Monday, November 17, 2008

compromising on murder

Ross delves into my problem with abortion compromise.

In the broader sense, he's right that everyone seeks compromise to solve their pet political issues, of course. There's nothing wrong with that. I don't quite think the way he's framing it makes sense, though.

The problem with his analogy, I think, is that even people who are deeply committed to providing health care for everyone don't take that dictate to be as important as "don't murder, or let other people murder." As a matter of fact, preventing murder, it could be argued, is the number one responsibility of a civil society. Again, this is the problem with the rhetorical maximalism of the pro-life mainstream. It's not just agitation against abortion rights. Regarding abortion as plain and simple murder is a mainstream position within the pro-life cause. The phrase "holocaust of the unborn" is not some fringe affectation, and indeed would be pretty apt, if indeed abortion is murder. So, yes, I think incrementalism makes sense for health care reform in a way that doesn't make sense in preventing a holocaust. Unless, of course, you don't really think abortion is the same as murder. (The fact that so many who are pro-life are resistant to prosecuting the mother or doctor for murder suggests that may be the case.) But I imagine Ross doesn't see things that way.

In a similar vein, I don't quite understand believing both a) abortion is murder and b) let's leave it up to the states. Would even the most ardent federalist not support a national ban on murder? We famously (and at great cost) declared one limit on federalism to be the right to traffic in human lives; slavery was simply too great an evil to be up to the will of individual states. Is widespread murder not a similarly great evil?


  1. I really like what you're doing in this debate - clearing out the middle ground and forcing pro-lifers to live with the rhetoric they've adopted. I think the fact that people are exploding and dodging your obvious points are a good sign that you are are touching something that is worth hammering on.

  2. What drives me crazy with some of the pro-lifers - including Ross - is their conclusion that supporters of Roe represent some extreme position for abortion on demand, and that most people are in the "mushy middle". I support Roe absolutely - but I don't like it. I think it's a questionable case based on dubious precedent that leaves us subject to perennial panics about the composition of the Supreme Court. I think many people in the mushy middle feel the same way - they're uncomfortable with abortion as a personal choice and would prefer a more sensible legislative arrangement. It's just that if it were overturned, we wouldn't have some principled debate on abortion with room to compromise. We'd have a patchwork of laws across the country that leaves the most vulnerable of women without options. The only upside is that pro-lifers would have to grapple with the consequences of calling abortion murder - and what to do with the women who choose it. Portugal ended its criminalization of abortion because the population got really upset with the jailing of women for having abortions.

    I couldn't understand Ross' side of this discussion until I realized that for him, "compromise" means legal restrictions on abortion rights (parental consent, partial-birth etc). For me, it means policy changes that make going through with the birth a more viable option (ie, child-care, parental leave, domestic violence assistance). We're talking about entirely different things, and I think this is typical of the debate. Pro-choicers tend to support policies that will reduce the numbers of abortions so long as they do so by changing the individual woman's choice. Pro-lifers support policies that reduce the numbers of abortions by forbidding forms of abortion or requiring additional procedures.

  3. Federalism is socon speak for "we can't oppress citizens at the national level so lets fall back and oppress them in the states."

  4. Pardon, that should be, ...."we can't oppress Non-socon citizens at the national level so lets fall back and oppress them in the states."
    hehe, and the reason is......wait for it.....socons are not a majority nationally.

  5. Ponnuru made the same argument, explaining why he didn't oppose in-vitro fertilization:

    "[Pro-lifers'] principles supposedly obligate them to act in self-defeating ways... But in truth... pro-lifers are under no special obligation to be politically obtuse."

    Here's the problem with Douthat and Ponnuru's argument.

    OK, so, supposedly, the both of them have this belief that all fetuses can and should be treated as legally equal to the born.

    BUT. They're willing to make all these "compromises" because not everyone else is as pure as they are. It makes them sad, but they understand we're not in heaven yet.

    Here's my problem with that. They are so eager to compromise their absolute moral certainty. Where is the evidence that either of them actually BELIEVE that fetuses should be treated as legally equal to the born?

    My feeling is that these "compromises" that they're drawing up are, in fact, not compromises at all, but blueprints of their ideal policy.

    Douthat:"If we take O'Rourke's hypothetical on its own terms, it reads as an argument for, say, a legal regime that makes abortion available to women/girls below the age of consent - and I think I speak for many pro-lifers when I say that I would gladly entertain that sort of compromise, as part of a broader package of restrictions, if we were drawing up abortion law from scratch."

    "GLADLY". Am I the only one who thinks that this is Douthat's compromise, not with the pro-choice movement, but with the reality of life, and that even if all of us left to found our own colony on the moon, that these are the laws that he and his co-ideologues would implement?

    I'm not sure how you could read Ponnuru's work and come to any other conclusion. So to what degree do they actually believe in this supposed absolute certitude regarding the rights of a fetus that we're imputing to them?

  6. "We famously (and at great cost) declared one limit on federalism to be the right to traffic in human lives; slavery was simply too great an evil to be up to the will of individual states."

    And I would argue that Marriage Equality falls under this "too great an evil to be left up to the states" category. While I don't begrudge people their messed up stances on homosexuals (at least in theory I don't, though in practice it becomes quite difficult for me), I certainly don't feel as though non-homosexuals should be able assert their beliefs and impose them on homosexuals.

    While I understand that the pro-life person would much rather negate my ability to "kill" my child on the basis that murder is a reprehensible act, I end up viewing the "compromise" in much the same light. Since the central question to the abortion debate is about life and when it begins, if two individuals differ on the answer, each should be allowed to make a decision that agrees with that conclusion.

    In my opinion, allowing each person to come to their own difficult conclusion about the definition of life IS the compromise.

  7. If abortion is Murder, or if one believes it to be so, then using the tactics of Lincoln... jailing State Assemblies and political adversaries, engaging in total warfare against neighboring States, and then disenfranchising wide swaths of the electorate until political gains are calcified is justified. Some how I don't think so.

    There are plenty of States that engage in actual genocide. Do we have an equal responsibility to free China from itself, The Congo? Or is this just something we do for friends? When would invading Canada or Britain be justified? What sort of moral manifest destiny are you proposing?

  8. Since this is a discussion of federalism, I'm talking about states within the United States.

  9. I'd argue that before the Civil War and the subsequent fourteenth amendment the relationship between our internal States wasn't all that different than the combination of NAFTA and NATO. We were "seperate and several States". The Civil War makes as much sense to me as invading Canada.

  10. I think it's just a matter of practicality. If you had the opportunity to save some lives, wouldn't you do it, even if it required (perhaps falsely) accepting a compromise you don't believe in?

    I don't think that ardent pro-lifers will stop trying for a total national ban on abortion, regardless of what sort of compromise is made.

    From their position, any progress that's made in restricting abortion saves some lives. They know they're not going to get a national ban anytime soon, so they're willing to take what they can get.

    To continue your analogy to slavery, it wasn't necessary to allow slavery to continue in all states before outlawing it nationally--each state that discontinued slavery was a step towards the goal of total abolition.

    All this is to say that for some compromise is just a tactic--their goal remains outlawing abortions, as it should given their moral views.

    For many others, however, a compromise may simply be the acknowledgment that abolishing abortion in the United States is simply not an achievable goal, and a desire to spend their efforts on other ends.

  11. can i call you fred?

    first off, i disagree with your caricature of mainstream pro-lifers, which seems to be based on a primitive "empirical study" of the 30 second segments of anti-abortion rallies shown on the local evening news. the average pro-lifer is not standing outside of clinics holding up signs of mutilated fetuses. most of us are home with our families, or at work, or on the net surfing porn or whatever... but we're not at rallies.

    second, most pro-lifers (again, the normal ones) appreciate the fact that there can be no scientific, religious or philosophical resolution to the issue of when life begins. without certainty on that question, all you can do is balance the competing interests. pro-lifers' concern that abortion MAY be the taking of a human life outweighs the substantial burden born by the woman who would carry the fetus to term (or at least to viability). in other words, from a pro-life standpoint, a hypothetical but catastrophic outcome (death to an infant) outweighs an outcome that is tangible and substantial but less catastrophic (carrying a child). as an aside, this is why a pro-lifer can believe that abortion is appropriate in cases of rape or incest-- because the harm to the mother in carrying the child of her rapist is far greater.

    next, i feel that you've unfairly created a hobson's choice for pro-lifers: agitate against abortion in all circumstances because you believe it's murder, and you're an extremist; seek compromise by allowing states to govern themselves, and you lack the courage of your convictions.

    the reason many pro-lifers would like to see the issue addressed by the states is simply because it is the only possible outcome. how exactly WOULD you ban all abortions? first, roe would have to be overturned. good luck. roe was decided 7-2. even with roberts/alito/thomas, you're at least one vote short. second, you would need to mount a 50 state campaign to pass laws banning abortion in all instances. I think we can all agree that that would never happen. So pro-lifers do what they can to stop what they can. would you fault a firefighter for only saving one of three people in a burning building? clearly that firefighter did not save everyone, so why even bother, right?

    finally, as a question of constitutional law, matters of health, safety and welfare of citizens have historically been delegated to the states as part of their so-called "police powers." this is why many people, regardless of their stance on abortion, feel that abortion should be a matter of state law, not federal law.

  12. You can call me whatever you like. I personally have found it to be a mainstream position within the prolife movement that abortion is murder. I could be wrong about that, I dunno. But once people use that terminology, I think there are consequences that aren't really accounted for. My suspicion is that most people who are prolife don't actually think abortion is exactly the same as murder, but feel the need to continue to speak as if it is for political reasons. It's just my perception.


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