A Response to Ross Douthat’s Feminist Critics
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?