. It’s the place where morality meets custom, and compromise, and common sense. And it can take account of tragic situations without universalizing their lessons.

No, the purpose of law is to maintain conditions that allow civilizations and societies to exist and function, not to enforce morality. As I’ve argued elsewhere, many things are immoral that should not necessarily be illegal. Most of us consider adultery to be immoral, for example. But as a people who respect personal freedom, we generally think that matters involving sexual acts between consenting adults are not the government’s business. Lies (except under oath in a courtroom), envy, and countless other matters are between an individual and his spouse/friends/God/karma.

There’s a tacit understanding that some matters of morality are to be worked out in peoples’ private lives, and others are regulated by law. What’s the difference? The difference is whether an act creates a civic burden. Without enforceable contracts, for example, we’d still be living in caves. On the other hand, civilization tolerates adultery fairly well.

It so happens that most stuff that’s illegal also is generally considered immoral. Since morality is about how people relate to each other, it figures that law and morality overlap. (The venn diagram above is flawed because the blue area ought to be bigger, but I made it from the best blank venn diagram I could find.) But the purpose of law is not to enforce morality; nor is morality an argument for creating law.

One of the most fundamental requirements of a functional civilization is that there must be some restriction on killing other people. This has less to do with “sacredness” and more to do with the fact that people can’t very well live in social groups if they all can kill each other without penalty or compunction.

Through most of human history, few if any societies have banned the killing of humans outright. Rather, there were rules about who could kill whom. A nobleman could kill a serf, but a serf couldn’t kill a nobleman, for example. The notion that the life of every person is worthy of legal protection just because it’s human life is relatively recent and has little to do with how homicide came to be a criminal act.

Abortions, however, do not create a civic burden. Abortions have been practiced throughout human history. Although you can find some very old laws that restrict late abortions, there was little interest in banning abortion altogether until the 19th century. Civilization soldiered on, somehow.

So, I reject the argument that law is “the place where morality meets custom, and compromise, and common sense.” I’m not sure what “custom” Douthat refers to, since abortion has long been customary even where it is illegal. And my definition of “common sense” is “stuff I think is right even though I can’t think of an argument for it.”

Indeed, the argument that some abortions take place in particularly awful, particularly understandable circumstances is not a case against regulating abortion. It’s the beginning of precisely the kind of reasonable distinction-making that would produce a saner, stricter legal regime.

Translation: We can ban abortions and then make women petition government tribunals to receive legal dispensations in extreme cases.

Alternate translation: Hello, coat hanger.

This is “saner”?

If anything, by enshrining a near-absolute right to abortion in the Constitution, the pro-choice side has ensured that the hard cases are more controversial than they otherwise would be. One reason there’s so much fierce argument about the latest of late-term abortions — Should there be a health exemption? A fetal deformity exemption? How broad should those exemptions be? — is that Americans aren’t permitted to debate anything else. Under current law, if you want to restrict abortion, post-viability procedures are the only kind you’re allowed to even regulate.

No, the reason there’s so much fierce argument about abortion is that there are some among us who do not respect women and cannot abide the thought of permitting women to be their own moral agents.

And I love the way Douthat keeps saying he wants to “regulate” abortion. Again, abortion is regulated. It is regulated to maintain safe medical standards, for example.

What he’s really talking about is not regulating abortions, but regulating women.

If abortion were returned to the democratic process, this landscape would change dramatically. Arguments about whether and how to restrict abortions in the second trimester — as many advanced democracies already do –would replace protests over the scope of third-trimester medical exemptions.

Douthat is hallucinating. There will be no peace as long as there is a violent, extremist movement determined to ban all abortions, including first-trimester abortions, and as long as politicians cater to that movement. I would be very happy if we as a nation could come to some sort of firm decision about a gestational limit on elective abortion, as long as it’s not absurdly early and doctors are given broad discretion in matters of medical need. What’s standing in the way of that is the so-called “right to life” movement, not Roe v. Wade.

Do you want to talk “compromise,” Douthat? The only acceptable “common ground” is encouraging contraceptive use to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

For a sane view, be sure to read Marie Cocco.

Nearly two decades ago, Bill Clinton said he believed abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” The “rare” part was supposed to come from greater support for birth control and better sex education for young people.

Here is how the anti-abortion movement and its supporters in Congress responded: They carried out a campaign, which continues to this day, to curtail women’s access to birth control and severely limit teenagers’ access to comprehensive sex education.

Working first through the Republicans who took over Congress in the mid-1990s and then through the Bush administration, they blocked access to emergency contraception, birth-control pills that are taken after unprotected sex. They continue to promote state legislation and a movement among anti-abortion pharmacists to allow druggists to refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions. They wish to expand the current “conscience clause” allowing medical professionals who have ethical objections to abortion to cover birth control and abortion referrals for rape victims who might be pregnant. They spent billions on abstinence-only sex education that has been proved, time and again, to be ineffective at keeping teenagers from having sex.

When the original House version of the economic stimulus bill included a bureaucratic change to make it easier for state Medicaid programs to offer family planning services to poor women, Republicans caused such a fuss that Obama prevailed upon Democratic congressional leaders to remove it. His gesture won not a single Republican vote for the stimulus package in the House.

“The common ground is family planning,” says Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. Yet Maloney has spent much of the past decade in the forefront of congressional efforts to push back the right-wing assault on family planning.

It is time to stop hoping that somehow, through pleasing rhetoric or even genuine efforts to build bridges, those who oppose allowing women to control their reproductive lives can be persuaded to some other view. Continuing the pretense on this point isn’t naive. It’s cynical.


At the New York Times, Monica Davey gives us a glimpse into the whacky world of the Fetus People. Apparently the murder of Dr. George Tiller has confounded the vocational jerks who have besieged his clinic for years . Now they literally don’t know what to do with themselves.

I take it there are people who actually moved to Wichita just so they could picket Dr. Tiller’s clinic. I suppose some of them have spouses who work to earn a living, but one does wonder if they’re being paid.

This is noteworthy:

“There’s so much disagreement,” said Mark S. Gietzen, president of the Kansas Coalition for Life. Mr. Gietzen spent his time last week juggling calls from volunteers who wondered what would come of their regular shifts outside Dr. Tiller’s clinic, where they planted rows of crosses each day and tried to talk to women going in.

“If you went to a meeting, sometimes you would think the enemy was other pro-life people, not abortion,” he said.

Not all anti-abortion advocates, he said, favored the bloody “truth truck” (“Abortion is an ObamaNation,” it reads) parked outside his house or agreed on what protesters should call out to women going inside the clinic (obscenity-filled insults or offers of help) and how loudly.

Even now, Mr. Gietzen said, they were not of one mind about statements many groups here have issued condemning the killing of Dr. Tiller. “You can’t be pro-life and go around killing people, but some people are really mad at me for saying that,” he said.

In other words, it’s a culture in which hate and murder are always on the table.

Some of them don’t believe Dr. Tiller’s clinic is really going to close; or, at least, there are no immediate plans to re-open it.

Despite the family announcement about the clinic’s uncertain future, some here seem convinced that it will secretly reopen on Monday. On Sunday, Mr. Gietzen said some of his more than 600 trained volunteers already were organized in shifts for a new week, in case visiting doctors were flown in.

Picketing that clinic was their purpose in life. In some ways, they may miss it more than anyone else. I opened Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer at random and found this (pp. 14-15)

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.

If Dr. Tiller’s clinic really doesn’t re-open, eventually some of the protesters will drift away to other clinics. Some may eventually attach themselves to another cause — Hoffer believed mass movements were interchangeable, since they “draw their adherents from the same types of humanity and appeal to the same types of mind.” Either way, when Dr. Tiller died they lost the center of their lives. How can they go on?

The suspect, Scott Roeder, claims more such murders are “planned,” but this may be wishful thinking on his part. One anti-abortion leader called Roeder “a fruit and a lunatic.” Dude, if he’s the fruit, you’re the tree.

Disagreeing With Turley?

Interesting article by Daphne Eviatar in the Washington Independent, in which Eviatar reviews the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act and other law involving threats to abortion clinics and staff. Courts have ruled that “Nuremberg Files”-type expression, such as wanted posters and lists of abortion providers with the names of murdered doctors crossed out, constitute threats and are not protected speech. This is true even though the sick puppies who create the posters and the lists generally avoid making explicit, specific threats.

Under the FACE Act, doctors and clinic workers don’t have to wait for government to act against extremists making threats; they can sue those threatening them. However,

Some civil libertarians, however, have concerns. George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley on the Rachel Maddow Show on Monday cautioned against prosecution or lawsuits against even those who promote violence. “We have this difficult line to walk between free speech and preventative law enforcement,” he said. “The Supreme Court has said that violent speech is protected . . . and it is in fact protected to say all abortion doctors should be killed.”

I found the transcript of the Monday Rachel Maddow program, and Turley doesn’t dismiss the FACE act entirely. He says that when speech amounts to “an imminent threat of violence” legal action can be taken.

To me — and I’m not a lawyer — FACE is akin to anti-stalking laws. Twenty years ago, a woman might be hounded by a stalker who obviously intended to harm her, but as a rule police could do nothing until an assault occurred. “Even when the suspect had followed his victim, sent her hate mail, or behaved in a threatening manner, the police were without legal recourse,” says this U.S. Justice Department document on stalking laws.

One such stalked woman was Rebecca Shaeffer, a young actress who was stalked for two years before her “fan” shot and killed her in 1989. After that, states began to provide stalked women some legal protection, although those laws also have been challenged on First Amendment grounds.

Florida anti-stalking law, for example, calls out “any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows or harasses another … engaging in conduct directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress.” This is harassment, the law says, and the target of the harassment can take legal action to stop it.

Anti-stalking laws aren’t perfect and don’t always stop the stalking. A lawyer quoted in Eviatar’s article speaks of the “delicate balance” between protected speech and incitement to violence. Reasonable people can disagree about whether a particular expression falls on one side of the line or another.

To me, if the inflammatory speech is directed at a particular person, it’s crossed that line. It’s one thing to say that “all abortion providers should be killed.” It’s another to make a “wanted” poster of a particular physician and provide directions to his home. Even if the latter expression doesn’t explicitly direct people to shoot and kill the doctor, the implication is clear.

(If you think about it, what is the point of protesting outside abortion clinics except to harass and intimidate patients and staff? The clinics don’t make law and policy. If you want to change the law, don’t protest the clinics; protest Congress. And I feel the same way about anti-war protests at recruitment offices and other military facilities, btw; it’s misdirected and potentially dangerous. If you don’t like war policy, protest Congress and the White House, not the troops.)

This leaves us with the problem of people in national media who whip up enmity against specific abortion providers, as Bill O’Reilly did against Dr. Tiller. O’Reilly pretty explicitly told his viewers and radio audience that Dr. Tiller was wantonly murdering healthy, viable fetuses for frivolous reasons, which all evidence says is a lie. O’Reilly’s audiences didn’t hear the stories behind the decision to terminate a third-trimester pregnancy, nearly always heartbreaking, nearly always made by women who genuinely wanted the baby.

Surely reckless speech such as O’Reilly’s contributes to sense among extremists that they are entitled to murder abortion doctors. I still cannot think of a remedy other than civil suits filed by people who have been injured by anti-abortion extremists, or their survivors. I’m not sure if there are legal grounds for such a suit, but if there were, a couple of successful prosecutions would make the O’Reilly’s of the world tone down their rhetoric, I suspect.

Suspect Is A Wingnut

By last night a number of rightie bloggers were bristling with outrage that anyone would assume Dr. Tiller’s murderer was an anti-abortion activist.

This morning I see that the person who has been accused of the murder — let’s not forget the presumption of innocence — was an anti-abortion activist.

Peter Slevin and Robert Barnes write for the Washington Post that the accused man, Scott Roeder, “is known in anti-abortion circles as a man who believes that killing an abortion doctor is justifiable.”

As news of Roeder’s arrest traveled, Kansas City activist Regina Dinwiddie remembered the day a dozen years ago when Roeder hugged her in glee after trying to frighten an abortion provider by staring him down inside a Planned Parenthood clinic.

“He grabbed me and said, ‘I’ve read the Defensive Action Statement and I love what you’re doing,’ ” Dinwiddie said in a telephone interview. She was a signer of the 1990s statement, which declares that the use of force is justified.

“I said, ‘You need to get out of here. You can get in a lot of trouble,’ ” Dinwiddie recalled.

Dinwiddie said she does not consider death of Tiller, the nation’s most prominent provider of controversial late-term abortions, to be a homicide.

Another anti-reproductive rights activist, described Roeder as “anti-government” and recalls Roeder had visited Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon, convicted of shooting Dr. Tiller several years ago, in prison.

Also, in May 2007 Tiller’s place of worship was identified on the Operation Rescue website, with the suggestion that people go there and “ask questions” (i.e., harass) the pastor and church members. Dr. Tiller was killed while handing out bulletins in the church’s lobby.

Today rightie bloggers are bristling with outrage at the suggestion that hate speech they and others have flung at Dr. Tiller over the years had anything whatsoever to do with his murder. Little Lulu:

Every mainstream pro-life organization has unequivocally condemned the killing.

I repeat: Every mainstream pro-life organization has unequivocally condemned the killing.

To me, this is akin to giving a known pyromaniac a can of gasoline and a book of matches and then denying you meant for him to start a fire. Condemning the act after it has occurred does not whitewash one’s complicity in it.

Malkin also is amused that so many of us are calling the murder of Dr. Tiller an act of terrorism. “Interesting how the t-word has been rediscovered,” she says. Malkin, you might recall, was at the forefront of the right-wing hysteria campaign against the recent Department of Homeland Security report to federal, state and local law enforcement regarding the threat of terrorism from right-wing extremists groups.

Malkin bristled with outrage at the suggestion that people such as, for example, anti-abortion activists might be capable of violence, and called the report a “hit job” on conservatives. Seems that it’s Lulu who needed to rediscover the “t-word.”

Today many people are focusing on Bill O’Reilly’s long and highly visible crusade against Dr. Tiller. It’s one thing to declare that one is opposed to third trimester abortions; it’s another thing to lie about them. O’Reilly said this on his radio program last year:

Now, a guy in Kansas, George Tiller, OK, can kill a baby — kill a baby — a half-hour before the baby’s supposed to be birthed for no reason whatsoever other than the mother has a pain in her foot. OK? Mother’s health: pain in the foot, migraine headache, whatever it may be.

That’s an outright lie. Kansas law allows no such thing. O’Reilly can tell one lie after another on radio and television, and call it “journalism,” and there appears to be no way to stop him from doing so as long as his employer, Rupert Murdoch, approves of it.

However, I sincerely hope Dr. Tiller’s heirs take O’Reilly and Murdoch to court and sue their socks off.

This nation has a deep commitment to free speech without government censorship. One of the few values Left and Right hold in common is the right of someone to say any damnfool thing he likes without penalty of law. About the only exception is where personal injury is involved. Many other western democracies place some limits on what people can say when it might incite violence, or sometimes just because — literature denying the Holocaust is banned in some places. I don’t want to go that way.

However, maybe it’s time we revisited libel laws. As a rule journalists — including faux journalists like O’Reilly — have little to fear from libel lawsuits, because the plaintiff has to prove “actual malice.” Publishing or broadcasting an untruth, even when it causes harm, is not necessarily libelous if the defendant can claim it was an innocent mistake. Of course, O’Reilly’s been in “reckless disregard for the truth” territory for some time. Perhaps we need to clarify exactly how far a public mouthpiece can go before he wanders into the litigation zone.

Update: See also “O’Reilly’s campaign against murdered doctor” at Salon.

But there’s no other person who bears as much responsibility for the characterization of Tiller as a savage on the loose, killing babies willy-nilly thanks to the collusion of would-be sophisticated cultural elites, a bought-and-paid-for governor and scofflaw secular journalists. Tiller’s name first appeared on “The Factor” on Feb. 25, 2005. Since then, O’Reilly and his guest hosts have brought up the doctor on 28 more episodes, including as recently as April 27 of this year. Almost invariably, Tiller is described as “Tiller the Baby Killer.”

Tiller, O’Reilly likes to say, “destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000.” He’s guilty of “Nazi stuff,” said O’Reilly on June 8, 2005; a moral equivalent to NAMBLA and al-Qaida, he suggested on March 15, 2006. “This is the kind of stuff happened in Mao’s China, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union,” said O’Reilly on Nov. 9, 2006.

This Is Terrorism

I’ve been out all day and just heard the news that Dr. George Tiller was murdered outside his church. Matt Yglesias says,

Every time you murder a doctor, you create a disincentive for other medical professionals to provide these services. What’s more, you create a need for additional security at facilities around the country. In addition, the anti-abortion protestors who frequently gather near clinics are made to seem much more intimidating by the fact that the occurrence of these sorts of acts of violence.

In general, I think people tend to overestimate the efficacy of violence as a political tactic. But in this particular case, I think people tend to understate it.

It’s not just violence; the harassment of patients, family members and children takes its toll and really do frighten doctors from working at abortion clinics.

Update: Courtesy of Google cache, a website that has disappeared for some reason.

Joan Walsh:

A suspect is in custody, but even though we don’t yet know his identity, it seems safe to assume that Wichita Dr. George Tiller is the latest victim of right-wing American terrorism against abortion providers and supporters. To underscore the hypocrisy of Christian right terrorists who wrap themselves in Jesus, Tiller was murdered in the lobby of his church Sunday morning, just after 10 a.m.

I don’t have time to hunt them down and post quotes, but some rightie bloggers today lack the sense and grace to pretend to be sorry.

The “Common Ground” Fallacy

This is a warning I’ve issued before, and now I’m issuing it again: In our ongoing national argument over abortion, be careful of the phrases “common ground” and “abortion reduction.” People using these phases don’t necessarily mean the same things by them.

Right now there’s an ongoing debate on the religious Left (yes, there is a religious Left) on the issue of terms and frames and publicly planting the flag of progressivism on moral high ground. Chip Berlet explains:

Instead of embracing the Democratic Party platform and its call for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, there is an ongoing effort by some pragmatists to reach out to people of faith by adopting the Christian Right frame of reducing the number of abortions.

This shifts the debate from a framework of human rights for women to a narrower Christian Right framework of labeling abortion as a problem to be solved. Reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies will also reduce the number of abortions, but this tactic also functions as an umbrella, sheltering issues such as access to contraception, sex education, and prenatal care for pregnant women who choose that path.

We are talking about shifting the frame to gain a political advantage. That’s what the Christian Right has foisted on Democratic centrists—a rigged frame. The Christian Right goal has been abortion reduction for decades. On the other hand, the Democratic Party platform developed by Team Obama is framed as reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. Big difference.

President Obama clearly has emphasized reducing unwanted pregnancies over some vaguely defined “abortion reduction.” He did this in the campaign and in the Notre Dame speech last week.

However, the terms “abortion reduction” and “common ground” are interpreted as “criminalizing abortion” on the religious Right.

Today this news item at Human Events, by Wendy Wright of that wretched abomination known as “Concerned Women for America,” has the wingnuts in a lather:

Two days before President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame, I was at the White House for one of the meetings that he spoke about. About twenty of us with differing views on abortion were brought in to find “common ground.” But the most important point that came from the meeting was perhaps a slip from an Obama aide. …

… Ask nearly anyone, “What is Obama’s goal on abortion?” They’ll answer, “Reduce the number of abortions.” A Notre Dame professor and priest insisted this in a television debate after Obama’s speech. The Vatican newspaper reported it. Rush Limbaugh led a spirited debate on his radio program the next day based on this premise.

But that’s not what his top official in charge of finding “common ground” says.

Melody Barnes, the Director of Domestic Policy Council and a former board member of Emily’s List, led the meeting. As the dialogue wound down, she asked for my input.

I noted that there are three main ways the administration can reach its goals: by what it funds, its messages from the bully pulpit, and by what it restricts. It is universally agreed that the role of parents is crucial, so government should not deny parents the ability to be involved in vital decisions. The goals need to be clear; the amount of funding spent to reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions is not a goal. The U.S. spends nearly $2 billion each year on contraception programs — programs which began in the 1970s — and they’ve clearly failed. We need to take an honest look at why they are not working.

Melody testily interrupted to state that she had to correct me. “It is not our goal to reduce the number of abortions.”

The room was silent.

The goal, she insisted, is to “reduce the need for abortions.”

BTW, this is directly from President Obama’s Notre Dame speech (emphasis added):

So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.” Those are things we can do.

Sometimes during the campaign Obama wasn’t as clear as some wanted him to be, but on the whole he has consistently said that the foundation of his abortion policy would be to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. But wingnuts hear the words “common ground” and “abortion reduction” and somehow think this is going to translate into a program of criminalizing abortion. And when someone explains to them that is not what he meant, they get all huffy about it.

But the Right has a pattern of feigning shock and outrage whenever President Obama goes ahead and does something he clearly said he would do. Either that or they’re just damn bad listeners.

Wendy Wright’s out-of-hand dismissal of contraceptive programs is based on nothing but woeful, and willful, ignorance. The money spent on contraceptive programs (I don’t know if it’s $2 billion now; it was $1.4 billion in 2004) has provided a handsome return, according to an unbiased scholarly study:

Using a methodology similar to prior cost-benefit analyses, we estimated the numbers of unintended pregnancies prevented by all U.S. publicly funded family planning clinics in 2004, nationally (1.4 million pregnancies) and for each state. We also compared the actual costs of providing these services ($1.4 billion) with the anticipated public-sector costs for maternity and infant care among the Medicaid-eligible women whose births were averted ($5.7 billion) to calculate net public sector savings ($4.3 billion). Thus, public expenditures for family planning care not only help women to achieve their childbearing goals, but they also save public dollars: Our calculations indicate that for every $1 spent, $4.02 is saved.

See also Steve Waldman, “The Truth About Contraceptives Stimulating the Economy.”

Wendy Wright at Human Events continues:

Note what Obama said in his speech at Notre Dame:

“So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. …”

Notice how the wingnut left out the rest of the sentence, “… let’s reduce unintended pregnancies.”

Abortion advocates object to the phrase “reducing abortions.”

That’s because, as Chip Berlet says and as I have said before, when the Right talks about “reducing abortion” they mean criminalizing abortion. We on the Left are fine with reducing the number of abortions, but we want to be crystal clear that the means to do that is primarily through reducing unintended pregnancies.

Howard Dean, then head of the Democratic National Committee, validated my concern. He told NBC’s Tim Russert: “We can change our vocabulary, but I don’t think we ought to change our principles.”

By all his actions so far, Obama is following this plan.

Obama needs to be honest with Americans. Is it true that it is not his goal to reduce the number of abortions?

More importantly, will he do anything that will reduce abortions? Actions are far more important than words.

The irony is, as I’ve said many times before, that criminalizing abortion does not reduce abortion. It only drives it under ground. On the other hand, there is copious empirical evidence that increased use of contraceptives really does drive down the rate of abortion, whereas criminalizing it does not.

What was that about actions being more important than words, Ms. Wright?

In fact, the “common ground” of which the Obama Administration speaks is reducing the number of abortions through reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. But wingnuts like Wright do not want to reduce the number of abortions; they just want to make abortion a criminal act. So there will be no common ground with them, unless they move out of Crazyland and decide to accept reality.

The Notre Dame Speech

I read the text of President Obama’s Notre Dame graduation speech, and as usual it was a fine speech.

I’m glad he spoke directly to abortion, and that he made it clear that when he speaks of reducing the number of abortions he means to do it primarily by reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. So often “abortion reduction” and “common ground” are code words for “we’re going to nibble Roe v. Wade to death with stupid abortion restrictions.”

Frances Kissling writes,

By stressing a long-standing Democratic Party commitment to preventing unintended pregnancy and supporting pregnant women who continue pregnancies under a new name — “reducing the need for abortion” — he got most of these Catholics to vote for him in 2008.

Still, Obama yoked the strongest possible feminist affirmation of the right to choose abortion to his message of abortion reduction — and many pro-life Catholics voted for him anyway, a sign of how disgusted they were with the Republicans. At an April 29 press conference the president explained why he is pro-choice in terms that most feminists would applaud. “The reason I’m pro-choice is because I don’t think women take [abortion] casually. I think they struggle with these decisions each and every day. And I think they are in a better position to make these decisions ultimately than members of Congress or the president of the United States.” A feminist theologian might tweak the language, but the bottom line is that the president’s theology is feminist. Women are moral adults and agents; they think about abortion in complex and thoughtful ways and they should be trusted to make the decision. The president has not waffled on abortion.

I’ve said many times that what really separates people who want to criminalize abortion and those who don’t is not whether they think a fetus is a person. It’s whether they appreciate that a woman is a person. “Women are moral adults and agents; they think about abortion in complex and thoughtful ways and they should be trusted to make the decision.” Exactly. To me, terminating a healthy pregnancy is a sad thing, but reducing women to the status of brood animals is a lot sadder.

Peter Baker wrote in the New York Times that the President “appealed to partisans on both sides to find ways to respect one another’s basic decency and even work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.” Baker also said,

Anti-abortion leaders protested his appearance at the University of Notre Dame and he was heckled four times during a commencement address by protesters yelling slogans like “abortion is murder.” But the audience shouted down the hecklers and cheered Mr. Obama as he called for “open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words” in a debate that has polarized the country for decades.

Meanwhile, Randall Terry was seen on campus pushing a baby carriage occupied by a doll covered in blood.

Peter Baker mentioned a recent Gallup poll that shows a rise in the number of people calling themselves “pro-life.” Ed Kilgore and Matt Yelgesias explain why the poll is misleading.

Personally, I liked this part of the President’s speech, even the “G” part:

But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen. It’s beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame.

Reinhold Niebuhr, big time.

Update: See E.J. Dionne:

The thunderous and repeated applause that greeted Obama and the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president who took enormous grief for asking him to appear, stood as a rebuke to those who said the president should not have been invited.

One-Way Bridge

This article from Wall Street Journal illustrates by alarm bells should go off whenever anyone speaks of “common ground” on abortion. Laura Meckler writes that President Obama is inviting advocates from across the political spectrum to try to find common ground on abortion. And that’s grand. But notice where the “common ground” is:

Ms. Barnes told participants that the White House is interested in hearing ideas in several areas, among them: sex education; responsible use of contraception; maternal and child health; pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere; and adoption.

Those are all ideas any good feminist/liberal/progressive/pro-choicer can accept easily. That’s including adoption, as long as the decision to give up maternal rights is made without coercion of any sort.

The White House position is to reduce the number of abortions in America by reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in America. Again, that’s a position any feminist/liberal/progressive/pro-choicer is comfortable with. We’ve been making the same argument for years.

Now, who is not in favor of better sex education and greater access to contraceptives? The so-called “right to life” movement is not in favor of those things. Anti-choice organizations run the gamut of taking no position on contraceptive use to being actively opposed to contraceptives. They’re all opposed to sex education, preferring the sham substitute, “abstinence only.”

I talked about the alarm bells — there are some allegedly “progressive” religious leaders making noises about common ground on abortion, and they talk about reducing abortion rate. But when you hear the term “abortion reduction,” look under the hood to see what’s running the engine. Sometimes “abortion reduction” is a code word for reducing the number of abortions by chipping away at abortion access through creative legal restrictions.

So, I prefer to talk about reducing unwanted pregnancy, not reducing abortion, although fewer abortions certainly is one of the outcomes of reducing unwanted pregnancy. And providing material support for women who don’t want to abort but are in a place in their lives where pregnancy and child care are untenable is fine with me, too, as long as reducing unwanted pregnancy is the first priority.

I’ve long argued that the way the abortion controversy is presented in media is a false dichotomy. The conventional wisdom is that the pro- and anti-choice sides are equally extreme and must meet in the middle. Although you can find people with all manner of extremist positions, if you look at the major pro- and anti-choice organizations, you are not looking at two equally extremist sides. One side —

  • Supports avoiding unwanted pregnancy as much as possible through contraceptive use and informed sexual behavior. This in turn will reduce the rate of abortion.
  • Supports Roe v. Wade, which includes the provision that states may prohibit elective third-term abortion as long as exceptions can be made for life and health of the mother.
  • Supports the decisions of women who choose to carry pregnancies to term.

The other side —

  • Either refuses to support contraceptive use or is actively opposed to it.
  • Wants to criminalize all abortions, even very early ones, including non-elective abortions in cases of medically compromised pregnancies.
  • Wants to take the ability to make reproductive decisions away from women.

This is just not two equally extreme sides.

As Lynn Harris writes at Salon, media lazily equate positions such as those advocated by the White House as a “compromise” with anti-choice positions.

… it’s not necessarily accurate to portray such framing — no matter who does it and what issues one may have with the particulars — as a “compromise.” Especially given the increasingly vocal opposition to contraception, since when is supporting it a compromise? When it comes to abortion, lots of us have been talking about prevention, and about how “it’s not just about Roe” — or, for that matter, “choice” — for a good while. I’d call this expanding the debate, not ceding ground. And now that legislators and journalists have picked up on it, the longer the focus on prevention and healthcare gets misrepresented as “compromise,” I say the longer we’ll be fighting.

Update: Obama budget eliminates funding for “abstinence only” education. Time for the dancing banana —