Feminist Philosophers

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Obama and Abortion July 7, 2008

Obama recently said (to a Christian publication) that he would only support 3rd trimester abortions where necessary for a woman’s physical, not mental health.

I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

As laid out very clearly here and here, this is a position deeply at odds with the state of abortion law in the US. So the Democratic presidential candidate has now come out in favour of reducing abortion rights. Of course, he quickly backpedalled.

My only point is that in an area like partial-birth abortion having a mental, having a health exception can be defined rigorously. It can be defined through physical health, It can be defined by serious clinical mental-health diseases. It is not just a matter of feeling blue. I don’t think that’s how pro-choice folks have interpreted it. I don’t think that’s how the courts have interpreted it and I think that’s important to emphasize and understand.”

And that’s a perfectly reasonable distinction to make. The problem is that he didn’t make it earlier. I think Zuzu has a great analysis of what’s going on: abortion just isn’t something he has thought much about. The guy’s a constitutional law professor– if he’d thought much, he would have been far more careful in his initial remarks. We need to make him think about this– and make him think well. (Do that here.) Being thoughtless on this sort of thing sure as hell isn’t going to win back the Clinton supporters. more generally, Obama is doing a pretty dramatic version of the standard general election shift-to-the-right, and I don’t think we should just sit idly by on any of it. (Thanks, Mr J, for your help on this one.)

 

6 Responses to “Obama and Abortion”

  1. Kuri Says:

    Except he still uses the misleading, politicized, non-medical term “partial birth” abortion. Really, he’s anti-choice. Any restrictions on abortion is an anti-choice position. And even here, he’s wanting the state to get into women’s heads and decide that whether they’re truly nuts or “just blue”. It’s a wholly creepy intrusion of the state into womens’ private lives. If this is “progressive” that’s a sad statement on the US.

  2. jj Says:

    I have to say that the idea of the distinction between mental illness and feeling blue getting either written into or assumed by the law leaves me feeling really depressed. It can be hard enough to get a recognizably physical illness correctly diagnosed and not just dismissed as an excuse for self-pampering. And Dr. jj’s recent experience with the sort of free clinics that students tend to use involved an awful and inevitable march to a student’s death (suicide). Then there’s Andrea Yates whose doctors didn’t seem to catch onto her psychosis relliably until she had killed all her children.

    Even if it were right that late term abortions ought to be controlled, we have to face the fact that there is no reliable way to override a mother’s decision that she cannot continue the pregnancy without damage to herself and other members of her family.

  3. Jender Says:

    Good points, both of you. I guess what I meant by the distinction being reasonable was that it’s important to make it clear that women wanting 3rd trimester abortions aren’t doing so on the basis of simply feeling a bit low one day. But, as I said, your points are excellent ones.

  4. Jender Says:

    Also: my understanding (do correct me if I’m wrong) is that states are allowed to restrict 3rd trimester abortions as long as they make exceptions for mental and physical health, and most (all?) do. And the way this is interpreted does in fact require serious health difficulties, not a momentary blueness (as if anyone would ever have an abortion because of momentary blues! But whatever.) So it’s not that Obama wants some new state interference. And while we might dream of a candidate who thinks there should be no restrictions at all at any stage of gestation (though I think *many* feminists would dissent from this dream), I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that of a Democratic Party presidential candidate. It is, however, reasonable to expect them to uphold Roe– which is what worried me about the original quote.

  5. hysperia Says:

    There is SO much wrong with all Obama’s comments about abortion, recently and in the longer run.

    Even when Obama backpedals, he gets it wrong. A “serious clinical mental health problem” has never ever, since Roe v. Wade, been the standard that must be met by a woman seeking an abortion. Period. To suggest that a serious and clinical mental health issue must be proven is to walk straight into the trap set by right wingers to incrementally destroy women’s right to safe, legal abortions.

    The decision to have an abortion is one made between a woman and her doctor, period. NOT between a woman, her pastor, her family and her doctor as Obama has said at least three times. I resent the notion that the decision belongs to anyone but a woman. I don’t even agree with the medicalisation part of the decision, never mind spreading it out to the community. Plenty of women don’t have pastors or don’t necessarily want to talk to them about personal decisions. Why does he keep mentioning that?

    And geez, the very idea that a woman would have a bit of a low one day and decide to go out and get a third term abortion is just beyond reason and plays right into the anti-choice rhetoric about the ability of women to make good, healthy decisions about their child-bearing which take their contexts, socio-economic, cultural and health-wise into account. Obama has been aware of the debate about third term abortions for years and knows the issues (if he doesn’t, his record of voting in the Senate is peculiar). He’s aware of the difficulties of third term abortion. The idea of whimsical abortions, late in pregnancy has no basis in fact and I am simply amazed and frankly, horrified, that “we” are having this conversation with him. Women as irresponsible agents who must be supervised! Acckkk, to put it mildly.

    I think Suzu was being awfully generous to Obama. You just can’t tell me that a man who has had to vote on abortion-related issues many times, who knows that abortion can be the watershed issue for evangelical christians whose votes he would dearly love to get, has not thought about the rocky path he will have to traverse in this regard. I think he doesn’t talk about it well because he is personally torn about the issue and he just may be honest enough that he can’t hide it. And I find that absolutely unsatisfactory and frightening.

  6. Beverly Says:

    Mental Health must be on a par with physical health. We have been fighting for this recognition for years now and as a Obama supporter from early on and as a clinical pychologist, I expect him to clarify his position. We do not expect psychologists to be able to diagnose physical problems, and physicians cannot diagnose mental problems. Also, adolescents think differently than adults. Lets get it right.


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