Where Mother Jones betrays its own great principles

I am a subscriber to the bi-monthly print edition of Mother Jones, as well as a follower of the magazine’s Twitter feed. It’s a smart and quirky journal that informs, challenges, and sheds light on many important issues. Often these issues are crucial ones at at the forefront of our social conversation — like Chris Mooney’s fine cover story to this month’s issue about the psychological pathways that lead to racism — and sometimes they are those that more of us should be paying attention to but are not — like an article in the same issue about the disastrous impact of solitary confinement on adolescents held in youth detention facilities.

In short, I’m a fan of the magazine, its values, its thoughtful and incisive approach, and the work of its staff and contributors. Usually.

Unfortunately, this magazine that is practically the epitome of a principled journalistic stand for “the little guy,” the marginalized among us (as the above two referenced articles illustrate), falls far short of this ideal when it comes to the topic of abortion. They have chosen a firmly pro-choice editorial stance, and apparently (since there is no sign of a differing opinion in what they produce) no dissent will be brooked, no nuance considered.

I came across a discouraging example of this early last night — New Year’s Eve — as I perused my Twitter feed. The magazine was preparing to ring in the new year by tweeting links to interesting year-end articles with intro lines like “2014 was the year we finally started to do something about climate change,” “The 40 greatest things people said to us in 2014,” and “The worst things that appeared on Cable News in 2014.” (That last one‘s a doozy. Want to bang your head against a wall at the stupidity on Fox News? Check out that one.)

And then there was this one: “The War on Reproductive Rights Will Get a Lot Uglier Next Year,” by Mother Jones staffer Molly Redden. Actually, what caught my attention and compelled me to read through the article was its tagline: “Mandatory adoption seminars, discredited science about fetal pain, and many more highlights of anti-abortion bills coming to a statehouse near you.”

“Discredited science about fetal pain”? I’ve read about the issue of pain experienced during abortion by fetuses after a certain level of development, and though I don’t think it’s a central aspect of the moral issue of abortion, it has certainly seemed to me to be one of the more grisly ones. It’s also quite pertinent. Even if you’re unwilling to grant the philosophical premise that the unborn fetus is a person, surely the scientific, biological data that an abortion causes intense physical agony to the fetus is relevant, no?

“This science has been discredited?” I wondered. Fetuses don’t feel pain when being torn apart or burned from the inside out? Scientists are saying that? Had to check.

As it turns out, Redden is referring in her article to (1) a Missouri informed consent law that says women who want an abortion must watch a video that offers “medically accurate information” about the abortion method and (2) the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act currently being considered by the South Carolina state legislature.

About the Missouri law, Redden writes:

The video would tell women that fetuses 22 weeks and older can feel pain and that there are “adverse psychological effects associated with abortion.” Mainstream medical organizations reject both of these assertions. The video will also tell women that “the life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being.”

One should certainly note, first of all, that even Redden realized that her line about mainstream medical organizations rejecting assertions had to come before, not after, the following two sentences about life beginning at conception and abortion ending the life of a unique and separate human being. This is, of course, because among the most certain and unassailable medical facts related to the abortion debate are that the life of each human being begins at conception and that abortion terminates the life of a separate, unique, living human being.

Also worth noting is the fact that the link Redden provides to back up her assertion about medical organizations rejecting the video’s assertions — another Mother Jones article — dismisses the idea of fetal pain at 20 weeks as “scientifically dubious” and asserts instead: “The majority of the scientific literature on the subject finds that the brain connections required to feel pain are not formed until at least 24 weeks.” (The other link Redden provides makes absolutely no reference to fetal pain capacity.) .

So the science regarding fetal pain has not been discredited. To say it has is misleading. Fetal pain during later-term abortion is a fact. What is in question is whether that capacity to experience pain has kicked in by five months gestation. Even the strongest pro-choicers agree that by around 6 months, it has. (I note that the New York Times reported this same uncertainty in a 2013 article on the topic. For a list of reasons that some researchers and doctors find it reasonable to think the fetus is capable of feeling pain at 20 weeks, see this site.)

There is not, in other words, a very big difference of opinion on the topic. I’m sure that the supporters of these bills would be perfectly happy to begin the ban at six months rather than five, if that would placate the opposition.

And let’s keep in mind that according to the pro-choice Alan Guttmacher Institute only 1.2% of all legal abortions happen after 20 weeks gestation. In rejecting the laws in question, Redden is insisting on protecting some of the rarest abortions.

But these are not the only potential laws troubling Redden. Among a long list of concerns, she includes bills under consideration in various states that

  • ban “physicians from giving instructions on abortion-inducing drugs by webcam or phone”
  • prevent towns or counties from passing laws that regulate crisis pregnancy centers
  • require consent from the child’s father
  • require the consent of both of the mother’s parents when she is a minor
  • require doctors to perform an ultrasound before performing an abortion
  • ban abortions sought for the purpose of sex selection

These are startling to me. Is abortion so sacrosanct that even abortion by phone must be defended and protected? or abortion because the mother was hoping for a boy rather than a girl?

All of this is is obviously a far cry from any pretension that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” It is stance that refuses to consider for a moment the most obviously relevant scientific data or the slightest nuance in ethical thinking.

In other words it is the same kind of thinking that Mother Jones consistently and competently deplores and demolishes when it comes to issues related to racism, sexism, and economic inequality.

2 thoughts on “Where Mother Jones betrays its own great principles

  1. Barry, thanks for posting this; I had noticed your tweet on the topic yesterday. I appreciate your explanation of this, because it is an area of much confusion. I should know because I myself suffered from that very same confusion for many, many years.

    At the heart of all of this is an unwillingness to listen, to reflect, to change. At some level, I do understand what it means to women, particularly if those women have been abused or raped, or compromised in any way, to say that one’s body is one’s own and that’s that. However, that response, however understandable at one level, is still morally challenged. This was the biggest change for me, to be able to go beyond my own pain. I’m no hero, I just finally had to stop so that I might come to the “disagreement” with questions rather than answers. This has changed the way I live overall.

    Once again, thanks for the post and for your clear, helpful language about the tremendous inconsistency around abortion at Mother Jones – and elsewhere!

    • Thanks, Fran. Certainly all of us need to be open to rethinking our presumptions and considering other perspectives. Heaven knows I’ve found myself having to do enough of it myself over the past decade or two. I suffered from a few confusions of my own in my young adult years, and I was happy to present as gospel truth what I now recognize as misunderstandings and naivete. (If you’d have told me back then that I’d be a Mother Jones subscriber today, I’d have laughed.)

      I know from their other work that the folks at Mother Jones come at their convictions with big hearts and sharp minds. But in this case, I think they end up in the wrong place.

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