As much as William Saletan’s writing on abortion drives me slightly up a wall because of his tendency to forget that there’s an actual woman involved instead of just an interesting moral quandary, I do respect his willingness to engage on the issue. So in that spirit, let’s look at his piece today, answering some arguments from pro-choicers and posing new questions:
Last week, I cited the report as a challenge to several feminist writers who have lately asserted a woman’s right to decide not only whether to have an abortion but how long she can wait to make that choice. Gosnell stands charged with abortions beyond the 24-week gestational limit prescribed by Pennsylvania law. I asked the feminist writers whether, in the name of women’s autonomy, those charges should be dropped.I haven’t seen an answer to my question.
Here is an answer: No, the charges should not be dropped in the name of women’s autonomy. The 24-week limit is Pennsylvania law, and Gosnell should have followed it. It is admittedly not easy to draw a clean line as to when abortion should no longer be an option. I personally think that fetal viability is a fair place to limit the procedure, but of course “viability” isn’t a set-in-stone marker; not every fetus is viable on the first day of Week 25. But barring health- or life-threatening conditions for the pregnant woman, a 24-week limit seems about as close as we’re going to be able to reasonably get to determining a cut-off point for abortion.
I obviously don’t speak for the whole pro-choice movement on this, and there are pro-choicers who think abortion should be limited earlier, and those who think it should be allowed later. Any cut-off point we pick is going to be somewhat arbitrary; medicine is not a perfect science, and when it comes to reproductive health care there’s no perfect and entirely consistent way to draw lines around what should and should not be legally permissible. There are competing interests when it comes to abortion; I fall on the side of believing that women should not be legally required to carry pregnancies against their will, which is why I’m pro-choice. But I also understand that there are a variety of interests in protecting fetuses. I think any moral interest or state interest in the fetus’s well-being is almost always trumped by the interests of the woman carrying that fetus, but in legislating to strike a balance between those competing interests, it seems fair enough (if not totally ideologically consistent) to outlaw abortion after the point of viability (which is roughly what the 24-week marker does), so long as there are exceptions for the life and health of the woman and so long as abortion is widely accessible early on. What’s problematic is how we currently do it — outlawing abortion at various points in different states, and also throwing up a ton of barriers to abortion so that it takes a lot of time and effort and money to terminate a pregnancy so women aren’t able to terminate pregnancies as early as they would like, and then demonizing later abortions.
…and that’s just in response to Saletan’s opening paragraph. Moving on (and getting more concise):
1. The vast majority of abortions take place early in pregnancy. “Only 1.5% of abortions occur after 21 weeks of pregnancy,” notes Vanessa Valenti at Feministing. She’s right. Women and clinics deserve credit for acting earlier and keeping that number down. Still, 1.5 percent of 1.2 million abortions per year is 18,000 very late abortions. How long should the abortion decision clock be allowed to run?
5. The Gosnell case isn’t about abortion. Several bloggers make this claim. Most argue that since Gosnell induced delivery before killing the babies, what he did wasn’t abortion. But this doesn’t affect the question of gestational age. The grand jury report alleges hundreds of cases in which women came to Gosnell for abortions beyond 24 weeks. One way or another, they wanted their pregnancies terminated. Should these requests have been honored?
If they broke the law, and there weren’t health- or life-threatening complications? Nope.
6. If late-term abortions are outlawed, only outlaws will do late-term abortions. That’s the quip headline (almost) on Amanda Hess’ blog post at TBD. It’s true that abortion laws make back-alley butchers like Gosnell more likely. But the same argument has been made about female genital mutilation: If you don’t let parents obtain it legally, they’ll go to unlicensed underground practitioners. Is there some point at which a decent society must simply forbid a practice? If killing a viable fetus—a baby that no longer needs a womb to survive—isn’t such a practice, what is?
Well, first “late-term abortion” does not necessary equal “abortion performed after fetal viability.” A lot of so-called “late-term abortions” are performed before the fetus is viable. If we’re talking about abortions performed after the point of viability, those abortions are already illegal (except for ones performed because of the woman’s life/health). So I’m not totally sure what Saletan’s argument is here.
7. Late-term abortion is no worse than other surgeries. P.Z. Myers, an excellent science writer, summarizes Gosnell’s treatment of babies this way: “Much noise is being made about the ‘horrific’ killings, but late term abortions, even the ones done in clean, properly maintained facilities with well-trained personnel, are always necessarily bloody and unpleasant affairs, like most surgeries.” Filipovic responds in a similar vein: “Abortion is pretty gross. So are many medical procedures. So is childbirth, actually. Can we move the conversation forward now?” What’s missing from these reactions is any acknowledgment that aborting a viable fetus is horrific in a different way from other procedures. It’s the intentional killing of a human being. Why is it so hard to admit this?
Well, because you’re twisting what PZ and I actually said. Again, the term “late-term abortion” isn’t a clearly-defined one. It can mean abortion after 24 weeks, or after 20 weeks, or after 12 weeks. Does Saletan think that abortion at 25 weeks is “the intentional killing of a human being,” but abortion at 12 isn’t? I understand the desire to put abortions into neat little boxes — ok in the first trimester, bad in the second, horrific in the third. But that’s not really how the human body works; the uterus isn’t totally in line with the brain’s desire to categorize everything. “Viability” is a sliding line, and we make the law limit abortion at 24 weeks because it’s a probability game — babies younger than that usually don’t survive, and even babies born at 24 or 25 weeks may not survive, but they probably do if given extraordinary medical attention.
I haven’t seen anyone making the case for free-for-all abortions after the point of fetal viability. What we have said is that “eew blood” isn’t a very good argument against abortion generally (at whatever stage). And there isn’t something magical that happens at Week 24 that makes every single abortion past that point the intentional killing of a human being that, had you simply removed it from the uterus, would have survived no problemo. So saying that “late-term abortion” is “the intentional killing of a human being” is hard to admit because it’s just not true. Not when you haven’t defined the terms you’re using, and not when reproduction and the human body is much more complex than that.
So here’s my challenge to these pro-choice writers: I agree with you on most abortion policy questions. Contraception or abstinence is best, emergency contraception is next best, early abortion is next best, and we should make these options more accessible, not less. But we’ll still be left with some women who, for no medical reason, have run out the clock, even to the point of viability. Should their abortion requests be granted anyway? I’ve answered your questions. Now it’s your turn to answer mine.
If there are no medical reasons and abortion is fully accessible and the fetus is past the point of viability, then I’m fine with saying no, that woman’s “abortion request” should not be “granted” (gah). But let’s also be clear that the number of women seeking post-viability elective abortions for no medical reason at all who also had full access to early abortion is a really really tiny number. It’s significantly less than the number of women who have abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy, which is a whopping 1.5% of abortions (or 18,000 total). And Saletan, I think, is talking about abortions which women would want to have more than 24 weeks into a pregnancy. There aren’t statistics on that (at least as far as I can find), but I don’t think anyone would dispute that it’s minimal.
So here’s where I’m confused: Why are we focusing on the tiny number of women who want to have post-viability elective abortions when (a) that’s illegal anyway, as evidenced by the fact that Gosnell was arrested for it so there isn’t really much of an argument to be had; and (b) there are all of these issues surrounding access and contraception use and the demonization of abortion that impact infinitely more women?
We’re debating the rights of some group of theoretical women who want to have post-viability abortions, and who have no medical reason to do so, and who were perfectly able to access abortion earlier in their pregnancies. Why? Seriously, why are we doing that? There are not significant numbers of these women. Abortions after 24 weeks are already highly restricted, and can’t just be done on a whim. This is not really a significant point in the abortion debates, theoretically or realistically. What does impact thousands and thousands of women is the fact that abortions are hard to get because anti-choicers have erected a bunch of barriers, using many of the same arguments that Saletan focuses on in this piece; the fact that even birth control and decent sex education isn’t the easiest to come by in the United States because of those same anti-choice activists who aren’t just against abortion but who oppose anything that helps to give women control over their own bodies and lives; and the fact that abortion is demonized as evil or selfish murderous instead of taken for what it is: A fairly common part of women’s reproductive experiences.
So why do all of those things get written off as “oh sure I agree we need to make abortion more accessible, but … [insert fairly improbable situation that no one really disagrees about here]“? Saletan, you have a big platform. If you agree that accessibility and contraception access and education are all key to decreasing the number of second-trimester abortions, why aren’t you doing the legwork of advocating for those things, instead of challenging pro-choicers to debate largely theoretical questions whose answers don’t have much real-world impact anyway? What’s the end game of this debate?
Really, what are we doing here?
- What Kermit Gosnell tells us about late-term abortion by Jill January 20, 2011
- Dr. Tiller’s Clinic Will Remain Closed by Cara June 9, 2009
- New bill will let doctors refuse to save the lives of pregnant women by Jill February 4, 2011
- National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers by Cara March 10, 2010
- Why Dr. LeRoy Carhart Won’t Stop Doing Abortions by Cara August 19, 2009