Is Abortion Bad?: Selling Contraception to a Polling Demographic
From: William Saletan
To: Katha Pollitt
Subject: Selling Contraception to a Polling Demographic
Friday, Feb. 3, 2006, at 12:00 PM ET
My goodness! I’m a Puritan and a pollster. And what an ad campaign you’ve cooked up for me: “Go on, hate me, I deserve it!” says the young woman in your ad. Do you realize that’s the sixth time you’ve invoked hatred in your column and in our exchange—and I haven’t mentioned it once? I bet that young woman hates her predicament more than anyone else does. Abort what’s growing inside her, or bring a baby into the world in lousy circumstances. I’m sure she’s grateful for the right to choose between those options, but I bet she hates being reduced to them. All I want is a movement that speaks for her and can persuade the public to leave the choice in her hands.
Let’s clear away the points on which we’ve agreed so far: 1) It’s better to avoid an unwanted pregnancy than to have an abortion. 2) We need more birth control and realistic sex education. 3) We need emergency contraception to be widely available over the counter. 4) Men must take more responsibility through condoms, etc. 5) Parents should talk to their sons about condoms. 6) Women have the right to choose to bear no children. 7) We should respect women’s ability to make these decisions for themselves. 8) We’d both press health insurers to pay for birth control if they pay for Viagra, and we’d “ask stern questions about how that male pill is coming along,” though I might leave the sternness to you. Also, I’ll concede 9) we won’t get to zero abortions. “As few as possible” gets the point across well enough.
What’s left? Well, there’s a debate between the ad campaign you’ve imagined for yourself and the one you’ve imagined for me. I think I’ll stay out of that fight, except to point out that the message you wrote for yourself (“I’ll have a baby when I’m ready— but not till then”) is the one I endorsed two years ago. The line I proposed for politicians last week was, “My opponent and I both want to avoid as many abortions as possible. The difference is, I trust women to work with me toward that objective, and he doesn’t.” I know, it’s not hateful enough. I’ll work on it.
That leaves the two big questions: morality and politics. I thought we disagreed pretty clearly on the morality of abortion, but now I’m not so sure. This passage from your latest post blows me away:
Negative feelings—the sense of the road not taken, that maybe you would have wanted to take had life been different, the feeling that you chose yourself instead of the baby-to-be and maybe that means you are not a good woman, the feeling that you messed up somehow—are often confused with morality, but they are not the same. Morality has to do with rights and duties and obligations between people. So, no: I do not think terminating a pregnancy is wrong. A potential person is not a person, any more than an acorn is an oak tree.
Is that all we’re disagreeing about? You’re reserving the word “morality” for relations between persons? But it’s OK, when dealing with abortion, to talk about negative feelings, what you would have wanted, that you chose yourself, that you’re not good, that you messed up? Those are all moral reflections, if you ask me. In fact, they strike me as pretty harsh. Why mask all this self-flagellation as amorality? Is there some kind of pride in refusing to tell the public how seriously women take this stuff?
So then we’re down to a dispute over polls and politics. You think about unwanted pregnancy as “an issue in women’s lives”; I think about it in terms of “how to sell contraception to a polling demographic.” Wait, let me pull down my copy of Carol Gilligan. Actually, you’ve nailed me: I spent lunch today hashing out polls and abortion messages with friends from Third Way who have some very good ideas. So does Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice, who posted here in Slate‘s Fray. If you ever make that ad with the stern nun in front of the clinic, Frances would be perfect for the starring role. She’s not used to taking orders, but maybe she could get into the habit.
Anyway, back to your point. “I don’t think the issue of unwanted pregnancy can be solved by crafting a message from polls,” you write. “I don’t think there is a clever trope that can mobilize the nation.”
But, Katha, if we agree on virtually all of the policy questions, isn’t politics the whole ballgame? Look at our wish list: more birth control, more sex ed, more emergency contraception, more male responsibility, more health insurance. How much of that agenda can we get without government action? And how much action can we get from a government of which we control not a single branch?
That’s why I quote polls instead of letters. It’s not because I don’t care about women. It’s because polls tell us what the public thinks, not just what our friends think. Without the public, we have no power. And without power, we’re no good to women at all.
This op-ed appeared as part of a series, “Is Abortion Bad?” on Slate.com.