Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Why Abortion Became ABORTION

Last week, Aspazia wrote a series of posts, entitled "Missives from Grove," about her trip to Grove, Oklahoma to talk with people who remembered Dr. William Jennings Bryan Henrie, a country doctor who was arrested in 1962 for performing abortions. It is an incredibly touching discussion of the complexities of abortion in the Bible Belt before the topic's complete politicization. Please read them if you have not, yet had a chance. If that series is not nominated for a Koufax award, there is no justice in the blogosphere.

Aspazia was accompanied on the interviews by a conservative local reporter who was trying her best to shoehorn the views of the older generation into the contemporary intellectual trenches, but despite the efforts, continued to fail. The discussion then was not the discussion now. Back then abortion was not ABORTION. In the discussion attached to these reflections, a conversation began about why that transition occurred. Here are some additional thoughts on that topic.

Aristotle teaches us that there are always different ways to answer why questions. One is to cite what he calls "the efficient cause" -- that is, explain how it came to be. This is what we usually mean by cause -- what was the domino that knocked into this one, tipping it over? In this case, what historical factors led to the elevation of abortion to the exclusion of virtually all else in contemporary moral discourse? Another is the "final cause," that is, what end is being served by something, finding that for the sake of which it was done. It is looking not at what knocked over the domino, but why the dominoes were tipped in the first place. For what purpose was abortion elevated? The third aspect we'll discuss is the formal cause, what is the structure that makes the thing what it is. What are the rhetorical moves that allowed abortion to dwarf the rest of the pressing issues that we need to take seriously as a society?

The Efficient Cause
As there have been a number of very good expositions on the use of abortion in the rise of the religious right, let me merely point you to two wonderful sources. Thomas Frank has an excellent chapter in What's The Matter With Kansas where he traces back to 1991 and the "Mercy Summer" in Wichita when the football stadium was packed to the rafters with anti-abortion activists. The hyper-enthusiasm surrounding the issue, seeing that many people with that much passion for the cause in one place, he argues, caused a gestalt switch in the minds of abortion foes and turned abortion into ABORTION. Michelle Goldberg in Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism traces the movement and the use of abortion back farther in an integrated history of the rise of Christian evangelical political power. The stories they tell are compelling from a number of angles and well worth the read.

The Final Cause
What turned abortion into ABORTION is the fact that on both sides of the argument ABORTION is not about abortion, it is about larger political aspirations and ramifications. This is not to say that pro-choice advocates do not truly want abortion to be safe and legal, nor is it to say that pro-life advocates do not want abortion to become illegal and to cease. Both do; BUT, while they have views on abortion, ABORTION means something much larger -- it has become a symbolic place in the political landscape that, like Jerusalem, holds radically different, but equally sacred meaning for both camps.

To the pro-life camp, ABORTION is the central battleground in the fight to Christianize American law, culture, and politics. It is not the morality of abortion which is important, it is the symbolism. There are lots of things that are seen by the religious right as immoral but legal, but none of these have the effect of abortion, none of these give rise to mass and often violent protest, and none of these are giving rise to back door attempts to plant legislative time bombs, like double homicide charges for murdering pregnant women or outlawing embryonic stem-cell research, that would serve to establish legal foundations for later abortion rulings in the courts. Abortion became ABORTION because it relates to contemporary secular approaches to sex and feminism, what the movement sees as two major hurdles to becoming a Christian nation. It is here that sex outside of wedlock and the promotion of women's rights can be tied to the death of innocents, the most horrific of wrongs. So if the Christianization cannot triumph here, it is doomed. But if it succeeds here, it will give rise to momentum that will break the backs of the secular opponents and the tide will roll Christianity to its rightful place as the foundation for this nation. ABORTION is seen as the leading edge of the front line in the war for the soul of the nation.

To the pro-choice camp, ABORTION is representative of every advance that women have made in their work to become full citizens and autonomous humans. The major successes of the movement to include women in the social contract as equal partners are at most only a couple of generations old. It is not even 100 years since women have been guaranteed the right to vote in the US. It is only since 1964, a scant 42 years since civil rights for women were guaranteed by law. And workplace rules and wages continue to be live issues that require continuing the fight. The hard-won advances are still green and not so entrenched that there is not fear of losing the them...Especially when there are social forces conspiring against them. ABORTION is not about abortion, it is about women having the right to control their bodies, it is about the right to be fully human and not mere vessels for fertilization. If women lose the right to abortion on demand, the fear is that women will lose the autonomy, the humanity, that they have finally gained and that the tide will have changed and other advances will be under attack. The slippery slope back to the days of immoral dehumanization will have begun.

For both sides, the question really has little to do with the morality or legality of abortion. The larger question of what it symbolizes and the momentum of who wins the battle is what turned abortion into ABORTION.

The Formal Cause
But there is another way of looking at what turned abortion into ABORTION and that is the form of the rhetoric, the ways of arguing that we see in the contemporary discussion. Because of linguist George Lakoff's work, much has been made of what he calls "framing" and there is no doubt that this is happening in this discussion. But there is another rhetorical trick that was crucial in the transformation of abortion into ABORTION.

Framing is the act of setting the parameters for discussion by choosing the language of the debate. What Lakoff shows is that words are not just "Hello, my name is" stickers that we put on things, they come with ways of seeing the world packed into them. Selecting certain words instead of others limits the discussion by putting certain topics on the table and others off the table. Both sides have done this in their choice of designators. "Pro-choice" frames the issue in terms of liberty and who wants to oppose freedoms to choose? "Pro-life" frames the issue in terms of the life or death of a fetus and who wants to be pro-death? The selection of the name is designed not only to designate which side one is on, but also to elevate (in a fallacious question-begging fashion) one part of the complex inter-related moral issues that are operative in this incredibly difficult ethical question.

But what we see is more than framing. We see another trick which I will term "caging". The idea behind caging is to take a series of related issues that you do not want acted upon and selecting a small single issue to pull attention way from all the rest. Like magicians who will do something flamboyant and fascinating with their left hand to keep you from seeing what they are doing with their right hand, the idea is to make one insignificant issue the focus of all attention in order to make sure that all other related issues are ignored. As long as there is a raucous passionate debate around that issue and it is made to seem of paramount importance, then the assumption by most listeners is that a fair and open debate on all issues is taking place and no one will notice what you are doing with regard to the other issues.

In this way, women's rights have been caged by ABORTION. All the time, effort, and money that could be going into furthering women's rights on a number of fronts are sucked into the ABORTION fight. Not only that, but how to cage the issue is determined by what issue is easiest to frame when let out of the cage. If conservatives chose to openly fight against voting rights or equal pay for equal work legislation, it would put them clearly on the side of immoral support of injustice and they would lose quickly and decisively. But by caging women's rights and only letting ABORTION out of the cage, any possible advances on the women's rights front are stopped in their tracks and pro-lifers can portray themselves as the defenders of families and innocent life, not the opponents of women's rights.

In the same way, civil rights issues have been caged with only affirmative action set outside the cage. We can bring the civil rights charge to a halt by focusing all attention only on hiring in a small set of cases. Again, this is made more effective when the caging is combined with framing -- affirmative action is only to be addressed in terms of quotas. In this way, the advancement of civil rights legislation not only stops, but those stopping it do so by portraying themselves as opposing discrimination.

The framing and caging of environmental issues have not worked in concert and has been less successful. The framing is in terms of jobs vs. spotted owls. The caging has been around national parks. Pay attention, virtually the only time you will hear discussion from the administration about environmental issues is in terms of protecting or using the national parks and national forests. These are important places, but far from the most important environmental issues facing us today. But by caging the other issues, snowmobiles in Yellowstone will take up the resources to fight the real problems.

Gay rights? Cage questions about hate crimes, workplace discrimination, housing discrimination,... only let out marriage. Then frame it in terms of "protecting the family." Cage and frame.

Abortion, thus, became ABORTION for several reasons. (1) It is an issue that historically took on a life of its own and became a rallying point, (2) it is deeply symbolic in struggles on both sides of the political spectrum that makes it ground zero in the culture war, and (3) it is an effective way to cage off other issues that those with certain agendas want off the table.