On reading Ross Douthat’s column on abortion and the comments that follow

All Abortions are not Equal” is one of the best opinion pieces I’ve read on the abortion issue in some time. Douthat provides some perspective on the career of George Tiller. It’s one thing to read the phrase “late-term abortion” over and over again, especially by opponents of the procedure, but it’s quite another to acknowledge the reality that too often surrounds it:

Tiller did abortions in third trimester, when almost no one else would do them – which meant, inevitably, that he handled the hardest of hard cases. He performed abortions on 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. His Wichita, Kan., office, barricaded against protesters, was reportedly lined with thank-you notes.

As Douthat writes, these and other testimonials “help explain why so many Americans defend his right to do it.”

Douthat is also informative. I didn’t know that “Even the now-outlawed “partial-birth” procedure, which abortion-rights supporters initially argued was only employed in the direst of dire situations, turned out to be used primarily for purely elective abortions.” What is the evidence for this? Someone lied through his teeth.

Douthat is also succinct:

“Either a fetus has a claim to life or it doesn’t. The circumstances of its conception and the state of its health shouldn’t enter into the equation. But the 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.

It’s also clear what Douthat wants, and I can’t see how anybody can argue against this: “laws with more respect for human life, a culture less inflamed by a small number of tragic cases — and a political debate, God willing, unmarred by crimes like George Tiller’s murder.”

I was, however, pretty sure that people would, or at least that the column would have its fair share of detractors. So I clicked onto the comments. Here’s the first, from Norman in Oklahoma:

There is only one person who can decide whether an abortion is justified, and that is the pregnant woman.

End of discussion.

At the time of my reading, 292 people recommended Norman’s comment. As usual, when confronted with this argument, such as it is, I find it very hard to disagree. Of course the pregnant woman is the only person justified in making this sort of decision. So many people say so, and say so with a great deal of passion and conviction. And then I do begin to disagree anyway. Hasn’t Norman – assuming he is male – actually disqualified himself from the argument? Why then does he bother leaving a comment here – to argue in favor of his own disqualification? Why “End of discussion”? It clearly isn’t, at least to judge from the comments that follow. Less obviously, what if the that pregnant woman is in a coma? What if the pregnant woman is 17 years old? What if she’s 34 years old? Do such distinctions make a difference? Why or why not? Then, maybe a little uncharitably, I wonder if “End of discussion” is actually revealing of a Pro-choice hastening towards terminality in general.

So I read the next comment, from Dan Styer of Oberlin, Ohio:

Ross Douthat claims that

“The argument for unregulated abortion rests on the idea that where there are exceptions, there cannot be a rule.”

This claim is absurd. No one argues for unregulated abortion. Supporters of abortion rights argue that abortion must be regulated to make it safe. Opponents of abortion rights argue that abortion must be regulated to make it impossible. No one supports “unregulated abortion.”

Is this a fair point? Well, up to a point. Styer is certainly correct that supporters of abortion rights do want regulation – i.e., laws – to make it safe. I also think a fair reading of Douthat’s use of the term “unregulated abortion” is that it results in abortion any time, anywhere. But maybe Douthat should have chosen his words more carefully. Then again, nothing anybody says or writes is ever going to be the perfect truth (thus the need for “End of discussion” reactions), so just how much more carefully does one have to write? The issues isn’t simply one of semantics. Dan was recommended by 172 readers at that time.

I then scroll through a number of comments that don’t interest me as much. I get to No. 8, from— “Pa_in_Pa” in Indiana, PA :

While Mr. Douthat makes a good point about our need to have a public discussion and vote on abortion, rather than leaving abortion in the hands of a changeful board of justices, I am chary of a people’s ability to determine the issue, even democratically, about what constitutes human life (or full human life). History is replete with too many examples of peoples who have defined others to be sub-human or non-human, and then done what they wanted with them. We no longer accept (most if not all of) these culturally defined conceptions.

The cruz of the problem is that we are left with either posing the question as an absolute or as a concept relative both to (our) culture and to (our) history. If this observation is correct, the anti-abortion folks have a logical advantage. Either human life does or does not exist at some time from conception to a “natural” death. All other choices are humanly contrived (arbitrary) moments.

A modest proposal would be to frame the debate in terms of our realization that we do not truly value all human life equally in practice anyway. Abortion then becomes a matter of deciding what is politically viable in the determination of what constitutes human life, and then hope that we never end up on the sub-human or non-human end of the scale. Future generations may look back and condemn us as barbaric by their standards for our decision, but by then we will be long dead.

“Now we’re getting somewhere”, I say to myself. Good old Intractability, you never fail me. And who is “Pa_in_Pa”? Is he in fact a father? Would this fact make him more or less qualified to debate the question? Would Norman in Oklahoma be willing to let him in on the discussion? I note that Pa_in_Pa is only recommended by 11 Readers. This saddens me, as it’s the best comment I’ve read so far, and yet only 11 other people even think it’s worth reading. Then I’m glad, because I haven’t let this modest attempt at polling determine what I value in comments. I don’t think I do. Then, frankly, I get depressed, again, knowing that polling in some form or another certainly has determined what I value in comments, reading in general, and really just about everything. I am a mouse surrounded by cats, a plaything of the gods, a cog in some infinite and infernal machine that is ever more rapidly falling into deeper and deeper depths of darkness.

I see that the next comment is from Laura in Seattle, and I am heartened by the simple fact that a fellow Seattlelite is falling with me:

A woman is around 11 times more likely to die from carrying a pregnancy to term than from having an abortion. Pregnant women are more likely to die of strokes, heart attacks, pulmonary emboli, and breast cancer than women who undergo abortions–they are also more likely to be murdered. If we’re willing to allow pregnant women to have abortions because the pregnancy is endangering their life, this would allow every pregnant woman an abortion. Perhaps it’s time to stop devoting so much energy to restricting the ability of women to make their own medical decisions, and devote some of that energy to improving the health of all women and children with limited access to health care.

Actually, she isn’t falling, or failing, at all. She makes a good point, or rather she lists some good facts – because that’s what we need here: more facts. And after listing these facts, she does make a good point, that we need to devote more energy to improving the health of women and children. Nothing to argue there. Laura, unsurprisingly but not unfairly, is recommended by 232 readers. I just wish she’d given us the sources for that information.

My attention is quickly caught by B. Mull, of Orange County, CA. He certainly has something to say:

You know, it takes a lot of nerve to come out with a blame-the-victim diatribe like this in the wake of Dr. Tiller’s murder. I would think the anti-choice terrorist mob would want to lay low this week. Please try to recognize your personal religious beliefs. They are not based on scientific reality. They are not based on the right of self-determination. They are not even based on what’s good for children. In short, feel free to impose an abortion ban on yourself. Otherwise, back off!

Yikes. I want to do just that – back off – but conscience (in my case, admittedly formed by my personal religious beliefs) demands that I point out a couple of things, pose a few questions, if only to myself: (1) Douthat’s column probably did take some nerve to write, as well as a lot of work; (2) It is hardly a diatribe; (3) When and how does Douthat blame the victim? (4) “anti-choice terrorist mob” refers to what, to whom? (5) What does it mean to “recognize” one’s personal religious beliefs? Could Douthat be doing just that? (6) What is meant by “scientific reality”? (7) How does one define what’s good for children? How actually does one define the term “children”?

Comment #13 is from John Conrad in Manhattan:

A man telling a woman what to do with her body. Let me guess – he’s probably a Catholic, a conservative, a Republican. And he probably believes philosophy ended in 1274 (hint: the year Thomas Aquinas died).

In the absence of a materially definitive and therefore legally dispositive determination of when life begins, we should trust a woman and her doctor to decide if and when to have an abortion. Is this too hard for the party of serial divorces (Newt, Giulliani, McCain, etc) pedophilia (the Catholic Church), and homophobia (the Mormorns) to understand? Leave women alone. Haven’t you blamed her enough since Eden?

Well, that ought to settle that. And John Conrad is recommended by 313 readers.

There are many other fine comments, but I have a life and I need to move on. I’m not surprised that most of the comments reflect a Pro-choice position, although I admit that I am somewhat surprised by how reasonable these claims are. The last one on the first page -from Laura, in Philadelphia – seems an appropriate place to … leave. It’s indicative of this very reasonability; articulate, to the point, and allowing for those awful “grey areas”. But the punctuation bugs me.

I’m not particularly concerned with your personal beliefs about what constitutes a “justified” abortion. If we as a society can agree that there are gray areas with regard to pregnancy termination, then we have a responsibility to create and uphold laws that reflect these gray areas. What constitutes a threat to the health or life of the mother is one gray area. The morality of termination before viability is another. Reasonable people can come to very different conclusions about what is “right” in these circumstances. Because of this, I trust women to make decisions regarding their own medical care when living in these gray areas, and I trust their doctors to provide appropriate medical guidance and care in these circumstances. End. Of. Story.

Well, no it isn’t, and this seems to me the most salient point of all.


  1. Anonymous says

    Birds News in Her Hair can wait a night or two for my next comments.

  2. Anonymous says

    I meant to say Birds 'Nest'.

    I had an abortion when I was about 30. There seemed no question about it. The father was a younger man with whom I had been in a brief relationship, had been infatuated with, had split up from, and later came to like – he was a decent person. But when I found out I was pregnant I was horrified that part of him was growing inside me. If you are male you simply can't understand the feeling. Minor considerations were that I was no longer in a relationship (very minor as an ex partner, the only person I confided in, offered to look after the child), would have been afraid to admit it to my family, and that I had taken medication that might have affected the foetus.

  3. Anonymous says

    And yet nearer the abortion I started to smoke less – and not because I didn't feel like it.

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