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That Word "Absolutism," I Do Not Think…

[ 6 ] December 8, 2008 |

I was amused to see Ross Douthat claim that “[A]n iron law of recent American politics dictates that any Republican setback at the polls will be quickly pinned on the pro-life movement.” I certainly agree that (pace William Saletan) national elections are not referenda on the abortion issue. But in fact, the Republicans’ unpopular abortion policies have been consistently given undue credit for Republican electoral victories, to the extent that the real “Iron Law” is that every time the Democrats lose an election an army of pundits will claim that the solution is for the Democrats to abandon their popular support for Roe v. Wade. This is just the beginning of the problems with the op-ed — Steve M. identifies the most remarkable one, Douthat’s argument that the “pro-life” movement compromised by…reducing terrorism against American women and medical professionals who serve them. How thoughtful! And, of course, this wasn’t really so much a decision of the movement as the result of federal legislation (that substantial numbers of anti-choice legislators opposed.)

In addition, let’s consider Douthat’s assertion that Planned Parenthood v. Casey is a “monument to pro-choice absolutism.” I’d have to say that, given that the “undue burden” standard has been interpreted to uphold every common regulation of abortion with the exception of spousal notification requirements, Casey represents the most compromised “absolutism” in history. Indeed, one wonders if part of the reason polls reflect a desire for more restrictions is that op-ed editors are willing to let anti-choice pundits simply lie about the state of the law.

Compare, for example, the regulatory regime permitted under current Supreme Court doctrine with the French system, which Douthat sees as an acceptable “compromise.” The only major differences in terms of restrictions are that 1)the period before which a woman’s choice can merely be regulated rather than banned is a little shorter, and 2)after this period 2 doctors rather than one has to certify that an abortion is necessary for the woman’s health. Whether this is more restrictive on the ground depends entirely on how French doctors interpret this standard. Douthat shows no interest in how abortion laws actually work (and I suppose that’s a necessary condition if you’re going to support criminalization.) But given that France has similar abortion rates to Canada — where abortion is almost entirely unregulated — one doubts that the standards applied by French doctors are very stringent. Admittedly, the differences Douthat mentions aren’t the whole story. He leaves out two very important facts about the French system: the state-funded medical care and the availability of RU-486 (which greatly mitigates the effect of arbitrary waiting periods.) Taking everything into account, it’s arguable that abortion is more practically accessible under the French system. I would certainly (if reluctantly) support a couple of Douthat’s cherished treat-women-as-children regulations if I could secure a repeal of the Hyde Amendment and widely available mifepristone in return. And the idea that Casey represents “absolutism” is utterly absurd.


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  1. […] should also note that the data cited by Douthat also make a complete hash of his frequent assertions that the United States has an “absolutist” pro-choice legal regime. Rather, state […]

  2. […] whether it’s in blog comment sections or the New York Times op-ed page, the probability that anti-choicers will have no idea what the holdings of the controlling Supreme […]

  3. […] politics is also supposed to be one of specialties, but his writing about it tends to come complete with egregious howlers. (“Planned Parenthood v. Casey and its substantial rollback of Roe is a “monument to […]

  4. […] detail 25 years ago the availability of abortion under such laws varies wildly. And, again, you can’t abstract these statutory requirements from the larger context of abortion politics that determines the general accessibility of abortion. […]

  5. […] “fetal pain” arguments has been briefly set aside by the House. The argument begins, as so many such arguments do, with a risible misunderstanding of the decision being […]

  6. […] how formal statutes actually operated in their particular political contexts. Glendon begat lazy and disingenuous arguments about abortion that plague us to this day. You know the routine: “Even France requires two doctors to formally approve of abortions […]

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