Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Not so fast, Neal

Boob vs. Babe

SIMPLE. Every so often, we feel obligated to bang on the empty drumhead that calls itself Neal Boortz. We see by the clock that it's the first of November, which means that magic time has come round once more.

Today, the semi-literate legal eagle from Atlanta is explaining -- yet again -- why conservatives should forget all about where the latest Supreme Court nominee stands on Roe v. Wade. We're already abundantly on record as saying Roe v. Wade is highly problematic as a conservative litmus test because it's impossible to know how any justice will vote until he's on the court, so we're not carrying any right wing water here. What we're compelled to do instead is challenge Boortz's airy assertion that he knows exactly where Americans stand on the abortion issue. Here's his flat-out declaration:

Abortion will never be made illegal throughout  the United States...ever.  If Roe vs. Wade were overturned tomorrow, all 50 states would immediately take over with their own laws.  The vast majority of the American people are pro-choice, so that issue is really settled.  Alito's nomination has nothing to do with abortion.

This is a prime example of Boortz's usual sloppy and (deliberately?) misleading thinking, which we have documented before, here , here, and here, without rebuttal. He makes an illogical argument that depends upon a mischaracterization of fact. We'll deal with the putative fact first -- that the vast majority of Americans are pro-choice. The evidence he'd cite comes from a survey like the one published by SurveyAmerica, which presents a state by state percentage breakdown and a U.S. breakdown weighted by population to arrive at the following totals: 38 percent pro-life and 56 percent pro-choice.

Convincing? Only if you ignore the self-evident fact that this is an enormously complicated and emotionally charged issue in which the easy labels are certain to create distortions by being mentioned at all. The actual question asked of the respondents to this survey was, "On abortion, are you pro-life? Or pro-choice?" Either-or. Black or white. Nothing in between. (No wonder this would sound like music to the space between Neal's ears.)

Anyone who looks, though, will find evidence that Boortz's "vast majority" is in question. According to an article in the Washington Times earlier this year:

The balance between pro-choice women and women who say abortion should be outlawed or severely restricted is shifting toward the pro-life side, bumping that group into the majority in the debate over reproductive rights, according to a new national poll.

Fifty-one percent of women surveyed by the Center for the Advancement of Women said the government should prohibit abortion or limit it to extreme cases, such as rape, incest, or life-threatening complications.

The findings, with a 3 percent margin of error for the 1,000 women surveyed, tips the scale from the last sampling in 2001, when 45 percent of women sided against making abortion readily available or imposing only mild restrictions. Only 30 percent support making it generally available, down from 34 percent in 2001, the survey found.

Even some pro-abortion groups have gotten poll results they didn't expect;

In June, the Center for the Advancement of Women released the results of a poll showing that 51 percent of women took a pro-life position. Their poll also found that keeping abortion legal was the next to last most important priority for women as compared with other public policy issues.

Jennifer Bingham of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group that works to elect pro-life women to public office, tells the media has painted a false impression that a majority of women support abortion.

"Poll after poll is showing that more and more American women are classifying themselves as pro-life," Bingham said. "After 30 years of the message that 'choice' means a women's right to choose an abortion -- women are finally expressing choice as the right to have a child."

What's going on here? Are the liberal pollsters skewing their questions? Are the right-to-lifers making statistics up? No. The fact is that the results vary significantly from 1) poll to poll, based upon what specific questions are asked about abortion, and 2) from time period to time period even on identical questions about abortion.

Here is an excellent site containing the results of numerous polls taken by news and political organizations representing left, right, and center political views. It's well worth the time it takes to read all the way through it. We don't pretend to have the statistical expertise to unravel all the mysteries of the frequently contradictory responses, but we will make a few observations that are pertinent to Roe v. Wade and the customary view of the topic as a war between pro-lifers and pro-choicers.

Perhaps the clearest trend in the results is that a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal under some circumstances, especially in cases of rape and incest. A substantial minority believe abortion should always be legal. But the corollary of both these results is that a wavering majority of Americans also believe that abortion should be illegal in certain circumstances. It seems a fair inference, for example, that Americans lose tolerance for abortion the longer a pregnancy lasts and the more it is employed as a convenience by those who are too lazy to use contraceptives. A huge majority wishes to see fewer abortions and more parental involvement in decision making. The exact percentage breakdowns on all these positions move significantly up and down through time. Interestingly, the difference between the sexes on most questions seems slight or nonexistent. Apparently, the abortion issue is not about a male conspiracy to control women.

[Note that we invite -- even insist that --  you (to) examine the various studies for yourselves. We are not trying to put words in the mouths of the American people.]

One obvious bottom-line is that however the media and politicians speak about abortion, the terms pro-life and pro-choice do not apply to the fat part of the Bell Curve. An enormous number of Americans are somewhere in between, confused, struggling to navigate a sensible course through the hyperbolic rhetoric that prevents calm discussion of the complexities in public. There are those who believe it's a moral issue but should not be controlled by government or law. There are those who believe the government and the law must play a role because moral issues are involved. And there are those who believe the government and law must be involved because there are no moral issues involved. Almost no one is happy with the current state of affairs, but a majority do not believe that the issue is so critical it must be considered more important than all other issues before the country and its political parties. In other words, they can walk and chew gum at the same time; they are able to evaluate a public figure's position on abortion issues in the context of his position on other important matters. Presumably, they could also tolerate a period of legal confusion without losing their minds if Roe should one day be struck down.

In this context, Boortz's simplistic statement that a vast majority are pro-choice is disingenuous at best. Saying it enables him to make his specious case that Roe v. Wade is irrelevant. When he says, "If Roe vs. Wade were overturned tomorrow, all 50 states would immediately take over with their own laws," he thinks he is concluding the discussion. In fact, he is papering over the very serious relevance of Roe v. Wade, which is the federal law that thus far has been interpreted to mean that all abortions, in all circumstances, are beyond the reach of law. This is not what a vast majority of Americans want. For example, approximately 80 percent of Americans believe that the parents of minors seeking abortions should be notified. Unfortunately, the bizarre concept of privacy written into the constitution to justify Roe v. Wade also eliminates any possibility to do the will of the American people on this point.

It is the existence of an over-arching blanket license like Roe v. Wade which prevents people on all sides from coming to grips with the specifics of their own convictions. Boortz is correct in saying that overturning Roe would throw the question back to the states. That, by the way, is a step closer to where it can be dealt with meaningfully. There is a very clear difference in poll results from state to state. If Roe were overturned, Massachusetts might pass a state law identical to Roe, while Utah might pass a law banning abortion altogether. Other states might legalize abortion but require notification and/or consent by parents and spouses. Under our federal system, people unhappy with the laws in their own states would still have access, though the threshhold would be higher. In every state, however, the door would finally be open for individual communities, political districts and states to make the difficult distinctions, exceptions, and regulations preferred by the local majority, which no one is permitted to do today.

At a simple-minded level, Boortz is right to predict that abortion will never be entirely illegal. Yet it's equally true to say that if Roe were struck down, abortion will never again be universally legal and wholly unrestricted. Further, it's true to say that the various state laws governing abortion will come much closer to reflecting the complexities of the moral and ethical principles involved. Bad laws can be corrected. Unless the one unbreakable commandment is that there be no law. Note, too, that it is the existence of this one unbreakable commandment which holds this important issue hostage to our fading ability to determine how one nominee (at a time) feels about one supreme court case. To what definition of democratic rule does this state of affairs conform? Is it really superior to the messy give-and-take of people interacting with legislatures in individual states to pass, enforce, and refine laws that directly affect their lives?

Roe v. Wade is relevant. How Supreme Court nominees stand on Roe is relevant. Overturning this decision is in the interest of the vast majority of the American people, whether they know it or not. But sadly, another consistent by-product of the many polls is that they mimic the dunce logic of idiots like Boortz, reflecting an incorrect assumption that the abortion issue begins and ends with this one nightmarishly flawed supreme court opinion.

The clock ticks on. How many monolithic pro-choicers will there be when every woman can observe 4D ultrasound movies of her brand new fetus?

Not a rhetorical question. See for yourself what's coming.

See also The Doorway.

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