I’m often asked whether I support Sarah Palin for president. I don’t. But I do very much support her as America’s next Oprah. Her cultural antennae are exquisitely sensitive, and she relishes combat. “Sarah’s book club” would be an improvement.
After a recent speech in which she argued that “choosing life may not be the easiest path, but it’s always the right path,” the Washington Post Web edition invited responses. Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America, thundered that “Palin calls herself a ‘frontier feminist,’ but she sounds more like a Pat Robertson feminist.” Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary, noted that “A woman’s life is a human life: Those who would deny women the right to moral autonomy, the ability to engage in moral reasoning about whether to continue a pregnancy to term or to have an abortion, develop their arguments based on assumptions of women’s moral ineptitude.”
Debra Haffner, of the Religious Institute, wrote, “In more than 30 years of working with women struggling with the question of continuing a pregnancy to term or having an abortion, I can think of fewer than a handful who approached the decision lightly. Almost every woman wrestled with what would be best in her individual circumstances, and with what her faith taught her.”
This is fatuous moral reasoning. Thistlethwaite suggests that to oppose abortion on moral grounds is to “deny women the right to moral autonomy.” Rights talk, as Mary Ann Glendon has observed, has invaded every arena of American life and impoverished civic discourse. Of course women are moral actors. But what is “moral autonomy”? Is it a new right to make immoral choices without being criticized? Does it apply in areas beyond abortion? Do laws against prostitution or baby selling compromise women’s “moral autonomy”? Do all laws?
Haffner’s argument is also familiar – not to say hackneyed. We’ve heard it many times. Abortion is an “agonizing personal choice.” Women struggle with the decision. Well, some doubtless do agonize, but, let’s face it, many do not. Feminist writer Naomi Wolf admitted in 2004 that, “I used to think of abortion as being somewhat trivial; the moral equivalent of serious root canal dentistry.” A recent survey by the Allan Guttmacher Institute found that 50 percent of women undergoing abortions each year are having their second or more. If the process of deciding on abortion were truly that wrenching, repeat abortions would not be nearly as common.
But, in any case, agony is irrelevant. If, before robbing a bank, the thief agonizes about the act, does that make the decision a moral one? Is it a “very personal choice” whether to libel someone?
Shall we say that making insider trading illegal compromises people’s “moral autonomy”? These terms are designed to obscure the issue rather than clarify it.
Though the pro-life position continues to be characterized by the press as marginal, it has in fact become the majority view. A 2009 Gallup poll found that 51 percent of Americans described themselves as “pro-life” versus 45 percent saying they are “pro-choice.” This year’s poll saw some narrowing, but with the pro-life position still outnumbering pro-choice. Only 38 percent of respondents said abortion was “morally acceptable.” The poll also found that young people, ages 18 to 29, were much more likely to say that they oppose abortion in all circumstances today than a decade ago (1 in 4, versus 1 in 7). National Abortion Rights Action League president Nancy Keenan has noticed this collapse of support among the young, even referring to herself and her contemporaries as the “postmenopausal militia.”
Partisans among the press, meanwhile, continue their rear guard actions, making themselves ridiculous with semantic gymnastics. It is not abortion; it’s “reproductive choice” or “abortion rights.” The New York Times consistently skirts the term “partial birth abortion” as in this story about Sen. Blanche Lincoln: “Even Emily’s List … joined the pile-on last week, reminding followers that it stopped supporting Mrs. Lincoln … after she voted to ban a form of late-term abortion in 1999.” A form.
For decades, feminists have argued that the unfettered discretion to harm their unborn children was the foundational women’s “right.” The law has changed little in that time, but the psychological shift has been significant. The number of annual abortions has been steadily declining since 1981, and polls suggest that people see through such cynical manipulations as calling abortion “choice.”
By provoking their ire, Palin reminds us of the shallowness of the “pro-choice” case.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.