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Saletan, right but so wrong

It would be interesting to meet and talk with Will Saletan. To watch him work through his obviously divided mind on the abortion issue. To make him defend statements like this:

Roe is 33 years old today. It freed us from ham-fisted criminal laws that pretended to solve the abortion problem. But it didn’t solve the problem, and it never will. It gave us the opportunity – and the challenge – to help women exercise choice before, not after, fetal development. In the moral arc of history, abortion was a step forward from infanticide. Abortion pills that act early in pregnancy are the next step, followed by morning-after pills, which prevent implantation. The ultimate destination is contraception or abstinence.


The point of his piece is that the abortion rights movement ignores abortion, and should address it forthrightly- should make decreasing the instance of abortion a part of its package, as it recognizes the reality that while most Americans do not support total criminalization of abortion, neither are they happy with the procedure.

But Saletan himself commits the very sin he names. For he ignores abortion – the reality of it. His framing of the moral issue blasts this loud and clear, indicating that he doesn’t see abortion as the taking of a human life but as pregnancy, er, prevention. This is not the cause of the un-ease with abortion which he addresses. The un-ease is rooted in the unspoken knowledge of what abortion is and does, the reality of death that haunts the culture and warps it more with each passing year.


And, as we’ve discussed here before, no way no how that the core of the abortion rights movement is ever going to agree to describing abortion as anything but neutral in its public face. 

And Saletan, your moral arc reaches all the way around and consumes itself.

Update: Mark Stricherz is harsher in his assessment, calling his post on this piece "When a Pro-Choice Intellectual becomes unhinged."

Mr. Saletan’s thesis is shot through with false statements, absurdities, straw men, and propaganda. If his previous writings were not smart and lucid, I would conclude that his Times piece was written by a spokesperson for Sen. Hillary Clinton. But since there is no reason to think it was, my guess is that this was a momentary flight from reason.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 11:45 am

I didn’t realize the U.S. was overrun with rampant infanticides in the 1950’s and 60’s.

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Gerard E.

posted January 22, 2006 at 11:53 am

Saletan and his fellow idealogues cannot name the name. Cannot grasp the real-world effects of their beloved procedure- the physical, emotional and psychological damage to far too many women. Cannot grasp that their own collective sin, growing tighter and tighter around their spirits, makes them more and more frootloop. Unable to engage in serious, adult discussion- no screaming or name-calling- on other issues such as the War in Iraq, Social Security, enduring poverty, etc. As our man Mark Shea has noted, Roe v. Wade blights the body politic, and will continue to so if remaining the law of the land. And only consume those for whom it is Most Holy Writ. Until they name it and discard it.

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Another Steve

posted January 22, 2006 at 12:59 pm

“to help women exercise choice before, not after, fetal development. In the moral arc of history, abortion was a step forward from infanticide.”
Was S drunk when he wrote that piece or does he just have a very dodgy dictionary?
I mean “before not after fetal development.” If it’s a fetus it’s developing right!
“abortion was a step forward from infanticide”
Yeah, getting in first before the cries of a baby can reach its mother’s ears.
Amy you’re so right about “reality of death that haunts the culture and warps it more with each passing year.” An intensly ugly situation so well put.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 1:43 pm

What my husband and I found so interesting was his proposal for reducing abortions. Did he encourage his readers to work for a society that is more welcoming of children and more supportive of mothers? No. The problem, apparently, is that women get pregnant in the first place! Pills for everyone, and the problem goes away. As if pregnancy is a disease. Gross.

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John P Sheridan

posted January 22, 2006 at 2:10 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with all the points made above. I also think Saletan is in for a rude awakening if he thinks the folks at NARAL, etc., will ever admit that there is anything the slightest bit wrong with any abortion, ever.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 2:24 pm

Divided opinion on this one. First, consider his audience, and at least he’s attempting inroads against what Mr Sheridan suggests. Second, he does attempt to find common ground in the thought that people should make responsible choices in the realm of rushed marriages, promiscuity, and the like. The title of his op-ed alludes to said common ground. Can we all agree that many people are having children who really shouldn’t be?
Aware that many pro-lifers find the use of contraception morally evil, I ask a practical question: If abortion is framed as a life issue, and the culture can be persuaded, will it help or hurt to introduce the moral issue of contraception (and by contraception I don’t include abortifacients)?
Regarding the question, “Did he encourage his readers to work for a society that is more welcoming of children and more supportive of mothers?” Well, the answer on this short essay is no. But then again a single op-ed, ambitious as this one may be, cannot hope to cover everybody’s pet issue.
Saletan sort of promotes the conservative agenda, if he’s intentionally left out the societal improvement angle. That would be where the liberals chime in, right? Build a better culture, inclusive of all, etc..
Lastly, I think we should realize that many pro-choice people find abortion personally repugnant. We might find that a bit of moral two-timing, but it might be the best inroad the pro-life movement has. Instead of condemning it (out loud at least) perhaps it gives us a clue as to how to better proceed in making converts.
Or we could, you know, just keep on biting and tearing each other apart. That might sell more commerical time, you never know.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 3:02 pm

Lots of people honestly don’t believe that abortion is the killing of a baby. Lots of people honestly believe that it is. Lots of people are genuinely uncertain. Neither of the two sides that are certain can even admit that the others’ belief is sincerely held, let alone understandable, so good luck with “converting” anyone.

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Once was lost

posted January 22, 2006 at 4:27 pm

Katherine: I sincerely believe that abortion is the killing of the baby. I also think it is not a matter of belief but of knowledge. To quote Mark Twain, although he was speaking of infant baptism – “Believe in it? Hell, I’ve SEEN it!”
Contrary to what you’ve said, I will gladly admit that the other side’s belief is sincerely held. Given the way the discussion has gone on in the media the last forty years, no wonder some people sincerely believe abortion is all about “women’s rights” and that the baby is a “fetus” (but for some reason the mother is never a “gravida,” as anothefposter said elsewhere) of no more value than tonsils or an appendix, etc. In fact, I once believed abortion should be legal, but I was converted slowly, over time, in stages, thanks to coherent moral theology and especially thanks to the photos on the Priests for Life website. I took one look and said, “It’s worse than the holocaust.” So I was converted by both reason and feeling.
It CAN be done.

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tim Young

posted January 22, 2006 at 4:28 pm

“Lastly, I think we should realize that many pro-choice people find abortion personally repugnant.”
I’m confused. Why would someone who is “pro-choice” find abortion “personally repugnant”. If it’s really that “repugnant”, why not just be against it?

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posted January 22, 2006 at 5:15 pm

A lot of people think that, say, autopsies, are personally repugnant. But though gross, most people agree that autopsies are not evil.
A lot of people think surgeries are gross, too, and don’t want to watch them; but they don’t think they’re evil.
Unfortunately, many pro-abortion people think of abortion as an unpleasant but necessary procedure. Some even think it’s regrettable but necessary, like killing someone in self-defense. To them, babies are a danger, a threat to a woman’s self and existence, which can only be defused by having absolutely perfect preparation beforehand. (And lots of money.) The worst thing is that, at the same time, they often feel that nine months is too long, and that giving up their children for adoption would be an unforgivable act.
Intellectually, I understand that they feel this way. And I know they often feel this way because their own lives have been full of bad stuff and consequent self-hatred. (One woman I know blames her own problems on being adopted out to bad parents, so she felt she couldn’t put her own baby through that.)
But my heart can’t understand it at all. Adults are the ones who are supposed to sacrifice things for kids — even other people’s kids. It’s not the other way around. Any chance at life is surely better than stealing that chance away, and just because I hate my own life doesn’t mean I should take life away from others. But not everyone sees it that way, which is a great indictment of our culture.

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posted January 22, 2006 at 5:34 pm

re the moral two-timing point, and whether splitting the issue (i.e. considering the right to choose as being seperable and reasonably capable of a different answer to whether it IS right to choose yes) is a possible inroad, I have tried this tack many times. I often just concede, for argument’s sake, that the law ought to let an individual decide by reference to their own conscience, and suggest we go straight on to whether it is morally right or wrong to choose to excercise the legal right. I have mostly been met by a refusal, adopting many rhetorical devices, to confront the ultimate issue at all and an obstinate desire to return to the relative safety of the issue of the right to individual choice.
Other than describing abortion as being progress on a moral arc, Saletan does sort of try to confront the ultimate issue but in a way that I think is deeply deeply flawed. He invents consensus – everyone thinks its wrong! hooray! it’s just that in some instances it’s “less bad” than other (unspecified) things. And here I was under the misapprehension that some people weren’t willing to admit that there is a moral issue here. Now that we am informed that we’re all on the same side, we can lay off trying to convince people it’s wrong and join together to try to reduce those nasty pregnancies from occurring in the first place (with of course the final solution for those regrettable ones that fall through the net). Sorry, not buying any of that.
He thinks its bad but knows “many women” (who by inference also think its bad) who have decided it is less bad than…
Really? Many women? Makes you wonder what number of things are thought to be “more bad”.

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Shaun G

posted January 22, 2006 at 7:55 pm

As much as this op/ed begs for pro-lifers to call Saletan out on his biases, he’s usually not this easily pegged.
I’ve found his past work on religion, abortion, stem-cell research, and right-to-life issues to be, on the whole, some of the most even-keeled and thought-provoking out there.
He not only gives ample space to pro-life arguments, he also sometimes seems almost sympathetic to them — in the sense that he tends not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: If an imperfect argument for a pro-life position is given to him, he’ll acknowledge that which is true about the argument (even when he has to do a lot of legwork to find that truth) rather than waging a straw man attack.

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Donna V.

posted January 22, 2006 at 8:03 pm

Maureen: I think you’ve given an excellent summary of exactly how many people think about abortion. Not the rabid NARAL activist, but the average, vaguely “pro-choice” American voter. I thought that way once myself, God help me.
It’s “regrettable but necessary,” because well, gee, cousin Caitlin is only 18 and is going to start college next fall,…,Mary’s already got 2 kids and Bob just got laid off,…, Sally just found out the kid has Down’s, and who wants to deal with that, etc.
And they know Caitlin’s a sweet kid (yeah, a bit irresponsible, but heck, weren’t we all at 18?), Mary and Bob seem like decent, hard-working folk, Sally helps out at the school bake sale and so forth. Those people have faces and voices – their babies are seen by nobody except the abortionist – and God.
We are, as a society, extraordinarily uncomfortable with the idea of sacrifice. Asking other people to make sacrifices, to do the right, hard thing strikes some as utterly arrogant, because that baby is nothing but an abstraction to them and like Maureen says, abortion is nothing but an unpleasant but effective way of solving a “problem.”

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posted January 22, 2006 at 9:55 pm

The tough question is not asking people to make sacrifices.
The tough question is what does society do to the people who, after abortion is outlawed, go ahead and have one anyway? or travel to the next state or abroad to get one?
Conservatives have been dodging that question in the political arena for thirty years. Bush 41 is still trying to sort it out and get back to us.
A murder should be punished as a murder. Are we prepared to carry that language into political action?
I may be wrong, but I don’t think our society is willing to do it. And therein lies the problem.

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Donna V.

posted January 22, 2006 at 10:30 pm

The tough question is what does society do to the people who, after abortion is outlawed, go ahead and have one anyway? or travel to the next state or abroad to get one?
Good question. I’m wondering: what was done in the pre-Roe era? I’m sure plenty of women traveled to states like NY (which already had very liberal abortion laws) to get abortions. Were they subject to prosecution in their home states?

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posted January 22, 2006 at 11:00 pm

Shaun, I agree. I’ve posted Saletan’s Slate articles here, regularly, usually with good things to say about them. As I put it in an email to someone earlier, Saletan’s admirable quality is that he is willing to let pro-life arguments speak for themselves.
Which is rare in contemporary discource, and something to be thankful for.
But that moral arc in which abortion is a step forward?

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Sydney Carton

posted January 22, 2006 at 11:53 pm

“The tough question is what does society do to the people who, after abortion is outlawed, go ahead and have one anyway? or travel to the next state or abroad to get one?”
Manslaughter. 3-5 years.

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Michael Hugo

posted January 23, 2006 at 5:36 am

Sigh. Modernism, people. Abortion won’t go away with clever argumentation, or by restructuring the debate. The war is deeper than abortion. Deeper, far deeper than “Gay Marriage”.
The people discussing this issue on this site will be gone in fifty to a hundred years. Will there be people still discussing this in a hundred years? Not if the forces of Modernism have anything to say about it. They are actively working to educate your children and grand-children, through every avenue open to them.
Do you think I am being alarmist? Take a look at “catholic europe” and tell me I’m not ringing the bell about a hundred years too late.
They say that 50% of students lose their faith when they attend a secular college or university. How many people on this site have sent your kids to a secular university (or pseudo-catholic college)? Has anyone EVER heard a Priest or Bishop warn parents of the consequences of this decision? I believe, sadly, that some of the people reading this blog will leave the Church in the next ten years. Almost certainly your kids will, if you sent them to a secular school.
Irrelevant? No. It is directly related to this issue, because the agenda of Modernism (or whatever you want to call it) is comprehensive. Public school? No support for vouchers? Especially for religious schools? People leaving the Catholic Church by the tens of millions? The EU requiring Catholic Countries to conform to the “rights” spelled out in the EU Charter? The U.N. Population Fund? I could go on forever.
In order to defeat abortion, or to be less specific, the “culture of death”, every able bodied woman and child will have to commit themselves and their families to defeating, or at least opposing, Modernism (or secular humanism, humanist utopianism, whatever you want to call it). And it has to be done, generation after generation.
But who is going to lead the charge? The Catholic Church? Well, I think it’s our best bet right now, but as PBXVI said, our Church could become a really small church. Barring a sudden resurgence of Catholic monarchies, democracies are all about the numbers game. As the Church shrinks, the democratic clout of the Church will decrease.
That is, unless the Church actually starts to TEACH Catholics. Teach them not to send their kids to public schools, or secular universities. Not to pollute their minds with trash music, film, TV. Teach all Catholics that “living in the world and not of it” requires identifying what the world is and rejecting it. That there are choices that have to be made, and that our choices have consequences. Will the Church start teaching this?
Sadly, at the macro level, and in the mid-term, I think the abortion battle will be lost. Even if we “win”, we will have lost, because we keep ignoring the real issue. But, go ahead. Give it your best shot. Saving a single life is worth anything that we can do.
I actually believe (and I’m going out on a limb here) that the best chance for the elimination of abortion on a national level (some nation, not ours) is Islam. Let’s see what happens in the next 30-50 years in Eurabia. Could get interesting.

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posted January 23, 2006 at 9:33 am

My wife and I have a friend, a desperately unhappy woman who wanted more than anything to be married and have children. She managed to get pregnant by one-night stand, and eventually decided to keep the baby and raise him herself. (The father wanted nothing to do with either of them and she decided to keep it that way.)
The crazy thing is that the rest of her friends saw this as a selfish thing to do, and many of them came right out and told her she should have had an abortion.
She is, of course, frequently at her limit as she trieds to raise her son and hold down a full-time job. We all try to help her as we can, but you just would not believe the griping that goes on behind this woman’s back. As though she did something wrong by not murdering her baby.

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Mila Morales

posted January 23, 2006 at 10:05 am

Michael Hugo, I agree with most of your post. The sad state of “Catholic” Europe should be warning enough. But I wish I could agree with you that sending one’s children to Catholic schools will change everything.
I raised my four children in the ’70s and ’80s. When my oldest when to high school, we enrolled her in a “Catholic” school–from where she would come home and tell me that “what they tell me there is NOT what you are teaching me here”. So her faith was being undermined by the very people who I was trusting to help her grow in it! And I hate to say it, our parochial school wasn’t much better.
Yes, the Church needs to teach Catholics. But teach them what we really believe and why. And make sure Catholic schools are really Catholic, and not just a copy of a secular school with one religion class added to the curriculum.

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posted January 23, 2006 at 12:49 pm

“The tough question is what does society do to the people who, after abortion is outlawed, go ahead and have one anyway? or travel to the next state or abroad to get one?”
On the same page with the Saletan piece was one about what would happen to those who do just that. The writer speculated that some states would pass a law forbidding crossing state lines for an abortion such as the one Ireland had until recently. This could also be done by detaining pregnant women, a kind of “prior restraint”, not just prosecuting them when they come home. The relationship between red and blue states would get as testy as it was when the authorities were trying to settle fugitive slave issues pre-Civil Was.
I doubt it’ll come to that. Detaining a pregnant woman sounds like the Orwellian overkill most citizens won’t tolerate. Maybe a law on the books forbidding crossing state lines- easily evaded. Who’s to know the woman was pregnant?

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posted January 23, 2006 at 1:54 pm

My impression of Saletan is that, like many pro-choicers, one of the only things he likes less than abortion is pro-lifers.
I think he knows that abortion is wrong ad destructive, but can’t get himself to be on the same side as Tom DeLay, et al.
Not a very good excuse, but cause for prayer.

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Maureen O'Brien

posted January 23, 2006 at 2:34 pm

Re: “selfishly” keeping a baby
Well, if you’ve defined abortion as a heroic act of sacrifice that is the best thing for everyone, obviously keeping the baby must be selfish. Why, you’ve condemned that baby to a life of peanut butter sandwiches and hand-me-downs, for nothing but your own selfish values and peace of mind. How dare someone choose differently? How dare someone not get suckered?
Re: what to do if abortion were outlawed
It’s pretty plain to me that abortion, like attempting suicide or cutting or anorexia, is a sign of deep psychological illness. Women suffering from the urge to abort, or who have gotten an abortion, should be given psychological help to cure this illness and prevent the urge striking again. (Unless the woman did it under duress, in which case she’s still going to need help, but of a different kind.) People who procure and do abortions would have to be differentiated between criminals who do it for cold profit (monetary or otherwise) and those unfortunate people who are confused and ill enough to do such a horrible thing.

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