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Douthat Gets Candid on Abortion

January 3, 2011

Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ lone conservative columnist, can be frustratingly evasive. It often seems as though Douthat sets aside the argument he wants to be making in favor of tepid social commentary — probably so as not to alienate his liberal readership.

A good example of this would be Douthat’s column on gay marriage in August. Douthat begins by critiquing the conservative claim that heterosexual monogamy is natural and universal. Monogamy, Douthat tells us, is a “particularly Western understanding” of what marriage should be, an understanding rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Douthat’s observation is in congruence with a point liberals often like to make: that the Judeo-Christian tradition is just one among many, and therefore has no business legislating on behalf of the rest of the country. This is not, however, the point that Douthat wishes to make. Rather, Douthat goes on to say that he favors Judeo-Christian marriage:

But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve

Buried in the second-to-last paragraph of the column, this is clearly not a point Douthat wishes to dwell upon — yet it is obviously the most important point to establish, if he is going to disagree with the conventional New York Times’ wisdom. Hence, my frustration.

(To his credit, Douthat went on to lay out his position in a series of blog posts. Although I was sharply critical of Douthat, his arguments against marriage equality were nuanced and insightful.)

Given Douthat’s general reticence to challenge liberalism head-on, his column on abortion this morning came as a surprise. Abortion is the quintessentially divisive issue, which makes the column all the more exceptional. Perhaps Douthat realizes that the anti-abortion argument is much stronger than others in the conservative playbook. Or perhaps Douthat’s moral conviction on this issue far outstrips his opposition to gay marriage. Whatever the case, today’s column features some of Douthat’s most candid and powerful writing:

On the MTV special [“No Easy Decision”], the people around Durham swaddle abortion in euphemism. The being inside her is just “pregnancy tissue.” After the abortion, she recalls being warned not to humanize it: “If you think of it like [a person], you’re going to make yourself depressed.” Instead, “think of it as what it is: nothing but a little ball of cells.”

It’s left to Durham herself to cut through the evasion. Sitting with her boyfriend afterward, she begins to cry when he calls the embryo a “thing.” Gesturing to their infant daughter, she says, “A ‘thing’ can turn out like that. That’s what I remember … ‘Nothing but a bunch of cells’ can be her.”

When we want to know this, we know this. Last week’s New Yorker carried a poem by Kevin Young about expectant parents, early in pregnancy, probing the mother’s womb for a heartbeat:

The doctor trying again to find you, fragile,

fern, snowflake. Nothing.

After, my wife will say, in fear,

impatient, she went beyond her body,

this tiny room, into the ether—

… And there

it is: faint, an echo, faster and further

away than mother’s, all beat box

and fuzzy feedback. …

This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.

It’s enough to make you spill your latte.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2011 4:13 pm

    Predictably, Douthat’s article has already been critiqued by at least two feminist bloggers, Jill of Feministe and Amanda of Pandagon.

    I know you and I have opposing views on abortion, but I wonder if you’d be willing to address any of the points made by either Amanda or Jill? Particularly, one that Jill made in response to the last line of Douthat’s article that you quoted:

    It’s as if the “unborn” exist unto themselves, and we are callously and casually destroying them. Douthat neglects to recognize that there’s a woman involved, and that the desire of one woman to have a child doesn’t mean that a second woman is morally obligated to undergo nearly ten months of physically and emotionally trying pregnancy.

  2. January 3, 2011 6:27 pm

    Aside from the other critiques of his article around the blogosphere, I also found some glaring inconsistencies, and rather problematic themes he’s got going on. I appreciated his arguably (and rather surprisingly) compassionate response to the MTV special, but he goes on to discuss issues that are either wholly unrelated to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, or off-base in terms of quality of analysis. For example,

    In every era, there’s been a tragic contrast between the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility. But this gap used to be bridged by adoption far more frequently than it is today. Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason.

    Some of this shift reflects the growing acceptance of single parenting. But some of it reflects the impact of Roe v. Wade. Since 1973, countless lives that might have been welcomed into families like Thernstrom’s — which looked into adoption, and gave it up as hopeless — have been cut short in utero instead.

    Leaving aside for now the point that it’s no woman’s responsibility to provide children for infertile couples, he’s forgetting that giving up a baby for adoption — after the birth mother spent at least 9 months gestating it, feeling it move, kick, bond with it, etc. — is no easy feat.

    He’s also neglecting the reality that “acceptance of single parenting” is hardly a celebration of it. What else should we do to single parents? Abuse them? Deny their existence? Blame them for their situation? Also forgetting that many single parents — primarily women — who are blamed for not giving their children an ideal household are not doing so by their own choice. Their husbands can abandon the family, die, or even just leave the vast majority of involved parenting up to the other parent, without their say. Or vice versa. It’s not always about a casual decision to get married and have kids, or an equally as casual decision to not make that work out as planned.

    Supporting single parents and maintaining that a dual-parent household is ideal for raising and nurturing a child don’t have to be mutually exclusive. He seems to think that the best way to discourage behaviors that are contrary to the common idea of what is ideal (i.e. two-parent households, unplanned pregnancies, abortion, etc.) is to alienate, criminalize, or just outright ignore the existence of the people who are engaging in, or directly affected by these issues.

    (Sidenote: Have you seen the episode he’s talking about? If you haven’t, I recommend it. Whatever your opinion on abortion, I think it’s worth watching. You can watch the full episode here

  3. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    January 3, 2011 9:29 pm

    April, please see my new post for a reply to your first comment. I haven’t had the chance to look at your second comment, but will be sure to do so.


  1. Douthat abortion fail | ethecofem
  2. A Response to Ross Douthat’s Feminist Critics « The Innocent Smith Journal
  3. Douthat abortion fail « April Streich

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