Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Don't wrap your misogynist beliefs in a blanket of faux-concern for the disabled

The Oklahoma Legislature voted this week to override the governor's vetoes on two laws restricting abortion rights, one of which would prevent women who have had a disabled baby from suing a doctor for withholding information about birth defects while the child was in the womb.

I find this law to be troubling in many ways; however, the primary reason that I have such a strong reaction to it is because it attempts to mask its primary goal of the oppression of women (and in particular, the oppression of low income/ low education women) with phony concern over children, and in particular, children with mental and/ or physical handicaps.

While I do believe that there are many pro-life individuals who are deeply and genuinely concerned with the well-being of fetuses, children, and the handicapped (e.g. this family), I believe that many people (and most legislators) who harbor pro-life beliefs do so as a means of punishing and oppressing women, especially women who deviate from conservative and religious beliefs of how "good" women should behave (e.g. "If you didn't want to have a baby with Down's syndrome, you shouldn't have had sex before marriage").

The reason I hold this belief is simple: if the true concern of these people, and these legislators, was to protect children (and in particular, disabled children), then they would be supporting a number of policy solutions that did not center around abortion. They would, in addition to abortion-restriction, pursue policies that would benefit children AND the mothers who care for them. If you really care about disabled children and you don't want them to be aborted, why not give women who conceive disabled children special allowances to take care of them? Why not have free, quality, government provided daycare? Why not increase funding for groups and programs that assist the disabled and the poor?

The fact that the majority of these "pro-life" individuals and legislators vehemently oppose these programs reveal their true intention, and it is in no way concerned with the well-being of children.


  1. Wow... It's always interesting to hear other people's points of view.

    Honestly, even after reading your argument, I can't share your cynicism about those lawmakers. I really don't think that many people actually sit down and say, "Gee, how can I oppress women today?" And if there are people like that in the world, I certainly don't think that two thirds of the legislature in Oklahoma (or however much it takes to override a veto) shares that view.

    Just based on your description, it doesn't seem like that law would have any more of an adverse effect on unmarried women than it would on married women. It seems like it would allow doctors to withhold information from all women equally. Was there some aspect of the law that led you to believe that it is specifically designed to punish sex by unmarried women, like you implied in your post? Generally, down syndrome is more likely to occur in children born to older women (who are more likely to be married than their younger counterparts), so if anything it is affecting them more, not the other way around.

    Moreover, the law does a lot to help protect the consciences of doctors. Abortion is such a tragedy that I can see a lot of doctors would not want to be involved with it, even indirectly. It must be terrible to be a doctor and have to go to sleep at night knowing that you caused the death of a child because you talked to his mother about a potential defect that child had. Since no one records the conversations between doctors and patients, there is no way to verify in court whether or not the mother had confided in the doctor that she planned to abort if the child had a birth defect. Thus, the doctor is in a catch-22. Tell the mother and risk killing the child, or get sued every time this happens. In a case like that, if the doctor really takes his conscience seriously, the best solution would be for him to go out of business, or stop practicing the type of medicine he was trained to do.

    We already have a shortage of doctors in this country, and that doesn't seem to me like the sort of solution we should be encouraging.

    This law, however, changes the incentive structure, thus allowing the market to correct this imperfection. If an expecting mother knows about the law, and she is that concerned with knowing ahead of time whether her child has a birth defect, then she can simply choose to go to a doctor who has no problem with abortions. Then she will know that her doctor is not going to withhold anything from her, since he has no reason to.

    In that sense, the law was very useful, because it recognized an imperfection in the market that would result in undesirable outcomes (good doctors choosing to go out of business), and corrected that imperfection in a way that would allow the market to function the way we want it to.

    So women will not be oppressed. They will just go to different doctors. What's wrong with that?

  2. Moreover, there are other reasons why they might not want to pursue those other policy strategies that you mentioned. Giving some women special allowances is costly. That could be draining on the state budget.

    You're right in that those solutions you described would also correct the incentives in such a way as to reduce the number of abortions. But they are a far more expensive option than the one they chose, and they don't directly address the issue of protecting doctors' consciences. There are still many people in the world who would not want a child with birth defects even if they were going to receive extra subsidies from the government, so the doctors would still have a good reason to be concerned.

  3. @White_Tree, I have to say that I'm in agreement with Recovering Economist here. While I can see your point that the majority of the Oklahoma legislature probably doesn't go to work and actively think, "Gee, how can I oppress women today?" that is actively what they are doing with this law.

    Any law that gives doctors the right to lie to women--not to mention about something as major as the health of the fetus--is absolutely not something that's okay in my book, whether the doctor is pro-choice or pro-life. A doctor's job is to give information, not to withhold it. Regardless of reason, moral concerns of the doctor, or what the woman's circumstances are (married, single, young, old, etc.).

    I also have a problem with your argument that women can just "see another doctor." I agree that as a privileged woman in a major metropolitan area, I would no doubt just go see another doctor if I were ever unfortunate enough to have any information withheld from me (and you can bet that, because I am lucky enough not to live in Oklahoma, I'd be reporting that doctor to the medical board and probably taking them to court as well). But, as previously stated, I don't live in rural Oklahoma. Some of these women simply don't have the option to "see another doctor" because of cost, locality, or lack of agency reasons. We need to protect these women, whether we're pro-choice or pro-life. And by a legislative vote saying that it's acceptable--and LEGAL--for doctors to make decisions FOR women (and by withholding information rather than making sure a woman knows all the factors, that is certainly what they are doing), well, I've got to admit I agree with Recovering Economist again. Whether or not the majority of the Oklahoma legislature actively wakes up and thinks, "Gee, I'd like to oppress women and treat them like idiots this morning," when they go to work, that is in fact what they are doing. Actions speak louder than words.

  4. RecoveringEconomist, I completely agree with you, and emotionally this is usually how I react to most pro-life arguments. However, it's a very difficult case to make since the lawmakers motivations are never explicitly clear, possibly even to themselves. I do feel that a lot of anti-choice rhetoric is very anti-woman, and reveals insecurity about and / or hatred of certain kinds of women that threaten traditional family and social structures.

    I think it's really important to note that this is only part of the story. Many people are anti-choice for solid philosophical reasons, and misogyny is not a motivator.

  5. I definitely agree with you that this law is a step backwards for women's rights, and that making it legal to withhold medical information under any circumstances is offensive and sets a bad precedent.

    However...I have seen a lot of abortion debates on the web, and the arguments that I cannot count the number of times I have heard (from people who should know better) that a fetus with a disability should be aborted, not because of the extra work and money it is going to mean for the mother (and possibly father,) but because it is never going to have a "real life." I can see why it's presented this way, since pro-lifers usually don't care about the woman's health or life, and presenting the fetus as the victim is much more palateable to them. However, the fact that apparently *everyone* is using the argument that disabled people's lives are inherently worthless anyway, freaks me out to no end. So I wouldn't assume that everyone who supports this law is motivated by *fake* concern. From what I've seen, we do have real cause for concern; this just isn't the way to address it.

  6. "I really don't think that many people actually sit down and say, "Gee, how can I oppress women today?" "

    Well, no. They frame it as "how can I keep these problematic abortion-happy women from killing their babies?" A whole lot of bigotry lives in the shadows, hiding behind judgment calls, stereotypes, double standards, assumptions, traps, and "legitimate" prejudices. Instead of oppressing women as a class, they set standards and then point to the failure to reach those standards, not the femaleness, as the reason for the oppression.

    In other words, "I didn't do X to her because she's a woman, I did X to her because she's a bitch."

    And unfortunately, to a whole lot of people that makes it magically not misogyny.

  7. Hey Kelly, you're absolutely right. I, too, am troubled by the way people's comments about this issue often seem to imply they automatically think the life of a disabled person is less valuable than that of someone else. I prefer to just stick to the facts--women are protected by the same rights as men, and therefore should have absolute authority on what to do with their own bodies. I trust them to make good decisions when given complete information.

  8. "Many people are anti-choice for solid philosophical reasons."

    The only reasons I've ever encountered for being anti-choice are not trusting women to make decisions, believing a potential person has more value than a woman, believing your religion forbids abortion (whether it's mentioned in any scriptures or not), and being just pain grossed out by the idea.

    What schools of philosophy are those? They very much resemble misogyny and ignorance. I can understand the "I'd never have one, but keep abortion legal" stance, but not the anti-choice "philosophy."

  9. Maybe I haven't been paying attention, but can you explain a little more clearly what exactly is going on in the first paragraph? It just doesn't seem worded clearly to me, and I don't understand if this law is in effect or not.

  10. @ White Tree: (1) We assume that married women can reap some of the benefits of being married i.e. greater household income and shared responsibilities. (2) No doctor who doesn't wish to perform an abortion is ever required by law to do so. If a woman needs an abortion, she goes to a clinic where the doctor has been trained in the procedures at hand. This should go without saying. (3) The "special allowances" you're talking about that might "drain the state budget" would otherwise be expenses incurred by the mother. If the mother gives birth to an unwanted child BECAUSE THE STATE DEMANDED SHE DO SO, and that child turns out to have special needs which are ALWAYS expensive, why should the burden by left on the mother WHO SHOULDN'T HAVE BEEN OBLIGATED TO BEAR THE CHILD IN THE FIRST PLACE? (4) Having an abortion is far less expensive than raising a child. Far FAR less than raising a child with special needs, who you'll probably still be taking care of well past eighteen years of age.

  11. The two laws (one requiring ultrasounds, one allowing doctors to withhold information) were passed by the legislature, the governor vetoed them, and then the legislature overrode the veto, making them law. Read more.

  12. White Tree, not only is your post riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations (for example, most babies with Down syndrome are born to younger mothers), it's also a) condescending and b) misguided.

    a) What a lovely little world it must be where women can choose their doctors based on doctors' honest representations of their personal beliefs about abortion.

    b) If you're a doctor, or if you're training to be a doctor, you accept that your "doctor" status comes with certain responsibilities and expectations. If your conscience says you're entitled to lie or withhold information from your patients to preserve your personal comfort, you are in the wrong field.

  13. Hey everyone, I definitely appreciate the spirit of open discussion, but let's try to keep the tone friendly. Since White Tree refrained from ad hominem attacks, I think anyone who disagrees should do the same. Let's extend one another the benefit of the doubt, and assume people who comment here are approaching an issue in good faith, unless they've given us reason to think they're not.

    EAMD, besides that quibble, I definitely agree. Most women don't have the luxury of choosing between multiple doctors, nor is there a reliable way to determine up front if a doctor is going to be honest with you--that isn't something a woman should have to consider in getting medical care: "umm, does this seem like a doctor who would lie to me?"

    The real question, in my mind, is what can be done to protect women in Oklahoma who now have lesser medical rights than men? (Can you imagine a situation where a doctor chooses not to tell a man his cancer results are positive, because he thinks radiation therapy is bad for the environment? No! Patients have a right to make their medical decisions)


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