Abortion Post Alpha

I feel like I’ve been abnormally serious here lately, what with the politics and the politics and the what-all. I almost had a bit last week on the disgusting way I clear my sinuses, but just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for a good old-fashioned TMI yuck-fest. This isn’t supposed to be a serious blog, but, you know, fuck it.

Hearing/seeing progressive men talk about how, in light of political realities, preserving abortion rights should be carefully weighed against preserving the constitutionality of the New Deal just makes me break out in a cold, Handmaid’s Tale sort of sweat. True, if push came to shove, the overall harm caused by back-alley abortions and/or forced childbearing would probably pale in comparison with the harm caused by destroying OSHA, the EPA, etc etc etc, but jeebus! For one, I don’t think this is a reality-based dichotomy – in what backwater of the judicial pool will you find someone who would uphold Roe v. Wade but overturn everything else? – so it’s a creepy way to frame a discussion.

For two, I happen to have a pet angle on the question, which would solve everything if only it could gain some traction in the debate. Or if not everything, at least the problem of pro-life “feminism”. Below the fold, I am right and everybody else is wrong! Except Patricia Beattie Jung, who is way ahead of me.

We all know by now that anyone who wants to prevent abortions down here in reality-land will busy themselves with effective birth control and strong social welfare systems, but we also know that lots of people are trying to prevent abortions on the Platonic Realm of Forms. Let’s take a break from reality and join them – the Realm of Forms is where all the juicy political action is these days anyway!

A rich symphony slowly fades to a Philip Glass-inspired harp solo as we rise through the bubble of our illusions to reach the Platonic Realm of Forms. Welcome to the Realm of Forms! says an attractive composite person, Is your cheese-fœtus dead or alive?

There are two things, here in the Realm of Forms. One is the problem of when to start giving tiny proto-humans moral weight. I’m not inclined to do this before serious brain-knitting starts, and I very much scoff at those who insist that the unique genetic code of a wee zygote is sufficient to ensure ensoulment* – but I’m also not inclined to pretend that it’s possible, or even desireable, to reach consensus. The law isn’t built for gray areas like this, but I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should extend the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.

But here’s the second thing: even if we finished the argument about moral weight and gravity, we still wouldn’t be done! Whatever moral or legal weight we grant to fetal life, it needs to be counterbalanced against the moral/legal weight we grant to bodily integrity and individual medical autonomy.

Fine! you cry** we’ll make exceptions for the life, health, or convenience of the mother, as appropriate for the system of weights and measures we have established in your first stage of rhetoric! But no. You are still missing the full context, the broader context, the only plausibly non-misogynist context for this argument.

You’re missing the man who won’t donate bone marrow to save his little leukemiatic kid. Because this is the question: When someone else’s life depends on your body, just how far up shit creek are you allowed to leave them?

In all the relentless march of medical technology and the proliferation of possible analogies to pregnancy, the answer has been as far as you want. We unthinkingly accept the right of a dead person to have their now-useless bodies treated as we think they would have wanted, even though this comes at a cost of N lives per corpse.*** We feel a bit weird even asking people to register to possibly be asked to give bone marrow, because it might be too much “pressure” on the donor.

Why is pregnancy so different from bone marrow donation? It’s more common, it involves a longer duration of discomfort, it may be somewhat riskier****, and oh yeah, it only happens to women.

I can’t read about shit like this***** without wondering what would happen if I started up an insurance company and withheld coverage from those who fail to donate blood often enough, or refuse to sign up for the marrow donation registry, or keep two kidneys just to maintain their selfishly dehydrated lifestyle. Or even if I refused to cover hospice care for terminally ill patients who decline the option of organ donation. Loss of taxpayer funds wouldn’t be the half of it!

Why aren’t more people making this comparison? Particularly people who would like to remove the scare quotes from the phrase pro-life “feminism” – as long as the implicit assumption that a corpse has a lesser obligation to provide bodily support than a pregnant woman remains unadressed within the anti-abortion movement, I’ll feel pretty comfortable waving around a copy of Handmaid’s Tale and yelling about the patriarchy. A well thought-out argument on the general principle of bodily support wouldn’t turn me into a pro-lifer per se, as there would still be that bit about assigning moral weight to zygotes, but I think I’d feel less threatened.

Update update update: If you found this page by Googling for “homemade abortion” – find yourself a reputable abortion provider instead. Please.

* And by “scoff” I mean “Oh yeah? Tell it to this set of intimidatingly well-muscled identical twins!” which could theoretically rise to the level of legitimate debate, but in practice doesn’t.
** You dirty dialectique, you!
*** The only source I could find for N was a plagiarized essay-bank, which claims that N=5.
**** I found an analysis of the risks of marrow donation here, but couldn’t find a similar study on the rate of serious complications from pregnancy and/or childbirth. So I compared death rates: 5-6 deaths per 100,000 live births vs. 0 deaths per 9,282 marrow harvests studied. It’s not quite what you’d call a solid piece of epidemiology, but it’ll do for now.
****** Link via Dr. Bitch but Lilith has the better rant.

Trackbacks & Pings

  1. Abortion Post Omega on 26 May 2011 at 2:56 pm

    […] there’s been discussion of an essay which attempts to take precisely the opposite of my preferred approach to abortion rights: namely, it considers the problem of fetal value in a hypothetical universe where it cannot be […]


  1. wolfangel wrote:

    Yes, I’m waiting for people to say that parents are obliged to donate X (X=liver, kidney, skin, blood, marrow) for their children NO MATTER WHAT.
    The other ones will be kept separate because you have a certain amount of responsibility to your children that you don’t to anyone else. At least, I think that’s how the argument will go.

  2. yami wrote:

    I’d rather that argument than the argument from “pregnancy is passive, organ donation is active” or the natural/unnatural dichotomy – which are the other two ways I could see it happening.
    I think parents are somewhat obliged to donate X, for values of X generally less than or equal to a kidney. I haven’t spent too much emotional energy on hypothetical living donor scenarios, but the circle of people who might plausibly claim my spare kidney includes friends and first cousins, I guess. But this is a moral obligation – or rather, my own desire to appear a self-sacrificing hero, which is not to be underestimated! – not a legal one, and it should stay that way.

  3. yami wrote:

    Further: part of why I’m bringing this up is because I want us (a broadly construed social us, natch) to re-think organ donation. Not that it should become non-optional, but particularly when we’re talking dead people I’m inclined to say it should be opt-out rather than opt-in. And I think I might find some sympathy in the pro-life movement, at least that segment of it that isn’t crazy misogynist, and at least for values of sympathy that include interesting argument whetstones.
    And also – d’you think this could lead down the seductive liberal path of shouldering our obligations to our fellow persons, tra la la?

  4. wolfangel wrote:

    I am entirely for opt-out. I’d like best if (other than for children) you had to opt-out yourself, and after death, family could not opt-out for you. It’s a corpse.
    Parents are not legally obligated to donate X, for X < something that will kill them. Morally obligated? Well, yes, I think they are, generally, but that’s irrelevant, because as the law stands, they have no obligation. If you’re obligated to give up your body for your child, then you’re obligated to give up your body. But, no, it’s just the “passive” pregnancy as opposed to the “active” donation. (I’d argue that the two are reverse.)
    I don’t mind the argument of more obligations to our children, particularly. But if you’re obligated to give up privacy and bodily integrity if you’re a woman, how about we set up a few things for the men, first. National DNA database, say? But no, it’s just the minor inconvenience of pregnancy and labour, after which you can just give the kid away and have no further responsibilities, no problem.

  5. wolfangel wrote:

    And I do think that this story, when combined with the homemade abortion=manslaughter story, is just terrifying.

  6. yami wrote:

    Right, I did mean parents have only moral/social obligations, not legal ones – shoulda made that more clear than just “somewhat”. And it is relevant, if it helps us delineate circumstances in which the law should permit people to make immoral choices.
    (I edited your comment, btw, to turn the less-than sign into an HTML entity)

  7. wolfangel wrote:

    True, we could have an interesting discussion about the morality of doing certain things, but not if we equate ALREADY BORN CHILDREN with possibilities. Because in the end, I think that abortions aren’t immoral, but refusing to donate organs is.
    And the “let’s just give in on the abortion issue” concept bothers me. I think men can have things to say about abortion, but I think that their saying that it’s really a secondary issue is inappropriate.

  8. wolfangel wrote:

    And sorry about the bad HTML — I sometimes forget.

  9. yami wrote:

    Yeah, I agree with you as to the final conclusion – though my jury is still out on the degree to which we are obliged to make living donations of blood and/or marrow. (I’m ineligible to give blood on a technicality – too much time in mad-cow-ridden Europe – but could probably do marrow… hmm.)
    I guess one of the other ways in which pregnancy is different is that with blood/marrow donation, you’re very far away from the person whose life you’ll save. In particular, without signing up for the marrow registry, there’s no way to know whether you could really save a life or not, because maybe you wouldn’t be a match anyway. So it’s easy not to think about it. With pregnancy, you’re catapaulted to the stage where you definitely are a match. Which is irrelevant in the Realm of Forms but meaningful in real life experience.
    And no worries about the HTML! It happens

  10. wolfangel wrote:

    I can think of all sorts of ways they’re different. For instance, it’s at least possible for other people to donate blood/marrow/kidneys, while if you’re a fetus, there’s exactly one uterus that can work. But then a person is, well, a person, while a fetus isn’t quite. The similarities between them need to be balanced against the differences.
    Morally, are we obliged? Well, yes and no. For instance, donating blood makes me sick. And I’m unwilling to do that regularly, and though it’s not something I’m hugely proud of, I’m also not incredibly ashamed of it. (I do when they put out calls in general, or if they ever specifically asked for my blood type, which they don’t, because it’s O+. And I would give blood for friends or family. But in general, I don’t give blood.)

  11. Clancy wrote:

    Check out this essay for a well-thought-out version of the “enforced altruism” argument.

  12. yami wrote:

    Wolfangel: there are instances where only one marrow donor is identified, and if I were that donor I don’t think I’d be comforted by the fact that someone else could theoretically take up the slack; meanwhile, if you’re just a zygote you can be frozen in liquid nitrogen and implanted in someone else’s uterus, and then there’s the wonderful world of inventing hypothetical new medical treatments for moral clarity’s sake…
    In any case, there’s a significant chunk of the population who will never, ever accept fetal un-personhood. The only way the tenor of the public discourse will improve is if we find ways of acknowledging and then routing around this basic disagreement.
    Clancy: Indeed! Thanks for the link.

  13. wolfangel wrote:

    I agree: if they came to me because I was the only marrow donor registered I wouldn’t easily be able to say “well, there’s probably someone else out there”. On the other hand, it’s not so hard to say that as a reason *not* to register for it; this decision is even easier for blood.
    The difference between giving things to an anonymous recipient and to a child is that the child (and fetus) is in the position of depending on you *because of you*. I did not give someone kidney failure, and it is not because of me that some random person can use my marrow.
    True, some people will never accept fetal unpersonhood, and some will never accept fetal personhood. I think the way around this argument is to agree on the basics — we all want fewer abortions — and then say how outlawing abortion will not help that (it won’t: people will DIY abortions), and how other things (sane sex ed, easier access to BC, better parental leave) WILL help lower the number of abortions. Because personhood or lack is an argument that the pro-choice side is never going to win.

  14. yami wrote:

    It’s lucky for all of us that KPCC’s pledge drive ended last week, or you’d get another long post comparing organ donation and abortion and public radio pledge drives…
    I agree that a primary argument should be that banning abortion is ineffective. However, when you rely solely on this kind of argument you end up with people who ask if we can’t just institute a better support network and ban abortion. At which point the answer becomes “no, because we consider bodily life support a sacred gift rather than a legal obligation, and if we wish to change that we must do so even-handedly, not just for pregnant women” – and that’s really the stage of the argument I was aiming for when I wrote this post.
    As far as worrying about why a person or maybe-person’s life depends on me…
    If a condom breaks, is that because of me or because things just break? If we make parents donate organs, can they get out of it if their kid was unplanned? Do I incur greater obligation to a fetal maybe-person if the condom broke, or if I put the diaphragm in incorrectly, or if I thought I was using protection but my partner took the condom off halfway through and I didn’t notice, or if I was wearing such a short skirt and walking down such a dark alley that I must’ve been asking for it?
    That road leads back to punishing women for being sexual; it might work as a moral argument, but as a legal one it has some pretty unpalatable implications.

  15. wolfangel wrote:

    I have no moral arguments about abortion. I also am not actually in favour of forcing parents to donate organs.
    But we can say “look, we don’t think abortion should be illegal, but we do think it should be rare, and here’s our concrete plans to do that, while still preserving people’s bodily integrity”. I think that would be more effective than going further right, or trying to come to any sort of agreement about personhood, or of the morality of abortion. There will be some for whom it’s not enough, but those will be there anyhow.

  16. yami wrote:

    Yeah, I was kinda using your devil’s advocacy as a surrogate for the people I really want to argue with, Wolfangel. Sorry about that.
    Anyway, “safe, legal and rare” only works outside the Platonic Realm of Forms. The Medium Lobster was dead-on here:

    For [W’s] administration has not only embraced ideas, it exists, in a sense, only as an idea. It has so rapidly and so readily embraced the boldest of ideas that it has transcended the need for real actions, real plans, real accomplishments, and reality itself.

    Fifty-one percent of the nation endorsed this approach. I don’t do reality-based debate on this issue nearly as well as the folks at Alas, A Blog anyway, so for this post I brought us all to the Platonic Realm of Forms, where ideas float free from the significance of their impact on reality. It’s not so much about improving the electoral prospects of liberals as it is about making me less terrified by the thought of people trying to take away my right to control my body – and this goal is as well-served by an increase in my own understanding of the “opposition” as it is by persuading them to agree with me.
    In any case, I’m off for Turkey Week. If Monday doldrums bring more discussion to this post, I won’t be able to respond, so be gentle! Arguments about reality are better off elsewhere; let’s keep this to an “ought” rather than an “is”. Any requests for evidence will be disemvoweled when I return

  17. LiL wrote:

    I think the organ donation analogy is a really good one. Thanks for writing it down.
    I’m with Wolfangel:

    But we can say “look, we don’t think abortion should be illegal, but we do think it should be rare, and here’s our concrete plans to do that, while still preserving people’s bodily integrity”. I think that would be more effective than going further right, or trying to come to any sort of agreement about personhood, or of the morality of abortion. There will be some for whom it’s not enough, but those will be there anyhow.”

    My problem is, why is it all on women? All responsibility for pregnancy, I mean – but then not all when it comes to abortion. And the fetus is in a parasitical relationship with the mother, living being or not, and frankly, I don’t see why an unwanted parasite has privileges over the mother, someone into whom society has invested lots of time, money, care – whereas the fetus only has the mother’s blood and body invested in it. (And I’ve written before that for my part, I want children very badly. But if I had one when I didn’t, that child would have had a lot of misery to contend with. And that’s just not fair either.)

  18. wolfangel wrote:

    Although I don’t think a fetus is a person, it’s a potential, and as it gets closer and closer to birth (at which point, whether you think babies are persons or not, the “right to life” vs “right to bodily integrity” question becomes moot), it’s harder and harder to say “well, we’ve only got some blood invested in it”. That’s all we have for infants and blah blah infanticide.
    Since the number of late abortions is very low, I think this is just a very effective red herring. There just aren’t whole loads of women at 38 weeks saying “you know, I’ve changed my mind!” and there aren’t many doctors who would say yes, anyhow. (I suspect but cannot prove that these abortions are all or almost all due to fetal or maternal health complications.)
    But the thing is, we need to find less charged language. Because “unwanted parasite” is going to close people’s minds to your argument, just like notmike’s use of “preborn infants” made me predisposed to disagree with his.
    Will my argument not work in the realm of forms? It won’t. But I think that some people are more interested in better rhetoric, which the republicans surely have. “Safe, legal and rare” is a good one; it can be built on.

  19. LiL wrote:

    You’re right, Wolfangel, charged language is part of the problem, and I often can’t help using charged language because it’s too personal a point that I want to make. And yet we need to get past this – for the reasons you say. And yes, late-term abortions are a red herring. In Hungary, abortion is legal until the end of the first trimester and never beyond except when medically necessary. I’ve always thought that was a reasonable compromise.
    But I seriously think abortion isn’t even quite the real issue here. I still think that a lot of this has to do with women’s bodily integrity, and whether or not the range of bodily phenomena that comes with being a woman should be considered minor inconveniences that deviate from a male-defined norm of what a body does or whether we can move past that point and establish that a woman’s bodily phenomena are themselves a norm. In the current setup, they’re not. They’re things that women have to manage & pay for themselves in order not to upset the male-body-defined norms, to never appear as though they’re having their periods, for instance.

  20. wolfangel wrote:

    I wrote a nice long response, which disappeared. Sigh.
    I will just repeat one part, because I think maybe since Yami isn’t here we could finish the discussion elsewhere.
    I strongly disagree with first trimester limits (even given appropriate exceptions): I want it extended to 20-24 weeks (probably the beginning of this).
    Why? Well, let’s say your period is irregular. You might not know for 2 months. First trimester: almost over. You have a month to get together enough money to pay for the abortion (not an insignificant concern); you have to possibly travel; you need to find a doctor; you need to find time off to get the abortion. Clinics are scarce, and abortions aren’t cheap.
    On the other hand, I believe 24 weeks is pretty well viability. A few survive before, but not many, and people figure it’s not going to lower. That gives the other end (with appropriate exceptions).

  21. Harrison wrote:

    Oh, lord, it’s nothing more than the old vulgar musty argument: class is the real issue, gender issues and sexual orientation issues are just distractions.
    But, fuck it, we’re seeing it more and more. Just last week there was something in the Prospect about how the Dems have gone down for supporting gays, and, you know, they should really *think* about that.
    What a bunch of would-be auto-fellaters.

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