Will Saletan is Missing the Point on Abortion

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Slate columnist Will Saletan wrote in the New York Times in February that he believes that we can end the culture wars by encouraging birth control and discouraging abortion. This week, in the wake of the murder of late-term abortion provider George Tiller in Kansas, Saletan returned to that argument, writing that while abortion is not “murder,” it’s “something less, a tragedy that would be better avoided,” and we should look for ways to prevent it. On the way to that conclusion, Saletan stumbled on an interesting point:


[Pro-life groups’ statements condemning Tiller’s killing] don’t square with what these organizations purport to espouse: a strict moral equation between the unborn and the born. If a doctor in Kansas were butchering hundreds of old or disabled people, and legal authorities failed to intervene, I doubt most members of the National Right to Life Committee would stand by waiting for “educational and legislative activities” to stop him. Somebody would use force.

The reason these pro-life groups have [neither celebrated Tiller’s death nor encouraged future murders] is that they don’t really equate fetuses with old or disabled people. They oppose abortion, as most of us do. But they don’t treat abortionists the way they’d treat mass murderers of the old or disabled. And this self-restraint can’t simply be chalked up to nonviolence or respect for the law. Look up the bills these organizations have written, pushed, or passed to restrict abortions. I challenge you to find a single bill that treats a woman who procures an abortion as a murderer. They don’t even propose that she go to jail.

Saletan seems to think this argument proves that even the most virulent pro-lifers should be open to compromise on the issue. I think he’s too hopeful. It’s not just about abortion. It’s also about sex.

Saletan is not like most pro-lifers. His squeamishness about abortion goes hand-in-hand with a call for encouraging birth control and for not just legalizing, but encouraging gay marriage. But pro-life views are more often than not part of a social conservative world view that encompasses beliefs about the role that sex should play in society.

Social conservatives don’t necessarily want to treat women who have abortions as murderers. But social conservatives do want society to be radically different, with different societal rules and norms about sex.

Abortion is the ultimate representation of the modern disconnect between sex and reproduction—but it’s not the only representation. Pro-lifers might not always say it, but they know that making abortion illegal would mean that people would no longer have ultimate control over when and whether to have children. Or, rather, people would be faced with the choice social conservatives would prefer people to face: between being celibate and having a chance of having a child. 

Even if pro-lifers won on abortion, the next battle would be on familiar turf: birth control, or the “hookup culture,” or gay people (a particularly obvious representation of the modern disconnect between sex and reproduction), or premarital sex. If tomorrow, magically, people no longer wanted or needed abortions, this would still be the broader fight: should we have a society where sex and reproduction are decoupled, with all that entails, or should we have a society where they’re not? Because that’s what people are really arguing about when they argue about “choice.”

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