Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2022/ Abortion Rhetoric and Disability

Abortion Rhetoric and Disability

Heads up: I am guessing that about half of my readership identifies as "pro-life", and I am critical of that position in this piece. Also, I am touching several third rails of politics and discourse here. You may well be offended by some of the things I write here even if you identify as "pro-choice".

Since the leak of the upcoming Roe v. Wade decision was leaked to the press, it has become evident that abortion will become increasingly illegal in the United States. As such, the pro-life/anti-choice forces in Canada are rallying. For the moment, mainstream politicians are unwilling to advocate for abortion restrictions, but that day is coming and it is coming soon. I predict that within five years a mainstream political party will advocate for restricting or eliminating abortion somewhere in Canada. (To sweeten the deal, we can even pretend that the People's Party of Canada is not a mainstream political party.)

The soft rhetoric has already started. Recently the CBC published an opinion piece by BC pastor Jason McAllister entitled I'm a pastor who has counselled against abortion. My family knows first-hand how hard that decision is. On the surface this is mostly a first-person account of how McAllister and his family opted to carry their daughter (who has trisomy 18, a fatal disease) to term, and how he does not regret this decision even though life is difficult. Scratch the surface and the agenda behind this piece becomes clear.

Outlawing Abortion

McAllister never explicitly says that abortion should be outlawed, but it is clear that this is his position. The first clue is in the title: He is a pastor who has counselled against abortion. He also writes "I firmly believe that human life is not an inconvenience that we can just do away with." He also does not believe in abortion even in cases of rape: "However, I believe human life should not be disposable because it is inconvenient, hard, or conceived in horrendous circumstances such as rape. A person's worth should not be tied to how they were conceived."

Furthermore, McAllister is a pastor for a Baptist church (that explicitly raises funds for "walk for life" type causes). Christianity is a proselytizing religion. At the very least this means he is obligated to counsel others according to his interpreted faith. At the most it means he wants to save everybody's soul by getting them to convert to Christianity, and since he writes "Abortion was never a consideration for my wife and me — our faith guides us here", presumably anybody else he converts to that faith should be guided in the same way.

McAllister is carefully wording his piece to avoid saying that he does not want to outlaw abortion: he even writes "I empathize with anyone faced with a life-altering decision like this", which suggests he understands (even if he does not agree) that people have a decision. Wording his piece carefully gives him plausible deniability; if pressed on the matter he can claim (truthfully or not) that he accepts the current state of abortion in Canada, and does not explicitly write anything differently in this piece.

It is one thing (and not surprising) to identify McAllister's piece as an overtly pro-life piece. Certainly such voices should be allowed to publish pieces on the CBC website. But it is disingenuous to claim that this is not an "anti-choice" piece; it pretty explicitly argues that others should be dissuaded from abortion: "For us, for so many others — abortion is not the option. Life is." Not once does he say that people should be allowed to make a decision different than his own, and I think that is a notable omission. It clearly classifies this piece as political advocacy.

Happy Babies with Short Lifespans

Now I am going to write some cruel things about McAllister's daughter Joelle. Part of McAllister's argument is that although caring for his daughter is exhausting, there are rewards:

Despite these challenges, she brings joy to our lives with her bright smile. She is goofy and full of life. She will often crash her motorized chair into things simply for fun. Joelle has an infectious laugh and is in a word: vibrant.

Isn't that adorable? Doesn't that make the 24/7 stress worth it? I suspect this paragraph is intended to resonate with all new parents who suffer through the sleepless nights and endless exhaustion of taking care of babies. The baby brings joy to their lives (because babies are parasites who infect the minds of their parents).

Joelle has a lot of challenges, but things could be worse for McAllister's parents. I am thinking here of some videos and articles I have consumed by parents of autistic children. These parents fiercely care for their children, but they do not enjoy the same rewards McAllister does; some of these children seem utterly indifferent to their parents and do not express affection in any way at all. Putting aside the other medical challenges of raising autistic children, I can only imagine how disheartening and unrewarding it must be to care for such children.

Here is another way Joelle is convenient in a way other disabled children are not: her expected lifespan is short. McAllister writes: "Most children with trisomy 18 do not live past their first year. Joelle is five now." This is a great miracle for him. Glory be to God, I guess. But he also knows that he will not need to care for his disabled child indefinitely:

I would be lying if I didn't admit that my wife and I have regularly thought of and discussed the day when we will not have to care for our special needs daughter. If I'm being extremely honest with myself, there are days when it just seems too hard. Too much of an inconvenience to take care of her. It can be exhausting. A burden.

Other parents face different circumstances. They are willing to care for their disabled children as long as they live, but they know that their disabled children will outlive them. Then what?

Here is an important note: these observations do not imply that I advocate aborting children because they are autistic or will be profoundly disabled yet long-lived.

Rather, I want to observe that although McAllister's life is very difficult, it is not as difficult as the lives other parents have to deal with. If this piece is intended to advocate that nobody should be allowed to have an abortion because those unwanted/difficult children will be rewarding ("Just wait until you have kids yourself. Then you will see.") then it fails at its job.

Obligation to Life

A common complaint by the pro-choice left against the pro-life right is that although pro-life people care about fetuses, they do not care about children once they are born. I do not think this is universally true, but I do think it is true for McAllister. He has sacrificed his own wellbeing as a parent, and by extension he does not care about the wellbeing of other parents either:

I firmly believe that human life is not an inconvenience that we can just do away with. Suffering certainly isn't something that anyone would choose, yet the reality is that it's a part of life that cannot be avoided. Abortion was never a consideration for my wife and me — our faith guides us here. Rather than try to pursue the ever elusive happiness by avoiding any inconvenience or suffering, my wife and I have had to find the strength to live life in the midst of these things.

I have a lot of problems with this paragraph. It seems to imply that choosing to abort a fetus is to "avoid any inconvenience or suffering", as if people make this decision casually, or as if the amount of inconvenience and suffering a parent must deal with is trivial.

By saying "human life is not an inconvenience that we can just do away with" McAllister places a high (if not infinitely high) bar on the amount of suffering that parents should be expected to bear in order for that life to exist. I think it is pretty important to make the implications of this position concrete. So here are some anecdotes:

Anecdote 1: I have attended talks where parents of profoundly disabled children have given up their jobs to care for their children full-time. These parents live on social assistance and have chosen poverty (sometimes dire poverty) to keep their kids alive. Not only do I feel McAllister would approve of such decisions, but I think he feels such decisions should be mandatory regardless of the detrimental effects to the parent(s). If you are a parent who has to give up a career or education that might otherwise keep you out of poverty, you should be obligated to give those things up because "human life is not an inconvenience".

Anecdote 2: There is a woman in our community whom I did not know very well, but whom somebody in my social circle supported closely. This person had a baby with her unstable boyfriend. Both she and her boyfriend were products of the foster care system. She had had several children before, and all of those children had been taken away by Children's Aid. This person was enthusiastically pro-life in the sense that she loved her baby and cared for it the best she could, despite living in poverty. But because of a domestic violence incident involving her boyfriend, Children's Aid took away this baby too. The woman was so distraught she committed suicide. McAllister is fine with this. Suffering is "a part of life that cannot be avoided", right? Now all of this woman's kids are going to grow up in the foster care system (ppossibly as badly abused as this woman and her boyfriend), continuing the cycle of suffering and poverty. But this is also fine by McAllister.

Anecdote 3: I very explicitly decided to not have children. I am financially insecure, mentally unstable, and (perhaps most importantly) abusive and controlling. I grew up in a household situation that was often traumatic, and there is no question in my mind that I would perpetuate this trauma. McAllister thinks that I am just trying to "avoid any inconvenience or suffering", and he is correct -- but in addition to selfishly avoiding suffering for myself, I very explicitly wanted to avoid suffering for these hypothetical children. My guess is that McAllister would prefer that I had children and damage them as thoroughly as I was damaged via my control and abuse. After all, suffering is "a part of life that cannot be avoided."

These are three mild anecdotes. There are much worse ones out there, but I feel McAllister's position would be firm: have kids regardless of the consequences, because "life is not an inconvenience that we can just do away with".

As a final note, observe the slippery wording in this sentence: "Suffering certainly isn't something that anyone would choose, yet the reality is that it's a part of life that cannot be avoided." This is not a false statement. We cannot avoid all suffering. But we can avoid some suffering. McAllister probably makes many choices to avoid some suffering for him and his family to the extent he can. I feel that deciding not to have children can be one of those choices. I even believe that sometimes aborting a fetus (or a child, if you use pro-life language) can be a better choice than carrying that child to term. There is plenty of suffering to go around regardless of whether you have kids or not.

Expenses to Society

There is a paragraph in McAllister's piece that raises a whole host of issues that none of us are willing to deal with:

I feel this weight when it comes to my own daughter and I often wish that she didn't require 24/7 care. She certainly isn't viable on her own, but should she have been aborted because she requires someone to care for her every hour of every day of her life? She certainly will never contribute to society and will only cost taxpayers more as she ages. And so I ask, is being human enough to have natural rights?

My impression is that these questions are intended to be rhetorical. Of course McAllister's daughter should not have been aborted despite needing 24/7 care! Of course course being human is enough to have natural rights! (Also note that the phrase "natural rights" has slippery connotations which I do not agree with.)

Those are the easy answers, but they are not necessarily the feasible ones. 24/7 care costs money. Health care costs money. Individuals do not have infinite money. Governments do not have infinite money. None of us want to think about rationing care, but care is rationed whether we think about it or not.

This is a sore spot for me and for everyone else. None of us are ready to have this conversation realistically. We all pretend that there are infinite resources to care for people, but are simultaneously not willing to pay more in taxes for our collective health care. We are already facing all kinds of stressors that we don't know how to deal with:

We are making tradeoffs already. We deny people care because there are no beds available, or no family doctors taking patients near them. We shut down homecare systems to fund acute care hospitals. We limit health care worker salaries, so good health care workers get fed up and quit their jobs. All of these are forms of rationing, and none of them go away just because they are ugly to think about.

One thing is true for sure: we are not willing to fund humans having natural rights. We pay a fair amount in taxes, but governments could raise taxes for health care and they choose not to. We could permit rich people to pay for their own health care, but we choose not to. If we really wanted to believe in "natural human rights" then we have to put our money where our mouths are, and none of us (including McAllister) are willing to do this.

My own belief is that we are going broke. We cannot afford the healthcare we promise now, never mind services such as mental health care. Sooner or later (probably sooner, given what is happening with interest rates) the bill will come due, and then we are in for a world of hurt.

The rhetorical questions McAllister poses in his opinion piece makes it seem as if there are easy, obvious answers to these questions of expense vs human value. But there are real tradeoffs here. During COVID some of those choices became explicit, because we decided to come up with explicit triaging rules. I think those pressures will increase again.

False Polarization

I want to make a few points clear. I am highly critical of McAllister's piece. I think it is an early salvo in the upcoming culture war over abortion. We are going to see many more pieces like this, and as the pro-life side gains traction, the rhetoric will get less conciliatory. I feel we should be vigilant for this rhetoric, and be quick to point out its flaws and limitations.

At the same time, I have no interest in increasing polarization. McAllister is not my enemy. He (and possibly his wife) made a decision to keep their disabled child. That is fine by me. He feels that his faith gives him no choice but to be pro-life. That's fine too. Lots of people have expensive hobbies, and (as callous as it sounds) in a world of eight billion people I feel that choosing to have any child (disabled or not) has the same moral standing as a hobby. Unlike McAllister, I am effectively a nihilist, and do not feel there is any moral imperative to have children. McAllister is allowed to have different values, but I do not think he should be allowed to impose those values on me or anybody else. Of course, he is imposing his values on the taxpayers of BC given that they have to subsidize his child's care, but making decisions that are expensive for broader society is something we have decided is acceptable.

(There are sociopolitical reasons why nation states want their citizens to have lots of babies, but I feel those reasons are a Ponzi scheme, and thus actively immoral.)

I also feel that McAllister actually did have a choice in whether to abort his child. He decided that the option was not for him. But I feel having the choice is important. Deciding to have a difficult baby (or any baby at all) out of free will is very different than being coerced into that situation.

Abortion is ugly. It will never be pretty. People will always feel uncomfortable with it. None of this implies it should be banned. (Growing food is also ugly, but for some reason we accept that.) At this point I am of the opinion that abortion should be a legal option for people who are pregnant. But that does not mean I am obligated to see those who do not share that position as political enemies, or even political opponents. I do not have a monopoly on truth. Reasonable people can hold values and views diametrically opposed to mine. Often this means that one (or both!) parties are missing something important, but it does not obligate my opponents to be my enemies. That is the kind of unnecessary polarization that leads to war, which hastens the Calamity.

I feel we are in an age of polarization. On the one hand I want to resist this, and consider other human beings as mostly reasonable people. On the other hand, I believe that it is a common tactic for advocates to be "warriors", and use the tactics of war to win their positions. What is a person supposed to do when the other side is arguing in bad faith? When they are deliberately being misleading, with no real interest in learning what is true? I do not think we have good strategies for this. The one strategy we have is "might makes right", which is not a good principle if we want to find what is true as opposed to what we want to believe. But as the abortion debate heats up again in Canada, I suspect the rhetoric to become more disingenous, and truth to be trampled under misleading rhetoric.

Is McAllister writing this piece in bad faith? I do not know for sure. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. I feel that his experiences sound genuine, and I appreciate that he is willing to admit that raising a disabled child is difficult. If his primary goal is to raise awareness and sympathy for why he is pro-life, then so be it. If it is to serve as an anecdote to be used against people facing similar choices, then I am not on his side.