Choice and Ethics: Discuss Amongst Yourselves

Frances Kissling

Opinions about the expression of ethical obligations as part of choice discourse are highly varied in the movement. Can we not rationally discuss these opposing views, fleshing out the pros and cons?

I just caught a segment of Hardball in which Chris Matthews talked with Will Saletan of Slate and Ken Blackwell of the Family Research Council about Will’s New York Times op-ed on responsibility and contraception. Will is hawking a tough message: pro-choice on abortion but heavy on the moral responsibility to avoid pregnancy when you don’t want to have a baby. It’s head and shoulders above the phony prevention message of those who are anti-abortion and can’t say the "C word" (contraception) or talk about sex, but it is difficult to make clear that abortion is a morally justifiable choice if one is pregnant and doesn’t want to or can’t have a baby, but is morally complex enough that it’s a very good idea to work really hard to prevent it.

On MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews Slate’s Will Saletan and Family Research Council’s Ken Blackwell, debate how to get past the culture wars and whether there’s an ethical responsibility to use contraception.

Will got trapped twice. Once when Matthews pushed the idea that contraception was a lesser evil to abortion, and Will agreed – I’m sure he doesn’t think contraception is anything other than an unmitigated social and moral good. And again when he fell into an ill-defined notion of discouraging abortion. I take these moments with a grain of salt; talking about morality on political talk shows is a no-win situation, but one that cannot and should not be avoided. We just need to get better at it every time. Moreover, those of us who are pro-choice feel stung whenever anyone suggests there is something we need to change and we tend to forget the tough message Will is sending to the Catholic Church and so-called progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis. To them he is saying unequivocally: stop talking about prevention without contraception. This was the strong point of his Hardball appearance. A straightforward acceptance of sexuality as part of the human condition – and a good part.

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I’d missed Will’s Times piece on the issue but caught Jodi Jacobson’s reaction and the comments on Rewire last week.  I found the Rewire article and discussion disturbing, but decided not weigh in.  Listening to the Hardball discussion made me reconsider. Now, let me confess I am not a Chris Matthews fan and I am both a friend of Will’s and in general agreement with his position on abortion. I say generally, because unless one believes that either fetuses or women have an absolute right to life or to abortion, none of us, even within the pro-choice community, is going to agree 100%. Sometimes Will annoys me because he seems to undercut his own position with those of us who are pro-choice by using too broad a brush and coming down too hard on us. And we in turn beat him up.

Here is where I understand Will to stand on abortion. (I ran this section by him about an hour ago and he says I got it right). He is pro-choice. He believes it is a woman’s legal right to choose to end a pregnancy and that abortion can be a morally justifiable act. To say it is a morally justifiable act is not to say that every decision to have an abortion is moral (a position some in the pro-choice community seem to take) but rather to say that since it can be either moral or immoral and the lines are difficult to draw in the abstract, it is best not to legally second guess a woman’s decision to continue or end a pregnancy. This does not mean that one should be silent about moral matters or refrain from offering a vision of when and under what circumstances abortion is morally – or if you prefer the cooler word ethically – responsible sexual and reproductive behavior. On issues of moral significance, the public wants to know what movement leaders believe, what values they have. And those of us who lead the movement have an obligation to speak to these concerns.

Now, Will takes fetal life seriously, more seriously than many of us in the movement and more seriously than many ethicists and theologians do. He thinks there is something important to society about the way we collectively and individually approach and treat the fetus. He even has some queasy thoughts about destroying early embryos to create stem cells. That means that he thinks at a minimum men and women ought to try not to create embryos or fetuses that they are likely to have to terminate and that health care professionals have a serious obligation to work with people to help them understand and accomplish that (if they themselves believe that). It may be moral for women to terminate those embryos and fetuses (I would say it is very often morally justifiable), but it would be morally preferable for both the person and society if one did not face that situation.

Let us be clear. We may all not agree with Will’s position or mine, but they are respectable views that deserve to be treated seriously and civilly. They can be critiqued, analyzed, questioned, and rejected for other views. But to treat them as "insulting to women" or ill-informed is not helpful or justified. Hurling invective does not contribute to furthering the cause of choice. Our movement has suffered many losses and has experienced an erosion of public support. The President we elected holds some of these views himself and has embarked on an approach to abortion that some of us find, to be kind, confusing. To refuse to find what is useful in the approach or thinking of outsiders who are more with us than against us would be a costly error. And, to be frank, I found Jodi’s response over the top in invective and lacking in necessary balance. This is the risk of blogging. One does not read and re-read; one does not reflect, one just cries out in pain. There is a place for that, once in awhile.

Will’s central point, aimed at those of us who are pro-choice, is that we need to think about contraception, preventing unintended pregnancy, as an ethical obligation and as leaders of the reproductive health and rights movement we should not shy away from expressing that value. There are at least two reactions to this. Agreement: I find that it treats women as competent moral agents who can hear and either accept or reject moral opinion or disagreement. We are all subject to social discourse about what is right and wrong and that is a good thing. Those on Wall Street should be subject to more of it, as should our military men and women. Disagreement: It is none of our business to preach to women. Women already know what is and is not responsible.

Will contends that there is some evidence that a significant number of women do not seem to know or have not accepted that creating a fetus is a significant moral decision to be entered into consciously and with self-reflection on the consequences. He cites Guttmacher Institute data that shows that a substantial number of women were not using and did not consider using contraception in the month they became pregnant, although they knew it existed. Jodi does not directly address that data, but offers an alternative view of why women don’t use contraception, which diminishes women’s responsibility and places the blame on the structure, system, cost, opposition, pickets, etc.

Jodi was "insulted" (more than once in the piece) by Saletan’s demand that "reproductive health counselors must speak bluntly to women who are having unprotected sex." What, she asked, does he think they do? Here was another missed opportunity. Rather than going into high gear defense of counselors, one might ask why Saletan has this view. Is there any merit to it? Having been in a room with Will and 30 leaders in the abortion rights movement and heard a number of them speak out against the introduction of a stronger ethic of personal responsibility into the choice message as well as in counseling, there is some reason for Will to believe there is a lack of commitment in some segments of the movement to this kind of discourse or to personal responsibility as a value. In a follow-up piece on his column, Will made this clearer noting that counselors do indeed give medical information about pregnancy prevention, which he distinguishes from ethical guidance.

Opinions about the expression of ethical obligations as part of choice discourse are highly varied in the movement. Again, there are respectable differences of opinion and one should be no more insulted that some leaders believe we have no business expressing our moral or ethical views to patients or the public than others are insulted that some believe it is the obligation of professionals and social movement leaders to offer patients their best advice and to express their moral views. I for one want to know what my doctor believes about these issues and I want to go to a doctor who respects and seeks out my views. Yet I also understand that not all women have my power to negotiate medical care. Can we not rationally discuss these opposing views, fleshing out the pros and cons?

Rewire is a great place for these conversations to take place, but an editorial ethos that seeks light and not heat is essential to making that a reality.

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