Replying to Rob Okun's "Father's Day and a Woman's Right to Choose"

Rob Okun's 'Father's Day and a Woman's Right to Choose' is available on-line in the Bainbridge Island Review. I will link the whole article here: opinion/fathers-day-and-a-womans-right-to-choose-rob-okun/

Okun is discussing the Human Life Protection Act, enacted on the 15th of May 2019. The Human Life Protection Act bans abortions at any stage of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest, except in cases of the foetus having a lethal anomaly, the woman's health being in danger or a psychiatrist confirming that the woman has a serious mental illness which could cause her to attempt to kill herself or the foetus. Doctors performing abortions could face up to life imprisonment, but a woman receiving an abortion would not face a penalty. To be clear, I do not support the Human Life Protection Act. In my opinion, a woman should be allowed an abortion, with medical supervision, until 25 weeks, for what might be called social reasons such as teenage motherhood and unemployment, with extensions for rape, incest and serious danger to a woman's life. This is based on signs that by 25 weeks a foetus is capable of conscious thought. For example, premature babies born at 25 to 26 weeks can recognise and focus on objects such as a mother's face. By 24 to 25 weeks, there are also signs of learning—for example, if a sound occurs repeatedly a foetus will stop reacting to it. The link between the peripheral nervous system and the cerebral cortex, at 25 weeks, allows a foetus to consciously respond to external stimuli, which provides the basis of real thought and humans' perceptions of and interactions with the world.

However, that said, some of the things Okun says are just bizarre. He wants "men to wake up to women's reality", asks whether "women" should believe "men's silence represents tacit approval" and wants men to show women that "we're [men] their allies". Okun seems to be suggesting that women are united in favour of more lenient abortion laws. This is not accurate. A continuously-running Gallup poll monitoring Americans' opinions of abortion since 1975 has found that, in 2019, 50% of women and 56% of men thought that abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, 24% of women and 25% of men thought that abortion should be legal in any circumstances, and 24% of women and 18% of men thought that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Meanwhile, according to Pew Research Center 60% of women and 61% of men say that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances. When Okun talks about men showing that they're women's allies, he seems to be ignoring the fact that men and women just don't think very differently about abortion. Okun also points out that "two-dozen white male Alabama legislators" passed the Human Life Protection Act. This amounts to telling us that the government of Alabama passed a law. This is what governments do. The race and sex of legislators is irrelevant. I can't think of any exceptions to this. Eligibility for public office in Alabama is independent of sex. Anyone can seek election and the public can vote for whomever it sees fit. If you don't get the government you want, you are free to protest against legislation it passes, but you should do this based on the legislation itself, not on the demographics of the legislators. The Human Life Protection Act was introduced to the Alabama House of Representatives on the 2nd of April 2019 by Republican Terri Collins, a woman. It was signed by the Governor of Alabama, Republican Kay Ivey, another woman. So can we please put the identity politics card away now once and for all?

More relevant to the discussion of the abortion issue is religion. Generally, most opposition to abortion comes from what can broadly be called the religious right. There are exceptions, of course—Hunter Avallone is an anti-abortion agnostic—but on average the abortion issue shows divisions along religious lines. The Pew Research Center found that in 2019 in the United States 56% of Catholics and 83% of the religiously unaffiliated thought that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The results for Protestants were more complicated, being broken down by race as well as religion: 64% of black Protestants, 60% of white "main-line" (the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, the Quakers and the Reformed Church in America) Protestants and 23% of white evangelical Protestants thought that abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Over here, a 2013 YouGov survey found that 50% of Anglicans and 60% of Roman Catholics and Baptists believe that life begins at conception, while only 34% of those with no religion do. Meanwhile, 5% of Anglicans, 14% of Roman Catholics 19% of Baptists, but only 3% of non-religious people, believe that abortion should be banned except in cases of medical emergency.

Okun doesn't even mention religion in his article, which raises the question of his understanding of why people oppose abortion. Honestly, I want to know what he thinks they think. If he thinks about what they think. He actually suggests that readers "urge your faith community leader to deliver a sermon supporting a woman's right to choose". Given the results of the Pew Research Center poll quoted above, that would probably go down like a lead balloon. Another piece of bizarre advice is "write a letter to the editor stating your unequivocal support for women's reproductive rights". The editor of Bainbridge Island Review? The editor of a publication of your choice? And even if this deluge of letters did indeed arrive, what would happen then? He then wants us to "insist researchers to accelerate [sic] work on developing male birth control". It's quite common for people to demonstrate or petition in favour of certain medical research. However, does the man on the street really have the power to "insist" that researchers do anything? The man on the street has no direct control of who gets funding to do what.

He then tells us to "alert anti-choice legislators that you won't just vote to unseat them, you'll work to elect pro-choice candidates". It's really not a radical suggestion that someone might vote for someone who promises to enforce legislation which he supports. I don't know if Okun thinks this advice might come as a revelation to anyone, but I doubt it will. On the other hand, not everyone is a single-issue voter. Okun doesn't seem to understand this. There certainly are single-issue voters in existence, but most people have at least a couple of issues which are important to them in the polling station. Okun doesn't seem to look beyond the abortion issue.

Furthermore, while the Human Life Protection Act is deeply distressing to many pregnant women in Alabama, Okun seems to think that successfully over-turning Roe v. Wade would automatically cause similarly restrictive abortion laws in all states. The main effect of over-turning Roe vs. Wade would be to put abortion laws back in the hands of the individual states. These might or might not all enforce similar restrictive laws to Alabama. At the time of Roe v. Wade many states, including McCorvey's state of Texas, had highly restrictive laws. However, this is not a situation we would automatically return to. There is no essential reason why abortion laws should not be in the hands of the states, considering the powers states already have, including whether or not to execute people.

Okun attempts to win men's support—a demographic he imagines to have an implacable, inexplicable opposition to abortion—by quoting a Katha Pollitt article in The Nation, saying that "for every woman with an ill-timed, unwanted pregnancy, there is probably a man who is unhappy about it, too" and that men "suffer when a pregnancy pushes them into marriage, or into marriage with the wrong person". For a man to make a woman pregnant can indeed cause difficulties in his life, not least because while a woman can get an abortion without his consent, she can still charge him for child support if she goes ahead with her pregnancy. Even if he's twelve years old and she's his baby-sitter. Or if he's fourteen and she's twenty. So yes, there are probably a lot of men who are unhappy about women's pregnancies.

Okun's next suggestion is that men "call out the hypocrisy" of men who "like most anti-choice activists" "are mute on the subject of supporting children outside the womb". I just don't see the connection here. For one, he is assuming that all anti-abortion activists oppose what he broadly describes as "supporting children outside the womb", whatever that means. Until he better describes what it does mean, I don't think he can accuse anyone of being "mute" about it. Secondly, believing, on theological grounds or any other, that life begins at conception does not logically imply any obligation to "support" anyone in subsequent life. I don't understand the argument Okun's making at all.

Okun offers no logical counter-arguments to the Human Life Protection Act. He follows an Identity Politics war-of-the-sexes line and basically straw-mans anti-abortion arguments, which does not help anyone to argue against the religious right, because anyone can win against a straw man.