A Guide to Anti-Choice Concern Trolling

If you're a supporter of reproductive rights in the United States, you're forced to endure various forms of concern trolling. The centrist form, perfected by Slate's Will Saletan, exhorts supporters of abortion rights to concede that abortions are icky and that the good faith of people who support criminalizing abortion must be conceded even when their arguments are a moral, political, and legal shambles. While outright opponents of abortion rights are certainly willing to use these techniques, they have innovations of their own. The concern-troll-in-chief for opponents of reproductive rights is Ross Douthat of The New York Times. Last weekend's manifestation is a particularly good example, both because the arguments are relatively sophisticated and because Douthat is frequently generous enough to provide the material that refutes his own arguments.

So, as a public service, I use Douthat's latest column to provide a handy guide to the pillars of anti-choice concern trolling, and, more important, why they're wrong.

But Even Europe Has Much More Restrictive Abortion Policy!

Republicans rarely invoke the superiority of European policy, but when it comes to abortion they're often willing to make a (misleading) exception. In defense of the draconian new abortion regulations passed in Texas, Douthat observes that "France, Germany and Italy all ban abortions after the first trimester, and impose waiting periods as well." In a past argument he shrewdly omits this time, he's contrasted allegedly restrictive European policy with "absolutist" protections of abortion rights in the United States, an argument that even before the most recent wave of anti-abortion regulations in the United States had the disadvantage of being transparently wrong.

Even without the gross mischaracterization of American abortion policy, however, the comparison fails because it doesn't put European abortion restrictions in the appropriate context. You can't discuss the restrictive aspects of abortion policy in some European countries without acknowledging other policies that make abortion more accessible. Adopting French abortion policy would require not only additional regulations on abortion in some states and fewer in others; we'd need to repeal of the Hyde Amendment and enact provisions to make abortion providers much more accessible in general.

Similarly, one cannot simply compare the language of statutes without considering how they are implemented. A waiting period requirement works very differently in a context in which most women can obtain safe abortions for free at local public hospitals and are protected by labor laws than in a context where many women live hundreds of miles from the nearest abortion provider and can be fired at will for missing a day of work. Counseling requirements work differently in countries where there isn't a large, politically potent anti-choice lobby dedicated to ensuring that doctors "inform" their patients with scientifically inaccurate anti-choice propaganda. And so on.

While French abortion policy is far from ideal, I would certainly prefer French abortion policy as a whole to the policy in most American states—and despite their use of "eventheliberalEurope" as a rhetorical cudgel, most American anti-choicers would never consider supporting such a thing.

The "Late Term" Bait and Switch

Since this is a centerpiece of abortion concern-trolling of both the center and right, it's worth noting the subtle transition in Douthat's argument. Douthat accurately notes that in addition to bans on abortion after 20 weeks, the new Texas law contains regulations designed to shut down many abortion clinics altogether. But when comparing Texas to France and Germany, only the former remain. This is a common tactic—use regulations on the small minority of late-term abortions (which, if unlike Texas's they apply after viability and exclude abortions that are medically necessary, are already permitted by Roe v. Wade) as a wedge to pass a bunch of regulations that apply at every stage of pregnancy. This bait and switch is worse than a non sequitur. Shutting down safe abortion clinics and creating an obstacle course of arbitrary regulations makes first-trimester abortions harder to obtain. When you see the American abortion debate defined as a debate about regulating late-term abortions, you're being sold a bill of goods. The attempt to use the Gosnell clinic as a pretext for abortion regulations that would have done nothing to stop Gosnell is a classic example.

What About Ireland?

Perhaps not wanting readers to think too hard about his other European comparisons, Douthat proceeds with admirable candor to Ireland. While conceding that most countries with restrictive abortion regulations have appalling records on human rights more generally, he points to Ireland as evidence that restrictive abortion policies are not always incompatible with decent advancements of women otherwise.

The obvious problem is that bans on abortion aren't bad only because they usually reflect more general patriarchal conceptions of gender relations; they are in themselves reactionary restrictions of the rights of women. Rather than comparing American abortion policy to Ireland, we should compare it to abortion policy in Canada or the Netherlands, in which accessible abortion without arbitrary regulations has not led to any of the allegedly bad consequences imagined in the fevered imaginations of American anti-choicers.

Abortion Bans Are Republican Policy for a Reason

In the midst of his comparison of Irish and Texan abortion policy, Douthat leaves an absolutely crucial admission hanging there: "Even if abortion were somehow banned outright in Texas tomorrow, it would still be available to women with the resources to travel out of state." Needless to say, Douthat doesn't develop the implications of this fact further, so I'll do it for him. The abortion bans Douthat favors are, in practice, not so much bans on abortion as bans on abortion for the nonaffluent. Wherever they're enacted, bans on abortion don't make safe abortions inaccessible for all women; they make them inaccessible for women who lack connections to a private physician or lack the resources to travel to jurisdictions where abortion is legal. The abortion policy favored by wealthy Republicans in practice isn't so much "abortion should be illegal" as "abortion should be illegal but not so illegal that my wife/mistress/daughter couldn't get one."

Douthat makes no attempt to actually defend this grossly inequitable policy preference, presumably for the same reason Chief Justice Roberts made no serious attempt to defend the proposition that the Voting Rights Act violates the "equal sovereignty of the states"—it can't be defended. Whatever one's belief about the morality of abortion, "safe abortions for rich women but not poor women" is an immoral answer.

Progressives Should Favor Policies They Already Favor!

Douthat adds a new twist to this longtime concern-troll favorite. The centrist variant on this is to lecture supporters of reproductive freedom that accessible contraception can reduce abortion rates as if one had just discovered the meaning of the universe. (A lot of abortion centrists apparently believe that John Kyl's description of what Planned Parenthood does was intended to be a factual statement.) Douthat's approach is to offer a false choice between Medicaid expansion and accessible abortion for all women:

It suggests, for instance, that liberal donors and activists should be spending more time rallying against Perry’s refusal to take federal Medicaid financing than around Wendy Davis’s famous filibuster.

It implies that the quest to “turn Texas blue” should make economic policy rather than late-term abortion its defining issue.

The rather obvious answer here is "why not both?" It's worth noting that the Affordable Care Act—which Douthat, of course, opposed, and to which supporters of reproductive rights lent essential support—contained mechanisms that would have made refusing the Medicaid expansion much more difficult, only to be thwarted by the Supreme Court.

Douthat's arguments here are directed to the wrong party. Virtually all progressive supporters of reproductive freedom also support better health care for the nonaffluent as well as a variety of other policies that would support parents. The Republican Party, meanwhile, gets ever closer to exemplifying Barney Frank's dictum that for conservatives, life begins at conception and ends at birth.

In addition, it's wrong to see these as distinct policies—access to safe abortions is an essential part of ensuring quality medical care for women, not an alternative to it. Douthat, meanwhile, is consistent the other way; he believes that the state should force poor women to carry pregnancies to term. As long as he supports putting contemporary Republicans into power at the state or federal level, his health care offer to nonaffluent women is "nothing," despite any denials he may continue to unspool in his column.

In short, Douthat's concern trolling consists entirely of false comparisons meant to conceal bad policy prescriptions. Pay attention to discourse about abortion policy, and you'll hear plenty more like it.

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