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The Abortion Amendment

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | November 10, 2009

There are plenty of reasons that I find the inclusion of a restriction on payment for abortions in the proposed health care bill outrageous. But I think pro-choice Americans have some thinking to do. I don’t want to suggest that we have brought the sad state of abortion rights upon ourselves, but I do think that the rhetoric of the movement might have been handled better – and that, at the very least, we should rethink the way we frame our position.

But before I get to that, there is one thing about the amendment that I am having trouble understanding. I gather that the success of the amendment was due in no small part to heavy lobbying by the American Conference of Catholic Bishops. I guess the disestablishment clause of the first amendment was repealed when I wasn’t looking; but even so, I had been under the impression that lobbyists had to (a) register as such and (b) pay taxes. Why is this not the case for the Catholic Church?

My feeling right now is that reasonable people in Congress must vote against the bill unless the amendment is deleted – not “modified,” but deleted. I realize that that is a difficult position to argue – first, because passage of a health care plan is essential, and second because failure to pass such a measure is likely to weaken the Democrats in 2010 and 2012. I am aware of these arguments, which are very probably true. But they do not, for me, outweigh a deeper truth and a greater necessity: the acknowledgement that women are human beings.

I might feel more conflicted than I do if the bill under consideration even came close to anything I would have liked to see. Let’s not even utter the words “single payer” (heaven forfend!), but at least a meaningful public option, one not so supportive of still greater profits for insurance and Big Pharma. But since it is unlikely that any bill that passes Congress and is signed into law will resemble anything that will really reform health care in this country, I don’t feel as torn as otherwise I might. Something to consider on this score is this: the mediocre is the enemy of the good-enough, and if we pass this mediocre bill, we will lose the will to try for anything better. If liberals in Congress ever do try to pass a stronger bill in the future, the response will be, “But we already have one….why bother?” and that will be the end of it. So if you want a health care plan that will change the way America provides health care, there are reasons to hope for the failure of this bill, with or without the amendment.

What about the second argument – that passage of the present act is necessary if the Democrats are to retain control of Congress in 2010 and the Presidency in 2012? Let’s assume that this is true (although its passage might give Republicans in weak-Democratic districts an advantage). Yes, I would hate to see a President Palin. But we need to look toward the long-term future. Is the Democratic Party, as presently constituted, a party that represents the real interests of many of its most committed constituents?

The willingness of “liberals,”  including female liberals like Nancy Pelosi — to jettison women’s concerns and cozy up to the Church answers that question. The party permitted – I mean encouraged – a shockingly misogynistic discourse around the candidacy of Hillary Clinton in 2008: that should have been a wake-up call. Well, Obamania suppressed our instincts. But now it’s time to think seriously about whether this Democratic Party is your Democratic Party, and if not, act accordingly. Liberals have to rethink their traditional wimpiness: what have we gotten for it? Condescension and contempt, that’s what. It is time for liberals, and especially liberal women, to rethink our allegiances.

It is also time for us to rethink our rhetoric. For thirty years we have framed the pro-choice position as being about our right to control our bodies. Yes, of course that is part of what “choice” is about – but really understood, just a small part. By adopting this rhetorical position, we have allowed the opposition to argue on behalf of the “competing interests” of another putative human being, the fetus, as though the fetus had rights not only equal to, but morally superior to, those of the woman carrying it. To offer such an argument is to imply that women are not really human – that their rights are properly superseded by even a creature that is not quite alive and not quite human. And if we fully understand what both the pro-choice and pro-life positions are really about, we can see that that assumption goes much further than abortion, and is far more evil.

It is evil to demote one group of persons to a less-than-human status. Hence slavery is evil, and hence misogyny is evil. And make no mistake, “pro-life” is a position of misogyny. I hear its proponents whining. Well, when they stop referring to us as “butchers” and “baby-killers,” and cease to permit their speakers to encourage the murder of doctors, I will rethink my language.

Why misogyny? Because the anti-choice position is not about reproductive choice alone. That is merely its most obvious and arguable position (the latter because of the claim of the fetus’s human status and competing interests). Really the anti-choice position is precisely that: the intent to deny women the right and ability to make choices generally, since choice involving the use and function of one’s own body is the most salient choice we ever make. If that is denied, all other choices become meaningless: we become creatures who cannot choose. And to be human is, first of all, to be able to make choices.

So the battle over reproductive rights is just the camouflage for a much more consequential fight. If we let the bill pass with the amendment, it will signify that we accept our secondary status, that we are willing to let people speak for us who do not share or even understand our deepest concerns.

I think women’s humanity outweighs health care, important as that is. I think it outweighs Democratic victories in the next two election cycles, important as those are. I think it is time for reasonable people to change their frames, their rhetoric, and their allegiance.

Comments to “The Abortion Amendment

  1. What would happen if government didn’t exist to prevent or authorize abortion? Women would still get pregnant and there would undoubtedly still be circumstances in which a few would would choose to abort after considering their unique economic, financial, and medical condition and outlook, and sociological considerations like family, faith, stigma, shame, etc. In the absence of others forcing the pregnancy to term, women have the power of giving life. Note that it’s a gift, not an obligation. When government overrides the natural order, it abridges individual autonomy and people become undifferentiated from cattle. When society asserts a legally enforceable value system (e.g. that it’s possible to murder a zygote) upon individuals who actually endure the risk of childbirth and accept the years of economic and emotional responsibility for that life, society thereby reduces individuals to livestock and forced servitude. Say you force the pregnancy – do you subsequently force the mother to love the child too? If she doesn’t love the child according to your standard, you forcibly remove the child from her care and send her to prison for being an uncaring mother? Once you take the first step down that path, inequities keep piling up.

    If you walked up to a reasonable man (judicial standard) and held a gun to his head, informing him that he must pass a kidney stone rather than crushing it with ultrasound he would certainly balk at your overriding his authority over his own medical treatment. And that doesn’t come close to addressing the downstream costs of child rearing – twenty years of economic dedication and emotional investment that a kidney stone does not impute.

    Even if the people forcing women to carry their pregnancies to term were willing to pay for lost wages, medical expenses, and child rearing costs, there’s still no way to transfer the risk/pain of childbirth. Until we have the ability to equitably transfer the risks and costs from a pregnant mother to the people that would force her to carry the pregnancy to term, we should encourage every woman with an unwanted pregnancy to carefully consider all of the ramifications before making up their mind, and subsequently do our best to support their decision.

    That’s what it means to be a free country – individuals have the right to choose what they perceive to be their best course through life. Only one person has the unique insight into the relevant past and likely future that mother and child might face, and it’s the same person that is deciding where to cross the street, what to eat, and whether health insurance is worth the exorbitant premiums. Holding a gun to someone’s head and making their choices for them definitely makes them less than they were before you denied them that freedom. It’s not a society I would take pride in, nor want to live in.

  2. I should think that a professor of linguistics would be better able at comprehend the meaning of the first amendment of the constitution which states in part “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. The constitution says absolutely nothing about the religious making their interests known to congress. Furthermore, the right of the people, even Catholic priests, to petition their government is guaranteed in the same amendment.

    The argument of Professor Robin Lakoff concerning the rhetoric is an example of why this conflict seems so intractable. Professor Lakoff’s assertion that a fetus is less than a human being is to say the very least arguable. I myself do not have the wisdom to say if it is so or not but it is not self evident.

    Her assertion that this “less-than-human” being’s rights are considered by the “pro-life” faction to be morally superior to a woman’s rights is also arguable. If we consider hypothetically that both beings are equal then we may weigh the right of the fetus to live against the right of the mother to terminate the pregnancy. We may then find that the right to live is more fundamental, urgent and immediate than the right to terminate a pregnancy. We may do so without arguing that fetus’s rights are morally superior. This is made apparent by the fact that a majority of “right to lifers” would consent to abortion if the mother’s life were at stake. In other words most “right to lifers” when weighing one life against another concede the right of the mother to live is superior to that of the fetus’s.

    Frankly I find the Professor’s argument of misogyny difficult to follow. Since the whole discussion is necessarily focused on circumstances that obtain only to women the argument that its effect on limiting women’s choice must necessarily be misogynist is suspect. But its key point rests on her assertion that the “…choice involving the use and function of one’s own body is the most salient choice we ever make. If that is denied, all other choices become meaningless.” If that is so then how much more salient it must be to kill and thereby prevent thereafter all choices whatsoever. There are those who will argue as to whether abortion is killing or not. But that is arguable. There is as far as I know no way to settle the point. To dismiss this pro-choice argument as misogyny is facile.

    I myself lean to the “pro-choice” side. I tend to vote pro-choice in the absence of any other overriding issue. In my opinion both sides of this issue have valid points of view. Both sides have logical consistency, moral validity and honorable champions. Yet both sides seem determined to ridicule and disparage the other. I think it is all well and good that these contenders should be passionate. This is a very important issue on which lives, minds and souls do depend. But passion does not require contempt or disrespect.

  3. Dear professor and dear doctor-embryologist: I think you are quite mistaken when you point to flawed rhetoric as the root of the problem in the health care debate over abortion funding. No, the problem lies in your own FAITH in the belief that abortion is an appropriate and acceptable solution to an unwanted pregnancy and the deeply flawed reasoning behind that belief. And that speaks to a far greater de-humanizing of women than any restriction on who wants to pay for someone else’s abortion.

    I find it hard to understand how anyone with any knowledge of biology cannot see that the fertilization of an ovum demarks the beginning of a biological process that, left uninterrupted, leads to development of a mature organism. Have you not looked at a baby recently? It cannot walk, it cannot talk, it cannot feed itself or control its bowels yet who would argue that it could be killed with impunity? There are today six or seven billion former blastocysts that make up the human race. Are you uncomfortable that the majority of them are people of color or have religious beliefs that are different than yours? The fact is the majority of voting Americans don’t agree with your belief in their expendability, and that is not merely a rhetorical matter. All the argument-framing in the world is not going to change people’s basic moral beliefs.

  4. I like this talk of Free Will. How about the free will with which a woman engages in unprotected sex and gets pregnant? She certainly has the free will to have an abortion if she chooses. The argument is whether the taxpayers should foot the bill. At the risk of incurring the wrath of feminists, I facetiously suggest that, if abortions cost money, then consider the fact that having sex could produce income to offset the cost (yes, that should also be legal under the banner of free will or personal liberty). Properly raised children really don’t enjoy total free will until they are self-sufficient, so to assign any degree of voice or vote to a fetus with free will is non-sensical and cannot contribute rationally to the argument. If we can assume equivalency between free will and personal liberty, then what about a person’s free will to keep his hard-earned income instead of having the State forcebly take from his pocket to give to others (not to mention to support the “ruling elite” themselves)? If interested in this concept, try looking up the term praxeology.

  5. I believe in the concept of free will.

    My issue on abortion is whose free will? Is it the child’s or the mother’s? Humor me and let us pretend that the child can speak. I find it hard to believe that a child will choose not be born. I know numerous people who have come from humble backgrounds, including me, that fought their way through life, managed to get a great education, a great job etc etc. Free will.

    Unfortunately, the child doesn’t have a voice and its care is entrusted to its parents. If parents choose to abort their own children, instead of opting for adoption — that’s between them and their God. Free will. So, I’d vote pro-choice.

    However, I would also like to exercise my free will and not be forced to pay for something I do not agree with.

  6. For poor women the choice to abort is usually an economic one, and the question of personal responsibility is complicated by that fact. Is it more responsible to bring a child that you cannot care for (that is, support and nurture into a productive member of society) into this uncaring world? I don’t see anti-choice advocates offering to help with the support of these children who have been born into such debilitating circumstances that they may not even get the basic nutrition that will keep them growing properly. Where is all this concern for the fetus then?

    That’s why the question of who is to pay for such a medical intervention is so important in the health care bill. We see all around us the consequences of not providing adequate health care to our citizens. What if every child were born with a guarantee from the government that its basic human rights would be assured? That would put the question of abortion on a different footing entirely. But I don’t expect to see that evolution in my lifetime. I’m very disappointed with the outcome of all the talk on health care so far.

    • Margaret, you missed the point. The choice poor women need to be responsible for is whether to have unprotected sex or not. That doesn’t cost a thing. If they make a bad choice and wind up with an unwanted child, there is also this wonderful thing called “adoption”, where many childless parents are on waiting lists to provide care and love to someone else’s unwanted baby. Claiming that the woman is a victim of “anti-choice” advocates, and that taxpayers should be responsible for their bad choice is a ludicrous argument.

  7. I am firmly against the health care bill on the basis of libertarian convictions. But I would fully support the bill’s destruction on the basis that it will not require tax-payers to pay for abortions. I offer a clarification to Prof. Lakoff’s position by saying that the bill, if passed, will not prohibit women from choosing to have an abortion, but only prevent such abortions from being free of cost to the patient. My personal stance on abortion is that it is usually in the best interest of the unborn child’s mental and emotional health as well as that of society. Many of the social problems we see today are caused by an overabundance of unwanted, unloved children who are not given the care and education to grow into stable, productive members of society. I really like Prof. Lakoff’s mention of the church’s role as an illegal lobbyist. Perhaps the MOST important socio-political position that one can take is for the strict protection of personal liberty. Our governemtn (D or R) is not in accord with that statement.

  8. Ms. Lakoff, your argument about reducing women to sub-human status by taking away their choice is flawed. It’s not about depriving you of choice, but rather making you accountable for your choices. You have the right to swing your fist, but you should face the consequences when it connects with someone else’s nose. Similarly, if you have sex, you (and your partner) should accept the consequences if it results in a baby. Snuffing it out is not an acceptable response. Getting the government to fund this lack of responsibility is outrageous.

      • And I’m afraid that I disagree as a Christian historian. Not every pregnancy is the result of irresponsibility, and it is demeaning to our fellow humans and harmful to our spiritual health to cast blame in such a way.

  9. I agree with Robin Lakoff that the abortion debate had been framed poorly. Once one side asserts the rights of the embryo or of the mother they prempt any further debate. I am a physician who has provided abortions and also has a PhD in embryology. I think the issue is best framed in the old fashioned question – when does life begin.

    The only thing everyone agrees on is that sincere and informed people differ in their judgment on when life begins. Judgments about life before birth are often informed by a person’s faith, just are opinions about life after death. While respecting a range of beliefs, we can also agree that one group cannot impose its beliefs on another group.

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