Let me first say this: I like The Daily Show. I like Jon Stewart. The show is usually wildly entertaining, and Stewart’s comedic critiques of Congress and the mainstream media alike are a great way to unwind in the evenings.
It’s also a great way to pass the time while doing my cardio workouts at the gym. I’d say I have an episode of The Daily Show playing on my iPod for 90% of the time I’m on the elliptical machines. Episodes that are more political add an additional advantage to my workout: the more frustrated I get, the faster I go. So when deciding which episode to watch last Friday, I figured I’d go for June 18 with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee was Stewart’s guest last December, their conversation revolving around the issue of same-sex marriage. This time around, Stewart declared, he was going to let the former governor pick the topic. The topic? Abortion.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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I was nervous from the start. After all, Huckabee is a seasoned expert at arguing the so-called "pro-life" side of this issue, and I don’t think Stewart is a worthy opponent. Still, I had to watch.
The interview started generically enough, Stewart taking the obvious "her body, her choice" side against Huckabee’s "sanctity of life" talking points. While it irked me that Stewart was letting Huckabee take the point on the "fact" that even pro-choice people think abortion is a "necessary evil," he did offer some decent (albeit concessionary) counter-arguments. But I got the sense from the get go that Stewart was not at all well equipped with, well, the facts.
Ironically enough, the anti-evolution, anti-medical science former governor invoked biology to make his main point:
I believe life begins at conception, when 23 chromosomes from a male and 23 from a female create a unique DNA schedule that has never existed before, has an imprint that is unlike any that has ever been … Biologically and scientifically, it is irrefutable that that’s when life begins. Now, some would argue is it human life? But what else can it be? It’s not a dolphin, it’s not a stalk of broccoli, I mean it has to be human life because of the cellular structure that’s happened.
I was just short of yelling at my iPod, screaming at Stewart to refute his so-called "scientific facts" right there on the air. But he didn’t. He changed the subject back to generic, loosely-woven arguments about sovereignty that, while important to highlight as a cornerstone of pro-choice rhetoric, allowed Huckabee to get away with making some very powerful yet very inaccurate arguments against abortion.
For one, Huckabee is arguing that "life" begins before a woman is even pregnant. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, "a pregnancy is considered to be established only after implantation is complete." Implantation is the process by which a fertilized egg (zygote) has traveled back down the fallopian tubes and implanted on the wall of the uterus, which can take up to five days after "conception." From the same ACOG statement: "Between one-third and one-half of all fertilized eggs never fully implant." Are we to assume, then, that a woman who is having sexual intercourse without contraception should be mourning for lost lives between one-third and one-half of the time she’s sexually active? The antis often come back with the argument that it should be "God’s decision" to decide which implant and which don’t, but by that argument we should halt all medical interventions to cure viruses and cancers: after all, shouldn’t we just "leave it up to God" to decide who survives and who doesn’t?
The interview became increasingly infuriating as Stewart and Huckabee began bridging "common ground" with one another. Agreeing (on very different levels) that there are too many abortions in the U.S., the abortion reduction agenda began rearing its ugly head. Stewart proclaimed himself "not one of those people who thinks [abortion] should be completely unregulated," letting Huckabee get the upper-hand at defining abortion as an intrinsically evil procedure, not to mention contradicting his own "sovereignty" argument by suggesting *some* pregnant women need regulation. Yes, those of us on the pro-choice side want fewer abortions, but it’s not because we hate that so many "lives" are "ended" every year. We want fewer abortions because abortion is an expensive, no-fun medical procedure, something we should avoid not because the procedure is bad or wrong, but because prevention is, well, easier. In the words of Melanie Zurek and Courtney B. Jackson of the Abortion Access Project:
Critics of the abortion reduction paradigm (at least within the pro-choice community, including Jacobson), point out shortcomings of this approach: the persistent focus on the fetus and abortion instead of women and women’s health and autonomy, the anti-contraception agenda of many in the anti-abortion community, and the fact that not all abortions are the consequence of a failure to prevent unintended pregnancy but instead result from unforeseeable, unpreventable circumstances often relating to the pregnant woman’s health.
The soundbites on abortion reduction are rarely qualified with such complex considerations, and this allows anti-choicers to define the whats and the whys of the procedure at large.
While I do wish I’d been there to refute the more complicated aspects of Huckabee’s arguments, I was indeed happy to hear "the A word" discussed in-depth on a popular national TV program. And while I think Stewart caved to Huckabee’s arguments more than we’d have liked, I believe pro-choice viewers were able to shape their own refutations of Huckabee’s unrealistic views on reproductive issues, refutations that will become very important as abortion once again becomes a widely-debated issue in our society. Progress cannot be charted any other way, and we need to be the ones to define the terms by which we think about abortion, contraception, sex education, autonomy, etc. As Stewart argued in his most prolific moment in the entire interview, confronted with the recent poll that suggested most Americans consider themselves "pro-life":
[The abortion issue] gets inflammatory with the idea that people who think women should have control over their own reproductive decisions aren’t ‘pro-life.’ It is at its core such a fundamentally inflammatory way to frame the discussion that we’ve already lost in some respects.