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Abortion restrictions and the communitarian dilemma


Scott made it pretty clear the other day that mainstream pro-life policy positions are more than just wrong-headed, but a “dog’s breakfast of illogic.” He’ll get no argument from me. Still, I think it’s worth engaging the serious, reasoned pro-life positions we might find, particularly when they share a commitment to many of the core principles of feminism. Two exemplars of serious pro-life thinking, from a Christian left-communitarian perspective, are Hugo Schwyzer and Russell Arben Fox. As it turns out, they’re currently disagreeing with each other on California’s proposition 73, which would require parental notification (not consent) in the case of minors seeking abortions. Despite his deeply felt anti-abortion convictions, Hugo is planning to vote no. Russell disagrees. Hugo’s original post is here; Russell’s is here, and Hugo’s follow-up and response is here. Hugo confesses to be at a loss in his attempt to reconcile his competing commitments and convictions, and finds himself siding, half-heartedly and without much confidence, with his liberal individualist commitments. Were I a Californian, my no vote would cause me no anguish whatsoever, but there are plenty of other policy areas where I can empathize with Hugo’s relationship with liberal individualism.

To review the terrain: Hugo plans to vote no. What tips his competing commitments in this direction?

If my daughter were pregnant, I would want to know. Perhaps I would want her to keep the child, or choose adoption — though those would not be my decisions to make. But even greater than my desire to know, I would want her to be safe. Ultimately, it wouldn’t be about me, but about her and her needs.

This is refreshing–it’s usually thinking “as a parent” that flips the switch from no to yes on this issue, and it’s nice to see someone speaking from the subject-position of a parent (as Hugo has no children) to draw this conclusion. As I’m not likely to become a parent anytime soon I don’t make much of an effort to see the world from that position, but I must say to the extent that I do Hugo’s priorities–the health and safety of his daughter, and her ability to exercise her nascent autonomy in this most crucial decision over his desire to play the role of supportive, loving, involved parent is refreshing. The lines between love and concern for children, control of one’s children, and children being a vehicle for narcissistic forms of self-expression are often blurred in our culture and it’s nice to see someone keep those distinctions clear.

Russell’s disagreement in this particular case stems from what I take to be his larger vision of our abortion policy ought to look like. Specifically, he thinks abortion policy ought to reflect the social consensus on abortion, which is that it ought not be banned, but ought to be made rarer through both progressive social and economic policy (obviously, we’re allies here) and a host of restrictions on abortion that reflect that society finds abortion deeply troubling and indeed shameful. In his words:

I recognize that a whole lot of people–and specifically, young women–out there face terrible, unjust, ugly choices. But I do not understand how the problem that their choices pose to society are made any easier by refusing to allow any kind of social consensus, any kind of deterrence, any kind of interference, to present itself in between the individual and their choice. If you think abortion is a bad choice, and if you agree that majorities of one’s neighbors also think it is a bad choice (and there is scads of polling data which backs up that second claim), then I am at a loss as to why one would think that abortion can be a focus of social expression through law.

To his credit, Russell acknowledges the real costs of this legislation (while understating it; I respectfully think his use of 99% and 1% throughout the post, even though primarily a rhetorical device rather than a concrete estimate, to be low to the point of naivete about the quality of parenting). Furthermore, I suspect he’s right about the current status of public opinion concerning abortion. His vision and general concerns here in line with the communitarian vision of strong democracy put forth by (amongst many others) Ben Barber, who suggested that when our individualism becomes too robust, and is treated as an automatic trump when social values and priorities conflict, our ability to democratically govern ourselves will suffer, and there will be an attendant loss in the quality of our community. I don’t uncritically accept Barber’s vision of democracy, but I probably find it more valuable and compelling than most liberals do, and as such I’m not unsympathetic to his line of reasoning. He thinks Hugo should vote yes because he is conflicted about abortion, so as to get a better read on the social consensus. (Presumably, given his implicit conception of democracy, he wouldn’t encourage me to vote yes, at least not until he’d first convinced me that abortion is morally problematic enough to warrant it. If liberals who don’t particularly find abortion problematic at all were to become the majority, he’d presumably accept the outcome while trying to convince us otherwise.)

Hugo’s response is essentially to state that his liberalism trumps his Christian communitarianism in this case–he isn’t even defending that value ranking, so much as explaining it. Again, I approve of this, but the communitarian in me thinks we can and should do better. I’d like to suggest that there are good communitarian reasons to oppose initiative 73, and that while Russell identifies a problem with liberal individualism, he repeats the error at another level of abstraction. Liberals may be guilty of reifying and overstating the value (both descriptive and moral) of individual autonomy; but his brand of communitarianism reifies the value (again, both descriptive and moral) of familial autonomy.

Russell wants to see 73 pass not to protect “fetal rights” but to give social expression through public policy of societies’ disapproval for abortion. While wearing my liberal hat, I vote no because I think individual rights and autonomy out to trump. But, even if I discard my liberal hat and vote using only my communitarian hat, I continue to vote no. My reasons have nothing to do with abortion. Rather, I’d vote no because I want the laws of the land to better express our communal need to care for children. We all agree familial autonomy and what are erroneously called parental rights (I’d call them the discretionary boundaries of parental obligations) can, should and do lead to the positive development of children. It is through those parameters that these boundaries should be constructed. But healthy families don’t need this sort of policy intervention to function, or to the extent that they do, that ought to be trumped by our communitarian sense of duty toward children who, through no fault of their own, don’t find themselves in such families. A yes vote is an exercise in wish-fulfillment–shaping family law to conform to what families ought to look like. Here, Russell wants policy to strengthen the already strong at the expense of those who live in families that fall short of that. It’s exactly the sort of policy preference he’d be opposed to in the economic realm for all sorts of good reasons.

Obviously, my communitarian commitments would be more conflicted if I could bring myself to think of abortion as a serious morally troubling procedure. I don’t, and in any case my liberal commitments would step in and interfere with any attempt to seriously consider that abortion should be a morally troubling practice. One of the strengths of left-communitarian thinking is that is provides a strong alternate basis for supporting those who, often through no fault of their own, aren’t benefiting from our economic system. I’d like to think left-communitarian would share concerns for those who are failed through no fault of their own by our familial system as well. Indeed, I’m struck, as I conclude this post, by how similar my left-communitarian attitudes toward the free market and the nuclear family are. They’re both deeply ingrained and essentially irreplaceable for the foreseeable future sets of social institutions and practices that are incapable self-correcting for their own flaws. As such, those who are successful beneficiaries in the realm of family or the economy (whether through hard work or good fortune, or both) have an obligation to give something up to aid those who are failed by those systems. In the first case, we pay taxes for welfare provisions (and make charitable donations of time and money on top of that), don’t obstruct the construction of homeless shelters in our neighborhood, and so on. In the second case, those in successful families, who shouldn’t need the law anyway, ought to see giving up the legal affirmation of our family structure as the sacrifice we make to those who have been failed by the social structure that has served us well.

Update: Anyone clicking through from Harry’s CT post (thanks Harry!) should not be fooled by haloscan’s egregiously false claim about the number of comments contained in the link below. There’s several more than zero; most importantly some smart, helpful responses from Russell Arben Fox.

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