Tag Archives: abortion

Paul Ryan: Veteran of the War on Women

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Right after Paul Ryan was named as Mitt Romney’s VP, I did what every other political blogger in the world did: wrote an article almost entirely about his economic policies. Of course I did and we did. In minds of politics-watchers everywhere, Ryan means the Ryan budget, with its strange combination of bold detail and cowardly vagueness. Just mentioning Ryan’s name launches an argument about taxes and Medicare and long-term deficits.

But a day or two later, I felt a wave of deja vu. Isn’t this exactly what happened in 2009 and 2010?

The Tea Party. Remember? The Tea Party burst onto the scene in April, 2009, billing itself as a non-partisan, grass-roots movement of people fed up with taxes and deficits. Taxed Enough Already — remember? The culture wars could wait; the problems of debt and government spending were too urgent.

An occasional liberal Jeremiah tried to warn us how phony this framing was, but for the most part we let them get away with it.

And then what happened? As soon as the election was over and Republicans (so much for non-partisan) controlled the House in D.C. and the entire state government in places like Wisconsin and Florida, their first priorities turned out to be abortion and all the other “values” issues they had swept under the rug during the campaign.

As the new Congress was settling in, Rep. Mike Pence segued like this:

Our economy is struggling and our national government is awash in a sea of debt. Amidst these struggles, some would have us focus our energies on jobs and spending. … I agree. Let’s start by denying all federal funding for abortion at home and abroad. The largest abortion provider in America should not also be the largest recipient of federal funding under Title X. The time has come to deny any and all federal funding to Planned Parenthood of America.

Annual Planned Parenthood funding under Title X was about $70 million. Take that, trillion-dollar deficit!

Rachel Maddow was one of the early major-media people to sound the alarm, in a series of segments she labelled Really, Really Big Government.

That is the message they campaigned on in November—freedom, liberty, letting people do what they want!

And then they arrived in Washington and immediately started working on putting government in charge of every single pregnancy in America. Even as they slowed the legislative calendar way down, stopped doing much of anything else, they advanced not one, not two, but three super radical bills to restrict abortion rights.

Ryan’s Role. Paul Ryan was co-sponsoring every one of the Religious Right’s “super radical bills”. The National Right to Life Committee says:

Ryan has maintained a 100 percent pro-life voting record on all roll call votes scored by National Right to Life through his entire tenure in the House, which began in 1999.

It’s important to understand just how radical the recent stuff is, because we’re used to the abortion struggle taking place on a fairly small battlefield — Medicaid funding, late-term abortions, parental notification — where the issues really are debatable. But since the Tea Party came into power, we’ve been fighting over issues that used to be on the fringe or completely off the table.

Forced ultrasounds. The general public didn’t catch on to the changing battlelines until women protested the Virginia forced transvaginal ultrasound law this March: In the original version of the bill, women seeking an abortion would be forced to have an ultrasound probe shoved up their vaginas. (Texas already started enforcing a similar law in February.) The legislature had no medical justification; they just figured women who want to abort are too dumb to understand what a fetus is unless the government forces them to look. Or maybe the point is to humiliate women before granting them their constitutional rights.

Maddow and others began calling Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell “Governor Ultrasound” — a nickname that probably pushed him off Romney’s VP short list.

Well, Paul Ryan is Congressman Ultrasound. He co-sponsored the federal Ultrasound Informed Consent Act. Women would be forced to submit to and pay for a medically unnecessary procedure because Paul Ryan believes they’re “uninformed”. (I wonder how he’d feel about making anybody who wants to buy a gun observe the autopsy of a gunshot victim. Don’t they deserve to be “informed” too?)

Rights for single-celled organisms. Another radical addition to the abortion debate are “personhood” laws, which define a fertilized ovum as a human being deserving the full protection of the laws.

Such a law would not only outlaw all abortions, it would also ban any form of birth control that works by interfering with the zygote’s ability to implant in the uterus — like the Pill.

The birth control pill, for example, prevents pregnancy in three ways: The pill thickens the cervical mucus to make it more difficult for sperm to reach the egg; it suppresses ovulation by mimicking pregnancy-level hormones in the body, preventing eggs from being released from the ovaries; and finally, as a fail-safe, the pill makes the lining of the uterus inhospitable to any fertilized egg that might slip through. The time between fertilization and implantation (when a pregnancy becomes medically detectable) usually takes about a week.

In public, advocates of personhood bills deny they’d ban the Pill. But among themselves they sound more like this:

A justly written personhood amendment should ultimately outlaw all abortions  including both the intentionally induced “miscarriages” of the hormonal birth control pill and the blatant infanticide of the partial birth abortion.

Personhood laws would also outlaw in vitro fertilization as currently practiced, because the test-tube zygotes that aren’t implanted must eventually be destroyed. A pro-life article that tries to dispel this “absurdity” actually verifies it:

Couples trying to get pregnant through IVF procedures would have nothing to fear from Personhood legislation unless they consented to the intentional destruction of their embryonic children. [emphasis added]

Who would support such a radical law? Not voters. No personhood referendum has come close to passing, even in Mississippi.

But Paul Ryan is a more radical culture warrior than the average Mississippian. He co-sponsored the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which says:

the Congress declares that … the life of each human being begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent, irrespective of sex, health, function or disability, defect, stage of biological development, or condition of dependency, at which time every human being shall have all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood

Ryan’s defenders sometimes claim this bill merely empowers states to protect the personhood rights of fertilized ova, but it says what it says. If this passed, how long would it take the Thomas More Society to file a class-action suit against birth-control-pill manufacturers on behalf of zygotes?

Employers’ Rights Trump Workers’ Rights. Ryan voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that eliminated a hole in the equal-pay-for-women laws.

Ryan also co-sponsored the Religious Freedom Tax Repeal Act of 2012. Motivated by the concerns trumped up against ObamaCare’s contraception mandate — Wheaton College had to stop covering contraception so that it could join the lawsuit against being forced to cover contraception — Ryan’s bill goes way beyond that case, to prevent the government from enforcing any coverage “if an employer with respect to such plan is opposed to such coverage by reason of adherence to a religious belief or moral conviction.”

So the Christian Science Monitor wouldn’t have to cover any cancer treatment beyond prayer. And what if an employer just has a “moral conviction” against spending money on workers?

In his own voice. Finding Ryan’s name in a list of co-sponsors doesn’t tell you much about his level of commitment or the thinking behind it. For that you have to turn to his writings and speeches.

In September, 2010 (when the Tea Party was playing down culture-war issues) Ryan wrote The Cause of Life Can’t Be Severed From the Cause of Freedom, which explains why “freedom” requires forcing women to obey the tenets of Ryan’s religion.

I recommend reading the entire article, because you will learn a lot about how Ryan’s mind works. No actual pregnant women are mentioned or even imagined. His argument is entirely abstract; the lives and situations of real people carry no weight.

What’s more — and this style is very familiar if (like me and Paul Ryan) you read way too much Ayn Rand in high school — all the important ideas are hidden in the framing, so the argument consists entirely of tautologies. (The third and concluding part of Atlas Shrugged is titled “A is A”, as if something important could be deduced from that.)

So how does Ryan defend the absurd idea that zygotes deserve all the rights of fully-developed human beings? He doesn’t; he just labels them “people” and then defends the rights of people. He compares Roe v Wade to Dred Scott — there being no noteworthy differences between black slaves and single-celled organisms — and concludes:

I cannot believe any official or citizen can still defend the notion that an unborn human being has no rights that an older person is bound to respect. I do know that we cannot go on forever feigning agnosticism about who is human.

Zygotes have rights because “I cannot believe” otherwise. And if you claim not to believe it, or not to be certain enough to use government power to force women to bear their rapists’ babies, you are “feigning”. Ryan knows you agree with him deep down; you’re just pretending not to.

That’s how he thinks.

And if he ever ascends to the presidency, or if he becomes the family-values point man in a Romney administration, that’s the level of public debate we can expect.

Five Take-Aways From the Komen Fiasco

Now that the dust from the Susan Komen/Planned Parenthood mess is starting to settle, it’s time to ask: What should we learn from all this?

Background. I’m sure many of you have already heard more about this story than you wanted to know, but it came out in (sometimes deceptive) dribs and drabs. So before we start drawing conclusions, let’s get our facts straight. (Feel free to skip ahead.)

The context for this week’s events is a long-term campaign to annihilate Planned Parenthood that has been fought at the federal and state government level, as well as in the board rooms of private organizations like Komen. (If you want an even longer context, the attack on Planned Parenthood is part of a defund-the-Left campaign that has already taken down ACORN and is working on the public employees unions and NPR.)

The Susan Komen for the Cure Foundation has been under pressure from anti-abortion* groups for years now, and it began crumbling well before this week. Last April, Komen hired Karen Handel as their VP for Public Policy. Handel was a Sarah-Palin-endorsed candidate for Governor of Georgia who pledged to defund Planned Parenthood if elected. Jezebel comments:

How curious! A person with what looks like a personal vendetta against Planned Parenthood joins the ranks of an organization that provides funding to Planned Parenthood, and soon, that organization “defunds” Planned Parenthood.

LifeNews.com claimed that Komen had also given in on another abortion-related issue: embryonic stem cells. But the press release they link to has since vanished from the Komen site and nobody is sure what’s going on.

Tuesday, Planned Parenthood announced that Komen had told it that it would not be eligible for future grants because a new rule prevented grants to organizations that are under local, state, or federal investigation. Planned Parenthood is being investigated by Rep. Cliff Stearns, but a congressional investigation doesn’t have to be based on anything more than a committee chair’s whim, and this one seems not to be.

Critics have since pointed to Komen’s continuing relationships with other investigated organizations, like Penn State, so this all has the appearance of an elaborate rationalization. Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported:

three sources with direct knowledge of the Komen decision-making process told me that the rule was adopted in order to create an excuse to cut off Planned Parenthood.

The public backlash started immediately, and everyone agrees that Komen handled it badly. (I’m guessing they expected Planned Parenthood to slink away quietly rather than take the dispute public.) A communications specialist for nonprofits summed up: Komen had “accidentally rebranded” itself.

Komen for the Cure, it seems, is no longer a breast cancer charity, but a pro-life breast cancer charity.

Komen didn’t start getting its message out until late Wednesday, and it was garbled. Jay Rosen described Komen CEO and Founder Nancy Brinker’s interview with Andrea Mitchell on Thursday as “a train wreck”. Brinker didn’t say anything about investigations, but tried to turn attention to other policy changes that, once again, seemed to apply to no one other than Planned Parenthood.

Friday Brinker issued an apology to the public for “recent decisions” and said that “disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political”. Most people are taking that as capitulation. But it may not be. Maybe when new Planned Parenthood grant proposals come in, Komen will find new excuses to reject them. Handel is still on the job, after all.

OK, now some observations.

1. Be hopeful but not cocky. Twice in the last few weeks we’ve seen an outrageous attack get beaten back by public outrage. The corporatists had to retreat on SOPA and the theocrats on Planned Parenthood. Events like these are energizing, and it’s tempting to think that right-wing forces are on the run.

They’re not. The big media companies already have a new plan to control the Internet, and the campaign against Planned Parenthood will continue as well. When these forces operate in full public view and underestimate their opposition, they get beat. That’s encouraging, but you have to figure they’ll learn to be more careful.

2. The Christian Right continues to move towards apartheid. The whole premise of Komen is that “cure breast cancer” is such a simple and obviously good goal that we should all be able to unite around it, despite our other differences. The Christian Right is saying no to this. If Komen won’t define itself as an anti-abortion breast cancer charity, they won’t support it.

(Somebody is bound to comment that the Left is doing the same thing if Komen won’t fund Planned Parenthood. Not at all. If Komen had identified somebody else who would provide the same services better — no problem. Instead, Komen made a political decision to appease right-wingers and gave a series of bogus after-the-fact rationalizations. That’s what was outrageous.)

You can see the same thing happening all around us. At my local baseball stadium I have heard between-innings announcements for a Christian taxi service. God forbid a Muslim or an atheist should drive me somewhere.

3. There are other reasons not to like Komen. Komen had managed to identify itself as THE anti-breast-cancer charity, and no one wants to be pro-breast-cancer. So lots of people had been sitting on their criticism.

The Planned Parenthood mess gave them permission to come out of the closet and gave the general public permission to listen. These are the main points.

  • Less than half of Komen’s budget is spent on research, screening, or treatment. Overhead and marketing take up 22%, and education 36%. Of the education chunk, much is worthwhile, but a certain amount of marketing and overhead seems hidden there as well.
  • Komen is litigious. Komen spends almost $1 million a year making sure that no other anti-cancer charity uses its trademarked “for the cure” phrase. I don’t think anyone has totalled up what these suits cost the small charities Komen sues.
  • Corporations get a big marketing bang for a small charitable buck. Think Before You Pink asks some skeptical questions about those pink-ribbon products. BTW, the pink handgun looks like a hoax. But the KFC pink bucket is real.
  • Pinkwashing. Corporations whose products increase breast cancer risk can hide behind a pink ribbon. (BTW, anti-abortion groups try to turn this around by saying that abortion causes breast cancer. This is long-debunked nonsense repeated only by anti-science types like Rick Santorum.) Komen gets so much corporate cooperation precisely because it soft-pedals environmental causes and regulatory solutions, and instead focuses breast-cancer awareness on individual actions like mammograms and treatment. There’s a subtle victim-blaming vibe there. Pay no attention to that corporate carcinogen behind the curtain.

4. Charity has its limits. A common conservative/libertarian fantasy is that private charity can replace the functions of government. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all that good-deed-doing stuff could happen through voluntary generosity, with no taxes or audits or anything?

When you look at the big McCharities like United Way and a handful of others — a stratosphere Komen has recently entered — you see what’s wrong with that idea. All of them end up doing an enormous amount of marketing, image-building, and other rah-rah stuff to keep both themselves and their issues from slipping people’s minds. (My wife, a 15-year breast cancer survivor, hit her limit when football teams started wearing pink accessories that clash with their uniforms.)

The amount that shows up as overhead on a McCharity’s annual report is just a fraction of the true overhead. How much time and effort do participating corporations put into their United Way drives? How much money do individuals waste buying merchandise they don’t need and wouldn’t have bought without the charity tie-in? If you total up not just what the McCharity takes in, but what the donors and volunteers actually put out, you see that the true overhead is astronomical.

Mass-market private charity is a really, really inefficient way to do just about anything.

Like cure breast cancer. Almost every woman is at risk to some degree. Almost every man has a mother, wife, sister, daughter, or friend at risk. So curing breast cancer is in the general interest.

And breast cancer is not going away this year or next, and maybe not for a long time. So we may be facing decades of wide receivers wearing pink gloves just to keep our interest and awareness sufficiently high.

Imagine: Wouldn’t it be great if there were some way to decide once and for all that we as a people want to beat breast cancer? We wouldn’t have to stay perpetually amped-up about it, we could just commit to finding a cure and get on with our lives.

Amazingly, there is a way! We could elect representatives who could all meet somewhere and decide what each person’s fair share is. Then we could have that amount deducted from our paychecks automatically, without all the hoopla and overhead and waste.

Government — that’s what it’s called. Whenever we want to do something in the general interest and to keep doing it year after year, the right tool for the job is government.

5. Supporters of abortion rights need to take the initiative. All we accomplished with Komen this week was to preserve the status quo. The other side continues to pick the battlefields and hammer away. Sometimes we stop them and sometimes we don’t. That’s not recipe for victory.

Daily Kos’ Meteor Blades says “So, clearly, self-defense is crucial. But we need offense as well.” He then outlines steps to advance the family-planning* cause, including the repeal of TRAP laws, opening new women’s-health clinics, and ending government funding of abstinence-only sex education “which amounts, in many cases, to no education at all.”

Blades doesn’t go far enough. We also need to take the intellectual, moral, and religious initiative.

Here’s a place to start: The  anti-abortion movement’s most extreme positions (opposition to embryonic stem cell research and to post-conception forms of birth control like IUDs and the morning-after pill) follow from the belief that a one-celled organism, the newly fertilized ovum, has the full moral value of an infant.

Anti-abortion advocates usually get away with presenting this as a principled religious conviction, part of that old-time religion.

We need to point out loudly and often that in fact this is a nutty idea that has no historical, traditional, or scriptural basis. People don’t oppose abortion because they believe on religious principle that a zygote has the moral value of a child. Quite the opposite: This an ad hoc belief invented for the purpose of opposing abortion, and the faithful simply ignore many of its inconvenient consequences.

The Wikipedia article on ensoulment is worth reading in this regard. Aristotle, the Talmud, and all early Christian sources agreed that the soul entered the body well after conception — 40 days at the earliest. Nobody dreamed up ensoulment-at-conception until the Middle Ages, and even then the infallible popes went back and forth about it for centuries.

The very idea of a “moment” of ensoulment is one of those theological contrivances rejected by every folk culture that has ever existed, including ours. Intuitively, we all understand that the moral value of the fetus (like everything else about it) develops gradually, beginning somewhere around zero at conception and becoming immeasurable by the time of birth. In actual practice everyone — even a conservative Christian who “believes” in ensoulment-at-conception — understands that late miscarriages are more tragic than early miscarriages, and that the death of an infant is more tragic yet.

Consider, for example, that the majority of fertilized ova fail to implant in the uterus and abort spontaneously without the woman even being aware of her pregnancy. Anyone who honestly believed these were full-fledged human souls would regard failure-to-implant as the greatest health problem and greatest human tragedy of all time. But where is the religious monument to these billions of souls? Where is the big research program to do something about this holocaust?

Nowhere, because deep down no one really believes that a fertilized ovum has the moral value of a baby. The whole idea has been trumped up to justify opposition to abortion. It does not deserve the respect it is typically granted.


*I am sick of the jockeying over labels on both sides. Pro-life and pro-choice both sound good to focus groups, but they are neither precise nor accurate. So I’ll call you “pro-life” only if you have an across-the-board life agenda: not just anti-abortion, but anti-death-penalty, anti-war, pro-universal-healthcare, and maybe even vegetarian. If you’re just against abortion, I’ll call you “anti-abortion” or maybe “pro-fetus-rights”.

Similarly, I could imagine an across-the-board pro-choice agenda — not just abortion rights but drug legalization, anti-gun-control, right to die, open borders, and so on — but I don’t see many people pushing that either. So if you’re just in favor of a woman’s right to choose an abortion, I’ll describe your position as “abortion rights” or “pro-family-planning”.