Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Meanest Issue in American Politics

Oh No, Not This Again: David Brooks and the Meanest Issue in American Politics


whitesq.jpgYou might have thought the first abortion decision rendered by our new Supreme Court (Opus Dei edition) would generate a firestorm of commentary, especially if it might significantly limit late-term abortion rights. Instead, the reaction to the recent decision upholding the "Partial-Birth" abortion ban has been decidedly muted. A handful of writers tackled some of the decision's implications (Jill Filipovic had a good piece in HuffPost the next day). But the bitterest voice to be heard was that of Justice Ginsburg herself, who called it "alarming."
So why did no one seem alarmed? For starters, it had been a rough week. Everywhere you looked there were images from the carnival of violence at Virginia Tech -- the shooter's face twisted in hatred, him posing with his guns and hammer (hammer?), diagrams and reenactments of what it must have been like in those classrooms.
But I suspect there's another reason we hesitated to jump back into the breach. Reading about the abortion decision, it was hard not to think: "Oh no, not this again." The issue of abortion rights is just more upsetting, more depressing and meaner than any other issue in American politics. Nothing else quite compares.
As horrible as the Virginia Tech shooting was, we could at least all share our grief. True, the inevitable gun control debate followed: should bad guys be disarmed or should good guys be armed to shoot first? But both sides at least agree that non-threatening innocents should not get shot.
The conflict over abortion has no bottom -- no matter how deep you dig, there's no place both sides can come together and recognize one another's humanity. In part, that's because of the biology: in an unwanted pregnancy, the woman's interest is for the fetus to cease to exist entirely, while the fetus' presumed interest is for the woman to endure weeks of sickness and unwelcome bodily transformation, followed by many hours of incredible pain... followed by years of hard work, emotional strain, expense, and responsibility. As long as you have people eager to speak on behalf of a fetus as if it was a whole person, those are some seriously irreconcilable differences.
You might think that both sides could at least agree on preventing unwanted pregnancies. But that's where things get weird. It turns out the hard-core anti-choice folks don't actually care so much about preventing fetal suffering: Despite all the studies proving that improving birth control access and teaching adolescents about sex reduces unwanted pregnancies, serious "Pro-lifers" oppose these ideas, and vigorously.
So what are they after? Apparently, the heart of the matter for hard-core anti-choice folks is that sex should only be for making babies. That means it's only for married people, and kids have no business knowing about it. That part of their vision has some appeal in our dizzyingly hypersexualized culture, as unrealistic as it is. But the other corollary is that all pregnancies should be carried to term, either as a blessed gift to a happy family... or as divine punishment for a loose woman.
I doubt that New York Times columnist David Brooks is among those who secretly yearn to outlaw premarital sex, but he did celebrate the Court's decision with a paean to the fetus in last Sunday's paper. His piece lovingly detailed the science on fetal brain cell growth and eye development and what not, and then closed with a call for a 'sensible' approach to abortion -- featuring parental consent requirements for minors. The thing is, to come up with a sensible compromise, you first need to make sense of both the positions you're compromising between.
From a broad public-policy view, parental choice laws make no particular sense. As a general rule, children should not be having children because they are not prepared to raise children. Do we really want laws that make it more difficult to keep children from having children? If abortion is allowed for anyone, doesn't it make the most sense for unhappily pregnant teens? And since a teen generally does not need her parents' consent to have a kid, why exactly should she need their consent not to?
But this debate does not happen in the realm of logic. Parental consent laws appeal to parents' primal fear that their kids are having sex and getting in trouble and they're the last to know. Debates on the issue typically invoke the image of a solid middle-class family with a rebellious teen girl who falls in with a bad crowd and needs to be set straight. And that's about where the thinking stops.
Sometimes that's the reality of teen pregnancy: a loving, understanding family, and a kid who either made some stupid decisions or had birth control fail them. And in some of those cases, a parental consent law might be just the thing to nudge the reluctant teen to have a much-needed heart-to-heart with her parents.
Of course most teens in that rosy scenario will turn to a trusted parent anyway. But what happens when the scenario is less rosy? Tolstoy said every happy family is the same but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way: that makes for a lot of heavy issues for this law to get mixed up in. What if the parents are abusive? What if they choose to punish their daughter for her misbehavior by withholding consent, and maybe throwing her out of the house? Or what if they just would have preferred not to know?
Then there's the scenario nearest to the hearts of anti-choice advocates: what if the parents are anti-choice? Should they be able to force their daughter to give birth? Imagine the decision resting with a pregnant teen's father. He has never voluntarily endured anything as painful as childbirth (unless he's undergone elite military training to resist torture, or maybe starred in a Jackass movie). Should he have the right to force that on his daughter, when she wants to have an abortion and get on with her life?
Many years ago, a friend of mine had a condom break on her with a new boyfriend and ended up pregnant. Although I do think it is vitally important for stories like these to be shared, the particulars of her story are not mine to tell. Suffice it to say that the decision-maker in her family believed strongly that abortion was a sin. Thankfully, nobody had passed any "sensible" parental consent laws back then, and my friend, while deeply upset and chastened by the ordeal, ended her pregnancy safely and legally and finished school. Today she is professionally successful, happily married, and a loving mother.
I wonder what David Brooks would say about a situation like my friend's. Or what Justice Kennedy would say, for that matter. Might they surprise us, take a fresh look at the issue, even a little? Perhaps, perhaps not.
What we do know is this debate will be won or lost on whether people empathize with the developing fetus or the pregnant woman (or girl). And as long as it's all about the fetus, as long as women's stories are still not being heard, women (and the women and men who love them) lose.

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