An Open Letter to William Saletan: Please Write Another Book About Abortion

24 Nov

Dear Mr. Saletan,

We haven’t met but I’ve been following you on Slate for quite some time now. So when I read your last two articles “What pro-choicers/pro-lifers can learn from the Princeton abortion conference” none of your recommendations were new to me. In short, you said pro-choicers should:

  1. Admit the value of the fetus.
  2. Embrace abortion reduction.
  3. Treat contraception as a moral practice.
  4. Reclaim stigma.
  5. Target repeaters.
  6. Reconsider the legality of second-trimester abortions.

In return you said pro-lifers should:

  1. Reduce the abortion rate through voluntary means.
  2. Subsidize maternity.
  3. Embrace contraception.
  4. Early abortions are better than late ones.
  5. Choose your friends by your mission, not your mission by your friends.

Here’s my main problem with your approach to finding common ground in the abortion issue. Since you know who the existing players you should also know that many of these recommendations are not “common ground,” but points of debate and contention. Now to be fair, there probably are many people who would say they are either pro-life or pro-choice and would see this as “common ground” — but those people are the not leaders or activists in either movement.

You wrote:

The reason why young, poorly funded people represented the pro-life movement at this conference is that the old, well-funded people who think they own the movement failed to show up. That’s the role young people ought to play in history: thinking in new ways and taking on new challenges when the older generation has lost its compass or its courage. If the pro-life movement is going to be a movement and not just a self-congratulatory fundraising machine, it will need people like Gushee and Camosy to lead the way. These forward thinkers may have to choose between preventing abortions and pleasing the pro-life establishment. It’s up to them to choose well.

Your need to define what the “real” pro-choicer/pro-lifer beliefs are is a bit like pundits who point to Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and say that they are the real Republicans, not people like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Sure it’s good to be aspirational when writing about movements. It’s why Obama’s campaign slogan was “Yes We Can.” But you saw what happened to him when he tried to deal with a Republican leadership of his imagination instead of the Republican leadership that actually exists.

You seem to keep trying to find pro-life leaders you like instead of the ones that actually exist. The ones that don’t equate birth control or emergency contraception as abortion. The ones that don’t equate increased sex education with increased sin. I know you have criticized National Right to Life Committee, Democrats for Life of America, and anyone who keeps claiming that there is abortion funding in the Obama healthcare act.

So instead of trying to find bargaining positions with the most powerful pro-life groups and leaders, you keep pushing the middle-of-the-road group Third Way as a group who can speak to the real voices in the abortion debate. Not the extremists, the “compromise” people who surely – you insist—must exist. Common ground! A middle way! Except that no one is following their lead except pundits like yourself (who, as Jon Stewart might put it, aren’t out on the field battling this issue).

Here’s the thing. You’ve said that while you are pro-choice you’re not part of the “movement.” You’re basically an armchair critic of both sides, a favorite of neither. At least speaking for pro-choice activists, I know I’ve said “please get off my side.”

While you are trying to encourage who you think are the “right” pro-life voices, you also haven’t looked at the younger pro-choice voices either. In the pro-choice movement it’s the older activists, the ones that actually lead establishment organizations like NARAL, who speak your language. People like Steph Herold who started this blog and are part of a cadre of younger reproductive rights writers, don’t find much agreement with your suggestions. (If you want a point-by-point critique of why pro-choicers find fault with your list, here’s one.)

Meanwhile on the pro-life side, their counterpoints, bloggers like Jill Stanek, are against birth control. Stanek didn’t speak directly about your recommendations; she threw it to her readers. You can read their comments yourself. The older generation, those that lead the organizations in the pro-life movement, are even less willing to compromise on issues like birth control, emergency contraception and better sex education.

You say you represent some middle ground of Americans, the pro-Roe but anti-abortion mindset. The large majority of Americans who want to keep abortion legal, but aren’t spurred to any action about it, other than voting and answering the occasional pollster’s question about how they feel about abortion. Polls which you then use to extrapolate some kind of cultural-level message actual pro-choice and pro-life groups should be pushing. (The above lists for example).

But see I’ve read and liked your 2003 book on the Post-Roe fights about abortion: Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War. I’m wondering if you’ve backed away from what you learned in the writing of that book. Or what happened to change your mind?

In 2006 you wrote:

The lesson of John Kerry’s defeat, and arguably the whole sorry history of recent Democratic politics, is that nuance kills. (I wrote a book arguing the opposite, but, uh, I’ll explain that another time.)

I looked but I never found your follow-up to that tidbit, which was a link to Bearing Right and abortion politics.

In an article about a 2009 meeting Obama convened about trying to find common ground between pro-lifers and pro-choicers you wrote that Melody Barnes, director of Domestic Policy Council and a former board member of Emily’s List, should give up the distinction between reducing the need for abortions and reducing abortion. No one cares about the nuance, you said. Let’s just focus on reduction through voluntary means. Except the distinction between reducing abortion through voluntary means or involuntary is the whole ball of wax. (Also, number 6 on your list for pro-choicers is not about voluntary means of reducing abortion, it’s about making it unavailable, ie involuntary.)

Smarter people than I (starting with Katha Politt) have been telling you over and over again that pro-choice groups absolutely support efforts that indirectly reduce abortion, using the very methods you are always citing – increased access to birth control, better sex education, and even increased governmental support for women who have children. Everyone knows the cost of raising children is a big part in a decision to have them — even among middle-class families — but no less among those not in the middle-class. So it should be somewhat ideologically consistent to support things that help women in terms of their economic status in society. More poor women equals more abortions, right? So it’s not surprising then that most women’s organizations who support keeping abortion legal also lobbied for the Paycheck Fairness Act. So where was Concerned Women for America or the Susan B. Anthony List on that bill? Oh right, they were against it.

Here’s what I don’t understand. In 2003 you wrote a great book about fights about abortion. You spent a lot of time seeped in the issue. But since then you’ve been making recommendations for pro-choice and pro-life groups as if you are a foreigner who doesn’t understand the nuances of the disagreement. It’s a bit like someone who knows nothing about the history of Israel and the Palestinians and saying “It’s simple, why don’t you guys just share control of Jerusalem, problem solved, right?”

Or to make another analogy, it’s a bit like being an armchair critic of the Iraq War without ever having been on the ground in Iraq or speaking to any Iraqis themselves. You’re flying so high above the issue talking to executive directors and activists of both sides about theoretical things like embracing moral ambiguity that I wonder if you actually know what the abortion feels like to most people when they are going through it?

So this is my major plea to you: Write another book about abortion. Spend some time seeing what the steps to obtain an abortion are like for actual women. Not just the ones in New York or DC, although feel free to compare and contrast experiences in different states, different counties. Listen to what the anti-choice protestors are shouting outside clinics and take photos of the signs they are holding. People who don’t think about abortion very much are often genuinely shocked to find out there are loud, abrasive protestors shouting at women who are trying to get into clinics. At most people think this only happened in the 1980s and 1990s. They don’t realize the protestors never went away. It also doesn’t only happen at the high-profile clinics like Dr. Tiller’s. The protestors stand outside clinics in every state in the union. Scott Roeder was one of those former protestors. You’ll see why they make pro-choicers nervous, scared and angry.

Examine the actual cost of abortion, especially since a major blowback from the healthcare debate was pro-life activists removing insurance coverage of abortion from existing plans, not just future ones.

Talk to women about why they are seeking an abortion instead of continuing the pregnancy. Hear some stories about why the unplanned pregnancies happened. Explore what the ultrasound bills actual require, not just at a theoretical level, but what real state law dictates. See how many women end up having to pay for the ultrasounds out of their own pocket because of this trendy new requirement. Also find out what actual women seeking an abortion felt about both the requirement to get it and the ultrasound itself. Did it make any of them change their minds? And if it didn’t, if there’s a 100% non-conversion rate, is it worth asking if the requirement is merely punitive instead of informative.

Listen to some of the scripts that doctors are required to read to their patients seeking abortion. Talk to actual doctors how they feel about them and what they’ve observed.

As far as I can tell you also haven’t ever written about Crisis Pregnancy Centers. (If I’m wrong please do correct me.) I know you probably followed the recent New York City Council legislation that would require CPC to disclose that they do not offer abortions and they are not medical facilities. NARAL has done a lot of work looking into what CPC are actually telling women and how they operate. But if you don’t want to trust NARAL’s research, why not do some of your own? See how CPC’s are fitting into the pro-life structural framework and compare what they are actually doing (not just their talking points). Are you comfortable with the work they are doing and how they are representing the pro-life side?

Then go to the state legislatures. Most of your recommendations, indeed your conversations, are with people who talk about abortion at the federal level (or cultural level). But these days the real rights about actual abortion policy are happening at the state level. They range from issues like pharmacists’ rights of refusal to hand out emergency contraception to whether state department of health regulations are changed to close existing clinics to bills that remove insurance coverage of abortion from all public workers’ health plans.

These are the real trenches in the abortion fights. Before talking about common ground between pro-lifers and pro-choicers why not spend some more time figuring out what these so-called unimportance nuances actually mean?

Yes it’ll all be anecdotal, but I think it will be instructive. It’s been 7 years since you wrote Bearing Right, I’d be interested to see what new conclusions you come to about abortion after spending some time on the ground. I have faith that pro-choice activists like myself see the issue better from our vantage point. But maybe you can show us why we have it wrong.

Dear Mr. Saletan,

We haven’t met but I’ve been following you on Slate for quite some time now. So when I read your last
two articles “What pro-choicers/pro-lifers can learn from the Princeton abortion conference” none of
your recommendations were new to me. In short, you said pro-choicers should:

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.

Admit the value of the fetus.
Embrace abortion reduction.
Treat contraception as a moral practice.
Reclaim stigma.
Target repeaters.
Reconsider the legality of second-trimester abortions.

In return you said pro-lifers should:

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

Reduce the abortion rate through voluntary means.
Subsidize maternity.
Embrace contraception.
Early abortions are better than late ones.
Choose your friends by your mission, not your mission by your friends.

Here’s my main problem with your approach to finding common ground in the abortion issue. Since
you know who the existing players you should also know that many of these recommendations are
not “common ground,” but points of debate and contention. Now to be fair, there probably are many
people who would say they are either pro-life or pro-choice and would see this as “common ground” –
but those people are the leaders or activists in either movement.

You wrote:

The reason why young, poorly funded people represented the pro-life movement at this
conference is that the old, well-funded people who think they own the movement failed to
show up. That’s the role young people ought to play in history: thinking in new ways and
taking on new challenges when the older generation has lost its compass or its courage. If the
pro-life movement is going to be a movement and not just a self-congratulatory fundraising
machine, it will need people like Gushee and Camosy to lead the way. These forward thinkers
may have to choose between preventing abortions and pleasing the pro-life establishment. It’s
up to them to choose well.

Your need to define what the “real” pro-choicer/pro-lifer beliefs are is a bit like pundits who point
to Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and say that they are the real Republicans, not people like John
Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Sure it’s good to be aspirational when writing about movements. It’s
why Obama’s campaign slogan was “Yes We Can.” But you saw what happened to him when he tried to
deal with a Republican leadership of his imagination instead of the Republican leadership that actually
exists.

You seem to keep trying to find pro-life leaders you like instead of the ones that actually exist. The ones
that don’t equate birth control or emergency contraception as abortion. The ones that don’t equate
increased sex education with increased sin. I know you have criticized National Right to Life Committee,
Democrats for Life of America, and anyone who keeps claiming that there is abortion funding in the
Obama healthcare act.

So instead of trying to find bargaining positions with the most powerful pro-life groups and leaders, you
keep pushing the middle-of-the-road group Third Way as a group who can speak to the real voices in
the abortion debate. Not the extremists, the “compromise” people who surely – you insist—must exist.
Common ground! A middle way! Except that no one is following their lead except pundits like yourself
(who, as Jon Stewart might put it, aren’t out on the field battling this issue).

Here’s the thing. You’ve said that while you are pro-choice you’re not part of the “movement.” You’re
basically an armchair critic of both sides, a favorite of neither. At least speaking for pro-choice activists, I
know I’ve said “please get off my side.”

While you are trying to encourage who you think are the “right” pro-life voices, you also haven’t looked
at the younger pro-choice voices either. In the pro-choice movement it’s the older activists, the ones
that actually lead establishment organizations like NARAL, who speak your language. People like Steph
Herold who started this blog and are part of a cadre of younger reproductive rights writers, don’t find
much agreement with your suggestions. (If you want a point-by-point critique of why pro-choicers find
fault with your list, here’s one.)

Meanwhile on the pro-life side, their counterpoints, bloggers like Jill Stanek, are against birth control.
Stanek didn’t speak directly about your recommendations; she threw it to her readers. You can read
their comments yourself. The older generation, those that lead the organizations in the pro-life
movement, are even less willing to compromise on issues like birth control, emergency contraception
and better sex education.

You say you represent some middle ground of Americans, the pro-Roe but anti-abortion mindset. The
large majority of Americans who want to keep abortion legal, but aren’t spurred to any action about it,
other than voting and answering the occasional pollster’s question about how they feel about abortion.
Polls which you then use to extrapolate some kind of cultural-level message actual pro-choice and pro-
life groups should be pushing. (The above lists for example).

But see I’ve read and liked your 2003 book on the Post-Roe fights about abortion: Bearing Right: How
Conservatives Won the Abortion War. I’m wondering if you’ve backed away from what you learned in
the writing of that book. Or what happened to change your mind?

In 2006 you wrote:

The lesson of John Kerry’s defeat, and arguably the whole sorry history of recent Democratic
politics, is that nuance kills. (I wrote a book arguing the opposite, but, uh, I’ll explain that
another time.)

I looked but I never found your follow-up to that tidbit, which was a link to Bearing Right and abortion
politics.

In an article about a 2009 meeting Obama convened about trying to find common ground between
pro-lifers and pro-choicers you wrote that Melody Barnes, director of Domestic Policy Council and a
former board member of Emily’s List, should give up the distinction between reducing the need for
abortions and reducing abortion. No one cares about the nuance, you said. Let’s just focus on reduction
through voluntary means. Except the distinction between reducing abortion through voluntary means or
involuntary is the whole ball of wax. (Also, number 6 on your list for pro-choicers is not about voluntary
means of reducing abortion, it’s about making it unavailable, ie involuntary.)

Smarter people than I (starting with Katha Politt) have been telling you over and over again that pro-
choice groups absolutely support efforts that indirectly reduce abortion, using the very methods you are
always citing – increased access to birth control, better sex education, and even increased governmental
support for women who have children. Everyone knows the cost of raising children is a big part in a
decision to have them — even among middle-class families — but no less among those not in the middle-
class. So it should be somewhat ideologically consistent to support things that help women in terms of
their economic status in society. More poor women equals more abortions, right? So it’s not surprising
then that most women’s organizations who support keeping abortion legal also lobbied for the Paycheck
Fairness Act. So where was Concerned Women for America or the Susan B. Anthony List on that bill? Oh
right, they were against it.

Here’s what I don’t understand. In 2003 you wrote a great book about fights about abortion. You spent a
lot of time seeped in the issue. But since then you’ve been making recommendations for pro-choice and
pro-life groups as if you are a foreigner who doesn’t understand the nuances of the disagreement. It’s
a bit like someone who knows nothing about the history of Israel and the Palestinians and saying “It’s
simple, why don’t you guys just share control of Jerusalem, problem solved, right?”

Or to make another analogy, it’s a bit like being an armchair critic of the Iraq War without ever having
been on the ground in Iraq or speaking to any Iraqis themselves. You’re flying so high above the issue
talking to executive directors and activists of both sides about theoretical things like embracing moral
ambiguity that I wonder if you actually know what the abortion feels like to most people when they are
going through it?

So this is my major plea to you: Write another book about abortion. Spend some time seeing what the
steps to obtain an abortion are like for actual women. Not just the ones in New York or DC, although
feel free to compare and contrast experiences in different states, different counties. Listen to what the
anti-choice protestors are shouting outside clinics and take photos of the signs they are holding. People
who don’t think about abortion very much are often genuinely shocked to find out there are loud,
abrasive protestors shouting at women who are trying to get into clinics. At most people think this only
happened in the 1980s and 1990s. They don’t realize the protestors never went away. It also doesn’t
only happen at the high-profile clinics like Dr. Tiller’s. The protestors stand outside clinics in every state
in the union. Scott Roeder was one of those former protestors. You’ll see why they make pro-choicers

nervous, scared and angry.

Examine the actual cost of abortion, especially since a major blowback from the healthcare debate was
pro-life activists removing insurance coverage of abortion from existing plans, not just future ones.

Talk to women about why they are seeking an abortion instead of continuing the pregnancy. Hear
some stories about why the unplanned pregnancies happened. Explore what the ultrasound bills actual
require, not just at a theoretical level, but what real state law dictates. See how many women end up
having to pay for the ultrasounds out of their own pocket because of this trendy new requirement.
Also find out what actual women seeking an abortion felt about both the requirement to get it and the
ultrasound itself. Did it make any of them change their minds? And if it didn’t, if there’s a 100% non-
conversion rate, is it worth asking if the requirement is merely punitive instead of informative.

Listen to some of the scripts that doctors are required to read to their patients seeking abortion. Talk to
actual doctors how they feel about them and what they’ve observed.

As far as I can tell you also haven’t ever written about Crisis Pregnancy Centers. (If I’m wrong please
do correct me.) I know you probably followed the recent New York City Council legislation that would
require CPC to disclose that they do not offer abortions and they are not medical facilities. NARAL has
done a lot of work looking into what CPC are actually telling women and how they operate. But if you
don’t want to trust NARAL’s research, why not do some of your own? See how CPC’s are fitting into the
pro-life structural framework and compare what they are actually doing (not just their talking points).
Are you comfortable with the work they are doing and how they are representing the pro-life side?

Then go to the state legislatures. Most of your recommendations, indeed your conversations, are with
people who talk about abortion at the federal level (or cultural level). But these days the real rights
about actual abortion policy are happening at the state level. They range from issues like pharmacists’
rights of refusal to hand out emergency contraception to whether state department of health
regulations are changed to close existing clinics to bills that remove insurance coverage of abortion from
all public workers’ health plans.

These are the real trenches in the abortion fights. Before talking about common ground between pro-
lifers and pro-choicers why not spend some more time figuring out what these so-called unimportance
nuances actually mean?

Yes it’ll all be anecdotal, but I think it will be instructive. It’s been 7 years since you wrote Bearing Right,
I’d be interested to see what new conclusions you come to about abortion after spending some time on
the ground. I have faith that pro-choice activists like myself see the issue better from our vantage point.
But maybe you can show us why we have it wrong.

5 Responses to “An Open Letter to William Saletan: Please Write Another Book About Abortion”

  1. Not Guilty November 24, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    Excellent post. I’d like to add my 2-cents to Mr. Saletan: How about we “compromise” with your body? I’m not interested in compromising with mine.

  2. Kate Cockrill November 29, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    What a great piece! Your recommendations for Saletan are right on. I agree that his piece was ignorant to the real experiences of women. The horsetrading (contraception for 2nd trimester abortion)at the end was particularly arrogant.

    I also wrote a piece following my attendance at OHOM. My take is slightly different than yours. I think that we *should be* nurturing relationships with those on the “other side” who are not irrational or irresponsible (such as suggesting that we should discourage birth control while making abortion illegal). Such relationships make it difficult for us to overgeneralize about those who are “prolife” in the way that Saletan overgenerlizes about those who are “prochoice.” Further, I argue that advocates (on both sides) can take some responsibility for the absence of real life stories in this debate. The absence of a real consumer-based movement around abortion has a lot to do with the polarization and professionalization of political advocacy.

    All of us, including Saletan, could be talking to more “real people” about the issue of abortion. Furthermore, I think it’s also important that we connect with one another as “real people” on the issue of abortion. This means engaging our empathy, seeing the opposing side as “real people” and not as one-size-fits-all “anti’s.” This was the unfortunately untapped opportunity of OHOM.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention An Open Letter to William Saletan: Please Write Another Book About Abortion | Abortion Gang -- Topsy.com - November 24, 2010

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Abortion On Demand, Rachel Joy Larris. Rachel Joy Larris said: An open letter to William Saletan after your last columns try writing new book on abortion http://bit.ly/hDhUFT @slate @saletan #prochoice [...]

  2. Tweets that mention An Open Letter to William Saletan: Please Write Another Book About Abortion | Abortion Gang -- Topsy.com - November 24, 2010

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ayesha rashid and Allison Isner, The Abortion Gang. The Abortion Gang said: new post: An Open Letter to William Saletan: Please Write Another Book About Abortion http://j.mp/fz1WEs [...]

  3. Follow-Up on the Princeton Abortion Conference | Our Bodies Our Blog - December 1, 2010

    [...] for contraception.” Yeah, right. As one of the bloggers at Abortion Gang points out in an open letter to Saletan, “these recommendations are not ‘common ground,’ but points of debate and [...]

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