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Common ground and the dangers of assuming good faith on the part of those who don’t have it

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, June 30, 2009 22:55 EDT
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I can imagine that people like Will Saletan, who sincerely want to believe that there’s a possibility of separating “pro-life” opposition to abortion from “pro-life” opposition to contraception and sex education, might actually be shocked at this news that should shock no one who admits that anti-choicers are and have always been more interested in punishing women for having sex than preserving fetal life.

As the White House readies its plan for finding “common ground” on reproductive health issues and reducing the need for abortion, a major debate has emerged over how to package the plan’s two major components: preventing unwanted pregnancies and reducing the need for abortion.

Many abortion rights advocates and some Democrats who want to dial down the culture wars want the White House to package the two parts of the plan together, as a single piece of legislation. The plan would seek to reduce unwanted pregnancies by funding comprehensive sex education and contraception and to reduce the need for abortion by bolstering federal support for pregnant women. Supporters of the approach say it would force senators and members of Congress on both sides of the abortion battle to compromise their traditional positions, creating true common ground that mirrors what President Obama has called for.

From the get-go, the selling point of “common ground” has been that it’s not a compromise of core beliefs, but an attempt to find what both sides have in common and work with that. A plan to offer more social support to women who continue pregnancies, to offer more contraception and sex education to prevent unplanned pregnancies, and to make adoption easier (whatever that means) only works if you assume good faith all around, and believe that anti-choicers are actually in this because they are disturbed by the killing of fetuses. In that case, there is a lot of common ground, and no one should have a problem with this bill.

In reality, anti-choicers are experiencing this as a compromise, even if you remove the contraception and sex education parts. If you correctly assume that the anti-choice movement is motivated primarily by a misogynist need to punish women who have unapproved sex, then you can see how offering social support to mothers is already, from their point of view, a compromise of their basic beliefs, from two angles:

1) The sex is bad angle. Anti-choicers see sex as fundamentally sinful, especially out of the bonds of marriage, and unplanned pregnancy as both a punishment for those who transgress and a danger to keep others from transgressing. From that point of view then, there’s something distasteful about making it easier on women who have babies out of wedlock. If you’re trying to use punishment as a deterrent, especially from the right wing point of view, then it’s not especially effective to reduce the amount of punishment. But wingnuts are willing to compromise on this issue, because they compromise on the punishment thing a lot. For instance, from their point of view, they’re letting go of anti-sodomy laws, but they’re not going to just roll over for gay marriage.

2) The patriarchal angle. Opposition to abortion and birth control are about more than making women pay for fucking. It’s about channeling women into their proper patriarchal gender roles. Ideally, for anti-choicers, all unplanned pregnancies would result in giving a baby up to be adopted by proper married parents, or the pregnant mother would get married. (That unplanned pregnancies happen and are aborted within marriage doesn’t compute, even though 1/3 of abortions are obtained by women who are or have been married before.) From this point of view, the social support for pregnant women is a huge compromise of values on their part, because it makes it easier for women to be single mothers, which they definitely oppose, even though it’s hard enough to satisfy angle #1. But since abortion is legal, there’s not much they can do about it. That they understand that a lot of women simply will don’t have adoption or marriage on the radar for this pregnancy is a huge concession to reality for them.

What wouldn’t be concessions from them if they were arguing in good faith are felt like concessions. If you add something that really burns their britches—increased support for contraception and sex education, which allow women to have sex without even the minimal punishment of sweating unplanned pregnancies—then they’re going to feel like they’re doing all the compromising and pro-choicers are giving up nothing. That’s why people like Will Saletan are fudging around and pretending that pro-choicers are being asked to concede a bunch of stuff that we’re not, such as “admitting” that abortion is morally complicated (of course it is—that’s why it’s a private matter) or that people should be responsible (we’re the only ones pushing contraception, you know). So of course they feel justified in thinking that they get to demand a concession from pro-choicers, and what’s the one thing that we really want that they really don’t? Contraception.

This could go one of two ways. Matt thinks that this is going to be a win, and I agree with him, as long as the White House plays it strategically:

I think we’re arguably seeing here the real fruits of seeking common ground in good faith—their real views are smoked out.

This will only work if the Democrats working on this flog the hell out of contraception instead of pulling the roll over maneuver. This is one of the simplest plays they can make to advance the pro-choice cause, since most Americans, even many who identify as “pro-life”, use contraception. If they’re “pro-life”, they probably think other women who use contraception are slutty, but still, this sort of blanket condemnation isn’t going to sit well. This is particularly true when a lot of people have convinced themselves that anti-choicers are just generally good people who are just a tad too enthusiastic about fetal life, an illusion that’s really hard to maintain if you know that they’re against contraception, as well.

What I fear is that the “let’s all make friends” tendencies that rule over Democrats will kick in, and they’ll let the anti-choicers kill the contraception angle in order to get something passed that they can call “common ground”. They should resist this urge at all costs. I’m beginning to suspect that pro-choicers seeking common ground are being set up by anti-choicers. Since the right wing made abortion such a big deal after Roe was decided, there have been two competing narratives about why women get abortions. Pro-choicers believe that abortion is usually a responsible decision made by ordinary women with ordinary sex lives who are trying to do the best that they can. Anti-choicers believe that women who get abortions are dumb sluts who are trying to escape punishment for fucking. They use words like “convenience” and imply that places like Planned Parenthood are in cahoots with dirty bird men who want to fuck dumb bunnies without having to marry them.

On its surface, the common ground discourse about giving more support to mothers makes it seem like anti-choicers are coming around to the view of women that’s more sympathetic. They’re all big eyes and pity for women who abort because they can’t afford to have another child. But since they’re big fans of deceptive tactics, we should assume that this stance is also likely to be a lie. I suspect what’s going on is that they hope that they can offer women a little more support, and when this doesn’t result in the abortion rate going down, they’re going to say, “See? We told you they’re dumb sluts who only abort because a baby would interfere with their mani-pedi schedule.”

And if all the bill has in it are economic incentives, then I seriously doubt it’s going to do much to reduce the abortion rate. The Guttmacher tracks reasons that women have abortions, and as you will see, most of their reasons fall out of the range of anything that financial assistance could address:

The irony here is that this particular study is being used to tout the economic incentives, because 73% of women state that they can’t afford a baby right now. But women are allowed to check off multiple boxes, and if you look at the breakdown, you’ll find that “can’t afford” often means that you don’t want to quit school, you’re not married, you don’t see a future with the father, or you have enough kids. Once you start looking into the percentages that policy can address—health care, child care, etc.—we’re looking at percentages in the low 20s. That’s not nothing, but women who are in that position usually need a lot more help than any of the “common ground” bills I’ve seen will give them, since they need jobs and housing and affordable day care, all of which would require massive government programs. I predict that financial support for mothers under the Obama proposal will only have a minor effect on the abortion rate.

Unless there’s a huge contraception push. It’s certainly true that the lower women are on the income ladder, the more likely they are to need an abortion, but a huge reason for this is that poverty interferes dramatically with regular contraception use. What seems cheap to middle class people—$50 a month on pills or condoms—can be daunting for people that are barely getting by. Addressing their needs as well as the needs of teenagers who are new to sex and might be a little wary of going out of their way to acquire and learn about contraception, and you do a lot for reducing unplanned pregnancy. But if anti-choicers are on board with “common ground” because they want to sabotage the pro-choice/pro-woman arguments, then actually reducing the abortion rate would screw up their plans. So one more reason for them to try to chip contraception and sex education off the bill.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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