Abortion Over The Atlantic

The first thing readers should know about Moira Weigel’s essay in The Atlantic is its original title. When the piece went live early Tuesday morning, that title was “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea That a Fetus Is a Person.” But by 1PM on the east coast, the article bore a new moniker: “How the Ultrasound Became Political.” The change wasn’t particularly poetic, but it was necessary; in the hours between the piece’s birth and rechristening, numerous readers and bloggers had pointed out that crucial claims in Weigel’s piece—including the idea that a six week-old fetus did not have an actual heart—was factually incorrect. Weigel’s original title had triumphantly presumed the crumbling of fetal personhood. The new title reflects the crumbling of her logic.

Of course, there’s a spot of irony in the essay’s new name. What Weigel wants the reader to believe is that pro-lifers have manipulated an inconclusive and imprecise technology to humanize the inhuman, and thus subjected the factual and scientific to the political. But isn’t that precisely what Weigel has done?

This irony exemplifies the relationship between the progressive left and science. In many ways liberals have styled themselves the party of scientific literacy ever since the Scopes trial. Whether the cause celebre was removing creationist literature from public schools, lending platforms to overpopulation worries, or climate change, progressives have, for what feels like the last half-century, presented themselves as the political ideology that welcomes scientific consensus and expertise.

Except, that is, when it comes to abortion. Despite manifold increases in medical technology and knowledge of prenatal development, pro-choice has hardly budged an inch from the judgment of fetal impersonality rendered by Roe v Wade. In some ways, this is simply by default; mainstream abortion rights activism is overwhelmingly centered on female autonomy rather than the question of the personhood of the unborn. #MyBodyMyChoice has always been surer footing for pro-choice than arguments over when a person really becomes a person. But the pro-choice uneasiness during discussions of fetal “viability” or ultrasound technology is unmistakable, and Ms. Weigel in particular offered an illustrative example.

Why didn’t the fact checkers at The Atlantic preemptively correct Weigel’s capricious and unsound argument?  It seems unlikely that a team of researchers would simply forget to verify whether a six week old fetus has begun to develop a heart—especially if such a question lay at the center of an argument, as it did for Weigel’s piece. The specific failures of an editorial process are difficult to identify, but it’s worth noting that this too reflects a greater categorical tension—namely, between the media and abortion.

One doesn’t need to look much further than the maddening summer of 2015, when major media outlets seemed to ignore, then downplay, then rally in response to a video sting of Planned Parenthood. Abortion workers’ declaring “It’s a boy” as they sift through severed anatomy in a petri dish certainly seems to have relevance for the conversation about fetal personhood. Why didn’t major journalism institutions think so? Could it be that abortion is sacrosanct even among those in our culture who are tasked with investigating its moral implications? Recall that editors for Vox once commissioned a piece from a professor as part of a rhetorical exercise called “the repugnant conclusion.” When the professor turned in an essay arguing (purely hypothetically) against abortion, Vox killed the piece, and explained to its frustrated author that the website didn’t even want to risk the appearance of criticizing abortion rights.

The embarrassments of Vox cannot, of course, be laid at the foot of The Atlantic. But that Moira Weigel’s deeply flawed, seriously ignorant essay could navigate the editorial machine of one of the country’s most influential publications is troubling. It raises again familiar issues of how the American abortion rights lobby relies not on facts and arguments, but on slogans, propaganda, and false dilemmas.

Media criticism is often too easy for conservatives, but I cannot help but now imagine an unexpectedly pregnant couple that perhaps read Weigel’s essay and believed it—because, of course, it is important that we believe reputable reporting. Perhaps these people had never considered themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” If they came away from reading Moira Weigel at 10:30AM Tuesday morning, they came away believing that this new life inside its mother had been misrepresented to them, that it was, contrary to all their instincts and all their technology, a lifeless, purposeless mass of tissue. Imagine their driving to the abortion clinic that morning, and coming back to find out that the essay which dawned new light on them now contained an update from its editors:

This article originally stated that there is “no heart to speak of” in a six-week-old fetus. By that point in a pregnancy, a heart has already begun to form. We regret the error.”

God help us.

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The Inherent Violence of Pro-Life Rhetoric

When a gunman opened fire last week inside a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three people including a police officer, the response from the political blogosphere was predictable and revealing. Dozens of pundits took the murderous rampage as an object lesson in why pro-life activism, like the kind we’ve seen over the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose of Planned Parenthood, can and does lead to violence against abortion providers and advocates.

On the other side, pro-life writers moved quickly to counter this narrative, first by casting reasonable doubt as to the real motivations (and psychological condition) of the killer, and then by pointing out the conveniently selective memories of progressives when it comes to ideologically motivated violence. All in all, both sides of the political spectrum performed effectively, making it unlikely that Americans on either side of the abortion debate would change their views because of this atrocity.

And isn’t that where most of our rhetorical face-offs on abortion tends to leave us, right back where we started in the first place? It certainly seems so. The tug-of-war between pro-choice and pro-life here was predictable in that the lines of argument for each side were obvious and obviously sufficient to confirm everyone in their preexisting views.

But I also said that this exchange was “revealing,” and here’s what I mean. By taking pro-lifers to task for using rhetoric that could incite vigilantism, the pro-choice side has unwittingly granted a crucial premise of the pro-life worldview: namely, that abortion is more than a medical procedure or a “reproductive right,” but is in fact an act of violence. Progressives are correct when they say that pro-life ideas are violent, but they are wrong when they believe that the violence starts with pro-life. Pro-life rhetoric is violent because abortion is violent.

When I say pro-life rhetoric is violent, I am NOT saying that it is violent against abortionists themselves. As Ross Douthat pointed out, the pro-life movement has grown and strengthened in the country over the last 20 years in large part because it has eschewed the kind of incident we saw last week. Pro-life activists do indeed target abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, but with political and moral reasoning, not with weapons.

But the pro-life argument is indeed a violent one, and it is violent precisely because abortion is not what its advocates say it is. The violence of pro-life is the violence of crushed skulls, suctioned brains, and carefully dissected spinal cords, not of people patronizing or running the abortion clinics but of the people for whom the clinic really exists. The violence of pro-life is the violence of looking at a mangled, bloody, and unmistakably human corpse, and hearing the words “tissue harvesting.”

The violence of abortion is, for pro-lifers, the most crucial reality in the entire post-Roe v. Wade debate. And it seems that obfuscating abortion’s violence, behind either rhetoric about reproductive freedom or by the prohibition of truth-tellers like ultrasounds and undercover cameras, has become an equally important part of the pro-choice platform. When an abortion advocate hears something like “Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts,” they think of that rhetoric as violent invective against women who need medical relief and sexual equality. They don’t think, however, of a little hand, or a doctor’s declaring “It’s a boy” when staring at a mass of body in a petri dish. For pro-choicers, the alternative to Roe is mass death in the darkened back alleys of America; they don’t stop to wonder if the clinics, windows down and pictures blurred, have actually become those back alleys.

In the wake of violence against abortion providers, it is of course fair to ask whether pro-life advocacy is mature and reasoned rather than vengeful. Can pro-lifers do better? Of course; constantly assessing whether our message is grounded in claims of human dignity for all or in political frustration for our opponents is absolutely necessary if we are to articulate a pro-life worldview capable of winning people as well as elections. The pro-life movement to date has not, after all, been merely a Jonah-like moral condemnation of the culture, but a holistic movement that builds pregnancy centers and adoption agencies. That must continue. No amount of undercover videos or hashtag campaigns can replace the effect of building a tangible culture of life.

But when faced with the accusation that our rhetoric is violent, pro-life must admit  that yes, it is violent. The violence of pro-life is not the violence of shootings or bombings but the violence of reality, the violence of actually looking at abortion and seeing its eyes, hands, and feet. Because pro-life is a movement to see the truth, it is a movement to see violence. We can’t escape the violence of pro-life because we cannot escape the violence of abortion.

A Conversation With “Safe,” “Legal,” and “Rare”

The following post imagines a three-way dialogue between pro-choice talking points Safe, Legal, and Rare. 

Legal: Good evening, friends. Thanks for joining this conversation

Safe and Rare: [together] Thank you as well. Glad to be here.

Legal: I hope both of you are OK with my emceeing this thing. It’s mainly for the sake of convenience. Besides, it’s kinda logical, right? Legal is kind of what brings us together in this.

Safe: Absolutely. No worries here.

Rare: I agree it’s logical. I’m fine with it, but I do hope our conversation will be about more than keeping abortion legal.

Legal: Oh, I agree. There are multiple layers to this issue, but my point was that the bottom layer, the thing that keeps our ideas together, is legality.  If abortion is illegal there’s no point in talking about how safe or rare it is.

Safe: Hold on right there. Can you clarify what you mean by that last sentence?

Rare: Yes, I’d like to hear more too.

Legal: Well, I’m not sure how much clearer that can be. Do we really have a disagreement over the importance of legality?

Rare: I’m not disputing that keeping abortion legal is important. But I think…

Safe: [interjecting] Right, I wanted though to ask about how you worded that sentence. You said if it abortion is illegal “there’s no point” in talking about safety. To me, though, that plays into the pro-life rhetoric. Our entire point is that keeping abortion legal will keep it regulated and therefore more safe. So in a way, I’d actually say the opposite of what you said. If abortion can’t be safe, who would want to keep it legal?

Legal: Well…

Rare [interjecting] Hold on. Safe, what did you mean by that just now?

Safe: Which part?

Rare: You said if abortion isn’t safe, why wouldn’t it automatically be rare?

Safe: Yes.

Rare: That’s not the point, though. Most abortions done by licensed professionals ARE safe. Seeking to make abortions safer is important but we need to think about how to make them less of a necessity. If you focus entirely on keeping it legal or safe, you haven’t addressed the underlying issue of why abortions happen.

Legal: Rare, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. I think it’s fine if abortions end up less common, but making that a point of emphasis sends the wrong message. It seems to imply that abortion is a necessary evil. That kind of rhetoric won’t keep abortion an option for women very long. If something is a necessary evil, people will start asking why it is necessary.  But that’s not our message. Abortion access is absolutely necessary and it’s a human rights issue to make sure women have that option.

Safe: [interjecting] Real quick, I just want to add that SAFE abortion access is a human right. Can’t forget that word.

Legal: Certainly. Safe abortion access is a huge issue. But I wouldn’t qualify what I said. Abortion should always be a shame-free option for every woman…

Safe: Wait one second. Why are you hesitant to qualify what you said? What’s wrong with trying to keep abortion safe?

Legal: Nothing at all. But I do think it’s possible that talking so much about how to make abortion safer or better timed or whatever can obscure our point about its role in culture. Abortion is a perfectly legitimate expression of reproductive health. You can unintentionally communicate otherwise…

Safe: How?

Legal: Well, two good exmaples are parental notification laws and ultrasound requirements. The vast majority of our advocates oppose those measures, for good reason. They place illegitimate barriers between women and reproductive health. But that’s an example how emphasizing “safety” can actually encroach on abortion rights.

Rare: I’m glad you mention those two laws. I understand your concerns about them but it seems to me that if we’re concerned with making abortion less common, those kinds of measures could help with that. There are some practical benefits, I think….

Safe: Agreed, Rare. There’s some value in making sure that people aren’t being coerced or manipulated into abortion, right Legal?

Legal: Sure, but none of that changes my point. Abortion needs to be legal because it is a moral right, not mainly because it can be administered responsibly. Even if it’s not done in a moral way, abortion is still a good thing for society.  That’s why laws that obstruct it….

Rare: Wait one moment. Isn’t Kermit Gosnell an example of what happens when you empower abortion beyond the margins of safety and public good?

Safe: Yes.

Legal: Not really. Gosnell, as monstrous as he was, was almost himself a victim. He and his patients suffered under abortion’s social stigma. Without it he probably wouldn’t have been able to do what he did even if he had wanted to.

Safe: Even if you’re right…

Rare: Well I reject that completely. Kermit Gosnell was not a victim. He’s a psychopath. And…

Safe: [interjecting] That explanation doesn’t do much for his victims, or prevent future ones.

Rare: …the reason he got away with it for so long is that we don’t have a culture that encourages alternatives to abortion. We don’t have anything that meets these young girls where they are and gives guidance…

Legal: [interjecting] Ok, now you sound like a pro-lifer.

[laughter]

Legal: Seriously, Safe, explain that to me. How do you recommend preventing those kinds of atrocities.

Safe: Whenever you find someone like Gosnell you’ve found a crack that somebody slipped through. I don’t at all challenge your premise that abortion needs to be available. But the reason for that goes beyond your explanation. Abortion needs to be legal because if it’s not then a black market filled with Gosnells will flood our communities. I trust that’s something we can all agree would be a disaster.

Rare: Yes.

Legal: I agree. But how do you avoid saying that abortion should be regulated the way pro-lifers say it should be if your main goal is to keep it “safe”? If the problem with illegalizing abortion is that people will get hurt by the abortions they get, how do you consistently oppose things like ultrasound laws?

Safe: Well…

Rare: Are we absolutely sure we’re against those laws?

Legal: I certainly hope so.

Safe: If your goal is to make something safe, then I think you should assume the safer it gets, the more people can and will utilize it. I think that gets to where, Legal, you and I agree.

Legal: OK, but can you answer my question?

Safe: Listen: Keeping abortion legal and keeping it safe don’t contradict each other. We can do both. But we actually have to try. If we can’t keep legal abortion safe, we shouldn’t have it legal either.

Rare: Agreed!

Legal: See? That’s the attitude I thought I was hearing. It’s almost an apathy towards legality. If it’s a choice between taking a step down a dangerous road and risking imperfect scenarios, we should choose the latter.

Rare: Ok, one thing about this conversation worries me. Up to this point both of you have assumed that if it were possible to make as many abortions possible as safe as possible, we should do that. I don’t feel that way.

Legal: Why?

Rare: Because we need to keep abortion rare. Women shouldn’t be forced into a corner.

Legal: Abortion isn’t a corner. It’s legitimate birth control.

Safe: Correction, it doesn’t HAVE to be a corner.

Rare: Wait a minute. So you don’t see anything tragic at all about an unplanned pregnancy? An unwanted child?

Legal: Those are tragic. Abortion is a solution to those tragedies. It’s not itself tragic.

Rare: I really don’t see how you can say that.

Legal: Well let me put it this way. How can we say with a straight face that abortion is both a tragedy and a human right? Are there tragic human rights?

Safe: There are human rights that can turn into tragedies. Freedom of the press is a human right but if done wrong it can ruin lives.

Rare: I don’t understand. I was under the impression we can be both against abortion and for its legality.

Legal: You can do that hypothetically. But when it comes writing policy, you have to prioritize legality. This is why we are for requiring companies to subsidize abortafacient contraceptives in their insurance. If companies didn’t have to do that, we would probably make aborted pregnancies less common, but we would be sending the wrong message.

Rare: But can’t we be honest about the emotional stakes involved with abortion? Shouldn’t we try to prevent the circumstance in the first place? Honestly the “wrong message” stuff sounds silly.

Legal: It sounds silly only because you are playing by pro-life’s rules. If you think abortion is mainly a sad, regrettable thing, then by all means, talk it down and legislate it until it eventually disappears. How safe do you think abortions will be after that happens?

Safe: Not safe. But that doesn’t mean we should regulate its practice.

Rare: You’re making a big logical error, Legal. You seem the think the choice is between infinity abortions and zero abortions. You still haven’t explained why this can’t be both a sad and legal thing?

Legal: Just a question, Rare. Why is abortion sad?

Safe: It’s risky and invasive for one.

Rare: And it’s the loss of something.

Legal: No, you’re wrong. It’s not the loss of anything. We can’t drive within 100 yards of personhood. The minute we do that, we might as well give up.

Safe: I agree with that.

Rare: Me too. But, women do report being affected emotionally by their abortions. It’s not like getting a wart removed.

Legal: Only because we still have a culture that shames reproductive freedom. And our rhetoric has to change that. For every 1 time we say abortion should be rare, we should be saying 5 times that its a perfectly moral option for women. Period.

Rare: I guess I don’t see it that way.

Safe: Nor I.

Legal: Listen, the options are simple: Either people can make their own choices and have control of their own bodies, or, be pro-life. It’s one or the other. That’s why I said at the beginning keeping abortion legal is the central point. And I suppose I assumed there was more agreement about that than there actually is.

Safe: It needs to be legal so it can be safe. Legal harm is still harm.

Rare: It may need to be legal so it can be safe, but it needs to be a small part of our culture.

Safe: I think the one thing we agree on is this: A woman’s body is her body. A woman’s pregnancy is her pregnancy. The question is, how do we honor this autonomy?

Rare: We make abortion rare.

Safe: We make abortion safe.

Legal: We keep abortion legal.

All: At least we agree.