Scarlet A Lacks a High-Quality Abortion Debate

Public Discourse is launching two new features: short book notes and longform essays. They'll run occasionally, on Saturdays and Sundays. Today is our first book note. In it, Charles K. Bellinger reviews Katie Watson's Scarlet A, arguing that books about abortion often fail to address deeper and broader issues.

The problem with books about abortion is that they are (only) about abortion. Scarlet A: The Law, Ethics, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion by Katie Watson fits this description precisely.

Scarlet A does not break any new ground in the abortion debate. It repeats many of the standard pro-choice arguments that have been made before. It does have the merit of being very clearly written and well-organized. Watson describes how common abortion is in the United States: thirty million women have had fifty-five million abortions since 1973. She attributes the reticence of many women to talk about abortion to the social stigma that attaches to the practice. She summarizes the standard arguments that are made for and against personhood beginning at conception, obviously siding with the latter. The reader cannot help but feel, however, that the worldview of the pro-life camp is broadcasting on a wavelength that Watson is trying hard to tune in to, but ultimately without success. The wording of many of her sentences shows that she really has no idea how a pro-life advocate would critique what she is saying.

Watson’s overall argument boils down to two key ideas: individual autonomy and respect for pluralism. The individual woman should have the power to determine what moral status the embryo has—for her. Watson is okay with pro-life advocates trying to persuade others regarding the moral wrongness of abortion, but she does not want them to try to “impose” their views on others through the force of law; that is a refusal to respect pluralism. She does not take seriously the many critiques of individualism that have been articulated by various authors, and she does not acknowledge that her “pluralism” can be critiqued as the sort of relativism that was lobbied for by the defenders of slavery. (“Every man mind his own business” was how one defender of slavery put it.) She does mention the slavery analogy, very briefly, but only to make the point that laws restricting abortion are “a form of slavery” that cause women to suffer.

The problem with books about abortion is that a better quality, public debate on abortion (which Watson explicitly longs for) needs to address deeper and broader issues; it needs a wider intellectual horizon. We need to not just use rights language, but ask “What are rights? Can the Supreme Court invent them? What is the history of rights language and how is that history relevant to the meaning of rights language today?” We need to ask whether or not the individual autonomy that Watson lobbies for is an unalloyed and innocent good. We need to ask whether or not we have actually allowed the moral lessons that history teaches to change us. Such questions, and many others that could be articulated, are outside Watson’s intellectual ken.

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