Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Economics of Morals

Yesterday Jay Anderson of Pro Ecclesia linked to a post by Vox Nova blogger Mornings Minion, by far the most left-wing of an already leftward leaning group, who when confronted with the ire of the bloggers at (who had singled Vox Nova out as an "anti-choice" site) responded by asking, "Is a truce possible on the Abortion Issue?"

After taking a few paragraphs to concede that it's unlikely that Catholics will stop calling abortion evil or that feminists will stop calling it a right, and firing off some of the tired old "they only care about children before they're born" rhetoric at the pro-life movement, Mornings Minion sketches out the following rather familiar line of thinking:

...[I]t is quite clear to me that abortion is related to poverty and prevailing social conditions. Declines in abortion in the US occurred most rapidly during times when poverty rates were falling– most notably under the Clinton administration.... Look at some of the statistics: 57% of women opting for abortion are economically disadvantage, and the abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level ($9,570 for a single woman with no children) is more than four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level (44 vs. 10 abortions per 1,000 women). And when asked to give reasons for abortion, three-quarters of women say that cannot afford a child.

And yet, the political pro-life movement often ignores this aspect. Not only that, it often uses the abortion issue to cover some less savoury aspects of policy. Note that when supposed pro-life candidates are elected, we see little impact on abortion, but a major advance in economic policies that foster upward redistribution. And too often, the pro-life lobby contents itself with minor victories that have little direct impact on abortion, but do rally political support. Case in point: I am pretty certain that S-CHIP will do more to lower the abortion rate in the US than the partial-birth abortion ban, which everybody pretty much agrees will do almost nothing.

It is also the case that banning abortion often does not really impact on its incidence. Ireland has a robust abortion rate, even though there are no abortion providers in Ireland, because travel within the EU is so easy. I often wonder if a repeal of Roe v. Wade, when the issue gets pushed to the states, will have much impact on abortion? Personally, I doubt it, except for the very poor who cannot travel to states that allow it. And while I believe the repeal of Roe would be good, simply because I cannot accept abortion as a “right”, I believe a political strategy focused solely on this goal is fundamentally misplaced. We need to create the conditions that would encourage women not to have abortions in the first place.
None of this is new to those who are used to the "seamless garment of life" argument (a garment which is too often a rather brazen attempt to rename a turncoat), but since this piece of clothing gets trotted out every so often, perhaps it's still worth asking the obvious question:

Does the author really imagine that the only solution to sin is prosperity?

We live in the most wealthy country in the world, with one of the highest abortion rates in the world. Is our problem really that we're not wealthy enough?

Not only the average citizen of our country, but the poor of our country are far, far wealthier than they were 100 years ago. And yet, as we have become wealthier, the institution of the family has collapsed, illegitimacy has become a pandemic in the lower economic reaches of society, divorce has become commonplace, abortion is common -- used by some parts of society as a last resort, and by others almost as backup-birth control. (The stats I've seen on abortion repeat customers are pretty terrifying.)

And yet the problem, we are told, is that our country is still too poor to have a lower abortion rate? The claim is, quite frankly, so ludicrous that it's hard to believe the author even means it seriously. Sadly, though, I think he does. So far have some progressives gone down the determinist rabbit hole (without, in most cases, even realizing it) that I fear convinced Christians progressives like this author really do believe that economic redistribution is the shortest road to moral improvement.

Now, at the same time, it should be made clear: morality is also not built strictly by governmental fiat. If the "war on drugs" has shown anything, it is that making something illegal without a social consensus against it does not result in a vanishing of the behavior. (I'm not against illegal drugs remaining illegal, and indeed I suspect that drug use would go up in some very undesirable ways were it made legal, but it certainly underlines the point that making something illegal doesn't make it go away.)

However, in the case of abortion, I think there's a strong case to be made that its legality and status as "normal medical practice" is one of the things that causes it to be so widespread. While most people intuitively feel that lighting up a joint isn't going to directly affect many people beyond themselves, there is a fairly widespread feeling (which even forty years of pro-abortion rhetoric been unable to destroy) that abortion is not a nice and desirable thing. (Every so often, when dipping into the left-leaning blogsphere or media, one runs into frustration that abortion is so infrequently portrayed positively in movies or television.) The status as "legal" and "just a normal medical procedure" can be used to dull that innate moral sense, but the moral sense is still very much there. That is why I think we would indeed see a significant drop in abortion begin if abortion were removed from its supreme-court-imposed shrine in our judicial system.

While Americans do not have a universal respect for the law (think of how many people truly respect the speed limit or the drinking age), there is a very real way in which legality is used to define cultural moral norms. Going even to the limited sort of restrictions found in most of Europe would indeed make a difference in that.

The other element of change which is necessary to reduce abortion in our society is cultural, religious and moral. We will need to reach some sort of cultural conclusion as to what abortion is and whether it is wrong. The current churning of the "culture wars" is not only a sign that this is an undecided point, but also a sign of how unstable our culture is right now. In some senses the last century has suggested to many people that human nature is malleable, and that things may be right now which were not right before -- that humans may be something different than we thought before -- and that long held understandings about the human person and morality are simply "out of date". Where we go, as a culture, as a species, in the coming decades and centuries will start to make the answers to these questions clear.

And this really, is where Mornings Minion is farthest of the rails with his "economy first" approach to morality. If you look at the posts by the secular feminists who had come down like a sack of bricks on Vox Nova, and started this whole discussion, you can see that their understanding of the need for abortion springs from their view of the human being as homo economicus -- economic man (or since these are feminists, should I say "economic person"). Abortion must always be available, they argue, because without the combination of legal abortion and available birth control, a woman cannot control her body enough to compete equally with men in the economic world.

This presents a view of what the purpose of humanity is that is fundamentally incompatible both with traditional Christian beliefs and with the facts of our existence as a species. We are not, fundamentally, economic creatures who only reproduce when we find it profitable to do so. We are biological creatures who reproduce when we have sex. We are rational creatures who can think about the results of our actions. We are religious creatures who contemplate the question of where we go when we leave this mortal world, and what to teach our offspring about the meaning of life and death.

Until we sort out these questions and recognize ourselves for who we are, no amount of government redistribution of wealth will change the incidence of abortion.


Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

Outstanding! Very well argued!

"Seemless turncoat" -- I like it!

Anonymous said...

Bravo! As Blessed Mother Teresa said, "Any country that accepts abortion is the poorest of the poor".

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

This is an excellent post. Really, really good stuff.*

* I know I keep leaving vaguely positive comments that don't add much value. Sorry about that. It's just that you guys keep writing good posts and I keep not having enough time to put together any kind of coherent response other than "great job!"

Rick Lugari said...

That's okay, Jen. I'm sure they appreciate the feedback. It's not like you're posting unproductive or inane attempts at wit like that old dorky guy.

Oh wait...

Anonymous said...

Homo economicus is a useful construct for economic analysis, but that's about as far as it goes. When our entire identity is defined by rational utility maximization, something's gone wrong.

Literacy-chic said...

If the "war on drugs" has shown anything, it is that making something illegal without a social consensus against it does not result in a vanishing of the behavior.

I think this is key, though the "just a medical procedure" point is intentionally desensitizing. I would like to see a reversal of the "it was what worked for me at the time" rhetoric, or the "only option" reasoning, but then, I've got feminist colleagues...

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Darwin said...

I've removed the above comment from Australia because so far as I can tell the links included were basically googl-spam for an odd religious sect. However, here's the comment with with links removed:

John said,
Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.

The only real cure for the problem of abortion is a comprehensive EMOTIONAL-sexual education plus the creation of a human scale and human friendly culture wherein most people do not have to worry about the fear based problem of survival.

These references provide an insight into what a comprehensive emotional-sexual education might entail.

Plus related references on the politics of sexuality and culture.

Among other things reference #4 points out that over-population is a very real problem and that it inevitably results in many people living in basically degrading sub-human conditions---it cripples then all the way down the line.

The persons site is dabase dot org.

Darwin said...

j. christian,

Yeah, it seems like at the least there needs to be a factor concluded for individual and social pressures regarding the action. But more importantly, there are certain subjects where you just can't get a complete picture looking at the economics picture.


Not being much of an "obvious and easy political solutions to the problem of the day" blog, I'll admit I've got no idea in what order to move forward in achieving that cultural change. It seems to me that legal changes need to start to take place, because that sends a cultural and economic message. But there also needs to begin to be a change in the attitudes of people like your colleagues.

I have a certain degree of hope that time will achieve that -- that there are some attitudes that don't sustain well across several generations because they inherently pit children against parents. But I'm not _sure_ that that's the case.

Admittedly, I think we all know people who've come around on that kind of question -- and yet I suppose in a sense that's a perception filtered by frame of reference. I would imagine that hard core feminists know people who have converted the other way.

Anonymous said...

I've often wondered why orthodox Catholics are so hard on the "seamless garment" approach.

I entered the Church as a pro-choice, lefty Catholic involved in the death penalty abolitionist movement. The gentle presemtation of the "seamless garment" ethic by other Catholics helped persuade me that the classification of the unborn as nonpersons raised the same concerns that I had about our society revoking the right of prisoners to live.

I know other lefties who were similarly persuaded into a consistent pro-life view.

Literacy-chic said...

Not being much of an "obvious and easy political solutions to the problem of the day" blog

And that would be why your blog has a tendency to actually say something meaningful! ;)

Darwin said...

Opinionated Homeschooler,

One of the things that I came to recognize back in college when I started meeting people who were deeply involved in anti-abortion advocacy is that they tended to be far more "liberal" in many senses than I did. So far as I can recall, everyone I know who actually attends clinic protests or works at a crisis pregnancy center is anti-capital punishment. And you're definately not the first person I've had tell me that they worked around from opposing the death penalty to opposing abortion as well.

In that sense, I don't have an objection to the "seamless garment".

What does tick me off is when someone asserts that because (in his opinion) providing more financial incentives, safety net services, and welfare is more effective in reducing the number of abortions than actually doing anything legal to restrict its availability, that therefore it is _more pro-life_ to support pro-abortion candidates (even rabidly pro-abortion ones) who support more social services spending than overtly anti-abortion candidates who don't support expanding social services as much.

Usually it annoys me even more when said person frequently echoes the standard pro-abortion line about "pro-lifers only care about life in the womb, they're pro-death in regards to people who are actually born."

Some of this is probably reflexive annoyance at what seems like friendly fire, but the other element is that it seems to me that this overlooks a pretty basic fact about the motivations of most "social conservatives" who are also "small government conservatives".

This fact being: Many conservatives who don't want to see government social services expanded in certain areas aren't holding that position because they think the poor need to toughen up and learn to like being poor -- they hold those positions because they think that these kind of government programs do in the end cause harm to society, including (perhaps especially) the poor.

CMinor said...

I seem to recall activist Mary Meehan say that Cardinal Bernardin's intent for "seamless garment" thinking was to strengthen the prolife movement by pointing out to those in the anti-capital punishment movement, the anti-war and anti-nuke movements, and other social justice movements that the unborn had a similar claim to those they were trying to protect. I think this was probably the original intent of the Network.

Unfortunately, it seems many proabortion Catholics (those in public office, especially)have turned the concept on its head in order to claim prolife status while flogging prolifers who aren't quite across-the-board on all issues.

I think your point that legality has not changed most peoples' negative view of abortion about nails it, by the way. A few factors I think might have had at least as much effect on the abortion rate as the 90's economic boom:
--Widespread use of prenatal ultrasound.
--Years of education on fetal development and abortion methods by prolifers and churches (The Silent Scream comes to mind.)
--The recognition that 20 years of abortion on demand had solved few of the ills it was supposed to have solved and created all sorts of problems for people directly involved in it (who doesn't know at least one woman whose life was messed up by an abortion anymore?)
--Increasingly relaxed attitudes to single motherhood and increasing numbers of single mothers.
--More options in adoption.
--While I can't quote chapter and verse to back this up, it seems to me that pregnancy rates are down among teens as well.
--Disenchantment among young adults with meaningless sex.

CMinor said...

Oops--that was supposed to be "solved none of the ills"

Vitae Scrutator said...

Brilliant! Good job!

Nate Winchester said...

And yet the problem, we are told, is that our country is still too poor to have a lower abortion rate? The claim is, quite frankly, so ludicrous that it's hard to believe the author even means it seriously. Sadly, though, I think he does.

Actually as I've seen some evidence of lately (here's just 1 article being a rich country may increase abortions as social services implemented decrease the value of children, etc etc. One of the possible reasons poor countries don't have abortions is that to them, children have great value (as a retirement plan, as workers for the family, etc).

Also, I'd like to point out that to decry "homo economicus" as somehow making us "not human" is rather like saying that noting that people breathe makes us "not human". Economics is really just the study of people making choices and because we live in a reality of finite time and resources, people must make choices. Or to put another way: all things have a cost, in the very least with time. (if you do X, then you won't be able to do Y at the same time)

Though of course I'll agree that the feminists aren't being any better. After all, if "new customers" aren't produced, well then it isn't going to matter who's running what business, is it?

Every so often, when dipping into the left-leaning blogsphere or media, one runs into frustration that abortion is so infrequently portrayed positively in movies or television.

Duh, it's because it's a drama killer. Same reason God is left out of so many stories. Or atomic bombs. Once you involve easy solutions, the story is over. Abortion flies right into the face of the nature of stories