Last week, Congress fell short of the 2/3 majority needed to pass the Prenatal Nondiscimination Act (PRENDA) which would have banned sex selective abortion in the United States. President Obama also voiced his opposition to the bill, though he did claim he was opposed to sex-selective abortion.
I have no doubt that this is a problematic bill in terms of putting it into practice. However, the voices opposing the bill are simply repeating the same tired old arguments that show that this nation is really at yet another impasse when it comes to the abortion debate. Many critics claimed that the supporters of the bill were “hypocrites” who don’t care about sex selection but are merely looking for an underhanded way to ban all abortion and punish women. Critics of the bill also claim that there are better ways of fighting sex selection than what this bill proposes, as we see by the commentators over at the Huffington Post:
We condemn the gender bias that can lead to pressure to have a child of a particular sex. We are working against the root causes of abortion for sex selection including son preference and gender stereotypes. But there are better ways to combat gender bias than taking away a woman’s ability to make personal, private medical decisions. Instead we should be working together — as we are in our own communities — to decrease gender stereotyping that can lead to strong boy or girl preference.
As if there is only one way to fight injustice. Not that the analogy is perfect, but people said similar things when it came to segregation—let’s change hearts and minds before we consider changing the law. Both, however, are important, and sometimes hearts and minds change only after the law changes. Regardless, fighting for more gender equality and better respect for the rights of mothers is not mutually exclusive with supporting laws opposing abortion, especially in the egregious case of sex selective abortion. In pointing out the hypocrisy of the supporters of the bill, its opponents fell into a similar hypocrisy.
It is true that opponents of abortion need to be more consistent in their support for life after birth, including the lives and well-being of the women who carry the unborn. But this does not justify the decisions on the pro-choice side to fail to support legislative measures like this one which should unite both sides of the argument. Sex selective abortions may not be incredibly common, but gross violations of justice need not be common to be illegal. Rather than the same tired old arguments about hypocrisy, I would have liked the bill’s opponents to put forth an alternative, better bill that could address the concerns of both sides.
A final concern of opponents of the bill focused on turning doctors into inquisitors for women seeking to terminate a pregnancy. Undoubtedly, women seeking abortions are often in a vulnerable state, but would it really be such an awful thing to have more dialogue between doctors and patients about the reasons for pursing an abortion? For consent with any medical procedure to be valid, it must be informed. Informing a patient requires that physicians address alternatives and risks to a procedure. An abortion is a medical procedure, even if it is elective. Physicians need not assume that patients are coming in fully informed about what they are getting into. Question the motives of patients and mentioning alternatives is not about turning physicians into inquisitors; it is simply good medicine.
Our own Charlie Camosy has done remarkable, prophetic work in striving to carve out common ground on the abortion debate, but the responses to this bill make me more pessimistic that common ground is possible.
I don’t see this so much as an impass as abortion politics as usual, reflecting just as poorly on the “pro-life” side as the “pro-choice” side. Why did the bill need a two-thirds majority to pass? Because the Republicans brought it up—in violation of their own rules—under suspension of House rules.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), in an interview with Dana Milbank, acknowledged he had no expectation of passing the bill. The purpose was to force pro-choice Democrats into an embarrassing vote.
In my opinion, this was a bad bill. To many pro-lifers, it simply doesn’t matter whether a bill is good or bad, constitutional or unconstitutional, enforceable or unenforceable. It’s just important to try to pass bills that can be called “pro-life.” This enables them to say how terrible Democrats are who won’t vote for bills that are bad, unconstitutional, and unenforceable—but “pro-life.” It is a game.
(I said much the same thing on First Things in response to a post by Robert George, but First Things seems to have gone “off the air” today! It looks like someone forgot to renew their domain name.)
The issue of who should be held legally accountable for abortion if it is criminalized is hotly contested by pro-lifers who don’t want to see women who procure abortions touched in any way and pro-choicers who see that as an inconsistency. I can see a plausible argument that if abortion is criminalized, the focus of enforcement should be on the supply rather than on the demand. But I think the issue has to be examined for laws that ban abortion for specific reasons. When it is unlikely that the intention to have a sex-selective abortion is known only to the pregnant woman, and when all she has to do is remain silent about her reason for wanting the abortion (or lie), how much sense does it make to pass laws that would penalize abortionists for performing sex-selective abortions but not the women who seek them? If sex-selective abortions are banned by law under such conditions, what woman will be dumb enough to tell her doctor she’s having an abortion for the purpose of sex selection?
I am glad you brought up the failure on the pro-life side. As I mentioned in my post, I have no doubt this was a bad bill. I think you are right that this bill reflects politics as usual and a failure on both sides to work for the common good. This is why I think we are at yet another impasse when it comes to the abortion issue. From what I understand, Republicans put together this bill largely for the purpose of making Democrats (who were sure to oppose it) look bad. This isn’t politics; its immaturity. But the bill’s opponents could have offered to work with its supporters to make a better bill that both sides could support.
As far as your last question about women remaining silent on the reason for procuring an abortion, as I understand it, these abortions for the purpose of sex selection are usually late-term. Most women find out the sex around 20 weeks (although there are some tests that can allow you to find out earlier. On a side note, there are also tests that will allow you to find out around 8 weeks if the baby has Downs as well). Regardless, an abortion around 20 weeks is much more complicated than one at 8 weeks. So I think a doctor would have reason to wonder “Why is this woman going through an abortion now, halfway through the pregnancy?” I think a good doctor would try and figure out her motive and offer alternatives. In such a conversation, I think the doctor might have reason to suspect if her reason is just for the purpose of selecting sex (if the baby is otherwise healthy). I also think a good doctor would help the woman realize that this is a bad reason to undergo such a medical procedure and then the doctor wouldn’t have to report her or incur any risk himself. I saw the real strength in the bill to be encouraging such conversations to take place rather than doctors suspecting that sex-selection was at work but still keeping their mouths shut.
Regardless, sex selection might not be incredibly common in this country now, but that it takes place at all is a travesty. I think we can nip it in the bud now by both the “pro-life” and the “pro-choice” side coming together on an issue that should be a no-brainer. This is an issue where real common ground can and would be possible if we could put aside our political posturing just for a second and actually do some good.