24 April 2006


A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a long, fascinating, horrifying article about abortion laws, and their enforcement, in El Salvador. It's like a dystopian feminist science fiction novel.
El Salvador, however, has not only a total ban on abortion but also an active law-enforcement apparatus — the police, investigators, medical spies, forensic vagina inspectors and a special division of the prosecutor's office responsible for Crimes Against Minors and Women ...
Medical spies. Forensic vagina inspectors.

It's stirred up a lot of talk in the lefty blogosphere, as you might expect. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings used it as the touchstone for a tour de force defense of the logic of abortion rights. Hilzoy observes, importantly, that the law in El Salvador has a lot more logical and moral consistency than the rhetoric of pro-lifers do in the US. If "abortion is murder," as pro-lifers commonly assert, won't we need to throw women receiving abortions in jail for life for committing first degree murder? And thus have law enforcement apparatus devoted to catching these women, including medical spies and forensic vagina inspectors? Few pro-lifers, in my experience, have even thought about these questions, much less composed answers to them.

I particularly want to point to the way Hilzoy debunks the "pro-life" rhetoric that makes me most angry, the nonsense about objecting to "abortions of convenience."

Sometimes the reason for an abortion is simply that the woman recognizes the enormous responsibilities that motherhood entails, and does not want to accept them at a given point in her life. As I said earlier, this is not a matter of "convenience". When you have worked towards a given career for years, and having a child and raising it responsibly would force you to give it up, for instance, that is not "convenience"; that's the entire shape of your life. When you are not married, and you cannot raise a child alone, that is not "convenience". When you already have more children than you can really afford, and having another would place an enormous strain on your limited resources and perhaps on your marriage itself, that's not "convenience". When you are fifteen years old and not remotely ready for parenthood, that's not "convenience".
I would take that a step further, and assert that in all but the first case that Hilzoy cites there, these examples reflect a truly adult sense of moral responsibility. As an adult, one forsees what it really means to accept a new duty, chooses only to take on those duties which one can truly fulfill, and then commits fully to those duties which one has chosen. To simply accept a duty without regard to whther or not you can truly fulfill it is not morally responsibile or adult—it's adolescent. When I reflect on women going for back alley abortions in El Salvador today or in the US two generations ago, accepting terrifying personal risk rather than take on the duties of raising a child they're not prepared to care for, I see these women as being deeply responsible. What could possibly be more responsible than risking your own safety to avoid bringing a baby into the world whom you cannot care for? How could one possibly see that act of courage and responsibility as a matter of selfish "convenience?"

I strongly recommend taking a little time to read both Hilzoy and The New York Times Magazine; if you only have time for one, go for Hilzoy, who quotes many of the key passages from the El Salvador piece.

Then, after all that philosophy, consider this point about the actual pragmatics of abortion policy from the essay on Lawyers, Guns, and Money about the El Salvador story: "Should We Ban Abortion For Non-Affluent Women? That Is The Only Question." Because of course, even in El Salvador, in practice affluent women can get abortions if they wish.

(And I just can not bring up this topic without also pointing to Joe Bob Briggs' immortal response to pro-lifers.)

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