Is Abortion the Most Futile Policy Debate Ever?

Is abortion the most futile policy debate ever?


Sometimes I wish the entire country would enter collective, premature menopause just to end it, already.

The anti-abortion initiatives and state laws themselves get more extreme— such as the anti-abortion legislation in Texas—but these laws happen not because opinions change tectonically, but when a legislature reaches a tipping point. I don’t think politicians in this matter reflect the general will, which is less extreme.

Opinions in the Gen Pop don’t change all that much. The movement, such as it exists, seems to be that the issue until recently, at least, had diminished in importance for liberals, with conservatives firming up their opposition and endorsing more uncompromising stances, and younger people somewhat but not dramatically less in support of Roe.

But as it is in physics, so it is in abortion politics:  An opinion at rest tends to stay at rest.

The intellectual stagnation of abortion politics contrasts with same-sex marriage, where opinions have moved dynamically in the past decade. I’ve written before on the reasons for this.

For one thing, same-sex marriage has a strong foothold in one of the foundational and cherished items on the social conservative agenda: The support of marriage as an institution, and the desire to buttress monogamy.  Same-sex marriage converges with this agenda, even as it diverges in other respects.

The political tactics in the same-sex marriage debate have been audacious and uncompromising. Same-sex marriage advocates for the most part have been clear that they want all of their rights—marriage, period—rather than compromises. They haven’t hidden behind euphemisms designed to please the unpleasable.

And that brings me to a problem with abortion politics. It’s a dishonest debate today.

Sometimes an undaunted commentator will try objectively to explain the pro and con sides according to big, abstract, rational principles of American Democracy in Conflict, but they’re missing the entire soul of the debate, which isn’t about intellectual faultlines, or the clash of noble abstractions, but profoundly emotional wellsprings. These emotions may then get transliterated into the dispassion of Big American Principles in Conflict, but that is not what really animates the issue.

The sides often don’t name or state accurately the incandescent things that they feel in their guts. They euphemize instead.

For the pro-choice side, if you listened to mainstream discourse, you’d think that abortion was all about “choice,” whatever that precisely means, or “women’s health,” whatever that precisely means.

The Great Unmentionable pro-choice issue is women’s sexual freedom and agency. It’s about the fact that women of all ages and marital statuses are having sex. They are having sex in a variety of ways, and consensually. They have sex for sex’s sake, and not for the sake of marriage or motherhood. Although they’re imagined as promiscuous, most have sex in relationships. Many enjoy sex. Their male counterparts enjoy this lifestyle, too.

But sexual agency and freedom, expressed as such, aren’t winning ideas these days. This animating passion is almost never elaborated bluntly. You don’t hear, “We believe that women’s sexual agency and freedom is a foundational idea of 21st-century society.”

Instead, pro-choice forces seek shelter behind choice and women’s health, and invoke the most wrenching, non-consensual cases of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest as examples, or emergency medical conditions where abortion is clinically required to save the mother’s life. Those cases are obviously important to include in the political repertoire.

But many more pregnancies terminated in abortion come about through consensual sex. Not citing those examples, and going instead for the non-consensual victims who “through no fault of their own” require abortion signals that we ourselves are mildly ashamed of women’s sex lives, desires, and agency, the forces by which many of us get pregnant in the first place.

For much of the pro-life faction, abortion is about faith, pure and simple. This group of pro-lifers has a faith-derived conviction about what constitutes a life. This position has often been very obvious and prominent in the discourse, from the Christian Coalition onward. It’s notable here not for its obscurity in the debate, but for its intractability. Good luck moving people off of it.

But in the last few years, in state-level campaigns, even this faith position has gotten encoded into fanciful paternalism toward pregnant women:  Opposition to abortion is about “loving” women, and women not being exploited by abortion providers, and their health, and their right to know through trans-vaginal sonograms what’s going on in their own bodies.  For a comparatively well-articulated example, listen to this Diane Rehm show.

Take these paternalistic, quasi-scientific pretexts at face value if you like, but fierce opposition to abortion has nothing to do with the availability of hospital-grade gurneys in clinics.

Another unspoken but animating force in the pro-life faction, itself a euphemism, is misogyny toward a large group of women. The two—faith and misogyny—aren’t mutually exclusive. You could have both, or one, or neither, of these feelings. I’m not saying that all abortion foes feel this way.

Although the word misogyny might sound accusatory, I don’t actually mean it that way today. I mean it dispassionately as the most elegant, descriptive term available. 

It might be a welcome candor, to hear someone say, “I oppose abortion because I really hate these liberated women running around, and I hate their sex lives.” Maybe Erik Erickson might have said that instead of tweeting that liberals should now invest in coat hangers.

 There are both men and women in the pro-life movement who have a visceral contempt for modern women, and the world that they blame on the caricatured sexual revolution of the late 1960s. The best evidence for this hypothesis would simply be a review of Comments sections where, under cover of anonymity, and in a literally subtextual space, opponents will express how much they loathe the women they imagine to be irresponsible sluts.

These particular abortion opponents “hate our freedoms,” to recall George W. They hate women’s sex lives outside of marriage, their liberation, and their non-maritally and non-procreatively defined lives. Abortion is a currency by which to express that dismay.

This subset might be willing to let embryos be destroyed in the cause of fertility treatments, at fertility clinics, but not in abortion clinics, when a woman is trying to avoid motherhood rather than achieve it.  Or, they might support abortion so long as the pregnancy resulted from non-consensual sex.

I’m glad that they have this compassion, not to expect a victim of incest or rape to carry her abuser’s baby. But their stance also reveals how their feelings are tied to judgments of what women “deserve” to get, contingent on whether or not they wanted to have sex.

The phrase a war on women is groping after “misogyny,” but it’s too muffled by martial-rhetorical mumbo jumbo to do the job.

Maybe it’s time to clear the table of the euphemistic clutter, on both sides. Anything can be gotten over and resolved, even the most extreme feelings and conflicts (and even though we've long ago given up on the idea of political efficacy and transformation) but only if they’re confessed.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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