Earlier this week I posted a hypothetical choice for people on both sides of the abortion issue. The question essentially asked the reader, given the choice between a world where this debate had potential compromise or a world where the issue was unyieldingly contentious, which would you choose to live in and why?
There were several commenters that brushed up against this next question, but it was Stillwater that asked it most directly: “RTod, what are you trying to accomplish with this post?” That’s a damn good question. Good enough that I thought I’d think out loud on pixels now that we are in our slower weekend mode.
The short answer is I am trying to figure out why we think about this subject the way that we do, and why we make the (frankly ludicrous) assumptions we do for those on the other side of the debate. There are lots of things we all disagree on as a society, of course. But I am hard pressed to think of any issue where we collectively and almost universally react with the militant and unforgiving passion we do when faced with the chasm that is the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice controversy.
The idea for the exercise I proposed took place after a post by Tim on Notes from Babel. Tim was reacting to a horrific story from Alberta, where a 19-year-old young woman killed her newly born baby and disposed of it in a morbidly bizarre fashion. Shockingly, the judge suspended her sentence. Now, the links provided in the post of the now 5-year-old crime does not mention any details of the case that might have made this leniency seem either more common or enigmatic; the reader is left to insert their own interpretations. When I read about it, my first assumption was that there might have been mental issues involved, or a history of abuse in the girl’s background. (The fact that she was secretly pregnant and performed the birth herself while living with her parents makes this seem not entirely out of the question to me.) This is not to say that if there were a history of abuse a suspended sentence was right or moral, but it would at least make this story jive with other lenient murder sentencing I have read about over the years. Tim’s conclusion was that after having lived in a culture of legal abortion, the judge has fallen down a slippery slope and now believes that killing infants is a fine and reasonable course of action. (If there is data to support his hypothesis that this was the court’s motivation, he does not link to it.) Which of us is right? I don’t know, and I’m not sure that Tim does either – and that’s assuming that either of our assumptions is right.
I don’t always agree with Tim, but I find him one of the most rational, lucid and clear-thinking bloggers out there. Why would he believe that people who are pro-choice would not be equally horrified by the insane antics of the young woman from Alberta? If he really misunderstands his foes that badly, he needs to get out more. But of course this isn’t a Tim thing – this is the level of irrational demonizing that each side does to the other on a constant basis. We all resort to this kind of thinking with this issue. And this realization is the point where my hypothetical inquiry was born.
I’d be lying if I said that after decades of unending, escalating back and forth I am overly interested in the abortion controversy itself anymore. But I remain fascinated by why we treat this issue the way we do, and this is at the heart of why I came up with the exercise. Would I find that people overwhelmingly longed for compromise, or battle? If the former, why do we continue down the road we travel? If not, why are we willing to gamble completely losing the war for the absurd hope that we might completely win it? There is a solution to this debate out there somewhere – even if it is the complete and utter defeat of one side. For me, these questions are important to ask if we ever hope to get to that solution. I seriously had no idea how people would respond, or if the answers would all be the same, similar, or all over the map. I wasn’t even sure that the post commentary might not become so uncivil as to force me to apologize and delete the whole thing, an outcome I seriously thought possible before I hit the “Publish” button. (BTW, this most gentlemanly and -um, ladyly? – group showed me that fear was completely unfounded.)
The overwhelming consensus – in as much as there was consensus – was that due to the nature of the debate there was no way it can ever be anything other than all out war. It is what it is; always has been, always will be. Jason, Kyle and others even went as far as to suggest that that it would not be worth even considering a different path, such was the inevitability. I understand this position, and I understand why people think it so.
Yet I remain unconvinced.
As much as we tend to think of the abortion issue being consistent and concrete, the debate we have today is actually relatively new. In When Abortion Was a Crime : Women, Medicine and Law in the United States, 1867 – 1973 Leslie Reagan points out that for most of the history of the anti-abortion movement in this country, the rights and the life of the unborn child have not been factors. Instead, the primary issues were female promiscuity and women’s health. (Even legal abortions, administered through poisons, often killed the mother as well). Arguments about the life and rights of the unborn child don’t really pick up steam until the last part of the previous century. The micro-controversies surrounding the more extreme ends of the pregnancy timeline are also relatively recent.
This history means little as to who is “right” in the debate. Many on the Pro-Choice take it as being an argument for their side, but this I find this poor reasoning. That anti-abortionists today have different moral reasons for their convictions than did their forbearers does not necessarily negate their conclusions. However, it does suggest that the idea that our views on this subject are etched in stone, unyielding and unbreakable, might be more a reflection of how we feel at the moment than reality.
In the comments, mclaren referred to the Group Polarization principle, which he notes is “the tendency for groups to make decisions that are more extreme than the initial inclination of its members.” The tribalism associated with this principle sounds about right to me with this issue, and I feel like I have seen growing polarization within the past couple of decades. For example, it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago when the Pro-Life side might agree that if the life of the mother were at stake abortion was a reasonable option. Likewise, although I don’t remember it being an issue that was brought up until recently I feel confident that people on the Pro-Choice side would have almost universally agreed that using abortion as a way to get the sex of a child “correct” was beastly and should be illegal. (This last one if for no other reason than much of the Pro-Choice’s arguments are based on women’s rights; historically when cultures start deciding which kids to keep and which to quickly dispose of based on gender, girls have not fared so well.) That each side is now willing to martial their forces behind these extreme hypotheticals suggest to me that the real sticking point today isn’t incompatible philosophies so much as growing tribalism.
And I submit that is a bad thing. A growing number of Pro-Choicers arguing for the right to use abortion to control gender and a growing number of Pro-Lifers arguing the mother’s life is relatively immaterial are positions that 10 years ago I would have argued would never come to pass. But here we are. Unchecked, what will another 10 years of demonization make each side decide is OK to advocate on behalf of their tribe winning? What about 20 years, or 30?
Many commenters that opted for World B cited the desire to live in a world where ideological Truth did not have to be compromised. I am less convinced than they are that that kind of thinking always ends so well.
Anyway, for those that asked: this is why I posed the question.