The Subject We Don’t Talk About

09.02.2010, 11:54 AM

Here at FamilyScholars, until yesterday, that subject was…abortion.


Because twenty-some years ago, when some people concerned about the family came together, they wished to try something different: to see if scholars and leaders from the left and the right could engage with one another on the topic of family structure. Then, as now, there was a raging culture war over abortion. Then, there was a simmering battle over gay rights that, I believe it’s reasonable to say, has become a culture war over gay marriage.

To see if it was possible to do something different, those early leaders proposed a discussion on the family that bracketed two issues: abortion and homosexuality. If we could set aside our differences on those topics, could we make headway on the broader question of family structure and child well-being?

For many years, I think, it worked. A consensus among the center-left and the center-right was forged, one that can be seen in various documents (see for example here, here, and here) and that has been broadly discussed in news media and in histories of that time.

Then came gay marriage in Massachusetts in 2004. At that moment, anyone who studied or talked about or was concerned about marriage in America had to start deciding, and fast, whether they were for legalizing gay marriage or against it, whether they were on the gay marriage bus or off of it. We could no longer bracket anything having to do with homosexuality and say, “Let’s focus on other things.” Right now, the heat and light and debate on marriage in America is all about gay marriage. To ignore it is, itself, a choice with consequences. One result of the gay marriage culture war is that it’s been much harder, in the years since, to find consensus between the center-left and the center-right on family structure issues, even when they have nothing to do with families led by gay and lesbian persons.

Several years ago I found myself drawn to the question of how reproductive technologies impact the people conceived this way. With colleagues I studied the question and released a report on how young adults conceived through sperm donation fare. As I delved into this topic, I realized that our attempt to bracket abortion from the discussion was becoming increasingly difficult, at least for me. To talk about the commodification of children, or the rhetoric of “wanted” children (those conceived through ARTs are said to be “wanted,” those aborted are said to be “unwanted”), or the choices urged upon young women in their fertile years who then find themselves ready to have children but are no longer fertile — all of this and more continually raises the question of abortion.

But we have continued bracketing that question. Until yesterday.

My colleague, guest blogger Karen Clark, posted on the blog yesterday a compelling link to the story of a young woman whose biological mother attempted to abort her when the pregnancy was seven and one-half months along. The abortion “failed” and the child, Gianna Jessen, was born.  Read her testimony before a Senate subcomittee in 1996. Karen noted, accurately in my view, that though many people view the debates about ARTs and abortion as being entirely separate (one is about “giving” life and making “wanted” children, the other is about “taking” life and preventing “unwanted” children), they are actually inextricably linked, in part because they both rely on a rhetoric of reproductive choice and adult rights.

I read Karen’s post and wondered what to do. Should I call her and tell her we don’t talk about abortion on this site?

No, I decided. She’s raised an important point that needs to be discussed. So I went ahead and added a point of my own, citing an article written last week in which the writer, Mary Rose Somarriba of First Things,  pointed to the recent revelations from the U.K. that some women who have achieved pregnancies through IVF have then aborted the pregnancies (something I’ve been reading about, but have not blogged about). She noted the discomfiture with which this news has been greeted in mainstream media and asked, astutely, “When we protect babies that are wanted by their mothers, but don’t protect those who are unwanted by their mothers, what do we do when a mother can’t make up her mind?”

Then comments began to come. I watched them, closely, and was relieved that they were, in my own view, calm, compassionate, clear.

Then, as I was walking my kids to the car after soccer practice late yesterday, my iphone buzzed and I noticed a new comment. It was also calm and clear. The facts in it were, to my knowledge, entirely accurate. But it touched on the issue of race. Alarm bells went off inside me. I struggled with what to do. The commenter is someone I know, and someone I know to be deeply thoughtful.

After some thought, I deleted her comment. I wrote to her, telling her that following her questions and seeing where they led her was entirely appropriate, but that I needed to talk with her. I asked her if we could speak by phone today.

What I’ve written here is what I was planning to say to her. Since I’ve been distracted this morning and unable to think about anything else, I decided to go ahead and say it here first.

A final note: Our comments policy is now strict about off-topic comments. We have been and will continue to delete off-topic comments, including comments about gay marriage on posts that are not about gay marriage, and we will delete comments about abortion on posts that are not about abortion.

Clearly, this post is about both topics. My request, if it is possible, is for comments on this post to engage with the question of how (and whether) we — America, friends, FamilyScholars bloggers and commenters — should talk about these topics that, too often, divide us.

8 Responses to “The Subject We Don’t Talk About”

  1. David Blankenhorn says:

    It may be true that bracketing the issue, in the way that we said that we’d do back in 1989, is no longer possible, or at least no longer possible in quite the same way, given the substantive evolution of the issues before us.

    At the same time, a big difference between abortion and gay marriage, from my point of view, is that we (pro-marriage people) were forced into the gay marriage debate. We had no choice, really. Speaking for myself, I’d have much rather gone to Dentist World for six months of radical root canal work than get involved in this terrible debate, but there was finally no choice, if one wanted to stay in the marriage debate at all. I don’t think that the same awful “No Exit” context exists today with respect to abortion.

    I also think Karen’s point is a good one.

  2. Kyle Hubbard says:

    As a relatively new reader of the family scholars website I confess that I was unaware that abortion was a bracketed topic. I have appreciated the site’s clear concern for children and families. I believe Ms. Clark’s comment is spot on. Too often we discuss these issues in isolation from each other without understanding the deep connections between them. In fact there are probably a number of other issues that could be added to Ms. Clark’s list (advertising aimed at children, the breakdown of urban neighborhoods, the flight of youth from small towns). This site seems to be an ideal place to look at all the issues affecting families and children, including abortion.

  3. Peter Hoh says:

    There’s a fat middle ground in the abortion debate, captured by the Simpsons, back in 1996.

    As part of their plan to rule the earth, Kang and Kodos bio-duplicate the bodies of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and continue the presidential campaign.

    Kang (as Dole): Abortions for all.
    Crowd: Boo!
    Kang: Very well. No abortions for anyone.
    Crowd: Boo!
    Kang: Abortions for some. Miniature American flags for others.
    Crowd: Yay!!!

  4. Ampersand says:

    I think that before we can discuss “how” abortion (for example) should be discussed on this site, it’s necessary to talk about what the purpose of the discussion is.

    I mean, an attempt to persuade is different from an attempt to find common ground, which in turn is different from an attempt to just make each other better understand the opposing view. If we’re debating, are we debating about what is the more moral view philosophically, or are we debating about practical effects of applied policy?

    If we want to see something different from what usually happens, I’d suggest perhaps a one-on-one, two-way interview, in which two people from radically different sides of an issue interview each other in depth — first A interviewing B for ten questions, then B interviewing A for ten questions — with the purpose not of debate or of persuasion, but of trying to come to a deeper understanding of the basis of the other person’s views.

  5. Peter Hoh says:

    Let’s make the debate/discussion interesting. On one side, let’s find someone who supports marriage equity and is opposed to abortion, and on the other, someone who supports abortion but is opposed to same sex marriage.

    However, I’m not sure what constitutes support or opposition to abortion, other than the extremes of supporting a total ban or supporting unfettered access. How many exceptions can one allow and still be considered to be opposed to abortion?