Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Editing Ross Douthat

with 14 comments

by Luce

What is it about the New Year, or 2011, that reproduction is suddenly becoming the focus of such media scrutiny? Could it have anything to do with the coming into power of a militantly anti-choice Speaker?

Cultural sniffer Ross Douthat has also noticed this trend and decided to add his two cents in a recent Times column. Mostly it’s a yawn-fest whose point of view can be most quickly summed up by the fact that he refuses to call embryos and fetuses anything except the “unborn.” But he’s really doing his best to do a nuanced analysis of recent all the media representations of abortion ever and the adoption vs. surrogacy debate. I’ll hold back from line edits, but I thought I’d helpfully provide Douthat with some feedback on larger ideas that I think could use reworking.

1. The American entertainment industry has never been comfortable with the act of abortion.

Ross, the recent, sanitized, and mainstream American entertainment industry is not comfortable with abortion. But watch a Paul Mazursky film from the late ’70s, say the really wonderful An Unmarried Woman, and you’ll find the  15-year-old daughter casually talking to her mother about helping to pay for a classmate’s abortion while they set the dinner table together. Note that this is the only mention of abortion in the entire movie. There’s no hand-wringing, abortion just happens to be embedded in the everyday.

2. MTV being MTV, the special’s attitude was resolutely pro-choice. But it was a heartbreaking spectacle, whatever your perspective.

Is any media representation in the era of reality TV going to be anything but a “heartbreaking spectacle”? On the Real Housewives of New York being late for opening night at the Met is a “heartbreaking spectacle.” What network is going to air a woman self-assuredly and quietly going in for an abortion? In this case, and since you yourself say the American media is uncomfortable with abortion, should you really use a reality show as your only case study to show “how abortion can simultaneously seem like a moral wrong and the only possible solution”?

3. Last month there was Vanessa Grigoriadis’s provocative New York Magazine story “Waking Up From the Pill“…

Hang on, just a quick word choice suggestion even though I know I said I wouldn’t line edit, but “provocative” doesn’t seem to quite capture Grigoradis’s story. Let me know what you think of one of the following instead: sensationalistic, outlandish, insupportable.

4. In every era, there’s been a tragic contrast between the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility. But this gap used to be bridged by adoption far more frequently than it is today. Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason…Since 1973, countless lives that might have been welcomed into families like Thernstrom’s — which looked into adoption, and gave it up as hopeless — have been cut short in utero instead.

Though you don’t cross all your t’s, I get your underlying contention that it’s a tragedy that all these young, poor, unmarried girls now have the option to terminate their pregnancies rather than gestate for 9 months so that a wealthier, older, better-positioned, married woman can take their baby off their hands, and that now these wealthier women are forced to actually pay those women who now have a legal choice to act as surrogates or supply eggs for their (re)productive labor. I don’t have any real suggestions on this one, I just thought you could make that more clear.

5. This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.

Wait, I’m confused. For something you want to find so concrete (“unborn life,” not “a mass of cells”), I’m surprised that you’re abstracting here so much. Which life? Whose life? Is this the unborn life of someone who desires a child, or the unborn life of someone who doesn’t? I think differentiating between the two might help resolve this paradox.


Written by Kristen Loveland

January 4, 2011 at 10:40

14 Responses

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  1. Loved your post, especially your sarcasm. I couldn’t believe NYT was willing to publish his drivel, which I found to be both racist and misogynist. Racist because his statistics about adoption since 1973 only concern the offspring of white women, as though nonwhite, unwanted infants somehow don’t count among the “countless lives” that he says have been “cut short in utero.” Could it be that he only thinks its tragic when white women choose not to carry their fetuses to term?
    Misogynist because, like all anti-choice wingnuts, he’s like to take away women’s right to sovereignty over their bodies and reproductive decisions.


    January 4, 2011 at 11:03

    • Thanks for the comment and you’re absolutely right about the racism, which he slides in ever so easily in that statistic. Thanks so much for highlighting this!


      January 4, 2011 at 13:42

      • Actually let me amend this a little bit, since the 1970s was an era of “as if” adoptions (families and adoption agencies worked to treat adoption “as if” it were a natural birth, such that a family with an adopted child wouldn’t even have to reveal this fact to the child or anyone else). So yes, his statistic reflects an historical reality, but in comparing it to the current state of affairs without commentary he’s carrying an historically racist attitude into the present in a manner that’s as problematic as the rest of his contention.


        January 4, 2011 at 14:15

  2. Hey Kristen, it’s Dave. Great post, on a particularly
    infuriating column. Another example of a casual abortion in a
    mainstream Hollywood movie is 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont
    High”. I find Douthat clarifying in general, because he is
    certainly smarter, more lucid, more intellectually honest and more
    decent to his opponents that almost any other conservative American
    writer. And that allows us to see his underlying point for what it
    typically is: Catholic doctrine, of zero relevance to the 3/4 of
    Americans who aren’t Catholics or the majority of the rest who
    don’t take their religion all that seriously.


    January 4, 2011 at 12:57

    • The right to life is not a matter of religious doctrine. It is the most basic human right.


      March 11, 2012 at 21:23

  3. Hey Kristen. Nice post. While I know films aren’t your main topic here, there was also a relatively casual abortion in the recent “Greenberg.”


    January 4, 2011 at 14:25

  4. Let’s not forget the great Friday Night Lights episode where a teenage girl makes the right choice and has an abortion, which causes backlash in the fictional Texas town of Dillon. I blogged about that a while back.


    January 4, 2011 at 19:24

  5. Thanks Dave, Nemo, and Weiner for your suggestions. Chainsawbunny over at Jezebel also suggested Real World Los Angeles 1993. Maybe I’ll do a post to collect more of these. I just stumbled across a Cher and Demi Moore TV Movie “If These Walls Could Talk” from 1996 dramatizing three different women’s abortion experiences. Obviously this is going to the top of my Netflix queue.

    Here’s what I’ve been thinking about representations of abortion in media recently. I’m really no expert though, so I’d love to hear what you all think.

    I think even in the last decade there’s been a shift away from the practical and toward histrionic, hand-wringing portrayals of “schmabortion,” with a few exceptions like Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (but hasn’t he always been more willing to tell it like it is?). And in the same period more and more laws have been enacted to curtail a woman’s access to abortion.

    But I also think cultural commentators focus in on Juno and Knocked Up because basically the movies’ entire plots swing on decisions to NOT have an abortion. It’s a whole movie about not having an abortion! This must tell us something about the Everywoman’s reproductive experience! And conservative cultural commentators, who are lazy and already have their minds made up anyway, miss the quick scenes in movies and shows where, whoops, she had an abortion, no biggie.


    January 5, 2011 at 16:29

  6. Interesting and enjoyable post. At the risk of becoming
    most-hated-poster, however, I wanted to challenge you on a couple
    of points. I hope you will take these comments as they are
    intended: in a friendly way. I also make them because I am
    genuinely interested in what your response would be. Let me preface
    this by saying that I am moderately pro-choice. I generally oppose
    late term abortion, but think abortion should be legal and
    accessible in most circumstances. When I was a kid and first found
    out what abortion was, though, I had a bit of a knee-jerk
    opposition to it (note: I was never religious), and I have
    subsequently found it easier to understand where the pro-life
    people are coming from. First off – I don’t mean to defend Mr.
    Douthat, and many of your criticisms of him seem quite on the mark.
    Nevertheless, I always find it a bit irritating when I hear
    pro-lifers referred to as being anti-choice. I get what you mean,
    but it seems to me to be an almost deliberate attempt to
    misunderstand the position. It seems to pretend that it’s a simple
    issue where it’s not. The impulse to pretend that rights are
    straightforward and uncomplicated obscures the reality: that
    granting one set of rights often comes at the expense of another
    set. Now, it may seem straightforward if you assume
    unproblematically that the “unborn,” “fetus,” or whatever you call
    it is no more than a mass of cells. Scientifically speaking, it
    seems to me impossible to deny that it is some kind of “life” at
    the moment of conception. Now, what constitutes meaningful life is
    of course another matter – but the question or where to place that
    life’s beginning is a complicated one that extends beyond the realm
    of fetuses and embryos to what constitutes meaningful life in all
    kinds of other settings, which I will not get into. But the point
    is that to grant rights to pregnant women to terminate their
    pregnancies is to deny the right to life to this other category of
    beings. Now, I respect that opinion. For myself, I am personally
    uncomfortable making the decision where meaningful life begins, and
    for that reason I would never get an abortion. But I also
    acknowledge that there is no societal consensus on where life
    begins, or indeed considering the unborn fetus a “life,” and for
    that reason among others I think that making abortion illegal would
    be a disaster. (I tend to think it should be safe, legal, and rare.
    Which is what I feel like most people think. Incidentally, I was
    surprised to see you disagree with Mr. Douthat on the point that
    movies/pop culture don’t particularly want to get into the abortion
    issue. There are exceptions, but I think it’s generally true and I
    think Sex & the City and Mad Men are great examples that
    stop short. I suspect it’s less a reflection of the views of the
    entertainment industry than it is a reluctance to alienate
    viewers.) But I wish we would stop with this fiction that you’re
    for rights or against them. If one regards an unborn fetus as a
    life, it seems easy to understand why one might then think that
    right to life is potentially, theoretically more sacred than the
    right of a pregnant woman to terminate her pregnancy. Although it’s
    far from being a simple question. Another point that I would be
    very interested in hearing your opinion on: the way I see it, the
    notion of a woman’s right to choose being solely a question of her
    right to control her own body has to me always seemed to be a kind
    of fiction, no matter how you spin it. It seems to me to be quite
    complicated. Conventionally men have a role in causing a pregnancy
    and in fathering a child. Now I am not for a minute advocating that
    men have the right to compel or prevent an abortion (the idea seems
    completely repugnant, of course), but logically speaking, shouldn’t
    men have some kind of “choice” to parallel that of women? As a
    society we respect the woman who is financially unable to support a
    child and therefore terminates her pregnancy; but once that child
    is born, its father has a responsibility to provide for it even if
    he had been opposed to the woman carrying the child to term.
    Similarly, a man squeamish about abortion can do nothing to prevent
    his child from being aborted. It’s not clear to me what the
    remedies to these issues are, but to my mind they expose just how
    complicated this issue is. We seem to define “life” as having its
    beginning at different points depending on what exactly it is that
    we’re talking about. A man completely uninterested in having
    children who has sex, resulting in a baby, is responsible for
    supporting that child regardless of the extent to which he ever
    meaningfully acts as its father. A different man, who may well want
    a child or otherwise be uncomfortable with abortion, has no ability
    to prevent that unborn child’s life from being terminated. To call
    this a matter of “women’s bodies” seems to pretend that the whole
    issue is regarding the nine months of gestation, because I don’t
    think anyone would argue that women should have a greater say than
    men when it comes to reproductive choices prior to actual
    pregnancy, or to child-rearing itself. But when we simplify the
    issue that way, it seems to me that we are kidding ourselves that
    rights are straightforward, that it is easy to make the law fair,
    that the inequities of nature can be mediated through law. It seems
    to me that these issues are extremely complicated, and that it
    doesn’t advance the debate any further when both sides (it is
    definitely both!) demonize the other side and try to marginalize
    mainstream points of view as backward or callous. Also – I get your
    point at the end over Douthat’s discussion of adoption, but don’t
    you think you’re being a little dismissive of infertile couples? It
    has to be extremely trying, and even though I highly doubt that all
    (or even most) modern abortions would be cases of adoption if the
    pregnancies went to term, I’m sure there’s a correlation. Is there
    really any harm in acknowledging that it’s a tragedy of sorts even
    if you feel that it’s the necessary result of a better, or
    improved, society/system?


    January 10, 2011 at 01:43

    • First let me thank you for presenting your challenges in such a thoughtful manner and I will do my best to respond likewise. In fact you are far from my most-hated-commenter (that distinction will go unnamed), and given the topic this is very much a credit to you. I am going to try to take your challenges point by point.

      Semantics: The words we use are inevitably shaped by the politics surrounding them. A simple answer as to why I use anti-choice is because in doing so I am identifying myself as someone who is pro-choice, just as someone who considers themselves to be pro-life would identify me as anti-life or the only slightly more subtle pro-abortion. To call Douthat et al “pro-lifers” also lends credence to their portrayal of themselves as supporting “life” and suggests that those who are pro-choice consequentially do not support life. This is problematic because for one (and I’ll get more to this in a moment), I don’t consider an embryo to be qualitatively the same “life” as its mother, and further I find the pro-life descriptor gives the fetus a monopoly on life, when being pro-choice is just as much pro-life, in this case the life of the mother, and in cases where the mother chooses to bring her pregnancy to term, the interrelated lives of the mother and fetus. I could use “anti-abortion” but that would make me “pro-abortion” and so on… no words remain clean or unencumbered in this debate.

      A quick word on media representations:
      My argument was that our media’s squeamishness on abortion is only a recent phenomenon of the past decade or so which in my opinion correlates to the growing strength of the conservative turn and increasing state regulations restricting women’s right to abortion. As I said in a comment above I also think that when abortion is represented as something that doesn’t require a lot of hand-wringing from the woman our cultural commentators don’t pick up on it precisely because it’s been normalized, and is thus harder to see.

      On Life and Rights: The question on where life begins as you very rightly point out is one that has no objective answer, only its scientific, legal, religious, and philosophical counterparts–ones which themselves are always shifting. I’ve been reading Sara Dubow’s excellent Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America (Oxford, 2010), which describes differing religious perspectives, such as Judaism where the fetus is a person only once the head has emerged from the birth canal and first breath taken, Islam where the fetus becomes a person at 120 days of gestation, or the Roman Catholic Church, which once believed that personhood began at 40 days after conception for a boy and 80 days after conception for a girl (of course), and now is equal opportunity in its conception that life begins straight at, well, conception.

      In the United States fetal life used to be recognized at the moment of “quickening” in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. Note that in this case it was the mother who first attested to the presence of a life insider her. With the advent of new technologies like ultrasound in the late twentieth century fetal life could be detected very early on, but it was now medical experts who determined it rather than the mother. Legal definitions of life vary by country: Roe v Wade acknowledged as you do all the debates about where life begins and refused to establish a definitive beginning of ‘life’ an instead instituted the concept of viability as the point where the fetus gains rights of near equal value to the mother. In Germany abortion is only criminalized at the 14th day, the point when individual characteristics begin to develop, thus signaling their reliance on a philosophical concept of the person as something individuated, distinct, different. Meanwhile Dubow points out that pieces of American law began to reemphasize conception as the biological standard for personhood after the 1953 decoding of DNA, which bolstered the idea of genetic identity and hence the moment of genetic division and recombination between egg and sperm as the moment when one’s human identity first took form.

      On top of this I would personally emphasize the influence of desire in materialzing the fetus. A desired fetus/unborn life/potential person is more substantive as a person because it is imagined and thought of concretely by others. An unwanted fetus, who is not gendered, named, planned for, celebrated, imagined, fantasized about has less of a stable personhood while still in the womb and unable to consciously and visibly establish its personhood in this world.

      As you say, there are many blurred lines. I didn’t mean to suggest that a fetus was either a “mass of cells” or “life”–I was in fact only using the language that Douthat himself made available. Socially I am more than ready to invest a desired yet unborn child with certain person-like qualities, buying it stuffed animals, throwing it and its mother baby showers, and so on. Given the varying definitions of personhood, the constantly shifting starting points based not just on science but on a society’s valuation of scientific definitions vs. religious codes vs. social needs, I personally prefer to give a relational valuation of personhood, which is that ultimately a mother is more of a “person” than her fetus and that her needs often come first, and that given the mother-fetus relationship, her needs are often the needs of her fetus.

      Given this relationship, I’m unconvinced that the rights of the mother are necessarily in opposition to the rights of the fetus. However the separation and oppositional stance of mother and fetus is a relatively recent historical development due in part to polarization from Roe v Wade, but also to scientific developments in the field of embryology in the 1930s which allowed the portrayal of the fetus as separate from the mother, both of which (along with other factors) have resulted in cultural portrayals of the mother as threat to the separate being growing inside and has led to the policing of pregnant woman’s behavior (note that at other cultural moments there has been the fear of too much damaging maternal love, not maternal neglect). But why should the right of the pregnant woman necessarily mean a lack of rights or interests of the fetus? Only if we focus on the one issue of woman’s right to abortion. Yet woman and fetus could just as easily be seen to have the same right to healthcare, to shelter, to food, and so on, if we focused on social support rather than individual incrimination.

      Father’s Rights and Bodily Integrity: We just cannot ignore the significance of the fact that it is the woman who gestates the fetus for 9 months within her own body, and I don’t think recognizing the significance of this means that we have reduced the entire affair of reproduction or parenthood to those 9 months. For example, a woman who gestates a child is not necessarily the one who ends up with it; courts have recognized the right of the “intended or social mother” over that of the gestational mother [though whether these decisions are always correct is another question]. The question of spousal notification was brought up in Planned Parenthood v Casey. I don’t have the decision in front of me, but the Court struck down the spousal notification law because of the power it gave husbands over wives and because it could increase chances of spousal abuse. If I remember correctly, statistics showed that husbands overwhelmingly were consulted on abortions except in cases where the wife had reason to fear abuse from the husband. Of course this doesn’t cover non-marital relationships, but the fact remains that while a man may have a say before intercourse, once something becomes implanted within a woman we need to recognize that it is indeed part of her body and that no man should be able to invoke a right which coerces a woman to gestate a fetus against her will for 9 months. If a man is very concerned about the possibility he might get stuck unwillingly supporting for a kid because he has no say in whether or not to abort it, he should make extra sure he’s wearing a condom at the point when he still does have a choice.

      Infertile couples: I definitely do not mean to be dismissive of infertile couples; it’s in fact why I fully support laws that require healthcare coverage of IVF treatments. I was being dismissive of a historical relationship between married and unmarried women whose power dynamic consisted of coerced pregnancy for the unmarried who were then expected to give their babies up to married women. As one woman wrote in response to Douthat’s column:

      “While I am obviously sympathetic to the desire of infertile couples to become parents, their needs can never supersede those of pregnant women who are not prepared to be parents.”

      Hope this helps to clarify my thoughts on some of these points in a much more comprehensive manner than a point-by-point take-down of Douthat, which given the polemics obviously underlying his post, did not lend itself to the most subtle of analyses. Thanks again for your comments!


      January 11, 2011 at 01:10

  7. […] response to it, I was reminded of something that annoys me to no end. Douthat has been skewered here before, but he’s certainly not the only one guilty of this. The supposedly smart (though not […]

    • “On top of this I would personally emphasize the influence of desire in materialzing the fetus. A desired fetus/unborn life/potential person is more substantive as a person because it is imagined and thought of concretely by others. An unwanted fetus, who is not gendered, named, planned for, celebrated, imagined, fantasized about has less of a stable personhood while still in the womb and unable to consciously and visibly establish its personhood in this world.”

      Please explain how this “argument” differs from the logic of Southern Slave-owners (and sympathizers) who imagined and treated their fellow human beings as 3\5th of person. Every historical example of defining and limiting the concept of person and citizenship from one group of humans vis a vis another (whether it be African descendants, Jews, the Enemies during wartime)leads inevitably to abuses of power, slavery, torture and outright murder. Since when do the rights and protections that inhere in the nature of a being (in this case a human being)depend upon the “desire” of another to materialize the substantive nature of that creature. Women don’t give birth to cat or dogs or Martians–and we can debate whether or not either group should be recognized as bearers of rights and protections–women give birth to fellow humans. Arguments defending abortion ultimately have to square the circle that some members of the same category (i.e., human beings) deserve protections that others do not. Why should the stability of another’s personhood depend upon another’s ability to “consciously and visibly” recognize them as persons?


      February 24, 2011 at 12:33

      • Happily Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic has already covered the racism implicit in the embryo/slave comparison much better than I ever could:

        “In fact, African-Americans, unlike, say, zygotes, were always quite outspoken on their fitness for self-determination. Indeed, from the Cimaroons to Equiano to Nat Turner to Harriet Tubman to the 54th regiment, slaves were quite vociferous on the matter of their enslavement. It is simply impossible to imagine the end of slavery without the action of slaves themselves. And it is equally impossible to say the same about the end of abortion, if only because fetuses are generally incapable of egressing from the womb and setting up maroon societies, publishing newspapers or returning to the womb to “liberate” other presumably endangered fetuses.”


        February 24, 2011 at 14:13

  8. Although you wrote this long ago, it is all still relevant and your remarks Luce are excellent. I would add re the adoption discussion that there was always a “shortage” of white babies because there were many more (infertile) couples and families who wanted to adopt (meanwhile older children, children with disabilities, children of color were in the post WWII period–as now, in truth–harder to place). Also, unmarried pregnant women before 1973 had abortions too before abortion was legalized (in New York in 1970 and then Roe in 1973)–it just wasn’t legal or as visible.

    Douthat is describing a fantasy which never was real and, worst of all, he appears to believe that unmarried (white) women owe their pregnancies to infertile couples. He mourns not only the abortions but also the fact that unmarried women keep their babies instead of “giving them up” for adoption. Only 1% do that today–that is one of the positive changes of the last 40 years: girls are no longer kicked out of high school if they are pregnant; unwed mothers homes have almost completely disappeared; and unmarried women can keep children and live as single mothers (which many working-class women did before) with far less stigma.

    He seems to assume that all of the people who want to adopt would agree with his arithmetic: they’re desperate so these unmarried women who get pregnant and don’t want to be should be required to have their babies and hand them over. He’s deeply wrong about that.

    This could go on forever since, of course, it is not only young unmarried women who need abortions and never was nor are unmarried women the only ones who place children for adoption. In fact, it is often very poor mothers who decide to place a newborn for adoption. They are coerced by our economy and by punitive welfare reform that does not increase for a larger family.


    Leslie J. Reagan

    June 12, 2012 at 18:29

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