One thing that’s important to understand about the anti-choice movement is that it’s more extremist, more strange, and more ridiculous than most political subcultures in America. The second thing to understand about it is that it’s sadly an indicator of where movement conservatism is headed in general. And no more example is more indicative of both these trends than the anti-choice reaction to the arrest of Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia and some of his staff for illegal abortions. The responsibility-dodging and noise-generating from anti-choicers in the wake of this is epic, and a disturbing portend for the direction of dialogue in general for this country.
Taking responsibility for the price of your policy preferences is something that all mature people engaged in politics should be prepared to do. Policy almost always involves trade-offs. Liberals get this. We frown when someone says something bigoted, paranoid, or incendiary, but most of us will say that this is the price you pay for free speech, which is more important. We get that more regulation requires more government spending and irritation from those being regulated, but believe that’s the price to pay for having safe food, water, medical care, and fair standards in labor. When it comes to health care reform, the price of lowering costs, lowering the deficit, and getting health care to all Americans is endless whining from right wingers.
It’s not like conservatives are completely unwilling to accept that their preferred policies come at a cost. Recently, I published a piece in the Guardian's Comment Is Free about gun control in the wake of the Tucson massacre. Some of the anti-gun control people were playing the role of fantasists, but more than a few were willing to accept the evidence I brought to the table in comments about the results of a relatively unregulated gun trade: 20 mass murders a year on average, 82 deaths from guns a day, small children blowing their heads off with Uzis. Some of the commenters said this is a price they are willing to pay in order to have unfettered access to guns. At first, I was horrified at the lack of empathy for those who have lost loved ones to gun violence, but in retrospect, I have to give them credit for at least looking at the price of their preferred policies honestly and dealing with it. Now we have something substantial to debate about, which is whether or not the cost is too high or not.
Contrast this with the anti-choice reaction to the news that an abortionist who performed illegal abortions named Kermit Gosnell was charged with 8 counts of murder for the death of a patient and allegedly killing 7 born babies. The initial anti-choice reaction was elation. This would make great agitprop for their cause! Surely the actions of a sleazy man who preyed on poor women by providing illegal abortions would have implications for the practice of non-sleazy providers of legal abortions, they felt.
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But the celebrations turned bitter quickly, when a handful of feminists started to point out that the Gosnells of the world are the iconic back alley abortionists. You know, the symbol of what happens when abortion is illegal. Gosnell is just a taste of what you get with the already limited access that women have to abortion puts them in bad situations. Imagine how many Gosnells will proliferate if abortion is criminalized and legitimate, law-abiding providers are pushed away from providing abortion. This isn’t really a matter of conjecture, either. We already know what America looks like when abortion is criminalized, because it used to be criminalized. And the result was entire sections of hospitals dedicated to dealing with abortions that had gone septic because women resorted to unsafe abortions. Considering that Pennsylvania is one of the least welcoming states for women and their reproductive health, it’s actually pretty unsurprising that a dirty operator would set up shop there. There is, after all, a huge customer base of women who have so many legal and financial obstacles in their way to getting an abortion that they’re desperate enough to go to him. Plus, as a Philly social work blogger notes, while Pennsylvania politicians have enough time to pass onerous restrictions on access to abortion, they don’t have so much time for maintaining basic regulatory standards of care across the medical field, making it a haven for doctors who operate outside the law and outside ethics.
The politically mature response to this is to accept responsibility. Anti-choicers could say that they’re willing to accept a certain number of deaths and mutilations a year from dirty and illegal abortions as the price they’re willing to pay to ban the procedure. They could say that those women’s lives are worth sending the message about the proper role of women in our society to be chaste and maternal at all costs. They could say that sending a message about protecting fetal life (and a message is all it would be, since women will find ways to abort even when it’s illegal) is more important than women’s health and safety.
But what they chose to do was deny that their preferred policies had consequences. They wrote maudlin posts about late term abortion, ignoring the fact that legal late term abortion is medically indicated, and also that women who push off aborting until later do so strictly because of anti-choice policies that make it hard to get an early term abortion. They claimed access isn't an issue, when of course the research and anyone who actually works with women can tell you what a miserable hamster wheel raising money for an abortion can be. And the reason is solely and completely the fault of anti-choicers, who have made it impossible for women who require government assistance to get it for an abortion. But the anti-choice refusal to accept this reality isn’t a surprise. We all know how much they’ve concocted a fantasyland, where 8 week fetuses look like 30 week ones, women who have abortions pay for it with cancer and depression, and where contraception actually causes abortion. Believing their actions have no consequences is just another fantasy.
This refusal to accept that politics have consequences is spreading from the anti-choice radicals to the right wing in general, as we saw in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting. As I chronicled in last week's podcast, the right wing in general is using the anti-choice playbook to deny the obvious, which is that paranoid, violent rhetoric has consequences, particularly when it’s adopted by unstable people. They learned it from the anti-choice community, who has made an art out of denying that their actions have consequences.
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The one silver lining in this is that pro-choicers are often willing to pick up the responsibilities that are created by anti-choice actions. A sea of abortion funds have cropped up to fill the holes that anti-choice policies created. That there aren’t more predators exploiting women is due in large part to these funds pointing needy women to reliable providers and helping them, as best they can, to pay for it.