Criminalizing Abortion

This is pretty upsetting... unfortunately, if it were up to social conservatives and to the republican party, ideally (from their point of view), one day the United States will exist under a similar anti-privacy regiment as El Salvador:

Ever imagine what it might be like to live in a place that voted to thoroughly criminalize abortion? A place that sent abortion providers to jail? That policed hospitals? That investigated a woman's uterus? Welcome to 21st-century El Salvador, the state of anti-abortion.

This is how a New York Times photo gallery introduces us to a series of dramatic black and white shots, with equally dramatic and even more moving captions. For example:

The Incarcerated: Carla Herrara, 11, clutches pictures of her mother, Carmen Climaco, who was given 30 years for an abortion that was ruled a homicide.

The photo gallery is part of an NY Times Magazine piece on how abortion was criminalized in El Salvador, and how that small Central American country is at the “vanguard” of a movement against abortion:

In this new movement toward criminalization, El Salvador is in the vanguard. The array of exceptions that tend to exist even in countries where abortion is circumscribed — rape, incest, fetal malformation, life of the mother — don't apply in El Salvador. They were rejected in the late 1990's, in a period after the country's long civil war ended. The country's penal system was revamped and its constitution was amended. Abortion is now absolutely forbidden in every possible circumstance. No exceptions.

It goes without say that the abortion issue, that is, whether women and couples should have control over their reproductive futures, or whether such control should be placed in the hands of the state, is a central question in today's political landscape in our own country. On the progressive side there are many that contend that: 1. Because it would be political suicide for republicans to end access to abortion, that therefore it is unlikely that they'll criminalize the procedure; 2. Even if abortion is criminalized at the federal level, such an unlikely eventuality may bring with it some pragmatic and political advantages, because it would create an opportunity at the state level to “experiment” with local solutions; and, 3. Presently, Democratic candidates must be afforded wide latitude on the abortion question by their constituents, because elected Democrats must find some way of neutralizing the issue come national/presidential elections.

Now, while it may appear as a truism that over the long term criminalizing abortion would result in political suicide for republicans, that does not necessarily preclude them from inadvertently succeeding in criminalizing the procedure over the short term. After all, sometimes events get ahead of one's ability to effectively manage and react to them — I present exhibit A., the Iraq invasion: clearly the situation in Iraq has gotten ahead of the Bush Administration's ability to contain events and, therefore, is now merely reacting to events on the ground. With some pieces of the puzzle already in place (i.e., Roberts & Alito, et al; a religious right movement that's confident of its ability to influence the republican party and, thereby, the terms of our national debate; and, too, a Democratic Party establishment that's been forced to take on a defensive posture on abortion), it's not difficult to imagine how, over the short term, abortion may be inadvertently criminalized if a certain tipping point is reached — even if it comes at the expense of long term electoral loses for the republican party. The risk, once that tipping point is reached towards criminalization, is that it may be years — if not decades — before our nation and the political establishment are once again ready to reverse course. After all, it's taken 30-plus years for abortion opponents to come as close as they are to steering our nation back to a time when the right to privacy was not thought to be a constitutional guarantee.

If abortion is criminalized at the federal level it'll be left up to the states to formulate their own local approaches. Accordingly, rather than waging a one front campaign, if one can think of the federal abortion issue as a single front, we'll be forced to mount a 50 front wide campaign in defense of reproductive sovereignty. Clearly, some front lines will be easier to hold, while others will be deemed too deep in hostile territory to hold on to, thus sacrificeable. Accordingly, as with all wars, whether hot or merely ideological, there'll be some collateral damage, primarily inside of those territories thought to be sacrificeable. The question thus becomes, as with all wars, what level of so-called collateral damage are WE willing to tolerate? Understandably, the vast majority of the collateral damage will be suffered by the poor (women and couples), the less educated, and by those living in rural areas. However, aside from the tangible collateral damage that will be incurred by particular individuals, the criminalization of abortion would open the door to other, though less tangible, more offensive and corrosive elements to a free and open society. For example, since the criminalization of abortion would inevitably depend on a Constitutional finding against an inherent right to privacy, we may end up having to engage in new battles where privacy is concerned — whether the issues at hand arise from medical, criminal or employment related matters. The point here is that, clearly, the criminalization of abortion would come with unacceptable levels of collateral damage and, too, at a high risk of introducing unintended consequences against Americans' right to privacy.

Sure, the states could each serve as a petri dish; wherein, the theory goes, locally tailored and unique solutions could emerge that, at long last, would end the national debate on abortion; allowing the country to exist under a 50 state consensus on reproductive freedom — each state with its own unique response to the issue of abortion. Of course, the petri dish compromise is contingent on the abortion criminalization pushers and on the right to privacy advocates honoring an eventual compromise. Because, clearly, once one side or the other breaches whatever compromise is formulated, the other side would be compelled to push back. Clearly, the criminalization pushers see abortion as an abomination and as being morally repugnant; therefore, any compromise that, in their view, tolerates medical abortions in even one of the 50 states will be interpreted as unacceptable and as unfinished business. Now, from their standpoint, they would be correct; after all, the end goal of those seeking to criminalize abortion is to totally and utterly end medical abortions in our country, period. Now, our nation has already endured — and not very well, I might add — one national compromise on an issue where, in fact, there was no compromising, let's not forget (yes, that compromise: the Missouri Compromise, which split the nation). It is clear, given the rhetoric of the abortion criminalization pushers, that this is an issue on which there's no compromise. After all, does anyone really believe that any sort of compromise can ever be maintained when those seeking to criminalize abortion see themselves, however delusional, as marauding abolitionists unshackling fetuses from bondage? Now, I don't mean to suggest that we're any where near the level of tension that must have existed when that first national compromise collapsed. However, just as the abortion criminalization pushers will not tolerate the continued practice of medial abortion in even one state of the Union; likewise, those of us that support the right to privacy and that defend our reproductive sovereignty should not be willing to accept any compromise that would undermine these core principles.

As for elected Democrats needing more breathing room on the issue of abortion from the progressive grassroots, frankly, I simply wish that elected Dems would speak candidly on the issue — without some consultant standing over their shoulders telling them how they should respond. As has been remarked over and over again, no one is for abortion; however, we should all be for the right to privacy, and for sovereignty and security over our bodies— these, of course, extend to reproductive our freedom. Some have dismissed and caricatured what, at best, can be described as the shorthand version of the grassroots-approved Democratic Party comeback formula:

According to the storyline that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists - a storyline often reflected in comments on this blog (DailyKos.com) - we are up against a sharply partisan, radically conservative, take-no-prisoners Republican party.  They have beaten us twice by energizing their base with red meat rhetoric and single-minded devotion and discipline to their agenda.  In order to beat them, it is necessary for Democrats to get some backbone, give as good as they get, brook no compromise, drive out Democrats who are interested in "appeasing" the right wing, and enforce a more clearly progressive agenda.  The country, finally knowing what we stand for and seeing a sharp contrast, will rally to our side and thereby usher in a new progressive era.

I think this perspective misreads the American people.  From traveling throughout Illinois and more recently around the country, I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon. [ Sen. Barack Obama ]

While this caricature touches on the major themes that the Dem grassroots have been agitating for and calling on the Democratic Party to pursue, I think that it intentionally misreads what the grassroots is really trying to say; which, very simply, is: formulate a Democratic agenda that shores up the advances of the New Deal, be vigorous advocates for that agenda, and refuse to let conservatives/republicans define the national debate — yes, a'la George Lakoff, shift to a progressive frame and redefine the terms of the debate. What does this have to do with abortion? Well, unlike the minority that seeks to criminalize its medical practice, the majority of Americans support access to abortion; because Americans intuitively understand that abortion, in spite of the rhetoric, is about one's right to privacy, and about security and sovereignty over one's body. Unfortunately, because those seeking to criminalize abortion are dominating the debate and its terms, these core principles, privacy and security, are being left out of the national debate by elected Democrats. So, while I'm perfectly willing to give Dems some breathing room while they get their bearings, it is unconscionable for anyone to ask the American people to surrender our right to privacy, and our security and sovereignty over one's body.

We all agree that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare.” Likewise, we can also agree that those seeking to criminalize medical abortion by overturning and/or undermining Roe v. Wade present a direct threat to our right to privacy, and to our personal security and sovereignty; accordingly, our Democratic representatives must be expected to engage the abortion debate on these terms, and not merely accept the terms imposed by the abortion criminalization pushers.

Tags: abortion, Democrats, el salvador, liberal, musings, progressive movement, progressive principles, Republican agenda, social conservative (all tags)

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