Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In Case You Missed It, We've Reached A Compromise

TBogg is always good for a laugh, some pictures of basset hounds (my girls look forward to them every week), and the kind of satire that reminds us why we do not like conservatives any more. Late last night, he linked to Ross Douthat, who considers the possibility of a "compromise" on abortion. As TBogg notes, as with all conservatives, the compromise is one that actually is a surrender of the opponents of conservatives.
If you want a reason why an abortion compromise isn't possible, try this contrast: My idea of a plausible middle ground on the issue requires the overturning of Roe v. Wade, followed by a move toward a system in which abortion is legal but discouraged in, say, the first ten weeks of pregnancy, and basically illegal thereafter.

I do not know if Douthat is aware, or would care if he were aware, that this "compromise" was essentially the law of the state of California, the most liberal abortion law in the country. It was signed by Ronald Reagan and widely held to be an abomination by anti-abortion folks back in the early 1970's. It was, of course, overturned by Roe v Wade, and in retrospect is hardly adequate as a "compromise" even considering the times.

TBogg misses some serious stupid a bit further down in Douthat's article, however, that is worth taking a look at, with goggles of course, to avoid injury to the eyes. It should be pointed out that the very first sentence of what follows, if considered a serious intellectual position, not only invalidates the rest of Douthat's article. It invalidates every single human endeavor to understand their world and draft publc policy. Indeed, it invalidates government itself. After thinking about that sentence for a moment, I have a headache. Anyway, be careful as you read what follows:
The interaction between public policy and social trends is highly complex, and very difficult to predict, and thus there are any number of policy choices that can be plausibly said bear on the abortion rate, for good or ill. The distribution of contraception is just a small part of the pantomime. Which means that once you take the legal debate over the rights of the unborn out of the picture, and start redefining being pro-life as "pursuing lower abortion rates through policy choices," almost any policy preference can be re-cast as "pro-life." Married women tend to have fewer abortions, so clearly ending the marriage penalty was the most pro-life measure of the last fifteen years! But wait: There's evidence that increases in state-level Medicaid funding correlate with lower abortion rates in the short term - so maybe liberal Democrats are real pro-lifers! But wait again: Welfare reform and the economic boom of the 1990s correlated with plunging abortion rates, so maybe free-market conservatives are the real pro-lifers! But wait again: Maybe the abortion rate fell in the 1990s because the sort of women who would have grown up to have abortions were themselves aborted in the post-Roe 1970s ... so people who favor maximizing the abortion rate, paradoxically, turn out to be the real pro-lifers!

You can play this game ad infinitum. If the definition of being pro-life is "desiring the sort of circumstances that tend to reduce the abortion rate," than almost everybody is pro-life(emphasis added), because almost everybody thinks that their favored positions on trade, government spending, tax policy, the minimum wage and so forth will lead to better socioeconomic outcomes overall - and better socioeconomic outcomes overall will probably lead to fewer women seeking abortions. Now I'm obviously happy to have broad debates about public policy, and I certainly think that pro-lifers should be interested in crafting a broadly pro-family politics in addition to seeking a more pro-life legal regime. But the pro-life cause is primarily about issues of law, morality and justice, and if pro-lifers treat the broader pursuit of socioeconomic progress as a substitute for, rather than a complement to, the pursuit of legal protections for the unborn, then they've given up on their movement's raison d'etre to no good effect. Pro-lifers can and should be willing to compromise within the debate about how the law should treat unborn human life, by agreeing to legal regimes that stop short of their ultimate goal. But a "compromise" that involves giving up on that debate entirely in favor of arguments over which domestic-policy interventions will reduce the abortion rate on the demand side is no compromise at all: It would strip the pro-life movement of its purpose, drain it of its idealism, and transform it into an advocacy group for, well, good public policy, which practically every other political movement and organization claims to be already.

Do you see the neat trick that Douthat pulls off in the highlighted section? By claiming that opponents are attempting to redefine the terms of the debate (which shouldn't surprise him) he notes that, if successful, it would steal the moral authority of pro-lifers by granting pro-choice advocates the privilege of being advocates for lower abortion rates, even as they continue to argue for the freedom to make the decision for abortion if they deem it necessary.

It should be noted that, in my humble opinion, the reason abortion was all but invisible in the Presidential campaign this past fall is something that pro-lifers like Douthat refuse to acknowledge. The country has reached a certain comfort level with the way abortion policy currently exists in the US. While certainly not easy or accessible to all - the vast majorities of counties in the US have no abortion providers at all - it is nonetheless available. In other words, there are practical impediments in place in areas that tend to be more anti-abortion, while such do not exist in areas that tend to be more pro-choice. In terms of "compromise", this de facto division seems acceptable to most people, even if those who exist at the extremes of the debate are unhappy with it. Extremists are never happy, however, unless the world reflects their own picture of how things should be.

One final note. Overturning Roe v Wade wouldn't mean a whole lot, because a later Supreme Court case, Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v Casey completely redefined the terms of "abortion rights", ditching the trimester scheme adopted by the Court in Roe. Any "overturning" would have to address the restructuring of the terms of abortion as given in Planned Parenthood.

Virtual Tin Cup

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