Under the insufferably condescending headline "The Real Problem With Rick Perry's Comments About Wendy Davis," liberal concern troll Jonathan Chait explains that the "immediate liberal reaction" to Texas Governor Rick Perry's contemptible speech at the National Right to Life Conference yesterday identified the wrong problem. Perry was not attacking Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, nor dismissing her as a teen mom; he was actually "pointing to her life as a success." Instead, argues Chait, the real problem with Perry's comments are thus:
Now, to be sure, Davis would respond that giving birth was her choice, and ought to remain her choice. I agree. But this merely pushes the debate back to irreconcilable moral premises. The abortion debate, at its root, pits differing ideas on the fundamental question of what is a human life. Perry's side thinks that sperm plus egg equals human life. My side thinks the fertilized egg does not approach human status until much later in the process, which means the mother's prerogative supercedes any rights it has.Wow. Okay.
There's no real resolution to this dispute. Nobody even makes much of an effort to resolve it. Both sides advance arguments that only make sense if you already accept their premise about what a human life is. That's what Perry's doing here. He's saying we should force women to give birth even when they don't want to, because babies born in bad circumstances can be happy anyway. That isn't an acceptable burden to place on women, in my opinion, but it surely is if you think abortion is murder.
Likewise, liberals often call conservatives hypocritical for wanting to shrink government while expanding government's power to ban abortion. Except, if you think abortion is murder, then banning abortion is the sort of thing government ought to be able to do, even if it does very little overall. "Stopping murder" is one function of government that even Grover Norquist would endorse. Anti-abortion conservatives aren't hypocritical, they're (from the pro-choice standpoint) wrong about what a murder is.
I realize a plea for understanding sounds odd coming from me, not being known for gentleness. I suppose I find certain bedrock conservative beliefs, like that the poor are genetically inferior or it's okay for people to be denied access to basic medical care, to be barbaric and often simply premised on obvious mistakes. Having a different idea about when human life begins strikes me as the ultimate example of an issue where reasonable people can disagree.
First, let me address Chait's assertion that Perry did not rhetorically attack Davis. In fact, he did. Even granting the premise that Perry was "pointing to her life as a success," when a man appropriates a woman's lived experiences in order to redefine them and use them in service to his own agenda, no less when that agenda is controlling her body, that is an attack, if the word is to have any meaning at all. Whether Perry presumes to be (backhandedly) complimenting Davis or indicting her is irrelevant: He is claiming ownership of her story, her experience, and deploying it as though it is his right to use. It is not. Chait is an intelligent man; surely he can understand the particularly bitter irony of an anti-choice legislator assuming rhetorical control of a pro-choice woman's personal narrative.
Secondly, of course there is a real resolution to the "dispute" about when life begins, and if Chait actually images "nobody" has made "much of an effort to resolve it," perhaps he should make an effort to familiarize himself with the legions of feminist writers who have spilled endless amounts of ink (digital or otherwise) on this very subject. I am eminently willing to concede that people can have a good faith disagreement about when human life begins, but that has absolutely no bearing on whether the "dispute" about abortion cannot be resolved.
Granting the premise that a fetus has the equivalent value of the born uterus-having person carrying it, I will observe (once again) that my life, right now, is not so precious that any other human being could be compelled to use their body to support mine for the next nine months (at least). No other human being is obliged to give up an organ for me, even if it would save my life. Nor bone marrow, nor blood, nor skin. People who are forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term are being asked to do something no other people are asked to do for another person, which exposes the truth of the anti-choice position: Fetuses are valued more highly than the people who carry them.
Here, then, is how we resolve this disagreement: By not making an exception for the sustenance of fetal life that we make for no other life.
It isn't as though there isn't precedent in our existing law and culture. We institutionally value lives differently, some more than others, all the time. We value lives of US citizens more than the lives of non-USians. We value the lives of inmates less than the lives of the free population (among whom are many highly-rewarded perpetrators of white-collar crimes). We value the lives of the wealthy more than the poor. We value the lives of people we allow to live without healthcare access less than the lives of those who by fate or fortune have health insurance. And these are only the valuations that can and do routinely mean a visible difference between life and death.
Which is to say nothing of all the kyriarchal valuations of lives that have repercussions small and large and sometimes deadly, too.
(We also wisely value some lives over others for complex reasons, like the life of the highly-protected US President over the life of an average citizen.)
But the people who are in the seats of power that legislatively prioritize US, supposedly law-abiding, wealthy, healthcare-having lives over others are largely very privileged men. And we are expected to understand that their agreement to globally prioritize their own lives over everyone else's is Moral Values, and an individual woman's choice to value her life over a fetus is murder.
The "when does life begin" debate is nothing but smoke and mirrors to obfuscate the reality that we routinely make valuations about different lives, some rightly and some wrongly. It is an attempt to pretend that abortion is an entirely unique scenario, and thus cannot be easily resolved. And no one knows this better than the architects of the anti-choice movement, who qualify fetal life as "innocent life," as opposed to the soiled lives of, say, the people whose lives were cut short because we lacked the political will to fund effective levees or repair a crumbling bridge.
It is the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty to indulge this garbage argument about irreconcilable disagreement over when life begins. It doesn't matter even if life does begin at conception. The calculus thus becomes which life matters more, which is an assessment we are willing to make in dozens of other situations across our political and cultural landscape.
Concede their point. Then make the argument that we must actually value the actual lives of actual people who have actually been born over fetuses.
The question is not really when life begins. The question is whether we recognize women and other people with uteri as humans whose lives have intrinsic value and the rights of agency, bodily autonomy, and consent. It is only because such a vast swath of our population cannot or will not answer a resounding and unqualified "yes" to that question that there is even space for a reprehensible debate about when life begins.
The "real problem" with Perry's comments about Davis are not that they expose some tedious, specious, allegedly unresolvable debate about when life begins—an argument which is resolved by centering the humanity, agency, bodily autonomy, and consent of women. The "real problem" with Perry's comments is that they make evident that the anti-choice movement is an extension of the rape culture, which seeks to strip women of precisely those things.
Jonathan Chait, stop indulging this misogynist frame. It does not warrant serious engagement. It empowers the anti-choice position—and so, by the way, does putting forth arguments that disappear the work of pro-choice advocates.
Nobody even makes much of an effort to resolve it. Nobody? Welp. That's part of the problem, right there.