Feminist Backlash to Ross Douthat's Column on Abortion

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This week, columnist Ross Douthat pointed out in The New York Times that there's an interesting tension in America between "the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility." (The Wire cited Douthat's column in its Monday 5 Best roundup.) Douthat wrote that while some women long to have children but are biologically unable, others find themselves contemplating abortion in the midst of an unwanted pregnancy. He went on to note that adoption rates have declined since 1973--the year Roe v. Wade was decided--and lamented that so many pregnant women choose to have abortions rather than give birth and allow their children to be adopted.

The column, with its implication that infertile couples and women considering abortion should just meet in the middle, has attracted no end of ire in the blogopshere. Below, a sampling of the responses:

  • Douthat on Adoption and Abortion  The most-cited paragraphs from Douthat's column are as follows:

In every era, there's been a tragic contrast between the burden of unwanted pregnancies and the burden of infertility. But this gap used to be bridged by adoption far more frequently than it is today. Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason.

Some of this shift reflects the growing acceptance of single parenting. But some of it reflects the impact of Roe v. Wade. Since 1973, countless lives that might have been welcomed into families like Thernstrom's -- which looked into adoption, and gave it up as hopeless -- have been cut short in utero instead.

  • There's More to Pregnancy Than Supply and Demand  Blogger TBogg at Firedoglake summarizes Douthat's argument thus: "Poor uneducated pregnant women should waste not so that upper middle-class women will want not." TBogg adds: "There is no more repellent reason for opposing abortion than the notion that poor women who choose to not bring a baby to term are somehow obligated to do so because it is a sellers market."

  • Babies Are Not Consumer Goods, agrees Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice. "Even at its best, adoption is never a simple transfer between independent economic entities, a logically impeccable marketplace solution to the messy biological Fertility Gap. Of course, given the opinions expressed in his prior writings, Douthat would not consider the feelings of the birth mothers to have any weight in this equation."

  • Douthat Seems to Be Forgetting About Women Here  Jill Filipovic at Feministe points out that when it comes to pregnancy, there's generally "a woman involved," and "the desire of one woman to have a child doesn't mean that a second woman is morally obligated to undergo nearly ten months of physically and emotionally trying pregnancy." Filipovic adds that Douthat "talks a big game about valuing and protecting the unborn, but neglects to lay out the specifics about how he proposes we actually do that":

When it comes right down to it, a lot of people really don't like the idea of criminalizing women who don't believe it's their burden to provide babies for anyone who wants one. It's also a lot easier to talk about "valuing life" (and to really mean "punishing women") than it is to take the sometimes costly steps that actually value that life--providing affordable health care, early-childhood education, childcare, paid maternity leave, and on and on. You know, things that social conservatives like Douthat routinely oppose because of "personal responsibility" and "keeping the government out of our lives."

  • We're Talking About Real People, agrees Monica Potts at The American Prospect. "Douthat might think it's neat and easy for a woman to go through an unwanted pregnancy and then to supply a childless couple with a much-wanted baby, but that's only because that's the outcome he desires." Potts adds that "reproductive freedom results in the fact that some people may make decisions with which you disagree, and that's the point."

  • Douthat's Argument Is Inexcusable, writes Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon. "He lapses into straight up demanding that women be reduced to breeding machines whose mental health is of no more consequence than the mental health of your xBox ... That he glibly offers to deprive unmarried women of their human rights in order to sop up the pain of infertility of women he deems more worthy because they did a better job at taming their sexuality with the approved channels of marriage is misogyny, pure and simple."

  • Things Weren't So Great Before 1973, notes Ken Houghton at Angry Bear. Houghton cites Douthat's figures that "prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women... led to an adoption," and does the math: "If I'm reading Douthat's prose correctly... that basically means that for one in every five children born out of wedlock, no more than four were successfully adopted." Houghton concludes that "no economist in his right mind would consider the pre-1973 environment romanced by Douthat to be more optimal than the current one, unless he really loves human suffering and wasting human capital."

  • How Is This His Business, Anyway? wonders John Cole at Balloon Juice. "Every time the anti-abortion crowd starts trying for new restrictions on abortion, they always use the language of compromise. Yet time and time again, they fail to realize we already have compromised on this issue--if Ross and his wife don't want an abortion, we won't force them to have one. Likewise, he can pipe down about what other couples do when they get pregnant. That, folks, is a compromise. How many kids has Ross adopted?"

  • So What Do We Do About It? asks Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic. "The great gulf between those who desire children and cannot have them biologically and those who conceive children but do not want them may vary over time and place. But what marks a civilization, in my view, is how we handle this chasm. Do we simply throw the unwanted away? Do we make every effort to find them homes? How do we practically facilitate this? If the pro-life movement dedicated its every moment not to criminalizing abortion but to expanding adoption opportunities, it would win many more converts."

  • Hang On--Adoption Opportunities Are Already In Place, responds Megan McArdle at The Atlantic. "I find it far-fetched that women are having abortions because no one is willing to help them give the baby up for adoption--there are lots of people and agencies that will not only help them, but pay a substantial portion of their expenses until they deliver. They're having abortions because pregnancy is physically uncomfortable, and there's still a social stigma on women who carry a baby to term in order to give it away."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.