Sunday, June 07, 2009

How Progressives Can Take Over (both sides of) The Abortion Debate

An unprecedented political convergence is on the horizon. Its realization helps bury the GOP, forces the Democrats to confront their right-wing beliefs and elements, brings together religious believers and nonbelievers, and pushes forward a social justice agenda that, if ever realized, would ameliorate suffering in countless ways. This is the convergence of progressive pro-life forces, with fair-minded progressive pro-choice adherents, and the movement that achieves this will be the leftward movement of the 21st century.

Even if the recent faulty poll placing a majority of Americans in a "pro-life" category were true, this could never establish that such attitudes resembled the Pat Robertson or Scott Roeder sense of "pro-life." Instead, many (perhaps a majority of) Americans are are extremely morally uncomfortable with abortion, and dissatisfied that militant choice proponents so often sidestep that moral ambivalence and seem to lash out the hardest against those who sit on the fence. Because of GOP system failure, the constant exposure of hypocrisy and misleadership among the conservative evangelical camp, and the violence encouraged by Operation Rescue and people like Robertson, and perpetrated by pawns like Scott Roeder, it is now necessary to qualify the term "pro-life" with conservative or progressive.

The conservative pro-life imperative is now in shambles, and ironically more doctors will be able to perform more abortions with less political and cultural resistance as a result of the murder of Dr. George Tiller. More importantly, the right-wing pro-life (hereafter rwpl) position is inexorably tied to that violence. The conservative pro-life movement has been delegitimized by the anti-abortion violence it has to own, since its adherents can't make a coherent case as to why they, themselves, are not also morally required to kill abortion doctors (see Damon Linker's fine discussion of this at his blog). This is evident in the way rwpl leaders, ministers, bloggers, commentators, and public statements have either clumsily attempted to distance themselves from Roeder's act, put Tiller's medical procedures on par with Roeder's act or, in some cases, openly celebrated Tiller's murder.

Stopping doctors from performing abortions or women from having them done now requires violence. If Roe were ever to be overturned, that would still be true. In a world of restrictions, people will continue to seek abortions, and the harms of unequal access will possess an even greater magnitude than they do now. It is for this reason that the rejection of the violence of Roeder exposes the logic of violence, a different quality of violence to be sure, behind those who insist on establishing legal restrictions on abortion prior to changing the social contexts from which abortions emerge.

No progressive pro-lifers are ready to hold their breath and vote Republican. It doesn't outweigh. "Republicans who claim to be pro-life also often have anti-life policies that are completely in collusion with the social and economic structures that compel abortion," says Kevin Clarke, interviewed in the important 2004 Sojourners article "No Place to Stand." Now, there is a place to stand politically, even if the third party that will support such pluralism hasn't been completely built under it. The people are waiting, and so is the space.

The Democratic Party itself is a uniquely bad place for pro-lifers because most of the Democratic leadership doesn't even want a _discussion_ of the matter. Pro-life progressives find themselves uncomfortable on several levels in that party. Independent progressives, greens and democratic socialists, on the other hand, love political discussions and philosophical arguments too much to shun colleagues who wish to include concern for the unborn in a larger progressive agenda. Yes, those debates will be robust. But they will be guided by principles the two major parties cannot currently provide: a commitment to rationality unfiltered by mass media and corporate ideology (unlike the Democrats) and a wholesale rejection of associating with irrational religious extremists (unlike the GOP). The problem with Democrats for Life is that they can't get their priorities straight. Restricting access is not a winner for pro-life progressives, but DfL pushes for those things (inside a party that will never allow it, of course). It puts them in bed with partners they don't want to share a bed with, even for a night.

Reasonable people with moral or other objections to abortion have only one direction to go. That direction has been available to them for some time. Progressive, feminist, and socialist pro-life forces have been quiet members of the scene since conversations about reproductive rights emerged in the 1960s. Feminists for Life has been around since 1972. The essays by feminists and socialists concerned about abortion, some of the best ones collected in a wonderful anthology, Swimming Against the Tide: Feminist Dissent on the Issue of Abortion, edited by Angela Kennedy, made me realize that there is a voice for those who see an ultimate end to abortion as fully consistent with progressive politics: Extending moral consideration to a wider and more diverse circle of living existence, and constantly expanding the meaning of "majority." Many religious progressives were inspired by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who spoke out against nuclear weapons, the death penalty and abortion and popularized the "consistent life ethic." Such believers still hold to his declaration that "When human life is considered 'cheap' or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy."

Rozalyn Farmer Love is a third-year medical student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. In an editorial today in the Washington Post, she describes growing up in a staunchly anti-choice home, a conservative religious home, and about feeling a common thread with those opposed to abortion even as she completes medical school. Of late-term abortions, she writes:
It wasn't until I spent time in ultrasound rooms during a research job in graduate school that I began to see late-trimester abortions in a very different light. In one case, the patient's baby had just been diagnosed with a lethal congenital anomaly. The high likelihood was that it wouldn't survive after birth for more than a few minutes. As long as the baby remained in her mother's womb, however, she would live. I asked the physician what this woman's options were. The answer was, not many. She could choose to continue the pregnancy, but then she might be waiting for almost 20 more weeks to give birth to a baby that would never take more than a few breaths on its own. She was past the point where she could legally terminate the pregnancy in Alabama. If she could get an appointment in Atlanta within the next week, she might be able to have the procedure there. Beyond that, there were only a few physicians in the nation who would perform an abortion in such a case.
I could hardly wrap my mind around the agony that this woman and her husband must have been facing. They needed a caring and compassionate physician to help them through this dark moment, and if they chose not to continue the pregnancy, they also needed a physician who was both skilled enough and brave enough to provide them with the care they needed. They needed Dr. Tiller.

The new political space I am talking about is especially made for people like Ms. Love. If she goes to the Democrats, they will tell her she needs to get over her moral qualms (or the Democrats for Life caucus will tell her to help take the Roe plank out of the party platform). If she goes to the GOP, she will be told that doctors should not ever perform abortions. Someone might even shoot her.

The rwpl's hegemony over America's moral qualms with abortion has resulted in a singular religious view, with only skepticism as its alternative. However, there is a pluralistic religious basis for finding abortion morally objectionable and regrettable, but not worthy of a murder charge, and not worthy of preventative assassination. That alternative is the view that most people "on the fence," and quite a few people on both sides, hold whether they're explicitly aware of it or not. This type of belief requires empathy (a term that conservatives have attacked in a different context, although those attacks, too, demonstrated why the progressive move towards interconnectedness and care scares the shit out of the GOP and the corporatocracy). It requires a commitment to religious pluralism. It requires a sense of interconnectedness and mutual submission. It requires humility. It does not require the abandonment of core Christian beliefs, though it might demand of its adherents a skeptical attitude towards the pronouncements of purported Christian authorities. Such skepticism won't scare off those who are drifting towards progressivism, though, since they are probably a corollary to the increasing number of Americans professing agnosticism and atheism. We are slowly drifting towards the liberalization and democratization of religion, and progressive Christians would rather work with nonbelievers than potential Pat Robertsons or, to be sure, Scott Roeders.

The convergence of consistent life folks and reproductive rights adherents also holds the best chance of developing political, economic and cultural solutions to unwanted pregnancy, poverty, and irresponsible parenthood. Since the only solution that would satisfy all parties in the abortion debate is one which renders unwanted pregnancy either impossible to begin with (a question of technological possibility) or completely without material inconvenience (a question of political economy), these are the directions we should take our debates. Progressives now control all sides of the abortion debate. Pro-life consciousness is the consciousness of the interconnectedness of all life and death. The reproductive choice imperative is an acknowledgement of the fundamental needs of women. No other political entity can absorb those currently (but not inevitably) paradoxical positions.

To hold this position, we need to sustain and even encourage the vigorous debate between those among us who are anti-abortion and those who are committed chiefly to women's reproductive rights. Right now, the ranks of the latter outnumber the ranks of the former but--this is the important part--this will change. More and more progressive-minded Christians and others will walk away from conservatism as they see that in the abortion debate, as well as in most other political debates, the far right, apocalypse-informed view of conservative Christianity is ultimately either a resignation to a fallen, ugly world, or a ruse for the powerful, a stalking horse for future neoconservatives to mobilize uncritical human resources.

What is especially important about this convergence is that, while those on the left have always felt confident in saying "progressive is pro-life," few people entertained the slogan "pro-life is progressive." Tied to the patriarchal, violent, apocalyptic Christian subculture, it wasn't anywhere near progressive. Tied to an emerging group of fair-minded, socially-committed activists, it has the potential to take the national debate about abortion to an entirely new level: a progressive level. Economic justice is pro-life. Anti-war is pro-life. Anti-death penalty is pro-life. Universal health care is pro-life. Punishing women for sexuality is pro-death. Insisting on abstinence education programs that undoubtedly fail is pro-death.

Moreover, it is precisely the unresolved nature of the abortion debate that can and will drive us to be like-minded in building a world without a death-imperative, without forced choices and false moralizing. In other words, pro-life and pro-choice progressives can continue to debate about abortion, but within a larger frame of agreement about the world we're working toward. Eventually, that debate will become very different, much more beautiful, complex, and educational, than it is today.

I'm declaring the relevant part of the abortion debate to be post-violence, post-restriction, and post-conservative. I imagine fair-minded people may find exceptions to this declaration, but my guess is that an increasing number of pro-lifers will move in that threefold direction in the months and years to come.


Paula Reed said...

This is the position I have been yearning for. I believe that life begins at conception. Any other definition is arbitrary. Would we really support on-demand abortion at 8 months? Of course not. At some point, even before birth, we see that fetus as human. How do you pick a moment?

I saw my very planned son's heartbeat at 8 weeks by ultrasound. He was absolutely human to me, even then. A preliminary blood test at 12 weeks indicated possible genetic issues--a condition that would have proven absolutely fatal. I got the results of more accurate tests at 16 weeks and everything was fine, thank God, but if it hadn't been? Carry him to term knowing he would die? I don't think I could have.

Now, I have a 14-year-old daughter, and if a pregnancy were to threaten her life or well-being, well SHE is my first obligation. I would want to have access to the means of protecting her.

Of course, to me, it's important that she not face that situation. That's why she (and my son, who is now 18) went through very thorough and very accurate sex education at church. If only every young person had access to a sex ed program like that. Just think of the number of abortions we'd prevent.

This is where the conservative pro-life movement misses the boat. It promotes policies like abstinence-only programs that result in more unwanted pregnancies, not fewer, and hence, more abortions.

This just can't be a black-and-white issue. Those of us who see the gray areas (and I think it's probably most of us) need representation.

Jen R said...


I love that you talk about "The convergence of consistent life folks and reproductive rights adherents".

This is almost exactly the vision I have for All Our Lives -- I'm even considering basing the logo on a Venn diagram.

"In other words, pro-life and pro-choice progressives can continue to debate about abortion, but within a larger frame of agreement about the world we're working toward. Eventually, that debate will become very different, much more beautiful, complex, and educational, than it is today."

YES. We need a completely different abortion debate than the one we are having today.

I like to imagine what the abortion debate would look like if everyone agreed on the following principles: the embryo/fetus is a human being; a pregnant women does not lose all right to bodily integrity by virtue of being pregnant; contraception and comprehensive, factual sex education should be available to everyone; and the social factors which cause women to feel that they have no choice but abortion or adoption (including but not limited to poverty, discrimination, and fear of violence) should be ended.

I do have to quibble with your characterization of Democrats for Life a bit. Their primary legislative focus is on getting measures like the Pregnant Woman Support Act passed, not on restricting access to abortion.

Matthew Stannard said...

Paula: I couldn't have said anything you said any better.

Jen: I was hoping you would read this. Okay, educate me on DfL, because I went with the limited information I had. I'd happily re-write the DfL section with better information. I would be at odds with any restrictive legislation, and would support any supportive legislation. :)

Anonymous said...

An important discussion.

As I work through the various relevant moral issues, I come to the conclusion that progressives must support a woman’s right to choose an abortion if she so determines. But this conclusion is not reached without some appreciation for the difficult moral issues and an agreement that progressive positions are truly pro-life. A consistent pro-life ethic is the very last thing the Operation Rescue folks want.

The reason I take the pro-choice view ultimately rests on two foundational beliefs.

The first is that even in arguably morally complex contexts – especially in morally complex contexts – to accept limitations on the right of women to choose how to manage their health is not a position I can embrace. The “prevent unwanted pregnancies” argument is a canard, to me; everyone supports that, no pro-choice person is anti-prevention. But these are not the hard and complex moral cases. It truly is a diversion to nowhere as far as navigating the moral quandaries. The pertinent moral question must assume cases where a woman has decided for whatever reasons good or bad to terminate her pregnancy. In this case, do I support standing in the way of her acting on that choice? I cannot conclude yes. Can not. It is the ultimate denial of personal autonomy. That is the question that must be answered by the parties to this debate because that is the legal and policy question attached to the outcome of the moral debate.

From this first point stems the second, which is what is the social outcome of embracing the pro-life position given the current configuration of political power in the US? Achieving the progressive pro-life world – the world where abortion is not an available choice if it is to be a position other than contraception and women’s rights good – where there is health care for all, murderous wars abroad are ended and economic justice at home is achieved, etc. will take a very long time. I am not as sanguine about this outcome in the near term as this post from Matt seems to indicate he might be. So in the interim between here and there, we must always consider the political fallout of our advocacy. The right to choose is under assault, including but not limited to the wackos like Roeder that we all abhor. It is clear, to me at least, that their agenda is the control of women and the protection of patriarchal power. And they are not merely a few percent of folks willing to violently impose their will on women and doctors etc. Those are just the shock troops for a much larger army (not a majority, but a very large army nonetheless). Their goals are strongly rejected by feminists for life and progressive pro-life folks. Thank goodness. But to weaken the dam holding back those others by retaining in law and policy everywhere the right for women to make their own medical choices in favor of pursuing this nuanced and ambitious progressive pro-life position is to assume we will ultimately win the debate on life across the board. That is not clear to me, at least not likely enough and soon enough to weaken that dam.

The better priority of emphasis, it seems to me, and I appreciate this is an argument worth having, is to fight for the full, unfettered right of women to choose now, frustrating the patriarchal impulse that rests on control of the body. It is not to complicate that clear principle now while we are still relatively weak (relative to where we hope to be some day) and they are still relatively strong (compared to where we want them to be). It seems more reasonable and better strategy to me to win some of these other progressive agenda items, strengthening our positioning, weakening theirs, and achieving much of the progressive agenda that I think is needed to ensure the outcome of the choice debate does not end with a victory for the hard right despite our intentions. T.E. Jacobsen

Matthew Stannard said...

TEJ, I agree with you 100%. My vision of how to orient this new political positioning is to offer progressives the opportunity to foster a debate about abortion from within the space of choice. Given the inevitability of moral ambivalence about abortion, discuss and debate that while remaining committed to (and, indeed, proactively fighting for) reproductive rights to be preserved at all levels--politically, legally, medically. That's what I meant when I said the new abortion politics would be "post-restriction." I would like to post your comment on the Shared Sacrifice Feedback Loop next week, if you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

Feel free. TEJ.