Abortion Doctors

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I've read a number of criticisms of Justice Kennedy's decision in Carhart v. Stenberg, which upheld the federal partial-birth abortion ban. One theme I've seen several times is the claim that Kennedy's use of the term 'abortion doctors' is somehow pejorative and inappropriate. In fact, this meme seems to have initiated with Justice Ginsburg's dissent. See here for Justice Ginsburg's words in making this criticism.

When I first read about this, it seemed an unfair and illegitimate complaint, but I didn't really spend much time thinking about it or looking at the use of the term 'abortion doctor'. I decided to look around a little when I saw this post by Stuart Buck, which points out that one person now making this complaint had only two years earlier used the same expression in an entirely positive context. I did a Google search for "abortion doctor" OR "abortion doctors". Here are some of the results.

1. a directory of abortion providers
2. someone's explanation "Why I Am An Abortion Doctor"
3. a 1998 CNN news story about the murder of an abortion doctor
4. a 2003 AP news story about the execution of someone who killed an abortion doctor
5. the amazon.com entry for the book associated with #2
6. a 1997 pro-choice website seeking to organize the pro-choice movement against a murder charge an abortion doctor was facing
7. a 2003 Fox News story about the same events of #4 above
8. a 2007 Los Angeles Times piece on an aspiring abortion doctor still in medical school, which I have to note is (a) very positive about her and (b) significantly after the Kennedy opinion
9. another article about the 2003 case, this time hosted at a site about dangeous cults that places this killer in a larger category of anti-abortion extremists
10. an abortion provider directory at abortion.com, which as far as I can tell has removed whatever reference it had that placed it in the listings for this Google search

In the entire list of the top ten Google hits for this expression, I see nothing that puts abortion or abortion doctors in a negative light. Some of them are pretty impartial news stories, and some are even fairly positive news stories. A few are partisanly pro-choice. You don't get anything negative about abortion until Google hit #15, and that's in a comment someone left on a story that wasn't negative, and its point is that the term 'abortion doctor' is a contradiction in terms because it associates abortion with something positive (a point that recurs in later items in the list that are on pro-life sites). The first pro-life site is #16, and even that isn't using the term pejorative in context.

I think we can safely conclude that the term 'abortion doctor' is not some inaccurate and unfair term that only pro-lifers will use and only when they want to paint abortion doctors in a negative light. It's a pretty standard way to refer to doctors who perform abortions, it does not necessarily involve any negative opinion about those who perform abortions, and those who are claiming so are either ignorant of the facts or disingenuous, with all respect to Justice Ginsburg who seems to have started this myth.

Now I'm open to the argument that those who use this expression are somehow catering to pro-life views and that neutral or pro-choice people ought to be using other expressions. One complaint is that it defines the doctors by this one thing they do, and some people would prefer to see them as doctors who happen to perform abortions. Even if that is a fair point, it simply isn't true that only pro-life people do use the term, and it isn't true that people who are using it are seeking to portray these doctors negatively. It is thus false that it is a pejorative label in the sense that Justice Ginsburg and others making this complain seem to intend. It is not some term used only within the pro-life movement to portray abortion doctors pejoratively. It is a mainstream term used by a variety of people, including mainstream news publications, and those who are using it do not seem to have any morally loaded view as they use it.

2 Comments

Good points. I've been reading your blog for a couple of weeks now and like it immensely.

As far as your post, I think what it really boils down to is that this is a super-charged, polarizing topic, and every little thing about it is picked apart and over analyzed. "Abortion doctor", "abortion provider", "pro-choice", "pro-abortion", "anti-choice", "pro-life" - all these terms have strong connotations that transcend their denotation, and those connotations change and mutate over time. Something that may have once been considered a neutral label, begins to be perceived as pejorative due to a twisting of its meaning or consistently unflattering usage by those on the opposing side.

Look at the question of whether to call a pre-born child a "baby" or a "fetus". Fetus is a perfectly accurate term describing a developmental stage of a human, the same way "toddler" or "adolescent" is - however to a pro-lifer, calling the un-born a fetus is seen as a label used to de-humanize. And, likewise, to a pro-choicer, calling "it" a "baby" looks like an emotional ploy to humanize something they believe isn't human at all, but likened to 'fish' or 'a mass of cells'. This whole debate pretty much is a war of words, with neither side seeming to gain any ground, since the whole fight in the US gets decided by just 9 people in funny robes (http://www.answers.com/topic/scotus-2006-2-jpg)

One thing I've been mulling over lately is the question of viability. This isn't fully-baked yet, but consider this... Once upon a time, a baby couldn't live outside the mother before 30 weeks. Nowadays, it's more like 25. Someday, it will likely be closer to 18 or 20. When will it ever reach a point where a baby is viable (with medical intervention of course) at such an early stage, that at the time when most abortion-minded women are making that choice, that baby could instead be extracted to live without the mother? Would even the staunchest pro-choicer finally link abortion with murder? Could it ever happen? And if it could happen in some far off distant future world where medicine is better than it is today - wouldn't any rational thinking person see that the ethics and morality never changed, just the science? Just a thought...

Viability is already more like 22 months. There have been kids who have survived at that age. I don't know if viability is supposed to be when a baby can survive or when a baby is likely to survive, but the suffix "-ability" suggests possibility rather than probability, which means viability is more like 22 months.

The most important argument in favor of abortion rights disappears completely when we have the technology to remove a fetus with artificial embryos. Most pro-choicers don't think a woman has a right to the death of her fetus. They just think she has a right to its removal, which happens to result in its death. Otherwise there wouldn't be such widespread opposition to late-term abortions even within those who hold to a pro-choice position. But I think they'll insist that they have that right to removal even in the case of guaranteed death of the fetus.

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