Every morning on my way to work, I pass a streetlight with a prolife bumper-sticker stuck to its base. It says something fairly nonconfrontational, like “Choose life: your mother did!” Or “Babies are a gift, not a choice.” Plastered over it is another, duelling sticker, which I will again have to paraphrase: “What if it were your daughter? Your sister? Protect women’s right to choose.” I find this line of prochoice argumentation depressingly shallow, premised as it is on the assumption that a prolife person is obviously not concerned about the women involved (and, I guess, obviously male). Of course you wouldn’t want a woman you actually care about to have to carry an unintended pregnancy to term. If you’re prolife, it must be because you haven’t thought enough about women, and how they’re affected by the availability or absence of abortion. If you could simply imagine someone in your family pregnant, you’d see how wrong you are to want to oppress women needlessly.
I thought of this today as I read William Saletan’s take on the grisly case of the Philadelphia abortionist now accused of delivering several babies and then killing them with scissors. He is also charged with third-degree murder of one of the women he treated. (This probably goes without saying, but I’ll warn you anyway: both the news story and Saletan’s summary of its contents are deeply disturbing.) Saletan writes, “It’s a tale of gore and nihilism—and an occasion for pro-choice advocates to reflect on the limits of reproductive freedom.”
For “absolutists,” of course, any talk of restrictions is anathema. If you insist that the only issue at stake in the abortion debate is women’s autonomy, you can’t give ground to those who think something else may be at stake too. You have to resist the idea that killing a fetus in the third trimester is somehow worse than doing so in the first. Suddenly the “what if it were your daughter?” method of reasoning isn’t so helpful; you can’t go with your gut. And what happens when that third-trimester fetus is out of the womb and breathing on its own — a baby, in other words? It’s wrong to kill it then, right? But why?
Will this case promote the reflection Saletan thinks it should? Or will “absolutists” insist that Gosnell’s only crime was poor medical treatment of the women he (illegally but, per their logic, legitimately) agreed to treat well after their babies were potentially viable? If you’ve adopted the argument that women’s autonomy is the most important thing at stake, is it possible to draw a line at all?
P.S. Yes, this is a post about abortion! Comments are tentatively open, but let me say right upfront that this is not an opportunity to revisit discredited claims about Obama supporting infanticide.