Sunday, June 12, 2005

Talkin' About A Rare Abortion...Sounds Like Betrayal

I've been having a delightful correspondence with Whatever It Is I'm Against It, who called my attention to William Saletan's latest prescription for pro-choice strategy in Slate, with the following comment:
Saletan should be read for his attention to the language (or "frame" if you prefer) of the abortion debate, but his conclusions, like Lakoff's, should be rejected. Like Lakoff, he prefers the vocabulary of "values" (which is the word liberals use instead of "morals") to that of rights; he really likes the word "responsibility." He wants abortion legal (phew) but also wants pro-choicers to "admit that... some women take it too lightly". Fine, sure, whatever, but who cares? The point of being pro-choice is that my opinion of how that choice is made is entirely irrelevant. And all Saletan's talk about responsibility falls apart when you ask Responsible to whom?
WIIIAI is absolutely correct to mistrust Saletan's lexical desiderata. As this article and several past pieces make clear, Saletan is an evangelizing proponent of just the kind of muscular-liberal morality-bothering I've been pointing out in the Dems' rolling platform. This position not only treads the shakiest possible moral ground, but embeds a layer of punitive misogyny that should give any feminist serious pause about allying with it. More on these latter points shortly.

The occasion for Saletan's piece is the formulation by NARAL Pro-Choice America of a brand-new, fully-focus-grouped, Now With 50% More Right-Wing Pander messaging platform. The new message is crafted around the kernel 'promote a culture of freedom and responsibility', and as you might imagine, is great on the prevention angle:
'...focusing on preventing unintended pregnancies and reducing the need for abortion through increasing access to family planning services, access to affordable birth control and by providing comprehensive age appropriate sex education in schools.'
Grand, as far as it goes. Anyone else see a lacuna in there? Where's the provision for access to abortion for those who, for a variety of reasons, fall through that preventive safety net? NARAL and Saletan are too busy
preemptively making moral judgments about women who need abortions to expend much energy defending their right to have them.

At least Saletan's open about his untenable moral position:
I've always agreed with pro-choicers that the government is incompetent to regulate abortion. But I've never liked their aversion to moral judgments. If they'd just admit that abortion's legality doesn't make it right, or that some women take it too lightly, or that every abortion is tragic, I'd be so relieved. "Responsibility" gives me something to hold on to. It reassures me that the moral substance of life, which ought to take place in the personal and family spaces where government has no wisdom, really is taking place there—or at least that pro-choicers think it should. It's much easier to say no to legislation when conscience, not complacency, is the alternative.
Wait, what? You're saying that you believe abortion is morally wrong and unavoidably tragic, and yet you support it anyway? How can you possibly justify that? Surely I, who believe that abortion is neither morally wrong nor necessarily tragic, am in a much more morally defensible position. Saletan doesn't even adduce any logical or moral basis for his platform. As WIIIAI put it, 'he tries to build an entire political position around [his own] squeamishness, as if squeamishness were a political philosophy.'

In the event, the recourse to 'responsibility' is what gives the game away here. As even Saletan glancingly nods at, the discourse here framed around the regulation of abortion is riddled with distrust and patronization of women. He presumes to judge that 'some women take it too lightly.' He approvingly cites NARAL's formulations that always couple 'a woman' with 'and her family' or 'and her doctor', on the grounds that '...that's the point: They [the public] want somebody else to be involved. It isn't the "woman" that wins them over. It's the "and."'

If you genuinely believe in the equality and sovereignty of women, if you truly acknowledge that a woman's reproductive life, like her nutritional life or her professional life, is fundamentally hers to administer, then you definitionally forfeit the prerogative to dictate how she conducts that life.

Saletan clearly doesn't want to give up that patriarchal privilege, not one bit. Here's his messaging advice to pro-choice marchers in April: 'The abortion is not the end of the story. Kids and family are the story, "when I'm ready."' If the supposed left has ever produced a more crystalline formulation of the idea that a woman's body is ultimately, teleologically a reproductive vessel, I have yet to see it.

This combination of moral prescriptiveness and deep-structured paternalism is a tailor-made recipe for disempowering women, and it's gaining ground by the day. Unsurprisingly, Saletan came out wildly in favor of She's egregious January speech, singling out for special approbation that passage where she slavers that
Research shows that the primary reason that teenage girls abstain is because of their religious and moral values. We should embrace this—and support programs that reinforce the idea that abstinence at a young age is not just the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do.
Yes, 'pro-choice advocates' focusing not on the need for reproductive choice, but on the need for abstention through religious and moral values. It would be hilarious if I weren't so busy choking on my own vomit.

The pro-choice movement is in the hands of these people. Whether or not Saletan himself has the ear of the movement's leaders, they are absolutely singing from his score. We who believe that abortion is a woman's unconditional right, subject neither to bilateral moral opprobrium nor paternalistic regulation, need to take the movement back now, before we lose any more ground, and we need to send Saletan and his misogynist, moralizing, divisive ilk packing. With friends like that, who needs pro-life?

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