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A Response to Ross Douthat’s Feminist Critics

January 3, 2011

A feminist reader of this blog has pointed me to a few critiques of Douthat’s column. While I have long considered the debate over abortion an exercise in futility, it will perhaps be of some use to respond to today’s posts by Jill of Feministe and Amanda of Pandagon.

Jill begins by expressing frustration at Douthat’s seeming inability to acknowledge the “physical and emotional difficulty” associated with pregnancy. Rather, Douthat seems to assume that the intense desire of one woman for children somehow translates into an argument that “a second woman is morally obligated” to keep forgo an abortion in favor of adoption. Later in the post, Jill responds to the section of the column in which Douthat attributes the gap between “the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of fertility” to legalized abortion. The “old era of adoptions,” argues Jill, is linked to a social model that “deemed single mothers inherently bad, and certain families . . . to be the only acceptable ones.” So, better today’s gap than yesterday’s inequality.

As I noted in a post earlier today, it is important to distinguish between broad social commentary and arguments for/against gay marriage or abortion. Although I praised Douthat for addressing abortion directly, it occurred to me after reading Jill’s post that he tends to conflate the right to life argument with an unrelated argument about the adoption gap.

In debating the merits of legalized abortion, the adoption gap gets us nowhere. At best, the adoption gap proves that adoption is a viable alternative to abortion — especially since infertile couples are so often upper-middle-class. As Jill rightly notes, however, that doesn’t translate into the obligation of a pregnant teenage girl to carry her pregnancy to term. Rather, the relevant pro-life claim is that whatever the physical or emotional difficulties associated with pregnancy or parenthood, human life must be respected. That is the crux of the argument.

Thus, while Jill is perhaps correct about the evils of the “old era of adoptions,” the point is moot.

The post concludes with a series of rhetorical flourishes that serve to vilify pro-lifers: in Douthat’s world, Jill tells us, “any control over your reproduction is suspect”; later she attributes to Douthat the desire for a wholesale return to an “idealized, gender-inegalitarian, racially divided and socially stratified time.” (Such a desire can be found nowhere in Douthat’s column — or any of his other writings, for that matter.)

Even more venomous is Amanda’s column on “Why being anti-choice is misogynist, period.” In logic, this is known as an ad hominem attack, but never mind that. Not content to denigrate Douthat’s character, Amanda feels it necessary to question his writing prowess as well:

Ross Douthat proves once again why the NY Times was foolish to hire him, because he can’t help but write op-eds that read more like afterschool specials about the evils of fornication mixed with crappy prayer cards than actual greatest-newspaper-in-the-country editorials. He includes a poem about a fetal heartbeat, people.* That’s not NY Times level editorializing. I’d imagine the editors at two bit Midwestern newspapers that dedicate 50% of their content to high school sports would balk at running a poem about fetal heartbeats in the letters to the editor section.

This is the sort of rhetorically overwrought, baseless drivel one would expect from a political attack ad. Coming from a popular feminist blog, it is a shock and a disappointment.

The post continues with more ad hominem: Douthat is said to be plugged into the “anti-contraception, anti-sex, virulently anti-woman activist anti-choice community”; he is a “lazy fuck”; he demands that women be “reduced to breeding machines whose mental health is of no more consequence than the mental health of your xBox”; and so on. Again, I have nothing to say because there is nothing being said here — “nothing can come of nothing,” to quote King Lear.

Somewhat more substantial — though ultimately irrelevant, as noted earlier — is Amanda’s discussion of the adoption gap. Apparently, what Douthat meant when he said that adoption bridged the fertility gap was this:

young white women (and some young black women, though there was less demand for their babies, and subsequently less forcing them into maternity homes) who turned up pregnant were forced to give birth to babies and forced into maternity homes where they were restrained and often subject to torturous behavior so they couldn’t resist when their babies were snatched from them against their wills.

The scenario Amanda describes is undeniably disgusting and repulsive. The question is whether or not the abortion ban must always and everywhere result in such coercion. For Amanda, it does:

He’s right that Roe v. Wade had a lot to do with turning this around, and it’s not just because women had an option to abort instead. It’s also because once it was enshrined in law that even pregnant women have rights, it became harder to justify the existence of maternity homes and coercing women to give up babies.

In other words, anyone who opposes abortion is necessarily complicit with maternity homes and baby snatching. It’s no wonder Amanda draws the conclusion that “being anti-choice is misogynist, period”!

Of course, I do not see an inevitable link between abortion bans and baby snatching, and I suspect that Douthat doesn’t either. Amanda reminds me a bit of the conservatives who argued that health care reform was a thinly veiled excuse to impose socialism. Not to mention those conservatives who like to associate gay marriage with incest and polygamy.

Is this really the kind of debate we want to be having?

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2011 12:19 am

    This is the sort of rhetorically overwrought, baseless drivel one would expect from a political attack ad. Coming from a popular feminist blog, it is a shock and a disappointment.

    I agree that the snarky tone like hers and Jill’s undermine their otherwise high-quality writing and analysis. It’s always a disappointment to me, too.

    In debating the merits of legalized abortion, the adoption gap gets us nowhere. At best, the adoption gap proves that adoption is a viable alternative to abortion — especially since infertile couples are so often upper-middle-class. […] Rather, the relevant pro-life claim is that whatever the physical or emotional difficulties associated with pregnancy or parenthood, human life must be respected. That is the crux of the argument.

    First, to address the part I bolded, I’m glad that you summarized the pro-life position the way that you did, by referencing the importance of the potential life of the fetus first. One thing that I think is missing from the abortion debate is the progression beyond whether or not there’s an additional human life involved, because that’s not the crux of the pro-choice position, either. Many pro-choicers have already made excellent arguments in favor of legalized abortion, working under the assumption that abortion is indeed ending a human life.

    In your summary of the pro-life position, I noticed one other thing that is often missing in the abortion debate, but more frequently from the pro-life side (or, more accurately, among those opposed to legalized abortion). You mentioned the pregnancy and the ensuing parenthood, but not the woman who is pregnant, specifically. And that is notable because of how very integral the woman is to the pregnancy, and the ensuing parenthood. And perhaps not considering the woman is consistent with the idea that the human life currently existing within her is to be respected more, but why? And I think that’s a question that no one’s really answering, anywhere, satisfactorily. Why should we revere the life of the fetus over the potential, or guaranteed, hardships that it will cost the mother and/or society?

    I don’t think you intended for this post to be an invitation to debate abortion, as you noted it is pretty much futile (I’ve avoided in-depth discussions on the topic on my own blog for the same reasons), so I’ll just stop there, because I’m not really trying to debate it with you personally, either, but just note that I think that the two sides of this issue are arguing from different places, and if we want to reach any level of understanding or even agreement on the issue, we need to take it past the “futile” stage and get on the same page.

    Sorry for the novella. I wanted to respond to the non-bolded part of that quote, as well, but I think I’ll put it into another comment.

  2. January 4, 2011 12:45 am

    In debating the merits of legalized abortion, the adoption gap gets us nowhere. At best, the adoption gap proves that adoption is a viable alternative to abortion — especially since infertile couples are so often upper-middle-class.

    I’m not convinced it gets us nowhere. The decision to abort a pregnancy and the decision to remain pregnant and not parent the child are very different, and therefore don’t belong in the same debate. Both Jill Filipovic and Marcotte both focus on (and unfortunately so, in my opinion) is the way that adoptions happened in times many of us can really realistically imagine. But what isn’t addressed forthright is what it’s actually like for a mother to give a baby up for adoption. As Marcotte says in her post,

    If you actually listen to women, then how that works makes sense. Markai in “No Easy Decision” explains it perfectly, that if she started to feel the baby kick, she’d fall in love and there would be no adoption.

    The decision to give a baby up for adoption is a lot more complex than what most pro-lifers make it out to be. It isn’t “just another choice,” and it entails a great deal more than just deciding whether or not she wants to stop drinking for 9 months, or whether or not she’ll have stretch marks or have to go through physical pain.

    Whether or not carrying the fetus to term and giving it up for adoption is a better idea than an abortion for anyone, I don’t think that the choice is in any way comparable to the decision to have an abortion. For some women, the decision is either “keep it” or “give it up for adoption.” For other women, and for reasons that follow the same line of logic, the choice is “keep it” or “abort it.” The three choices aren’t, and never will be, equal. But they’re all important to consider, and remain relevant so long as pro-lifers want to keep throwing out “adoption” as the magic cure to an unwanted pregnancy.

    • January 4, 2011 12:46 am

      “Both Jill Filipovic and Marcotte both focus on (and unfortunately so, in my opinion) is the way that adoptions happened in times many of us can really realistically imagine.”

      This should read “…many of us can’t realistically imagine.”

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      January 4, 2011 1:40 am

      Apart from the last sentence, I’m not sure where we disagree. I have no interest in diminishing the complexity or difficulty associated with any of the three options you describe. My point is simply that the third option — abortion — is unacceptable insofar as it involves the taking of a human life.

      I think it is rather unfortunate that Douthat included the section on the wonders of adoption in his column, as it seems to have overshadowed his more essential argument that a fetus is a life, and that even liberals tend to assume this when it comes to their own pregnancies.

  3. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    January 4, 2011 1:22 am

    April,

    I appreciate your willingness to discuss this issue without indulging in the kind of the character assassination that has become all too typical on both sides.

    I will read the essay you’ve linked me to and perhaps post on it. For now, a quick follow up on your comment about the importance of respecting women and not just fetuses. It seems to me that you are comparing apples to oranges. In instances where the life of the mother is at risk, I do in fact think abortion is justifiable. At that point, the question becomes: which life ought to be favored, that of the fetus or that of the mother? That is a terrible dilemma to which there is clearly no satisfactory answer.

    But to justify abortion on the grounds that a fetus might cause “potential, or guaranteed, hardships” to “the mother and/or society” seems to me a different matter altogether. From a legal standpoint, I think it is a difficult case to make, since, once you’ve conceded that a fetus is a life, you run into the whole “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” conundrum.

    Beyond that, I must admit I find the notion that society should be free to get rid of those it deems inconvenient abominable. Supposing (if only for the sake of argument) that a fetus is a life, and not merely a lump of tissue, what is the difference between abortion and infanticide? For that matter, what’s the difference between eliminating an unwanted fetus and eliminating an unwanted grandparent? Or a mentally retarded 7 year old?

    I don’t mean to suggest that abortion will necessarily make such scenarios more likely (which is the sort of argument I just criticized Jill for making). Rather, my point is that, if you are willing to concede that abortion involves the taking of a life, abortion is already the moral equivalent of such acts.

    • January 5, 2011 12:43 am

      Rather, my point is that, if you are willing to concede that abortion involves the taking of a life, abortion is already the moral equivalent of such acts.

      If “life” exists on a continuum, as Robert Wyman noted in the lecture you wrote about in your most recent post, then it’s worth questioning whether there’s a point on that continuum when “life” as we understand it isn’t recognizable. If all areas on the spectrum are to be treated exactly the same, then abortion would be easily understood as the murder of a human. But in choosing one person (the mother) over another (the fetus whose continued growth inside of her may kill her), then we’re already allowing for the killing of a person. What about the mother’s life is more important than the life of the fetus?

      Beyond that, I must admit I find the notion that society should be free to get rid of those it deems inconvenient abominable. Supposing (if only for the sake of argument) that a fetus is a life, and not merely a lump of tissue, what is the difference between abortion and infanticide? For that matter, what’s the difference between eliminating an unwanted fetus and eliminating an unwanted grandparent? Or a mentally retarded 7 year old?

      I see your point, and agree with the notion that simply ridding ourselves of those who we find inconvenient or burdensome in anyway is abhorrent. But the difference in eliminating an unwanted fetus and eliminating any unwanted born person would be the fact that one relies 100% on the unhindered use of a body that does not belong to it for the better part of a year, and the others do not. And perhaps a mentally retarded 7 year old or an elderly person are reliant upon care from other born people in order to stay alive, but along those lines, who is required to keep the 7-year-old or the elderly grandmother alive?

      Now, it’s not like I’d be so callous as to say that I would see no harm in no one taking responsibility for a born person’s life when they had the opportunity. But ultimately (and the way I’m discussing this is largely influenced by Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay) it is my belief that the fetus doesn’t have a right to be supported by anyone if they don’t want to support it. That’s not to say that I think abortions should be had wantonly and without respect for the point of life where the fetus lies on that continuum. Like you draw the line at whether or not the pregnant woman’s life is in danger, I draw it at viability. At that point, abortion ceases being about the pregnant woman, and becomes the deliberate taking of an independent human life. I don’t see the first couple of months of a pregnancy in the same way that I see a born human– or, for that matter, a late-term pregnancy. I guess that’s where you and I differ.

      But, say that we were to limit abortion in the US to only being available if a woman’s life was in danger. Does the threat to her life need to be direct, as in, the pregnancy itself will cause her death? What if there are other circumstances, like an affair and a violent husband, or any number of other indirect ways in which she might die because of carrying the pregnancy to term? And how would we go about verifying, in any case, whether or not she would “qualify” for the abortion? I don’t see a way of doing that that would be timely, fair, and accessible for all women to have to go through should they decide they need an abortion.

      I have a lot of sympathy for the pro-life position, and it’s easy for me to see it from the point of view that all human life, regardless of its position on the “continuum of life,” it deserves respect. But — and I mean no snark here — the reality of pregnancy and childbirth is much different to me than I imagine it is for you, or other men. And obviously, scores of women are 100% pro-life. But to be faced with an unwanted pregnancy can be harrowing, to say the least. In the end, and to groosly over-simplify my position, I have more empathy for pregnant women than I do for the fetus.

      • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
        January 5, 2011 6:32 pm

        In the lecture, Wyman confesses that science cannot determine the exact point at which human life begins. The reason for this, however, is not because a fetus becomes a human being ever so gradually — like a Polaroid coming into focus. Rather, it is because life consists of the endless replication of cells — a process that has been going on since the beginning of time. As Thich Nhat Hahn puts the point somewhat more poetically, there is a metaphysical sense in which “I” — whether a fetus or a full-grown adult — cannot be distinguished from “minerals, time, space, everything.”

        In the post I argue that such observations have no bearing on the abortion debate. Conventionally speaking, we still must distinguish a human being from a rattle snake, a rainbow, or — more to the point — a lump of tissue.

        So the question becomes: what is a human being? I tend to be absolutist on this point, if only because of the many historical instances in which large classes of people (e.g. African slaves) have been deemed sub-human, and as a result stripped of their rights. In my view, we are members of the human race not because of what we are capable of doing (thinking, moving, feeling pain, or inventing gunpowder), but because of what we are.

        As far as your point about independence goes, I think it rather superficial. The fetus’ dependence on its mother is, to my mind, not at all unlike the dependence you and I continually experience — dependence on our parents, friends, spouses, co-workers, and neighbors; dependence on the bread we eat, the air we breathe, and the cities we live in. Human beings are, to quote Alasdair MacIntyre, by nature dependent rational animals.

        As for your third paragraph, I think you raise a valuable point about the difficulty of determining when the mother’s life is in jeopardy. I don’t think it’s really possible to give an answer in the abstract. War is a bit like that. Clearly, the only conceivable justification for taking a life is if your own life or the life of someone you love is in jeopardy. But that can be very difficult to determine: was World War II necessary? The US intervention in Bosnia?

  4. January 5, 2011 12:49 am

    Also, this is likely the most polite abortion conversation I’ve had with just about anyone with whom I disagree on the matter. I also appreciate your willingness not to engage in the harsher tactics employed by all sides.

    I hope you decide to write about the Thomson essay. I’d be very interested in what you think. I plan to watch the lecture you linked to in your next post, as well.

Trackbacks

  1. Douthat abortion fail | ethecofem
  2. Douthat abortion fail « April Streich

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