Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Planned Parenthood vs. Susan G. Komen Foundation: The Poverty of the Debate

The controversy over the funding of Planned Parenthood from the Susan G. Komen Foundation is an interesting one from a cognitive science point of view.  George Lakoff, a linguist and cognitive scientist, points out in his book, "Don't Think of An Elephant", that how we think about an issue is automatically determined by the language that is used to define the problem.  For example, if I say to you "don't think of an elephant", you can't help but imagine an elephant.  No amount of mental work can stop this.  It is part of how the mind works.

The ability to define the parameters of thought is called "framing".  In politics, the framers are able to win arguments before the battle even begins.  This is especially true considering many people don't think more than superficially.  Most people make decisions based upon their emotions.  This is why marketing and advertising work so well.  Just look at the Super Bowl ads.  Corporations spend millions of dollars on commercials featuring half naked women selling cars, celebrities telling us to buy things, and animated characters hocking a variety of wares.  These ads work, otherwise corporations wouldn't waste the money.

On NPR yesterday, Neil Conan was interviewing a reporter about the Susan G. Komen Foundation controversy.  His framing of the question automatically tainted the interview.

"So, [Mr. Reporter], you are opposed to abortion rights, so what is your opinion about this decision?"

Wisely, the reporter stopped Mr. Conan and clarified his position.

"Before we begin, I'd like to clarify things.  I don't define myself as "anti-abortion rights."  I believe, because of my religion, that human life begins at conception and that a human life is taken during abortion.  Therefore, I am 'anti-abortion.'"

Neil Conan tried to dismiss the criticism.

"Well, your editors will have to talk with my editors."

But the criticism of the reporter remains valid.  By defining someone as being opposed to someone else's rights, the minds of the listener have already been framed and primed toward the issue.  People who are opposed to abortion aren't mean, nasty, small-minded turds who hate women, despite some attempts to paint them that way.  Many of them consider human life to begin at conception.  If this is one's position, then it makes sense that the right to life of the unborn would be hierarchically more important than the right of the mother to terminate the pregnancy.  Given this understanding, using terms like "anti-choice" and "anti-woman" are unfair and mean spiritedly biased.

This goes both ways.  If I support the repeal of Roe v. Wade and I define those who support it as being "pro-abortion", this is an unfair label.  No decent people are "pro-abortion."  Supporters believe that abortion is a right that women should be able to exercise given difficult circumstances.  They aren't murderous lechers who hate fetuses.

Getting back to the Planned Parenthood issue, there are larger problems that haven't been addressed by either side.  First, Planned Parenthood does provide health screening services along with references to abortion providers.  If Planned Parenthood cared about providing health services to women, it could simply promise to segregate the funds received from the Susan G. Komen Foundation to be used solely for health screenings instead of being provided for abortion related services.  This would be a fair compromise.  But instead, Planned Parenthood decided to make the thing political.  This isn't surprising.  Given its history, Planned Parenthood is not neutral on the abortion issue.  Just research the history of Planned Parenthood and of its founder.  It is very much in support of Roe v. Wade.  The second issue is that women shouldn't be forced to go to charities to receive health care screenings because they don't have health insurance.  All Americans should have free and universal access to health care coverage.  The United States is the only industrialized First World nation without universal health care coverage.  No one seems to be scandalized or worried about this, although they should be.  The current health care system is the most inhumane system in the world.

The controversy here has become laden with value judgments instead of discussion of the real issues.  This is unfortunate.  It was my hope that news outlets like NPR would be less biased.  Of course I was wrong.


  1. Dennis:

    If part of your intention here is to examine the way in which framing affects the way people think about an argument, I would highlight your statement, "[n]o decent people are 'pro-abortion.'" as an example that, even in the midst of the immediate discussion, frames the issues in subjective terms of your choosing.

    If we are thinking about framing and setting the parameter for a discussion, it makes sense to understand why and how such boundaries are set, the assumptions made in setting them, and under what circumstances the assumptions and boundaries may no longer apply.

    Going back to the specific example, why do we assume a priori that the abortion debate is necessary Boolean: "You May" vs. "You May Not". A very large number of people can and do argue for the position "You Must" and it is not immediately clear that they are all indecent people.

    Consider China's One Child Policy. Does it not approach the "You Must" attitude? At the very least it sets much different standards toward what is acceptable procreation and under what circumstances abortion is proper than are typically considered for purposes of analysis of laws in the US. If the Chinese leaders are concerned with what is best in the long term for a very large group of people, can't these leaders be considered decent and reasonable people for making the argument that any single life, innocent or otherwise, may be given freely and gladly in advancement of the group?

    While reasonable people can disagree over what is an acceptable cost in lives, it's not clear to this writer that the life of a fetus is worth more or less than the life of an adolescent conscripted into military service, and people all over the world, including in China and the U.S., have overwhelmingly tolerated/endorsed (historically at least) the spending of the life of the second as an acceptable cost of national priorities. Is the One Child Policy so very different? If not, how great a leap to it is "You Must"?

    The writer submits in closing that the above arguments are made purely for analysis purposes and does not endorse the arguments made in general.

    1. The position I was making was rooted in the context of the American population system. As such, we don't have the same kinds of issues that the Chinese do. That being said, your argument does bring up the whole "does the ends justify the means" philosophical question. It is a utilitarian moral question, one which is difficult to resolve.

      Either way, it is an unfortunate reality that throughout history, old men have been sending young men off to die for their so called "glory" and to maintain their power and economic interests.

      From an evolutionary biology perspective, young men are "cheaper" in that many of them are unmarried, without children, and less reproductively essential than young women. This doesn't mean they are expendable. Nor does it make it moral to send them needlessly off to die. I think a better approach would be an overall perspective that human life is precious and should be respected and only violated when it is absolutely essential. This would place the current bar much, much higher than it already is. Considering the Reagan, Bush and Bush Jr, and Obama presidencies, our respect for the lives of soldiers is worse than China's. At least China has not been engaging in wars of aggression. On the other hand, China has a human rights record regarding incarceration that is nothing to laugh at, not to mention the censorship and crackdown on political dissidents there.