Note to Women: Don’t Think! Ross Douthat Is Here to Do It For You

Jodi Jacobson

Women, take off your shoes, get knocked up, and go back to the kitchen, 'cause Ross Douthat will tell us everything we need to know and the world will be a better place.

How is it that people who traffic in discredited data and information get a regular column on the op-ed page of the New York Times?

I don’t know, but Ross Douthat does.
And apparently he also knows better than women, doctors, judges, juries and a range of other people what the real evidence is about abortion and what Dr. Tiller really did. Moreover, he is here to tell us what is morally right and wrong.

Women, take off your shoes, get knocked up, and go back to the kitchen, ’cause Ross will tell us everything we need to know and the world will be a better place.  Remember when the Bush Administration told us that “they would create the reality and we would just report on it?”  Well the far right is there to continue the job, compliments of Douthat and the others in the male pontificator commentariat.

Take today’s piece in the New York Times regarding abortion.

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Douthat first concedes that maybe (just maybe) some of Dr. Tiller’s work was morally ok according to Douthat’s standards.  Then, he basically reverts to the “Tiller was a secret monster” myth by recycling old and completely discredited rumors that Tiller performed late-term abortions for no reason circulated by completely discredited sources, thereby ensuring he maintains his street cred with the right-wing mythmakers.

Finally, he does exactly what the current cult of male pontificators have been doing all week.  First suggesting now that it is undeniable that some abortions are “acceptable” because, as they now must concede, sometimes a woman’s life or health might actually be at risk and some fetuses actually will die at birth or are already dead in the womb.  But….underscoring they still think–in their infinite wisdom–that really some of these late-term abortions must still actually be purely elective (never mind the overwhelming evidence), and all “elective” abortions (read all abortions) should now be called into question and subject to “reasonable regulation.” In other words: the only acceptable abortions are those done for the real reasons according to Douthat and friends.

Over the past week, as women (and their partners) across the country have broken their silence on the heart-rending tragedies of their own late-term abortions–stories of catastrophic fetal anomalies and profound disability among them–most of the male pontificators–the Saletans, Waldmans, and Sullivans among them–have finally had to acknowledge what any real objective journalistic investigation would have revealed long ago: that, hey, maybe in fact real women (with their partners or husbands, families, and clergy in cases where that applies) actually face these circumstances.  Maybe they haven’t been lying after all!

But then, Douthat, who apparently can’t totally accept that many, many people see Dr. Tiller as a moral, ethical and courageous hero, goes on to try to discredit him through innuendo.

Douthat writes:

Tiller did abortions in third trimester, when almost no one else
would do them – which meant, inevitably, that he handled the hardest of
hard cases. He performed abortions on women facing life-threatening
complications, on women whose children would be born dead or dying, on
women who had been raped, on “women” who were really girls of 10. His
Wichita, Kan., office, barricaded against protesters, was reportedly
lined with thank-you notes.

Over the last week, there’s been an outpouring of testimonials,
across the Internet, from women (and some men) who lived through these
hard cases. They help explain why Tiller thought he was doing the
Lord’s work, even though that work involved destroying something that
we wouldn’t hesitate to call a baby if we saw it struggling for life in
a hospital bed. They help explain why so many Americans defend his
right to do it.

But then comes the caveat of innuendo and disproven rumor.   Douthat writes:

But such narratives are not the only story about George Tiller’s
clinic. He was a target of protests — and, tragically, of terrorist
violence — because he performed late-term abortions, period. But his
critics were convinced that he performed them not only in truly
desperate situations, but in many other cases as well. Over the years,
they cobbled together a considerable amount of evidence — drawn from the state’s abortion statistics, from Tiller’s own comments, and from a 2006 investigation — suggesting that Tiller abused the state’s mental-health exemption to justify late-term abortions in almost any situation.

The operative words here would be:

Story” as in fables.

Critics” as in members of the anti-choice lunatic fringe who have claimed all along that Tiller was doing late-term abortions for fun and frolic.

And “cobbled together…evidence,” as in the “evidence” about links between abortion and breast cancer (discredited by actual scientists), connections between abortion and mental health (discredited by actual clinicians) and abortion and infertility (discredited by actual Ob-Gyns), among the range of other evidence offered to us by those credible folks at the American Life League, Operation Rescue, and numerous others.

You know….those credible sources of evidence.

Douthat then goes on to write:

We may never know how many of George Tiller’s abortions were performed on healthy mothers and healthy fetuses. But whatever the verdict on Tiller’s practice, most abortions in the United States bear no resemblance whatsoever to the hardest third-trimester cases.

Which healthy women and which abortions are we talking about here?  Legal first or second trimester abortions? Because those are legal and generally not restricted (except economically and by lack of access to services), and here is where the whole issue is conflated.  By talking about abortions generally, and claiming that Dr. Tiller and others perform abortions generally (surprise!), it is easy to then just conflate abortions performed where no indications are required–remember, again, elective abortion is legal in this country under current law until a certain point–and those that were performed in the later terms of pregnancy under strict regulation by law in Kansas. To wit: If you talk about having performed abortions, you must be talking about having performed later-term abortions for no reason!

Douthat is right: Most abortions in the United States bear no resemblance to late-term abortions. Again, (and again, and again) 90 percent of all abortions occur
before 12 weeks.  That is a good thing.  The earlier the abortion, the easier it is on the woman and the less risky the procedure.  Moreover, it is clear that no one willingly goes through an entire pregnancy only to seek termination in the last trimester barring seriously extenuating circumstances.  And there is, as Roe states, a compelling interest at that point in balancing the rights of the woman in that period against the rights of a viable fetus.  The issue is still: who gets to decide what those exenuating circumstances are in the case of a later abortion and in particular third trimester abortions?  Women, and their partners and their families, under the conditions set forth by the state.  That is why we have laws governing late-term abortion, as ideologically-driven and misguided as some of them nonetheless are. In Kansas, where Dr. Tiller practiced, that decision was left to a woman, her doctor and at least two other doctors to confirm the diagnosis.  No one got there easily as the many stories that continue to be written show.

But Douthat’s comment is intended to divide between what he now feels might be “legitimate” abortions and the “rest of them” and then goes on to imply we should regulate all abortions.

Douthat writes:

Indeed, the argument that some abortions take place in particularly awful, particularly understandable circumstances is not a case against regulating abortion. It’s the beginning of precisely the kind of reasonable distinction-making that would produce a saner, stricter legal regime.

This is revealing and I think we should all brace ourselves for the cultivation of this argument….indeed the flipping of a long-standing argument put forth by the male pontificators who have been arguing against late-term abortions because they were sure these were “elective” but now see undeniable evidence of “justifiable cause” when the woman’s life is at risk or the fetus is dead or seriously disabled, but who may now argue, as Douthat does inherently, that “elective abortions” (read all other abortions) are the whimsy of irresponsible women.

Wait for it.

Douthat’s swipe at Tiller is disingenuous for several reasons.  First, no abortion for any reason including the life
of the mother is acceptable to fanatical anti-choice groups.  Douthat, if you read between the lines, suggests that no abortion is acceptable to him unless there is a threat to the woman’s life.

Second, he uses the term “abortion” as a broad brush to perpetuate innuendo against Dr. Tiller that is long ago discredited by juries, medical professionals throughout the country and women and men who sought his services.  I have no idea how many first trimester abortions Dr. Tiller might have performed.  But that is beside the point because that is legal and not in question.  But to say he performed and talked about performing “abortions” generally and then to imply that means he actually peformed late-term procedures without justification is bad journalism at best and intellectually dishonest.

It also flouts the evidence.  Kansas has very strict laws governing late-term abortion, and Dr. Tiller was several times accused and never found guilty of any violation of the law.  Ever.  He was most recently subjected to this harassment by a politically motivated Attorney General who failed earlier this year to convict Tiller of anything.  So exactly which evidence is it that has been cobbled together and by whom specifically that Douthat feels compelled to place on the op-ed page of the New York Times without examination or critique?  Luckily, for him, it appears his position does not require he actually provide evidence….just allude to it.

I won’t even bother here to take on Douthat’s disingenuous disposition on dilation and extraction abortions–misleadingly branded by the far right with another term that you all know and which bears so little relation to the actual medical practice I won’t force myself to legitimize it by repeating it here–nor his obvious lack of thought on how the complete politicization and politically motivated efforts of a few led to bans on a medical procedure safer for many women undergoing later-term abortion than any other procedure.  Understanding those issues clearly are too much of an intellectual exercise for Douthat.

But what I have learned from watching the reactions of guys like Douthat is how little they listen, and how little they learn, even when faced with overwhelming evidence.  I do know that pro-choice advocates have to re-energize our efforts to keep all abortions safe and legal, because the consequences, facts, and realities of last week’s events apparently still have not sunk in among many in the so-called intelligentsia.


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