I imagine I’m not the only one on DiffEng who’s been following the strange history of the Birth or Not website, which was created by a couple named Pete and Alisha Arnold and invited internet visitors to vote on whether Alisha should abort her pregnancy. As one of the site’s taglines put it:
You can vote and choose whether we abort or keep our unborn child. For the first time, your vote on the topic of abortion can make a difference.
Leaving aside for now the misguided notion that ‘other’ votes on abortion don’t matter—such as voting for a pro-choice senator over an anti-abortion senator—what are we to make of this? Articles and interviews elsewhere on the web suggest one of two impulses behind this website: either it was a nasty stunt by Pete—who’s been outed as an anti-abortion polemicist active in right-to-life forums—that was designed to disgust people with abortion by offering them a personalized (but entirely fake) intervention; or, as Alisha states in a Nov. 24th blog post, it was the couple’s attempt to find their way out of an impasse since Alisha is pro-choice and initially disagreed with Pete over whether to terminate her pregnancy (she has since decided to have the child). Or, just possibly—a bit of both.
The vote was closed down on Nov. 28th, and as of this writing the 2 million votes registered on site (raw score: 78% for abortion, 22% against) were being analyzed for—I love this part—election fraud.
What I mainly see when I consider this story is a use of internet technology to enable something that looks new—voting on an abortion—but is actually just a sheeped-up old wolf of a problem. The central, bedrock issue in abortion is always the same: who controls the (pregnant) woman’s body? Those opposed to abortion don’t want to grapple with this easily answered question so they always try to change the debate to the much more elusive question of when an embryo can be considered ‘alive’, ‘viable’, ‘ensouled’, ‘human’, etc. Or they make claims about the woman’s inadequacy to the task of managing her own body—hence those recurrent suggestions about putting ‘crack mothers’ in jail.
Allowing a stranger on the internet to tell a woman if she can have an abortion is no different from allowing a legislator or judge or doctor to tell her this. Offloading the hard decision in any of these cases implies that the woman does not need to be in control of her own body and—worse—is perhaps even incapable of it. The Birth or Not site may have helped Alisha make her own decision (although it has blown back on her as well, if the reports that she lost her job over the website are true), but it has harmed, in a small way, every woman who has fought for this most basic right of control over her own body.
The fact is that Alisha wouldn’t even have the option of putting her decision up to a bunch of netizens if a lot of votes hadn’t been cast over a lot of time to create the current legal protections—shaky as they are—for her right to decide for or against an abortion. Those were the votes that ‘made a difference’.