Gosnell and our inadequate public discourse on abortion

Tim Carney wrote yesterday that when Obama was a state senator, he “repeatedly voted against legislation requiring hospitals to care for babies born during abortions” because “[s]uch laws might somehow be used in the future to infringe on abortion’s legality.”  Carney argues that “Gosnell’s method for aborting babies wasn’t substantially different from a procedure Obama enthusiastically defends.” 

Today, the White House has no comment on Gosnell, noting that it concerns on an ongoing legal matter.  A totally valid response—is what I would have said if Obama didn’t have such a track record of commenting on ongoing legal matters when he felt it was politically advantageous to do so.  White House press secretary Jay Carney also had no comment on whether, similar to Newtown, babies who are being snuffed out in Gosnellian clinics deserve a vote on some new form of preventive legislation.  No such legislation has been proposed, Carney responded.  And besides, Carney went on, “the President’s views on choice are quite clear.” 

I’m surprised no one in the comments to my last post drew the connection to Alisa LaPolt Snow, the Planned Parenthood rep who suggested to a Florida legislator that babies born alive do not need further intervention from the state.  Here’s a remarkably on-point exchange:

One of the lawmakers asked her what Planned Parenthood’s position would be if a baby is born as a result of a botched abortion.

"We believe that any decision that’s made should be left up to the woman, her family and the physician," she said.

Whoops. Had the media been covering Gosnell’s trial, Ms. LaPolt Snow probably could have qualified her response a bit better.  And then there was this: 

When another lawmaker asks her specifically what Planned Parenthood does when such a scenario happens at its clinics, she said simply, "I do not have that information."

Another lawmaker made the point that the baby born alive would become a patient as well, not just the mother.

"That’s a very good question," Snow said. "I really don’t know how to answer that."

Watching the exchange before the Gosnell story broke, I chalked that up to a failure of imagination.  A dismal failure, to be sure, but if there aren’t any reported incidents of abortion doctors murdering and mutilating babies born alive, that’s about the end of the discussion.  But if there are such incidents, well, Ms. LaPolt Snow, we have some more questions for you. 

Ms. LaPolt Snow’s responses severely undercut the suggestion that we’ve already closed the loop on the relevant moral and policy questions. As her comments indicate, while we might expect better sterilization procedures and overall compliance with health codes in abortion clinics, the basic evil of what happened in Gosnell’s clinic is not terribly surprising given the principles implicated in abortion policy when that policy is not subjected to the rigors of serious and sustained public scrutiny, when those discussions are conducted with kid-gloves, and when they are just left to judges to decide as if these questions could be answered by lawyers alone. I take the Gosnell case as an example of the failure to trace a principle to its possible consequences. "In other countries,” Edmund Burke once wrote, “the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle."

Somewhere between then and now, we have thrown in with the mercurial cast.  We vote not when we have judged the badness of a principle and anticipated an evil.  In the case of gun control, we are specifically asked not to wait and judge, but to judge now, while we’re still overcome with grief about it—because we’re still overcome with grief about it. 

Abortion policy, of course, developed quite differently than gun control policy.  But it similarly developed without enough of an attempt to anticipate its evils.  I suspect the Gosnell case suggests a wrong principle lurking in our abortion policy.  While most of mainstream discussion on the topic is polite and civil, it’s nonetheless failing to expose that wrong principle.  Our discourse is not working.  How do we fix it?

41 thoughts on “Gosnell and our inadequate public discourse on abortion

  1. When the initial assumption is that abortion itself is essentially a form of infanticide, I don’t think it’s possible to have a sustained and serious public policy discussion.

      

    • If only the pro-lifers were more reasonable, perhaps it would be possible for people as reasonable as we are to talk to them.

      Personally, I wonder about the whole thing regarding a baby that is born as the result of a botched abortion and whether it should be protected by the law. If that baby is terminated (hasta la vista, baby!), why shouldn’t it also be a privacy issue?

        

      • I’ve always been under the impression that once a fetus is at the stage of development where it would actually survive being born, that procedures were quite illegal by then. Certainly “quickening” and viability were, IIRC part of the whole Roe opinion.

        I think using terms like “partial birth abortion” which isn’t entirely brimming with accuracy, but is used to conflate a procedure with late-term abortions isn’t entirely helpful there, either.

          

        • The problem I’ve always had with “viability” is that it’s contingent — it probably tells us more about the state of medical technology than it does about humans and their rights. We can easily imagine a future in which a fertilized egg could be implanted into an artificial womb until “birth.” If abortion were tethered to viability, then would all abortions be illegal in such a future?

            

          • I posited a hypothetical about such a future world and how it had implications both for the pro-choice people, now… and the pro-life people, then.

            The discussion never really went anywhere.

              

          • Given there are already hundreds of thousands of children who can’t seem to get an adoptive home what is the chance there will be a surrogate womb for every woman who doesn’t want to keep a child but could have the egg implanted in another’s womb. So when there aren’t enough surrogate wombs is a woman allowed to get an abortion?

              

          • If there was a mechanism for simply letting the fertilized egg be removed from a woman who didn’t want the child and the resultant baby from an artificial womb have a reasonable chance of adoption, I don’t see why there’d be a problem with outlawing actual terminations.

              

          • There aren’t remotely enough adoptive homes now and if the surrogate womb has to be inside a person then that significantly limits the number of potential wombs.

              

          • I don’t necessarily think that the implications are thought through sufficiently, but I’m perfectly willing to admit that under the right circumstances, I’d be perfectly fine with replacing abortion with a procedure that wouldn’t terminate the potential of a zygote or fetus.

              

          • There aren’t remotely enough adoptive homes now and if the surrogate womb has to be inside a person then that significantly limits the number of potential wombs.

            Why are so many people adopting from China, Ethiopia, and Russia?

              

          • Perhaps it’s unsatisfying, but it’s already the case. We don’t take heroic measure to briefly prolong the lives of newborns, if “briefly” is all that’s possible. But that’s wholly defined by current technology. Imagine a medical future in which every sort of organ repair is possible, and even exencephalic newborns will be given the full extent of medical treatment.

              

          • Greg, there are more than enough homes for infant adoptions, excluding birth defects. The two qualifiers are important, though. It’s also uncertain that if the birth rate increased by 30% whether or not there would still be enough homes. It’s not certain either way. I’d support group homes in the event that there’s not.

            Patrick, I’ve been mulling over a post on that for a couple years. My guess is that it will remain hypothetical because as long as the risks for extraction/implantation are a greater risk to the mother than abortion (which I suspect would be the case), the pro-choice community will not be satisfied, and as long as the risks to the embryo/fetus are greater with extraction/implantation, the pro-life community won’t accept it.

            (This leaves aside the extent to which some pro-lifers have… ahhh… other motives, and the extent to which women would accept losing control over their biological reproduction.)

              

          • Jay- The children who are hard to place in adoptive homes now typically are some combination of one or all of factors that make them harder to place: being a bit older ( not toddlers), of color, in foster care or have medical/psychiatric problems. Adopting from those countries, while not a bad thing, allows you often to get a child under age 1 which is what many people want.

            A very quick run through the recent stats show an avg of between 100, 000 and 150,000 children in the foster care system waiting to be adopted for the last decade. Lost of kids in the FC system sit there for years before they are put in the “please adopt me” category since the various system are focused on reuniting them with their families, are very unlikely to be adopted so they don’t bother to list them or they will just stay in states custody for a variety of reasons.

              

          • Nob- It is generally pretty easy to find adoptive homes for infants.
            Will- Group homes, which i have worked closely with btw, are in almost all cases a temporary solution. They are an end point solution only really for older teens who don’t have parents and need a launching pad for becoming an adult. Doing group homes well is expensive especially for young kids. You need a low staff to kid ratio and to pay staff well. Neither of those things happen much now.

              

          • Greg, you’re right that if it has to be implanted into another woman, it may be a no-go (I’d need to know more about reproductive medicine and have some idea of how many of the women who adopt abroad or wish to adopt could actually carry a baby to term provided it wasn’t their egg). Tim was referring to an artificial womb, though, which suggests to me that we’re not talking about putting it in another woman.

              

          • Oh just to be clear i’m all for well run group homes for kids that need them. The shortage of adoptive parents and poor funding for services for kids doesn’t imply anything about A being legal or not.

              

          • If we can come up with artificial wombs then we are just about in a Star Trek techno utopia. And i want a tricorder. Heck if we can get artificial wombs then i hope they could be carried by a man.

              

          • I believe that science will get there, to some extent, though not in our lifetime. Regardless of what effect it would have on abortion (and I don’t actually think it would have that much), and even bypassing fertility, there are a lot of reasons we would want an artificial womb.

              

          • Remember, however, that the point is not about it actually happening. The point is that the very possibility of it happening demonstrates that “viability” is a contingent idea. It is not a principle upon which we can judge whether and when certain rights vest in a growing human life.

            Alternatively — and I haven’t thought through this — one way that viability might be talked about in terms of a principle is when human life is naturally viable, i.e., without something more than rudimentary support. This removes the contingency of external conditions (medicine, technology) and relies predominantly on natural human biology and focuses our inquiry on what aspects of its development cause us to determine that certain rights attach to it.

              

          • I suppose my point is more that medical viability, contingent as it is, has always been something of a condition on which we judge human life. How we treated people with disabilities, for example, or how certain chronic conditions were regarded changed as technology and social conditions made it possible to actually care for them.

            I guess my point is more: viability is at least a line in which a fetus goes from bundle of tissues to potential patient for a medical professional. If that’s the case, then it’s easy to separate what qualifies as infanticide and what’s an abortion.

              

          • This idea of “natural viability” idea — I know we’re just spitballing here — omits things like food and shelter from the elements (infants obviously cannot provide these things for themselves and die without them), but would include things like breathing equipment, blood transfusions — basically if survival is reasonably assured in the presence of caring adults but without the benefit of all but preindustrial medicine?

              

          • Burt – That’s true, but we’ve already determined those things (food and shelter) are irrelevant to determining whether abortion is justified, right? I mean, no one ever suggests (out loud, anyway) that the human fetus is less deserving of protection if the mother is poor than if she is rich, do they?

            But then again, turn the question around: Is abortion less justified if the woman is rich than if she is poor? Seems like there’s a case there than the answer is yes.

              

          • The question is more or less moot. Any society with the biotech sufficient to create an artificial fertilization-birth gestation system would have first developed a pretty much perfect method of birth control for both men and women. Accidental pregnancies would be so uncommon as to not be worth mentioning.

              

          • No, it’s not moot, as I mention above. The point is that viability might not be a very good principle for assessing whether and what rights vest in a human life, and that’s because viability says more about technology than about human life.

              

          • Alternatively — and I haven’t thought through this — one way that viability might be talked about in terms of a principle is when human life is naturally viable, i.e., without something more than rudimentary support.

            This would allow abortion up to the point of birth for babies that will require straightforward procedures like treatment for Rh incompatibility. I’m sure that you don’t like that any more than I do.

              

          • I’m not limiting my proposals to those I’d like. There are precious few principles available to us here. One is conception, another is perhaps “natural viability,” which you suggest may effectively be birth. No, I wouldn’t like the latter, but it is a principle — i.e., a non-arbitrary standard (well, a not-completely-arbitrary standard).

              

          • Remember, however, that the point is not about it actually happening. The point is that the very possibility of it happening demonstrates that “viability” is a contingent idea. It is not a principle upon which we can judge whether and when certain rights vest in a growing human life.

            Why not?

            We have plenty of contingent ideas that we use for informing our rights talk.

            You have a right to life, up until the point you’re attempting to take mine. I have no right to take yours, up until the point you’re attempting to take mine.

            You have a right to property, up until the point you’re doing something on your property that affects everyone else. When you start spraying dioxin on your stream, the people downstream get to infringe upon your property rights.

            I’m not sure why, “You can survive on your own” isn’t a point upon which we can legitimately tag your right to life. I mean, we use that tag for the end of life decisions, as well.

              

          • Patrick — I said I think “You can survive on your own” might work as a principle. But “You can survive with the use of available equipment” doesn’t because it’s contingent on external circumstances that don’t bear much of a connection to whether or not a human possesses a right to live. At least, I don’t see the connection. Do you?

              

        • Tim: We can easily imagine a future in which a fertilized egg could be implanted into an artificial womb until “birth.” If abortion were tethered to viability, then would all abortions be illegal in such a future?
          Pat: I posited a hypothetical about such a future world and how it had implications both for the pro-choice people, now… and the pro-life people, then. The discussion never really went anywhere.

          To both: doesn’t it lead inevitably to an increase in the state social welfare apparatus necessary to care for the children thus created? Unless we posit a Star Trek/Diamond Age level of technological abundance, we’d eventually stretch resources to the level of a Malthusian nightmare, wouldn’t we?

            

          • Depends. In the US, at least, it would lead to an increase in our birthrate by something like a third (less, actually). I don’t see a problem. Worldwide? That depends on a lot of variables. It could nicely work out that the places that can afford the incubator are actually the places with a birth dearth and those that are struggling with their population would not be able to do it anyway.

            (I also don’t know what abortion rates are abroad. That would matter.)

              

          • I think we’re beyond the scope of our analysis here, unless we are to entertain the proposition that the burden the individual imposes in order to sustain its life affects its right to live at all. If that’s the case, it has implications as much for the very old as for the very young — and also many in between. To me, it’s a frightening prospect, and contingent besides.

              

          • Just as a practical matter, I would like to point out that when we talk of “artificial wombs” we tend to think of contraptions of glass, metal, plastic, tubes, wires, blinking lights and such. I believe the day will (or could) come much sooner when we could borrow the wombs of other animals, likely livestock like cows or sheep, for that purpose. The uterus is already set up to temporarily host what amounts to a parasite with an otherwise incompatible immune profile. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see something like that being worked out, perhaps with a bit of genetic manipulation of the host animal. And I don’t think it would take anything like a century or more to figure out either; more like a decade or two if we really put out minds to it.

              

  2. This strikes me as, mainly, a universal American societal failure. Pro-Choicers cannot, for practical and tactical reasons, accede to any restrictions on abortion; those concessions would be used as the launch points from which to continue rolling back reproductive choice. This is not paranoia on their part; it’s a publicly unabashedly embraced strategy for pro-lifers.

    Pro-lifers, for their part, have no incentive to promote proper ethical regulation of abortion providers. Such moves would be akin to acceding to the existence of abortion as a practical matter which is ethically and tactically abominable to them.

    As long as one or both sides of the equation are intent on absolute victory the incentives for every other actor in between these two sides is to try and keep their heads down. Fertile breeding ground for creatures like Gosnell.

    I’d note, of course, that in the world that pro-lifers are legislatively seeking the practical reality would be that the vast majority of abortions in the US would be like Gosnell’s horrific chop shops. They would, of course be lower in number to some degree but Gosnell’s practices could conceivably be considered the norm in such a legal environment.

      

  3. A totally valid response—is what I would have said if Obama didn’t have such a track record of commenting on ongoing legal matters when he felt it was politically advantageous to do so.

    Which ones? Trevor Martin? I realize that’s a touchy subject around here, but if I recall the timeline correctly, Obama’s only comments on that came in the interval between Zimmerman’s release and then the subsequence arrest and issuing of charges. Am I incorrect on that?

    Newtown? I’m not aware of any comments Obama made during any trials.

    Or are you conflating “legal matters” (any matters which have to do with law, crime, etc) with “in the middle of a trial”?

    The President has spoken often of “legal matters” — things he thinks the law says, legal positions he supports, laws he believes should be made, and of course has (through the Justice Department) made actual legal arguments in front of the Supreme Court.

    I am not, however, aware of Obama or the White House routinely commenting on ongoing trials which seems to be the ‘legal matters’ in discussion here.

      

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