Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Reading

Roe v. Wade at Forty — Jill LePore of The New Yorker looks back at the legacy of the Supreme Court decision after forty years, and looks ahead.

Looking back, it seems clear that the abortion-rights movement embraced the rhetoric of privacy at the cost of making an argument about equality. National political figures rarely use the word “poverty” any more, but the Guttmacher Institute this year reports that among poor women, the rate of unwanted pregnancy is five times higher than for wealthier women: four in ten women who have abortions are poor. The Institute, founded in 1968, took Guttmacher’s name in 1977. Its mission is to advance “sexual and reproductive health and rights.” But the political discussion of abortion involves more talk about rights than about health. That’s one problem. Another is that most of that talk has been coming from the right. The assertion of a constitutional right to privacy has been answered by the assertion of fetal rights, a claim that challenges not only Roe but also several forms of contraception and, possibly, Griswold itself. Guttmacher’s two key ideas—that contraception would replace abortion and that public health would trump politics—seem, in retrospect, regrettably naïve.

In 2011, when I was researching an article for the magazine about Planned Parenthood, one of the people with whom I talked was Reva Siegel, and one of the most remarkable things she said had to do with how effectively the backlash narrative has intimidated the left. “The right has raised a generation of people who understand that courts matter and who will vote on that basis and can be mobilized to vote on that basis and who are willing to pay political costs for votes,” Siegel said. “This is completely lacking on the other side.” Law students and young lawyers, Siegel believes, are convinced that Roe is the source of the polarization of Americans politics. In response, those on the left “have an inhibition about using litigation for social-change purposes,” while appeals to the courts are “the bread and butter of the right, whether it’s campaign finance or guns or affirmative action.”

If so, Roe’s legacy has hardly begun.

Dangerous Mixture — Puneet Opal, MD, PhD, writes in The Atlantic on the perils of treating science like a political weapon.

We in democracies should make every effort to promote the objectivity of scientists so they can seek and communicate the best approximation of truth in the natural world, using their training and resources. And the approximation, is only because we will never know reality, but we can get amazingly close with scientific evidence and logical thinking.

Political choices can be made after the evidence is presented, but the evidence should stand for what it is. If the evidence itself is rejected by politicians — as is currently going on — then the ignorance of the political class should indeed be exposed, and all threats resisted.

This should be the case regardless of where across the political spectrum the ignorance is coming from. This might seem to be a diatribe against conservatives. But really this criticism is aimed at all unscientific thinking.

Just to be sure, there are a number on the left who have their own dogmatic beliefs; the most notable are unscientific theories with regard to the dangers of vaccinations, genetically modified produce, or nuclear energy.

It is also important to note that there have been exceptional Republican champions of science. In the U.S. Senate, the late Arlen Spector and in Congress, John Porte were two who stood out, lauded by scientists as advocates for scientific inquiry.

In other words, threats to scientific thinking can come from any quarter. What must be preserved is the pursuit of science away from irrational dogma. In that sense scientists should be completely nonpartisan. After all, the universe is what it is. The hurricanes, the flu epidemics, indeed all of reality does not really care about our political affiliations, but we distance ourselves from scientific thinking at our own peril.

Dear Abby — Rick Perlstein of The Nation has an appreciation of the late Pauline Phillips — “Dear Abby” — who passed away this week.

In August of 1980 the director of the ballet company of which Ron Reagan, son of the presidential candidate, was a member for some reason felt moved to put out a statement that Reagan and all the other men in his group had “nice girlfriends.”

In the notion that ballet dancers must be gay, and that this was a shamefully horrible thing, he spoke to a fear shared by Ron Reagan’s father, who when Ron dropped out of college in 1977 to become a dancer immediately phoned up Gene Kelly to ask if that meant he was gay. Later, his adopted son Michael helped him process a disturbing discovery: he caught Ron with a woman in his and Nancy’s (gross!) bed. Said Michael, “The bad news is that you came home early and you caught him. The good news is that you found out he isn’t gay.”

“Dear Abby” had a different view. Of the ballet director, a reader wrote in to decry the “sad commentary on our society’s attitude toward human sexuality that such a statement was made at all. Implicity in that announcement were the following erroneous assumptions: 1) That male participation in ballet requires lengthy justification lest it threaten our traditional views of masculinity; 2) that all male ballet dancers are suspect and therefore proof of their masculinity is required—i.e., having girlfriends; 3) that without proof of their manliness, people might think they were gay; and 4) that being gay is bad.”

The reader asked Abby if she had anything to add. She didn’t. She just wrote, “No. Right on!” (And: “Readers? Write on.” She was democratic that way.) The same column (August 20, 1980) printed a letter of thanks “for your explanation as to why the ERA is a national need,” noting that still, in 1980, the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s sufferage was still ritually voted down every year in the Mississippi legislature.

Good thing Mississippi newspaper readers could read Dear Abby. Good thing Mormons could, too; indeed the link to the August 1980 column above is to the Deseret News—Salt Lake City’s Mormon-owned newspaper. Abby blazed trails for liberalism in the most reactionary precincts. People trusted her that way.

Doonesbury — After-market options.