Thursday, February 02, 2006

Internecine Abortion Battles and Bad Progressive Habits

How to safeguard abortion rights in an era of Republican majorities? The looming 30-year reign of Roberts and Alito makes it look all the less promising, but there's a great deal of truth in the adage that the Supreme Court follows th' election returns. Convincing a majority of the people has been and remains the best way to make sure a woman's right to choose remains alive.

So how to do that? Over at Slate.com, William Saletan and Katha Pollitt are having a polite discussion about that topic this week. Saletan is arguing that the pro-choice movement needs to accommodate itself to what he sees as the mainstream American view, antipathy towards abortion but sympathy towards the right to choose, and to gain those folks' support by acknowledging that abortion is deeply problematic and starting a drive to reduce abortions as much as possible with easily available contraception. Pollitt counters that the pro-choice movement can't concede the anti-abortionists' moral arguments about the evils of abortion and have any hope of retaining support for the right to abortion itself.

The debate's been very interesting so far, but rather than summarize it further (instead of letting you read it for yourself), I'd like to note how the initial exchanges have repeated certain habits of thought that have hobbled progressives for ages:

1. Taking poll results too seriously. Saletan reels off some poll results to show that Americans really abhor abortion as a moral evil, and draws the lesson that the pro-choice movement will lose unless it demonstrates that it shares and respects that feeling. Saletan may be right about that - but it's not a coincidence that he, himself, feels strongly that abortion is a moral evil. Naturally, he's happy to cite poll results showing a majority apparently sharing his views. The thing is, polling is a very suspect tool - Americans will say all kinds of things that they don't really mean in response to pollsters. As Pollitt notes, the mushy middle of Americans probably don't feel all that strongly about it; it's just that, when a pollster is focusing your attention on one issue, you tend to voice greater concern about that issue than you normally feel. Add that problem to the other obvious limitations of slanted poll wording, cherrypicked numbers, snapshot results of a constantly moving target such as media-influenced public opinions, and you get some untrustworthy numbers. Progressives love to cite polling data suggesting that the American majority is on their side, but as Garance Franke-Ruta recently noted, a deeper look at Americans' full, complicated, sometimes contradictory views shows much less enthusiasm for the liberal project, unfortunately.

2. Fearing slippery slopes too much. Pollitt doesn't want to cede any more moral ground to the anti-choicers: 'anti-abortion moralism,' she says, will ultimately hurt women and women's rights; take one step down that path, and you start sliding to the bottom. People of all stripes put far, far too much weight on slippery slopes. Here the thing to keep in mind: we're (nearly always) already on the slippery slope, and it's (nearly always) much less slippery than we think. Permitting gay marriage doesn't mean government has to let people marry box turtles; legalizing medical marijuana doesn't mean we'll soon have street corner heroin stands; conceding that abortion is bad doesn't have to mean that abortion will be banned.

We're already on a slope: we already allow some marriages that Rick Santorum frowns on - like people who aren't heterosexual, fertile couples intending to have children and rear them according to church laws; we already allow the sale of addictive drugs, like nicotine and alcohol; we already concede that post-birth fetuses can't be killed, and that some third-trimester abortion restrictions are permissable so long as there's a robust life-and-health exception. We haven't slid all the way to the bottom of any of those slopes, and we're not about to. We can, and we do, choose where to stop on the slope. [There are some interesting exceptions, like employee benefit contract negotiations and 4th Amendment reasonable-expectation-of-privacy jurisprudence, where the powers-that-be look explicitly at how far other people have gone down the slope as a guide to how far they should push the rest of us.]

3. Fighting the culture war instead of winning concrete battles. Pollitt doesn't exactly do this, but she flirts with falling into this trap. She really dislikes abortion opponents because of what they stand for - they're motivated by traditional, conservative values, they dislike women's independence and sexual indulgence, and she's offended by that. Almost as much as she wants to preserve abortion rights, she wants to make the point that such people are just wrong. Even at the risk of possibly losing some mushy moderates who might be amenable to a pro-choice movement that echoes their qualms about abortion, Pollitt would prefer to give no quarter to her antagonists, and make a strident, uncompromising defense of the cultural values that underlie the policies she supports. (To be sure, Pollitt has a thoughtful argument that giving ground on cultural arguments will hurt pro-choice efforts in the policy arena.)

The worst recent offenders in this area were the Free Mumia people, who were transparently uninterested in doing what it would take to get Mumia's death sentence lifted. They were far more interested in using him as a martyr to left-wing radicalism, and marching in the street to display their fantasy-world insistence that the conservative governor of Pennsylvania cave in to their demands and set Mumia free instantly, than they were in making the kind of case that might actually have convinced Tom Ridge and the mainstream, pro-death penalty Pennsylvania electorate to give Mumia's case another look. What Mumia (who almost certainly did shoot Daniel Faulkner, without justification) really deserved was a new trial and a non-racist judge, which is what every criminal suspect deserves no matter how likely their guilt, and what Mumia never got. But the Free Mumia types weren't interested in making that argument, or in trying to avert his death sentence; they were only concerned that the world understand that they viewed the entire judicial system as irredeemably racist and corrupt.

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