Questions about abortion become less complicated as long as you refuse to recognize that they’re complicated
While I don’t consider the legal debate over abortion rights to be particularly interesting — though it will infringe on women’s rights and freedom, outlawing abortions won’t make them go away — I had long thought that the individual ethical questions of abortion were complicated and fraught with moral ambiguity.
What set Joyner off was a recent article from Michelle Goldberg titled “The Return of Back-Alley Abortions” which chronicles how, in response to many states whittling down abortion rights as close to the bone of Roe v. Wade as possible, more and more women have been forced to turn to the black market to rid themselves of pregnancies. In the cases where these women survive these at times dehumanizing “procedures,” many have then found themselves in the cross-hairs of law enforcement. Goldberg writes:
Underground abortions have returned to the United States, just as pro-choice activists have warned for years. And women have started going to jail for the crime of ending their own pregnancies, or trying to.
This week Jennie L. McCormack, a 32-year-old mother of three from eastern Idaho, was arrested for self-inducing an abortion. According to the Associated Press, McCormack couldn’t afford a legal procedure, and so took pills that her sister had ordered online. For some reason, she kept the fetus, which police found after they were called by a disapproving acquaintance. She now faces up to five years in prison, as well as a $5,000 fine.
Idaho recently banned abortions after 20 weeks, and McCormack’s fetus was reportedly between five and six months old. But according to Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, under Idaho law, McCormack could have been arrested even if she’d been in her first trimester because self-induced abortion is illegal in all circumstances. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an 8- or 10- or 12-week abortion,” says Kolbi-Molinas. “If you do what you could get lawfully in a doctor’s office—what you have a constitutional right to access in a doctor’s office—they can throw you in jail and make you a convicted felon.”
While horrific, McCormack’s case is not unique.
My reaction to reading this section of the piece is to shake my head at the prospect of someone having to go to such lengths to practice their Constitutional right, and to be reminded of the maxim of rich and poor alike being proscribed by law from sleeping under bridges. Joyner, on the other hand, has a different set of ethical priorities:
If ever there was a misplaced adjective, this is it. While I’m squishy on very early term abortions–and even later term abortions in cases of severe fetal malformity–killing a viable fetus by ingesting some shit you bought on the Internet is what’s horrific, not the prospect of being punished for so doing.
OK, well, besides stoking feelings of self-righteousness and outrage, I’m not sure Joyner’s response has much to offer in this example. It doesn’t really grapple with the fact that this woman was forced to make an impossible choice due to inadequate policy. It certainly doesn’t offer a possible solution to this flaw in policy; or an idea as to how elected officials could ensure that the law in Idaho adequately reflects the fact that abortion is legal in this country even if you’re poor.
He does reduce this tragic situation that he could not possibly understand to the vulgar and facile depiction of someone “ingesting some shit [she] bought on the Internet,” though. I suppose we could thank him for ridding us of all that bothersome nuance.
It turns out that, on this issue, Joyner is quite skilled at such reductionism. Back to Goldberg:
In 2005, Gabriela Flores, a 22-year-old Mexican migrant worker, was arrested in South Carolina. Like McCormack, she had three children and said she couldn’t afford a fourth, and so she turned to clandestinely acquired pills. (The drug she took, Misoprostol, is an ulcer medicine that also works as an abortifacient and is widely used in Latin American countries where abortion is illegal.) Initially facing two years in prison, she ended up being sentenced to 90 days.
In 2009, a 17-year-old Utah girl known in court filings as J.M.S. found herself pregnant by an older man who is now facing charges of using her in child pornography. J.M.S. lived in house without electricity or running water in a remote part of the state, several hours’ drive from the nearest clinic, which was in Salt Lake City. Getting there would have required not just a car—her area had no public transportation—but money for a hotel in order to comply with Utah’s 24-hour-waiting period, as well as for the cost of the abortion itself.
According to prosecutors, when J.M.S. was in her third trimester, she paid a man $150 to beat her in the hopes of inducing a miscarriage. The fetus survived, but she was charged with criminal solicitation to commit murder. When her case was thrown out on the grounds that her actions weren’t illegal under the state’s definition of abortion, legislators changed the law so they would be able to punish women like her in the future. Meanwhile, prosecutors have appealed J.M.S.’ case to the Supreme Court, and observers expect it to rule against her. She could still face a trial and prison time.
Again, one could respond to the above by recognizing that, just as pro-choice advocates have long claimed, anti-choice legislation falls disproportionately on the underprivileged. Policy designed in theory to prevent women from seeking abortion has instead resulted not only in their doing so anyway, but doing so through means that are even more dangerous and beneficial to the state’s criminal market. One could determine that a system of law that results in a 17-year-old paying someone to brutally assault her because she’d determined this to be her best option is not exactly sound policy.
Joyner himself could even recognize that, as he writes later, “[p]eople do unspeakable things,” and that gritting our teeth and pounding our keyboards in judgment as a response won’t change one way or the other whether or not minors end up in situations like this in the future (which they undoubtedly will). He could further recognize that people like these two would not put themselves through such an ordeal if they felt any more desirable options were available.
Or he could wave off these unwieldy concerns and chalk it up to women’s irrationality (but not without a pat-sounding and rather insufficient recognition of poverty’s role in all of this):
Granting that these women were not in the best position to make rational choices, one can be sympathetic to their plights and still repulsed at their actions. One doesn’t “find” themselves six months pregnant. And the inability to afford to raise the child doesn’t confer the right to kill it or do it irreparable harm. Having a thug murder your baby* is simply unconscionable. Being inconveniently distant from an abortion facility doesn’t change that.
Joyner throws an asterisk on the word baby there so he can recognize at the bottom of the piece what a biased word-choice it is. Not that that causes him to ditch it for another, though, because that’s how he and his wife have viewed the latter’s pregnancies — as well as their doctors — and, after all, that minuscule amount of anecdotal evidence is just about enough to put that to rest, right?
I suppose that, in general, things are easier for Joyner than they may be for the rest of us. Unlike the women above, he’s capable of making rational choices. Indeed, Joyner understands that what one woman saw as destitution and isolation was actually just being “inconveniently distant” from an abortion facility. Having been beaten to the point of miscarriage may have seemed like an awful, viscerally personal experience to that 17-year-old; in actuality, she simply had “a thug murder [her] baby.” In Joyner’s telling, it almost sounds as if she were somewhere else at the time. Perhaps she was once again at an inconvenient distance.
To be fair, Joyner is actually quite capable of accepting that this is an often imperfect world that places people in unjust circumstances. It’s just that he finds this all much more bearable when it’s the government — not the individual — making questionable decisions:
This case is somewhat different:
A woman doesn’t even have to be trying to abort to find herself under arrest. Last year, a pregnant 22-year-old in Iowa named Christine Taylor ended up in the hospital after falling down a flight of stairs. A mother of two, she told a nurse she’d tripped after an upsetting phone conversation with her estranged husband. Though she’d gone to the hospital to make sure her fetus was OK, she confessed that she’d been ambivalent about the pregnancy and unsure whether she was ready to become a single mother of three.
Suspecting Taylor had hurled herself down the stairs on purpose, the nurse called a doctor, and at some point the police were brought in. Taylor was arrested on charges of attempted feticide. She spent two days in jail before the charges were dropped because she was in her second trimester, and Iowa’s feticide laws don’t kick in until the third.
People do some unspeakable things. Consequently, we’ve implemented procedures when red flags are raised. Woman and children who show at the hospital claiming to have fallen down stairs are often screened for abuse. Apparently, when they’re pregnant and express ambivalence about whether their baby survives, they’re sometimes screened for feticide. As with any other criminal justice matter, innocents are sometimes falsely accused.
Hey, “mistakes were made,” right? People do unspeakable things. Not things like subjecting a young woman who’d fallen down a flight of stairs to the ordeal of being arrested on thinly-based and legally tenuous grounds, though. Rather, things like sharing with your nurse your ambivalence about having another child. You know, really terrible stuff. This is still America, after all; it’s not like you can just go around saying these kinds of things in public.
In response to Goldberg’s noting that criminalizing abortion turns women into criminals, Joyner blithely retorts:
Well . . . no. Or, at least, not any more than criminalizing any activity turns the people who engage in that activity into criminals. Abortion is legal, at least in the first 20 weeks or so of pregnancy, because we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s a clinical procedure conducted by highly trained medical professionals. It’s quite another thing when people take matters into their own hands.
The first part of his argument reminds me of that put forth by opponents of marriage equality — the ones that argue that bans of gay marriage aren’t bigoted because straight and gay people both are barred from marrying someone of the same gender. Prop 8 doesn’t strip gay men and women of their right to marry! Criminalizing abortion doesn’t turn women into criminals! And all that stuff prior about these women being completely unable to procure legal abortions? Well, “abortion is legal, at least in the first 20 weeks or so of pregnancy.” So there! Problem solved! (Provided none of them go off like vigilantes taking the matter of what happens to their own bodies into their own hands, of course.)
In the end, Joyner comes to recognize that the real problem is women’s ignorance alongside a “bizarre” — in the same way a jelly-fish, a two-headed snake or any other such non-man-made occurrence is “bizarre” — “disconnect between abortion being both legal and supported by a majority of Americans and yet not readily available in many places.” There seems to be little recognition on Joyner’s part of this “disconnect” being the consequence of willful human choices manifested in policy that purposefully makes it near-impossible for many women to practice their rights. It’s as if he’s unaware that there’s a whole side of the debate — a lot of people, really; many of them women! — that could tell Joyner in great detail exactly how and why this “bizarre disconnect” came to exist.
But maybe that’s because Joyner’s got his eyes on bigger issues, as he closes with this circular and incoherent bit of wisdom:
But not as bizarre as the notion that back alley abortions–the very thing that pro-abortion rights people have been touting all these years as the horrific alternative to legal abortion–is being portrayed as a legitimate alternative that society shouldn’t seek to punish.
Where Goldberg portrays back alley abortions as “a legitimate alternative that society shouldn’t seek to punish” I cannot say. I thought I read an article describing how “the very thing that pro-abortion rights people have been touting all these years as the horrific alternative to legal abortion” was occurring, was horrific, and was chosen as an alternative when women could not find legal abortions. Joyner seems to have read something else. Apparently what these women really needed was to be punished. Only then, I suppose, will terrible events like these cease occur and trouble us all with their lack of easy answers.
[Author’s Note: it occurs to me that my previous front-page post was also a somewhat lengthy criticism of a Joyner piece. I want to make it clear that I hold no personal enmity towards Joyner and that this back-to-back is complete serendipity.]