PBS, After Tiller, and unpleasant conclusions

No small ruckus has been raised among the pro-life community over PBS’ decision to air the documentary After Tiller on Labor Day.  They have already faced resistance to their decision and have stood by it.

Others, such as Matt Walsh, have argued against the wisdom of airing a deeply controversial film on a network that accepts grants from the federal government that uses taxpayer money.  There is some wisdom in this critique, since an awful lot of Americans might have misgivings about their tax dollars funding the airing of something they deeply disagree with.  Personally, I am inclined to say that PBS’ TV schedule is their own prerogative.  But since they felt resistance to airing After Tiller, they thoughtfully put out a twenty-nine-page guide and discussion booklet about the film for use by groups that choose to air the film themselves.

Except the reasons they give for allowing third-trimester abortions put them on a collision course with some profoundly controversial conclusions espoused by some abortion-choice proponents.

I will say this: after reading the guidebook, I’d like to see the film, if only to see if they included some of the things they obviously left out of the print materials.

The guide is split into four main areas: the women who seek abortions during the third trimester, the legislation regarding third trimester abortions, the doctors who provide those abortions, and the protesters.

The guide starts out by saying that so-called “partial-birth abortions” are illegal; but this raises one very big question that doesn’t get answered by the guide.  Exactly what methods of abortion are being used?  Perhaps a discussion of the methods used–dilation and curettage, dilation and extraction, saline prostaglandin and induction, or any combination of these–may shed light on why third-trimester abortions are viewed unfavorably, even by most supporters of abortion-choice.

Perhaps one of the film’s subjects could enlighten us more.  Francis Beckwith quotes Dr. Warren Hern:

We have reached a point in this particular technology [D&E abortion] where there is no possibility of denial of an act of destruction by the operator. It is before one’s eyes. The sensations of dismemberment flow through the forceps like an electric current.  (“What about us?” Staff Reactions to the D&E Procedure, quoted by Rachel McNair in Defending Life by Francis Beckwith)

They then discuss the reasons why women seek third-trimester abortions, and while more than a few pro-lif –sorry, anti-abortionists insist on heaping shame and judgment upon such women, it need not be done.  It is entirely possible, and indeed wise, to make conclusions about the reality of abortion without judging individual women for their choices.  All desires are desires for goods of some kind or another; though the act of abortion cannot help anyone to be good, we need not judge the women themselves.  But the section is illuminating, to say the least.

The guide discusses the women who seek third-trimester abortions because of fetal anomalies or because of health risks to the mother.  This is something of a bait-and-switch: linguistically, because the procedure for taking the life of the unborn to save the life of the mother is the exact same as what takes place in an abortion (which should tell us something about the nature of abortion methods, but are not in the same moral category as an elective abortion.  To save the life of the mother, the intention is not the destruction of the unborn even though it is foreseen (and is thus a contingent evil); in an elective abortion, it is the intention to destroy the unborn (and is thus an intrinsic evil).

Some of the other reasons they list are troubling for a different reason.  It is true that some fetal anomalies and defects cannot be discovered until late in pregnancy, and that this is one reason why third-trimester abortion needs to be available.  But it seems that that argument grants far too much: many anomalies cannot be discovered until birth (as some couples are rudely discovering).  If other arguments that do not concern the developmental status of the unborn apply to third-trimester abortions, why do they not also extend to after birth?  Or, as Richard Dawkins recently said, if aborting those with genetic defects or those doomed to a painful, difficult, life is in fact a better moral option than allowing him or her to suffer.  In a 1972 essay regarding abortion and infanticide, Philosopher Michael Tooley suggested a period of up to one week following birth to allow for termination of the life of the newborn, while Peter Singer advocated about a month.

To quote Tooley:

One reason the question of the morality of infanticide is worth examining is that it seems very difficult to formulate a completely satisfactory liberal position on abortion without coming to grips on the infanticide issue. The problem the liberal encounters is essentially that of specifying a cutoff point which is not arbitrary: at what stage in the development of a human being does it cease to be morally permissible to destroy it?

A sensible question indeed.  And no wonder After Tiller whistled around it, barely mentioning the question of when human life begins except for once in the “protesters” portion.

(Edited to add) The force of Tooley’s argument, and those made by others like Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan, were not lost on traditional supporters of abortion choice, most notably Mary Anne Warren and H. Tristram Engelhardt, denied the permissibility of infanticide but defended the permissibility of abortion.  This created something of a circular firing squad, albeit not a very public one: the reasons to deny infanticide apply equally well to abortion, and the reasons to permit surgical abortions apply to infanticide.

But they mention other reasons as well: the fear associated with abortion, lack of income, access, changes in life situations, and the like.  Most of these issues can be solved by infanticide as easily as abortion: the lack of funds required for an abortion are not going to go away once a child is born; access to abortion becomes unnecessary if abortion is unnecessary for termination; and circumstances can change just as easily after birth as before birth.  If these are good enough reasons for third-trimester abortions, then why not take Tooley (and Singer) at his word and extend ‘reproductive justice’ to after birth?  Absurdly they raise the issue of adoption, and actually say “when it is involuntarily imposed there can be significant long-term repercussions.”  Who do they think they are kidding?  Is not death by suction curettage and evacuation not the most significant long-term repercussion you can possibly endure?  The absurdity continues:

Here are some examples from Dr. Shelley Sella of why a woman might decide that adoption is not the right decision for her:
1. A woman may believe that the child she is carrying would not be healthy given her own medical history or the behaviors she engaged in during pregnancy.
2. A woman may be concerned that the child will be mistreated.
3. Women do not want their children to feel that they were abandoned. The doctors in After Tiller say that they hear this frequently from women who were adopted themselves.

Did we not, as a nation, decide to put lots of warnings on alcohol and tobacco for precisely this very reason?  Are there not immensely damaging side effects of drug usage that result in terrible birth defects and trouble for infants that is already illegal?  Aside from the issue that we actually do, as a society, tell women all sorts of things they cannot do with their own bodies, this puts the usual ‘autonomy’ arguments on thin rhetorical ice.

Is not the elective destruction of the unborn the far end of the “mistreatment” spectrum, as though mistreatment becomes progressively (in this case, pun intended) morally unacceptable, until the end of the spectrum, at which point it should be “safe, legal, and rare easily accessible?”

If the unborn are human beings and therefore the subject of human rights, abandonment-by-adoption is a significantly lesser evil than ending their lives.  Those I know who are children of rape who were adopted certainly feel this way.

And it would perhaps ring less hollow had I not been personally told by a pro-choice person that he personally preferred his girlfriend abort so that any resulting children would not be adopted and raised by Christians.

Their brief discussion of the legislation regarding abortion limits and regulations seems overblown in light of Europe’s legislation regarding abortion.  Wendy Davis made an awful lot of noise about Texas’ proposed draconian cutbacks to the industry…which would have left them slightly to the left of Sweden, and very left of most of Europe, regarding the 20-week cutoff for legal abortion.  It briefly covers the four doctors that openly practice third-trimester abortion, and offers reasons why they both practice and fear for their livelihoods and lives due to violence in light of the assassination of George Tiller in 2009.

**Typical pro-life caveat: Murdering abortion doctors not justice.  Neither is abortion.  For the same reason.

Side note: I wonder why they didn’t interview Kermit Gosnell for this film?

The second half of the guide gets into questions for discussions, and it is there that much light can be shed on the moral reality of third-trimester abortions.  There are some interesting terms used in the discussion questions that deserve a little discussion of their own.  Specifically, the terms “abortion rights activists” and “anti-abortion activists.”

It goes without saying: Of course they’re biased in favor of abortion-choice.  The show the film is being aired on is called Point of View, for crying out loud.  But it’s worth mentioning because the subtext is clear:

One side is in favor of rights. The other side is anti-rights.

And this is disingenuous and inaccurate, of course, but it is to be expected.  What is less expected (in the “Spanish Inquisition” type) is that this sort of bifurcation of rights is about three hundred sixty-five years old.

But whatsoever is the object of any mans Appetite or Desire; that is it, which he for his part calleth Good: And the object of his Hate, and Aversion, evill; […] For these words of Good, evill, and Contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: There being nothing simply and absolutely so, nor any common Rule of Good and evill, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves[…]

Thus did Thomas Hobbes introduce his discussion of morality in his work Leviathan, published in 1651.  He went on to claim that in a natural state, every individual had a right to everything else, and only when individuals and groups set aside their rights did culture arise.  If rights are based on desires, as Hobbes seemed to think, then it would be only natural to describe someone who wants to prevent a particular desire–say, a third-trimester abortion–is acting against a ‘right.’  This resonates all too well with most of the aspersions cast at social conservatives by social liberals: they only want to stop rights.  Thankfully, Hobbes was wrong, and demonstrably so, and in answering him and his outright goofy notions of good and evil we find an answer to the peculiar language of abortion-choice advocates.

Two last things to mention.  The first is that the picture at the top of page 22 of the guide is more telling than it perhaps is meant to be.  Second, from the same page:

A father in the film talks about praying in Dr. Sella’s office and asking for a sign to tell him if he and his wife are making the wrong decision about
terminating their pregnancy. Dr. Robinson meets with a 16-year-old patient who is catholic and has always been anti-abortion, but has decided to terminate her pregnancy. Women of all religious faith traditions have abortions. Dr. Tiller himself was a man of deep religious conviction. How do
religious beliefs impact abortion decisions? How might religious communities support women and families making abortion decisions?

With regard to my previous disinclination to cast judgment about the women who pursue third-trimester abortions, I will simply suggest that asking for a sign while in the abortionist’s office is probably a bit late to be asking for a sign.  Not to mention that the morality of abortion can be determined well enough without appealing to religion; there is precisely no Biblical support for asking for a sign to determine the morality of a given act.  But they are at least correct to refer to the poor man as a ‘father,’ because he was, in fact, a father at the time.  One of the many tragedies of abortion is that if they did decide to abort, he did not cease to be a father.  He may not have to tell his deceased child of the agony of the choice, but how long will he have to tell himself?

None of the many questions–good questions, though somewhat loaded–necessarily lead to the moral permissibility of elective third-trimester abortion. Thankfully they allow for winsome, thoughtful answers.

After Tiller, we need…the truth.  

About what makes us human.

About abortion.

About forgiveness.

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