A Guide to Anti-Choice Concern Trolling

If you're a supporter of reproductive rights in the United States, you're forced to endure various forms of concern trolling. The centrist form, perfected by Slate's Will Saletan, exhorts supporters of abortion rights to concede that abortions are icky and that the good faith of people who support criminalizing abortion must be conceded even when their arguments are a moral, political, and legal shambles. While outright opponents of abortion rights are certainly willing to use these techniques, they have innovations of their own. The concern-troll-in-chief for opponents of reproductive rights is Ross Douthat of The New York Times. Last weekend's manifestation is a particularly good example, both because the arguments are relatively sophisticated and because Douthat is frequently generous enough to provide the material that refutes his own arguments.

So, as a public service, I use Douthat's latest column to provide a handy guide to the pillars of anti-choice concern trolling, and, more important, why they're wrong.

But Even Europe Has Much More Restrictive Abortion Policy!

Republicans rarely invoke the superiority of European policy, but when it comes to abortion they're often willing to make a (misleading) exception. In defense of the draconian new abortion regulations passed in Texas, Douthat observes that "France, Germany and Italy all ban abortions after the first trimester, and impose waiting periods as well." In a past argument he shrewdly omits this time, he's contrasted allegedly restrictive European policy with "absolutist" protections of abortion rights in the United States, an argument that even before the most recent wave of anti-abortion regulations in the United States had the disadvantage of being transparently wrong.

Even without the gross mischaracterization of American abortion policy, however, the comparison fails because it doesn't put European abortion restrictions in the appropriate context. You can't discuss the restrictive aspects of abortion policy in some European countries without acknowledging other policies that make abortion more accessible. Adopting French abortion policy would require not only additional regulations on abortion in some states and fewer in others; we'd need to repeal of the Hyde Amendment and enact provisions to make abortion providers much more accessible in general.

Similarly, one cannot simply compare the language of statutes without considering how they are implemented. A waiting period requirement works very differently in a context in which most women can obtain safe abortions for free at local public hospitals and are protected by labor laws than in a context where many women live hundreds of miles from the nearest abortion provider and can be fired at will for missing a day of work. Counseling requirements work differently in countries where there isn't a large, politically potent anti-choice lobby dedicated to ensuring that doctors "inform" their patients with scientifically inaccurate anti-choice propaganda. And so on.

While French abortion policy is far from ideal, I would certainly prefer French abortion policy as a whole to the policy in most American states—and despite their use of "eventheliberalEurope" as a rhetorical cudgel, most American anti-choicers would never consider supporting such a thing.

The "Late Term" Bait and Switch

Since this is a centerpiece of abortion concern-trolling of both the center and right, it's worth noting the subtle transition in Douthat's argument. Douthat accurately notes that in addition to bans on abortion after 20 weeks, the new Texas law contains regulations designed to shut down many abortion clinics altogether. But when comparing Texas to France and Germany, only the former remain. This is a common tactic—use regulations on the small minority of late-term abortions (which, if unlike Texas's they apply after viability and exclude abortions that are medically necessary, are already permitted by Roe v. Wade) as a wedge to pass a bunch of regulations that apply at every stage of pregnancy. This bait and switch is worse than a non sequitur. Shutting down safe abortion clinics and creating an obstacle course of arbitrary regulations makes first-trimester abortions harder to obtain. When you see the American abortion debate defined as a debate about regulating late-term abortions, you're being sold a bill of goods. The attempt to use the Gosnell clinic as a pretext for abortion regulations that would have done nothing to stop Gosnell is a classic example.

What About Ireland?

Perhaps not wanting readers to think too hard about his other European comparisons, Douthat proceeds with admirable candor to Ireland. While conceding that most countries with restrictive abortion regulations have appalling records on human rights more generally, he points to Ireland as evidence that restrictive abortion policies are not always incompatible with decent advancements of women otherwise.

The obvious problem is that bans on abortion aren't bad only because they usually reflect more general patriarchal conceptions of gender relations; they are in themselves reactionary restrictions of the rights of women. Rather than comparing American abortion policy to Ireland, we should compare it to abortion policy in Canada or the Netherlands, in which accessible abortion without arbitrary regulations has not led to any of the allegedly bad consequences imagined in the fevered imaginations of American anti-choicers.

Abortion Bans Are Republican Policy for a Reason

In the midst of his comparison of Irish and Texan abortion policy, Douthat leaves an absolutely crucial admission hanging there: "Even if abortion were somehow banned outright in Texas tomorrow, it would still be available to women with the resources to travel out of state." Needless to say, Douthat doesn't develop the implications of this fact further, so I'll do it for him. The abortion bans Douthat favors are, in practice, not so much bans on abortion as bans on abortion for the nonaffluent. Wherever they're enacted, bans on abortion don't make safe abortions inaccessible for all women; they make them inaccessible for women who lack connections to a private physician or lack the resources to travel to jurisdictions where abortion is legal. The abortion policy favored by wealthy Republicans in practice isn't so much "abortion should be illegal" as "abortion should be illegal but not so illegal that my wife/mistress/daughter couldn't get one."

Douthat makes no attempt to actually defend this grossly inequitable policy preference, presumably for the same reason Chief Justice Roberts made no serious attempt to defend the proposition that the Voting Rights Act violates the "equal sovereignty of the states"—it can't be defended. Whatever one's belief about the morality of abortion, "safe abortions for rich women but not poor women" is an immoral answer.

Progressives Should Favor Policies They Already Favor!

Douthat adds a new twist to this longtime concern-troll favorite. The centrist variant on this is to lecture supporters of reproductive freedom that accessible contraception can reduce abortion rates as if one had just discovered the meaning of the universe. (A lot of abortion centrists apparently believe that John Kyl's description of what Planned Parenthood does was intended to be a factual statement.) Douthat's approach is to offer a false choice between Medicaid expansion and accessible abortion for all women:

It suggests, for instance, that liberal donors and activists should be spending more time rallying against Perry’s refusal to take federal Medicaid financing than around Wendy Davis’s famous filibuster.

It implies that the quest to “turn Texas blue” should make economic policy rather than late-term abortion its defining issue.

The rather obvious answer here is "why not both?" It's worth noting that the Affordable Care Act—which Douthat, of course, opposed, and to which supporters of reproductive rights lent essential support—contained mechanisms that would have made refusing the Medicaid expansion much more difficult, only to be thwarted by the Supreme Court.

Douthat's arguments here are directed to the wrong party. Virtually all progressive supporters of reproductive freedom also support better health care for the nonaffluent as well as a variety of other policies that would support parents. The Republican Party, meanwhile, gets ever closer to exemplifying Barney Frank's dictum that for conservatives, life begins at conception and ends at birth.

In addition, it's wrong to see these as distinct policies—access to safe abortions is an essential part of ensuring quality medical care for women, not an alternative to it. Douthat, meanwhile, is consistent the other way; he believes that the state should force poor women to carry pregnancies to term. As long as he supports putting contemporary Republicans into power at the state or federal level, his health care offer to nonaffluent women is "nothing," despite any denials he may continue to unspool in his column.

In short, Douthat's concern trolling consists entirely of false comparisons meant to conceal bad policy prescriptions. Pay attention to discourse about abortion policy, and you'll hear plenty more like it.


"...abortion should be illegal, but not so illegal that my wife/mistress/daughter couldn't get one."

Good one!

It does trouble me that we are turning all debate and argument into trolling...when I saw the headline I assumed we would be dealing with the truly difficult problem of abusive individuals in forums attempting to destroy meaningful discussion...but you are extending the term to mean everyone you disagree with? With all do respect does that mean you would be correctly called a troll as well and that your writing and blogging would be the equivalent of trolling? I suspect that is unfair but it does seem to be the logical conclusion.

It's a legitimate area of discussion. Trolls have existed since the days of UseNet bulletin boards. You don't have to go far into this discussion to discover that we have a vocal one here.

There is no one in existence who cannot tell it is wrong to kill a helpless child. The fact that killing helpless children is popular changes nothing.

@rbwinn A fetus is not a child. A child is someone who has already been born, and it would be wrong to kill that child. Please learn the difference.

Well, I know Democrats like to believe they can change the meanings of words. Here is one problem you have. The meanings of some words date back thousands of years.
Luke 2:5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife being great with child.
Robert B. Winn

An anthology of mythology, poetry and folklore isn't really an authoritative source.

That quotation was from the Bible, not from a modern college educated person. The actual author of the statement was Luke, a physician of that time.

You're seriously trying to claim that a Bible snippet A) is meant to be actual, scientific medical opinion; and B) should form the basis for contemporary law?

Well...I guess there's not much that can be SAID to someone that delusional.

As I said before, there is no one, including you, who cannot tell it is wrong to kill a helpless child. Go ahead and claim you are following some kind of law, but what you are really following is the desire to prove that you can kill another person. My understanding was that you were claiming that you could not tell that an unborn child is another human being. There is no one alive as feeble minded as you claim to be.

Incoherent as well as delusional! Keep it up. Really. You're a credit to your, uh, movement.

No, you understand what I am saying perfectly. What you are doing is called, Kill the messenger.
I don't have a movement. I am not a political party member. I do my own thinking. If you don't want to discuss this subject, just say so. I can understand your reluctance to discuss abortion. Talking to pro-abortion people reminds me of a conversation between Hernando Cortez and Montezuma as recorded by one of Cortez's soldiers. Cortez told Montezuma that he could not understand how someone who was as intelligent and fair as Montezuma was in other aspects of his life could be so stupid as to believe in human sacrifices to idols. Montezuma told Cortez that it was none of his business.
You are telling me that abortion is none of my business because it is a form of homicide you have established and made popular. just like the Aztec human sacrifices were established and made popular by Aztec rulers.

You mean like redefining a fetus as a child? Oh, wait, that was you.

I did not re-define anything. I just pointed out that fetuses were defined as children two thousand years ago.

Hey, remember that time where you were all like "the BIBLE says 'with child,' and Luke was a DOCTOR; therefore, it's SCIENCE!?" And remember that other time you were like, "conquistadors--now THOSE guys had respect for life!?" And then there was that time you were like, "what I'm saying makes PERFECT SENSE!" Those were good times. Do you, per chance, have any more komedy klassics with which to grace us?

I do remember that. As a matter of fact, the conquistadors were good people compared to you. Cortez used to tell the Aztecs that he had been sent by the king of Spain to stop human sacrifices. Remember when you were telling me that you are here to enforce all of these homicides by abortion? That was certainly impressive. It is kind of like conversing with Hitler after the 599,999th Jew had been exterminated in the concentration camps.
Adolf, don't you think you might have a happier life if you stopped killing Jews? If you kill one more, that will make 6,000,000.
Trying to reason with Hitler did not seem to work. That seems to be a common trait among people who have participated in multiple homicides.

Oh man, that's priceless ;-D The idea that i'm both Montezuma AND Hitler creates a bizarre yet hilarious metal picture; if you were trying to make a serious point, it would obviously be nonsensical, but since we've all figured out at this point that you're just going for the laffs, I say, keep it up! It might be a bit avant-garde for some, but I'm always open to new and original comic voices. I would totally buy your comedy album.

I did not say you were both Montezuma and Hitler. I just made note of the fact that both Montezuma and Hitler were in favor of mass homicides and that trying to reason with people who are in favor of mass homicides is not likely to be successful. I could give other examples. What if I had gone to Cambodia and told Pol Pot, "Pol, all of these dead bodies out in these fields are starting to smell bad."
Or maybe I could have gone to Uganda and told the head of state, Idi, all of these corpses floating in the rivers and lakes are starting to contaminate the water supply. "
Do you think it would have done some good?
So now I am talking to you. You have told me that you cannot tell an unborn human being is a child. I do not believe you any more than I would have believed some of these other people.

Well, I didn't think you could top "you're like Hitler!" but damned if you didn't manage it.

I bow in awe at your comic genius :-D

Well, not all people think homicides are funny. I know this may seem odd to you.

One thing I admire about your act is the way that you never, ever break character. Most people would crack when playing a part that requires them to spew non-stop gibberish, but I have to admit, you've really got it down. Kudos.

I never act. People who engage in acting are likely to get involved in abortion.

"People who engage with acting...?" Jeez, just when I think you've reached a comic crescendo, you somehow manage to kick it up a notch.

Well, as I said before, there are still some people who do not think mass homicides are all that funny.

Nice one!

The only possible problem I can foresee is that the character is just SO ridiculous and over-the-top that at a certain point people are going to just get tired of it. You might want to vary things up just a bit. I mean, robotically repeating "homicide" over and over is funny, no question, but I think you're gonna want to have something up your sleeve for when people inevitably get a little bit bored. Always avoid complacency!

No, I just keep saying homicide. I do not care who gets bored. Anyway, I am leaving in the morning, and will be where there is no computer. Nice talking to you even though you did not get past saying that you cannot tell right from wrong. That works with most people, but it does not work with me. The key to the meaning of the word is in the roots it derived from. The suffix -cide denotes that the person referred to kills someone or something. In this case it would be referring to an abortion doctor. The prefix homi means that the abortion doctor kills another person. That is why I use the term homicide.
As a member of the Democratic Party, you are certain to say, A fetus is not another person.
That would mean that the abortion doctor was not a human being when he was a fetus, and it would have been OK to kill him then, but not now because now he is a valuable human being, and lawyers do not allow valuable human beings to be killed because an abortion doctor is capable of hiring a lawyer and supporting the legal profession financially.
The problem with this logically is that both parents of the abortion doctor were human beings, so the abortion doctor could not have been anything else, even when he was a fetus. So when the abortion doctor performs an abortion, it is one human being killing another human being, just like when the Aztec human sacrifice priests cut the heart out of one of their human sacrifices, it was homicide.

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(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)