Another Pro-Choice Spin Job

2014-10-16 Keep Abortion Legal

I often comment on the lamentable pro-choice bias in American journalism, but one of the strange things you will only learn if you dig deep into this issue is that the bias really gets serious when international stories come into play. I have no idea why this is, I’ve just seen it happen enough to know that the amount of skepticism required when you read a mainstream report of an abortion-related news story (already pretty high) gets even higher when the events take place in a foreign country. Just to give the story I’m about to relate some context, the most recent major example of this was the case of Dr. Savita Halappanavar, who died along with her 17-week unborn child as a result of complications from a miscarriage. The story had literally nothing to do with abortion–and this was known from day 1–but it quickly became a media sensation when reporters claimed that she died because she was denied an abortion. If that sounds extreme, it’s actually barely scratching the surface. Read the rest here.

Unfortunately, of course, the fact that the lies are lies never really seems to matter. “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots,” as Mark Twain is reported to have said. And, by the time truth gets its boots on, nobody really cares anymore. There’s already a new crisis to pay attention to.

And that’s what’s happening again, but this time with a story out of El Salvador:

American media giant National Public Radio (NPR) published a report last week claiming to expose the underbelly of El Salvador’s pro-life legal system by profiling a woman whom they say was sentenced to 30 years for abortion after a stillbirth. On-the-ground evidence reveals, however, that the woman was in fact convicted for murdering her son after he was born alive.

It’s not hard to see why El Salvador is a target. First: it’s small, the smallest country in Central America. Second: it’s pro-life. It banned abortion–with no exceptions–in 1998 and then recognized personhood from the moment of conception in 1999. Just as powerful American evangelical lobbies meddle in African countries to get anti-gay laws that they can’t pass in the US, pro-choice lobbies in the United States (often working through the UN or powerful non-profits) throw their weight around in African, Central, and South American countries to get their political way.

And, as usual, it’s easy to see how this makes sense from their perspective. If you’re coming from a strong pro-choice background, then El Salvador has to strike you as an absolutely terrifying human rights tragedy in the making. It’s only a matter of time before some poor woman dies because she can’t get a life-saving abortion. Why wait for it to really happen? Much more compassionate to invent a story instead and make an issue out of that way. Much better than waiting for someone to actually die.

Two additional points to keep in mind. The first is evidence from Chile that criminalizing abortion doesn’t, in fact, lead to women dying. We covered that story back in February. The second is a very technical but very important clarification of what it means to have a “no exceptions” law against abortion. The problem is that Catholics (who are obviously rather dominant in S. and Central America) have a peculiar definition of “abortion” that amounts to “deliberate killing of the unborn human being to end a pregnancy,” whereas the technical definition of abortion simply means “early termination of a pregnancy.” In practice, this means that no-exception laws often do have exceptions. To see an example of this, consider the case of “Beatriz”1 She would not survive her pregnancy and requested an abortion (in El Salvador). Her request was denied, but permission was granted for an early Cesarean section instead, even though the fetus was non-viable. Did she get an abortion? If you use the Catholic definition, she did not, because the unborn child was removed without harm and even incubated and given fluids rather than being killed or abandoned. But if you use the more general term, she did, because the pregnancy was terminated early even though it would result in the death of the fetus.

This confusion leads to a lot of unhelpful acrimony in the abortion debate. The reality is that no one, as far as I know, has ever actually maintained a true no-exceptions stance on abortion when the general definition is used. For further reading, check out the principle of double effect, which is the ethical principle that allows abortion to save a mother’s life with the caveat that the abortion not be a deliberate act of killing but rather a removal of the fetus to preserve the woman’s life that results in the foreseen but unintended death of the fetus.

5 thoughts on “Another Pro-Choice Spin Job”

  1. The general definition “early termination of a pregnancy” is confusing, because than all early cesarean sections, for example, would technically be abortions. A scheduled c-section at 34 weeks for a mother with pre-eclampsia would be an “abortion” of the pregnancy, but the intent and outcome in the U.S. would likely be to save both baby and mother. That would fit under your general definition of abortion, though, and no one is actually talking about that when they reference abortion. I think it is important to talk in terms about aborting the baby and not aborting the pregnancy, because that’s really the conversation. And I find it disturbing that the pro-choice side has dehumanized the baby so much that they reference the pregnancy and not the baby. They even go so far as to define pregnancy as implantation instead of conception. With the implantation definition, you have people claiming that early abortion pills are not “real” abortions, because the pill isn’t terminating a pregnancy, which requires implantation. But that just skirts the issue of the actual human life involved.

    I know the Catholic definition sounds peculiar, but I think you have to somehow find a distinction between life-saving medical treatment of both mother and baby, which sometimes does result in death of one or both as a tragic side effect of treatment, and direct killing of one of the patients. It’s the difference between a natural death– or one where we largely lack control over the situation — and killing. A grave prognosis does not make the medical procedure an abortion. Many people have legitimately grave prognoses, and they have last-ditch effort treatments. That’s not the same as choosing death, even if death results. Someday, we may actually have the technology to improve the mortality of some of those early babies.

    Intent is important here. If our goal is to always save both patients, then we may actually have the ability to succeed in the future and we may even surprise ourselves with success in more cases in the present. At the very minimum, we are acknowledging the value of human life no matter the “quality” or length of time, and the value of suffering even as we attempt to minimize suffering within moral boundaries. This issue, as you know, spills over into euthanasia, assisted suicide, handicaps, illnesses, and even racial, cultural, and gender equality.

    I think you hit on a couple important things here — One of which is that we need to find a way to communicate with the same definitions, the same language. I often wonder if the language divide is intentionally divisive for political purposes. I was just having to explain this to my in-laws, who had bought the pro-choice line that Catholics don’t care about women. We are pro-life for all life — all women, men, and babies. But we can’t save everyone from death, even with valiant effort.

  2. LT-

    Just so we’re clear: I very much respect and largely agree with the Catholic position on abortion. (I think there may be some differences in how I view the legality of abortion in the context of rape, but other than that I’m basically in perfect agreement.) So I’m not criticizing the Catholic position. Just the Catholic terminology and especially what I’ve seen in some staunch pro-lifers which is kind of a gleeful disregard for clear communication. There are some Catholic pro-lifers who seem to enjoy being misunderstood as more radical than they really are. That’s not helpful.

    But your point is absolutely valid: The general definition “early termination of a pregnancy” is confusing, because than all early cesarean sections, for example, would technically be abortions. That’s absolutely true, and I didn’t think about it. The Catholic vocabulary on this issue makes a lot more sense once I realize that there isn’t any term that works easily.

    I’ll temper my future criticisms with that realization, thanks.

  3. Oh, Nathaniel, I don’t view your posts as being critical in a negative way. There’s nothing wrong with criticism, and I don’t want you to think I take offense to these discussions. I think they are important for clarification. Someone has to say this stuff, right? I know you try to give people the benefit of the doubt and write in respectful tones.

    Here’s an example that mirrors the ectopic pregnancy situation: A pregnant mother is traumatically injured, and her prognosis is certain death when arriving at the hospital. The docs operate on her, knowing the operation will likely hasten her death, to save the baby. They still take life-saving measures to save the mother, even when it is likely futile. This is a similar situation to an ectopic pregnancy where the operation is to save the mother from a deadly medical condition and where the baby’s prognosis is also certain death. People want to call that an abortion, but no one would call the first example euthanasia. It would hardly be a blip in the debate, because it’s obvious everyone is doing their best under tragic circumstances. Both are just tragic, the doctors are trying to save both people, but one is probably going to die and may even die a little sooner as a result of surgery.

  4. And, I agree — There are some pretty abrasive Catholics out there :). I think some people thrive on self righteousness and conflict. I always worry that I’ll appear that way to others, and you know the conversation is lost once you go down that road.

  5. LT-

    You’re totally rocking these comments! I really liked your example contrasting abortion / euthanasia and it gets back to what you wrote about in your first post: the extent to which the unborn human being has been dehumanized or even excluded from the picture altogether is at the heart of the problem with abortion. I’ve just never seen such a clear example of how pervasive that effect is (as the euthanasia / abortion example you just gave).

    And don’t worry, I didn’t take your comment as negative. You corrected a perception on my part, but you did it perfectly nicely.

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