June 9, 2009

fish in a barrel

I am so tired of hating on New York Times columnists. Sort of. It's also kinda fun. They've managed to replace Bill Kristol, who was spectacularly wrong on matters of political strategy, with Ross Douthat, who's spectacularly wrong on gender issues, which he writes about with some frequency.

Why does he inflict his ideas about gender on us? I don't know, because he likes showing off both his ignorance and his poor reasoning skills? Because he thinks dudes with penises have an obligation to us poor bereft ladies to show us the way and the light? Per latest example: Douthat thinks (or perhaps merely claims) abortion is nearly unregulated in the second and third trimester. Why he thinks this, I cannot say; why his editors allow him to claim this, I cannot imagine.

He also recognizes the moral complexity and particularity of each individual decision to abort or continue a pregnancy, but then claims that this is an appropriate subject for public debate. Because when 300 million people try to come up with a set of rules for when people should stay pregnant, they're likely to be able to make very subtle distinctions that don't push people into miserable positions. Not! Just kidding! Douthat never claims that the decisions 300 million of us will come to in our clumsy attempt at Jeffersonian deliberative democracy will be good ones; he just thinks there'll be more restrictions on women's rights to abortion, and that this will somehow satisfy pro-lifers and they'll pack up their bloody fetus signs and go home, never to murder another doctor.

To which I have 3 responses:

1. Bitch, Ph.D. has nailed my view on this over and over again in saying that abortion is a highly personal moral decision, and that the best decisions are the ones made by a woman who has good medical advice and care, and good social support. You have to trust women. Yes, sometimes people will make bad decisions. But that's true about all kinds of things, and the fact that people will sometimes make bad decisions is not a reason to deny women - and only women - the right to full sovereignty over their bodies, to the decision of whether to allow their uteruses and the rest of their bodies to bring another person into the world. And you have to trust them to make those decisions in the moment, because bright-line rules almost always end up putting someone in an untenable situation. That's why Douthat is wrong, and this isn't an appropriate subject for public debate. We shouldn't argue about fetal abnormality rules, or whether the exemptions should count mental health (and, if they didn't, what we would do with suicidal pregnant women), whether it's just innocent virgins who were raped who can have abortions or whether the rest of us sluts get health care too, how severe the health threat has to be, or whatever else Douthat thinks he should get some say in. No. We should help women make good decisions, and LEAVE IT. And Ross Douthat, who's never going to be pregnant, isn't a parent, and has shown a truly remarkable lack of empathy for women in his previous writings, should well and truly leave it.

2. Moderate restrictions on late-term abortion will not satisfy the pro-life movement. They claim to believe that abortion is murder and we're living through a modern-day mass slaughter. Most members of the pro-life movement are also ineradicably opposed to birth control and are deeply committed to enacting controls over women's sexuality via legal or cultural means. There's no way they would be satisfied with mostly banning second and third trimester abortion, because guess what? If they could be satisfied that way, they'd already have called off the protests.

This doesn't mean there are no pro-life or 'with reservations about abortion' people who couldn't live with that solution; just that for any measure that allowed elective abortions the pro-life movement would keep right on working, and the debate would stay just as highly charged and contentious, and people like Tiller's murderer would have everything they need to become radicalized. And if they ever won, we'd be right back to the days of septic abortion wards in hospitals and a lot of dead women who didn't want to be pregnant. Douthat's claims that we can compromise our way out of the abortion debate are patently disingenuous. He brings up other countries with legal restrictions, as if to say his strategy worked there; but in most of those countries abortion is actually easier to get because it's paid for by the universal health care system, and the real issue is that they just don't have organized fundamentalist political groups. If Douthat can get rid of our organized fundamentalist political groups, maybe then we can talk. Absolute best case scenario, if most pro-life activists and politicians weren't also anti-tax movement conservatives, it might be possible to find some common ground on social services; but slim fucking odds on that too.

3. Where is my NYT column? I could clearly do a hell of a lot better than their current line-up. I'm even willing to frequently mention Aristotle and virtue, too, if it makes me seem conservative and thus acceptable.

Update: Also, of course, see hilzoy. Who not only dismantles Douthat's argument (which, let's be honest, is a little beneath her formidable skills), but also makes a fantastic statement of my first point. Only more clearly, and in one sentence: "When it's not easy to tell the exceptions from the rest, whether or not it's OK to have a rule depends on how bad it is to miss those exceptions, and how bad it is not to have a rule." (And I think the consequences of missing the exceptions are, in the case of abortion, really bad.)

1 comment:

Frank said...

I didn't see this post when it originally went up...but I'd just point out, after the fact and completely superficially, that I feel bad for Ross Douthat in that his picture makes him look ridiculous.

(Granted, most of the Times columnists' pictures seem to be pranks [although I wouldn't be suprised if Maureen Dowd's photographer, after 30 minutes of trying subtly to imply that she shouldn't suck on her lips like an Olsen twin, gave up and let her do the vamp thing if she so chose].)

I haven't yet read anything of Mr. Douthat's closely enough to know whether I find his points to be salient, compelling, obvious, banal, or baseless, but the poor man's picture says to me "vaguely self-important person in over his head." Even if I were to agree with him, I doubt this first impression would go away.

In other words, I get from his picture what you seem to get from actually reading his column.