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Monday, June 29, 2009

The Daily Show -- Stewart and Huckabee on Abortion

This is a joint post with June Carbone         


   In mid-June, Jon Stewart conducted another of The Daily Show’s multiple part interviews with former Governor Mike Huckabee.  While the previous show had focused on gay marriage, Stewart asked Huckabee to choose a topic he’d like to discuss.  Huckabee’s choice:  “the pro-life issues,” paraphrased by Stewart as “abortion.”  The two reprised the continuing debate over abortion – and as has become increasingly the case, conducted the discussion almost entirely on Huckabee’s terms.  The articulate former preacher set forth the importance of a “culture of life” and how abortion denigrates it by permitting abortions triggered by comparatively trivial concerns about the “inconvenience” of the pregnancy.  Huckabee emphasized that every human life has value.

            Stewart responded with a classic defense of a woman’s right to reproductive autonomy.  His embrace of the pro-choice position focused almost exclusively on a woman’s right to control what happens to her body. 

            Missing entirely from this conversation was any articulation of why a woman might choose an abortion and why many women (and supportive fathers, husbands and boyfriends) might view it as a profoundly moral act.  Huckabee’s  references to “tak[ing] a human life” because the baby represents an “interference” or an “interruption”  to the mother’s life, socially or economically, fails to acknowledge that the woman’s decision is likely to be heavily influenced by concerns about the fate of the child rather than selfish concerns.   Stewart’s defense of a woman’s right to bodily integrity, though more sympathetic, reinforced Huckabee’s notion that pregnancy is the issue..

            We know of no women (other than those facing serious health issues) who would choose an abortion because of the effect of the pregnancy.  Instead, women choose abortion because they care profoundly about the future of their children.  Women who elect abortions know that true commitment to a child is an enormous – and lifelong – undertaking.  The pregnancy is the easy part.  They know also that to raise a child properly requires resources, support, and maturity.  They understand as well that the number of children for whom they can provide a decent chance in life is limited.  Having a child at seventeen, if it derails the mother’s life chances, shortchanges that child and the children she might have later.  Having a third child when a mother is struggling to provide for the two she already has diminishes the prospects for all of them.  Women who choose to terminate a pregnancy because of the supposed “economic inconvenience of the pregnancy” are making a decision that they cannot provide adequately for that child at that point in their lives.  It is because of a profound appreciation of the value of children’s lives, not a casual disregard for them, that women choose abortions. 


While adoption provides an acceptable alternative for some women, many women do not want their children to be raised by someone else.  Women in a small exploratory study of why they obtained abortions explained that they rejected adoption because “the thought of one’s child being out in the world without knowing if it was being taken care of or who was taking care of it was more guilt inducing than having an abortion.”    

            As governor of


, Huckabee riled conservatives by supporting some governmental assistance for poor children.  His allies who supposedly support the “culture of life” he advocates, however, rarely support systematic support for children’s wellbeing – for collective provision of the food, medical care, child care services, and educational assistance that would make childrearing less daunting.  Indeed, in the interview, Huckabee dodges Stewart’s efforts to define the true middle ground as support for accurate sex education and comprehensive access to contraception that would reduce the number of inopportune pregnancies. 

            It is time to redefine the abortion debate. Those who passionately defend a woman’s right to choose also care passionately about a culture of life that is committed to bringing children into a world in which every child has a decent opportunity to flourish.  As we discuss in our forthcoming book, Red Families v. Blue Families (OUP 2010), pro-choice advocates need to highlight the fact that the women most likely to seek abortions are those who are most likely to lack access to effective contraception, viz., the poor, the naïve, and the isolated.  They are the same women who choose abortion because they are the mothers least able to provide for the children who might result – and those most vilified by the supposed pro-life group who routinely oppose support for children.

            Pregnancy is not the issue; care and commitment to your children is.  Which is the true “pro-life” position?



Posted by Naomi Cahn on June 29, 2009 at 02:13 PM in Gender | Permalink


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I was under the impression that the pro-choice side of the modern abortion debate focused on pregnancy for a reason. Specifically, the argument you advocate is a borderline apologia for eugenics. If accepted, it would follow that society should allow--and even encourage--abortions of children/fetuses likely to be poor or disabled, while validly discouraging or prohibiting abortions among the mid- and upper-classes.

Posted by: JP | Jun 30, 2009 11:04:07 AM

I'm not sure "better off dead than adopted" is ever a reasonable assessment.

Posted by: Chris | Jun 30, 2009 12:24:13 AM

If the debate is to be shifted away from the mother's assessment of HER life, to an assessment of the unborn child's life, wouldn't that suggest enlargening the circle of relevant decision makers? Should the father, under such a paradigm, have just as much say over whether his child would be better of dead?

Posted by: Douay | Jun 29, 2009 10:44:04 PM

[1] Adoption was cited. This is no panacea. When abortion was illegal, adoption did not suddenly solve everything, including providing an adequate alternative in the real world. This aside from the fact that certain types of babies tend to be adopted. Finally, adoption is a crapshoot.

[2] Mention was made of killing a human being. The problem is that when people have a first trimester abortion (the vast majority), even those generally against abortion does not see it in such simple terms.

[3] The argument is far from shocking. Many religions support allowing women to choose, in fact believe it is a moral choice in certain situations. And, the moral choice is in part a reflection of the interests of the life that would have been brought into this world. And, this is -- shocking as it might be to some -- often the thought process in the mind of the woman.

Couples do a lot to plan families, to ensure that they are ready and able to care for them. They use contraceptives to guard against bringing into the world one they are not able to care for in the way they deem best. But, if the contraceptives fail, an abortion cannot have a similar end? If the fetus is severely deformed, is avoiding suffering of the child not a concern? If it is a product of rape, is not the interests of the child a factor? And, yes, those who carry the fetus, not the state, would make the decision. Justice Douglas in U.S. v. Vuitch:

Although the moral issue hangs like a threatening cloud over any open discussion of abortion, the moral issues are not all one-sided. The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson stated the other side well when he suggested that 'The most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child's spirit.' There can be nothing more destructive to a child's spirit than being unwanted, and there are few things more disruptive to a woman's spirit than being forced without love or need into motherhood." The Right to Abortion: A Psychiatric View 218-219 (Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, Vol. 7, Pub. No. 75, 1969).

Abortions have many side. This is one side.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 29, 2009 9:27:22 PM

I think most people who support abortion as a constitutional right do so precisely because it is about the bodily integrity of the woman, who gets to choose whether or not she is going to incubate what is, at that stage, essentially a parasitic life form (albeit in other contexts, a wanted one). If it was about the child that would result and what kind of life that child would have, I'm not sure why it wouldn't be up to the state to make a policy choice about whether abortion is better than adoption (and I'm pretty sure adoption would win out in most cases). It's simply not the whole story.

Posted by: anon | Jun 29, 2009 8:17:39 PM

The idea that you're doing a human being a favor by killing him/her is the nadir of self-absorbed rationalization. Deny the humanity of the fetus (be careful to avert your eyes from sonograms). Or say the pregnant woman has no duty to undertake the burdens of pregnancy on behalf of another (and ignore the traditional duties imposed on parents). Or say it's immoral but shouldn't be criminal. Anything but the obvious absurdity of pretending to act in the self-interest of someone by killing them.

Posted by: JLR | Jun 29, 2009 8:06:29 PM

Just to second (third?) Ron and Rick, it seems to me that this line of reasoning makes the perfect the enemy of the good. The mother decides that the child cannot have the perfect life, or an adequately perfect life, so it should have no life at all. The difficult moral calculus of abortion--interests of the child (if any) versus interests of the mother--cannot be elided so easily.

Posted by: anon | Jun 29, 2009 7:49:48 PM

I am pro choice (even if morally uncomfortable with the abortion choice), but if the choice were to be "redefined" as you suggest, I'd have to seriously consider rethinking my position.

Posted by: kk | Jun 29, 2009 6:06:36 PM

Since I've not received a correction, I'll assume my original post was a reasonable interpretation. Whereas, I can accept the position which declares the moral responsibility for the child's life rest upon the mother's good will, I cannot accept the anti-existential position. It seems an embrace of the worst tendencies of religious sophistry. Religious folks too often make normative declarations of such things as "purpose".

This isn't imperical, but rather borders on the superstitious.

I don't believe that women should have this so-called freedom pressed upon them (even at their request); however, I can discuss, debate and even accept the legal framework that we have currently with such a person.

I'm not sure I have anything to say to someone who makes such "ex ante" judgments.

Again I am surprised that sensible folks (I mean by that non-religious folks) are not rising up to declare that this life is all there is, with nothing before and nothing after the only meaning in existence is existence and as such cannot be dismissed by another. Such a crime is an infinite ethical violation.

For the religious person there is another infinite existence which the unborn will experience and therefore the crime in context would seem less grievous.

Posted by: David | Jun 29, 2009 5:46:14 PM

It seems to me the proposal has a sort of "other than that Mrs. Lincoln how was the play?" flavor to it. If one assumes the fetus lacks moral standing, then it doesn't really matter why it is disposed of (e.g. gender, disability, etc.). If a fetus does have moral standing, however, then an ex ante (and necessarily highly uncertain, however well intentioned) prediction of happiness strikes me as an extremely weak rationale for ending its life.

Posted by: John Henry | Jun 29, 2009 5:21:09 PM

Given that women can put their children up for adoption, and that in most cases there are many, many wonderful parents who are willing and eager to adopt the child, this argument isn't persuasive. But I'm sympathetic to the argument that forcing a woman to go through a pregnancy she is not prepared for is wrong. Pregnancy has significant economic, emotional, and physical costs.

Posted by: jd | Jun 29, 2009 5:16:30 PM

I am with Rob Vischer (above). What's more, and with all respect, it seems to me that Naomi's proposed "redefin[ition]" of the debate is one that excises from that debate precisely the matter in controversy, i.e., whether or not a human being in the womb is entitled, by virtue of his or her humanity, to the same legal protections against violence (even violence that is purportedly done for the victim's own good) that human beings enjoy *after* birth.

We do not regard it as constitutionally protected, let alone "profoundly moral", for a parent to kill his two-year-old daughter on the ground that the world is not arranged in such a way that the daughter is going to enjoy, going forward, a "decent opportunity to flourish." If the suggestion is that we *should* (sometimes) so regard the decision to have an abortion, then it seems to me that the question has to be considered -- it cannot be defined out of the debate -- *why* it is sensible, or justifiable, for us to regard these two decisions differently.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jun 29, 2009 4:31:30 PM

I'm not in a position to affirm or deny the empirical side of your claims -- i.e., that most (or all?) women who have abortions do so out of concern that their children will not have an adequate quality of life. On the normative point, though, I think that redefining the debate in these terms will face a bit of an uphill climb. It is by no means intuitive that, from the unborn child's perspective, non-existence is preferable to an existence that lacks a "decent opportunity to flourish." Witness the resistance to wrongful life claims premised on non-existence as the "made whole" position for compensation purposes.

Posted by: Rob Vischer | Jun 29, 2009 4:19:57 PM

I had an abortion because I could not study for the bar exam while going through pregnancy. In a bad economy trying to put off studying for the bar and looking for a temporary job didn't seem possible. Meanwhile the weeks were ticking along towards the second trimester. If I could have gotten the fetus out and given it up for adoption then and there I would have.

I expect to be condemned by the likes of Huckabee but is your language that - you know of no one like me - condemnatory too?

Posted by: Prefer Anonymity | Jun 29, 2009 3:46:51 PM

Just checking: so you're saying that a significant number of women (it seems particularly those you know or know of) have abortions because they are convinced that their child's quality of life will be lower than a level deemed acceptable by the mother.

Posted by: David | Jun 29, 2009 3:00:24 PM

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