Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Why You Can't Depoliticize Abortion

Scott over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money has an interesting amplification of Dana's post on the futility of the calls to depoliticize abortion. Both are worth a read, but there is a crucial point missing from both of these, which I discussed here, that warrants rehashing.

Dana's point is a pragmatic one.

"I dream about a world in which women's health choices are de-politicized, but alas, I don't live in one. So until I do, it's something I'll be looking out for in every election. Conservatives certainly are."
Abortion has always been politicized, she argues, and as such those like Will Saletan who call for a negotiated third way are really advising Democrats that we would be better off bringing a knife to a political gun fight.

Scott argues that the depoliticization is impossible because abortion satisfies two necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for an issue to be necessarily political:
We've already been through this with respect to the Iraq War, but you can't "de-politicize" an issue that is a) salient, and b) on which substantial groups of people have fundamentally incommensurable views.
The Iraq analogy is a good one, but for a reason that neither Scott nor Dana address.

It is not merely because there are deeply held, mutually exclusive viewpoints on an issue as salient as reproductive rights that we possess our bifurcated political situation. To understand what is happening it is crucial to see that there is a slickly designed equivocation in our political discussions. There is a difference between abortion and *ABORTION*. Our discourse concerns *ABORTION* and has little if anything to do with abortion. *ABORTION* is a wholly political animal. To depoliticize *ABORTION* would be tantamount to creating Steven Wright's famed "dehydrated water." What is crucial to understand, but missed by many, is that *ABORTION* has eaten abortion such that any time we think we're talking about abortion, we have no choice but to descend into the terms of *ABORTION* and this was done intentionally.

If it were possible to decouple them and to have a conversation about abortion, then views like Saletan's in which we act in such a way to minimize the number of unwanted pregnancies would provide us with hope of being able to bridge the cultural divide and come to policy changes that would better the world and the lives of those in it. He can't figure out why pro-lifers aren't in favor of common sense measures like funding contraception. If they really are so deeply committed to making sure abortions do not occur, then surely they would be strongly in favor of any policy that would allow us to avoid the precondition for the possibility of an abortion. What makes Saletan's discussion so naive that you want to pat him on the head and buy him an ice cream cone is that the silly boy thinks that when he hears people talking about *ABORTION*, he thinks they are really talking about abortion.

*ABORTION* is a front, a shill issue, for those who are pushing a radical Evangelical Christian theocratic agenda. Those leading the charge against *ABORTION* are not interested in pragmatic policy options to that would bring about fewer abortions, they are interested in Christianizing American law, culture, and politics. Pragmatism is every bit as much an enemy to them as opposing ideology. It isn't a question of helping women avoid unfortunate and undesired circumstances for them. *ABORTION* is the leading edge, the public face of their righteous crusade between absolute good and anyone who disagrees with them. They do not merely want to decrease the number of abortions, they want to make sure that unmarried people don't have sex, they want to make sure that abortions are made illegal and punishable by law, they want their Dominionist worldview and the policies that they see as springing from it to be unassailably instantiated.

Why use *ABORTION* for this? This requires understanding one of the most effective conservative rhetorical gambits of the last couple decades, what we can call the "cage and frame" strategy. Framing, as discussed by linguist George Lakoff, 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 of inter-related moral issues in this incredibly difficult ethical question.

But what we see is more than framing. We see another trick which I term "caging" in which one takes a series of related issues that you do not want acted upon and then selects 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.

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.

You cage all but the issue that is easiest for you to frame and for this reason, abortion was selected. The murder of innocent babies by promiscuous fornicators to protect their hedonistic lifestyle was seen as the perfect high-ground from which to attack the Fort Sumter of contemporary secular American politics. And it was in this role that abortion became *ABORTION*. When we talk about about reproductive rights, we are fighting a proxy battle. Yes, protecting reproductive rights is important, but that is not really what is happening here. *ABORTION* is not just about abortion, a salient issue on which substantial groups of people have fundamentally incommensurable views. No, *ABORTION* is the "Battle of the Bulg(ing Belly)" in the culture wars. It is their recruiting mechanism, their rallying cry, the place they've chosen to make their definitive stand. If they can't win substantial battles on that hill, on the most easily framable ground there is, their movement withers.

Abortion cannot be depoliticized because one of the most important political developments of the late 20th/early 21st century developments in American politics --the movement that began with Goldwater's defeat and Nixon's Southern strategy, moved through Gingrich's Contract with America and its sponsorship by the Christian Coalition, and reached its high water mark with Bush's re-election -- has staked its very existence on making sure that abortion is inseparable from *ABORTION*. As such, you can't depoliticize abortion without depoliticizing *ABORTION*. And you can't depoliticize *ABORTION* without depoliticizing politics itself. But that, of course, would be like dehydrating water.