Salon Editor-in-Chief Joan Walsh's Friday appearance on The O'Reilly Factor — beyond giving O'Reilly himself yet another opportunity to be heart-stoppingly offensive — revealed some of the biggest problems with the abortion debate today, including the focus on "abortion reduction."
The Huffington Post's Jason Linkins is correct that O'Reilly's most ludicrous moment came when he leveled a direct accusation at Walsh, saying, "My constitutional rights say I can say what I say, you can say what you say, as vile as you say it, you can say it, and I would never condemn you for saying it. You are misguided, you have blood on your hands because you portrayed this man as a hero." But he made a number of more insidious points. First (at around minute 1:30) he said that Tiller charged $6,000 per abortion and "became a millionaire doing it." Walsh argued with O'Reilly about his figures — and in her column about the show, she explained that Tiller sometimes waived his fee — but really the numbers are beside the point. We wouldn't expect an oncologist to work pro bono, so why would we expect Tiller not to charge for his — by all accounts difficult and complicated — services? Presumably because abortion is a special category of medical procedure, one so objectionable that doctors shouldn't have the right to get paid for it.
In the wake of Tiller's assassination, this stigma against abortion in the medical world is getting some well-deserved attention. Reuters reports that assaults on abortion clinics — there have been 67 in the first half of 2009 alone — may be keeping new doctors from entering the area. And in her excellent Salon piece on the "next generation of abortion providers," Kate Harding writes that although abortion is "the second most common outpatient procedure in the U.S.," a third of med students get no training in the procedure at all. She allows that, "given that many students won't pursue specialties that would involve providing abortions, and even those who go into family practice or obstetrics and gynecology might choose not to offer abortions, you could also argue that it's a waste of time in an already overburdened curriculum." But really, not offering abortion training may just perpetuate a vicious cycle, in which fewer students receive exposure to abortion issues and techniques, and fewer and fewer doctors choose to offer the procedure as a result. Excluding abortion from the medical school curriculum just encourages people to view it as less legitimate than other medical procedures, something doctors can get away with ignoring, and something they'd better do out of the goodness of their hearts if they do it at all. In an ideal world, everyone would have access to low-cost, comprehensive healthcare, including abortion — but even in that world, doctors should still get paid.
The second deeply upsetting point O'Reilly made has to do with why Tiller's clients sought abortions. He maintained that "Tiller was aborting late-term fetuses for casual reasons." He then called in Dr. Paul McHugh, head of the Psychiatric School at Johns Hopkins University (a title O'Reilly repeated several times, as though it qualified Dr. McHugh to pass judgment on women's choices), who made some vague claims about Tiller offering abortions so that women could "go to concerts" or "take part in sports." Walsh rightly disputed whether McHugh should be the one deciding what's best for women, but when O'Reilly pressured her on late-term abortion she said,"I believe that late-term abortion, under the current circumstances, to save the life of the mother, should be legal." She also said she's working for "abortion reduction."
It's become popular for liberals to say they're in favor of reducing the number of abortions, but this is an area where the left is letting the right define the terms of the debate. Frances Kissling in Salon explains how this has happened:
Recognizing that they probably won't succeed in making abortion illegal, the Democrats' faith-based allies decided that they could still use their moral disapproval to shape policy. They asserted that the number of abortions that takes place in America constitutes a moral tragedy and called for initiatives that would reduce the number of abortions. According to their mind-set, this was common ground, an abortion-neutral prescription for ending the culture war.
But "abortion reduction" is not an "abortion-neutral prescription." It's a prescription that assumes that some abortions are okay, but that some women and girls in America are getting abortions who should not be getting them, and that we need to put a stop to this. On the one hand, reliable birth control and sex education are obviously preferable to unwanted pregnancy, and most people who seek common ground would agree that improving access to these would be good for everybody. But there's a more disturbing corollary to the abortion reduction argument — the idea that some reasons for getting an abortion are better than others, and that it's acceptable to try to keep women from getting abortions for "casual reasons." This is what Ayelet Waldman found objectionable about the website A Heartbreaking Choice — the idea that some abortions are justified (in AHC's case, because of fetal abnormalities) while some are not.
If we start condemning abortions for reasons we deem casual, if we think of abortion as something that should only happen under conditions we deem appropriately dire, then we, like Dr. McHugh, place ourselves in judgment of women. If we truly want to preserve a woman's right to choose what to do with her body, we need to accept that sometimes women will abort for reasons we might not agree with. Really, being pro-choice doesn't mean thinking every abortion is a good idea. It means realizing that the only person who should truly have the right to determine whether it's a good idea is the mother, and protecting her rights means allowing her to make decisions we might not necessarily support. If "abortion reduction" means teaching people to protect themselves so they don't get pregnant in the first place, great. But if it means reducing the number of circumstances under which abortion is sanctioned — whether those circumstances include the life of the mother, the health of the fetus, or the duration of the pregnancy — then abortion reduction is really not a pro-choice position, because it takes the choice out of the hands of the mother, where, ultimately, it belongs.
Is there a next generation of abortion providers? [Salon]
How to talk about abortion [Salon]
O'Reilly Rages Against Joan Walsh Over Tiller Murder (VIDEO) [Huffington Post]
Threats, violence seen eroding U.S. abortion rights [Reuters]
Why I went on "The O'Reilly Factor" [Salon]