Waldman and Saletan: Oh What A Fine Bromance!

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Waldman and Saletan: Oh What A Fine Bromance!

Jodi Jacobson

In "Two men, No Uterus," Will Saletan and Steve Waldman spent as much time as possible complimenting each other's work and as little as possible on real substance.  In the end they suggest that "common ground" is a political football game based on a fake play.

"Two men, No Uterus" was the name given by Will
Saletan and Steve Waldman to their June 22nd mutual-admiration-society
blogging heads chat on "common ground," in what I suppose was an effort to be cute.  During the hour-plus program, they
spent as much time as possible complimenting each other’s work and as
little as possible on any real substance regarding reproductive health and choice issues.  The half-effort to be politically incorrect in the program’s title is in keeping with the general approach both men bring to these issues: In their writing, both are alternatively sensationalist, sexist,
fickle, and moralistic. They try hard to be provocative, always provoking for the sake of it, not for the purpose of advancing real issues. 

These two are so clearly in love with themselves and each other it was a bit difficult to watch the whole "diavlog."  And it is clear that the Obama Administration’s stated intention to
create "a common ground platform" on abortion has become a full employment program for both Waldman and Saletan.  So perhaps the most striking thing about the conversation was that, in the end,
they both effectively concluded that the common ground enterprise was a
"just for show" political strategy, and that the real
strategies required to reduce the need for abortion are the very prevention programs least likely to be supported by the far right.  (Revelation!)  However, they came to this conclusion through the same faux-expert uninformed arguments that characterize their columns.

During the Will-interviews-Steve format, Saletan revealed once again that there is no core philosophy or framework underlying his ever-shifting positions on choice and abortion (One day he’s pro-choice, the next he is on Hardball calling contraception the "lesser of two evils."  The day after that he calls providers "abortionists" and scolds pro-choice advocates for not recognizing the "moral implications" of abortion. On blogging heads we had the pro-choice Will Saletan.  It is sometimes hard to keep track.) 

Waldman, for his part, several times underscored what is clear from
reading his work: that he just throws things "out there" without considered thought about what might be good versus bad data, not understanding how to read evidence, and oblivious or uncaring about the effects his free-form moralistic misinformation and opinions might actually have on an already polarized debate.  Public policies affecting sexual and reproductive health issues should be based first and foremost on public health and on promoting individual rights balanced by individual responsibilities.  But as anyone living on Planet Earth knows, sex and reproduction have become the front in a war waged by ultra-conservative religious and political forces for which Waldman serves as a paid flacky.  In fact, Waldman himself stated during the program: "I have a corporate interest in injecting religion into every debate."

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Reading and watching this duo is like buying the OK! magazine version of the culture wars at the grocery store; they put whatever sells on the front cover, no matter the truth or consequences.  One day the actress in question is anorexic, the next day she is too fat.  The info and the standards just keep shifting to sell the blogs.

But I still
can’t decide what is most troubling about Saletan and Waldman. 

Is it their
individual and collective smugness as they pontificate and appear to revel in being superficially controversial about an issue
so critical to women’s lives yet about which they clearly know so little
and understand less? 

Is it that in doing so they claim a public platform from which they constantly speak about women in ways that are so demeaning yet so steeped in their own self-created "aura of
expertise" that I feel I’ve been slimed by Ghostbusters?

Is it that they wring their hands about whether women recognize the moral dimensions of abortion more often than a dobi wallah wrings clothing dry in Mumbai?

Is it that neither one has a core philosophy from which they build consistent arguments, generally don’t bother with evidence and freely contradict themselves without so much as a brief acknowledgement they’ve just shifted 180 degrees?  

Or is it that they have no sense whatsoever of the history of this issue and so keep "discovering" and taking credit for suggesting strategies to reduce unintended pregnancies and by extension abortions for which pro-choice advocates have been fighting strenuously for decades?

In one of his recent columns, for example, Waldman decided as though it were news that perhaps making early abortion as accessible as possible might be a good strategy.  Gee, really?  I think I have heard that somewhere before.  And….Steve….how does that square with those "reasonable restrictions" on abortion like parental notification and waiting periods which only serve to delay the procedure until later? 

In the aftermath of the murder of Dr. Tiller, both Waldman and Saletan seemed taken aback by the fact that women seeking late abortions actually had "legitimate" reasons to do so. 
Shouldn’t respected journalists/researchers/writers have done this research themselves?  They were among those decrying women who opted for late abortions for spurious reasons (according to them of course), and so both of them helped create a public climate in which both women undergoing the excruciating decision to end a wanted pregnancy due to catastrophic fetal anomalies and the doctors who served them were made out to be the moral equivalents of Charles Manson.  Why didn’t they have a better understanding of these issues before they wrote about them?

A few highlights from their duet on Blogging Heads.

Waldman suggests that opposition to contraception and abortion are not connected, revealing a lack of nuanced understanding of the issues at stake in the debate about women’s rights to choose. He states:

What I would like to hear "on the pro-life side, what I wished I could hear was a recognition that contraception has to be part of the solution and in a way disentangling of conservatives views about contraception from their views about abortion" [because] a lot of [the pro-life’s side’s] opposition to contraception is for reasons that are philosophical, theological, not actually related to their opposition to abortion."

Say what?  You mean the right’s opposition to contraception is
"philosophical, theological," but its opposition to abortion is not? 
If the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception is not based in
its own reading of theology and philosophy than where does it come

In fact, opposition to both contraception and abortion are central to the agenda of anti-choice groups and are seamlessly connected.  If this was not the case, we wouldn’t constantly be engaged in debates about whether access to contraceptives leads to promiscuity and moral corruption and actually leads people to have more sex (oh, no!).  But Waldman and Saletan glide over the conflation by the far right of many  forms of contraception with abortion.  If the right does not oppose these methods in the same way they do abortion, why do we have to fight to ensure pharmacists will fill legal prescriptions?  Why is there a "Pill Kills" campaign; why are clinics that provide contraceptives but not abortion services also picketed? 

To his credit, Saletan this time expressed frustration with the right’s opposition to contraception.  They both then agreed to the obvious: "if you can’t get past the contraceptive thing, it really does get hard to do  common ground." Revelation number 2.

Waldman stunningly suggests that, in return for accepting contraception as part of a common ground package, the "pro-choice movement" should be willing to embrace comprehensive approaches to sex and prevention (!).

One area where I always thought…the pro-choice folks could give a little bit is…as i understand it…there is more or less a consensus that ABC is the best..most effective way of family planning, meaning birth control and abstinence teaching [together], and the pro-choice emphasis, the liberal emphasis has been on how silly abstinence-only is.  But having abstinence as an important part of family planning would seem to be somehthng that liberals ought to agree on and if they would kind of raise their voice on that that might buy a certain amount of good will with pro-life folks.

Give a little bit???   Memo to Steve: Comprehensive sex education programs were created by public health experts and the pro-choice movement and have always (always, always) included information and training on abstinence and delay of sexual intitiation for teens.  We do not need to "accept this" in return for anything because it is at the core of every comprehensive sex ed curriculum.  But the right is so determined to ensure the public debate on this is muddled, so they deliberately ignore these facts and keep talking about the "denigration of abstinence."  While Saletan did acknolwedge this tactic by the right, the fact that Waldman raised it shows how little he really knows about these issues.

On the program, however, no distinction was made about whether they were talking about encouraging abstinence and delay of sex for teens, or abstinence for everyone, including adults.  The religious right, including many commentors on Rewire, wants adults to practice abstinence even within marriage, instead of "taking chances" with contraceptives.  But is it anyone’s business whether mature adults are engaged in consensual sexual relationships? It is not the job of the government nor of family planning clinics to stop adults from having sex, and it is not the job of "common ground" proposals to tell adults how to live their sex lives.   

Saletan then discovers that the pro-choice community actually supports the "pretty old-fashioned notion" that you should treat sex with respect.  Funny….the phrase "Respect Yourself" has been at the core of many pro-choice campaigns so it is no revelation that responsible sexual behavior is a pro-choice position.  Look at the body of work by Advocates for Youth, Planned Parenthood, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, for just a few examples. 

Waldman suggests we set up a Presidential commission to study the "sacredness of sex" and that the President start to talk about this as part of his platform.

What can I say?  If I want the government to tell me how and what to think about sex, then I’ll buy a plane ticket to Afghanistan and live under the original Taliban.  Americans can figure out what is sacred to them according to and within their own religious traditions.  We don’t need a Presidential commission.  Freedom of religion, remember?  

Both Saletan and Waldman engage in a long back and forth on the differences between a focus on "reducing unintended pregnancies," and by extension the demand for abortion, and "reducing the number of abortions." 

Neither of them gets it.  Reducing the number of abortions without first focusing on unintended pregnancies can only be achieved by coercive measures or through pressure that further limits women’s access to safe services.  Reducing the number of unintended pregnancies will, in the long run, reduce the number of abortions overall.  Abortion rates have in fact been declining.  But there will always be abortions and there will always be a need for safe services.  What is our goal here?  The far right wants no abortions whatsoever, the pro-choice side wants to reduce unintended pregnancies and other adverse outcomes of unprotected sex.  If we focus on the number of abortions per se, we will have no real yardstick by which to measure where we are going and when we actually get there.

But Saletan and Waldman conclude "it doesn’t matter" on which outcome the common ground proposal expected to come out of the White House focuses because "we have a pro-choice president."

News flash: The President will in the end have very little control over what happens with any common ground proposal unless the White House is dedicated to devoting considerable time and political capital to the issues once any proposal leaves the Oval Office and hits Congress.  The far right in Congress, along with increasing efforts at the state level to limit women’s access to contraceptives and safe abortion services and to confer "personhood" on fertilized eggs all threaten to severely diminish women’s access to both contraception and abortion.  Far too much emphasis is being put on an "inside the beltway" strategy in which even the parties involved don’t agree on what constitutes a "pregnancy," whether it is ok for consenting adults to have sex, and whether birth control pills are abortifacients.  The Administration has gone down the wrong path on this effort and should have focused from the beginning on strengthening prevention efforts and now even the Waldmans and Saletans recognize this.

Adoption.  This was perhaps the single most telling part of the conversation.  Two goals of the far right are to promote adoption as an alternative to abortion, and to provide "economic support" to women seeking an abortion such that they decide to keep their child.

Waldman suggests helpfully that maybe we could give women $1000.00 (do I hear $1500.00? do I hear $2000.00?) a piece to give their babies up for adoption.  They debate whether this would be enough.  Saletan raises the obvious question: Isn’t this like a government-sponsored surrogacy program?  Their discussion made it sound more to me like selling babies with the government as the broker.

And both agreed that economic supports won’t actually do much to reduce the number of women seeking abortions.  Instead, they conclude, stunningly, it really is about prevention and contraceptive availability after all but debate whether "the public" will in the end want to see "the pretty stuff," like a couple holding their newly adopted baby in a commercial in the next Presidential election.

This whole conversation confirmed my own fears.  Like I said last week: This isn’t about what women need for healthy, safe, reproductive and sexual lives; it’s not about public health or human rights; its not about the health of women or their children or their families, and it focuses on the wrong part of the process.  Even Waldman and Saletan, (who now complains about "abortion fatigue) see this as a political football game based largely on a fake play.  The real question is: Will they call the game as they see it now, or continue to provoke for the sake of provocation?