Thursday, April 19, 2007

Once more into the breach...

It's a subject that almost guarantees an absence of meaningful debate. Two views on the morality of abortion in the Times, one from Caitlin Moran on how it is just another aspect of motherhood, and how it took her 'longer to decide what worktops to have in the kitchen than whether I was prepared to spent the rest of my life being responsible for a further human being'; and one from Libby Purves where she says, basically, that the slump in doctors being prepared to offer abortions is owing to the moral code of doctor - who see that the Abortion Act, for all its apparent hedging and restrictions is an Act that allows abortion in all cases that a pregnant woman asks for one.
Dr Crippen does a pretty effective job of demolishing the facts behind Purves's article and he also criticises Moran's piece - mainly on the basis that its flippancy and contrived contentiousness are unhelpful to the pro-choice cause (I'll use the terms pro-choice and pro-life even though both of them are unhelpful). Emily (whose thoroughly excellent blog Doing It All Again is well worth reading) has covered this topic here and here. On the strength of the two articles: Moran is essentially an amusing sensationalist - a bit lightweight and a lot of fun. It's revealing that she takes her writing name from a Jilly Cooper character. As such her article probably shouldn't be seen as representing considered and weighted opinion - it's a riff on the subject of abortion. Purves is a more serious journalist, but the risk in seeing patterns out of chaos is that you tend to mould the facts to fit your own pre-conceptions.
As to the broader debate, surely the most damaging aspect is the lightning tendency for the two sides in the argument to leap into extremist positions - rhetorically at any rate. For those on the side of the debate who disagree with me, my possession of a Y chromosome is sufficient to disqualify me from comment - oddly this is a line employed by both sides. One side springs to call the other baby-killers, the other calls them fascists. Plenty of heat, very little light.
Where I find the whole debate so difficult (and raised as a good little British liberal, I was primed with a pro-choice opinion) is that there is very little weighing of argument. Those on the pro-choice side often seem, like Moran, not just to disagree with the moral argument against abortion (that's a life in there - basically a baby!) nor yet to consider it valid but discounted by the opposing arguments, but not to see it at all. As Moran says, 'ultimately, I don’t understand anti-abortion arguments that centre on the sanctity of life.' Equally, those on the pro-life side don't seem to engage with the argument that, ultimately, it is a woman's body which is affected, and it should therefore be her decision.
Philosophically, I've yet to hear a convincing argument that explains why partial birth abortion is morally acceptable but exposing unwanted babies isn't. Note the 'morally' there - semantic distinctions over the precise moment life begins is better suited to priests and lawyers. What is a little bit off-putting about the 'ideologically pure' wing of the pro-choice movement is not the validity of their argument, it is the, well, enthusiasm with which they propound them - it's one thing to suggest women should not be ashamed of having an abortion - I'd suggest it's quite another to say they should be proud of it - the mind is drawn to Cartman's Mum successfully persuading President Clinton to make abortion legal up to the 60th trimester.
As for the scary side of pro-lifers? Even apart from blowing up abortion clinics and posting letter-bombs to doctors, it's the unpleasant sanctimonious moralising that gets to me. I began with one Shakespeare quotation, and looking at the more vociferous wings of both sides of this debate it's tempting to end with another: A plague on both your houses.
UPDATE: If you want a nice neat example, try going through the comments here. Incidentally, I don't know whether 'disemvowelling' those with who you disagree is an approved method of blogging...

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