William Saletan: Making a Career of Not Getting It

Saleton gives us “The pro-life case for birth control.” Except that, you know, birth control access has always fallen squarely into the pro-choice camp, being that it’s one of my reproductive health choices that we think women should have. And anti-choice activists and organizations are in the process of launching an all-out assault on it.

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who don’t like abortion but also don’t like the idea of banning it, good news is on the way. In the last three weeks, two bills have been filed in the House of Representatives. Without banning a single procedure, they aim to significantly lower the rate of abortions performed in this country. Voluntary reduction, not criminalization or moral silence, is the new approach.

I’m truly happy that politicians are finally catching on, but this isn’t exactly a “new approach,” unless by “new” you mean “exactly what pro-choicers and reproductive health professionals have been advocating for decades.”

How do you stop abortions without restricting them? One way is to persuade women to complete their pregnancies instead of terminating them. The other is to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place. And there’s the rub—or, in this case, the rubber. The two House bills used to be one proposal, backed by an alliance of pro-life lawmakers and organizations. The alliance split because one faction wanted to fund contraception and the other didn’t.

Guess which side is which.

Of course, their arguments againt contraception are completely non-sensical:

The objectors make several arguments. They point out that birth-control pills, like morning-after pills, can block implantation of an embryo. But there’s no evidence that this has ever happened. The risk is theoretical, and breast-feeding poses the same risk, so you’d have to stamp that out, too. Critics also note that many birth-control methods can fail. That’s true, but it’s an argument for using two methods, not zero.

Third, they protest that federal family-planning money supports Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions. In fact, however, only 14 percent of this money goes to Planned Parenthood, and fewer than 9 percent of Planned Parenthood clients go there for abortions. So, even if Planned Parenthood diverted family-planning funds to abortion—which would be illegal—we’re talking about a tiny fraction of the money.

Above all, the critics insist that contraception will backfire. As the Youngstown Diocese puts it, “Promotion of contraception leads to more extra-marital sexual intercourse, which leads to more unwanted pregnancies, which leads to more abortions.”

William, catch up: Anti-choicers are getting more and more extreme. Arguing that birth control will prevent abortions has no effect on them, because it’s not about preserving fetal life. It’s not about the babies. It’s about controlling female sexuality, and punishing women who don’t toe the line. Preventing 95% of abortions through birth control, education and aid to low-income women with children will not satisfy these people. They want to see women punished for being autonomous, sexual human beings. That’s it, end of story. And until we recognize what their motives are, all the hand-wringing in the world about why don’t the support contraception? isn’t going to do anything.

But then, what can we expect from “pro-life” politicians? Consistency?

Bush, as we know, believes deeply and earnestly that human life begins at conception. Even tiny embryos composed of half a dozen microscopic cells, he thinks, have the same right to life as you and I. That is why he cannot bring himself to allow federal funding for new stem-cell research, or even for other projects in labs where stem-cell research is going on. Even though these embryos are obtained from fertility clinics where they would otherwise be destroyed anyway, and even though he appears to have no objection to the fertility clinics themselves, where these same embryos are manufactured and destroyed by the thousands, the much smaller number of embryos needed and destroyed in the process of developing cures for diseases like Parkinson’s are, in effect, tiny little children whose use in this way constitutes killing a human being and therefore is intolerable.

But President Bush does not believe that the deaths of all little children as a result of U.S. policy are, in effect, murder. He thinks that some are, while very unfortunate, also inevitable and essential.

You know who I mean. Close to 50,000 Iraqi civilians have died so far as a direct result of our invasion and occupation of their country, in order to liberate them. The numbers are actually increasing as the country slides into chaos: more than 6,500 in July and August alone. These numbers are from reliable sources and are not seriously contested. They include many who were tortured and then killed, along with others blown up less personally by car bombs and suicide bombers. The number does not include the hundreds of thousands who have died prematurely as a result of a decade and a half of war and embargos imposed on the Iraqi economy. Nor does it include soldiers on both sides, most of whom are innocent, too. Last week the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan surpassed the number of people who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But it’s different, isn’t it? Collateral damage in war is a necessity, right?


ut it is hard—indeed, I would say it is impossible—to reconcile Bush’s absolutism over alleged human life when it is a clump of unknowing, unfeeling cells with his sophisticated, if not cavalier, attitude toward the loss of innocent human life when it is children and adults in Iraq.

In all discussions weighing the cost of something-or-other in terms of human life, a philosopher pops up at this point and says that the crucial difference is a matter of intentions. Terrorists purposely target innocent civilians. We try hard not to kill innocent civilians, even if we know it can’t be avoided. They’re worse, even if our score is sadly higher.

But are stem cells any different? Stem-cell researchers don’t want to kill embryos. They know that the deaths of embryos are a consequence of what they do, and they think that curing terrible diseases is worth it—just as President Bush thinks that bringing democracy to Iraq is worth it. In the case of stem cells, there is the added element that the embryos in question will be killed (or pointlessly frozen indefinitely) anyway if they are not used for research. And—oh, yes—there is still the question of whether a clump of a half-dozen cells you can’t see without a microscope is actually a human being in the same sense as a 6-year-old girl blown up as she skips off to kindergarten in Baghdad.

Culture of Life indeed.

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18 comments for “William Saletan: Making a Career of Not Getting It

  1. October 2, 2006 at 1:10 pm

    Can someone remind me why Saletan is supposed to be such a brilliant analyst of the abortion issue again? If we don’t know this by now, what do we know?

  2. Bitter Scribe
    October 2, 2006 at 1:11 pm

    Jill, I think it should be noted that the final two quotes in your post were from Michael Kinsley, not Saletan. (Those who follow the link will learn this, but not everyone clicks.)

    I totally agree that Saletan makes a career of not getting it. That’s why it’s important to give Kinsley credit for his characteristically astute analysis.

  3. PLN
    October 2, 2006 at 2:29 pm

    I know you see Saletan as a professional Johnny-come-lately, but I have a hard time understanding your objections to this piece. Yes, he’s just saying the same old stuff that you and all other pro-choicers say, and yes, he doesn’t have some big disclaimer about how none of his ideas are original, but so what? Those who popularize ideas are rarely those who come up with them in the first place; unfair, but not surprising.

    It’s hard to figure out from this post whether the critiques are just of the pro-life forces who split from Ryan over the bill, of Saletan for not understanding that they’re JUST EVIL, or of Saletan for other unspecified sins, but if the latter two, I don’t get it.

    The claim seems to be that it’s pointless to argue in good faith about reducing abortions through contraception, because the set of pro-lifers who would respond to these arguments is practically nil. Do you really believe this? I agree: there’s no chance of reaching the *activists*, the Dawn Edens of the world, for whom pro-lifeness is tied into an entire ideology of gender roles and traditionalism. But just look at the polls and see the huge number of Americans who believe abortion is at least somewhat wrong (which I assume covers everyone who answers those polls saying it should be restricted at all).

    If you honestly believe *all* these people–who represent not just a plurality but a majority–are either lying or kidding themselves about actually wanting to reduce abortions rather than control women, then how can you think there’s any hope for reproductive rights at all? It seems to me that one *has* to believe that there exist good-faith prolifers who would be responsive to just the sort of arguments that Saletan (and everyone else! I agree, he’s not original!) puts forward.

    So: I’m not saying Saletan is some pro-choice hero, but what exactly is the problem here?

  4. PLN
    October 2, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    Can someone remind me why Saletan is supposed to be such a brilliant analyst of the abortion issue again? If we don’t know this by now, what do we know?

    Well, I for one hadn’t kept track of the fate of the bill in question that he discusses. I also thought his demolition of the 3 wingnut ‘objections’ was very well done: concise but informative.

    The key issue is the “we.” Saletan isn’t writing that article for us. He is not preaching to the choir, which is why he doesn’t come across as nearly fire-breathing enough for the likes of us. He’s writing it for the sincere, well-intentioned pro-lifers, or for those who are pro-choice but not particularly aware or energized.

    Saying his article is pointless is like saying these people don’t exist–do you really believe that?

  5. piny
    October 2, 2006 at 2:47 pm

    I’m basically plagiarizing Scott Lemieux here, but I assume he’s got other blog-related responsibilities. Here’s my problem with Saletan:

    You cannot legislate ambivalence. You cannot qualify choice without destroying it. You cannot make it impossible or even difficult for the “wrong” women–slutty, irresponsible, minor–to get the “wrong” kind of abortion–serial, selective, eugenic–without making it difficult or impossible for “deserving” women to obtain abortions. You just can’t. You will punish the women with the fewest alternatives every time.

    The pro-life side is split up into people who are in denial of that truth, and people who are willing to exploit that denial. Saletan is exploiting that denial under the auspices of careful consideration. He is portraying it as honest engagement with the issue when it is the polar opposite of honesty. He’s allowing people to go on pretending that an impossibility is a compromise.

  6. PLN
    October 2, 2006 at 3:10 pm

    Are you saying that this is what’s going on in this article, or just a general theme in the Saletan oeuvre? Because I have a hard time seeing it in this piece. (I’m trying, I am!)

    It seems like this article, and the “pro-lifers for contraception/pro-choicers for fewer abortions” idea in general, is about changing the subject and trying to actually make progress on an issue (contraception) that a supermajority either agrees on or ought to given their prior moral commitments. Primarily this effort means attempting to cajol prolifers into redirecting their energy and outrage from prohibition and the symbolic politics thereof into more productive channels.

    Where exactly is the ‘impossibility’ here? If you mean that Saletan is putting aside the issue of access to abortions for those who need them, well, yes he is. But I don’t see why this makes him a bad person. You and I and Planned Parenthood might see abortion-access and contraceptive-provision and all that as part of one seamless web, but Saletan’s whole point is that *many people don’t*, and that if we continue to treat them as a seamless whole, we may merely taint ‘contraception-provision’ without helping out ‘abortion access’.

    He’s intentionally delinking the issues in order to actually make progress on one of them. If every bill that deals with contraception has to include provisions about increasing access to abortion, we won’t get either for many an election cycle.

    Am I understanding your objection correctly? Please help me if not; I’m genuinely puzzled by the hostility towards him.

  7. zuzu
    October 2, 2006 at 4:18 pm

    PLN, try reading Belle Waring on this, and scroll up to comment #1 here and click on Scott’s name, which will take you to his blog, where he has discussed this issue at length.

  8. Bitter Scribe
    October 2, 2006 at 4:45 pm

    The reason I personally dislike Saletan is because on many issues, but especially abortion, he’s fond of the on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand-blah-blah-blah that I really don’t need to hear when other side is screaming incessantly about “baby killers.”

  9. PLN
    October 2, 2006 at 6:36 pm

    The Belle Waring piece was great and true, but it still leaves open the question of audience. If Saletan’s really just concern-trolling, then yeah, the whole enterprise is annoying. I was, perhaps too-charitably, interpreting him as writing to the prolifers. (Unlike some of his other columns, which seem unabiguously concern-trolling pro-choicers.) And if you actually are trying to write to, and reach, non-wingnutty prolifers (who, I maintain, actually do exist), it may be more effective to gently (if naively, to the feminist/prochoice eye) point out the inconsistencies in the pro-life position *without* highlighting and mocking the sketchy motivations behind these inconsistencies.

    This is of course an empirical claim for which I have little good evidence. I suppose I’ll say merely that it seems like both carrot and stick ought to be used; mock the wingnut activists *and* gently encourage the more moderate to see the light. And it’s hard to simultaneously do both. So isn’t it good to have different people focusing on different fronts?

    I do think the beginning of his piece is really stupid and misleading. That “the good news is that we no longer have to fight about abortion” line is unsupported by the rest of the piece, and wrong … if this is what Piny had in mind by “offering an impossibility” I’ll sign on, and apologize for not getting it quicker. I suppose I just skimmed over that stuff as inconsequential intro, merely setting up his main point, which was “To lower the abortion rate, we need more contraception. And that means confronting politicians who stand in the way.” As long as Saletan’s concern-trolling prolifers, I suspect he does some good. But I’ll shut up now.

  10. exangelena
    October 2, 2006 at 8:34 pm

    There’s an article in the Marie Claire with Sarah Jessica Parker on the cover about the South Dakota abortion ban. Apparently, in the state task force that preceded the abortion ban, it posits the allegation that a child born of incest may be in the genius range of intellect. I just about vomited when I read it. Sorry if I got too offtopic, but how disgusting is that?

  11. zuzu
    October 2, 2006 at 9:28 pm

    The Belle Waring piece was great and true, but it still leaves open the question of audience. If Saletan’s really just concern-trolling, then yeah, the whole enterprise is annoying. I was, perhaps too-charitably, interpreting him as writing to the prolifers.

    He’s writing in Slate. I think that takes care of your question.

  12. exangelena
    October 2, 2006 at 11:25 pm

    Well, I’m a feminist and I’ve always been conflicted about abortion. I’m politically prochoice, but I don’t think that all people who oppose legalized abortion are misogynists. I mean, there are people like Ryan (even if they’re a minority of prolifers and often come into conflict with other prolifers) who get the fact that available birth control can prevent abortions and unwanted pregnancies and who are willing to build bridges with prochoicers. I think preventing unwanted pregnancies is very pro-woman – by the very word “unwanted”, women are obviously not happy about having them.
    I personally believe abortion is wrong (although I don’t at all want to control women’s sexuality, nor do I hate women in any way) – but I think that a lot of women in this country don’t really have the resources or options to prevent pregnancies in the first place. Also, the patriarchal attitudes in our culture – such as the idea that a man is entitled to sex on demand from his wife or girlfriend or that women should have to support their kids and the man can walk away freely if he wishes – contribute to the problem a great deal, IMHO.
    I seriously doubt that the vast majority of women who get abortions want to have them. On a very basic level, surgery sucks. Although this metaphor may be a little silly, I had to get a tooth pulled and I would have been delighted if taking a pill or getting a shot could have saved me from undergoing anesthesia, being unable to keep down water and basically lying around on the couch with a swollen face for several days. Oh yeah, and surgery is expensive, especially if it isn’t covered by health insurance.
    However, I do suspect that conservative religiosity that goes along with prolife views probably correlates with very traditional (and often antifeminist) ideas about gender roles.

  13. mas tarde
    October 3, 2006 at 9:37 am


    You seem to be saying that your position is slightly different from the pro-choice feminist position – it is “conflicted”:

    “Well, I’m a feminist and I’ve always been conflicted about abortion.”

    “I personally believe abortion is wrong (although I don’t at all want to control women’s sexuality, nor do I hate women in any way) – but I think that a lot of women in this country don’t really have the resources or options to prevent pregnancies in the first place.”

    The whole point of this post and all the others responding to Saletan is this (and it cannot be stressed enough):

    You do not have a “conflicted” relationship to pro-choice if this is what you believe. This is what pro-choice *means*. This is exactly why Saletan is exasperating. Like him, you seem to be saying that you’re pro-choice EXCEPT for the fact that you think abortion is icky/bad/not good in and of itself. But that position does not somehow deviate from the pro-choice position – it IS the pro-choice position. No one on the pro-choice side thinks that abortion itself is inherently great/fun/good/not icky. Indeed, the pro-choice movement, unlike the anti-choice movement, has ALWAYS advocated proven methods of REDUCING the number of abortions – through sex education, contraceptives, and assistance to poor women. That is why it is so annoying that Saletan:

    1. thinks these ideas are new and some sort of “compromise” from the pro-choice position, and
    2. is surprised that the anti-choice folks aren’t really interested.

    It is actually no surprise, and pro-choice folks have been trying for decades to get people to realize that:

    1. pro-choice doesn’t = “we love abortions”
    (This actually seems to be hardest for actual pro-choice people like Saletan to digest, and all the disclaimers about how he’s DIFFERENT from pro-choicers because he think abortions are actually not good – these disclaimers only perpetuate this obviously stupid assumption.)
    2. pro-life doesn’t = “whatever it takes for less abortions”

    This is why the collective pro-choice reaction to Saletan’s piece is, “no shit sherlock”.


  14. October 3, 2006 at 10:11 am

    Palabra, mas tarde.

  15. IM
    October 3, 2006 at 10:29 am

    Well, I`m pro Life. i think abortion is morally wrong. I´m anti stem cell research too and support the anti stem-cell laws of my country.

    So how can I reach my goal of fewer abortions?

    Not by making abortion illegal, that doesn`t works and neyer has. So I’m pro legal and accessible and cost-free or inexpensive etc. abortion. In ohter words pro choice. That is a quite common position here in Germany and in their hearts even many catholic bishops agree
    So: Moderate pro lifers exist, they are also known as pro-choicers.

  16. ronin
    October 3, 2006 at 10:42 am

    I’m really so sick of writers who think that writing an essay about a problem is the same as solving it.
    The problem is that our policies are being driven by prolife absolutists, not the ambivalent middle that Saletan writes about. That is why we get a hypocritical stem cell policy. That is why South Dakota drafts a draconian abortion law. That is why we have faith based pork masquerading as social services. That is why we have wingnut delegates agreeing with conservative mullahs about international aid. That is…well you get the idea.

    Saletan leaves out politics from the equation. Perhaps we will have that wonderful agreement he hopes for someday. But in the meantime, the absolutists have to be reined in. if Saletan distracts from that effort by putting the onus on prochoicers, then, yes- he is concern trolling.

  17. exangelena
    October 3, 2006 at 8:34 pm

    Mas Tarde – sorry for writing back so late! I have in the past vacillated between prochoice and (moderate, never SD abortion ban-style) prolife positions and because I personally believe abortion is wrong, it’s sometimes been difficult for me to reconcile supporting its legalization. And yeah, I frankly don’t know of any prochoicers who oppose birth control and comprehensive sex ed. But I have seen some bloggers who have said that the prolife movement, or even believing abortion is morally wrong, is all about hating women (as I’ve said, I do think that the religious conservatism that goes along with prolife views often goes along with antifeminist views) – so I felt compelled to disagree because I am a feminist and I have some sympathy for the prolife position. As for the prolife=opposing birth control, even if prolifers are opposed to premarital sex, isn’t consensual premarital preferable to killing babies?

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