Seth and I have a running conversation about the Democratic Party's (and, more generally, the "pro-choice" movement's) need to reframe the abortion debate. Jeffrey Feldman hits on several of the issues we've discussed in his latest post:
Of all the rotten words Republicans like to throw at Democrats, the phrase ‘baby killer’ has to be the worst.
Republicans in Congress like nothing more than to tell the American people that a ‘Holocaust’ is being committed by Liberals in this country, and that over 30 million ‘babies’ have been ‘killed’ since the passage of Roe v. Wade, roughly twenty years ago. ‘Abortion on demand,’ they call it, or worse: a ‘culture of death.’
None of this would matter—and the country might actually be solving some of its serious problems with healthcare, education, or national security—if the Democrats had long ago found a powerful way to respond to the ‘baby killer’ accusation from Republicans. Unfortunately, the only response Democrats have used is the once powerful, but now inadequate phrase: ‘I am for a woman’s right to choose.’
I actually find it surprising that the GOP took so long to come up with a good phrase to deal with the Democratic line on abortion. But come up with one they did, and they will repeat and repeat and repeat it until the Democrats figure out how to reframe the debate.
His piece is well written and worth reading, although I take issue with some of the assumptions he presents. For example, Feldman says:
"Imagine that a woman has just found out she is pregnant and decided to have the baby. She is six weeks pregnant. On the way home from the clinic, her car is hit by a drunk driver and she miscarries.
Most Democrats in this situation would be willing to admit that the punishment for that crime should be connected to the 'potential life' of the miscarried fetus. Democrats do, in other words, believe that the state should be interested and even obligated to protect potential life."
I disagree. I think that many Democrats (not to mention many Republicans) question whether a six-week-old embryo necessarily deserves the same full legal protections a human child or adult enjoys. A six-week old embryo is the size of quarter. It has no capacity to live outside the womb. It has no brain and its spinal chord is just beginning to form, suggesting that it has little to no capacity for experiencing pain.
My point here is that by perpetuating the oversimplified life-has-inherent-value argument, the author skirts the more productive and important discussion: at what point does a fertilized egg become a human being? At what point do we, as a society, believe that a fetus becomes a child, that terminating a pregnancy becomes infanticide? This is, arguably, the first moment that government - or society in general - has any legitimate interest in protecting the well-being of said organism.
I agree with Feldman that the "woman's right to choose" argument has both exhausted its value and appropriateness given the current "baby killer" dialogue. I also agree that right-to-privacy and child well-being arguments could have some traction. However, I think he fails to hit on the most promising re-framing of the abortion debate: pragmatism. In short, the argument says that abortion, like drug abuse, is undesirable but it's going to happen anyway - regardless of legality - therefore it's better to keep it legal than go through another era in which thousands of teenage girls and young women die from blackmarket procedures. More formally:
The state has a compelling interest in protecting the well-being of human beings.
We, as a society, believe that human life begins at the point when a fetus is sufficiently developed that it could conceivably survive outside the womb without medical intervention.
As such, the state has no compelling interest to intervene on behalf of the fetus prior to this point. However, when the well-being of the mother is not in question, the state should have some flexibility to intervene on the child's behalf. For example, the state may compel a mother to stop abusing chemical substances or enter into a mental health treatment program when it is demonstrated to be in the best interest of her unborn child.
The state is faced with the complex challenge of balancing its interests in protecting the well-being of the unborn child while, at the same time, protecting the well-being of its mother.
Under circumstances when these two interests come into conflict with one another, the state is obligated to consider whether the life or long-term health of the mother is endangered by the continuation of her pregnancy. If so, the state is obligated to protect the right of the mother to terminate her pregnancy if she so chooses.
Finally, access to legal abortions - those occurring prior to the crucial survive-outside-the-womb cutoff - must remain unfettered. History clearly demonstrates that desperate women will go to desperate lengths to terminate unwanted pregnancies, potentially leading to the tragic and untimely death of women who turn to unscrupulous back-alley practitioners.
This approach, of course is imperfect, largely because it calls on both sides to make some concessions. Which won't happen. But that's not the point. The point is to come up with a position for the Democratic Party which honors the Party's long commitment to women's rights yet, at the same time, demonstrates the Party's appreciation of the diversity of opinions on this issue. I've tried to do that by appealing to the pragmatist instincts of both camps. Thoughts? Were Feldman's frames better? Does this frame show promise if further refined?Posted by sarah at June 8, 2005 12:44 PM