Waldman and Saletan: Oh What A Fine Bromance!

"Two men, No Uterus" was the name given by Will
Saletan and Steve Waldman to their June 22nd mutual-admiration-society
blogging heads chat on "common ground," in what I suppose was an effort to be cute.  During the hour-plus program, they
spent as much time as possible complimenting each other’s work and as
little as possible on any real substance regarding reproductive health and choice issues.  The half-effort to be politically incorrect in the program’s title is in keeping with the general approach both men bring to these issues: In their writing, both are alternatively sensationalist, sexist,
fickle, and moralistic. They try hard to be provocative, always provoking for the sake of it, not for the purpose of advancing real issues. 

These two are so clearly in love with themselves and each other it was a bit difficult to watch the whole "diavlog."  And it is clear that the Obama Administration’s stated intention to
create "a common ground platform" on abortion has become a full employment program for both Waldman and Saletan.  So perhaps the most striking thing about the conversation was that, in the end,
they both effectively concluded that the common ground enterprise was a
"just for show" political strategy, and that the real
strategies required to reduce the need for abortion are the very prevention programs least likely to be supported by the far right.  (Revelation!)  However, they came to this conclusion through the same faux-expert uninformed arguments that characterize their columns.

During the Will-interviews-Steve format, Saletan revealed once again that there is no core philosophy or framework underlying his ever-shifting positions on choice and abortion (One day he’s pro-choice, the next he is on Hardball calling contraception the "lesser of two evils."  The day after that he calls providers "abortionists" and scolds pro-choice advocates for not recognizing the "moral implications" of abortion. On blogging heads we had the pro-choice Will Saletan.  It is sometimes hard to keep track.) 

Waldman, for his part, several times underscored what is clear from
reading his work: that he just throws things "out there" without considered thought about what might be good versus bad data, not understanding how to read evidence, and oblivious or uncaring about the effects his free-form moralistic misinformation and opinions might actually have on an already polarized debate.  Public policies affecting sexual and reproductive health issues should be based first and foremost on public health and on promoting individual rights balanced by individual responsibilities.  But as anyone living on Planet Earth knows, sex and reproduction have become the front in a war waged by ultra-conservative religious and political forces for which Waldman serves as a paid flacky.  In fact, Waldman himself stated during the program: "I have a corporate interest in injecting religion into every debate."

Reading and watching this duo is like buying the OK! magazine version of the culture wars at the grocery store; they put whatever sells on the front cover, no matter the truth or consequences.  One day the actress in question is anorexic, the next day she is too fat.  The info and the standards just keep shifting to sell the blogs.

But I still
can’t decide what is most troubling about Saletan and Waldman. 

Is it their
individual and collective smugness as they pontificate and appear to revel in being superficially controversial about an issue
so critical to women’s lives yet about which they clearly know so little
and understand less? 

Is it that in doing so they claim a public platform from which they constantly speak about women in ways that are so demeaning yet so steeped in their own self-created "aura of
expertise" that I feel I’ve been slimed by Ghostbusters?

Is it that they wring their hands about whether women recognize the moral dimensions of abortion more often than a dobi wallah wrings clothing dry in Mumbai?

Is it that neither one has a core philosophy from which they build consistent arguments, generally don’t bother with evidence and freely contradict themselves without so much as a brief acknowledgement they’ve just shifted 180 degrees?  

Or is it that they have no sense whatsoever of the history of this issue and so keep "discovering" and taking credit for suggesting strategies to reduce unintended pregnancies and by extension abortions for which pro-choice advocates have been fighting strenuously for decades?

In one of his recent columns, for example, Waldman decided as though it were news that perhaps making early abortion as accessible as possible might be a good strategy.  Gee, really?  I think I have heard that somewhere before.  And….Steve….how does that square with those "reasonable restrictions" on abortion like parental notification and waiting periods which only serve to delay the procedure until later? 

In the aftermath of the murder of Dr. Tiller, both Waldman and Saletan seemed taken aback by the fact that women seeking late abortions actually had "legitimate" reasons to do so. 
Shouldn’t respected journalists/researchers/writers have done this research themselves?  They were among those decrying women who opted for late abortions for spurious reasons (according to them of course), and so both of them helped create a public climate in which both women undergoing the excruciating decision to end a wanted pregnancy due to catastrophic fetal anomalies and the doctors who served them were made out to be the moral equivalents of Charles Manson.  Why didn’t they have a better understanding of these issues before they wrote about them?

A few highlights from their duet on Blogging Heads.

Waldman suggests that opposition to contraception and abortion are not connected, revealing a lack of nuanced understanding of the issues at stake in the debate about women’s rights to choose. He states:

What I would like to hear "on the pro-life side, what I wished I could hear was a recognition that contraception has to be part of the solution and in a way disentangling of conservatives views about contraception from their views about abortion" [because] a lot of [the pro-life’s side’s] opposition to contraception is for reasons that are philosophical, theological, not actually related to their opposition to abortion."

Say what?  You mean the right’s opposition to contraception is
"philosophical, theological," but its opposition to abortion is not? 
If the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception is not based in
its own reading of theology and philosophy than where does it come

In fact, opposition to both contraception and abortion are central to the agenda of anti-choice groups and are seamlessly connected.  If this was not the case, we wouldn’t constantly be engaged in debates about whether access to contraceptives leads to promiscuity and moral corruption and actually leads people to have more sex (oh, no!).  But Waldman and Saletan glide over the conflation by the far right of many  forms of contraception with abortion.  If the right does not oppose these methods in the same way they do abortion, why do we have to fight to ensure pharmacists will fill legal prescriptions?  Why is there a "Pill Kills" campaign; why are clinics that provide contraceptives but not abortion services also picketed? 

To his credit, Saletan this time expressed frustration with the right’s opposition to contraception.  They both then agreed to the obvious: "if you can’t get past the contraceptive thing, it really does get hard to do  common ground." Revelation number 2.

Waldman stunningly suggests that, in return for accepting contraception as part of a common ground package, the "pro-choice movement" should be willing to embrace comprehensive approaches to sex and prevention (!).

One area where I always thought…the pro-choice folks could give a little bit is…as i understand it…there is more or less a consensus that ABC is the best..most effective way of family planning, meaning birth control and abstinence teaching [together], and the pro-choice emphasis, the liberal emphasis has been on how silly abstinence-only is.  But having abstinence as an important part of family planning would seem to be somehthng that liberals ought to agree on and if they would kind of raise their voice on that that might buy a certain amount of good will with pro-life folks.

Give a little bit???   Memo to Steve: Comprehensive sex education programs were created by public health experts and the pro-choice movement and have always (always, always) included information and training on abstinence and delay of sexual intitiation for teens.  We do not need to "accept this" in return for anything because it is at the core of every comprehensive sex ed curriculum.  But the right is so determined to ensure the public debate on this is muddled, so they deliberately ignore these facts and keep talking about the "denigration of abstinence."  While Saletan did acknolwedge this tactic by the right, the fact that Waldman raised it shows how little he really knows about these issues.

On the program, however, no distinction was made about whether they were talking about encouraging abstinence and delay of sex for teens, or abstinence for everyone, including adults.  The religious right, including many commentors on RH Reality Check, wants adults to practice abstinence even within marriage, instead of "taking chances" with contraceptives.  But is it anyone’s business whether mature adults are engaged in consensual sexual relationships? It is not the job of the government nor of family planning clinics to stop adults from having sex, and it is not the job of "common ground" proposals to tell adults how to live their sex lives.   

Saletan then discovers that the pro-choice community actually supports the "pretty old-fashioned notion" that you should treat sex with respect.  Funny….the phrase "Respect Yourself" has been at the core of many pro-choice campaigns so it is no revelation that responsible sexual behavior is a pro-choice position.  Look at the body of work by Advocates for Youth, Planned Parenthood, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, for just a few examples. 

Waldman suggests we set up a Presidential commission to study the "sacredness of sex" and that the President start to talk about this as part of his platform.

What can I say?  If I want the government to tell me how and what to think about sex, then I’ll buy a plane ticket to Afghanistan and live under the original Taliban.  Americans can figure out what is sacred to them according to and within their own religious traditions.  We don’t need a Presidential commission.  Freedom of religion, remember?  

Both Saletan and Waldman engage in a long back and forth on the differences between a focus on "reducing unintended pregnancies," and by extension the demand for abortion, and "reducing the number of abortions." 

Neither of them gets it.  Reducing the number of abortions without first focusing on unintended pregnancies can only be achieved by coercive measures or through pressure that further limits women’s access to safe services.  Reducing the number of unintended pregnancies will, in the long run, reduce the number of abortions overall.  Abortion rates have in fact been declining.  But there will always be abortions and there will always be a need for safe services.  What is our goal here?  The far right wants no abortions whatsoever, the pro-choice side wants to reduce unintended pregnancies and other adverse outcomes of unprotected sex.  If we focus on the number of abortions per se, we will have no real yardstick by which to measure where we are going and when we actually get there.

But Saletan and Waldman conclude "it doesn’t matter" on which outcome the common ground proposal expected to come out of the White House focuses because "we have a pro-choice president."

News flash: The President will in the end have very little control over what happens with any common ground proposal unless the White House is dedicated to devoting considerable time and political capital to the issues once any proposal leaves the Oval Office and hits Congress.  The far right in Congress, along with increasing efforts at the state level to limit women’s access to contraceptives and safe abortion services and to confer "personhood" on fertilized eggs all threaten to severely diminish women’s access to both contraception and abortion.  Far too much emphasis is being put on an "inside the beltway" strategy in which even the parties involved don’t agree on what constitutes a "pregnancy," whether it is ok for consenting adults to have sex, and whether birth control pills are abortifacients.  The Administration has gone down the wrong path on this effort and should have focused from the beginning on strengthening prevention efforts and now even the Waldmans and Saletans recognize this.

Adoption.  This was perhaps the single most telling part of the conversation.  Two goals of the far right are to promote adoption as an alternative to abortion, and to provide "economic support" to women seeking an abortion such that they decide to keep their child.

Waldman suggests helpfully that maybe we could give women $1000.00 (do I hear $1500.00? do I hear $2000.00?) a piece to give their babies up for adoption.  They debate whether this would be enough.  Saletan raises the obvious question: Isn’t this like a government-sponsored surrogacy program?  Their discussion made it sound more to me like selling babies with the government as the broker.

And both agreed that economic supports won’t actually do much to reduce the number of women seeking abortions.  Instead, they conclude, stunningly, it really is about prevention and contraceptive availability after all but debate whether "the public" will in the end want to see "the pretty stuff," like a couple holding their newly adopted baby in a commercial in the next Presidential election.

This whole conversation confirmed my own fears.  Like I said last week: This isn’t about what women need for healthy, safe, reproductive and sexual lives; it’s not about public health or human rights; its not about the health of women or their children or their families, and it focuses on the wrong part of the process.  Even Waldman and Saletan, (who now complains about "abortion fatigue) see this as a political football game based largely on a fake play.  The real question is: Will they call the game as they see it now, or continue to provoke for the sake of provocation?

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  • amanda-marcotte

    I think what fascinates me in all the people that demand that women feel bad about abortion is this: they never once seem to acknowledge that there’s a 3rd way pregnancies end.  There’s abortion, childbirth….and miscarriage.  The fact that women aren’t instructed to fee torn up and guilty about miscarriage, even though the result is exactly the same as abortion tells you all you need to know about this one—it’s women’s agency that is so damn offensive.  That women choose sex and then choose not to punish themselves for it.  Sure, you can say miscarriages aren’t women’s fault, but if abortion is taking a life, so is miscarriage.  People who kill by accident are also torn up about it, but a lot of women who miscarry move on and no one asks them to feel bad about it.

  • amanda-marcotte

    Miscarriage is the classic device writers use to avoid forcing an inconveniently pregnant character to give birth while also not making her a "bad" person who aborts.  Which tells you 100% why abortion makes people uneasy—we don’t mind women who passively allow god or nature to decide for them, but they can’t decide for themselves.


    So, Saletan and Waldman—it’s not the uteruses so much that’s the problem.  I brought this up to my boyfriend yesterday, and he nailed it, "It’s because a couple of white dudes don’t know what it’s like to have someone brazenly wave away your basic right to bodily autonomy like that."  A world where men’s bodily autonomy was treated so carelessly is the stuff of science fiction, but when it comes to women, it’s the world we have now.

  • amanda-marcotte

    It takes a woman roughly 6,720 hours to make a baby.  I did the math, and realized that means that Waldman wants to pay women 14 to 28 cents an hour for this sacred and precious work.  At this point, it’s obvious how much this worldview is centered around the notion that bearing a child and giving it up is what you get for being a bad girl who steps out of the patriarchal prescriptions for female sexuality.  (Waldman appears not to know that married women have abortions, too.)  If you get pregnant, you get your rights stripped away and you get to work for prison wages.  Lovely!

  • invalid-0


    You’re a smart woman, but your post kind of annoys me. You attack Waldman and Saletan ALOT without any real substance to your arguments. I appreciate their work because at least they want to think outside of the box on the whole issue. Even France Kissling has gone out of the box with her latest article “Can we ever say a woman can’t choose?” (and that was a shocker to say the least). For a while, I thought you were a similar bright, creative thinker, and I still do, but most of your talking points in this article are standard far-left pro-choice stuff.

    I hope RH can acknowledge where most normal people are at on the abortion issue (for me, a normal person is somebody who doesn’t visit RH Reality or anti-abortion websites on a regular basis). It seems normal people are closer to the incoherent views espoused by Waldman and Saletan. In any case keep up the good work and I’d like to post somewhere else my thoughts on “common ground” (a term that I now have severe fatigue for) but I won’t post it here. Frankly, I’m also fatigued from thread wars on RH. Keep up the good work in your articles though, they’re at least more factual and less whiny than some of your compatriots work.

    P.S. I was flattered to be included in your previous post.

  • amanda-marcotte

    How Saletan and Waldman are thinking "outside" of the box.  They seem firmly ensconced inside the box.  Waldman also apparently is a firm believer in the anti-choice myth about women who get abortions, that they’re largely white teenagers who can adopt out without worrying too much and pretend it never happened.  The abortion rate is actually higher for women in their 20s, and a slim majority are mothers already. They’re maybe thinking outside of the reality box, in the continued, disproven assertion that pro-choicers never thought about birth control.  We are and continue to be its biggest proponents.


    I don’t see the value in having people that have the same incoherent, patriarchal, sexist views of women and sex and the general public as being in a position to educate.   People who actually understand the topic need to educate.  Maybe the NY Times could get Jodi or someone like her to do this sort of thing,  instead of someone who thinks unmarried women should be bribed to give their babies to men (and the wives they keep on  hand to do the baby-raising work) and someone who keeps insisting that he’s the first person to think of contraception as a way to prevent abortion.

  • colleen

    The folks responsible for the ‘common ground’ approach at this blog should ask the pro-choice women who still post here what we think of those efforts.
    Were ‘y’all under the mistaken impression that we all wanted to convert to Catholicism?

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • invalid-0

    Were ‘y’all under the mistaken impression that we all wanted to convert to Catholicism?

    I’m not converting. I have my own faith, uphold others right to have their own, and also uphold the right to have none at all.

  • invalid-0

    You are equating abortion and miscarriage, which is false. You say that the result of a miscarriage “is exactly the same as abortion.” While the result is the same, the cause is completely different.

    It seems to me that the definition of abortion is “the chosen termination of a pregnancy” and miscarriage is “the unchosen termination of a pregnancy,” by these definitions, your position that they are the same is clearly false.

    My reasons for choosing these definitions ought to be obvious. The only difference between abortion and miscarriages being whether or not the termination of the pregnancy was chosen. In a miscarriage, a pregnancy ends due to biological factors that occur in the woman naturally, that is, without deliberate intervention on the part of any person. Whereas in an abortion the pregnancy is ended, not by natural factors, but by the deliberate intervention of a person, be that intervention a standard abortion ranging to the beating of a pregnant women by another person (though not a clinical abortion, it none the less fits the definition given the intention to cause the abortion rather than ‘just’ assaulting to woman for some other reason).

    Thus concludes a long winded post to point out why abortion and miscarriages are two completely different things. The intention is just as crucial in a moral act as the thing being done and thus cannot be ignored.

  • invalid-0

    “The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.”

    Dr Warren Hern, MD, Bigot.

    Seriously, anyone who thinks this must be a murdering scumbag.

  • invalid-0

    The intention is just as crucial in a moral act as the thing being done and thus cannot be ignored.

    Lemme give you something to consider. The causes of miscarriage are not well understood, and theories abound. For example, there are correlations between high maternal stress levels and spontaneous abortions. Let us, for the sake of discussion, assume that correlation reflects causation here. If the unthinking body can naturally reject a pregnancy based on a woman’s stress responses, why may not the woman, with her thinking brain, reject the pregnancy, based on her own knowledge and understanding of her stressful conditions?

  • invalid-0

    First, let us note that this is not a discussion regarding the rightness or wrongness of abortion. We are discussing the definition of miscarriage vs abortion. Agreed?

    Thus I will not answer your direct question “why may not the woman … reject the pregnancy,” but I will attempt to clarify my reasoning in light of what you have brought up.

    Why I say the intention is just as crucial in a moral act is simply because a person may do a thing that is wrong (say, stealing food) but they do it for a good intention (starving family). The intention in this case mitigates, perhaps even eliminates, any moral culpability or wrongness in the holistic action.

    In the case of abortion/miscarriage, if we see that a pregnancy ends without any intentional act to end the pregnancy it is called a miscarriage (by my definition, which one is free to disagree with) and cannot have any moral culpability since there was no deliberate act on the part of the person, nor the intention to terminate the pregnancy (be it right, and thus praiseworthy, or wrong, and thus blameworthy). But when the pregnancy ends by deliberate intention then it is an abortion and since there is both a deliberate act to terminate a pregnancy and the intention to terminate the pregnancy, then the person doing the act and having the intention is morally culpable for the act (once again, regardless of its rightness or wrongness, and thus praiseworthiness or blameworthiness).

    Thus, a miscarriage is an event for which a person is not culpable where an abortion is an event for which a person is culpable.

    NB: culpable here means “at fault” for which one can be at fault for things good or bad and is not meant to have any bearing on the rightness or wrongness of abortion.

    Now to look at your direct question in the hypothetical:

    If we assume abortion is morally impermissible (for whatever reason) then why one wishes to have an abortion is irrelevant. If we take the most extreme case of rape, we still must conclude that one cannot have an abortion since abortion is universally impermissible.

    This means that one cannot be culpable for an abortion since it is universally impermissible. And since a wrong act for which one is culpable is blameworthy, abortion is a blameworthy act under the hypothetical that abortion is universally impermissible.

    It could be concluded as easily for if abortion is a particularly impermissible act, that is, wrong in certain circumstances. One simply inserts the case in which abortion is wrong into the syllogism and concludes.

  • amanda-marcotte

    The difference is whether or not a woman chose it.  Just like you said.  So clearly the opposition here is to women controlling their own fates, not to fetal death, or miscarriage would be considered a relevant point of concern and not something that anti-choicers pretty much ignore altogether. 

  • invalid-0

    Thus, a miscarriage is an event for which a person is not culpable

    I’d be careful here. As maternal science advances, correlations between miscarriages and everyday activities are being uncovered (breastfeeding, hot-tubbing, etc. If direct causation can be established, then by your lights, moral culpability becomes an issue. Sure you wanna go there?

  • invalid-0

    Actually, the medical definition for miscarriage is “spontaneous abortion.”

  • invalid-0

    “The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.”
    Dr Warren Hern, MD

    Let’s test that proposition. Given the choice between living under Taliban rule or in the US where abortion was made illegal (as it was in many places as recently as 1972), what person would be indifferent or choose to live under Taliban rule. Burkas anyone?

  • invalid-0

    If a person has a reasonable knowledge and understanding that an action may cause the termination of a pregnancy then they are culpable in as much as they understood and willed the act.

    Of course different things would lead to different levels of culpability. For example, a woman who stepped into a hot tub thinking “I want to end this pregnancy” would be far more culpable than a woman who was ignorant of the potential risks of being in a hot tub while pregnant.

    Another example could be if a woman was kidnapped and in a moving vehicle she might jump out to save her life, knowing the risks to the pregnancy. Obviously she would not be very culpable for the termination.

    Invincible ignorance, that is ignorance about subject that the person both should know, but could not have known (as opposed to culpable ignorance where a person both should know a thing and could have known it), does mitigate culpability. Of course, this is a principle and difficult to apply in the concrete without going on a case-by-case basis.

  • invalid-0

    Yes, I agree that the opposition in regards to miscarriage and abortion is based on motivation and choice. But all choices are moral (including what you ate for breakfast, should I eat Count Chocula? It will make me fat.. etc). Therefore, the opposition between miscarriage and abortion is a moral question.

    Since the opposition between a miscarriage and abortion is a moral question, we must unravel what the opposition means in regards to the object, or thing actually done. In this case, the termination of a pregnancy.

    Thus the we must determine whether it is moral to purposefully terminate a pregnancy. So the debate rests on whether or not “women controlling their own fates” via abortion is moral permissible.

    That simply boils down to whether or not abortion is morally permissible, as previously stated with conclusions.

  • invalid-0

    And what is a “spontaneous abortion” aside from an “unchosen termination of a pregnancy” (or words to that effect)?

  • invalid-0

    If a person has a reasonable knowledge and understanding that an action may cause the termination of a pregnancy then they are culpable in as much as they understood and willed the act. Of course different things would lead to different levels of culpability. For example, a woman who stepped into a hot tub thinking “I want to end this pregnancy” would be far more culpable than a woman who was ignorant of the potential risks of being in a hot tub while pregnant.

    And overturning RvW will not lead to public oversight and ownership of women’s bodies. Ohhhh noooo, that is a slippery slope argument.

  • invalid-0

    But all choices are moral (including what you ate for breakfast, should I eat Count Chocula? It will make me fat.. etc

    I suppose, if one is wildly obsessive, which I believe bis unhealthy.

  • invalid-0

    Wow, Anon…ain’t we jus’ the arbiter of discussion? Actually, I think, instead, you need to rationally distinguish between the amorality of “nature” acting in defense of a woman’s body, and the immorality of a woman acting in defense of her own body…and life…and future. What is the distinction?

  • invalid-0

    It’s quite simple actually. Nature ‘defending’ the woman’s body via miscarriage was not chosen rationally by the woman and is thus amoral. An abortion is rationally chosen by the woman and is thus moral (not speaking on rightness or wrongness).

    Also, I have not once said abortion is wrong, I have only said so in hypotheticals. I just want to see where the definition of abortion vs miscarriage leads us.