For the most part, I've steered clear of writing about gender issues since, except in talking about my mom, which I've done on multiple occasions. I'm prompted to consider gender issues more broadly now, after reading two pieces on the same subject matter, this one by Rebecca Traister called Will We Abandon Women's Rights in the Name of Progressive Politics, and this one by Bryce Covert called Why Abortion Is a Progressive Economic Issue. But before doing so let me give some other background, which in addition provides my motivation for writing here.
I have been slowly reading a book of short essays by Peter Singer called Ethics in the Real World. The essays are clustered by topic. There are a bunch on animal rights, particularly the rights of livestock. Some of these pieces argue that we should be vegans to avoid cruelty to animals. I would say those pieces are provocative if not immediately persuasive, meaning that my own eating habits are so ingrained that thinking through them to become a vegan would take a lot more deliberation than I've yet given to the book. But those pieces on animal rights are useful in another way. They set up the next group of essays, which are about when it is all right to take human life. The focus there is on cases where dementia has taken hold or where the person is suffering in extreme pain with no chance for a cure.
There seemed to be a common principle that underlies each of this pieces which I will articulate here, though do note that this is my distillation of Singer, not what Singer says himself.
The Sentient Being Principle: Sentient beings deserve humane treatment, freedom from undo pain and suffering, and respect for their own well being. Other living things that are not sentient do not qualify for such treatment. Killing a non-sentient being is not an ethical violation.
So, for example, swatting a housefly is not an ethical matter. Nobody would think otherwise. That one is easy. Singer argues that livestock on the farm, chickens for example and cows for another, are sentient beings. He then argues that a person who is in the full throes of dementia, with no moments where lucidity returns, is not a sentient being. Similarly, an embryo is not a sentient being.
When you start to think this way, almost immediately you are drawn into the question - how do you draw the line between sentient and non-sentient? Singer considers this question at some length. His conclusion is that the boundary is very difficult to identify. This itself implies those closest to the situation are in the best position to make that determination. On a personal note, where my mom had a very severe dementia and was unable to recognize me the last several years of her life, and where she was attended by very dedicated long term care providers in her condo, the issue wasn't so much what the facts of her condition were. My siblings and I could agree on that straight away. The issue was whether to be proactive about treating her various non-dementia health issues, of which she had many. There are no right answers to these sort of questions. It is very difficult and draining to make such choices, because it is so hard to let go.
Singer's views on these matters resonated with me, in part because a couple of years ago I had written a piece called Boundaries Are Always Harder to Define, after the campus issued a report on Racial Microagressions. (Race is another area where I have written only a few posts on the subject and have had that same awkward feeling in the writing.) So my conclusion on this was essentially the same as what Singer articulated. In that piece I wrote the following paragraph.
I am a fairly regular reader of the New York Times Opinion Page. Among the regular columnists, Charles Blow is the one who writes regularly about race issues, often taking on the Republican attack machine in the process. It might be expected that an African American columnist will write on race issues, but as a regular diet of columns I find this problematic. So it occurred to me that Blow should swap columns with somebody else at the Times, Joe Nocera for example. Nocera has written a spate of columns on the NCAA as evil cartel. Imagine if for a month or so that Blow would write about the NCAA, race could certainly enter the discussion there but the constraint would be that there was a connection to NCAA issues, and Nocera would write about race relations, preferably entirely outside the world of sports. The alternative perspective would be helpful to readers.
Soon thereafter Joe Nocera moved from the Opinion section of the Times to write on Sports Business, so the particular solution I came up with didn't work. But the general idea persists. Consequently, it is somewhat troubling to me that I've not yet read a male columnist write about the issues that Traister and Covert consider. Would a male columnist come at these issues from a different perspective? Would a male columnist defend Bernie Sanders and Tom Perez?
Reading Traister's piece, the impression I got was that she was quite angry. Covert was perhaps less scolding in her essay, but nonetheless unmistakably argued that Sanders and Perez were very wrong. The correctness of their positions is not what bothered me about these essays. The problem with saying that somebody is wrong, particularly when done in an angry tone, is that people react to the tone first rather than to the underlying arguments. It then makes the situation seem very zero-sum.
So, even though this is not in my comfort zone, I thought I'd give it a go, in large part to encourage others to do likewise.
* * * * *
In the main, I want to show common cause with Traister and Covert. But then I want to add some points that they don't consider.
Let's start with the obvious. Women who are making reproductive decisions are sentient human beings. We should repeat that a few times so it sinks in. In what follows, I'm going to focus on people above the age of consent. Minors are sentient human beings too, but their parents' views matter as well. I don't want to consider minors here, though if one did there is the matter of sex education and if it is appropriately provided (or not). The following then follow from the observation that women are sentient beings while embryos are not.
a) Roe was decided correctly. It is the law of the land.
b) Consenting adults should have ready access to birth control.
c) Women should have good access to health care that is non-coercive about their reproductive decisions.
Covert links to this piece about unintended pregnancies in the U.S. The following paragraph gives a useful overview about prevention of unwanted pregnancy.
Two-thirds (68%) of U.S. women at risk for unintended pregnancy use contraceptives consistently and correctly throughout the course of any given year; these women account for only 5% of all unintended pregnancies. By contrast, the 18% of women at risk who use contraceptives inconsistently or incorrectly account for 41% of all unintended pregnancies. The 14% of women at risk who do not practice contraception at all or who have gaps of a month or more during the year account for 54% of all unintended pregnancies.
The piece then goes on to argue that income is a prime determinant of unintended pregnancy. High income women tend to use contraception correctly. Low income women are more likely to use contraception incorrectly or not use it at all.
I confess that I was unaware of the possibility where correct use of contraception nonetheless leads to unwanted pregnancy. That contraception is not foolproof is one point to keep in mind. The larger issue does seem to be incorrect use of contraception or no use whatsoever. On this it is unclear how much of it can be explained by (b) and (c) above not holding for low income women, versus a different explanation - being caught up in the moment and thus losing a sense of precaution.
This RSA Animate video on The Secret Powers of Time is interesting in that it distinguished people who live in the present, they aim for getting pleasure immediately, from those who plan for the future and base their current action on that. I don't think it is quite as simple as depicted in the video - people may be immediate pleasure oriented in some dimensions and planners in other. For example, on matters of food or drink I tend to be one who lives in the present, but on other matters (like thinking about writing this blog post) there is much more planning that goes on. Nonetheless, there is a connection between this video and the current discussion. High income people tend to do a lot of planning for the future. Low income people tend to live in the present. So one wonders how efficacious education efforts might be if they focus purely on the functionality of contraception but don't impact the need to plan. I really don't know. These issues are out of my league. Having read a bit about this, I'd like to learn more on the matter.
Onto this let's overlay some of our recent national politics. We have the Senate not taking up President Obama's nomination for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, in what seems like a hugely brazen maneuver, quite possibly was unconstitutional, and set the stage for the Senate and the voters alike to embrace a take-no-prisoners attitude. Filling that Supreme Court seat was a big driver in voter participation during the Presidential election. It also explains why the Republicans in Congress went AWOL on investigating connections between Russia and the Trump Administration. Having made their bed, they are now lying in it. Given the recent events, it is hard to see why Democrats would want to meet the Republicans halfway on reproductive rights.
But there is a different way to consider what Sanders and Perez did rational as political calculus. This focuses on the correlation between income and voting participation. Low income people tend not to vote. Near as I can tell, the Democrats don't have a strategy for trying to increase those participation rates and then get low income voters to vote for Democratic candidates. If there was such a strategy, then it would be clear that what Sanders and Perez did would be a dead wrong approach. Instead, the Democrats seem to be trying to attract middle income and upper middle income independent voters. Low income folks get ignored this way. This realpolitik might counter Covert's arguments.
However, as a practical matter you don't alienate your base while trying to expand the appeal of your party. Further, and this was the reason I brought in Peter Singer to the discussion, there is an ethical argument to be made here. The points (a) - (c) are ethically sound and follow from the basic observation that women are sentient beings. There can be no compromise on ethical issues. It is possible to imagine that some people will not embrace the Sentient Being Principle, as it was articulated above. (My guess is that most of those would be pro-life Republicans.) But among those who do, (a) - (c) seem like reasonable and common sense extensions. You can't walk that back.
Thus, any appeal to independents would have to be of the following form. A party platform has many aspects. Democratic views on taxation, regulating the environment, promoting education, and many other dimensions of policy may be very attractive to independents, especially as the Republicans now seem to be shooting themselves in the foot and are not capable of governing. But on a woman's right to choose the Democrats will hold firm. It has been the pro-choice party and will stay that way. If you, independent, decide to become a Democrat, your voice will be heard. But don't expect the party to move off its pro-choice stance. It's a foundational piece of what the party stands for. Please understand that up front.
I don't know that Sanders and Perez will change their tune in this way, but surely they'd be encouraged to do so if many more supporters made similar arguments. It is too easy to get caught up in the narrow political goals - taking back the House in 2018, registering a big win in 2020. Politicians want their party to win. That is axiomatic. But for that reason core ideas should be developed elsewhere, hashed through by the community and then filter up.
And if Sanders and Perez did modify their approach this way, how would Traister and Covert react? I don't know, but I do know the response I'd like to see. To err is human; to forgive, divine.