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.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

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