Abortion and Coercion

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Jonathan Ichikawa has been complaining (actually starting with this post) that some on the right are talking about the high percentage of abortions among black women as genocide. He's not disputing any of the facts they cite. He just thinks it's too much to call it genocide, particularly given that the people who are making the decisions to kill their fetuses are themselves black. I'm not sure that self-originated genocide is impossible. Why couldn't a race commit genocide against themselves? Even so, I think a number of other factors make abortion less the matter of choice that pro-choicers want it to be a more in the direction of coercion. Most of the post that follows develops from a comment I left on his post.

I think a very strong argument can be made that many abortions are to some degree coerced, if what counts as coercion is the same sort of thing that many philosophers count as coercion. Many feminists count emotional pressure in date rape cases as coercion, thus justifying the rape charge. Many bioethicists count poverty together with the ability to make lots of money off organ sales as coercion when they oppose allowing people to sell their organs due to people in worse-off situations being unduly taken advantage of because of those situations. I think the lottery counts as a similar taking advantage of the poor. Some people say the same thing about euthanasia and assisted suicide, that family expectations might count as coercion, and therefore it shouldn't be legalized because we'll never know if the person would genuinely consent. The same sort of thing is what happens with teacher-student sexual relations.

It's important to recognize that coercion is not equivalent with being forced to do something. Any factor that might cause emotional pressure toward doing something counts as coercion, and it's something that comes in degrees. If I told my students that they had to pay me money for higher grades, that doesn't force anyone to pay me anything, but it does put enough pressure on them that my employers would count it as coercive of students' behavior against what they might otherwise do.

If you consider the expectations of parents, boyfriends, husbands, and society in general for what should happen in such situations, I think many choices to have an abortion are simply not entirely uncoerced, for similar reasons as in all those cases. Pro-life feminists often point out these social relations in women's choices to have abortions, and some go as far as saying that abortion is a tool in men's hands to get women to give them sex without the consequences of children. I think there's something to that. It's interesting to me that the pro-choice orthodoxy says that those who oppose abortion are allowing men to control women's choices, when there's a fairly strong argument that their own support of abortion-on-demand with no restrictions whatsoever is itself a tool in men's hands to control women's choices.

That's why I see many who have abortions as (at least to some degree) victims, in particular those who are younger and aren't even of the age to consent to sex in some states. In general, I think those who have never been in a situation should give some moral deference to those who have to make hard choices in that situation and not go overboard in blaming and pointing the finger. That doesn't we can't offer moral arguments in favor of the thesis an action is wrong, but it means we need to be open to the possibility that other factors count as a real moral excuse, i.e. that the person isn't to be blamed, at least by us, for doing that morally wrong action. Cases of partial coercion are the most obvious for that sort of thing.

I think most instances of abortion are a grievous moral wrong, but I'm not assuming that for this post. Most thoughtful pro-choicers are willing to admit that abortion in itself is a very bad thing, but they insist that there are sometimes good reasons to do it anyway. Then they will point out that many of the legal cases of abortion, including ones that take place frequently enough, are still morally wrong. That's all I need to make my point. What I'm saying here is that the person having the abortion is not necessarily the one morally responsible, and it's not clear any one person is the most morally responsible, just as in a firing squad there isn't one shooter who is causally responsible. There are too many things going on that contribute toward moral responsibility, almost all of them not sufficient by themselves for the choice (which is where the analogy with firing squads breaks down), and in that way they may share partial blame.

In too many cases I would say the lion's share of the blame falls not on the person having the abortion but on those in her life whose expectations or perceived expectations are that she will have the abortion. The industry itself also contributes quite a bit through tactics entirely consistent with the desire to make money off abortion. So do those who perpetuate the masquerade (not that all pro-choicers perpetuate this, I should note) that it's really just a matter of a woman choosing and weighing the various options, something completely unlikely given the emotional pressure of the situation. Those who refer to abortion as a choice issue or to those who oppose abortion as anti-choice are chief among these. I would add that anyone who justifies abortion morally in cases where it genuinely is wrong (which for this post I'm not assuming any particular view on) are also partly at fault for making something truly wrong out to be perfectly ok.

The statistic that most strongly supports coercion in abortion is from pregnancy counseling centers that have nothing to gain by someone's choosing to have an abortion, because they don't perform them themselves. They report that someone genuinely unsure about an abortion who agrees to wait 24 hours before making a decision will generally not have one. I'm not talking about those who have clearly made up their minds. Among those who are truly unsure, reflection over a short time tends to lead to a decision not to have an abortion, and Planned Parenthood and other organizations that stand to gain from a greater number of abortions tend to increase that number by counseling people in such a way that abortion is the favored decision. I don't know how much of this is deliberate, but given that former Planned Parenthood counselors say they've been told to try to get people to have the abortion they're not sure they want to have, I have a hard time not attributing to them a deliberate rather than unintentional role in the forces that combine to count as some degree of coercion. That's why I think Planned Parenthood so strongly opposes laws that require waiting periods with the sort of vehemence that the NRA opposes gun waiting periods. It has a similar effect as waiting 24 hours does with suicide cases.

So all in all, I think a good case can be made for the thesis that abortion is not just the decision of the individual person but is at least partially coerced in enough cases, particularly those of young girls and especially in lower-income environements, which is likely to include many of the cases that those using genocide-language have in mind. For that reason, I don't think it's a ridiculous stretch to attribute moral responsibility to people in the abortion industry for the effect of higher abortion rates among black Americans. I do think the genocide term is a little bit of a stretch, given that most cases of genocide involve a deliberate attempt, but as I said at the beginning I do think a somewhat well-defined group can commit genocide by engaging in behavior that kills them off a extremely high rates, and something like the high rate of gang-related deaths among black Americans could just as easily count as genocide, even though most of the people doing it are black. The reason I think it's a stretch in this case isn't because of who is doing it or who is morally responsible. It's because the death rate isn't high enough, just as it's not high enough with gang-related deaths. That's not what detractors of this language are saying, though, so I wanted to explain why I don't think the particular criticism about who is responsible is going to show that it's not genocide.

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8 Comments

How very timely and well-put. Your article is a welcome focus on some of the less-considered points of the abortion issue.
Your dispassionate balance is admirable.kudos!

It seems to me that people in the abortion industry have an equal interest in anyone getting an abortion, so they would not be directing their efforts more toward black people than toward anyone else. If they see more black people, it is because of external circumstances (for example poverty) and not because of their own actions. So they may be morally complicit, but it is not for the higher abortion rates among black Americans, only for whatever abortions occurred that shouldn't have if they were truly objective counselors.

Thanks for the intelligent and sensitive post; I think you're right about abortions not being the choices of disconnected, autonomous agents. Well... except for this bit, which I'm not sure I quite understand:

Pro-life feminists often point out these social relations in women's choices to have abortions, and some go as far as saying that abortion is a tool in men's hands to get women to give them sex without the consequences of children. I think there's something to that.

Do you think there's something to the last bit, too? It sounds pretty bizarre to me. Many women (self included) would prefer their sex without the pregnancy bit, thankyouverymuch. Unless you accept that birth control is coercive, because it allows men "to get women to give them sex without the consequences of children", I don't really see how the position is supposed to hold up. Seems like a heck of a bullet to bite.

I didn't mean that men are the only ones who want sex without children. I meant that men can exert pressure on women to have abortions that those women might not otherwise have, and the reason they do so is so they can continue sexual practices without possibility of having responsibilities toward children.

I'm not saying anything particularly about the desire to have sex without children. I'm talking about how it seems to be harmful to women if men's sexual freedom is such that they can exert enough psychological pressure on women they've had sex with to the point of leading them to have abortions they wouldn't otherwise have had. I don't see how sex with no resulting children can be a worthy goal to justify the kind of role it plays in men's coercion of women to have abortions.

Contraception can also be used for the same purpose (no children), but there are two differences. First, abortion is after the fact and therefore is the goal of the coercion. There's nothing like that with contraception. There's no further act to coerce unless contraception is ineffective, and then we're back to coercing abortion. Second, abortion at least contains a serious bad, at least in most cases, even if you don't accept fetal personhood. I don't think most people would accept that contraception necessarily contains any intrinsic bads (though I think it can contain some bads, depending on the motivation or perhaps the particular methods if they cause harm).

Everything you say in your response is reasonable, but I'm still having some trouble with that one sentence about the beliefs of certain pro-life feminists. Maybe it's just the way it's worded.

I certainly believe that some men coerce women to have sex with them. I also believe that some men coerce women to have abortions so that they (the men) can avoid dealing with children. The bit I don't understand is the idea (seemingly implied by the confusing sentence) that men somehow use abortions to coerce women to have sex with them.

Am I just parsing wrong?

I said that I think there's something to that, not that I agree with the sentence as it stands. The something to that is the part you agreed to, I think. I'm too tired to look over it carefully right now, but I'm not sure I need to be comitted to men actually using abortion coerce women to have sex with them to say that there's something to the feminist claim.

Your broad idea of "coercion" is a fair one. However, genocide as a concept is a limited to the the "systematic and planned killing of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group." Therefore, I don't think it is truly appropriate to define it that way; I think it is a rhetorical appeal to emotion rather than a logical extension of the concept. Leaving that aside, however, I think it is certainly fair to consider how much "choice" is really in play.

Okay, I think I may have been confused about what you meant in those two sentences. Thank you for writing back to clarify.

Said pro-life feminists are still pushing the bounds of my credulity, but I respect your entirely reasonable decision not to join them in that.

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