I realize the France Kissling really wants the conference she helped organize at Princeton, called “Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair-Minded Words”, to have been a success that actually advanced the debate about reproductive rights. But her summary of the conference at Salon demonstrated the futility of “moderation,” “common ground,” or whatever code word is being used to imply there’s a way to speak to anti-choice fanatics that will bring them around to supporting at least some of the pro-choice platform for better health care for women. Part of the problem is that it’s impossible to have a dialogue with someone who refuses to speak honestly about their positions. As long as anti-choicers continue promoting the fraudulent idea that they’re in this for “life”, when they are clearly in it to oppose sexual liberation and women’s rights, there cannot be any dialogue. Talking to liars isn’t a dialogue.
Kissling’s observations demonstrate this futility, even as she claims that progress was made. Take this, for instance:
Garrow, in turn, used the “C” word, closing off dialogue with the “Catholics” who oppose abortion by claiming that their goal was not the protection of life, but outlawing contraception and moralizing about sex and gays. And while that is certainly true in Catholic officialdom, the sighs from the audience made clear that for many Catholics and evangelicals, banning birth control is the furthest thing from their minds.
Hey, Kissling was there and I wasn’t, but I still feel another interpretation would be a smarter one. Maybe they were sighing because they don’t want you bringing up inconvenient facts that distort their deceptive narrative, not because they have no intention of banning contraception. The ugly, brutal reality is that anti-choice activists rarely stick to just waxing poetic about how they love fetuses so damn much. Reading this, you’d think the people out there organizing against contraception access were an entirely different group of people from the fetus people, but that isn’t so. Take, for instance, the money spent by anti-abortion groups in Austin on making PSAs scolding young people for having sex. I’ll start believing anti-choicers aren’t anti-sex the day they stop freaking out over the fact that other people are out there having sex without their explicit permission, which I don’t imagine they’d ever really offer anyway.
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But the dishonesty of anti-choicers doesn’t even stop at the demands that pro-choicers pretend that they’re not organizing against contraception, even though they obviously are. It also extends to discussions about anti-choicers and their ugly attitudes about women and feminism. They’d like us to pretend they’re all just fetus lovers, but there’s simply too much leakage of actual attitudes about women’s roles in society to keep up the façade. From Kissling’s piece:
Helen Alvare, who is best known for her tenure as the spokesperson on abortion for the Catholic bishops, set pro-choice feminists’ teeth on edge when she answered a question about women who decide to have an abortion. “Sometimes,” she said, “what women think they need now, is not in their best interest in the long term.”
The anti-choice belief is that women exist mainly as breeding machines, and therefore a woman who refuses to have a baby at any point in time is like a car suffering from mechanical failure. She is broken and needs to be fixed. You don’t ask a car what it wants! If it doesn’t drive, you take it to mechanic and fix it. Similarly, women’s opinions about how they are put to use by society don’t matter. It’s true that anti-choicers thinking reducing women to an undifferentiated mass of uterine production is somehow good for women, but that’s because they think any woman who doesn’t want to have a baby at any point in time is broken, and who wants to be broken? If cars were sentient, we would like to believe that they’d prefer to get fixed so they can get back to being driven right away, too.
Kissling engages in a lot of tedious “both sides” rhetoric throughout this piece, attributing the clash between the pro- and anti-choice position as if it’s due to talking past each other: Team Woman and Team Fetus. It’s a pleasing, moderate-sounding thing to say, but it fails on reality-based grounds. We’re at odds not because we don’t understand each other or have different focuses. On the contrary, this entire fight is on one axis, not two—people who support women’s rights and health and people who oppose women’s rights and health.
It is understandable that anti-choicers would rather front like they’re pro-fetus instead of anti-woman, since the latter just doesn’t poll as well. But we can’t simply take people on just their word and leave it at that. We have to look at the whole picture, and if we do that, we have to see that their agenda is about far more than their concerns about the sufferings of pre-conscious fetuses. The actual actions against contraception, the actual rhetoric that casts grown women as children who need to be forced into motherhood for their own good, and the actual willingness to employ lies and other nefarious tactics for their ends should be considered.
I get that some anti-choicers probably do ignore their own actions and convince themselves that they’re a lot more well-meaning than they are. But just because someone engages in self-deception doesn’t mean they’re not deceiving. Take for instance, Kissling’s description of an attendee: “He regularly prays and pickets (politely, he assured us) with his children at an abortion clinic near his home.”
Now, I’m sure that man has convinced himself that he’s being polite. But what he said is basically impossible—there is no such thing as a polite way to show up at a clinic to scold and taunt women for behaving in what you believe is an unchaste manner. It’s like saying, “He regularly spits in people’s faces and has his children rub it in, but it’s all very polite, of course.”
This is what these “dialogues” with anti-choicers require of pro-choicers—joining in on the lie, pretending that we don’t see what’s obvious. If our opponents can’t even label impolite behavior correctly, how on earth are we supposed to talk to them? You can’t have a dialogue without agreeing on the facts. If your choices are treating anti-choice lies like they should be taken seriously or not speaking with them at all, I suggest strongly that you take the latter, to preserve personal integrity if nothing else.