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May 26, 2005

Why Abortion Improves Society

Kevin Drum argues that progressives should downplay the merits of abortion and instead frame abortion politics around "anti-busybody" politics. He is seconding an argument by Howard Dean:

I don't know anybody who thinks abortion is a good thing. I don't know anybody in either party who is pro-abortion. The issue is not whether we think abortion is a good thing. The issue is whether a woman has a right to make up her own mind about her health care
This is an asinine statement by Dean. If abortion is never a good thing, then why should anyone have the option to have one?

One reason progressives are not as strong on the abortion issue is that we so rarely hear abortion defended on its merits. Instead, we have the religious right denouncing it as the equivalent of murder and slavery, and progressives essentially saying "that may be, but it's really none of your business if people are committing murder and slavery, now is it?"

If that's the debate, it would be no surprise that the rightwing would win over time.

Back in 1968, only 15% of the population supported liberalizing abortion laws. By 1972, 64% supported increased access to abortion for women.

This change didn't happen because of "anti-busybody" arguments but because feminists of both sexes stood up and declared that abortion -- however sad an option when used -- was necessary to improve the quality of life and equality of women in our society. In 1972, fifty-three prominent women published an open letter declaring that they had had an abortion to demonstrate that good people had good reasons to have abortions.

Another part of the pro-abortion rhetoric was the slogan "every child a wanted child", acknowledging the fact that great harm is done when parents raise children they don't want, often because they know the stresses of their life make raising children untenable.

Pro-choice progressives should be embracing Steve Levitt's arguments in his Freakonomics book that legalization of abortion led to drops in crime rates a generation later, since this reflects the fact that wanted children are less likely to be abused and less likely to end up as criminals when they grow up. This is not, as some characterize it, a "eugenics" argument since no one is arguing that any class of people should be denied parenthood but that parents should be able to choose when they have children-- and when they are denied that choice, not only they but society as a whole suffers.

Abortion is not just some individual decision with no effects on broader society. That kind of rhetoric is a copout that is unconvincing. Allowing abortion is critical to equality for women and whether unwanted children are forced on parents is bound to have effects not just on those families but on our communities. Most abortion rights activists have not been libertarians who thought individual choices have no effect on broader society, but people who thought the availability of abortion causes profound and needed changes in that broader society: increasing women's ability to participate equally in the workplace, changing power relations between men and women within the family, and encouraging family planning so that children were wanted and not abused.

This is not to say that abortion does not raise moral dilemmas or should be encouraged indiscriminately, but those in favor of abortion rights have to argue that, overall, we have a better society because abortion is legal than if abortion was criminalized.

Abortion politics should not be a choice between moral injunctions from the rightwing and amoral libertarian platitudes from the pro-choice side. It should be a choice between two visions of creating a good society, with progressives arguing that their vision is the more profoundingly just and moral alternative.

Posted by Nathan at May 26, 2005 08:22 AM