Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Looking for common ground on abortion

I've been working up to writing a post about abortion, but I've been held back, mainly by my own conflicted feelings about the issue, but also (to be honest) by a fear of alienating those with whom I usually find myself in agreement. I've been mulling it over since President Obama's speech at Notre Dame University, in which he sought to identify common ground between the 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice' camps, arguing (rightly, I think) that nobody is actually 'pro-abortion' and suggesting that both sides should work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. I've also been reading Sean Michael Winters' book, Left at the Altar: How the Democrats lost the Catholics and how the Catholics can save the Democrats, which I hope to discuss more fully another time, and which (among other things) charts the ways in which the issue has driven a wedge between the Democratic Party and their 'natural' constituency among Catholic voters.

Even so, I wasn't going to add my modest contribution to the debate, until the shocking murder of Dr. George Tiller at the weekend, and the reaction to it by people on both sides of this most divisive of issues. The shooting of Tiller - in church, in front of his wife and other members of the congregation - defies superlatives of outrage: it was a cold-blooded act of domestic terrorism, a sacrilege, even (if you believe in such things). Those who encourage such actions by their rhetoric, or seek to minimise their horror, should look to their consciences. Winters argues that the use by anti-abortion campaigners of the 'sanctity of life' argument would be more convincing if they were equally outraged by the death penalty. How much more should they condemn murder in the name of religion?

However, I think it would be a huge mistake to conclude that Tiller's murder means Obama's attempt to find a middle position on the issue is foolhardy, though some on both sides have sought to dismiss it as such. After the Notre Dame speech we saw his valiant effort scorned by some pro-life commentators, and in today's Guardian, it's treated with equal disdain by Sara Paretsky, speaking for the other side. I've been an avid fan of Paretsky's Chicago-based crime novels, though they did become rather predictable after a while: something of the suspense was lost when you realised it was always going to be capitalism that was ultimately to blame. But I think her column today, which employs specious arguments and rhetorical sleight-of-hand, demonstrates that it's not only anti-abortionists who stand in the way of mutual understanding.

I have no quarrel with the title of Paretsky's piece - 'Terror in the name of Jesus' - as I think it's important to give things their rightful name: and Tiller's murder was as much an act of terrorism as the actions of Islamist extremists. But the article's sub-heading, whether the author's fault or that of an attention-seeking subeditor, is unnecessarily confrontational, suggesting that this event 'underlines that there is no common ground with anti-abortion zealots'. This is a red herring: it's not with the extremists who firebomb clinics that Obama is hoping to find points of agreement, but with the majority of Americans who polls tell us are against abortion. 

After an opening paragraph in which Paretsky points out that the killing of Dr Tiller was the climax of a long campaign of violence against him and his clinic, she begins her second paragraph with this sentence: 'The National Council of Catholic Bishops, the National Right to Life Committee, Operation Rescue, and other groups opposed to women's reproductive health and privacy are almost all headed by men.' Maybe the piece has been heavily edited, but this reference to the gender of those who disagree with her is a complete non sequitur. And the claim that all of these groups are motivated by a hostility to women is tendentious in the extreme. Paretsky then compounds this rhetorical sloppiness by going on to enumerate the violent acts committed 'by followers of these and other groups'. Is she really saying that murder and arson can be blamed on 'followers' of the Catholic Bishops' Council? That's like saying that the violent protests in this country against Jerry Springer: The Opera were carried out by 'followers' of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It's a dishonest attempt to pin the most heinous crimes of extreme anti-abortion militants on the thousands of ordinary religious people (and many non-religious people) who have reservations about abortion.

A couple of paragraphs later, Paretsky has this to say about Obama's approach to the issue:

In Barack Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame – preceded by protests from Roman Catholic bishops because he is pro-choice – the president urged pro-choicers to find common ground with anti-abortion zealots. I do not know how you find common ground with someone who says you deserve to die. For such people, women are not as deserving of rights as the foetuses they may carry .

Once again, this is specious and underhand. Yes, Obama's speech was preceeded by protests from some Catholics, but many others supported the invitation and it received a warm response from its mostly Catholic audience. And again, he didn't say anything about finding common ground with 'zealots', but with people of good faith on both sides. Ramping up the rhetoric, Paretsky accuses abortion opponents of believing that women 'deserve to die'. As for the last sentence, it's completely illogical. Most thoughtful people would concede that the abortion issue is a difficult one because it entails a clash of competing rights: the supposed right of the foetus / unborn child to life, and the apparent right of a woman to control her own fertility. To suggest that all pro-lifers think women have no rights in the matter is as misleading as dismissing pro-choicers as not caring about the rights of the unborn.

Towards the end of the article Paretsky says she hopes that the death of Dr Tiller 'begins a real search for common ground', though she is not optimistic. It has to be said that her own style of argumentation hardly helps, and serves to demonstrate that pro-choice campaigners can be as one-sided and irrational (if not as lethal) as some of their pro-life opponents.

As proof that the two sides can find common ground, here are pro-choice secular liberal Keith Olbermann and pro-life Catholic conservative Andrew Sullivan sharing their horror at Tiller's death and the extremist rhetoric that encourages such crimes:


Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you say. I would add that having seen footage of the late doctor, he appears to have been courageous and committed. I'm sure he felt that he was doing good and as I grow older, I think I agree with his stance to an extent that would not have been possible in my youth.

I appreciate your criticism of the journalist who seems to deny men a right to speak out on this issue....but I do notice that it is invariably men who are most vocal on this topic, most opinionated. It is simplistic, but obvious that men will never have to make this decision, and equally obvious that you cannot know how it feels to be in a bad situation.

As someone who has been invited to consider abortion, indeed pressured, I have to say that I know why it is not such a black or white issue for many women.

Martin said...

Thanks for your comment. I take the point about men, but I was really just criticising Paretsky's playing of the gender card in the context of a discussion of the Tiller murder. It seemed irrelevant and intended to distract from rational discussion of the issue. But I agree it's important - one reason I hesitated to jump into the debate is that I'm writing as a man who has not and will never have to face this personal decision myself. Also, I think that as a pro-feminist man who wishes to retain his feminist credibility, expressing anything other than a blanket pro-choice position is difficult.