Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Due to work and research commitments, I will not be posting anything new until next year. In the meantime, use the links and the news feeds and still feel free to email me if you want to discuss reproductive politics. Thanks for your continued interest. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Protestant and Catholic balance in the pro-life movement

In a column in First Things online, Mark Tooley uses the recent March for Life as an occasion to discuss what he sees as a shift within evangelical Protestantism to pro-life beliefs.


Essay in First Things (January 27, 2014): Protestants March for Life

Asking Pope Francis to reexamine abortion

Philosopher Gary Gutting, who always writes something interesting for The Stone column in The New York Times, recently asked if Pope Francis might reconsider the Catholic Church's traditional absolutist opposition to abortion.

In doing so, Gutting makes a case for a kind of minimalist justification for abortion-- that is, abortion is immoral in most circumstances but there are a few cases where abortion is justified (in the case of rape, for example). 

For that reason, the column makes for informative reading. Still, Gutting puts the cart before the horse: how and why would Pope Francis review the Church's view on abortion before reexamining its even-more-restrictive view of artificial contraception? 

Anything can happen, of course, but Pope Francis has not really indicated a willingness to reconsider the doctrine of the Church on sex, conception, and abortion. Everything I have read from and about Francis is that he is advocating for a change of tone and emphasis, not what is moral or immoral. 


Essay by Gary Gutting in The New York Times (January 23, 2014): Should Pope Francis Rethink Abortion?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Book review: The Street Politics of Abortion

I recently wrote a review of The Street Politics of Abortion, by Joshua C. Wilson, for the Law and Politics Book Review. It can be found here.

Spontaneous miscarriage and the morality of abortion

Hello, everyone! I have been away from the blog for a while, during a period of great activity regarding reproductive politics. So let's get back to discussing this always-interesting topic. 

In reading an essay by Gary Gutting (subject of a separate post), I followed a link to this blog post by philosopher Peter Smith. 

He wonders why intentional termination of an early pregnancy is more morally consequential than a spontaneous early miscarriage (which occurs in roughly 30% of conceptions). What he is really doing is calling attention to a perceived hypocrisy by pro-life advocates: If unborn are valuable humans from the moment of conception, why isn't there more of an outcry over the heavy loss of human life by natural miscarriage? If the value of the unborn is equal across all situations, Smith suggests, then this apparent lack of concern over natural miscarriage indicates that opposition to abortion, at least early in pregnancy, is about something else. 

Smith concludes (tentatively) that most people have in fact a 'gradualist' view of the morality of abortion, meaning that we assign less moral weight to the death/killing of an early product of conception than a later-term embryo or fetus. 

The comments, and Smith's responses to them, are really worth reading. Smith gets some pushback on the idea that natural death and intentional death of the early unborn are equivalent-- that there is a significant distinction between accidental death and intentional death. 


Blog post, in Logic Matters, by Peter Smith (Sept. 1, 2011): Abortion, again

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Fights over medical abortion

The newest front in the legislative war over abortion access is the regulation of "medical abortion" performed in the first eight weeks or so of pregnancy.

Pro-life activists express many concerns about medical abortion (questions about its safety, for example). Their true cause for alarm is that medical abortion allows for abortions to occur outside of the clinic structure-- the abortion experience occurs largely at home, and, in some states, family planning doctors are prescribing the drugs remotely (through a kind of Skype-like arrangement).

Anti-abortion legislatures have been achieving a measure of success against clinics by passing TRAP laws. In other words, legislatures are restricting abortion access by regulating clinics out of business. Medical abortion rewrites the rules because it allows abortions to be decentralized and privatized, so a pillar of recent American pro-life strategy will be severely undermined with its proliferation.

Michelle Goldberg and Emily Bazelton have written excellent analyses of anti-abortion laws aimed at stopping this new trend. Note that the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing a case this term on a medical abortion law in Oklahoma.


Article in Slate by Emily Bazelton (September 10, 2013): The Cleverest New Anti-Abortion Law

Article in The Daily Beast by Michelle Goldberg (September 9, 2013): The Triumph of Bureaucracy Over Abortion Rights

Article in The Guardian (July 15, 2013): North Dakota law banning medical abortion struck down

Friday, August 30, 2013

Squishy fetus dolls

Where do you stand on the Great Squishy Fetus Doll Debate of 2013?

This is not one of the most important issues out there, but it is interesting.

I recommend all of the linked sources below, if nothing else for the great titles, word choices, and, well, odd pictures of squishy fetus dolls.


Article in The Huffington Post (July 26, 2013): Fetus Dolls Are a Thing, Were Given to Kids by Anti-Abortion Group at North Dakota State Fair

Blog post by Rob Port on SayAnythingBlog (July 21, 2013): Dear Pro-Lifers: Can You Stop Being a Bunch of Weirdos? 

Article in Jezebel (July 24, 2013): Worst State Fair Ever Has Squishy Fetus Toys for Unsuspecting Kids

Page at Heritage House (aka Target for pro-life merchandise) for "The Precious One" 10-12 week fetal model

A second page at the Heritage House web site, at which pro-life activist Abby Johnson explains how fetal models help her with her "sidewalk counseling" work

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The decline in abortion clinics

As one might suspect, there has been a rather dramatic decline in the number of abortion clinics nationwide in the past few years.

Pro-life activists attribute this decline to three things (the first two, I think, having a real and concrete impact):
  1. State legislatures passing "TRAP" laws (targeted regulation of abortion providers) that require unnecessary and expensive changes to abortion clinics, which the clinics cannot afford. TRAP laws also sometimes require clinic doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, which local hospitals refuse to provide. 
  2. State legislatures "defunding" family planning clinics (that also perform abortions) by passing laws ensuring that no state money goes to places that perform abortions. 
  3. Prayer vigils and other forms of direct action at clinics themselves, like the 40 Days for Life campaign. 
Because abortion services in the United States are so heavily dependent on the clinic system, attacking clinics legally and financially is a sound strategy for making abortion effectively illegal in the United States.

The clinic system in the United States exists largely because of increased demand from women for legal and safe abortion access after Roe v. Wade and Dow v. Bolton were decided in 1973. At that time, hospitals were seen as lacking the capacity and will to handle increased demand for abortion; in addition, many hospitals in the pre-Roe and Doe era had cumbersome approval procedures. Individual OB/GYNs have been performing abortions as part of their private practices (legally and illegally) for a long time, but were not seen as possessing sufficient capacity. In addition, at least in the ones run by feminists, clinics focused specifically on reproductive health were to provide abortions and information about it in an enlightened and sensitive way.

In order for access to abortion services to be maintained or increased, one or more things has to happen:
  1. TRAP laws must be declared unconstitutional under the doctrine of the "undue burden" of Casey v. Planned Parenthood. Everyone is aware of the true motivation of TRAP laws, which is to shut down clinics without attacking the right of abortion directly. 
  2. Abortion services must be offered in non-clinic settings, such as private OB/GYN practices or hospitals. This would be difficult to do, for a host of reasons (that can be the topic of a separate post). That being noted, embedding abortion services within a larger network of other medical services and providers would make TRAP laws and defunding efforts almost impossible. 
  3. Early-stage abortion (which comprises 85-90% of all abortions in the U.S.) can be provided through medical abortion (i.e., abortion caused by taking one or more drugs). Medical abortion could be provided by private OB/GYNs, or by existing clinics but remotely (the drugs are provided locally after a video conference with a consulting physician, who could be several hundred miles away). Note that pro-life activists, alarmed over the access benefits of medical abortion, have been legislating against it as well. 

Article in The Huffington Post (August 26, 2013): Anti-Abortion Laws Take Dramatic Toll on Clinics Nationwide

Feature on RH Reality Check that contains documents from state agencies describing how the state currently regulates abortion providers: State of Abortion

Article in The Daily Beast (January 22, 2013): The Geography of Abortion Access

Monday, August 26, 2013

Surgery to restore sexual pleasure after female circumcision

There was a fascinating article in The Guardian over the weekend about a surgeon who performs surgery to help restore genital (in particular, clitoral) sexual sensation to women who have undergone female circumcision.

The article as a whole is definitely worth reading. The first part of the article is a bit too focused on the background of the people organizing and offering the surgery: the doctor who performs the surgery is transsexual and the activist who has organized the service is a member of a goofy religious sect called the Raelians.

It would be hard for any journalist to ignore the background of the people offering the service-- it is just interesting, if nothing else-- and the author of the article has a legitimate concern about the surgery service being a front for evangelization (she concludes it is not). But the author seems to go out of her way to heap disdain on the Raelians, perhaps to ensure the reader that the article is not a product of her being duped by a 'cult.' There is nothing wrong with despising the Raelians-- it is just not relevant to the heart of the story, which is the patients themselves and their struggle to have functional sex lives and a healthy self-image regarding their bodies.

The article also does a great job of conveying how female circumcision is not just about the physical alteration of women's genitals. The physical change of circumcision reifies and reenforces a host of social and mental constructs about women and their relationship to sexual pleasure, their power within marital and sexual relationships, and their role in the community. As with almost any body modification, successful surgery is only the first step in a long process of mental reevaluation and readjustment.


Article in The Guardian (August 24, 2013): High hopes: the UFO cult 'restoring' the victims of female genital mutilation

Friday, August 23, 2013

How many countries allow for abortion after 20 weeks?

Many, but it depends.

The fact check site PolitiFact did a nice job analyzing the question and, in doing so, providing a clear summary of the major differences between abortion laws among countries.

Politicians love to use a certain rhetorical technique when conveying information: They make a statement that draws a narrow frame around just the set of facts that they want the listener to hear.

In this case, Carly Fiorina (former CEO and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate) asserted that only four countries in the world "legalize abortion after five months" (about 20 weeks), including the United States. Two of those countries have 'bad' governments-- North Korea and China-- and the other is our 'socialist' neighbor to the north, Canada. If you want to get people fired up over a government policy, comparing us to China and North Korea is the way to do it. (People on the left tend to do the same thing, just on different issues.)

At any rate, is Fiorina's statement true? Half-true, says PolitiFact:
Fiorina said only four countries allow legal abortions five months into the gestational period. The United States, Canada, North Korea and China do fit that measure, but Singapore and the Netherlands, which Fiorina left off her list, do as well. Far more countries permit abortions in certain circumstances in which the pregnancy would damage the woman’s well-being, be it physical, mental or economic. Fiorina’s claim is based in fact but misses the mark, so we rate it Half True.
Ironically, Fiorina's statement is half-true precisely because of a phenomenon that pro-life politicians and activists love to point out: Exceptions to abortion laws, as enforced, can be tantamount to legalization.

In the six countries in which abortions after 20 weeks are "legal," there is no prohibition against abortions until a later stage in gestation. In dozens of other countries, abortion after 20 weeks (or 12 weeks or some other point) is generally illegal but there are exceptions to the general prohibition.

Regarding exceptions:
  1. An exception can be written in a way that allows for a wide range of behavior. Put another way, if an exception is written too broadly, it can swallow the rule. American abortion opponents make this point about American abortion law-- that the "life or health" exception in Roe and Casey is so broad that it essentially allows for women to obtain abortions for almost any vague "health" reason up to the point of birth. This is why almost all pro-life legislative proposals contain only an exception directed to clinically diagnosable physical threats to a pregnant woman's life or health (not vague mental or socioeconomic "health" reasons). 
  2. An exception can be enforced in a way that essentially translates into legalization in practice. 
Given that American pro-lifers constantly make this point about abortion laws and their exceptions, it is disingenuous for someone like Fiorina to assert that only four countries in the world "legalize" abortion after 20 weeks. 


Analysis in PolitiFact (August 18, 2013): "There are only four countries in the world that . . . legalize abortion after five months-- China, North Korea, Canada, and the U.S."

For more explanation and analysis of how abortion exceptions work in practice, see this earlier post of mine.

The Center for Reproductive Rights categorizes the abortion laws of all countries in this one-page fact sheet: The World's Abortion Laws Map 2013 Update