Obama Against “Mental” Exceptions to Late-Term Abortion Bans

Obama’s stance on abortion is pretty much in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, but with one critical difference when it comes to late-term abortions (i.e. abortions post fetal viability). And, luckily, for him, it’s precisely the exception I would make. Obama doesn’t think that “mental distress” should qualify as an exception to bans on late term abortions. This position puts him at odds with pro-abortion rights groups and members of his own party.

Still, I think it’s the right one. Anti-abortion groups have a legitimate fear that sufficiently vague “mental” health exceptions could undermine the point of the ban entirely: any person can develop “tremendous emotional toll” even from a normal pregnancy. But that really doesn’t fall under the same situation as health exceptions in general, and in practice, this exception can basically serve as an end-run around the ban. Groups like NARAL, of course, paint things differently:

The official position of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group that endorsed Obama in May, states: “A health exception must also account for the mental health problems that may occur in pregnancy. Severe fetal anomalies, for example, can exact a tremendous emotional toll on a pregnant woman and her family.”

This is yet another situation in which I wish people on both sides of the abortion divide would just express what they actually mean: what specific conditions is NARAL talking about? Conditions like anencephaly, where the brain essentially has not formed properly, and the baby has no higher brain function and no chance of survival beyond a few weeks? (I’m in favor of allowing abortion in such cases) Or does it mean Down’s Syndrome, a missing arm, or a partially malformed gut? All of the latter could be called “severe anomalies,” but such babies are essentially normal in terms of their capacity to feel and suffer. (I’m against abortion in such cases) The details matter.

In any case, while he’s sure to take fire from liberals on this, Obama has about as much chance of getting any honest credit for his stance as the New York Mets do of winning the Superbowl. Anti-abortion groups are, of course, having none of it:

David N. O’Steen, the executive director of National Right to Life, said Obama’s remarks to the magazine “are either quite disingenuous or they reflect that Obama does not know what he is talking about.”

“You cannot believe that abortion should not be allowed for mental health reasons and support Roe v Wade,” O’Steen said.

O’Steen is technically right here: a companion case to Roe was Doe v. Bolton, which defined “health” exceptions very broadly, including considerations of “emotional, psychological, familial” factors. But O’Steen is still essentially dissembling: the definition, while broad, is also vague enough that someone like Obama could reasonably believe that those other factors could almost never, on their own, justify an exception.

O’Steen, of course, has no reason to be charitable and honest in how he portrays Obama. Even if Obama really is closer to his own stance on this issue (which he already has a decent reason to doubt), Obama’s party taking power in the White House is far far more important to his chosen issue (outlawing abortion) than giving him credit for a minor agreement and risking rank-n-file anti-abortion voters potentially seeing Obama more favorably.

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6 Responses to Obama Against “Mental” Exceptions to Late-Term Abortion Bans

  1. mantecanaut says:

    If a termination occurs at a sufficiently early stage because of a degenerative disorder…is that wrong?

  2. Terry says:

    I am very impressed that you use anti-abortion and pro-abortion. That is extremely neutral and objective.

    I’m also puzzled by Obama’s remarks here, given that it doesn’t support his voting record. I think he would have a far better chance of appealing to the rank and file of anti-abortion activists if he told the truth. Namely, that he personally feels abortion is a tragedy but he isn’t going to pass any legislation banning abortion because he is uncomfortable using state power to try and force people to bear a child to term.

    After all, it isn’t as if the abortion rate has fallen due to any republican government action. It has fallen slightly because on information on fetal development, pregnancy crisis centres, and a moral teaching by various groups that aborting a child isn’t morally equivalent to nurturing it.

    If he really wants to please the majority, he would simply pledge to make funding available to families in distress.

    The only other possible influence he could have would be to use his moral authority as president to pressure the states to create parental and spousal notification laws, to pass laws ensuring that the person knows their full options before an abortion, or reform their sexual health education to teach what steps they can take to receive government or private funding when they do get pregnant. This probably wouldn’t make NARAL happy, but more moderate voices pro-abortion and anti-abortion could probably live with this compromise. Especially if it takes the abortion rate down to somewhere sane.

  3. Bad says:

    Actually, I used “pro-abortion rights,” which I think is far more neutral and objective than “pro-abortion.” I don’t think the majority of abortion rights supporters would care very much if no one ever chose to exercise that right (or ever had to exercise it, as in some medical conditions).

    If he really wants to please the majority, he would simply pledge to make funding available to families in distress.

    This does seem to be the general Democratic approach to the issue. Through education, access to birth control, and means of support for families in trouble, reduce the demand for abortions. I think in practice, this approach has anecdotally proven more successful, though of course, we’ve never really had a full out ban on every trimester abortion, so we haven’t really tried anything else. Doing something compared to not getting enough done because you lack the political will, or because the other party successfully blocks you, is not really a fair comparison.

    The only other possible influence he could have would be to use his moral authority as president to pressure the states to create parental and spousal notification laws,

    I don’t generally think the latter is a good idea: parental laws I can see some justification for, but they shouldn’t be automatic: the minor should be able to contest the notification and demonstrate grounds for not telling their parent. But women, married or no, are adults, and their husbands ultimately have no legal control or say over the matter.

    to pass laws ensuring that the person knows their full options before an abortion,

    I’m all for people having all the information, but in practice these laws often end up having the purpose of forcing doctors to lobby against abortion, even to patients that are quite well aware of their options. It’s not really a doctor’s job or place to argue with the patient about non-medical issues, but to connect them with the services they want. Again, a tricky issue.

    or reform their sexual health education to teach what steps they can take to receive government or private funding when they do get pregnant

    I’m not sure that essentially subsidizing pregnancy directly is a good idea. Certainly there should be a safety net if there’s a really serious problem, but this road is dangerous: it could end up encouraging a lot more women to set out to become single mothers, or to have children they otherwise wouldn’t have because they couldn’t support them on their own. (in economics, the idea is known as “moral hazard”)

  4. Terry says:

    See, if you don’t allow the husband even the right to know that his wife was pregnant, much less have any say in the future of his children then really being married is pretty much pointless except for property issues. It is really a far cry from a catholic understanding of marriage, where your wife essentially becomes a member of your family, and you can no more forsake that relationship than you could forsake the relationship of someone of your blood. Eventually, I wonder if the catholic ideal of marriage will drift so far from the secular understanding of marriage that a new law will be required. We’ll get the civil unions instead. :) Also, your view would be all the more reason to ensure I tell my kids to make sure the person you marry shares your values.

    Also, doctors probably lobby against abortion depending on their personal beliefs already. A concise piece of literature or a PROMPT visit with a social worker upon the patients request would be a big help. If you worked for Catholic charities, you probably know about programs to console women who regret abortions. Why not prevent as many women as possible from having to use those programs?

    As for encouraging women to have babies, I’m not too worried about it. It will always be more difficult to bear and give birth to an infant than any cash or support you would get. But it would save a lot of mental trauma by taking away some of the abortions that happen due to desperation. Frankly, if you lose the woman to drugs, depression and suicide it is an economic problem too.

    Of course, letting people know that adoption isn’t more cruel to the infant than abortion would be a positive step too.

  5. Bad says:

    In a modern society though, it’s impossible to make legal contracts that essentially make one person give up autonomy to another. Marriage can still mean what it needs to, but only voluntarily. If a husband feels that his wife cannot be honest with him, then that’s for him to judge whether he really wants to be married to her over that or not. It’s not for the state to decide.

    Also, your view would be all the more reason to ensure I tell my kids to make sure the person you marry shares your values.

    If those values matter to them, then of course they should.

    Also, doctors probably lobby against abortion depending on their personal beliefs already.

    Sure, but why force all of them into it by law? It still really isn’t the job of doctors. I certainly don’t think doctors should withhold information on various options. But demanding that they must basically run women through what often turns out to be a gauntlet of scare tactics is the other extreme that isn’t acceptable either.

    If you worked for Catholic charities, you probably know about programs to console women who regret abortions. Why not prevent as many women as possible from having to use those programs?

    Again, there’s a difference in how you prevent it. I don’t think mandating that doctors do in this area is a good way to go about it.

    As for encouraging women to have babies, I’m not too worried about it. It will always be more difficult to bear and give birth to an infant than any cash or support you would get.

    The issue is always at the margins: no cash won’t take someone from 0 to a decision to get pregnant. But it will push people at the margins one way or another. That’s just a basic reality of economics.

    Of course, letting people know that adoption isn’t more cruel to the infant than abortion would be a positive step too.

    Depending on when an abortion happens, I don’t think it’s necessarily cruel at all. I certainly think everyone should be aware that adoption is an option. There are many childless people who want to adopt.

  6. Terry says:

    If the husband and wife aren’t giving up autonomy to each other, then there really isn’t any point in being married. I can certainly see the possibility things progressing so that the traditional rights of a married spouse will be removed and largely it will just be a social ceremony that means they will be B.F.F.’s (until they don’t feel like it anymore). An extra body of law would have to be conceived to restore the relationship of what marriage is supposed to be. Maybe they’ll use business partnership and contract law as an influence.

    As for informing women with an unplanned pregnancy, you deliberately edited out the section in which I made a recommendation of how a fair way to make that information available would work. That would be something I’d really be curious to see a reaction to, rather than the vague straw man of doctors running through a gauntlet of scare tactics. After all, it isn’t as if there aren’t countries, more liberal than the states, who don’t have these kinds of laws in place.

    For the issue of when an abortion happens, there is no real proof of when a foetus can feel pain. However, I think one can be cruel without causing physical pain. You essentially ending the life of a human being (insofar as it is alive, and insofar as it isn’t a separate species). You might not think that this human life is worth anything, but the fact remains that this human life has ended.

    As for the people on the “margins” of getting pregnant, with the birthrate being what it is (up here in Canada below replacement and the U.S. barely above) I don’t think that it is really a problem. If someone is in the margins of wanting to get pregnant their demographic is probably going to be a family who wants one more child or a single woman in her late 30’s who needs some extra social support (ie. access to daycare spaces or state-sponsored child care centers). If you are terrified of people on welfare getting extra money for having an extra child, we already have that.

    Largely the people that will need the money are people who have gotten pregnant unexpectedly and feel they should keep the child alive. This will mean subsidizing for education or lost income, not because it is a career goal.

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