Why Are All the Essays on Abortion So Sad?

Jessica Grose, a writer who I like very much, says that pro-choicers shouldn’t just publish essays about “good abortions”–those had by people who are very young, or clearly too financially and personally unstable to raise a child, or carrying a fetus that will not live long past birth.  They’re leaving out the majority of abortions, which are not had by frightened teenagers or heartbroken mothers terminating an unviable pregnancy.

The question, of course, is whether you want to comfort the women having the abortions, or the people considering how many restrictions we want to place on abortion.  Most Americans don’t approve of having an abortion because you’re really hoping for a promotion next month, unless (maybe) that promotion is out of a minimum wage job.  They don’t care if you want to travel for a few years before you settle down to raising kids.  If you write essays defending choices like that, you are going to repulse some number of people who currently weakly support legal abortion.

I’d say that on average, the American public is tacitly okay with “good abortions”.  They’re even willing to tolerate some “bad abortions”–those had for convenience, or by women who are careless with birth control–because they understand that it is impossible to completely separate the good from the bad.  But they are not okay with abortion as the pro-choice movement sees it, which is that right up to the point where the baby is born, you ought to be able to terminate the pregnancy for any reason.  They do not believe that this is a decision which only involves a woman and her doctor.  They also care about the fetus.

In other words, they recognize that there is a tradeoff between the welfare of the woman, and the fetus she is carrying.  The less the harm to the woman, the more apt they are to say that the welfare of the fetus should win out.  And so the more we emphasize the majority of abortions which do not involve fetuses with fatal genetic defects or teenage victims of rape, the more we compromise support for keeping abortion legal.  Pro-choicers, too, face a tradeoff.  Even many good, pro-choice liberals are not prepared to mount a full-throated defense of “bad” abortion–in part because they’re aware of how it will sound to the rest of the country.

As you can probably tell by reading this post, I’m not ready to mount it either.  Make no mistake: I’m pro-choice.  There is a tragic incompatibility between the good of the mother and the good of the child, and while that child can’t survive outside the mother’s body, I resolve that in favor of the living woman instead of the future child.  But that doesn’t mean I view abortion as having the same moral weight as a haircut or a nose-piercing–just another personal choice about what you do with your body.  So if I were an editor, I probably wouldn’t publish an essay that presented it that way.

32 thoughts on “Why Are All the Essays on Abortion So Sad?

  1. “They do not believe that this is a decision which only involves a woman and her doctor. They also care about the fetus.”

    No, Megan, we care about the baby. You can try to dehumanize it by calling it a “fetus”, but no one other than a serious pro-abortion wacko goes up to 4 month pregnant woman and asks about “the fetus”. We ask “how is the baby doing?”

    • Re: mike

      “Baby” is a term that describes a stage in the development of the life of a human being. There are stages of development before baby, and there are stages after baby. It is a reasonable definition of the “baby” phase to extend from birth and physical independence from the mother to development of independent motor skills and mobility.

      The main stages are:
      Fertilized embryo -> Fetus -> Baby/Infant -> Toddler -> Child ->Teenager -> Adult -> Elderly

    • Leaving aside that your “reasonable” is not, as you assume, self-supporting, there is the little matter that it’s not therefore English.

  2. If an essay about a tough case abortion is sad, wouldn’t an essay about an abortion had because “I need to advance my career and this will get in the way at age 30” be even sadder? That would seem to be a better mirror on the society that we have become and depresses the hell out of me. Otherwise I think you have it about right. But isn’t the big problem that out of the 1M abortions performed per year, 900K+ of them would be “bad abortions”, except to the person having it to whom it is an absolute necessity. The law that we would all choose from the veil of ignorance would outlaw those 900K, but we are stuck with something much worse such that we can’t even look in the mirror at ourselves.

    • Didn’t take long for what? Someone to point out she’s playing dishonest word games in order to advance her political agenda? With the side point that she ought to be better than that?

      Own what you’re doing. Own what you support. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be doing / supporting it.

    • You either don’t know what a “baby” is or you’re the one playing dishonest word games.

    • Peter, have you ever walked up to a 6 month pregnant woman and asked her about her “fetus”? Have you ever listened to expectant parents talking about their “fetus”? Or do they talk about “the baby”?

      I hang around with lots of upper middle class white women, including ones who are fanatically pro-abortion. None of them ever talk about their “fetus” when they’re planning on not killing him or her. They talk about “the baby”.

      Play all the word games you want, it won’t work. Because while you can pretend to be taken in by your games, no one else is.

  3. I’d love to see a clear analysis of the deeper motivations of the two sides. I’m pro-choice and almost everyone I know is rabidly pro-choice, but I’m pretty sure that the loudly trumpeted pro-choice arguments aren’t the real drivers of their opinions, they’re just the advertising slogans. Similarly, the pro-life side sounds (to my tin ear) as if the real drivers aren’t being stated, again only the advertising slogans. One sign that there’s a lot going on that is unvoiced comes from the pro-choice complaint regarding “the Republican war on women”, which would be plausible except that the poll results seem to show the same breakdown of opinions in both men and women. Similarly there are a lot of inconsistencies in both sides ideologies.

    The only article I’ve seen that made any sense noted that pro-life women statistically have more education than their husbands, which is unusual. It went on to develop a theory that the pro-life faction favored the idea that pregnancy is something that men do to women and are thus responsible for. However, I’ve forgotten the details by now and I’ve never seen the explanation developed further.

    • “pregnancy is something that men do to women and are thus responsible for”

      What? Are you talking about rape? Short of that, pregnancy results from voluntary activity on the woman’s part. That’s why the ‘pro choice’ label doesn’t make sense to me. Since no one is advocating rape, we all agree that woman have the right to choose whether or not to engage in activity which they realize might result in pregnancy.

      The debate is not over whether women have the right to choose, it’s over how women are allowed to deal with the consequences of their own choice, once those consequences involve an innocent third party.

    • Michael writes, “Why is it so hard to believe that some folks don’t think it is okay to kill babies?”

      I do believe that some folks don’t think it is okay to kill babies, but I believe that that belief is driven by some deeper motive. Historically, killing people, including babies, has been very common and often done with little thought or concern. (Infanticide has been ubiquitous in societies before recent centuries.) The pro-life faction is not, at root, motivated by some universal “sacredness of life” drive, because there clearly is none. (There is also the often-snarked-about tendency of the political factions that want the political system to suppress abortion to not support using the political system to keep children alive and healthy after they are born.)

      Note that I’m picking thse arguments not because they are the only inconsistencies exhibited in this debate, because they are ones that speak to Machael’s point. A broader way to look at it is the remarkable anti-correlation of support for legalized abortion with support for the death penalty. And the usual combinations of attitudes are not held as “regrettable necessities” but with intense visceral fervor.

    • I admit freely that one of my motivations is faith. Not completely religious faith, but also faith in general.

      To have an abortion is an affront to the future, to look destiny in the eye and declare it unworthy of your effort. Here you are, handed a direct role in shaping the future and you say, “nah, my classes down at the cosmetology school are more important.”

      It’s like having a lost puppy come to your door, you could feed it, but you don’t want to so you hit it on the head with a shovel and bury it in yard. But in this case the puppy is your progeny, your child, the only mark you will ever leave in this world.

      People who are desperately poor want children, something to help them turn the tide and make the future different from the present. Abortion is for people who have no future. It’s a black gaping maw where people throw their dreams and ideals and desires in sacrifice to nullity. And there is a support crew stoking the fire and making everything all light and palatable.

  4. More seriously, these “less sad” abortions are also very easy to contextualize as matters that ‘should’ happen in the first trimester or even by the eighth week, a part of abortion politics that no one is pointing serious legislature at and, if you look at polls on the topic, aren’t that controversial. That’s an even more fundamental issue than how sympathetic someone sounds.

  5. The usual polling on the subject tends to find a bell curve spectrum of opinions — roughly 20% in favor of the status quo, roughly 20% against abortion (but some willing to make various rape/incest/life-of-mother exceptions), and roughly 60% supporting, by degrees, a more restricted regime than what we have now.

    Back on July 6, InstaProf pointed out that the flap over the Texas abortion law is a little absurd considering the status of abortion law in the progressive enclaves of Europe:


    The notion of obtaining an abortion any time for any reason, and that the procedure should be treated as anything other than a serious and tightly regulated medical procedure, is absurd pretty much everywhere in the modern West except in the US. Funny how you never read impassioned pro-abortion pieces lamenting that US policy toward abortion, or healthcare practices regarding abortion, or some other-grievance-of-the-month, is barbaric compared to the rest of the civilized world.

  6. My personal opinion, which seems to be shared by the majority even if they can’t fully articulate it, is that the stages of a fetus (or baby for Gregq) represent a continuum from 1% human to 99% human. And the rights of the fetus are based on this. At 10% human, in most cases, the woman’s needs outweigh the fetus’s. At 80% human, terminating the pregnancy better be a life or death matter for the woman.

    I’ve never had a problem understanding the true pro-life position. If you really believe that a fetus always 100% human, then you have to be against all abortions all the time. Anyone that supports abortion only in cases of rape or incest obviously doesn’t really believe that a fetus is truly a human life. After all, we don’t allow infanticide in cases of rape or incest. Also, the “life begins at conception” has some unresolved issues involving fertilized eggs not going to term (failure to implant, miscarriages, etc.)

    I have a hard time understanding pro-choice arguments that a fetus is exactly the same as a fingernail and telling a woman she can’t have a late-term abortion is the same as telling a woman she can’t have a manicure.

    Endlessly frustrating as well is when pro-life supporters talk about abortion supporters “Killing Babies”. As if that’s what pro-choice forces think they’re doing (in all but a few rare cases, if they thought it was “Killing Babies”, they wouldn’t support it). And pro-choice supporters saying that pro-life supporters want to limit women’s rights as if society doesn’t have a right to keep them from killing their children.

    The only two views ever discussed are the extremes. You can’t win the Republican primary without being pro-life and you can’t win the Democratic primaries without being pretty rapidly pro-choice.

    This post was surprisingly reasonable.

    • “The “life begins at conception” has some unresolved issues involving fertilized eggs not going to term”

      Not half so many as “life begins at birth” because there the mortality rate is 100%.

  7. Pro-lifers see a difference in the case of rape is not because the baby is not fully human, but because in this one particular case, the mother’s permission was not asked (in the case of rape), and thus there really is an inherent unsolvable conflict, between two legitimate goods. In the case of rape, the mother has the right to refuse to carry to term for the same reason ‘x’ has the right to _not_ donate a life-saving organ to ‘y’. ‘Y’ is human, but there are limits to the compulsory involuntary claims Y can have on X.

    So in the case of rape, ‘my body my choice’ is seen as legitimate. It’s tragic, but there’s no solution.

    The rest of the time, as pro-lifers see it, it’s not. She _made her choice_ by engaging in consensual sex, which constitutes permission to pregnancy by definition, and there is no inherent right to change her mind afterward, she owes a duty to the child whether she wants to or not.

    Note that one implication of this belief that their opponents tend to recoil from is that by implication, there’s no such thing as casual sex. It’s always a serious thing.

  8. As Dale notes, there are underlying and not even entirely conscious motives on both sides along with the basic and conscious (and usually sincere) beliefs. It’s the culture war at full boil, a disagreement that comes down, at root, to a basic disagreement about the nature of reality. Neither side wants to live in a society that is based on the core beliefs they sense in the other side, since they consider those beliefs to be (at best) wrong and (quite possibly) actively evil.

    The same divide surfaces all over our politics and legal system. Neither side accepts votes or judicial rulings in favor of the other as being fully legitimate, for the same reason they wouldn’t consider a majority vote or a judicial ruling that ‘2+2=5’ to be fully legitimate. The issues involve transcend laws and constitutions, and go to the heart of what people take to be self-evidently true. Abortion is the issue where the divide is most _intense_, but it pops up in things like gay marriage, national sovereignty, rights of parents and children, rights of adoption, in indirect forms it surfaces in economic debate.

    If abortion is child murder, then to say that the Constitution guarantees a right to abortion is to say that the Constitution is morally invalid. Most pro-lifers thus argue that this means _Roe_ is illegitimate. If self-determination and self-realization are rights, then gay marriage must obviously be valid and legitimate. If only heterosexual monogamy is objectively valid as a basis for marriage, they gay marriage literally _can’t exist_, and a court ruling or law to the contrary is in the same category as a law mandating that 2+2=5.

    In disputes that go to such basic definitions, all either side can do is scream at the other, and try to force each other off the stage, since each side has already rejected the other side’s arguments before the debate even began.

  9. Or we could pick a case with extremely hard conflicts between practical necessity and reality: Down’s syndrome. Reports are that at least 90% of fetuses with Down’s syndrome are aborted. Now Down’s syndrome isn’t fatal, but it’s a serious burden on a family (from the point of view of a family as a device for turning income into descendants). I gather that this phenomenon is not tightly correlated to the political leanings of the area in which the mother lives. So this is a case with maximal conflict between our ideals and our interests… and the results are not pretty.

    • Down’s is not a hard case, because most children who are born with Down’s will have some measure of independence and a reasonable (if truncated) life span. No, the hard cases are the ones like trisomy 13 or 18, where something like 99% of the children will die, and die badly, during infancy.

  10. “As you can probably tell by reading this post, I’m not ready to mount it either. Make no mistake: I’m pro-choice. ”

    But if it comes to defending that stance: Hey ladies, you’re on your own.

    Soldiarity for-evah!

  11. Megan– But what about after 20 weeks? At that point, at least some percent of babies are viable (and the percent increases exponentially with each passing week.) And, at that point, the standard of care for a woman experiencing life threatening complications is to deliver the baby and then treat BOTH patients. So why should late-term abortion ever be permitted?

    Even these ‘feel good’ stories about late term abortions are off, because there was no need to kill the child to end the pregnancy…

  12. I’m pro-choice (pro-abortion actually), but I’ll note that govt has no problem taking over my body for 20-30% of my adult life (taxes) and will happily take it all (the draft). The former even applies to women….

    • You’re the only other person I’ve ever come across to hit on the relevance of conscription to abortion as it’s the one commonly acknowledged instance in which the government can claim rights over my body and well being (nor does conscientious objection nullify the point since CO’s traditionally ended up as medics or something similar — still putting their physical organism on the line even if they weren’t doing any killing). Ironic, from my perspective, that you’re pro-choice.

  13. “But they are not okay with abortion as the pro-choice movement sees it, which is that right up to the point where the baby is born, you ought to be able to terminate the pregnancy for any reason.”

    Why the straw-man argument? Point out to me a pro-choice organization that holds this position??? Nobody thinks this — why are you saying people do?

    • NARAL, for example; they block any attempt to restrict late term abortion. http://www.prochoiceamerica.org/media/press-releases/2013/pr05172013.html

      A Planned Parenthood rep in Florida also stated that she thought that doctors ought to be able to kill late term infants that were accidentally born during an abortion.

      The movement’s stalwarts don’t exactly highlight their opposition to late-term abortion restrictions, but in fact they oppose any and all such restrictions, and both their actions and words make it clear that in their ideal world, elective abortion would be legal right up to the ninth month. This obviously does not describe the majority of pro-life people, but as in most movements, the activists and the professionals are considerably more extreme than the modal person who identifies with the movement.

  14. The more I think about issues like this, the more I get back the faith in democracy that knowledge-of-basic-facts surveys take away. Most people don’t manage philosophical consistency or in-depth knowledge, but the instinctive view of tradeoffs seems to be pretty decent on a lot of issues. Wonks miss out on things like that too often while we chase our perfect policies.

  15. I am a atheist “pro-lifer”.

    I’m not a fanatic, first trimester abortions do not bother me.

    I base my definition of life exactly like my definition of death- brain activity indicating cognitive function (Terry Schiavo need not apply). Current science says that’s somewhere between 20-22 weeks gestation.

    I heard about a woman in 1964 in rural PA who slipped on the stairs, and broke her water(and also ruptured her large intestine). She was 30 weeks pregnant at the time. The doctors in the Catholic funded hospital recommended aborting her child before surgery because of the risk to the mother’s life from peritonitis, but she gave birth to a 4 lb 2 oz “blue” baby who spent his first month in an incubator due to being born with two collapsed lungs.

    This led the doctors to warning her that her child was likely to be “retarded” due to the lack of oxygen at birth.

    The kid was a fricking moron… he didn’t walk until 18 months, and didn’t talk in sentences before his second birthday.

    Until he hit kindergarten- then he was tested w/ Iowa Skills/ Stanford-Binet- and both placed him at 150+ IQ.(fourth grade vocab, 5th grade math)

    Thanks, mom!

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