Conor Friederdorf of The Atlantic: “Abortions for Some, Miniature American Flags For Others”

5 Aug

If you want to be taken seriously as a pundit in political circles you’ll have to state where you come down on the whole “abortion question.” Here’s the thing about pundits. Those that are journalists, meaning they do actual reporting as well as opining, are nervous as hell about declaring their views on any policy, let alone one with such entrenched sides like abortion. To declare what your views are on any topic is to make you an activist, which is a dirty name to call a journalist. (Trust me, next time you want to annoy a reporter, call him/her an “activist.” They’ll hate it more than the term “biased.”)

So when Conor Friedersdorf, associate editor at The Atlantic, writes about abortion, how can he protect himself from charges that he’s “pro-choice” and therefore an unreliable “authority” to write about abortion? I call it the Just-Make-It-Barely-Legal position, a stance favored by other pundits like Will Saletan. This stance allows pundits to make sure they cover all sides; they don’t want abortion outlawed, but gosh darn it, why can’t society find options for women other than abortion because it so darned sad to them. Yup, Friederdorf knows how to thread the needle on the abortion question: keep it legal but make sure to tell everyone how personally queasy it makes you to have it available.

My position on abortion is an uncommon mix. As a purely constitutional matter, I don’t think Roe vs Wade employs sound judicial reasoning, and it seems to me that our founding document, properly read, would leave the matter to the states. Personally, I’d endure a lot of suffering to avoid being complicit in an elective abortion (as opposed to one undergone to protect the health of the mother). But I am against laws banning abortion. Though I believe that human life starts very early in a pregnancy, I am not certain enough I’m right to send someone to jail based on what is, for me, a guess.

Now that Friederdorf has inoculated himself against charges that he’s too pro-choice (“abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!”) he’s free to mansplain about how other pregnant ladies should feel, especially after watching how Sarah Palin handled her last pregnancy.

As a general matter, Sarah Palin and her politics of victimhood, personality and resentment are negative influences on American political culture. On the subject of abortion, however, she has shown one way forward. Her decision to have a Down syndrome baby surely helped stigmas against developmentally disabled kids to fall, and her daughter’s pregnancy and subsequent celebrity also sent the message that carrying an accidental pregnancy to term is a doable thing that needn’t destroy one’s life. (It also reduced the stigma attached to teen pregnancy — a likely precondition for significantly reducing the abortion rate, as many social conservatives have come to see.)

I would love to know if Friedersdorf, after finding out a friend was pregnant (or a parent of a teenager) would honestly tell them “Look Sarah Palin/Bristol Palin decided to come to term, so you can too!” Of course not. It’s bullshit punditry that sounds reasonable but in fact makes no sense in a real-world application. But it’s split-the-baby-down-the-middle stance means Friedersdorf is a very serious thinker about abortion.

Friedersdorf is under the delusion, either because he’s a man or because he’s never spoken to an actual woman, that women turn to abortion because of cultural reasons and that if we just change the culture, by having more movies like Knocked Up and Juno, we can reduce abortions in America.

Of course this makes no sense at all, since popular culture almost NEVER portrays abortion as a reasonable option, but for some reason it’s still a very popular option amongst women who find themselves unable to carry a pregnancy to term. Perhaps Friedersdorf, and other “very serious pundits” like himself, instead of making sure they have plausible deniability on the abortion question, should actually talk to women who’ve had abortions and figure out if a change in “culture” might have made them change their minds. Perhaps that would be a culture of universal healthcare, inexpensive daycare and housing, as well as an economy with lower than 9 percent unemployment. Let’s change that culture first instead of believing ladies need to watch Knocked Up a few more times.

7 Responses to “Conor Friederdorf of The Atlantic: “Abortions for Some, Miniature American Flags For Others””

  1. Alicia August 5, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    But….but that would mean actually talking to women and taking their needs and experiences into consideration! We can’t possibly validate the thoughts and feelings of females, gays, trans, poor, or racial minorities! We must assume everyone thinks and feels like rich,white men! It’s the only way to Peter Pan wish everyone else into being subservient to their whims!

  2. Sophia Thinks Rachel Is Da Bomb August 5, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    This is by far your best piece I have come to read. Excellent work, you have framed the issue here perfectly: mansplaining makes no sense, also, women are people GASP. Anyway, great work!


  3. Conor Friedersdorf August 5, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    This piece doesn’t do a very good job characterizing what I actually wrote in my piece. The argument wasn’t that women, when pondering whether to have an abortion, should consume popular culture and decide accordingly. What I asserted is that in a future where access to abortion gets better and better, it is pointless for pro-lifers to try to overturn Roe and make it illegal in some states — their only chance of bringing about the outcome they want (fewer abortions) is to persuade women to choose for themselves against having them.

    Also, if you were at all familiar with my writing, you’d know that I am an opinion journalism who has no problem coming down publicly on one or the other side of an issue. It just so happens that I am genuinely conflicted on abortion — unwilling to vote to make it illegal, but personally uncomfortable with it in some of the cases that it is legal. I don’t know why that seems implausible to you. I am hardly alone in being conflicted on the subject.

  4. NewsCat_in_DC August 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm #


    What I was doing to characterize your argument was putting in reductio ad absurdum. While I got that your point was that anti-choicers shouldn’t put their efforts into legal changes, but cultural ones to persuade women to shift away from abortion, your articles have made me wonder if you honestly realize who are the people who are against abortion? They don’t care that if it’s made illegal some women, some where will be able to obtain *some* abortions. They aren’t thinking in such absolute terms (“illegalizing abortion only works if we can reduce the number to zero”). Frankly your statements about Sarah Palin reducing “stigma” on women who choose to carry children with Down syndrome to term is ridiculous and a straw man argument against culture since no one previously believed there was “stigma” in having such a child (at least not in the last 30 years). My final point in my post, talking about economic barriers to parenting, is honestly the *only* reasonable way to talk about using “culture” to reduce abortion to which not a single anti-choice organization is willing to discuss.

    In terms of whether to call you a pundit or a journalist. I thought I was giving you the benefit of the doubt calling you a journalist, but if you want to just be an opinion-sprouting then fair enough.

  5. Conor Friedersdorf August 5, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    A few points in response:

    1) There are not mutually exclusive categories called “journalist” and “opinion giver.” Some journalists inject their opinions into their work. Others don’t.

    2) You write as if opponents of abortion are all alike, all share the same motivations, and all think in the same way. I insist that at least some folks are actually more interested in reducing the number of abortions than making the practice illegal.

    3) You’re dead wrong about there having been no stigma about special needs kids for the past 30 years, and I can’t help thinking that you’ve just asserted your opinion on the matter without any basis in fact. I’ve spent a fair amount of time around families with special needs kids at a non-profit where I volunteered for a few years, and a member of my family works full time at a camp for kids with various medical conditions, including autism. In talking with parents of those kids — that is to say, people who decided to carry those pregnancies to term — there is widespread believe that there is still a stigma.

  6. NewsCat_in_DC August 5, 2011 at 3:55 pm #


    To your point that “stigma” exists in having a child who is disabled, has Down syndrome or is anything other than perfectly healthy, here’s the question. Why do you believe a woman who has a pregancy with a fetus who may have such problems might choose to abort rather than continue to term? If you think the answer is “she knows society will look down on her?” Or “she knows she’s going to get very little help from society and her current family and finances might not be able to take the strain of caring for such a child, especially one that might require intensive care forever?” That Sarah Palin made the decision that she could take care of such a child is well and good, for her. I say let every woman made such a decision for herself. If you makes *you* personally uncomfortable, then again, I ask, do you believe that before legal, cultural and financial barriers are placed before a woman can decide to have an abortion BEFORE our society works at lowering the economic and cultural barriers to parenting.

    In response to you second point, I’ve found that while amongst the voting population there are a wide variety of opinions on abortion amongst those who actively work to change laws regarding abortion there *is* a uniformity in their purpose and thinking. This site, as well as many others document that uniformity quite clearly. This is why I’ve found “opinion journalists” like yourself searching for the “right” kind of anti-abortion activist to be a search for a unicorn. Even if you found such a group, you’d find their influence to be exactly ZERO on the majority of work devoted to making sure women can’t obtain abortions. In fact the group most cited by opinion journalists is Third Way, which loved to death by opinion journalists and no one else.

    But I will tell you what. Since I’m fundementally *not* against journalists having opinions (Call me part of the Jay Rosen sphere of the Twitterverse) I will say that part of my piece was unfair as long as you never claimed to be “unbiased” about abortion or other topics because you were a journalist.

  7. NYCProChoiceMD August 5, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    “It is pointless for pro-lifers to try to overturn Roe and make it illegal in some states — their only chance of bringing about the outcome they want (fewer abortions) is to persuade women to choose for themselves against having them.”

    What about getting with the program and helping us improve access to contraception and high-quality sex ed? Persuading women not to have abortions is much more time-intensive and expensive than helping them avoid unintended pregnancy. We even know lots of great ways to help people use birth control that are proven to prevent unintended pregnancy: certain educational programs, no copays, access to highly effective long-term methods like IUDs, free contraceptives for people who don’t qualify for Medicaid due to immigration status or income, and so on.

    I acknowledge that many people are conflicted. However, the difference between the majority of the conflicted and anti-abortion activists is often contraception. Most people are NOT conflicted about contraception at all, and those people who feel the ambivalence you describe would do well to join us in our fight for better access to birth control and further research for more birth control methods.

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