Gender Equality Is Not Possible Without Abortion

Gender Equality Is Not Possible Without Abortion

Gender Equality Is Not Possible Without Abortion

And a few other last words to Ross Douthat.


It’s taken me a while to get back to Ross Douthat’s responses (Parts I and II) to my questions for pro-lifers. (Here’s my first reply.) But if you’re still following along at home, I’ve replied to the rest of his points below.

Can there be a compromise between pro-choicers and pro-lifers on abortion? To tell you the truth, I had a bit of trouble following Douthat here. He seems to be suggesting that the US is working its way toward a more restrictive abortion regime, some mix of the national and state restrictions that are currently on the table—20-week bans, defunding Planned Parenthood, with bans at 10 or 12 weeks in some states, and probably other limits as well, at the same time as expanding social safety net programs like Obamacare. For him, that’s a compromise, nothing major, just “a slightly more European place”—though he admits that he himself, and the pro-life movement, would not accept it. I’ve got to stop him right there.

As I wrote when Douthat was comparing Texas laws that would close half the state’s clinics to the abortion laws of France, it’s only on paper that Western Europe is more restrictive than the United States. True, in most of those countries—although not the Netherlands and Great Britain—time limits are stricter; some have waiting periods, counseling, and other requirements. In more important ways, though, abortion access is easier and fairer than here: The procedure is generally covered by national health insurance (Germany is an exception, but covers it for low-income women), is widely available, and does not require the patient to run a gauntlet of clinic protesters—or the clinic employees to risk their lives. I don’t support those European restrictions, but their intention and effect are very far from superficially similar proposals in the US, which are all about shaming women, raising costs, hampering providers and preventing women from accessing abortion at all.

Anyway, these supposedly moderate restrictions are a pundit’s fantasy. For those new “European” limits to come to pass, Roe would have to go and then there would be no way to limit restrictions to the ones people told pollsters they liked. Lawmakers could do whatever they wanted—so much for compromise. North Dakota could close its one remaining clinic, Louisiana could activate the law, currently on its books, which would put anyone who intentionally killed an “unborn child” in prison for up to 15 years at hard labor, and Maryland could be the third-trimester abortion capital of the world. Americans could fight the abortion wars, regulation by regulation, election by election, state by state, and uterus by uterus, till the end of time. In practice, fortunate women living in anti-abortion states would travel to get safe abortions and the rest would suffer.

As for his own preferences, Douthat is willing to countenance “public provision of non-abortifacient contraceptives” (adults only) in return for increased restrictions on abortion. That only sounds like a compromise if you don’t look at the fine print: actually, it would mean less contraceptive coverage than women have now. In theory, at least, teenage girls can get contraception through the Affordable Care Act and through public programs like Title X and Medicaid and in theory, at least, those programs cover IUDs and emergency contraception (Douthat’s “abortifiacients”). So in return for more abortion restrictions, we would have less access to birth control. What kind of compromise is that?

What about men? Douthat argues that pro-lifers are very concerned about male irresponsibility, and claims it’s pro-choicers who let men off the hook: Before Roe, men married the women they impregnated. Now abortion lets them leave the woman holding the bag—or the baby. Would banning abortion bring back the shotgun wedding? I don’t think so. Look at Douthat’s favorite example, Ireland, where abortion is virtually banned, yet 36 percent of children are currently born out of wedlock. While, as elsewhere, some of that involves committed couples, it is not hard to find Irish women whose story of abortion or single motherhood includes a man who abandoned her when she told him she was pregnant.

My original question was a little different, though. It was: Given that it takes two to make a baby, are abortion opponents concerned that their position means placing heavy burdens on women that are not placed on men? No law ever forced men to marry their pregnant girlfriends, after all, and plenty did not—and in any case being pressured to marry applies to the woman as well. Child support helps a little, but paying a modest sum—which many men manage to evade—doesn’t begin to equal the intensive labor that raising a child requires, or the effect of having a baby on a woman’s life chances in every area. Fact is, no man undergoes what the woman he impregnates endures to produce a baby, which can include serious physical and emotional trauma and even death. Abortion bans affect only women. That does not seem to trouble Douthat.

But then, Douthat does not accept that women need to be able to control their fertility in order to achieve equality. Again, look at Ireland! It’s certainly true that abortion rights aren’t all women need to progress, but seriously, a couple of statistics cherry-picked from The Economist doesn’t begin to draw a picture. Fact is, Ireland is a deeply patriarchal country—the last Magdalene Laundry closed down not even 20 years ago; it has plenty of domestic violence, the lowest conviction rate for rape in Europe, an unusually low percent of female political representation. That many Irish women manage to get an education and hold a job and almost all survive childbirth doesn’t mean that plenty of Irish women don’t have their dreams dashed and their lives damaged by unwanted and ill-timed childbearing.

How would pro-lifers guarantee gender equality without abortion? As for Douthat’s argument that abortion restrictions in the US have coincided with advances for women in many areas, that hardly proves that legal abortion is irrelevant. If one of Douthat’s daughters got accidentally pregnant in high school or college—it happens, even among the elite—does he really think having a baby wouldn’t make a difference in her life, probably not for the better? What the apparently modest effect of abortion restrictions on women’s statistical advances shows is that women with a good chance at college and career tend to use birth control effectively and will go through a lot to get an abortion if they need one. It doesn’t tell us, though, how many women would be better off if they had been able to control their fertility.

Douthat offers a rosy picture of a US in which abortion is banned but women are able to combine motherhood and work and lead healthy and prosperous lives, despite having children under all sorts of discouraging circumstances. He compares pro-choicers, who see abortion as necessary for women to achieve social and economic equality, to 19th-century social Darwinists who accepted horrific factory conditions as the price to pay for the industrial revolution. It’s not a great analogy. For one thing, pro-choicers want abortion rights for themselves; social Darwinists wanted to impose their views on others—much like today’s pro-lifers. For another, the analogy begs the very question at issue: it assumes that ending a pregnancy is like working people to death on starvation wages, i.e., that fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses are persons, pregnant women are comparable to cruel greedy industrialists, and pro-choice advocates like me are pseudoscientific rationalizers of an unjust social order. None of that makes sense.

It’s great that a prominent pro-lifer talks about making a better society for mothers and children, even if his suggestions are rather weak, but, short of matriarchy, there’s only so much any society can do to lighten the burden of forced childbearing. Are teenage mothers going to get preference for college acceptance? Are mothers of three going to be given first crack at decent jobs? I don’t think so. Douthat’s case would be stronger if he just admitted that, yes, banning abortion will mean hardship for many women. They will have less ability to express themselves sexually, even within marriage, less freedom and independence, and less ability to shape their own lives. They will be worse off physically and, often, emotionally. Men will have more ability to dominate them (has Douthat ever heard of reproductive coercion?). Many will drop out of school, give up careers and good jobs, and never use their gifts and talents to the full. They will be poorer, more dependent, more stressed, more resentful and less happy. Their children, born to unwilling mothers in difficult circumstances, will do less well. But it will all be worth it because saving fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses is what really matters.

In any case, it’s pretty much pro-choice feminists who are trying to make a more family-friendly country in which motherhood doesn’t limit women’s horizons—I don’t think Anne-Marie Slaughter is going to be joining the March for Life any time soon. I would never say all pro-lifers want to put women back in the kitchen. But we don’t hear much concrete from this powerful political movement, which forms the base of one of the two major parties, about how to make that world in which women would be willing to bear however many children they conceived, no matter when they conceived them or with whom, because doing so would not badly affect their lives.

Does “personhood” make any sense? On the issues of the personhood of the fertilized egg, embryo and fetus, and the question of miscarriage, and of abortion as murder, Douthat argues against punishing the woman, while acknowledging that his position isn’t strictly logical. He seems unaware that that concept of personhood has already been used to arrest women for their conduct during pregnancy and for what they claim are miscarriages in many states, deploying laws against feticide that pro-lifers swore would never be used against pregnant women. Real women, again often young, poor and in crisis, are suffering. In some countries where the Catholic Church is powerful, like El Salvador, women have been sentenced to long prison terms for supposed abortions that may well be miscarriages—but I suppose Douthat will dismiss that fact as irrelevant because these are underdeveloped countries. He should talk to Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, who has defended women charged with feticide and fetal assault right here in the US of A.

In sum: To my mind, he has yet to grasp the real-life nettle of his own position, and relies too much on wishful thinking—illegal abortion won’t be dangerous (except for a few unfortunate women), women don’t need abortion to have gender equality, and so on. He thinks that because he is open to certain limits on pro-life positions—surely no one is crazy enough to treat miscarriages like crime scenes!—the movement he supports feels the same way, and if not, the voters will right the balance, so no harm done. Maybe the voters will indeed right the balance, but Douthat surely knows how much suffering can occur before government catches up with reality. At bottom, he writes as if there would be no real loss for women in banning abortion, but surely American women would not be ending one in five pregnancies every year if that were so.

I’d like to thank Douthat for responding to my original questions at such length and with such good spirits. Perhaps we’ll have a chance to discuss these matters further someday.

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