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The Great Centrist Regulatory Non-Sequitur

[ 8 ] March 27, 2006 |

Garance Franke-Ruta has followed up her terrific article demonstrating the lack of pro-choice women on the op-ed pages of eventheliberal New York Times by making two excellent additional points. The first–that not a single “pro-life” group takes a position in favor of contraception–is, of course, extremely telling about the purposes of the criminalization lobby. Her second point is that this abortion discourse is dominated by wishy-washy nominally pro-choice but also pro-regulation men, who use rhetoric that tends to be very hostile toward women who actually get abortions, and make a number of dubious assumptions. In a way, the prevalence of this opinion is evidence of elitism on the nation’s major op-ed pages, although in a different way than is commonly assumed. It’s not that the pro-choice position is more popular among elites than mass opinion; this is the one cultural issue for which this isn’t true. It’s that the “centrist” position on abortion is, in and of itself, highly elitist. Most people aren’t quite as bald about it as Richard Cohen, but there’s something particularly appalling about the “no women I know will be affected if Roe is overturned, so what do I care?” argument. The centrist position on abortion–whether of the center-left or the center-right–is the ultimate in moral self-gratification: it allows men to display their moralistic bona fides, while the burden falls almost exclusively on poor rural red-state women, as opposed to the women who travel in the geographic and social circles of the affluent blue-state men who generally write centrist op-eds.

There is a further problem here, however: the complete disjuncture between the purported goals of abortion “centrists” and the actual effects of the regulations they support. It’s important to make a distinction between the moral and legal position of abortion centrists, which they constantly blur to disguise the fact that there’s no rational connection between the two. It’s defensible, whether one agrees with it or not, to believe that some abortions are more morally problematic than others, and that it varies based on context. But abortion regulations have nothing to do with that. In some cases, they’re openly contradictory: Patterico argues that “many of us who are uncomfortable with abortion become more so as the fetus advances in age”–a common argument among both the center-right and center-left–but of course creating regulatory obstacle courses makes later-term abortions more likely. But even when there isn’t an obvious contradiction, there’s no rational connection between the regulations and the moral position (and in the case of arbitrary bans on medical procedures given scary scientifically meaningless names, no rational connection with any purpose.) Abortion regulations don’t inscribe “centrist” moral positions into law: they just give more decision-making power to third parties for no good reason, and make abortion access more inequitable. Lizardbreath recently made this point very effectively:

(1) Regulations of this sort don’t discourage abortion in any targeted way. If you believe that abortion is always a wrong decision, regardless of the woman’s individual circumstances, I’m not talking to you right now – go over and sit with the committed, consistent pro-lifers. If you think that there are circumstances where a woman should be able to decide for herself whether to have an abortion, whatever you think those circumstances are, you have to recognize that these regulations aren’t going to preferentially discourage the abortions you disapprove of. Regulations requiring waiting periods are going to discourage poor women, who can’t get consecutive days off from work or can’t afford an overnight stay near the provider. Spousal notification regulations are going to discourage women with bad or fearful relationships with their husbands. Nutty “safety” regulations (such as those requiring an abortion clinic to have a written transfer agreement with a hospital to accept emergency patients — what, the hospital would otherwise refuse to accept emergency patients because they came from an abortion clinic?) raise the costs, travel and otherwise, of abortions, and so discourage poor women. None of them are going to preferentially discourage women who don’t take abortion seriously, women who use abortion as birth control, or any other category of women whose abortion decisions you disagree with.

If you think that abortion is always a difficult moral decision, but is sometimes the least of the available evils, regulations like this don’t bear any relationship to discouraging abortion when it’s the wrong decision and allowing it when it’s the right decision. All they do is serve as obstacles, making abortion available for affluent women in comfortable circumstances, and closing it off for poor women or women in difficult family situations. This isn’t right, and it isn’t just.

(2) Taking these regulations at face value, people who favor them don’t trust women. If we take mandatory counseling, waiting periods, and spousal notification regulations at face value as regulations intended to address the concerns of moderate pro-lifers (rather than assuming that they are cynically favored by pro-life absolutists who know that they can’t pass absolute abortion bans, and so favor any regulation, however irrational, making abortion more difficult to obtain) they reflect a mistrust of women as moral decision-makers.

The nominal goal of such regulations is to make the woman concerned consider additional information and opinions or spend additional time thinking about whether she should or should not have an abortion. Isn’t it clear that this reflects an opinion that women, if unregulated, will make abortion decisions flippantly or thoughtlessly? It’s not a simple case of saying that the woman involved has interests that are opposed to those of the fetus, and that she therefore, as an interested party, can’t be permitted to make the decision. These regulations still leave the decision in the woman’s hands – they just assume that women, as a class, can’t be trusted to inform themselves of the relevant facts and make abortion decisions thoughtfully and after moral deliberation. That assumption, made by someone who has considered it explicitly, reflects a profound contempt for women as moral decision makers.

Both of these points are exactly right. First, abortion regulations do nothing to ensure that women will only have abortions under conditions that either Patterico or Will Saletan will find acceptable (leaving aside the question of why their opinion on a highly contestable moral choice should matter more than the woman whose life is actually at stake in the first place.) Rather, as I’ve argued before, the effect of these regulatory obstacle courses is abortion-on-demand for affluent women in urban centers and highly restricted abortion for other women (even if these women are having abortions for reason Lord Saletan finds tolerable.) And the elitism here is again manifest: some women can be trusted with the decision, but others cannot. And, second, the effect of many of these regulations is to transfer decision-making authority from women to doctors, again for no good reason. Pro-lifers are right, in a sense, to say that the vague language of health exemptions mean that the decisions are really ethical, not medical decisions. But the problem is, if the decision is moral or ethical (as opposed to medical), why should doctors, rather than women, be entrusted with the final decision? It doesn’t make any sense. The “centrist” moral position on abortion is potentially defensible, but the regulatory schemes that have been grafted on to this position to make these centrists feel better about themselves have no connection whatsoever to the underlying ethical argument.


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  1. […] to the Gosnell case with new regulations that aren’t actually relevant to this case is actively counterproductive. As Pema Levy, Amanda Hess, and Amanda Marcotte all note, the more abortion access is restricted, […]

  2. […] The problem is that these distinctions are completely irrelevant to public policy. There’s no way of crafting abortion laws that only makes abortions women obtain for certain reasons illegal. […]

  3. […] any rate, what’s refreshing about this is that there isn’t even any Saletan-like pretense that these arbitrary regulations accomplish anything independently useful. Creating an obstacle […]

  4. […] abortion regulations of the kind in which Pennsylvania has long been a pioneer do absolutely nothing to protect the health of women, and indeed are actively […]

  5. […] but counterproductive. All of these legal burdens make obtaining a safe first-trimester abortion more difficult. Although the Gosnell case will be used by opponents of reproductive freedom to advocate for more […]

  6. […] States in order to defend regulations that don’t merely apply at every stage of pregnancy but make obtaining pre-viability abortions more difficult. And almost as irritating is conservatives touting French abortion policy while ignoring rather […]

  7. […] should applaud the legislation. In practice, they will oppose it, because it contradicts their fundamental policy preference, which is combine a rhetorical focus on the small minority of late-term abortions with an array of […]

  8. […] Despite how obvious all of that is to anyone paying attention to the anti-choice movement, it has proven impossible to dissuade centrists from their near-religious refusal to see that anti-choicers see inches ceded to them as miles for which to aspire. The other (scary) problem with the centrist fantasy is that laws are real and arbitrarily enforced against real women. And they don’t even accomplish what purported intentions are, as legal expert Scott Lemieux (and others) explained back in 2006: […]

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