February 05, 2005

Pro-Life Libertarians And The Failings Of Abortion Coverage

Dr. Dobson of Focus On The Family was on Cavuto (FNC) tonight. I didn't catch all of it, but apparently they have some program where pregnant women see an ultrasound before they get an abortion and the result is that they decide not to get one. The argument (a very sound one and something I've been saying for a long time) is that women have a strong maternal instinct and if they saw that they have a baby and not just some over-developed gametes they'd realize what a mistake abortion is - and then not have one. He cited a figure of just under 3,000 women who changed their minds about abortion due to the program so far. I don't know quite how they work it or whatever, but it sounds like a pretty damned good idea. So kudos. I could die happy if I averted just one of them (saving a life is a pretty profound experience).

But then they started getting into the issues that you usually hear from Focus On The Family - gays, child-rearing, corrupt media, and so forth. He wasn't as crazy and aggravating as Falwell or as repetitious and insubstantial as Robertson, but I just didn't like the contrast. It felt as though he was the face for all of his issues and that people who might sympathize on one would naturally sympathize on the others. That's in part the flaw of the widely-held misconception that politics is one-dimensional (and even of the online political junkies' mistaken belief that it's two-dimensional) but ultimately it's because people do such a horrible job reporting and discussing the issue of fetal rights.

People suck at discussing it, even people who are self-claimed experts tend to have fairly superficial or convenient views on the political dimensions to abortion. The more objective analysts make it cultural, which seems like a value-neutral way to approach it. In other words one side has a certain belief and the other side has a certain belief, and each side is trying to get its way. The problem with this way of describing it is that it intellectually lends itself to the pro-choice view; if it's merely a contest of two cultures, how much of an argument can the pro-lifers have to force their lifestyle on others? No, that's a bad way to discuss it. If this is a culture war then the ultimate answer is to let individuals choose their own cultural beliefs.

It's not a culture question, though. Not at first, at least. It's a scientific and humanitarian question - like racism, anti-Semitism and sexism. Just as it's not a scientifically valid proposition to assume that all black people or Jews or women have certain expectations, desires and abilities - and should be treated in monumentally different ways as a result - it's not scientifically or morally valid to to advance a similar proposition regarding babies that are not yet born.

It's a question of science, and ought to have no connection to culture or geography. It shouldn't even be a matter of legitimate controversy - at least, not any more than issues like black people not being slaves and women not being legally raped. Rape and slavery are not even remotely legitimate under any just society, and neither should institutionalized murder be legitimate. Of course, we're a ways from that point just like this country used to be a way from near-unanimous public support for black civil rights.

So at least for now there's going to be a lot of discussion on the issue and we can't expect to just dismiss opposing beliefs as dilatory or silly. It's easy to ignore the occasional crackpot who questions the abolition of slavery because they're unlikely to change their minds and unlikely to affect the policy debate in the slightest.

Someone who opposes the abolition of abortion, however, has an opinion that is considered at least somewhat valid by mainstream political and judicial opinion. So while you might never change anybody's mind on the issue, it's important to make the moral and scientific case for abolition.

As a question of scientific fact and ethical deduction, abortion could very easily be an issue that's 95% open and shut (roughly the percentage that are not for rape/incest and are not attributed to medical necessity). It's not, however. It's not understood well and it's not reported well and these two are mutually reinforcing factors.

One vital factor is media influence. It's a little too common for blogs to bash the MSM (I'm guilty) but I think it's clearly a big deal here. Journalists and reporters are largely pro-choice.

A study in 1981 found that 90 percent of 240 journalists in the country's top media outlets favored abortion. A 1988 survey of 151 business reporters working for a variety of highest-circulation publications found that 86% favored abortion. In 1985 a poll of 2,700 journalists from 621 newspapers found that 82 percent of reporters and editors favored allowing abortion. A 1995 study (published in 2001) of "reporters and editors at major national newspapers, news magazines and wire services" reported that 97 percent agreed with a women's right to choose abortion, with 84 percent agreeing strongly.

Not only is that substantially different from the mainstream breakdown of views, but it's nearly unanimous. As a result, reporters are coming at the issue of pro-choicers trying to be fair, rather than undecideds trying to be or pro-lifers trying to be fair. I can't say I expect total equity of beliefs or disagreeing with a viewpoint always leads to biased and poor coverage of a subject. I just think the stark lack of pro-life reporters is the reason why there's such a dearth of good, intelligent reporting on the issue of abortion and a broad subconscious consensus that paints pro-lifers from the perspective of an outsider.

In my experience, reporters are not very knowledgeable about many subjects unless they do a special subject (financial beat, sports reporter, art critic) so when they get to something like foreign policy or abortion they rely on the knowledge of their experts and on whatever innuendo and rumor that has colored their views. This is to be expected, since it'd be very hard for a paper to maintain a staff with an expert on each potential subject. But it does affect the reporting to have to report beyond one's own knowledge.

The personal bias is a factor. Most basically, it colors the language and terminology we hear - such as calling pro-life people "anti-choice" or "anti-abortion" while pro-choice people get called pro-choice. Or how abortion is usually referred to as "a woman's right to choose" while there's rarely mention of "a fetus' right to life." That is especially frustrating to me, since the pro-life movement's premier political lobbying group is actually called National Right To Life Committee.

The blogosphere was lit up back in September of last year when Todd Eastham, the North American Editor for Reuters e-mailed an argumentative and sarcastic reply to an NRLC press release. What's especially embarrassing is the exceptionally poor quality of his arguments, speaking as a person who has argued the issue exhaustively with untold numbers of online debaters.

He ranks in the worst category of pro-abortion people: the population control people who act like abortion is the only thing staving off the inevitable cultural and economic ruin that comes with not murdering innocent people. A pretty despicable way to make a despicable argument (even divorcing it from the pro-choice position, it's despicable). After all, if population control is so pressing, then why make it a choice? Seems like abortions should be mandated if overpopulation is so pressing. And if that doesn't work, is he prepared to see infants and toddlers exterminated to maintain his standard of living? Stupid. The population control argument 1) doesn't stop at choice and goes all the way past supporting abortion to actually necessitating abortion, and 2) doesn't offer any compelling reason why infants or the elderly should be spared if fetuses aren't. (I've spent a huge amount of energy on the subject; to get my take on pretty much all the arguments against abolition, check my article on it here).

Of course, also suspicious was that, the day of the e-mail from Eastham, Reuters released a dispatch about a pipe bomb in a biotech lab near Boston that did a quarter mil of damage. Unlike other news outlets, Reuters' dispatch made embryonic stem cell research opponents appear to be responsible. What's so silly about that is that the lab was involved in only ADULT stem cell research, which has been getting major ass-kissing from pro-lifers as a full alternative to embryonic stem cell research. Only the most wacked out Jehovah's Witness or Christian Scientist would have a problem with adult stem cell research (or a really stupid pro-life terrorist who couldn't be bothered to even research the most basic things about his target). But then they don't believe in blood transfusions or antibiotics either, in some cases, so they're not very representative of the pro-life movement.

The wider bias of reporters means that pro-choice advocates tend to get quoted earlier in articles, get more words in articles and get more representative viewpoints chosen. While it's bad enough that pro-life advocates seem to regularly get the short end of the stick in both chronology and proportion of an article, what's especially insidious is picking bad representatives - intentionally or not.

The best example of bad selection is when a panel show years ago wanted to do a segment on abortion. They called up (I believe) NARAL for the pro-choice side, and for the pro-life side they picked a guy who was once in the KKK and was a racist. No joke. Apparently he was representative of the views of the roughly 40 to 50 percent of Americans who think abortion is not restricted enough.

Just absurd. Most of the picks aren't so bad, obviously (probably in part due to the rarity of available neo-Nazis and Klansmen to do panel shows) but it happens sometimes. What's really a problem is the way in which pro-lifers are cast, and picking representatives is only one part of that. Picking Focus On The Family instead of National Right To Life definitely adds a more conservative-Republican flavor (NRLC is nonpartisan).

Describing conservatives as synonymous with pro-life views, and pro-life views as synonymous with anti-gay marriage views is a big problem from where I sit. I don't care if gay people get married - in fact, I don't care if 27 men decide to marry 117 women and then all have sex in a big pile on their own basketball court while smoking joints and listening to Creedence on the loudspeaker. I think it should be legal, and I honestly don't care - so long as I'm allowed to be anywhere else but there. So I'd say I'm on balance WAY more socially tolerant (apathetic might be a more apt term) than even your typical left-wing national Democrat, all of whom are against polygamy. Yet I'm against all abortion, so I get lumped in with the media censors and marriage-obsessors.

Of course, columnists and reporters seemed to regularly remind us all that there were Republicans against the war in Iraq, but it seems they can't be bothered to even pause to distinguish between pro-life cultural-conservative Republicans and pro-lifers who aren't even conservative at all (a good portion of Democrats, around a quarter to over a third, are pro-life). It's just aggravating, and I think the reason is simple: they are so overwhelmingly pro-choice and they don't see it from a pro-life perspective. As a result, their personal perspectives (that pro-lifers are conservative traditionalists who are still fighting against the 1970s and hate the 19th Amendment) reinforces a simplistic view of pro-lifers, instead of encouraging a more vigorous examination of the pro-life movement.

It's not even like there's a conspiracy. I fully believe most of it's subconscious choices and preferences that lead to a distorted, simplistic view of pro-lifers and slanted overall coverage. It's not like they all want to go out and give bad reports, though.

Hopefully people who strive to be at least a little more intelligent on this issue than Mr. Eastham will stop connecting abortion to conservatism, or assuming that opposing abortion and opposing gay marriage are interchangeable views. Hopefully people will realize that you can a steadfast libertarian and still vigorously oppose abortion.

And hopefully one day this'll be irrelevant because abortion will be lined up next to slavery, Jim Crow, the Holocaust and spousal abuse as a barbaric, backward product of bigoted, selfish thinking.

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