Friday, July 31, 2015

The Politics of Family Planning

In a sting earlier this month, a politically-conservative activist group, pretending to be purchasing fetal organs for research, filmed the Planned Parenthood director of medical research talking about the cost of obtaining the organs.  She was talking about obtaining the organs--and the cost of obtaining the organs, not about selling them for profit, but short edited parts of the longer interview appeared more damning.  Even in the presumably full interview, the medical official came across as impersonal and as if she were objectifying the fetuses and organs.

Right after the publication of the original sting, some of my more politically-conservative friends were up in arms, equating Planned Parenthood to the Nazis and calling for its immediate defunding.  I said I didn't like the process of attacking the target du jour in the media.  And I don't.  I abhor it--whether the target is one considered politically conservative such as police or Vietnam vets, or a liberal one, like teachers, child protective service workers, members of the Obama administration or Planned Parenthood.  That process seems more akin to scapegoating than truth-seeking.  Rather than deciding based on the trial in the public eye, I prefer to wait until the dust has settled, then read and think further.

The dust hasn't finished settling.  But today I read Ross Douthat's July 25 column reprinted in my local paper.  He's a conservative writer whose columns sometimes make some sense.  In this one, though, he attempts to marshal disgust at abortion.  Douthat is not accusing Planned Parenthood of selling organs for profit; he's just running with the renewed negative attention on abortion and on Planned Parenthood.

Why is Planned Parenthood such a political bone of contention, even though such a small part of its function has to do with abortion at all?

In traditional societies women had children.  There was no alternative.  Where the equality of women is accepted and where women are educated, the birth rate drops.  No wonder, then, that such a change provokes resistance in some quarters.  No wonder that in some segments of the world, "Western education is a sin."

But whatever Western modernity now means to some Middle Eastern or African nations, change even in the West has been hard-won.  Jill Lepore's November 14, 2011 article "Birthright" from The New Yorker gives some history from 100 years ago:

When Sanger began nursing poor immigrant women living in tenements on New York’s Lower East Side, she found that they were desperate for information about how to avoid pregnancy. These “doomed women implored me to reveal the ‘secret’ rich people had,” Sanger wrote in her autobiography.

I have remembered that phrasing ever since I first read this article.  And,

“I have Ben married 4 years the 25 december and I have all Redy given Birth to 3 children and all 3 of my children ar Boys and I am all most Broken down and am only 24 yers old,” a Kentucky woman wrote in 1922. “mrs sanger I do want you to write me an Return mail what to do to keep from Bring these Little one to this awfel world.” Mailing her that information would have broken the law.  

According to the same article, even by 1965, well within my lifetime, 94% of women dying from illegal abortions in New York were black or Puerto Rican.

So, the issue, really, is about birth control, not about abortion.  If women don't have to have babies and if they don't want to, or don't want to have enough of them, what then?

Unless we belong to certain traditional conservative religious groups, or to a political group that puts a high value on keeping its numbers up, most of us don't want to have eight or ten babies. We certainly aren't aiming to die young.  But under today's conditions, we sometimes don't want to have any children at all.  Remember the 2012 The Atlantic article, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All"? If having children is so hard and poses such a penalty career-wise and even on personal happiness and well-being (a penalty that can seem to increase exponentially with each additional baby), the outcome of the emotional calculus that underlies the personal choice about whether to have children isn't hard to derive.

If modern society wants educated and productive women to have children to whom to pass on their social capital, then stop penalizing them for it.  I'm talking not only about the institutions of society, although those are important, but also about traditional sex roles regarding who does the childcare and cleaning and cooking.  Who shoulders most of the load?  Those institutions and the roles would need to evolve.

Regarding pregnancy and childbirth outside of marriage, not too many years ago I remember hearing some television evangelist call for women to take up their traditional (in his view) role in preventing extramarital pregnancies.  But he's wrong.  That is not something women can do alone.  They can't hold back the whole tide of society.

When I was a teenager, extramarital pregnancies at my (segregated) public high school did happen but they were hushed up and rare.  It may be hard to resist the pressure of hormones and young love, but most of us did it.  How?  The whole weight of society was behind us and "on our side" in that endeavor.  The boys accepted it, too: it was what was accepted as right and good.  I have often been thankful for that and sorry for the irresistible pressure to which girls have been subjected in later years.  "Frigid" and "selfish" and "teasers" if they don't, "slut" if they do.  They don't have much of a chance.  You can't expect one segment of society to hold back a tidal wave.

I just finished reading a book on Christian ethics, The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision is Key to the World's Future.  The author, David P. Gushee, an evangelical Christian ethicist and seminary professor, has attempted to detach traditional socially conservative positions from their rigid political moorings so ethical imperatives can evolve.  Thus, as to abortion, he says the focus should be not only on children but also on mothers, and he focuses on the disproportionate number of poor and disadvantaged women who choose abortion.  And thus he calls for addressing the suffering, abuse, and poverty of women rather than an exclusively antiabortion focus. David Gushee is by no means pro-abortion, but I don't think he'll be looking for any large beneficial societal impact of the current anti-Planned Parenthood vitriol.

By the way, there may be worse things than abortion.  Steven Pinker, in his 2011 tome, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues that infanticide, far from being unnatural, has been the evolutionary modus operandi.  If a hunter-gatherer family had a viable child that had survived infancy which would be endangered by a new and uncertain life, that new baby had to go.

If I have tried to make infanticide a bit more comprehensible, it is only to reduce the distance between the vast history in which it was accepted and our contemporary sensibilities in which it is abhorrent.  But the chasm that separates them is wide.  Even when we acknowledge the harsh evolutionary logic that applies to the hard lives of premodern peoples, many of their infanticides are, by our standards, hard to comprehend and impossible to forgive. (p. 418)

Criminalization of infanticide and religious injunctions against it began to turn the tide, but

(f)or almost a millennium and a half the Judeo-Christian prohibition against infanticide coexisted with massive infanticide in practice.  According to one historian, "exposure of infants during the Middle Ages was practiced on a gigantic scale with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with most frigid indifference" (Milner, L.S., Hardness of Heart/Hardness of Life: The Stain of Human Infanticide, 2000, quoted by Pinker). (p. 425)

"The several-thousandfold reduction in infanticide enjoyed in the Western world today" has resulted from religious and legal precepts, from our elevated standard of living, and from birth control--and from abortion.  The latter two reduce the number of unwanted babies. Added to the injunctions against infanticide has been a change in the valuation of children, no matter their parents or the circumstances of their conception and birth.  So, now infanticide is rare and makes the front-page news.

One of Steven Pinker's hypotheses is that we retain the taboo against infanticide while not even being able to imagine what it is that the taboo serves to repress.

Meanwhile, according to Pinker, abortion rates around the world are also falling.

Finally, in the following paragraph from Lepore's article in The New Yorker, there is a lot I'm still processing:

If a fertilized egg has constitutional rights, women cannot have equal rights with men. This, however, is exactly what no one wants to talk about, because it’s complicated, and it’s proved surprisingly easy to use the issue to political advantage. Democrats and Republicans thrust and parry, parry and thrust, in a battle that gives every appearance of having been going on forever, of getting nowhere, and of being unlikely to end anytime soon. That, however, is an illusion. Neither abortion nor birth control is, by nature, a partisan issue, and, from the vantage of history, it’s rather difficult to sort out which position is conservative and which liberal, not least because this debate, which rages at a time when there is no consensus about what makes a person a person, began before an American electorate of white men was able to agree that a woman’s status as a citizen is any different from that of a child.

Not a partisan issue?

Let me say that David Gushee does not want to see the lives of women ruined by bearing children, any more than I'm wanting to see women in problem situations to which the only solution is abortion.

The people on either side of these issues should not be demonized, as so often happens in our polarized rhetoric.   Each side for the most part is made up of good people.