Oh, Alabama Alabama Alabama
As the non-rock-dweller knows, Alabama recently passed a bill to ban abortions. The bill is stupid.
Reasons for declaring it stupid abound.
- Most of the country supports first trimester abortions: A minority position is being allowed to become law for the strong majority. It’s a symptom of a system in which elections do not serve their intended purpose — to elect officials who represent our extrapolated volition. The new law is undemocratic. This means something if you are a supporter of democracy. (I should note that I’m skeptical of democracy — it’s imperfect. But theocracy is worse, full stop.) In a well-functioning democracy, every person who voted for the law would be replaced with someone who actually represents American values. The fact that so many lawmakers eagerly voted against the interests of their constituents is deeply troubling.
- Abortion laws are ineffectual: Abortion bans do not limit the number of abortions — they just make them worse. Much as how patent laws and tax laws often fail to do what they are intended to do, morality laws are exploited and ignored; in the present case, to the avoidable peril and suffering of many women.
- Roe v Wade still stands: In the latest case of states misunderstanding how states’ rights should work, Alabama (also Georgia) layered their restrictions on top of another restriction. Roe v Wade and the precedents the popped out of it is already a restrictive federal standard. States’ rights were instated in order to allow states to escape the tyranny of federal government, not create draconic, fascist sub-nations.
These three points are based on straightforward evidence and should be something we can all agree on, more or less. If these things are true, then, the lawmakers had better be sure their decision was worth flaunting the Constitution for their new law.
What was their rationale? From Alabama Governor Kay Ivey:
“Today, I signed into law the Alabama Human Life Protection Act. To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious & that every life is a sacred gift from God.”
Other lawmakers have more or less echoed this statement — let’s break it down.
First, we have the claim that the bill has many supporters. In democracy, the gross vote count doesn’t matter. This point is stupid. You can get millions of people to sign a petition on anything.
Next, she claims that she has Alabama behind her. As mentioned above, this is not true. Alabama is fairly split on its professed abortion position, but Alabama also has a disproportionately high number of abortions (likely due to its economy and its poor education, which correlate) — in other words, you’ll find that many people who do not “support” abortion still support abortions.
Governor Ivey also makes a much more sweeping claim: every life is precious and sacred. This is more difficult to untangle.
To limit our scope and to help the Governor out, we can assume some things:
1) We’re only talking about American citizens when we say “life.”
2) When we say every “life”, we’re talking about everything from a single fertilized egg to our most decrepit, most wise ones.
3) When we say “sacred”, we don’t mean a right to well-being; instead, we mean a right to not be killed unless the life commits a crime that warrants the death penalty. Indirect forms of killing, such as denying coverage, are not considered protections for the sacred. However, failing to provide sustenance for a life that incontrovertibly depends on your support, will be considered sacred protections. And failure to provide this will be considered a brand of murder.
Pitting two incompatible ideas together
When we talk about abortion in America, we draw curious lines between two positions. On one side, we have the Governor’s argument — every life is *sacred.
On the other side, we have every life is not sacre — wait, no, that’s not right. You would think that the opposite of true would be false, but we actually have a different challenger in the far corner. In America, the opposite of life being sacred is, inexplicably, that women have a right to their bodies and the choices they make with them. If we center abortion discussions around a false dichotomy, we’re going to have poor discussions. And we do. See also, gun control
We’re talking past each other, clearly. So clearly, in fact, that it’s almost as though we’re talking past each other for a reason. I suspect the reason is that both arguments start with a nice big, clear, beautiful absolute. Once we drift away from the absolute, we face the open ocean.
*sacred as described above, not according to our apparently useless dictionaries
For the “pro-life” (the shorthand version of the position earns derisive air-quotes) position, we start with this: All human-ish life is perfect and sacred and equal and pure. But once we consider it just a little, it gets confusing. What is life? How does fertilization contrast with potential for fertilization? What about the majority of pregnancies that terminate with miscarriages? When do we grant full citizenship to the life? How can that be limited or revoked when, say, the mother’s life is endangered? Do the circumstances under which the life was created matter? What about the potential outcome of that life? Given limited resources, how can we minimize loss and maximize potential?
These could be considered philosophical rhetoricals, but they’re all legitimate questions we need to answer. Because even if life is sacred and special and pure, it exists in a universe that doesn’t care about caring. The universe has its own set of rules and we have ours. But ours are the rules that must ultimately bend and break.
To be clear, I actually agree that all life is wonderful and amazing and worth preserving as a general ideal — as do you. And as does anyone who isn’t an anti-natalist (the folks who have convinced themselves to argue that life is just too damn painful to be worth it). There’s no disagreement across political positions that life is beautiful. Which is why it’s so strange that the response to declarations about life being precious and beautiful are met with cries of body autonomy. These are barely overlapping ideas. But they do overlap — we’ll get to that in a second, but let’s first go over “Pro-choice”.
For the “pro-choice” position, we start with this: women have a right to choose what goes on in their body, even if there’s another whole body in there. From the get-go, you’ll note that I already collapsed the choice to a single woman’s sovereignty over her innards. This collapse is not always so seamless in reality.
A couple years ago, I participated in an open debate on abortion. Not too far in, the conversation devolved into a strange semantic pedantry party on the rights of one person over another. “You can’t just go around killing people with a hatchet! You have rights until you use them to deprive others of theirs! You’re hatchetting babies!” And that’s an interesting conversation, but it’s not what people mean when they say “My body, my right” — this short-cutting should be clear, but is commonly a cause for stillborn conversations.
Assuming we’re not willfully and/or ignorantly misunderstanding the actual position of the choicers, we still find this position lacking nuance. Why does having a body mean you get supreme power over anything within it? Since you know that thing inside you will be affected by your decisions, should you allow it to grow and escape? And since that thing will eventually have to confront the world on its own, what role should you have to play in preparing it for that world, both before and after it leaves? And when does society get to step in? Is there a point where that thing should be considered capable of being mistreated on account of its complexity and potential for conscious thought?
(Note that I’m using generic terms here intentionally — abortion debate is constantly undermined by people using loaded terms to avoid conversation.)
The choicer group suffers from a reliance on a single catchphrase, an absolutist position, just as the lifer group does. But let’s be clear — they are not opposites. These are no sides. We are not “pro-life” or “pro-choice” — we’re all both of those things, but we disagree on the specifics. And it’s easier and cleaner to ignore those specifics and take political sides. Which is what we do.
In America, if you’re a Democrat, you’re going to argue the choicer position. And as a Republican, you get to argue as a lifer. It’s as American as Apple computers.
But if you look to other democracies, you’ll find that even public debates are wonderfully complex. This is because everyone agrees that abortions are miserable affairs and should be prevented as well as possible by sex education and birth control. (Want to prevent abortions, Alabama? Hand out condoms! It’s easy. It works.) They also recognize that abortion is as inevitable as pregnancy.
Even the frumpy British Conservatives commonly call access to well-administered abortion services a “necessary evil”, and while I don’t share their enthusiasm for calling it evil, I agree with the necessary part. Roe v Wade was meant to be a concession to that, but we’ve lost the narrative.
The lifer position is more powerful than the choicer position. Not better or more correct, but more powerful. Let’s compare their warcries:
“You’re murdering children”
“My body, my choice”
One is powerful, The other… can sound empowering, or merely obstinate.
This is to be expected — one gets to be the aggressor and the other is forced into the position of defender. And if you’ve ever spent any amount of time in game theory or on, say, Facebook comment sections, you’ll know that being on the defensive is a game of survival, not success. I fear that the abortion debate has this same asymmetry. Is there a way around it?
In a way, this may be what the “pro-choice” people are trying to do — notice the fact that both “sides” of the debate have decided to be pro-something. Which is strategically useful but seriously detrimental to having real conversations about the gray area from life sanctity absolutists to the non-existent anti-life absolutists.
There’s also the worrying trend of the choicers piling on the idea that men are responsible for trying to control women with abortion laws. I won’t get lost in that particular debate here, but I don’t believe it’s a good argument. (I can expound on that if pressed.)
Barely overlapping magesteria
I said I’d get to talking about where the lifer and choicer positions overlap, and this is as good a time as any.
The two positions overlap when we dig into the complex gray area between conception and live birth. I start at conception because there is currently no debate about unfertilized eggs having rights — it’s outside the Overton window. I end with live birth because at that point, the choicer position gets overthrown both by laws and by our culturally unchallenged assumptions of the now-infant’s individuality.
Between these steps, a single, big cell turns into trillions of cells, capable of experiencing pain and joy and a singular inner universe of meaning. The latter state is not a switch — it’s some kind of gradient. Unfortunately, we’re not sure how it all works and are left making some educated broad guesses. But we can make some guesses.
It’s clear that a single cell isn’t meaningfully conscious. Nor are mere piles of cells (no matter how large), which have no possibility of experience — right now, we’re reasonably confident the absence of a developed brain would preclude consciousness, insofar as we know that scooping bits of our brains out removes bits of consciousness — read some Oliver Sacks and V.S. Ramachandran for examples. So we need a brain of some sort. We also need some way for the things outside the brain to receive external feedback. Without feedback, consciousness is unlikely. But merely unlikely — we’re already getting into the danger zone. Because once we know that the cell group is complex enough to experience something, we’re in danger of inducing suffering on that cell group — nay, that being.
The exact time when this becomes true is unclear. We can point to times where it is clearly untrue, such as in the first several weeks. At this point, the only way to call the cells a being is to introduce a supernatural element. Call it a soul if you want. And you’re allowed to do that if you want, but you have to get everyone else on board first — and for God’s sake, don’t do it if you’re a lawmaker.
Where were we? Consciousness and suffering and how they relate to the connection between lifers and choicers. That’s where we were. And that’s where we still are, because this is an open question. Some choicers would be unhappy to leave it here, as they take a harder stance in which even a conscious, feeling being is not granted rights until it can survive without them. I don’t personally feel like that’s a strong moral position to take — it does not overlap with what I see as the value of life and I’d suspect rational dissonance from anyone who holds that position. Just because you rationally know something to be a true does not mean you can align your actual feelings with that position. We’re not robots, and that’s great.
Is it really the time for nuance, though?
It’s possible that this all sounds like a limp cry for nuance and tact in the face of overt theocratic fascism. I don’t mean it to sound that way. What are my motives for chiming in here? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just for my personal catharsis, aired publicly. But I hope to bring some of it to you.
My family is full of religious lifers who are actually not that zealous about their own position — which I find very strange. Because I feel like if you have any nuance in your lifer view, then you may as well not be a lifer and instead be a regular person with complex views that are difficult to define yet easy to defend. Yet I still call my family lifers, insofar as they vote for overt lifers and would readily side with lifers should the call to arms be raised.
I started out as a lifer teenager. I was mystified at my peers who chanted “My body, my choice”, as though that was compelling enough to cover the tragic feeling of sadness and loss that surrounds the loss of human life. I later came to understand and appreciate their actual position, but that was as an indirect result of becoming culturally liberal, not through any compelling argument made on a carefully bedazzled poster.
Coy bastard, give us something useful
There are two principle issues that led to Alabama Alabama-ing this time around:
1) The president/the media/the Internet have doubled down on stupid binaries.
We have learned to pit stupid false dichotomies against each other. In this case, the relatively strong lifer community in Alabama turned abortion into murder vs not-murder. This played well enough with the right people in Alabama. So lawmakers flipped the binary moral decision switch, punishing everyone who lives in a non-binary world (read: everyone).
2) Democracy failed us again.
Even though Alabama is fairly split on abortion, a split should not lead to one half getting shut out of democracy. Gerrymandering, winner-takes-all elections, closed primaries, over-representation of a minority population, money in politics, voter suppression, and disinformation — these all led a near-unanimous layup from Alabama lawmakers who should know better. And you would think that a population split on a critical issue would lead to their immediate replacement of the minority leader with more moderate person, but the system is so poorly calibrated to feedback that it doesn’t matter what they say or do so long as they please the correct minority.
So how can we fix those things?
1) Stupid binaries.
Unfortunately, this is a systemic problem, which manifests itself at all levels. There are organizations like the Center for Humane Technology that are working on the problem generally. There’s also a lot of public interest in fixing the problem — we all know it’s bad.
But from your couch, you’re not going to make a big difference. However, you can treat it like recycling: Do what you can to make things better; avoid making them worse. And hope that someone fixes the bigger problem.
Or you can find others and fix it with them.
2) Failed democracies.
This will be difficult and will take time, but there are steps we can make to improve democracy itself. As we discussed here, there are better ways of running elections. These could reduce partisanship and align lawmakers with our extrapolated volition. Gerrymandering is at least recognized as a problem. We have technical solutions to it — we just need them to spread, somehow. Money in politics is a tough nut to crack, but Seattle’s Democracy Voucher idea is a spirited start, as are others. Voter suppression should theoretically dissipate as we elect people who better represent their constituencies. Disinformation will have to be combated with serious improvements to education. As well as proper regulation — lawmakers haven’t quite caught up with the Internet’s new bag of tricks. (They’re still puzzling over Netscape and AOL.)
There are solutions, but they’re complicated.
The good news: Alabama and Georgia and friends have always fought tooth and nail against good things. They are not the new face of anything, harbingers of The Handmaid’s Tale. They’re dying a slow and backwards death and changing the rules to give them some extra innings. But they’re losing the war. This is their death-rattle. Be of good cheer.