Commentary on current events, politics, government, and popular culture from John Sheirer, author of the book, Make Common Sense Common Again.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Diving into the Abortion Debate

A shorter version of this article appeared as my monthly column in my hometown newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

I recently immersed myself in a week-long discussion of abortion while visiting the comment section of a conservative website. I was nearly the only pro-choice voice to stay in the discussion while surrounded by a dozen or so anti-choice people, which is fine because we can always grow by engaging with other views on any issue. I'm sure that the folks in this discussion don't encompass every aspect of the anti-choice view, but they seemed to represent the main anti-choice tenants. I learned a great deal during the discussion. Unfortunately, much of what I learned was unsettling for anyone who values civil discussion and public policy based on reason and reality.

For many on the anti-choice side, the debate boiled down to one word: "life." They claimed that a fetus is alive; therefore, it must not be tampered with in any way. They also stated that pro-choice people don't think that a fetus is alive. When I pointed out that I did, of course, believe that a fetus was alive, they were shocked that I could kill anything living. I also pointed out that the food they ate for dinner was once alive, as were the skin cells they lost when they showered, they accused me of changing the subject. "Life is life," one person claimed. "Ending life is killing." I guess he must have eaten rocks for dinner.

The subject these folks wanted to discuss most often was what they saw as my obvious approval of murder--not just approval, but actual participation in murder. Anti-choice people view pro-choice people as murderers, and they're not bashful about calling us murderers. I was called a "baby killer" dozens of times during the debate, often with added insults about every aspect of my character. When I brought up the essential question of when a fetus becomes a fully realized human life, they always defaulted to conception and could entertain no other viewpoint. No one seemed willing to accept the idea that I might be a moral person who could see other sides of this complex and personal issue. Nope--just a murderer.

One person insisted that every physician he had ever asked told him that abortion is murder. When I pointed out that the American Medical Association officially considered abortion an acceptable medical procedure, he called me a murderer. Another person said we need a federal law prohibiting all abortions. When I pointed out that the Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that abortion is constitutional, he called me a murderer. Is it really too much to ask to have a civil discussion without being repeatedly called a murderer?  

I recently had the beautiful experience of holding my newborn granddaughter in my arms. This might surprise the anti-choice people attacking me, but I didn't once look into her beautiful blue eyes and consider killing her. Instead, I felt the joy of knowing that she is wanted and will be cared for by her parents who love her and chose to exercise the reproductive freedom to plan their family. That's what "pro-choice" means: choosing when to have a family. That's called freedom. The United States was founded on that concept. 

Is it hard to understand that screeching "murderer!" at me isn't going to make me more apt to accept a position that I've invested with serious thought? This issue should be treated with a better quality of discourse than the typical Jerry Springer episode. If I screeched back, "You just want to force women to be your barefoot, pregnant, sex slaves and baby factories!" then would they be likely to change their opinion? If I called them "baby starvers" for wanting to cut food stamps, would they suddenly say, "Oh, gosh, I guess you're right"? Of course not. Screeching and name-calling never solves anything  

Despite their view that abortion is murder, these anti-choice people don't want to talk about the penalties if abortion were to actually be outlawed. No one in the discussion would equate the penalties for abortion with their chosen penalty for the murder of a person who has been born (usually death or life in prison). That's been the case with every abortion discussion I've ever had. They like to call abortion clinics "murder factories," but the don't like to talk about the punishments for these supposed murders. One man said, "Let's let God sort it out." No, sorry, but this is a nation of laws. We can't expect God to do our job of making laws.

If people believe that abortion really is murder, and they believe that murderers should always face the harshest penalties possible, then why do they hesitate about assigning those harsh penalties to women who have abortions, the doctors who perform them, the nurses who assist, the receptionists who book the appointment, the janitor who cleans the building, and the parent/friend/husband/boyfriend who brings the woman to the procedure? Even pressing the issue, I couldn't get anyone one to see the contradiction in different penalties for two crimes they equated as murder. Perhaps at a deep level, they actually understand that murder and abortion actually aren't the same--even if they can't admit it.

They also insisted on calling me "pro-abortion," despite my view that I hope no one ever has to get an abortion. They didn't want to accept the idea that being "pro-choice" isn't the same as cheerleading for abortion. Being pro-choice means that I want pregnant women to have the right to make up their own mind about what to do. As Bill and Hilary Clinton have said for years, I think abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." I certainly don't want to force women to have an abortion any more than I want to force women into an unwanted, full-term pregnancy. The "pro-life" view takes away this choice from all women. They should be called "anti-choice" because that's far more accurate than "pro-life."

When I pointed out that their anti-choice view called for government legislation that forced pregnant women to give birth without a choice in the matter, no one saw that kind of government control as a problem. Of course, they thought having the government require insurance companies to cover pregnancy and birth was an attack on their freedom. Nothing says "pro-life" like making sure medical care for pregnancy and birth is harder to get.

The term "pro-life" became even more muddled when I asked about government programs that supported parents and children. These "pro-life" folks were steadfastly against welfare in any form. They offered two reasons: fraud and dependency. They believed that for every truly needy person "deserving" of government assistance, another hundred were defrauding the system. When I pointed out that studies show a very low fraud rate for these programs, but this fact didn't get in the way of their certainty that they were somehow being swindled. The also claimed that recipients of support programs became dependent on those programs and lost the will to take care of themselves. Again, the fact that most people are on welfare for only a short time didn't faze them. They simply decried programs that helped parents and children after they were born as the big government "nanny state," blissfully unaware that they were employing a parenting-related metaphor to trash government programs that actually benefit actual parents and children.

On the issue of government, many anti-choice people were outraged that their tax money might be going toward abortion. They didn't seem to care that I didn’t like my tax money going toward war or corporate welfare. When I also noted that it had been illegal for federal funds to go toward abortion since the "Hyde Amendment" of 1976, they told me that they knew Obama (the "baby-killer in-chief" according to one person) had forced through Obamacare, which they viewed as an oppressive government attack on their freedom because it required doctors to perform abortions (it doesn’t) and it mandated employers to pay for abortions (doesn't do that either). These false attacks on Obamacare are common on right-wing websites that put agenda over reality. In fact, Obamacare helps to lower the abortion rate by increasing access to contraception. As expected, these anti-choice folks were also against increased access to contraception.

Another logical inconsistency of the folks in the discussion was their view that we must make abortion illegal to reduce the number of abortions. Curiously, I'd been in discussions with many of these same people on the issue of gun-safety legislation. On that subject, they were quick to point out that laws wouldn't stop anyone from getting a gun, so we shouldn't even have such laws. They didn't see the obvious fact that this line of thinking is the exact opposite to their views on making abortion illegal. I jokingly mimicked a line from gun-rights advocates: "If abortion is outlawed, only outlaws will have abortions." They didn't get the joke or the basic logic behind it. In their minds, somehow abortions laws will stop abortions while gun laws won't stop guns.

Our discussion turned personal on several occasions in addition to their accusations that I was a baby killer. One man went on at length about how wonderful his wife was and how happy he was that his wife wasn't aborted. This view has obvious emotional appeal because no one wants someone's beloved spouse to have never existed. The flaw in this emotional argument, of course, is that it must also apply to people who are not our beloved spouses. So I asked him if he was equally happy that Adolf Hitler had not been aborted. Usually, bringing Hitler into a discussion is a bad idea, but it was apt here. I explained that I wasn't equating his wife with Hitler, but he still informed me that I was a scumbag for my comment. In fact, his point about full-grown adults who were not aborted as fetuses opened the line of reasoning that led to Hitler popping up in the discussion. I didn't stoop to calling him a scumbag for subjecting his wife to the comparison, but he refused to even consider my point anyway.

The anti-choice people who came to the discussion with a religious viewpoint insisted that abortion is a central issue in Christianity. But when I asked them to tell me where Jesus spoke out about abortion, they were at a loss and reverted to their focus on murder by quoting the Old Testament commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." In fact, the New Testament doesn't show Jesus ever mentioning abortion. When I referred people to some very informative websites that explored a Biblical justification for abortion rights, they accused me of perverting the Bible and hating God. When I referenced how the political right adopted a fervent anti-abortion crusade for political reasons less than fifty years ago, they accused me of being a brainwashed liberal.

While religion is often a major influence, some anti-choice people believe that science is also on their side. The same folks who routinely reject climate science, evolution, and vaccination have formed what they see as a scientific argument against abortion. They say that because an embryo has DNA distinct form the pregnant woman carrying that embryo, that embryo is a distinct and separate individual. Therefore, the woman has no right to decide what to do about the pregnancy. This argument breaks down for at least three reasons: Cancer cells have distinct DNA but aren't considered separate individuals. And identical twins, who start with the same DNA in the womb, aren't considered to be one individual. Also, a rare genetic condition called Chimerism endows a single human with two distinct DNA sequences. No one would consider someone with this condition to be two distinct individuals. On the subject of abortion, as in every other subject, science is clearly not on the side of anti-science reactionaries.

Anti-choice people have the incorrect impression that most Americans share their views, and only liberal extremists think abortion is ever acceptable. Several people even sent me to Gallup polls that they said proved this point. In reality, the polls showed just the opposite. The most recent Gallup polls show that the nation is more-or-less even split between self-identified "pro-life" and "pro-choice" people, but more than three-fourths of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances. These folks believed so firmly in their position that they even misread straightforward polling data.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the discussion was that anti-choice people believe women have abortions casually, without much or any personal struggle. They seem to think that women (and the male partners or family members who support them) simply jot an abortion into their appointment calendar as they would a trip to the shopping mall or beauty parlor. (Yes, one person really used the term "beauty parlor"--no surprise that he was male.) That's absolutely not the case for any woman I've ever known who has chosen to have an abortion. This inability to acknowledge the deep thoughts and emotions experienced by these women--who are, by the way, fellow human beings--seems to be a gross failure of empathy at best and cruel psychopathology at worst.

While I respect the passion and conviction of anti-choice people, I deplore their nasty accusations that I kill babies, their mischaracterization of the pro-choice view as pro-abortion, their insistence that government force their will onto people who disagree with them, their over-reliance on very flimsy connections to religious doctrine, their shallow interpretation of science, their dismissal of the deeply personal and private nature of abortion, their myopic refusal to see any other side of the issue, and their poorly constructed overall arguments in support of their views. This is a serious moral issue that requires a depth of thought, not rigid, reactionary condemnation.

My biggest takeaway from this abortion discussion is that anti-choice people are generally not open to persuasion. In fact, they're downright rigid and insular. When I pointed out that Ohio Congressional Representative Tim Ryan had recently switched from a anti-choice to a pro-choice position, they claimed that he was just a lying politician trying to keep his job. Ryan actually invested a great deal of moral reflection on his decision, writing in an op-ed about his change of view, "I am not afraid to say that my position has evolved as my experiences have broadened, deepened, and become more personal … I have come to believe that we must trust women and families--not politicians--to make the best decision for their lives."

Representative Ryan's change of heart gives me hope after a mostly depressing week of diving into the abortion debate. I only wish that the folks I encountered in that discussion had put Ryan's depth of thought into their own views on the issue.



  1. (Here from Jon Swift.)

    Fantastic post, but you are a better person than 1, I have lost my cherub-like demeanour when it comes to dealing with the theofascistic monsters on that side. My best bet is not to engage, as they enrage, but when I do engage, well, I can get cranky...

  2. Overturn the Hyde Amendment. There is no reason why a safe and legal medical procedure can't be funded by the government.

  3. Wow. This is a very impressive review of the anti-abortion conversation these days. Thank you for your patience and well-articulated observations, John Sheirer.

  4. Great post. One aspect of the abortion issue I don't hear about much is the class aspect: if you are middle-class or affluent, you can get both contraception and abortion privately, no matter what restrictions the anti-abortion movement might pass. As Kevin Drum put it: the abortion restrictions hit poor women in red states the hardest, leaving the rich to have all the sex they want while condemning poor women for having any sex at all.


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