Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ross Douthat, on the #Gosnell Case

Ross Douthat, writing for the NY Times, summarizes some of the responses to the #Gosnell trial and the pressure it puts on the pro-choice position.

On the other hand, some pro-choice commentators have tried to use this story to their advantage as an argument for the need for a counter-Gosnell.  Clean, safe, and "above board" abortion clinics that will do late-term abortions.  The Gosnell case shows us that we need more.
The only things missing from this clean, airtight, entirely consistent argument are, well, all the dead babies in the Gosnell clinic — or the dead “precipitated fetuses,” to employ the language Gosnell and his associates used to euphemize their practice of delivering and then “snipping” rather than aborting in utero. Their absence is not necessarily a problem if you’re willing to argue that those babies were non-persons before delivery and became persons immediately after (in which case Gosnell is guilty of infanticide but a more competent late-term abortion facility wouldn’t be), or if you’re willing to argue, with Peter Singer and some others, that personhood is something that emerges gradually at some indeterminate time after birth (in which case Gosnell’s “snipping” wasn’t murder at all). The former, I think, is the more common form of pro-choice absolutism, and the latter belongs to the more philosophically-inclined fringe (although the debate over “born-alive” bills has moved the official consensus fringeward). But if you’re already committed to absolute support for abortion rights, either argument will suffice to justify treating Gosnell’s conduct as irrelevant to the broader abortion controversy.

But neither argument, however, seems likely to do much to persuade the many, many “pro-choice but …” people who aren’t already so committed, and whose support for abortion rights tends to waver most when they’re confronted with the reality of what abortion actually does to fetal life — in clean, well-funded facilities as well as filthy ones, and in the womb as much as on Gosnell’s operating tables. This is, of course, the central reason why the pro-life side assumes that mainstream reporters didn’t particularly want to cover the trial: Because the mainstream press leans pro-choice, because mainstream journalism is pitched to readers in the mushy middle on abortion, and because the practice of “after-birth abortion” makes fetal humanity manifest in ways that almost inevitably push that middle in a more pro-life direction.

And it’s a reality that the pro-choice commentary on the case, with its focus on making these procedures safer and more accessible (and keeping them in utero), has a very hard time addressing. If you’re one of the 28 percent of Americans who believe that abortion should be legal in all circumstances (or, to take a more specific Gallup question, one of the 14 percent who think that “all circumstances” should include the third trimester), then Carmon’s points, or Yglesias’s, will tend to confirm you in that position. But if you’re a typically-conflicted American — the kind of person for whom stories about neonates gasping for breath before their spines get severed makes you question whether abortion isn’t murder after all — then the insistence that Gosnell case just reveals the advantages of an “above-board competitive marketplace” in late-term abortion isn’t really much of a response.

Which brings us back to that Senior essay, because I think what you’re seeing from the pro-choice side of the Gosnell debate is exactly the dilemma she describes. To respond effectively to the doubts about abortion that fetal snipping summons up, pro-choice advocates would need arguments that (to rephrase Senior’s language) acknowledge and come to terms with the goriness of third-trimester abortions while simultaneously persuading the conflicted and uncommitted of their validity, and that somehow take ownership of the “violence” and “gruesomeness” of abortion (to borrow Harris’s words) without giving aid and comfort to the pro-life cause. And in the absence of such arguments, the pro-choice response to Gosnell feels either evasive and euphemistic, or else logically consistent in ways that tend to horrify the unconvinced — and in either case, inadequate to the challenge his case presents to the cause of abortion rights.

But of course it’s possible that those arguments are absent because they simply don’t exist.
Read the rest. 

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