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Talking about Abortion, Part VII: Still More Questions and Answers

This is the seventh entry in this series of posts. Should you be interested in the previous entries, here they are:

We are going to do one more set of questions today. But before we do, well, we have gotten vast amounts of criticism about this series. And we're going to address several of the common themes of that criticism. So:

Comment: "You wondered why women don't read the site. Well, now you know."

(V) & (Z) answer: We are paraphrasing the various e-mails we got, so as to not publicly attack any particular reader. Nearly all of the e-mails that raised this particular point also used the word "misogynist" in one way or another.

We really should have corrected this misperception long ago, but we didn't, because it usually comes up in the Sunday mailbag, and we try to avoid inserting ourselves there as much as we can. That said, it's now time to set the record straight. The notion that women do not read this site is a byproduct of the reader survey we ran several years back, in which some very small percentage of the respondents (something like 10%) identified as women. However, we never once wondered why women don't read the site. What we wondered was why the survey response rate for women was so low. Recall that we have other ways of knowing what the gender breakdown of the readership is beyond a one-day survey on SurveyMonkey, most obviously the e-mails sent to the various mailboxes. And while the readership is majority-male, it's not 90%/10%. It's more like 60%/40%.

You know what's 90% male/10% female, though? The e-mails about our being misogynists.

At that time, several years ago, there was a multi-week discussion in the mailbag about why women are less likely to respond to surveys (most common answer: They tend to be busier than men). As we noted recently, we'll be running a new readership survey soon, which will be available for longer than one day, and we hope to get a more accurate statistical profile.

Comment: "You are guilty of bothsides-ism."

(V) & (Z) answer: No matter how many times we explain ourselves, we continue to get this particular critique. We'll try one more time.

Bothsides-ism is an intellectually dishonest practice, usually perpetrated by media outlets, involving the presentation of a false equivalence between opposing viewpoints. The classic version of bothsides-ism is a reporter who attends a conference about global warming, where 99.9% of the attendees are on the same page, and who finds and quotes the one guy there who is a global warming denialist. A variant of bothsides-ism is when an outlet like CNN sticks a far-right, reactionary talking head into their panel on election night. The stated agenda is "we're representing both sides of the debate," but the truth is that the ratings are better when the talking heads argue, get angry, etc.

When it comes to abortion, there really are two sides. Whether or not they are equally valid, the fact is that they both exist. The readers who have agreed to answer questions are not on the extreme fringes of the anti-abortion segment of the populace. And they do not represent a viewpoint held by some tiny fraction of the populace. According to polls, somewhere between 35% and 45% of Americans oppose abortion in all or most circumstances. In short, there is nothing that we are doing that deliberately and willfully misrepresents the nature of the abortion debate.

If running answers from anti-abortion readers, followed by the experiences of women/doctors on the other side of the issue, is bothsides-ism, then is running an item on the Donald Trump campaign, followed by an item on the Joe Biden campaign, bothsides-ism? Because Trump represents, not coincidentally, roughly the same percentage of the populace as is part of the anti-abortion faction.

Comment: "I don't want to read this sh**."

(V) & (Z) answer: We don't know what to say here, other than "Don't read it, then." It is not possible for us to make every single item we write into something that every single reader wants to read. To take an example, the "Reader Question of the Week" for this past weekend was about military history. We knew full well, when we asked that question, that it would be of great interest to some readers and of absolutely no interest to others.

Comment: "This is no different than taking questions and answers from white supremacists."

(V) & (Z) answer: After a reader brought this up in the mailbag, a lot of other readers glommed onto it. This is dangerously close to Reductio ad Hitlerum, but since so many people seem to believe it is a valid point, we're going to address it.

To start, depending on context, it is not inherently problematic to expose people to white supremacist viewpoints. In his U.S. history course, (Z) spends 3 weeks on World War II and its aftermath. And the first reading for that sequence includes a passage from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a brief news article on the Dreyfus Affair, a stab-in-the-back cartoon from the World War I era, a brief article from Der Stürmer, and a passage from Mein Kampf. The point is that Adolf Hitler did not conjure up his bigotry out of nowhere; he was building on a long history of European antisemitism. None of (Z)'s students have ever complained about this reading, even on their anonymous teacher evals at the end of the quarter/semester. And none have become Neo-Nazis, as far as he knows.

Moving along, "white supremacist" is not a synonym for "racist." The former is a small, extreme subset of the latter in modern American society and in the modern Republican Party. This is not to say that the white supremacists don't exist, but they are dwarfed in number by, among others, anti-abortion voters.

Inasmuch as the white supremacists are a (small) minority faction, and inasmuch as their views are broadly unacceptable to most Americans, Republican politicians accommodate them indirectly through dog whistles and through policies that have second- or third-tier effects that are anti-minority. Put another way, when was the last time that a state legislature passed a bill called the "Make Racism Legal Act"? When was the last time the Supreme Court issued a ruling decreeing that white supremacism is the law of the land? These things do not happen anymore. By contrast, there are constant anti-abortion bills coming from the various red-state legislatures. And there have been numerous anti-abortion decisions from the current Supreme Court, most obviously Dobbs. Without making any comment on the merits of the various positions, it is clear that there is an ongoing policy struggle over abortion. There isn't with white supremacism, except indirectly, as an aspect of other policy struggles.

And finally, there is the most relevant distinction of all for our purposes, one that subsumes many of the other distinctions. As we have written numerous times, we began this exercise because we got hundreds of questions from readers about the anti-abortion viewpoint, questions we did not feel able to answer. We have not gotten hundreds of questions from readers about the white supremacist viewpoint.

These remarks probably won't change too many minds, but we wanted to respond nonetheless. And with that out of the way, here's the third set of questions and answers. This one contains the questions that we think are most relevant of all; they are the last two in the set. Also, if you want the background of the three anti-abortion answerers, it is provided in the first entry, which is linked above.

Q.J. in Edmonton, AB, Canada, asks: My question for those who oppose abortion is about sincerity. Do you, really and truly, believe that aborting a fetus is murder? I ask this because it's been shown historically that making abortion illegal has a surprisingly small effect on the number of abortions performed. Meanwhile, one could reduce abortions by a large factor by encouraging comprehensive sex education for minors, expanding access to contraceptives and making them more affordable, and by providing real financial support to potential mothers, offsetting the medical costs of delivery and recovery as well as some of the costs of raising a child. All of these programs are typically opposed by the pro-life movement, citing the evils of giving teens tacit permission to have sex, making society more promiscuous, and potentially higher taxes to pay for these programs. When they do, I feel like they're not balancing that with... murdering babies.

Is it a genuine feeling that a society with higher taxes and condoms in classrooms is somehow worse than a society that literally murders babies? Or is it possible that the "murdering babies" angle is less a sincere belief, and more a feeling that promiscuity should have consequences?

C.H. answers: I will begin by addressing your question about enforcing the consequences of promiscuous behavior. While I think you raise an interesting point, I believe I have a perspective that may differ from your initial thoughts. Firstly, I should clarify that, although I am against elective abortions (rather than medically necessary ones), I am a lifelong Democrat. Comedian George Carlin once said, "[these conservatives] are all in favor of the unborn, do anything for the unborn—once you're born, you're on your own." It is repugnant to me that the Religious Right often neglects the root causes of unwanted pregnancies: inadequate sex education, limited access to affordable contraception, endemic poverty, and the financial burden of pregnancy and raising a child for the next two decades. Until we address these issues, abortion will persist.

From the subtext of your comment, I understand that you believe conservatives may want to punish promiscuous women with pregnancy because they disapprove of promiscuous behavior. If I have misinterpreted your intention, I apologize. However, I would argue that the concern is less about punishing the woman and more about protecting the child. My position is that the woman's inconvenience, lack of preparedness, or desire to avoid parenthood is not more important than preserving the genetically distinct life created.

My aunt once said she was "pro-choice" in the sense that individuals have the choice to engage in sexual activity, knowing pregnancy could result. Although I initially considered this a petty semantic argument, it has resonated with me over time. It is worth emphasizing that sexual intercourse between a man and a woman can result in pregnancy. There are tools available to reduce this possibility, and these tools should be actively taught and provided to all women. However, when these tools fail, a distinct and unique human life is created. Society has the right and obligation to decide what can and cannot be done to that life, just as it does for born humans.

Choices have consequences, and I assert that the moral gravity of ending a unique human life is not outweighed by the woman's desire to not be pregnant. And in anticipation of the run-of-the-mill examples of extreme outliers—I don't have a problem with a medically necessary abortion or abortions in instances of rape or incest. Yes it's not morally absolutist like other members of the anti-abortion community, but it feels like the policy position most likely to keep the focus on the vast majority of abortions.

M.E. answers: Yes, I 100% really and truly believe that aborting a fetus ends a human life (I personally dislike using the term murder; while it may well be appropriate, I find that it tends to distract from the discussion and lead to unrelated tangents). I also agree that there are a variety of social programs that can reduce unintended pregnancies.

To fully answer your question, I need to split my opposition to abortion into two pieces: one motivated by my personal religious beliefs and another motivated by secular reasoning. For me, both of these pieces independently find that abortion is immoral. They differ, however, on the use of contraceptives.

As faithful Catholics, my wife and I adhere to the use of "Natural Family Planning" (aka "fertility awareness" or, pejoratively, "the rhythm method"). At age-appropriate levels, we will explain our beliefs to our children and guide and encourage them to follow Church teaching on this and other matters and that to do otherwise is sinful. Thus, our personal moral code does not find the use of contraceptives an acceptable substitute for abortion; both are sinful.

However, while I find sufficient secular evidence to support my position that abortion ends a human life, I do not find sufficient secular evidence to oppose the use of most contraceptives. I strive to adhere to the idea of separation between church and state; absent a compelling secular reason to oppose contraception I am forced to concede that it makes sense from a public policy perspective (especially if it helps reduce abortions).

I say most because, at some point, a technical discussion of how different contraceptives function may be necessary. Generally speaking, my secular logic finds that contraceptives which prevent fertilization are permissible while those that act post fertilization (including by impairing implantation) are not. This is consistent with treating fertilization as the beginning of life.

K.K. answers: Speaking for myself and those that I personally know in the life movement, it is a sincere belief that abortion is killing a preborn child. I am unsure where the idea that restricting abortions does not affect the number performed comes from. Since the Dobbs case, there have been fewer abortions performed in states that have restrictions, and the numbers have not been offset by a rise in states that still provide. Comprehensive sex education and access to contraceptives are generally opposed by those who come at this from a religious angle, as I do. We certainly have more comprehensive sex education and the availability of free or inexpensive contraception today than we did before Roe, and the number of teen and unwed pregnancies has increased rapidly, which should not be the case if these approaches worked as well as you believe.

As for financial support for expectant mothers, all the organizations I am involved in encourage that. We care for the mother and child and help them to access all the aid that is available to them. You seem to be confusing the fact that most pro-life advocates vote Republican with a total endorsement of the Republican platform. This is certainly not the case for me, and I would venture to guess for many of those involved in the pro-life movement as well. But the fact is there is not a viable political party that advocates for both an end to abortion and the social programs you suggest. And when given a choice, I will always cast my vote first for those who will help bring about an end to the practice of killing children in the womb.

D.G. in Jupiter, FL, asks: You can still be anti-abortion and I think you have a right to your opinion. But why can't I have the same choice?

C.H. answers: You are absolutely and unequivocally entitled to your opinion. You should share your opinion with others and try to sway them to see as you do. The joy of a pluralistic society is our ability to disagree with each other on how to best attain joint societal and communal goals. It seems to me that your question is less about entitling you to your own opinion and asking why we feel so strongly in our opinion that we believe laws should be put in place to protect the lives of unborn children from their mothers choosing to terminate their pregnancies. As with most issues where legislation is viewed as a potential solution, it comes down to balancing one's own desire/opinion against what is in the better aligned to what the majority deems acceptable in society.

The reality is that the majority position in this country is that legal access to abortion should be available to women. What's legal may not be moral, though—and that's where I find myself on this issue. De jure segregation and slavery were legal, but I don't think they were morally defensible positions. Abortion isn't any different to me. I choose to side with protecting the tiny and defenseless child over their mother's desire to be rid of them.

M.E. answers: The difference comes down to when life begins. If I am correct and life does indeed begin at conception, the overwhelming majority of abortions are immoral. If you grant my core premise (life begins at conception), your choice is no longer permissible as it ends a life.

Thus, I would ask you and others the implied "flip side" of this question: When does life begin? My position is certainly not without many uncomfortable implications. Yet, after honestly reading and reflecting on a variety of other positions, I find it to be the most logically defensible.

K.K. answers: You do have the same choice. I am pro-life, and you are not. My being pro-life does not change your opinion. The difference is where you see it as an opinion, I see it as objective truth—that is, fact. Abortion kills the innocent child, and it is wrong to kill innocent children. To have laws against killing children is not an extreme position. So, for me not to want to stop children from being killed in the womb or laws that allow for that would mean that I really didn't care, and it was simply an opinion, much like which college football team is better. But what we are dealing with has far greater consequences than a football team; it is literally life and death, and having a casual opinion on the matter, either way, is, in my opinion, is an extremely callous position.

R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: Now that the impact (on women's health, on miscarriage care, vast swaths of territory that no longer have basic obstetrics care) of the Dobbs decision is clear, do you still believe that this is the path forward to reduce abortions in our nation? Note that I wrote "reduce", not "end." This leads to another question. Are you willing to acknowledge that there will never be an end to abortion?

C.H. answers: Abortion has been with human beings for millennia and will be with us for the foreseeable future. I have no problem acknowledging the historical truth and what's likely to be true for some time to come.

I also acknowledge that dishonest politicians, fraud, theft, general maleficence, racism, rape, and genocide will be with us forever as well. The ongoing presence of an evil is not enough for me to simply throw up my arms and give up in defeat.

I don't see a dichotomy between supporting social programs that provide support to pregnant women and struggling parents and creating laws that restrict the unilateral decision of a woman to terminate her pregnancy. Both are needed.

The way to reduce the incidence rate of abortion is to reduce the circumstances wherein a mother feels no other choice than to terminate her pregnancy. Even if it isn't realistic to expect abortion to end (like the other evils listed above), there are so many actions that can and should be done to make it rare.

M.E. answers: I'm disappointed by the way some things have turned out post Dobbs. Conservative state legislatures certainly deserve some (I'll even admit to most) of the blame for writing unclear and poorly thought-out policies.

I've known for a long time that the pro-life and pro-choice camps mean different things even when both sides use the same word (they can't even agree on the correct word to describe the other side's position!). Heck, both sides even count the number of weeks of pregnancy differently. Still, I didn't fully appreciate the size of this gap. To me, there is a big difference between an abortion and a miscarriage (one of intent!). Indeed, I have no opposition to an abortion following an incomplete miscarriage; such opposition would not be logical. Yet, this distinction has not been handled well post Dobbs and I challenge conservative state legislatures to do better.

I am still convinced that Roe had to go as a starting point. The path forward to my goal (near-zero abortions) is now less clear to me and frankly I don't have a strong preference on any single particular next step. Ideally, I'd like to see some form of a properly crafted nation-wide abortion ban enacted. Barring that, state-level action seems to be the next best option.

And yes, I acknowledge that there will never be a true end to abortion. One of my favorite quotes on this is: "No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice-cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg." I don't presume that this is a universal sentiment, but the idea that some level of desperation will continue to exist surrounding an unexpected pregnancy has roots that go back at least 2023 years. Neither will there be an end to theft, murder, sin, etc. The fact that such evils exist does not imply that they should be ignored nor does it mean we shouldn't work to minimize their occurrence.

K.K. answers: I will answer the last part first; I completely understand that outlawing abortion will not end it. Just as outlawing murder has not ended it. But we don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Laws against abortion do reduce the number of abortions. It is just a fact. The path forward would be a nationwide ban on abortion, and unfortunately, the Dobbs decision has made that unlikely since it turned it over to the states. So, states that believe it is fine to end the life of a child in the womb will continue to do so. And the impact you speak of only affects women seeking abortions. If Planned Parenthood closes its doors because it can no longer perform abortions, then it must not have been telling the truth that abortions were only a small portion of what it did and had no real financial impact on its operations. And even without Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics, there are still a vast number of free or low-cost pro-life women's health centers still in operation in every state, which provide the same care as Planned Parenthood only without pushing abortion.

M.C. in Reno, NV, asks: How much damage to the rest of our society and the world are you willing to accept for the abortion issue to be resolved (maybe) in your favor? We know a lot more now than we did before about how dangerous Donald Trump is, and how many crazy things he wanted to do. Yet even now, you'd vote for him because this one issue is worth risking world security for?

C.H. answers: Can't really speak to this question as I didn't vote for Donald Trump in 2016 or 2020. Or any Republican candidate for President since I first voted in 2004. I vote for Democrats because I value building a society where women don't feel the level of insecurity and fear about raising their child to the point of terminating a healthy pregnancy. I believe it is both moral and necessary to create laws that limit access to elective abortions. But I also believe that criminalizing abortion isn't the most effective way to reduce abortions. Pregnant women and struggling parents deserve the support they need both pre-natal and post-natal. I support politicians and political parties committed to safeguarding and expanding access to those services. And I hate crazy.

M.E. answers: I continue to hope and pray that I never truly find out the answer to this question. Still, it is one that I have asked myself. One option is to flip it around to you and others—is winning on abortion really worth driving me and presumably a non-trivial segment of the electorate to vote for Trump? If he is really that bad, why not nominate a pro-life Democrat?

While an interesting thought exercise, that approach skirts the core of your question. The best I can logically do is this: At the point I am honestly convinced that Volde-rump costs more lives than are lost via abortion, I would seriously reconsider my political position.

That said, frankly I don't believe that this threshold is likely to be reached. Of the CDC's yearly 10 leading causes of death, I find that Trump could likely only materially impact 2: COVID-19 and accidental death (specifically via firearms). Total COVID-19 deaths accounted for approximately 415,000 individuals while guns add another 50,000. Climate change potentially adds another 250,000 worldwide yearly deaths to that tally. Under any reasonable attribution of blame (Trump isn't responsible for every COVID-19 death; a non-trivial percentage of firearm deaths are suicides; using worldwide climate change deaths against U.S. only abortion numbers is illogical), the total is far below the estimated 615,000 annual U.S. lives lost to abortion.

Imagine a preventable COVID-19 level pandemic every year from 1973-2022. That is the rough scale of the national tragedy I oppose. I hope the choice next year won't be as difficult. But, if I must, I still remain ready to make it.

K.K. answers: Being pro-life does not necessarily mean one will vote for Donald Trump again. And surveying international relations today compared to when President Trump was in office, it would be hard to argue that we are in a more stable situation globally now. A Russian invasion of Ukraine, which threatens to pull us into World War III, Chinese aggression towards Taiwan, more so now than when President Trump was in office, which also threatens to pull us into World War III, and what has become a failed narco-state on our southern border flooding our streets with fentanyl, which last year alone killed almost 72,000 Americans, would seem to me to be a lot more dangerous to global security than what Trump accomplished when he was in office.

Thanks to C.H., M.E. and K.K. for their answers. On Friday, we will run a sizable number of accounts from people who were compelled to consider abortions. If any reader cares to send in their story, there is still time. And on Sunday, comments, on this week's abortion-related material. (Z)

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