Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
These are tumultuous times. The war, the election, the controversial, and very recent case of Roe v. Wade...
Maybe tumultuous isn't the right word. Maybe backward. No. Sad! Yeah, that's the one. It's all very sad. In 1973, the highest court in the land ruled that abortion was a woman's right. End. Of. Story. My generation grew up recognizing that fundamental right. But something happened.
Roe v. Wade fomented the religious right. The Reagan years saw the rise of the shameless televangelist. The purposely divisive rhetoric ramped up during the Rove presidency. Now, every election cycle, Americans relitigate the morality of abortion. For many, it's the only reason they vote. The ultimate wedge issue. I know. When I ran for Congress, I received a dozen e-mails from people who wanted to support my candidacy, but couldn't because I'm pro-choice.
This cycle's been like hopping into a time machine. Todd Akin's “legitimate rape” anti-science (there are 30,000 rape pregnancies a year, btw), his radical fetus personhood amendment cosponsor, and would-be Veep, Paul Ryan saying rape is just another “method of conception,” Republican Wisconsin State Rep. Roger Rivard's “some girls rape easy” remark, and most recently Indiana Republican senate hopeful Richard Mourdock's rape-babies are a “gift from God” comment.
These aren't fringe positions. This is the modern, rape-happy, God-lovin', woman-hatin’ GOP. Sad. And now the “pro-life” politicians who allow for exceptions in cases of rape and incest, like Mitt Romney and Mourdock's Democratic challenger Rep. Joe Donnelly, seem almost moderate by contrast. Sadder. But the saddest aspect of all this “pro-life” cultural time travel is that outlawing abortion is demonstrably not a pro-life policy.
Murderous “pro-life” hypocrites
No, I'm not talking about the crazies who bomb abortion clinics, though they are an egregious example of murdering “pro-life” hypocrites. I mean, anyone who's “pro-life.”
Our society's recurring battle over abortion is based on an enormous misconception. We're operating under the false assumption that making abortion illegal will result in fewer abortions. There's absolutely no evidence for this. On the contrary, a comprehensive 2007 study by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute showed that rates were lower in nations where the abortion is “broadly legal.”
In Uganda, where abortion is illegal and sex “education” focuses solely on abstinence, 54 out of every 1,000 women of reproductive age undergo the procedure annually. In these here United States of 'Murka, where abortion is still a legal gift from the Baby Jesus, it's 21 out of 1,000—roughly double the rates in Western Europe. The lowest rate worldwide, a scant 6 per 1,000 women, goes to the Netherlands. According to our own National Institute of Health, the very low Dutch abortion rate is attributable to their firm commitment to family planning services, easy access to contraception, and sex education in both schools and mass media.
And the saddest-sad-sadness of all? An estimated 67,000 women die every year from unsafe, illegal abortions worldwide.
So what we call “pro-life” just ain't. If we want more abortions, cut funding to Planned Parenthood, and push abstinence-only fairy tales on teenagers. And if we want women to needlessly die, while likely increasing the abortion rate, we'd seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. But that's not how we talk about these things. Facts don't matter. Our whole political discourse is emotion-based nutjobbery, and the abortion debate proves that rule beyond any reasonable doubt.
It's nearly forgivable that “pro-life” voters don't know the folly of their conventional wisdom. Without thinking too hard, at which we Americans truly are exceptional, the above facts seem counterintuitive. And pro-choice progressives haven't been very good at hammering this empirical reality into the national conversation. You hear a lot of this “our bodies, our choice” stuff, which is all fine and good, but it's not a compelling argument to someone who presumes that outlawing abortion is the answer. Right or wrong, it seems selfish.
I frankly do not understand why liberals don't mention this stuff every single time abortion comes up. If “pro-lifers” are sincere about their desire to reduce the abortion rate, and incidentally save the lives of mothers, they need to understand that they have it completely backward. And, as far as I can tell, there's been little effort to explain these facts. Or are we too ideologically entrenched to let facts change our minds? I've written about the W.H.O. study quite a bit, actually, and I referenced it when I was running for Congress. With my unabashed support for family planning, safe and legal abortion, and sex education, I was able to honestly brag about being the only true pro-life candidate in the race. But I'm not Chris Matthews. I can't introduce a meme and expect it to grow legs.
Slight tangent/background: I ran (limped) as a Green (shut up) in the 2011 special election for NY-26, in which Democrat Kathy Hochul upset the presumptive shoo-in mainly because the Republican endorsed the Paul Ryan's Medicare-decimating budget. And old people vote. After the presidential election's over, I'll write something about how I knew Ryan was a Romney killer all along. Or maybe it'll be something about moronic Ohioans. Or possibly about voter fraud. Be patient.
And why we should dump unwanted babies in the ocean
In lieu of progressives relentlessly hammering the fact that “pro-life” policy will result in more abortions and more dead women, the absence of which I find absolutely baffling, we need to vigorously fight for the right to abort babies well into the 20th trimester—by dumping them into the Pacific. Stay with me, here. I do think the numbers are the way to go with this argument, but since this meme hasn't yet caught on, there's got to be a reason. Right? (Hey, Chris Matthews, feel free to run with this thing.)
The Overton window. Heard of it? It's a political thriller written by Glenn Beck. Really. I haven't read it yet, but I plan to just before I die of laughing. That's not, however, what I'm talking about. The real, non-hilarious Overton Window is a political theory developed by Joseph Overton (coincidence?), the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which is your typical “free-market” think tank funded and chaired by your usual, terrible suspects like the Bradley Foundation and the Koch brothers (next-gen Birchers, they are).
Anyway, the basic idea behind the Overton window is that it's easier to attain one's political goals by introducing an extreme into the mix. A real-world application would be in bargaining. You want $700 for your sky blue '01 Geo Metro (tweet @ me if you're interested), so you ask for $1,000, and expect the buyer to haggle the price down $300. In political terms—and this may sound awfully familiar—if you want fewer environmental regulations or, say, to kill health care reform, you form an Astroturf group full of lunatics who bring guns to rallies and tote—grammatically incorrect—signs about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants. You know, pour a ton of cash into an extremist group that seeks to destroy the government. Suddenly, with all these wackos running around, talking about armed revolution and a libertarian utopia sans the governmental tyranny of roads and bridges, loosening EPA regulations seems like an acceptable idea—a compromise with crazy. It's also a good idea to associate your extremist group with some kind of beverage.
Whether consciously or not (definitely a conscious effort in more recent times—get that the TEA party crazies and the Mackinac wonks share the same obscenely moneyed overlords, natch), this is the mechanism by which our nation has moved steadily to the right. Nixon, the near-mythological Republican boogeyman, was to the left of Clinton in a lot of ways. Our “Socialist” (Wall Street is booming) Commander-in-Chief, who wants to scrub the 2nd Amendment (gun sales also brisk), is politically what we used to call “Republican.” And the new breed of “Republicans,” of Paul Ryan's ilk, are fascists by any other name—because we're too polite to call that spade. It's just so unseemly to challenge the creeping normal.
In the context of abortion, as mentioned, we have all these lunatics howling about God's miraculous daddy-rape-baby-lemon-aide, and insane personhood amendments for zygotes, so slightly less draconian “pro-life” politicians like Romney and Mourdock's Democratic opponent can skate by (or try to) as supposed moderates.
Another slight tangent (deal with it): Progressives (or purported progressives) are being gamed this way up and down the political map. Hard. If you're selling a sky blue '01 Geo Metro for $1,000 (@Ian_Murphy, runs great!), you'll get low-balled at $450, and when you settle on $700, everyone's happy. Yeah? Well, what if you want health care reform, and your political beverage-related opponents are uber-determined to “kill the bill?” You push hard for single-payer, of course. But that never happened, did it? Instead of pricing the health care Geo Metro at $1,000, Obama started with $700, and what we got was non-universal coverage, an enormous give-away to private insurers and big pharma. He sold the Geo for $500. We could've gotten more. But we isn't he, is we? (I'll spare you a similar tangent about the size of the '08 economic stimulus,.) And now back to our regularly scheduled baby drownings.
Well, since we're too far gone for facts to matter, apparently (to belabor the point: I truly do not understand why the above abortion stats aren't hammered everywhere, all the time, by every pro-choice American everywhere, all the time, everywhere, all the time, Chris Matthews!), progressives need to use the ol' Overton window and introduce an extreme. To wit:
I mean, look, babies aren't people. Not yet. They're unthinking poop-bags. They have no idea what the hell is happening. Their brains aren't properly wired yet. In every major way we define the term, babies are not, properly speaking, human beings. They're like little Terry Schiavos. Babies are parents' property. Whiny, needy, pooping property. Government, git yer damn, dirty paws off m'property...I'll let you work out the finer points of this horrific argument, and voila: we demand the right to dump our unwanted babies in the ocean. You're welcome.
If progressives argue aggressively for the right to dump unwanted toddlers in the ocean, for a few years or so, right-to-life cretins will be so busy chartering whaling ships to save the bargain-chip baby-bluffs (don't let on that you're bluffing) that they won't have time to shame-shout in the faces of rape victims as they enter your local Planned Parenthood. And, after a while, the idea that a zygote is a person would be totally laughable, as it should be.
In so many ways, we progressives are pricing our metaphorical '01 Geos (and our real ones) at $700. You can't argue the status quo against maniacs who shift the debate with incorrigible extremism. It's time to fight fire with drowning babies in the Pacific Ocean. It's time to fight “entitlement” reform with a strong push for a basic income guarantee (or a Milton Friedman-esque negative income tax, if you care about the framing). Food stamps: no longer for just the 47%! For every dollar the government puts into food stamps, $1.60 goes back into the economy. Everyone should be on food stamps. Etc, etc, etc. No more triangulating!
So in summation, go drown some babies in the ocean—er, I mean, argue for your right to drown babies in the ocean. Yeah. Or the facts thing about how lowering the abortion rate has nothing to do with overturning Roe v. Wade. The facts are actually preferable. But they don't seem to persuade people nowadays, if they ever did, but it's up to you.
And have a happy Free Speech Week! Use it or lose it, chumps.