No Big Deal

Here’s a refreshingly forthright article about abortion, in which the author, one Mary Elizabeth Williams, avoids altogether the impossibly difficult task of parsing exactly when life “begins”. She cuts the Gordian knot by conceding, arguendo, that life begins at conception, and then justifies abortion on the grounds that some lives are simply worth more than others.

The article, published at Salon, bears the title So what if abortion ends life?

Ms. Williams writes:

Of all the diabolically clever moves the anti-choice lobby has ever pulled, surely one of the greatest has been its consistent co-opting of the word “life.” Life! Who wants to argue with that? Who wants be on the side of … not-life? That’s why the language of those who support abortion has for so long been carefully couched in other terms. While opponents of abortion eagerly describe themselves as “pro-life,” the rest of us have had to scramble around with not nearly as big-ticket words like “choice” and “reproductive freedom.” The “life” conversation is often too thorny to even broach. Yet I know that throughout my own pregnancies, I never wavered for a moment in the belief that I was carrying a human life inside of me. I believe that’s what a fetus is: a human life. And that doesn’t make me one iota less solidly pro-choice.

As Roe v. Wade enters its fifth decade, we find ourselves at one of the most schizo moments in our national relationship with reproductive choice. In the past year we’ve endured the highest number of abortion restrictions ever. Yet support for abortion rights is at an all-time high, with seven in 10 Americans in favor of letting Roe v. Wade stand, allowing for reproductive choice in all or “most” cases. That’s a stunning 10 percent increase from just a decade ago. And in the midst of this unique moment, Planned Parenthood has taken the bold step of reframing the vernacular – moving away from the easy and easily divisive words “life” and “choice.” Instead, as a new promotional film acknowledges, “It’s not a black and white issue.”

It’s a move whose time is long overdue. It’s important, because when we don’t look at the complexities of reproduction, we give far too much semantic power to those who’d try to control it. And we play into the sneaky, dirty tricks of the anti-choice lobby when we on the pro-choice side squirm so uncomfortably at the ways in which they’ve repeatedly appropriated the concept of “life.”

Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.

Ignore the insulting tone; at least Ms. Williams is staking out a coherent position. (She isn’t, however, looking at “the complexities of reproduction”; what she is attempting here is in fact a radical simplification.) We’ll want to come back to that last line.

Ms Williams continues:

When we on the pro-choice side get cagey around the life question, it makes us illogically contradictory. I have friends who have referred to their abortions in terms of “scraping out a bunch of cells” and then a few years later were exultant over the pregnancies that they unhesitatingly described in terms of “the baby” and “this kid.” I know women who have been relieved at their abortions and grieved over their miscarriages. Why can’t we agree that how they felt about their pregnancies was vastly different, but that it’s pretty silly to pretend that what was growing inside of them wasn’t the same? Fetuses aren’t selective like that. They don’t qualify as human life only if they’re intended to be born.

When we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand: first trimester abortion vs. second trimester vs. late term, dancing around the issue trying to decide if there’s a single magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. Are you human only when you’re born? Only when you’re viable outside of the womb? Are you less of a human life when you look like a tadpole than when you can suck on your thumb?

This is what’s called “grasping the nettle”. Very good. So, then, on what does the value of a human life depend?

We’re so intimidated by the wingnuts, we get spooked out of having these conversations. We let the archconservatives browbeat us with the concept of “life,” using their scare tactics on women and pushing for indefensible violations like forced ultrasounds. Why? Because when they wave the not-even-accurate notion that “abortion stops a beating heart” they think they’re going to trick us into some damning admission. They believe that if we call a fetus a life they can go down the road of making abortion murder. And I think that’s what concerns the hell out of those of us who support unrestricted reproductive freedom.

But we make choices about life all the time in our country. We make them about men and women in other countries. We make them about prisoners in our penal system. We make them about patients with terminal illnesses and accident victims. We still have passionate debates about the justifications of our actions as a society, but we don’t have to do it while being bullied around by the vague idea that if you say we’re talking about human life, then the jig is up, rights-wise.

It seems absurd to suggest that the only thing that makes us fully human is the short ride out of some lady’s vagina. That distinction may apply neatly legally, but philosophically, surely we can do better.

Well! “Wingnuts”. “Archconservatives”. Those, apparently, are the only sort who might believe that “if we call a fetus a life they can go down the road of making abortion murder”. (We’ll just ignore that silly bit about the “not-even-accurate notion that ‘abortion stops a beating heart'”. Of course it does.)

Well, how would you define “murder”? Presumably, it’s the taking of a life without the consent of the person being killed. As Ms. Williams suggests, though, we do in some cases consider such killing justifiable, in which case we stop calling it “murder” and use some other word instead, like “execution”, “euthanasia”, “manslaughter”, “accidental death”, or in the case of military action, just “killing”. Let’s look at the examples given:

Men and women in other countries: We do consider enemy combatants to have forfeited their right to life (by trying to kill us), and so we view our killing them as morally justifiable, as an act of self-defense. How about those innocents within the blast radius, who die right along with the guys we’re after? Clearly we don’t feel so comfy about killing them, but we go on doing so anyway. (We do try to avoid it, though.)

I’ll bet that if your own kin were one of these victims, you’d have no qualms about calling it “murder”. I’ll also point out that these innocents are killed “collaterally”, as a regrettable side-effect of a justifiable and necessary military operation; if we were to focus on killing them singly, however (as we do, for example, with aborted fetuses), it would clearly be murder.

Prisoners in our penal system: The key point here is that they are not innocent; they have by their free choice voided their right to life. In this they are obviously in a vastly different moral category than unborn children.

Patients with terminal illnesses: The key here is consent. Patients with terminal illnesses can grant their informed consent; unborn children cannot.

Accident victims: At issue here is what is being terminated. When a patient is taken off life support, it is because there is no longer the potential for life, or at least for life of the sort that we consider to be worthy of protection. Why? Because in our view the essence of human life, and the basis of moral consideration, is consciousness and subjective experience — so we consider it morally neutral to remove life-support from a body for which this is no longer possible. Clearly this is not the case with an unborn child.

At the conclusion of her essay, Ms. Williams writes:

My belief that life begins at conception is mine to cling to. And if you believe that it begins at birth, or somewhere around the second trimester, or when the kid finally goes to college, that’s a conversation we can have, one that I hope would be respectful and empathetic and fearless. We can’t have it if those of us who believe that human life exists in utero are afraid we’re somehow going to flub it for the cause. In an Op-Ed on “Why I’m Pro-Choice” in the Michigan Daily this week, Emma Maniere stated, quite perfectly, that “Some argue that abortion takes lives, but I know that abortion saves lives, too.” She understands that it saves lives not just in the most medically literal way, but in the roads that women who have choice then get to go down, in the possibilities for them and for their families. And I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time — even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.

So! Let’s review. Can we find a coherent principle in all of this?

Ms. Williams argues that yes, life begins at conception, and so a fetus is no less a life than a new-born infant (i.e., in Ms. Williams’s words, a person who has recently made “the short ride out of some lady’s vagina.”) She points out also that “we make choices about life all the time in our country.” Finally, she says, regarding the mother of the condemned party, that:

“She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.”

Given what Ms. Williams has said elsewhere in her essay, particularly that business about the “short ride out of some lady’s vagina”, that last sentence states the case far too narrowly: the phrase “inside of her” has no good reason for being there. To be consistent, the sentence should read:

“Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of her child, whether born or unborn. Always.”

(If my understanding of this is wrong, please tell me why.)

This may seem a harsh interpretation of Ms. Williams’s position, but she‘s the one, after all, who threw away the one limiting principle that has heretofore made abortion morally justifiable, in most peoples’ eyes: to wit, that somehow a fetus is not fully alive, and so is exempt from the moral consideration that the rest of us expect. If that’s the hand Ms. Williams wants to play, then she has to play it out. It’s an admirably consistent position — which is clearly why she espoused it — and it does get around the impossibility of defining some post-conceptual “bright line” where life begins. But taken to its logical conclusion, it grants to individual women the absolute power, at their whim or convenience, to dispose of the lives of their offspring, even after they’ve been born. Maybe even until they’re headed for college.

What say you, readers?

15 Comments

  1. Kevin Kim says

    It could be that Williams is trying to have it both ways, but I read her basic focus as being on the born (i.e., the mother) versus the unborn (i.e., the gestating child), with the born trumping the unborn in every ethical consideration.

    But this is bizarre: as a Kantian ethical maxim, “born trumps unborn” runs against the grain of most mothers’ maternal instincts. Wouldn’t most mothers do anything for their children, including laying down their lives? Isn’t motherhood one long song of self-sacrifice? Born or unborn, the child normally trumps the mother.

    Perhaps the moment of birth really is a significant threshold for Williams: from her perspective, a young woman can undergo an abortion in order to recover potential life-paths that might otherwise be closed off once a child is born. Once the child is born, all commitment focuses on the child. Williams writes, “[Emma Maniere] understands that [abortion] saves lives not just in the most medically literal way, but in the roads that women who have choice then get to go down, in the possibilities for them and for their families.”

    Implicit in Williams’s quote is the discomfiting subtext that a woman can/should get an abortion for primarily selfish reasons (i.e., to free up her life from the burden, clutter, and freedom-killing oppression of child-raising). Abortion thus “saves” a young woman’s life by removing the deadly yoke of motherhood.

    I think there are excellent reasons to have an abortion (child of rape, danger to mother), and Williams is right insofar as she contends that, in cases where we decide to end a human life, we’re acting according to value-driven priorities. That fact is, actually, trivially true: I don’t think Williams is saying anything revolutionary: just about any voluntary human act is the result of value-driven priorities. But having an abortion for purely selfish reasons (“Whew… glad that’s over! Now where’s my drink?”) doesn’t strike me as morally defensible.

    And to argue that the mother trumps the child in all cases… well, I’m not sure that Williams is on firm ground when she attempts to speak for all mothers.

    Posted January 25, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Implicit in Williams’s quote is the discomfiting subtext that a woman can/should get an abortion for primarily selfish reasons (i.e., to free up her life from the burden, clutter, and freedom-killing oppression of child-raising). Abortion thus “saves” a young woman’s life by removing the deadly yoke of motherhood.

    But that is, of course, the text, not the subtext, of the “right to choose“. The whole point of rights is that I can exercise them as I see fit, without having to justify that exercise to anyone. (This is, for example, the correct response to gun-control types who, while saying they “support” the Second Amendment, ask why anyone “needs” an AR-15.)

    A great many — probably most — abortions are performed for exactly the “selfish” reasons you describe. Barack Obama, for example, has spoken of his concern not to “punish” a young woman by making her carry her baby to term. (Of course, while in the Illinois Senate he voted against banning the killing of abortion targets even when born alive, so it seems he sees eye to eye with Ms. Williams.)

    Perhaps the moment of birth really is a significant threshold for Williams…

    Well, she does say, quite explicitly, that it isn’t. Indeed, that’s the whole point of her article: that life begins at conception, but that when life begins isn’t what matters.

    She really does stake out a very clear position on that point: some lives are simply worth more than others, and a woman has the right to make that evaluation when it comes to her own child. Given, though, that she says that birth is just a “short ride out of some lady’s vagina”, and is in no way a demarcation of the beginning of life, then what’s hard to discern is just when, in her view, the mother stops having the power of life or death over her child — and why.

    Posted January 25, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    “But that is, of course, the text, not the subtext, of the “right to choose“. The whole point of rights is that I can exercise them as I see fit, without having to justify that exercise to anyone.”

    No, no — the subtext is the selfishness, which no one’s going to admit to publicly, so it’ll always remain subtextual.

    “Well, she does say, quite explicitly, that it isn’t. Indeed, that’s the whole point of her article: that life begins at conception, but that when life begins isn’t what matters. “

    My own read is that Williams is talking out both sides of her mouth. Perhaps I’m not seeing the self-consistency that you’re seeing. If she feels a mother who gives birth to a child is now shackled by bonds of maternal responsibility to that child, then birth implicitly represents some sort of point of no return for her. She can argue all she wants about what supposedly “doesn’t matter,” but if she truly thinks motherhood — which apparently begins only once the baby has popped out — is a deadly (or at least deadening) burden, then birth matters. I think Williams is confused. After all, pace Williams, a mother who doesn’t take care of her gestating baby isn’t a mother. Surely Williams must recognize this.

    “a ‘short ride out of some lady’s vagina'”

    Good God, man! You’re obsessed with that phrase!

    Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:44 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Well, it’s rather a memorable phrase. And it makes the point that there really isn’t any non-arbitrary difference between one minute pre-partum and one minute post.

    Maybe you’re right. What I was glad to see in this article was for someone on the pro-abortion side, rather than fussing around trying to find some limiting principle in the stages of pregnancy, or the arbitrary fact of birth, come right out and say yeah, sure, that fetus is a human life, but you know what? I don’t give a shit. I want what I want. Refreshingly honest, I thought.

    But there still has to be some limiting principle, something that makes it a crime for Ms. Williams to drown her seven-year-old because the kid won’t stop asking for Lunchables while Mom’s trying to watch Dr. Phil. And she hasn’t articulated one.

    So yeah, maybe confused.

    Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    No, no — the subtext is the selfishness, which no one’s going to admit to publicly, so it’ll always remain subtextual.

    But (leaving aside medical necessity, rape, etc.) what else could the motivation be?

    Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says

    Are we not all vagina-riders — wild and whooping amusement-park sliders on the Yeast Flume? I hear the beginnings of some song lyrics. Something with a country twang (or should that be a “c*nt-tree twang”?): “Vagina-rider Sunset,” as sung by Tommy Lee Jones. Or Jeff Bridges. Whoever.

    “…what else could the motivation be?”

    To find that out, you’ll have to accuse a lady of selfishness as she’s walking out of an abortion clinic. I’m sure she’ll have a bushel of self-justifications at the ready. Unless she shaves her pubic area, in which case she’ll have a bushless of self-justifications at the ready.

    Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:04 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    ♪ “Oh, carry meee ba-ack…”

    To find that out, you’ll have to accuse a lady of selfishness as she’s walking out of an abortion clinic.

    I’ll pass on that one, thanks.

    The point here is not about whether or not such selfishness is morally justifiable (though that is of course the central question of the abortion debate); it’s just that it seems almost tautologically true that a woman seeking an abortion does so because it serves her own interests, whatever they may be. I can’t really see that as a “subtext”. If it is, what’s the text?

    Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:35 pm | Permalink
  8. Kevin Kim says

    So it comes down to a definitional issue. Is subtext explicit or implicit? I’d argue the latter. By that token, the selfish quality of many women’s motivations for getting an abortion would be implicit as well. Women don’t go to abortion clinics carrying signs saying “I’m doing a selfish thing!”

    And to be charitable, it’s not obvious that all women seeking abortions are doing so for selfish reasons, if by “selfish” we’re implying something cynical or worthy of condemnation. Is aborting a child of rape a selfish act? It’s certainly in the woman’s self-interest, but is it fair to label that act selfish, per se? I think not. The same goes for a woman who aborts a child for the sake of her own survival. Such an act may be selfish in a brute technical sense, but is it worthy of condemnation? Again, I’d say no.

    Also, there’s this: just because subtext is obvious doesn’t make it any less subtextual. So what if I can read the subtext from a mile away? That doesn’t make it text. The humor of an old sitcom like “Three’s Company” often relied on this fact.

    Posted January 26, 2013 at 12:07 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Well, I did say “leaving aside medical necessity, rape, etc.”…

    But I’ll stick to the question. Doesn’t calling something a “subtext” imply that there’s some text? In other words, isn’t the subtext a second meaning tucked under a different, “exoteric” meaning?

    I’d say that for most abortion advocates, the mere fact that a woman simply doesn’t want the baby is all the justification she needs to exercise her right to abort it, with no apology necessary. And that’s what Ms. Williams is saying here. I think that’s text, not subtext.

    (We’ve wandered rather far afield here…)

    Posted January 26, 2013 at 12:18 am | Permalink
  10. Kevin Kim says

    I’d written a response, then tabbed away, and now my response is gone, dammit. (Not your site’s fault; I may have accidentally closed a tab.) It’s too late for me to write anything more tonight, so… To Be Continued. But basically:

    Text: healthy pregnant woman with healthy fetus goes to abortion clinic. Text is what a camera can film: the surface actions, the “what” and “how.”

    Subtext: the “why” of her actions: she’s trying to free her future from the stultifying obligations of motherhood. (Did you know the Buddha named his son Rahula, which means “burden”?)

    Sub-subtext: her act is selfish, even though she won’t admit to that.

    And I still think Williams isn’t being consistent, for reasons previously cited.

    Posted January 26, 2013 at 1:49 am | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Well, the way I think of “text/subtext” is as layers of meaning. What you describe as “text” seems more to me like the font, or something.

    And I think that what you call text and subtext — aborting her baby to free her future from stultifying obligations, and her choice being a selfish one — are really one thing, not two.

    But we’re getting into pretty picayune stuff here.

    Posted January 26, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  12. Kevin Kim says

    Indeed we are. This is becoming far too hermeneutical. Where’s my Paul Ricoeur book on interpretation theory…? (Probably in Korea, is where.)

    For what it’s worth, I’d say text is whatever is most easily visible. Divining subtext requires a bit of effort, interpretation, and sensitivity to context. Not much effort, necessarily: as I mentioned earlier, subtext can be obvious.

    In a field like film theory, the film’s text is merely what we see happening on the screen: action, situation, dialogue, images. Subtext is what we perceive when we think about what we’re seeing. So it goes for the real world, too, I’d argue.

    Posted January 26, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink
  13. “What say you, readers?”

    Oy vey! That so-called “short ride out of some lady’s vagina” is like opening the proverbial “can of worms” or, dare I say it, opening Pandora’s box. [You knew, of course, that I would dare say it, didn't you?]

    Posted January 26, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Too PoMo for me.

    For me it’s more like when a woman says to her husband:

    Text: It’s cold in here!
    Subtext: Get up and close the window!

    More seriously, it’s the difference between the layers of meaning, for example, in the world’s sacred books — there’s usually an outer, literal, reading that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

    Posted January 26, 2013 at 7:30 pm | Permalink
  15. Kevin Kim says

    Congratulations! We have now entered the wonderful world of pragmatics.

    Posted January 26, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

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