Monday, February 28, 2011

Let's actually talk about abortion - part 2

Ok, to recap - I'm on board with the pro-choice stuff, but I wish the bumper-stickers and catch phrases I usually see associated with it were intelligible to outsiders.

I say this because I wasn't always pro-choice. Back in the days before before my 20s, the bumper sticker slogans and favorite rallying cries of the pro-choice movement failed so badly to address the arguments of the pro-life side that I assumed that the movement was the domain of a coven of heartless, thoughtless, sadistic harpies, and that the entire camp didn't have a leg to stand on. My previous entry takes on what one would think would be central to the debate - namely, "what is a fetus and what significance, if any, should it be accorded as a human being?" Strangely, this issue is more or less avoided entirely in the majority of pro-choice posts and comments I've seen about the topic, though the same certainly can't be said about the pro-life side.

For example, "Don't like abortion? Then don't have one." I wonder if they'd allow themselves to be caught applying the same reasoning to child molestation - I would hope not. If the only argument out there were of this "it's none of your business" sort, then I probably never would have changed my mind. "My body, my choice" is slightly better in that it at least touches on part of the actual reasoning someone might have, but being to a large extent another "mind your own business" argument, it again falls fall short of addressing the primary immediate concern of the pro-lifers - that is, what an abortion actually is. Before I rethought my positions, I was more or less offended by what I saw as willful obliviousness to this - to me, it seemed like "my body, my choice" equated having to carry a baby to term with having to get a boob job - something that no one would ever think to make women do for any reasons other than malevolent ones. And if someone insists that it's about the status of a human life, often one that was created in a mutually willful act? Then it's offensive that they insist on bringing it up, and it's obvious that what they *really* want is mandatory boob jobs, and you obviously don't think the father should be held accountable either, and how dare you, QED. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that this was my entire exposure to pro-choice argumentation throughout the first 20 years of my life.

It is true that I vastly underestimated the burden entailed by having kids, and that I didn't have a wonderful plan for how to pick up the adoption slack in an economically sustainable way, and that I more or less didn't expect any of it to ever affect me outside of the abstract. For a while, I was in that "cases X and Y are unfortunate, but..." camp before reconsidering the status of the fetus itself. But all of this is something I learned to appreciate from reading more thoughtful and reasoned accounts on the internet later on in my college years, not something that was ever clearly explained in sound bytes, slogans, bumper stickers, posters, etc. It also didn't help that most of what I heard was picked out by our pastor and preached against, to be used as a strawman, but then what I actually ran into in the wild matched it fairly well. To be fair, the better pro-choice arguments are rather nuanced, and I was a middle schooler, and so were the people who would have argued with me; my teachers probably would not have had much to gain in the way of job security by attempting to present us with carefully-reasoned arguments to the contrary.

Now I'd like to talk about I used to be a pro-life Republican. My initial reaction to this essay was very negative, but on a second read, I calmed down a little and merely felt a bit mixed about it. The reason is that I had a somewhat high and fairly specific expectation for it, and this expectation was not met. My expectations for an essay with the title "I used to be a pro-life Republican" takes the form of a thought experiment: I should expect nothing less than whatever it was that it would have taken to convince a younger Andrea to change her mind on the topic, or, more realistically, get her to stop for a minute and really think about something she hadn't considered before. I think that this is more or less what such an essay should aim for. It is indeed a high mark, but I think it's important to shoot for it. Not everyone can see into the mind of a young pro-life Republican simply by thinking back to high school, but Andrea can, and I can. I wanted her to convince herself, but I don't think she did. I could be wrong, but based on my limited information about her, I doubt it. I'm fairly confident that I wouldn't have changed my mind, though.

Suddenly: I was the dirty, filthy slut. I was the horny bitch. I was the callous murderer-in-training. What, did I think my womb was going to grow a toaster if we had a condom mishap?
Of course not. I didn’t think babies were toasters and I didn’t believe I was going to birth a toaster if I got pregnant, so how had I managed to belittle women for years with this condescending, patronizing line about a small kitchen appliance? I was frozen in a kind of moral limbo–I couldn’t believe I found myself simultaneously relieved that I could access an abortion if I wanted to, and saddened and stressed out by the possibility of having to make that decision.
What did she think, then? I don't know. As far as I can tell, she was expecting a toaster. What answer does Andrea Present have for Andrea Past? "I KNEW it wouldn't be a toaster! I'm not dumb! Stop belittling and patronizing me!"? What would Past Andrea have answered to that - "sweet Christ Jesus almighty, you're right! I was being a bit of a tosspot"?
Today, I see that nothing about my religious anti-choice views did anything to prevent abortion. They did a lot to shame myself and my friends, but nothing to prevent abortion. Today, I hear anti-choicers talk about the babies and the unborn and the American genocide, but what I really hear beneath all that is slut-shaming and fear of female sexuality. I hear that language clearly because I spoke it once, myself. It is a familiar language to me.
Is it really so 100% clear-cut? If she really had no concern for the unborn, then why would she be "saddened and stressed out by the possibility of having to make that decision"? Perhaps the stress and sadness is nothing more than embarrassment at the prospect of being exposed as a hypocrite; I doubt it, though, and I would like to give her more credit than that. I agree that slut-shaming is problematic, gratuitous, unnecessary. But the same people who have the capacity for great callousness toward moral trespasses also have the capacity for empathy. We rage when we think we see idiocy, we grin when we fondle our significant others, and we cringe at the specter of death. I think the "sonogram bill" writers are wrongheaded, but I don't think I could dismiss them as insincere. Nor do I think Past Andrea was insincere, either, though "condescending" and "callous" could be fair assessments, and I similarly regret similar attitudes I had at the time. I wasn't consciously co-conspiring with a sophist's alibi, though - I was mean and nasty, but I believed that there was a reason that "baby-killing harpy-sluts" should be ashamed. My previous entry touches to some extent on how I came to think otherwise.

On a brighter note, this remark in particular may have had some chance of convincing Past Andrea to support contraception and education, if not abortion:

I know that what has kept me from having to make a decision about an unintended pregnancy is not the prospect of hearing a fetal heartbeat or having to go through a 24-hour wait period, but safe, easy and affordable access to contraception and good, honest medical information disseminated by doctors and medical professionals
If both sides agree that less demand for abortions is a step in the right direction, then there you have it; from reading bumper stickers and so on, I had no idea that this was the case when I was a zit-faced pro-life Republican teenager. But one task remains, in that case: we need to convince teenagers that it's even desirable to encourage or enable non-procreational sexual activity in the first place; this might be somewhat self-evident to a lot of us older and more liberal folks, but this is also one of those things that is probably quite difficult to explain to a conservative-minded teenage abstinence warrior in terms that they would "get". This is a somewhat tangential can of worms, but perhaps I should get into that someday. Whatever sex is, it's nigh-irresistible, or at the least just barely good enough to gamble on making a fetus to get it. The human life cycle really is something.

Maybe everything is futile and there's no hope of getting anyone to understand anything except in retrospect, but if that's the case, perhaps that's a lesson I'll have to come to understand in retrospect, myself. But I'd like to think it's not futile to share what you're really thinking with people sooner than you came to think that way yourself. I haven't given up on Past Watt just yet.

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