The moderate's defense of abortion rights: A reply to Ross Douthat on Planned Parenthood

The extreme position of the pro-life movement is simply not a reasonable response to the complicated moral reality of abortion

A pro-choice protester outside the Supreme Court.
(Image credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

These are deranging times for opponents of abortion. The seemingly endless stream of Planned Parenthood videos is so filled with talk of morally outrageous behavior — skulls crushed, organs extracted, parts sold — that even the most thoughtful of those who are convinced the procedure is an unalloyed evil are losing their cool. And their heads.

Take Ross Douthat of The New York Times. Perhaps the most intelligent and honest pro-life writer in the country — and the author of what might be the most powerful and moving column that's been written on the videos — Douthat has now penned an uncharacteristically harsh and angry blog post castigating several writers on what he dubs the "pro-choice-but-uneasy-about-it side of the abortion debate," including me. In my case, Douthat's ire was provoked by a column in which I called out pro-life activists for focusing too exclusively on banning the procedure and not enough on decreasing demand for abortions by supporting programs that both make contraception universally available and educate women about its use.

Douthat's post starts well, making valid, data-based points against The Washington Post's Dana Milbank for suggesting that funding cuts to family planning clinics lead to increases in the abortion rate. As Douthat points out, funding for such clinics has dropped for years while the abortion rate has declined, so that prediction seems to be invalid.

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I would only point out that my own column never suggested quite such a robust causal link — let alone ventured a "pro-life case for Planned Parenthood," as Douthat characterized it. I argued, instead, that more aggressive support among pro-lifers for the use of birth control (combined with increased funds and educational programs) would lead the abortion rate to fall more rapidly. That's not the same thing. Numerous social, cultural, economic, and technological trends — I'd speculate that advances in ultrasound technology have been especially significant — are contributing to the declining abortion rate. For funding cuts to override all of those trends and send the rate moving in the opposite direction would make it an awfully (unrealistically) powerful variable indeed.

Things go downhill from there. After offering a modest concession to the pro-contraception argument (the link between support for birth control and declining rates of abortion is "stronger than some social conservatives want to believe, and it deserves a role in the debate about what sort of interventions the government should support"), Douthat rather abruptly accuses me and my fellow moderate pro-choice liberals of nothing less than "moral blackmail" for raising this very issue. And then he issues a challenge — though it might be more accurate to call it a taunt.

[Instead of encouraging pro-lifers to support birth control,] why not write a column urging Planned Parenthood to, I dunno, get out of the dismemberment business? If all these other services are such a great, crucial, and (allegedly) abortion-reducing good, why do you, center-left journalist, want them perpetually held hostage to the possibility of public outrage over the crushing of tiny bodies in the womb? If a publicly funded institution does one set of things you really like, and another thing that makes you morally uncomfortable, why are you constantly attacking that organization's critics and telling them that they just have to live with the combination, instead of urging the organization itself to refocus on the non-lethal, non-dismembering portions of its business? [The New York Times]

And then we're off the rails entirely, with Douthat falling into the kind of argumentation I normally associate with radicals and reactionaries, saying he prefers pro-choice advocates who courageously embrace "a real consistency, a moral logic that actually makes sense and actually justifies the continued funding of Planned Parenthood." That's right, Douthat would rather I and other moderate liberals not be troubled by abortion, that we join Katha Pollitt and Rebecca Watson in considering the termination of a pregnancy to be as morally insignificant as (in Douthat's words) "snuffing out a rabbit." Because that would show "consistency" and "make sense." Kind of like how militant atheist Sam Harris prefers to do battle with admirably consistent fundamentalist believers and far-right Israeli parties think the Palestinians who make the most sense are suicide bombers.

Then, finally, the memorable wind-up, which is also worth quoting:

[T]o concede that pro-lifers might be somewhat right to be troubled by abortion, to shudder along with us just a little bit at the crushing of the unborn human body, and then turn around and still demand the funding of an institution that actually does the quease-inducing killing on the grounds that what's being funded will help stop that organization from having to crush quite so often, kill quite so prolifically — no, spare me. Spare me. Tell the allegedly "pro-life" institution you support to set down the forceps, put away the vacuum, and then we'll talk about what kind of family planning programs deserve funding. But don't bring your worldview's bloody hands to me and demand my dollars to pay for soap enough to maybe wash a few flecks off. [The New York Times]

There's that challenge/taunt again: If you liberals are really so troubled by what's in those videos, then have the guts to call for Planned Parenthood to stop performing abortions. Short of that, you can go to hell.

Sorry, but that won't cut it. The options in this world are not and never have been limited to believing either that full moral worth inheres in the unimplanted fertilized egg from the moment of conception or that killing a fetus past the point of viability is a matter of moral indifference. The first position strikes most people who haven't swallowed the Catholic Catechism whole, or who haven't forced themselves into the intellectual straightjacket of neo-Thomism, as taking consistency to patently absurd lengths.

Even if my wife and I could know every time a fertilized egg fails to implant and then sloughs off when she menstruates, we still would never be moved to mourn the death of a being with intrinsic moral worth. The same holds for fertilized eggs that slough off because a sexually active woman is using an IUD — or, for that matter, because a woman is breastfeeding in the first several months after giving birth. All of these activities lead to the "death" of what really is, at that pre-implanted stage, a clump of cells that is destined not to develop into anything at all.

Nine months after successful implantation, things are very different. I would even say categorically — ontologically — different. How is this possible? I have no idea. All I know is that nearly all of us are convinced that a newborn baby is a person, a creature with intrinsic dignity, worth, and a right to life that the liberal state is duty bound and justly empowered to protect — and yet also convinced that although this same creature possessed the same genetic code from the moment of fertilization, it was somehow of relative moral insignificance in those first few hours and days of microscopic life.

Between those moments (conception and birth) lies a developmental continuum that confounds any and every effort at strictly rational systematization. An abortion at six weeks is worse than one at four weeks. Eight weeks is worse than six. Twelve is worse than 10. And so forth, as we approach fetal viability — at which point, what was once a medical procedure with minimal moral import becomes a matter of murder.

I know that Ross Douthat and many other pro-life friends don't see it this way. I respect and admire their consistency, even as I find it hard to understand how they could possibly believe it, and even as I think it sometimes drives them to approach the issue of abortion in a needlessly extreme and counter-productive way.

Because, you see, having convinced themselves that every abortion at every stage of pregnancy is murder, pro-lifers can't help but show relative indifference to the other person involved in the moral calculus: the pregnant woman. She's the one looking to hire a contract killer to murder her own child, after all. At six months. At three months. At six weeks. At four weeks. The morning after. The timing doesn't matter. There's always a homicide victim and a perp.

The "pro-choice-but-uneasy-about-it side of the abortion debate" sees things a little differently. Given that the fetus undergoes a change in moral status as it develops — and given that it resides within a woman possessing rights, dignity, and freedom of her own — the so-called moderates conclude that abortion should be legal and safe, but permitted only within limits. Most European countries get it right: permit abortions through roughly week 12, then begin imposing restrictions that leave it banned around 20 weeks. And actively pursue public health policies that help women avoid having unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

And that brings us back to Planned Parenthood.

In case anyone had any illusions to the contrary, the notorious videos have succeeded in demonstrating beyond doubt that the American way of abortion is very different and far more radical than the European approach. Just as American pro-life activists insist that every abortion, no matter how early, ends in murder, so pro-choice activists and their favored institution treat fetuses at all stages of development as so much meat to be "harvested" and re-purposed to defray costs and further socially salutary research.

So I'll gladly take Douthat up on his challenge — at least up to a point. If Planned Parenthood wishes to keep receiving public funding, it should immediately halt its fetal tissue program and begin phasing in rules and regulations designed to actively discourage women from having abortions after 12 weeks — and decide on a point somewhere prior to viability after which they will refuse to terminate a pregnancy (with exceptions for the miniscule number of cases in which continuing with the pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother). It is indeed an outrage that the organization's ratio of abortions to adoption referrals is 149:1. Planned Parenthood can and should begin doing a much better job — or rather, any job at all — of showing that its leadership understands that there is a world of moral difference between a six-week-old embryo and a 28-week-old viable fetus.

But telling Planned Parenthood that it should give up providing all abortion services in favor of "the non-lethal, non-dismembering portions of its business"? No, I don't think so — because that extreme position is simply not a reasonable response to the complicated moral reality of abortion. It's a reality that the deeply conflicted views of the American people quite accurately reflect: strongly pro-choice early on in pregnancy, even more strongly pro-life when it comes to late-term abortions, somewhat less strongly pro-life in the middle, and judgmental throughout about abortions chosen for frivolous reasons — with aggregate views inching very slowly over time in the pro-life direction as technology improves, giving us more accurate pictures of fetuses in utero and pushing the age of viability ever earlier.

That sounds about right. Which doesn't mean it cheers me. Just that it may be the best that a liberal society can do or reasonably hope for.

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