a bird and a bottle

Gimme a Break, Bill

William Saletan (who may or may not be known as Bill) is Slate’s grandaddy of abortion. He’s written a book on the topic, and it’s fair to say that he’s pretty knowledgable. But that doesn’t mean he always gets it right. And his column today is a bright flashing indicator of that.

Today Saletan takes on the ultrasound, and, more specifically, the rash of laws forcing abortion providers to offer women an ultrasound of their fetus prior to an abortion. These laws, which have no doubt been enabled by the recent Gonzales v. Carhart decision, are an extension of the “women are stupid” rhetoric that was on full display in Kennedy’s opinion in that case. Women are stupid and don’t think through decisions so we should take away a medical option. Women are stupid and don’t think through their decisions – even about abortion – and so we should shove an image of their fetus in their faces. That’s pretty much what these laws are saying.

And though Saletan acknowledges the coercive and condescending tone of such laws, he still can’t bring himself to fully condemn them. He writes:

Critics complain that these bills seek to “bias,” “coerce,” and “guilt-trip” women. Come on. Women aren’t too weak to face the truth. If you don’t want to look at the video, you don’t have to. But you should look at it, and so should the guy who got you pregnant, because the decision you’re about to make is as grave as it gets.

Ugh. He gives the head nod to women’s autonomy and strength but then tells women exactly what to do. A chauvinist wolf in sheep’s clothing if I ever saw one. Yes, he says, these ultrasounds are mostly desired as a tool to coerce, but they’re also informative! Yes, because when a woman is about to have an abortion – a moment often filled with high emotions and sometimes moral conflict -that’s just when she should be getting a biology lesson. And just because these ultrasounds are the lesser of many evils (the Fetal Pain Bill, for example), doesn’t mean they’re ok.

But Saletan thinks ultrasounds might be. And he says he’d support an ultrasound bill if it came with these requirements:

If I were a legislator, I’d offer four amendments to any ultrasound bill. First, the government should pick up the tab. Second, the woman should also be offered a six-hour videotape of a screaming 1-year-old. Third, any juror deliberating whether to issue a death sentence should be offered the chance to view an execution. Fourth, anyone buying meat should be offered the chance to watch video from a slaughterhouse. If my first amendment passed but the others failed, I’d still vote for the bill.

I’m with him on number 2 – as a balance to an ultrasound (though still, why even defend such a bill!?!?) But the rest, while defensible in other contexts, only serve to (1) distract attention from the real issues at stake here and (2) draw a stronger connection between a young, nonviable fetus and fully formed human life.

I have to say, this “I support abortion rights, but…” is starting to wear pretty thin.


12 Comments so far
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Well, the part about videos from the slaughterhouse precisely analogizes nonviable fetuses to cows and chickens, which is fair.

Anyway, I see the article as calling a bluff. If the purpose of ultrasound bills is to allow women to make an informed decision, then they should be equal opportunity, hence the video of the screaming baby. That hypothetical helps show that informed consent laws are less about informed consent than about preventing women from aborting.

Comment by Alon Levy

We had a speaker at the Florida Manatee Unitarian Universalist Fellowship yesterday. She represented Planned Parenthood. As a grandmother who has made many phone call for Womans’ Rights Issues I found the issue of forcing a potential “choice” child/woman to view her ultrasound unbeleivable.

Comment by Kim Gardner

Alon, you’re giving King Saletan the benefit of the doubt — very generously. Maybe he’s calling the bluff…but if so, he’s very apologetic while doing so.

And yes, Kim, it is unbelievable. But it’s all about undermining women’s autonomy.

Comment by bean

I think that in a society where no one is ever forced to see the implications of his/her actions (does New Orleans even exist anymore?), to single women out for this treatment is blatant hypocrisy.
I think that Saletan’s claim that he would vote for the bill even if his other amendments didn’t pass is his way of saying he knows it’s hypocritical but he’s ok with that. Why is it ok for a society to place more of a burden on women controlling their own bodies than jurors about to sentence an adult human being to death? Whatever the moral case is for showing an ultrasound (and I am not sure what that case would be), I cannot get over the hypocrisy of starting this “moral” crusade with women and their fetuses.


A six-hour video of the screaming one year old? Perhaps add a ten-hour labor video. Maybe a few instances of gross negligence by hospitals? Couldn’t the government outsource these scare tactics to the advertising industry? Or Hollywood? I call for flat screen televisions in every abortion provider, with alternating 30 minute segments, each more fair and balanced than the last.

Comment by professorplum

I give him the benefit of the doubt, yes. He comes off as analogizing the ultrasound idea to laws that nobody will seriously consider as a way of making a point. The economic equivalent of that is a left libertarian who responds to conservative complaints about welfare by saying he’s against people living on the dole, too, and listing all the subsidies the government provides the middle class.

Comment by Alon Levy

I think that in a society where no one is ever forced to see the implications of his/her actions (does New Orleans even exist anymore?), to single women out for this treatment is blatant hypocrisy.

Great point, plum. We live in a society where there is often very little accountability. Yet pregnant women, or more accurately women seeking abortions, are forced to be more accountable than anyone else. Which, of course, assumes that they aren’t already — which is probably wrong. Women seeking abortions often think long and very had about that decision. To say they need help being accountable and thinking through is an insult.

Comment by bean

Women seeking to kill their babies should not be forced to watch an ultrasound beforehand, but statement:

But you should look at it, and so should the guy who got you pregnant, because the decision you’re about to make is as grave as it gets.

is both true and reasonable.

We don’t need any more laws in this country; what we need are more people, male and female, who take accountability for their actions. Understanding what one is about to do is a key component of that and not too much to ask when the decision is one of life and death.

Since women have seized the power to dictate reproductive policy even to their own partners it’s natural that the need for accountability come along with that power. Insulting? Hardly.

What’s insulting is for a woman to say that a man who wants their child to live has barely any legal status whatsoever and no right to oppose her wishes.

Comment by blackshards

Good point, blackshards. I mean, we have to carry that child to term and then squeeze it out through our vaginas just as much as women do!

Comment by solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short

[…] weeks ago in Gonzales v. Carhart has gotten a lot of press both in traditional MSM and on blogs (including this one). That’s to be expected given the politically explosive nature of the abortion […]

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