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The Problem With the Anti-Choice Ultrasound Policy


To follow-up on my recent post about William Saletan running interference for anti-choice ultrasound policies, NTEW explains in further detail why the moral inferences Saletan draws from ultrasounds don’t actually follow, a persistent problem with his arguments on the subject. One is reminded of another recent definitive episode in wingnuttery, in which the fact that Terri Schiavo’s involuntary movements and facial expressions were erroneously treated as evidence of consciousness:

Of course, nothing is morally significant about squirming — ours or the fetus’. What is significant is whether the fetus has a mind like ours. If it has no mind, or a mind of such a primitive level that it can’t even feel pain, there’s no reason to have attitudes of moral concern for it. The neural hardware for pain perception only starts to show up around week 23, and isn’t in place until week 30 of the pregnancy. So having moral concern for a first-trimester fetus on the basis of the squirming you see in an ultrasound is a mistake.


For my part, I think there’s room in the world for paternalism, but if you’re going to be a paternalist you need to be better-informed and more rational than the people you’re trying to impose your paternalistic requirements on. By letting his own squirming get the better of him and push him to support a useless and expensive procedure, Saletan fails this test. Instead of requiring ultrasounds before abortions, perhaps we should require him to reread the medical research on fetal pain before he does any more punditry.

I would also add that if paternalism is to be acceptable, it cannot treat men and women differently as a class, so it should also be common for male-exclusive surgeries (like vasectomies, say) to be subject to a wide array of regulations premised on the idea that most people who obtain them are irrational and should be dissuaded from obtaining the surgeries in question. Needless to say, this is unlikely to happen.

Of course, Saletan claims that he favors only voluntary, state-funded ultrasounds, which are in theory much less objectionable (whether or not Neil or I think that ultrasounds provide useful information, women can certainly look at them if they choose to do so.) But there remain two problems. First of all, he never bothers to ask why these proposed regulations generally don’t come with funding attached, and are also part of a wide array of regulations which make abortions more expensive and time-consuming to obtain and/or provide. (He always seems to accept the good faith of anti-choicers, no matter what the evidence, in ways he would never dream of doing for pro-choicers.) And even if his magical pony plan rather than the regulations that might actually pass were enacted, we still need to know how this fits into the scarce resources of our medical system. What medical services does Saletan propose to cut, or taxes Saletan propose to increase, in order to pay for this very expensive and largely useless information? These are questions to which I’m not anticipating answers.

Buy maybe I’m being too harsh. He has, after all, shown signs of recognizing that when American “pro-lifers” are presented with a conflict between preventing unwanted pregnancies (and hence fetal life) and regulating female sexuality they will almost always choose the latter, even when they’re presented with the innovative pro-contraception policies Saletan originated only 60 years after the founding of Planned Parenthood. Maybe in a year or two he’ll briefly realize he’s being played for a sucker yet again.

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