Thanks, Democratic feminist allies!
Matt Stoller, Mike Lux and Chris Bowers have started Open Left, “a news, analysis and action website dedicated toward building a progressive governing majority in America.” It’s worth checking out. I was going to write a nice laudatory post about the site, and I still think it’s a great project, but then I read this post and my good will pretty much flew out the window.
To be fair, the post is by a diarist writing under the humble moniker of “BeyondRational.” It’s not written or vetted by Matt, Mike or Chris, and so I don’t hold them responsible for it. And I still think that Matt, Mike and Chris are interesting political strategists, and that they’re putting out some very exciting ideas. But, damn — if these are the kinds of views that are going to be promoted by the new old left, I’m not sure I want to be a part of it.
First, the post is titled “It Takes a Village to Abort a Child: How Democrats Should Reframe the Abortion Debate.”
I’ll first point out that the author presents absolutely nothing new in his post. Not one single new idea. Not anything that’s even particularly interesting. But he does argue that it’s a winning strategy for Democrats to adopt the language and perspective of anti-choice conservatives. Certainly a brilliant plan, right?
This is why I’ve become pretty disengaged with electoral politics: Even the good progressive dudes are willing to sell my ass down the river if they think it’ll score them some votes (or if they think it’ll make a controversial blog post).
Abortion will be one of the most decisive domestic policy issues during the impending 2008 elections. But progressive propaganda on this issue – the fundamental `right to privacy’ couched in the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade – has grown stale. How then, in an era were precedent is just a nine letter word, should the pro-choice position be framed? The answer is to distinguish between the right to choose from the choice and, rather than vehemently defending the former, offer cogent policy that affects the latter.
The right to privacy is “progressive propaganda”? Well there’s a vision for a bright progressive future.
Distinguishing the right from the choice is a failing strategy. It’s not a great idea to argue that abortion is really really bad and horrible and sad and murderous, but we think it should be legal anyway. It’s adopting the language and the views of anti-choicers, and arguing within their framework — and that’s a losing game. How about making them explain why they’re justified in their contention that women should be legally forced to carry pregnancies to term, and, if we accept that a fetus is a life, why women should have to use their bodies to sustain that life when such action is required nowhere else in the law?
Roe v. Wade ensured women the right to choose. Thus, continuing to frame the abortion debate as a Constitutional right is ineffective and only makes Roe v. Wade more vulnerable. Instead, the abortion debate should focus on the factors that drive some to choose abortion, including the personal and economic hardships families currently endure.
That makes absolutely no sense. If Roe v. Wade ensured women the right to choose, then framinig the abortion debate as a Constitutional right is a no-brainer — it is a right. Imagine if we were talking about anything other than abortion. “A series of cases ensured all of us the right to free speech. Thus, continuing to frame free speech as a Constitutional right is ineffective and only makes the free speech cases more vulnerable.” Totally logical, right?
To motivate this much needed paradigm shift to the abortion debate, it is important to understand the state of parenthood in the US. In a recent report by the Urban Institute titled, “Framework for a New Safety Net for Low-Income Families”, nearly one-third of non-elderly families with children are low-income (defined as family income less than $40,000/year in 2006 dollars). Their low-income status, however, does not stem from low labor force attachment: 71% of adults in these non-elderly, low-income families exhibit moderate to high levels of labor force attachment (defined as working 1,000 hours/year or more).
Despite the high level of labor force attachment, these families face high levels of job insecurity and are more likely to be affected by economic downturns. Furthermore, with about one quarter of US jobs paying $9 an hour or less, low-income parents are finding it difficult to provide basic family needs: 27% of high level working families worry about or have had trouble affording food when needed, 27% have had trouble paying their rent or mortgage, and 36% lack health insurance coverage.
The Urban Institute report concludes, “Because low-income families are less likely than better-off families to have flexibility at work, are more likely to be raising children with physical or emotional health problems, and are more dependent on each week’s paycheck without significant private resources, they face even more wrenching conflicts between family and work than other Americans.”
A more “wrenching conflict” between family and work faced by current parents, however, is the decision to abort or deliver a child confronted by prospective parents. Given the sad state of low-income families in the US, pregnant (often single) women must choose whether to abort a child all too often.
Only poor women have abortions. Oh, and apparently you “abort a child” now.
Thus, the high rate of abortions in the US is, and should be framed as, a systemic lack of sympathy for the dispossessed rather than a lack of morality among them. And abortion itself should be viewed as a sign of desperation rather than a lack of family values. In this regard, the major shortcoming with the right to choose argument is that it focuses on the individual, making women appear as the transgressors rather than the victims.
Hey, here’s a new strategy: Condescend to women and talk about how abortion really hurts them!
Now, BeyondRational hints at an idea that pro-choicers have been putting out there forever — that no woman wants to be in a position where she has to make the choice to have an abortion, and so we should give her the tools to prevent the situation if possible (and it’s not always possible). If a woman is considering terminating a pregnancy, chances are something has gone wrong. Birth control failed. She didn’t want to get pregnant. Something went wrong with a wanted pregnancy. Circumstances in her life shifted, changing a wanted (or managable) pregnancy into an unwanted one. None of these are good things — and the circumstances leading up to medical interventions rarely are. But that doesn’t make women victims. It makes us human.
Shitty things happen. We deal with those things as best we can. Abortion is one way of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. It’s a choice, and it’s just as valid as giving birth and raising the child, or giving birth and putting the child up for adoption. If women are “victims,” then they’re victims of unwanted pregnancy, not abortion — just as one may be a “victim” of heart disease, but not a victim of open-heart surgery.
Senator Obama alluded to this point during the South Carolina Democratic debate. In response to whether he would use Roe v. Wade as a litmus test for high court nominees, Obama argued that we should make it “less likely for women to find themselves in circumstances where they’ve got to anguish over these decisions.” Potential policies to improve the outlook for current and potential families include ensuring appropriate wages for workers, providing adequate care and income support for disabled parents and children, and increasing support for childcare for both working and nonworking parents.
All good strategies. But Obama’s point is not the same as BeyondRational’s. Obama is making a standard pro-choice argument: That ideally, we work to prevent unintended pregnancy, and we give women the widest variety of options possible. It is true that many women terminate pregnancies because they can’t live on our ridiculously low minimum wage, or because like so many Americans they are un- or under-insured, or because they need to take care of the kids they already have, or because we offer almost in terms of childcare assistance. A truly pro-choice policy is holistic — it makes it childrearing more tenable, adoption more feasible, pregnancy prevention methods more available, and abortion more accessible. It does not shame or guilt women. It does not position any one choice as more tragic than any others. It recognizes that women are the best people to make their own reproductive decisions.
Obama continued, “…can we move past some of the debates around which we disagree and can we start talking about the things we do agree on?” What we should agree on is that one abortion is one too many, leveling all moral high grounds that the conservative right now enjoy. What we disagree on, however, is how best to decrease the incidence of abortion in the US.
Well, no, we should not agree that one abortion is one too many. Reproductive justice is crucial. Promoting control over women’s bodies is not the moral high ground, and ceding the terms of the debate is not the way to win.
He is right that we disagree on how best to decrease the incidence of abortion in the U.S. Here’s a hint: Give women options. Do what’s worked in the countries with the lowest abortion rates in the world: Make abortion and birth control legal and accessible, offer universal health care, give families childcare options, create a solid social safety net, teach comprehensive sexual health education in schools, frame sex as something natural and healthy that we all take responsibility for, and on and on. It’s “pro-lifers” who want to outlaw abortion, limit or outlaw birth control access, offer no help to families and pregnant women, cut health care, refuse to give young people accurate information about sex, frame sex as something dirty that should be ridden with guilt and shame, and on and on. In other words, they’re the ones who are promoting policies that cause more abortions. And they’re the ones whose framework you’re saying we should adopt.
We did not win abortion rights by positioning abortion as an awful choice. We won by demanding abortion rights, without apology. We won by pointing out how horrible it is when we don’t have those rights. We won by promoting a movement to grant women greater equality in general. We won by arguing that women are people who should not have their bodies used against their wills.
There are income and poverty issues that need to be addressed within the reproductive justice debate. But this isn’t the way to do it. And using the exact same frames that anti-choicers have been using forever isn’t “reframing.” It’s losing.
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