Abortion’s Back in the News. Wonderful.
Seth Williams’ timing could have been better: On January 19th, he announced a grand jury indictment against Kermit Gosnell, a West Philly abortion doc who, if the charges are to be believed, was a monster who thought nothing of stabbing a newborn in the neck with scissors to sever its spinal chord, who performed very illegal late-term abortions with shoddy equipment and a staff so unqualified that they killed a woman with an overdose of anesthesia. That’s to say nothing of the cats who allegedly roamed the clinic’s halls, pissing and shitting all over the foor, or the allegation that Gosnell kept fetus parts in the clinic’s freezer. The indictment is infuriating. Just read the first paragraph:
This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women. What we mean is that he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable, babies in the third trimester of pregnancy—and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors. The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels—and, on at least two occasions, caused their deaths. Over the years, many people came to know that something was going on here. But no one put a stop to it.
Like I said: a monster. And worse, a monster enabled by a dysfunctional regulatory system paralyzed by the politics of abortion. (More on that another time.)
But again, Williams’ timing could have been better: This Saturday, January 22nd, marks the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. On Monday, religious groups will march on D.C., as they have to commemorate each and every anniversary of Roe, convinced that with a little luck—and some divine providence—the scourge of abortion will forever be vanquished from the land. And of course, the Gosnell revelations have provided them some ammunition for the fight: If Gosnell is evil for killing babies a minute after they’re born, why is he any less evil for killing them a minute they’re born? Or a month earlier? Or a trimester?
And then there’s Rick Santorum, the destined-to-fail Republican presidential candidate who went on some Christian news show and said he found it “remarkable” that a black guy like President Obamacould support the right to choice, on account of slavery, or some such.
“The question is, and this is what Barack Obama didn’t want to answer—is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no. Well, if that human life is not a person then I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say ‘now we are going to decide who are people and who are not people.’”
I find it “almost remarkable” that a married father of seven (!) thinks he has any right to dictate to anyone else who should be allowed to marry and adopt kids, but that’s beside the point. So is Santorum’s sanctimony and poor choice of language.
Abortion is perhaps the most divisive issue in American politics—perhaps the most divisive since the Civil Rights movement—and there’s no getting around that because, well, it’s impossible to compromise with people who believe that abortion is murder, and abortion rights are facilitating a holocaust. It’s an issue that divides us by gender and education, party and religion. A majority of Americans support Roe, but roughly 60 percent either oppose abortion or want stricter limits on its availability. By and large, we favor the right to abortion when the mother’s life is in danger, or there’s a chance of birth defects, or the fetus is a product of rape or incest, but not for what might be deemed “personal convenience,” according to political scientist Morris Fiorina. (Fiorina argues in this book that the country is not so much deeply divided on issues such as these as it is divided. There are “nuanced popular views of the issue reflected in majority approval of regulating some aspects of abortion … and minimal partisan disagreement about the issue at the mass level contrasted with vitriolic conflict at the elite level.”)
I know—as many of you do—both women who have had abortions and people who are committed anti-choicers. If you pressed me, I’d take a libertarian stance: It’s not my place to dictate morality, or to tell women what medical procedures they should or shouldn’t have. It’s certainly not for the government to decide the moment when a clump of cells becomes a human life deserving of legal protection. I’m also acutely aware that few women (or even abortion providers) take this decision lightly or use abortion as a form a really late-stage birth control, and that some of the most derided practices—the now-banned, so-called “partial birth” abortions, for instance—are very rare, and often used only when the mother learns the baby is carrying a fatal abnormality (after all, who would wait seven or eight months into their pregnancy when they could take care of, more easily and cheaply, early on?).
If you pressed me, that’s what I’d say. But mostly, I’d rather not talk about it. I can, for instance, argue vociferously and with moral certainty about the propriety of gay marriage, and why the country should absolutely sanction it; after all, it’s pretty easy to beat down arguments that boil down to either, “Ew, gross,” or, “Because God said so.” Finding that moment at which not-life becomes life is a bit more complicated.
Then again, I don’t want self-righteous assholes like Rick Santorum deciding that for the rest of us.
When you get down to it, the anti-abortion movement is foremost anti-sex — especially for those who they don’t believe should be having sex. Otherwise, they’d vigorously promote condoms and other contraceptives in schools and among at-risk populations (as well as things like the HPV vaccine). They certainly wouldn’t be telling impressionable kids that condoms don’t work. But abortion’s not what it’s really about. It’s about trying to enforce their vision of sexual purity on the rest of us, a vision starkly at odds with millions of years of evolution and our own biological urges. I’d have a lot more respect for the pro-life movement were that not the case. But it is, undeniably so.
On the other hand, it’s equally undeniable that what Kermit Gosnell allegedly did was vile; the indictment reads like a pitch for a horror movie. It’s intrinsically disgusting—in a moral, and not just a sanitary, sense.
And I can’t help but think that it happened, that this clinic was allowed to exist in those conditions and (allegedly) kill those women and newborns precisely because we don’t want to talk about abortion, that we’d rather have it live in the shadows and only give its presence the most tacit of acknowledgements—even if, intellectually, we argue for its legality. Regulators don’t want to get bogged down in abortion politics, and really, who can blame them? Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates worry, and not without reason, that tighter regulations on abortion providers are less about ensuring the clinics’ safety and professionalism, and more about giving anti-choice politicians a way to circumvent Roe. Consequently, it’s damn near impossible to have an honest, open discussion about what kinds of oversight would be proper.
It’s a mess. A heart-wrenching mess.
Anyway, I’d rather not talk about it.