Friday, August 15, 2008

Parent Versus Parent

"The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right."
Over on Slate, Linda Hirshman penned an article on how the Democrats new platform on abortion, above. In it, she takes the Democrats to task over their earlier platform, which was something of a compromise position, stating a desire for abortion to be safe and legal, but also rare. Her basic premise is that the right to abortion should be more or less absolute, regardless of the reason - abortion as the last chance for birth control.

"Women," Hirshman says, after dissecting the numbers around popular support for abortion, "whose economic prospects plummet with the birth of a child, now face 65 percent majorities who would support criminalizing their decision to abort because they are too poor for parenthood."

But what does it mean to be "too poor for parenthood?" A quick nip over to the dictionary comes up with a few understandings of the word "parent," among them: "a: one that begets or brings forth offspring, b: a person who brings up and cares for another." "Women bear the overwhelming majority of child-rearing responsibility in this society," Hirshman tells us, evidently worried that we might forget this basic fact. But that only deals with the b: definition of being a parent. And nothing says that the woman who rears a child must be the same woman who bore it. And this is the basic, glaring omission in Hirshman's argument. Her logic is based on combining the two basic understandings of what it means to be a parent into a single, indivisible act. Were she correct in this, she'd have a very good point, as far as I'm concerned. It does seem somewhat drastic to sentence a mother to possibly a lifetime of caring for a child - especially in a society that tends to be stingy when it comes to helping out others - from an unintended pregnancy. But there is no such requirement that the mother single-handedly raise the child. Leaving aside for the moment the idea of the father as a resource, for all of the rhetoric, a mother can, for all intents and purposes, chose to walk away from a baby. (Although, given modern trends, the child is likely to come looking for her later.) The right-to-life movement does not, for the most part, also subscribe to a platform that children have a right to be raised by the same people that bore them, at least not publicly. (Not that I doubt for a moment that such types exist.) Thus, we are left to ask if the cost of only bearing a child in modern-day America is so high that it can derail women's "ability to develop their capacities through education, to use them to achieve economic independence and political citizenship, to take on only the relationships they can manage." I suspect that it can, but I would also suspect that such cases are much rarer than those in which approximately 18 years of child rearing would prove burdensome.

Hirshman seems aggrieved by the fact that although 80% of people surveyed "firmly support abortion in cases in which there is rape, incest, or a threat to the mother's life or health," only a quarter of those support using abortion as a means of birth control; and she sees the earlier Democratic platform that seemed to try to appeal to that broader demographic as a betrayal of those women who would chose abortion for economic or social reasons. Her equation of a the former platform of Safe, Legal, and Rare, with "regret, depression, and self-denigration," seems to also equate valuing women's lives with a definition of autonomy that seems to border on a freedom to be whimsical. But her complete neglect of options other than abortion seems to imply that such autonomy ends at the moment of delivery, which leaves us where such discussions usually founder: If the point at which responsibility trumps autonomy is arbitrary, why is one line any more appropriate than another?

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