Beyond the Abortion Wars, Chapter 1: State of Play

Camosy begins the book by laying out the state of the issue of abortion in the United States.  In doing so, his core point is that there is a fundamental discontinuity between abortion rhetoric and abortion practice, as seen in several dimensions.

First, Camosy notes that the general rhetorical position of pro-choice advocates, especially pro-choice politicians, is some version of the formula "safe, legal, and rare," emphasizing the idea that abortion is, and should be, a low frequency occurrence.  And yet, as Camosy points out, the abortion rate in the United States is quite high.  Camosy cites a figure of 1.2 million abortions per year, which corresponds to figures from the Guttmacher Institute of 1,287,000 abortions in the U.S. in 2003.  That works out to 21 abortions per 1,000 women of child-bearing age, or 31 abortions per 100 live births.  It should be noted, however, that this figure has been declining since the middle 1980s, and in 2011, the figures were 1,058,500, 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women, and 21.2 abortions per 100 live births, respectively.  That's still a large number, and I think it is fair to say that 21.2 abortions per 100 live births is not "rare" by any reasonable definition.  Nevertheless, a change in eight years from close to 1-in-4 pregnancies ending in an abortion to almost 1-in-6 is a significant change, one that Guttmacher makes pains to point out is independent of any legal abortion restrictions.  That's worth mentioning.

Second, Camosy argues that there is a fundamental political disconnect with regard to abortion.  In essence, the Republican party which identifies in general with individual autonomy, limited government intervention, and libertarian values is in favor of greater restrictions on abortion availability, while the Democratic Party generally opposes those things in the economic sphere but is quick to adopt autonomist, libertarian rhetoric with regard to abortion.  This disconnect is not unique to abortion--it can clearly be seen in the gay marriage issue, for example.  Indeed, as Camosy admits, ultimately this alignment is the product of a concerted effort of the Republican Party, beginning with Richard Nixon, to court religious, especially Christian, voters, and the counter-reaction of the Democratic Party to shore up its support among non-religious folks, "coastal elites" of various sorts, etc.

Camosy suggests (especially in the epilogue) that this alignment is the fundamentally the result of cynical political calculation, facilitated by corrupt and craven media.  In other words, both political parties have created a fundamentally nonsensical and intractable political alignment on abortion for the purpose of keeping the issue alive, energizing a base, raising money, etc., and media elites exploit this division and anger for ratings purposes.  There is certainly some truth to this, but I feel like I must defend our political system to some extent (I will not defend the indefensible media, especially TV media).
 Political parties, especially in the American system which is strongly oriented toward two and only two parties, are by definition coalitions of various, often narrow, interest groups, not ideologically cohesive movements that one might see in multi-party parliamentary systems.  Religious conservatives and economic libertarians are not a natural fit, but neither were predominantly agrarian Southerners and Northern ethnic trade-union types in the FDR Democratic Party.  That's the nature of the beast in U.S. politics.  These things happen, and it is not clear that it is necessarily the result of heartless, cynical political masters.

Still, this weird alignment certainly does complicate the political calculation regarding abortion.  Which leads into Camosy's third, and most substantive argument, which is that the current abortion regime does not reflect public preferences.  I don't have Camosy's book in front of me as I write this, so I can't cite the specific polls he cites.  But I found this set of Gallup polls, which puts the break down at:

Legal in All Circumstances        28%
Legal in Most Circumstances:    11%
Legal in Few Circumstances:     37%
Illegal in All Circumstances:      21%

From this (and, if I recall, the polls Camosy uses are roughly similar), Camosy concludes that (1) most Americans favor more restrictions on abortion than are currently in place, and (2) most Americans favor some sort of middle position between total bans and total legality.  For example, if you dig down, you find broad support for abortion being legal in the first trimester (61-31), but equally broad support for banning abortion in the second trimester (64-27) and overwhelming support for banning it in the third trimester (80-14).  There is also clear support for allowing abortion in cases where the life or physical health of the mother is endangered (83-13 and 82-15, respectively) and in cases of rape and incest (75-22).  More problematic for Camosy, as we will see, is the fact that a mental health of the mother exception is broadly popular (61-35).

Beyond these generic numbers, Camosy points to three groups of people that are more opposed to abortion than the national average--women, Hispanics, and Millenials.  All three, Camosy concludes correctly, will make up an increasing slice of the electorate going forward.  As a result, their policy preferences suggest that the trend is going to be toward greater support for regulation of abortion.  Indeed, this reality is a key part of Camosy's "case" for pro-choice people to embrace a negotiated compromise in line with his proposal--agree to a deal now, or get squeezed out by the tide of history.

The devil, of course is in the details.  It's clear, as Camosy notes, that there is a broad consensus on certain abortion scenarios--life of mother, rape, second and third trimester.  But between those poles there are an almost endless variation of positions that one can take; finding consensus among those individualized positions is tough.  Camosy's proposal, I think, is designed to try to rally these diverse views around a coherent policy position, but whether his formula actually hits that "sweet spot" is very unclear relying only on this type of polling.

There's another thing, which I must qualify as being entirely the product of "anecdata" and my experiences, not anything concrete.  I am obviously not a woman, and I am far, far too old to be a Millennial, but I remember clearly back in college (when it is socially acceptable to have conversations with basically strangers about the issue of abortion) that many women articulated some version of the "middle position" on which Camosy focuses.  However, when you drilled down on precisely which restrictions they favored or disfavored, you often found that their position could be summarized as "I am in favor of restrictions on abortion in circumstances that I don't believe I will ever face, while I am against restrictions in circumstances that I think I might face."  Said another way, the wanted lots of restrictions on the abortions other women have, but few restrictions on the ones they might have.

One woman I knew in college openly admitted, rather memorably, that her position on the question was driven entirely by self-interest.  Most people are not that brazen, but I think there is a massive Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance problem with the way people talk about abortion.  For example, you get pieces like this one, where a mother with a child had an abortion to preserve her already "complete" family.  The author wants to know why her experience is not the face of abortion in America, as opposed to "sexually indiscriminate" teenagers.  My own initial response upon reading the piece was "because I have far more sympathy for the scared teenager that fears being kicked out of the house than I have for you, who is worried about a second child cramping her upper middle class lifestyle."  But that's the point--the author believes her reasons are good and righteous for having an abortion, while other (often poor and/or marginalized) people have B.S. reasons.

One of my concerns about additional restrictions on abortion is that, given the distribution of political power in this country, those restrictions are likely to limit the rights of poor and marginalized women and not upper middle class women like the author.  It must be said that Camosy's proposal does not fall into that category (with one change which I will get to), and in fact does a great deal of work to try to even the playing field between the politically disadvantaged and the politically powerful.  That's why I like it so much.  My point in bringing all of this up is to suggest that there are a subset of people (whether they are aware of it or not) who say they favor "some" or even "many" restrictions on abortion who don't actually favor any practical restrictions on their own ability to get an abortion.  When the rubber meets the road, and they are being asked to constrain their own behavior, or potential behavior, this support may collapse.

None of this is to criticize Camosy or this chapter, which I think is basically spot on.  I bring these things up, in a sense, to reinforce the fact that the state of the abortion issue in the United States is complex and entangled, which is Camosy's point.


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