Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why ‘Tolerance’ in the Abortion Debate Sounds Good But Isn't

Today over at RH Reality Check, 18-year-old Clayton MacDougall writes about why reproductive justice is important to him:

For me, reproductive rights are synonymous with human rights. I can't think of any greater, or more important human right than the right to control your own body. In the United States no significant movement threatens to infringe on individual rights more than the movement to control women's reproductive systems. The implications of that lack of respect for and diminishment of privacy, individual rights, and human dignity for all people everywhere are intolerable. The focus on controlling women's bodies devalues them as individuals, and as members of society, and the extreme gravity of that injustice strongly compels me to action with or without immediate personal stake in the issue.

It's great to see a young man like MacDougall write about his push to be supportive of choice, and I agree with him that human rights by necessity need to include giving women autonomy over their own bodies.

But then MacDougall writes on how Millennials more broadly perceive choice:

Most of my pro-life peers do not subscribe to the absolutism of the anti-choice fringe, and many will defend others' right to come to their own moral and ethical conclusions just as they did, making them as pro-choice as I am. The principle Voltaire articulated when he said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” is making a great comeback in my generation, as we acknowledge the subjective nature of our own conclusions about how best to think and act.

Unfortunately, I think MacDougall might be overly optimistic in this depiction. His peers may identify as "pro life," but don't want to create public policies that prevent it. That perspective isn't uncommon among those who identify this way. But it is not these more moderate anti-choice folks who are running the show.

The "anti-choice fringe" that MacDougall describes is the part of the anti-choice movement that is the most powerful. They're the ones that push for the so-called personhood amendment to get put on the ballot in Colorado, something that could ultimately outlaw many types of birth control and challenge Roe v. Wade in court. They're the ones that lobbied Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) on the health care reform bill, ultimately causing a compromise on restricting abortion coverage in private insurance.

The "anti-choice fringe" counts on this confusion between personal choice and public policy. The idea is that they will sway voters by making them think about what they personally would do, rather than thinking more broadly about the repercussions of such policies on the lives of women and their partners.

I don't mean to attack MacDougall. I'm really glad he wrote the piece he wrote. As I've said before, I find it really important to include men in the debate on reproductive health issues. I want to encourage him to continue his work in the pro-choice movement as he enters college.

But MacDougall goes on to write, "Tolerance is the greatest weapon against the moral absolutist anti-choice fringe, and most of my generation, both willing to have abortions and not, wield it very well." Perhaps I'm too cynical, but much of the compromises that have happened on choice issues in the last few years have come in the name of trying to seek "common ground." In the end, compromise on abortion means placing real barriers on poor and rural women's access to abortion and other reproductive health services. The term compromise is great until we consider on which points we're actually willing to compromise.

I struggle to think that that tolerance among a movement controlled by those who seek to restrict abortion by any means — even if that translates into increased risk of women's lives and health — are thinking about tolerance in the way that MacDougall is.

Cross posted.

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