Monday, November 10, 2008

the final word on Douthat and Kmiec (I think)

John Schwenkler responds on abortion and the GOP.

Here's the thing: the reason why I find the pro-life position more extreme (aside from the rhetoric) is that it's long been pro-life orthodoxy that a fetus is a human being. Now, that language is explicitly stated in the Republican party platform literature. To me, the question about abortion (and it is a philosophical and moral question, not a scientific one) is whether or not a fetus is a human, and thus deserving of human rights. If the answer is yes, I could never in good conscience support abortion, outside of specific circumstances when carrying the child to term poses significant risk of killing the mother. Not even in cases of rape or incest.

I remain a staunch supporter of abortion rights, however, because I don't believe a fetus is human. I can imagine, however, a compromise position from someone who doesn't believe that a fetus is human; it seems to me much easier for someone who believes that to compromise in the direction of more limitations on abortion, than for someone who believes that a fetus is human to compromise on more permissiveness regarding abortion. I'm just profoundly unmoved by pro-choice arguments that assert the human-ness of the fetus. So it just seems to me that there is greater moral and rhetorical space for the pro-choice side to compromise given our stance on the fundamental question. In order to attract more socially-liberal voters, meanwhile, pro-life conservatives don't have to stop thinking life begins at conception. But I think they do have to stop making that a fundamental litmus test of whether someone is conservative or serious or not, which seems to me to be precisely what Douthat is doing to Kmiec. I guess compromise isn't the right word. What I'm really looking for is less constrictive definition of who sits at the table, and I think it's important to point out that there are some pro-life Democrats who hold seats of real power in the legislature.

But, you know, Schwenkler is probably right, and there just isn't much room for compromise at all here. I do think that's more of a problem for the pro-life party than the pro-choice one, however. It really seems to me that the GOP's seemingly inflexible stances on abortion, gay rights and similar plays directly into the notion of the Republican Party as a restrictive and intolerant organization. Then again, I'm pretty deep in the bubble, so I could be wrong.


John said...

Hi Freddie:

I'm not trying to say that a compromise on this issue is essentially impossible (note that the vast majority of Americans actually want a middle-ground position), but only that Roe makes it so. As for the question of whether a committed pro-lifer could legitimately support a moderate view, see my reply to your comment on my post (goodness how these things add up): basically, if it's the best we can do (for now), then I'd take it (for now).

And thanks for the discussion; you're a kick-ass interlocutor.

paul said...

The pro-choice side could certainly make many more concessions. And frankly I've come to think that the extreme pro-life position (which I hold) will never, ever, ever possibly be instituted; as you said last month, this would require like a police action stopping a woman from having an abortion, which is insane. And so even though I would argue that a fetus is a human being, I'm also perfectly willing to compromise in order to save as many lives as possible; for me, outreach and evangelization would be enough. Hence the fact that Obama has claimed that he will (via FOCA) excise the 'morality clause' and federal funding for non-abortion options is profoundly troubling, to me; it really wouldn't hurt the pro-choice side to just offer more options, to at least try to save as many fetuses as possible.

James said...

It is life, certainly. In the same way that anything from a fungus to an elephant is life. If you don't want to consider it human then I struggle to see what else you would call it, exactly.

As far as I am concerned this is just another instance of species based bigotry: despite a foetus not displaying any traits to distinguish it from so much yoke (sentience, etc) it is considered sacred owing to it being part of our species. Whereas there is nothing inherently remarkable about us, it is simply that we display some remarkable features.

Unfortunately this line of reasoning also leads to eating a retard being of ethical equivalence to devouring a pig, but then that's why I'm a vegetarian.

I suppose if our definition of "human" is specifically related to higher-level sentience, basic sapience and so on you could argue that the foetus is not human and thus fair game, but that would also lead to the brain damaged becoming steadily less human as we went into more and more severe categories of harm, and mean that any species with an overdeveloped brain could be deemed a human rather than a species mutant.

I reckon that it makes a lot more sense just to leave the bigotry behind and accept a foetus as a human being lacking the key characteristic (autonomous viability) that allows us to justify forcing a woman to keep it contained within her body via state power.

But just try convincing a Catholic of that...

John said...

In what sense is an infant outside the womb "autonomously viable", James?

JeffB said...

Abortion is one of those issues that you just can't legislate your way out of. People either need to change some minds through education or simply agree to disagree. If pro-lifers can instill in new generations of pregnant mothers (it really is their decision as mothers, not the state's) that the actual/potential life growing within them should be valued, not snuffed out, then we get the best of both worlds.... less abortions and more choice.

OTOH, I agree that it will be next to impossible to convince hardcore pro-lifers that some abortions may be for the best in some cases. This righteous intransigence does not mean they are right; it just means they are stubborn. But it also means that it will be up to pro-choice Americans to craft an eventual detente, if not the actual solution.

Matoko said...

And thanks for the discussion; you're a kick-ass interlocutor.

Nah, Freddie is a kick SASS interlocutor. ;)
Why has Ross gone all fundie on this do you think?

John said...

Why has Ross gone all fundie on this do you think?

Uhh ... because he's a Catholic who thinks abortion is an abomination?

Matoko said...

I mean, it is classic fundamentalist behavior, punishing defectors, burning the middle ground.
Not realistic.
Given that Ross is a bright and pragmatic guy, I don't get it.

Matoko said...

It has to be more than one that is at all bright can possibly believe in that hardline Life at Conception stuff....that is why prop 48 here in Colorado was such an epic fail (lol).
Life at conception criminalizes the estrogen based pill, because it causes failure to implant for a fertilized egg.
That is why Ross' defense of "the unborn" seems a little fake to me.

Matoko said...

James, a fertilized oocyte is a diploid undifferentiated cell.
Stuff like Prop 48 makes conservatives look stupid.

Matoko said...

The basic problem with any sort of restriction on abortion is that means the state owns the citizens body. That cannot happen.
So no, I don't think the left will compromise.
Why should they?
It is a generational issue, like samesex marriage.
Both issues may be culturally vaporized by the time conservatives finish their sojourn in the wilderness

John said...

Gosh matoko, you really don't have a clue ...

Matoko said...

relly? Just what am I clueless about?
about 75% of Coloradoans voting no on life at conception in the land of Focus on the Family?
Culture of Life is skull and crossbones poison for people like me.
This guy has a clue I think.
Notice, not a single mention of "the Unborn."

James said...

In what sense is an infant outside the womb "autonomously viable", James?

What I mean by viable was "Viable outside anywhere save the womb". As in, entirely dependent upon the mother/host and could not exist external to them and without their contribution. That includes life support machines, etc. Perhaps the word "autonomously" was a bit off, then? I'm not quite sure.

James, a fertilized oocyte is a diploid undifferentiated cell.
Stuff like Prop 48 makes conservatives look stupid.

O...K...I don't really see where I mentioned the legal side of things, and I certainly don't see where you received the impression that I was a conservative. Legislating against abortion is foolish and leads to huge amounts of harm to loads of people.

And I don't really see how your argument prevents a zygote/foetus from being an instance of human life. But that doesn't matter a lot to me since I seek out characteristics rather than natures when determining worth.

James said...

Hm. Perhaps that should have been "Identities" instead of "Natures".

Yes, I think so.

Anonymous said...

One element missing in this (largely male) abortion debate is the question of what happens after the child is born. The "pro-life" agenda frames itself as premised entirely on concern for the life of the child, but the fact that its concern seems to end at the time of birth undercuts its messsage. For many women, making decisions about abortion involves factors such as their ability to support the child, to continue their career, to escape from an abusive relationship. Of the 2 women I personally know to have had an abortion, both did so in relationships that became abusive, and it is 100 times harder (figure of speech, not a stat) to end such a relationship with a child. And the conservative movment tends to oppose further funding for shelters or increasing enforcement for restraining orders. It opposes subsidized child-care and extended mat leave, which makes it very hard for women to continue working, without extended families or partners to care for the child. The pro-choice rhetoric is that every child born should be wanted - the pro-life doesn't seem to care what happens after birth. It seems to me that the space for pro-life compromise is in these factors, because the question of whether a fetus is human or not is irresolvalbe. That is how abortion numbers could be reduced, and it might also undercut the perception of fundamentalist Christians trying to control or punish women's sexual choices!

Freddie said...

The "pro-life" agenda frames itself as premised entirely on concern for the life of the child, but the fact that its concern seems to end at the time of birth undercuts its messsage.

I agree completely.

Matoko said...

I don't think Ross actually believes in Life at Conception either....I think he is going fundamentalist.
I think what is left of the GOP will go fundie.
I would retitle Brooks....Fundamantalists versus Reformists
Ross' attack on Kmiec is an attempt to enforce a purer or fundamentalist doctrine.

Matoko said...

And...I haven't researched this adequately, but I think...that once a movement retreats to fundamentalism...that is a path to memetic extinction, unless the movement can reinvent itsef.

Dave Hunter said...

I think Matoko makes a lot of sense, but Freddie's way of looking at this issue leaves me perplexed.

1. I'm not really sure how a pro-choice advocate has more moral space to compromise than a pro-life advocate. The reason I'm pro-choice is that I don't think it's appropriate for any law to restrict how a woman treats her body, even if she's carrying a child. I don't think laws of that nature can be applied fairly. I think most of the incremental abortion restrictions that pro-lifers pursue are unjust and against our Constitution. Almost any political compromise I could think of would, indeed, be a violation of a deeply held principle. (Beyond funding restrictions, I guess.)

2. The best arguments for abortion rights have nothing to do with whether I think a fetus falls in whatever category you're labeling "human". I find that whole conversation to be pretty pointless, and I think pro-choice advocates are at their worst when they're explaining why a fetus isn't a "person". It's also incredibly easy for pro-life advocates to flip these types of arguments in ways that makes our side sound like wannabe eugencists and actuarial life-pricers.

My stance on abortion laws derives from my opinions on what those laws would look like and how they'd shape our society. And, in fact, I do believe a fetus is a human being, as that's scientifically accurate.

3. I'm not sure what this "compromise" would look like, anyway. The laws of this country regarding abortion rights are already pretty close to sublime, as far as I'm concerned. A compromise would involve giving things away. For what in return? The promise that everyone pro-life will keep it to themselves forever? Who am I signing this compromise pact with?

4. Pro-lifers, in fact, compromise all the time. They compromise with themselves before they even speak their mind. There's not a single person who is actually proposing that we govern according to a principle that would treat all forms of human life the same way we treat the born. Even Paul, above, concedes that this would be "insane".

To be blunt, no one actually believes that a fetus is entitled to the rights of the born. In fact, no one is able to even conceive of such a purist. I disagree that a theoretical purist would be able to countenance abortion, even, as you assert, in "specific circumstances when carrying the child to term poses significant risk of killing the mother." We don't treat the born this way, killing them to prevent "risk" to the health of another. Laws that permit "medically necessary" abortions are already creating a special category of humans with fewer rights.

What does exist in reality are people who would deny abortions to certain people in certain situations. Many of these people are simply looking for a back-door way of restricting sexuality. Some of them believe that we should be treating human life more sacredly than we do, and should preserve it where the cost of preservation would be, in their measurement, light.

A lot of these people are unclear as to what their policy proscriptions rest on, so they invented this tenet: a fetus is a human being, and should not be separately categorized as expendable. But none of them are actually capable of holding to this principle. It's not what they really believe. It's rhetorically strong. It sounds good.

However, I can hold to my principle. No laws should restrict the way a woman, even a pregnant woman, treats her body. My principle is tested by certain cases. Late-term abortions carried out for (from my perspective) frivolous reasons. Women who get pregnant on purpose because they think abortion is fun. However, I genuinely believe that both these things should be legal. I can truthfully say that I want to live in a country where the law is written in keeping with my principle.

Matoko said...

Agree, totally.
Blood-doping for example, where atheletes get pregnant and abort just for the circulatory and neurohormonal benefits of early pregnancy.

I am more concerned by Douthat's magical thinking and the right's purging of defectors and apostates.
There is no reason for the left to compromise.

DoubleCinco said...

1. I agree with the above, its not Pro-Life, its the Pro-birth movement cause after your born too bad for you if you don't have access to mainstream resources.

2. If you are (especially white) male, STFU, you are blowing out your butt, unless you are party to a pregnancy.

3. If the death of human beings is so important come out of your stubborn one-up retaliatory fight role and create/invite all to a movement that addresses most of the socioeconomic variables related to abortion. Again STFU you are wasting time and by your standards births are not happening while you try to crush your opponent.

4. This whole argument represents some unconscious piece, some fear about having security, being safe from random termination, something much deeper than is ever brought to the surface. Grant that to the pro-birthers and reassure them by working on the movement to address (most of) the causes of abortion.

SoMG said...

I disagree--the central question of abortion is NOT whether (or when) a fetus is human, or a person, or in some way inferior to already-born people.

The central question is whether the fetus (even if it is a person) is entitled to live inside another person's body, by engaging in bloodstream-to-bloodstream chemical exchange with her, and preparing to subject her to major medical/surgical trauma, all against her will.

The answer is no.

Having assisted in abortions and abortion research, I can say without doubt that fetuses are human persons and abortion is homicide. But abortion on demand is JUSTIFIABLE homicide.

JeffB said...

I've not heard of any women having abortions for fun or becoming temporarily pregnant to enhance sports performance. If these attitudes exist they are extreme outliers in the abortion debate. I think we can all generally agree that abortion is unfortunate without getting bogged down in hairsplitting (cell-splitting?) arguments about when life actually begins. But if purists on both sides dig in their heels to defend their conceptual positions rather than find practical common ground, then this major front of the culture war will re-ignite and distract us from issues that we actually can solve.

Aldous said...

I haven't read through all the comments so apologies if I'm just repeating something:

"To me, the question about abortion (and it is a philosophical and moral question, not a scientific one) is whether or not a fetus is a human, and thus deserving of human rights...
I can imagine, however, a compromise position from someone who doesn't believe that a fetus is human; it seems to me much easier for someone who believes that to compromise in the direction of more limitations on abortion, than for someone who believes that a fetus is human to compromise on more permissiveness regarding abortion."

I think this is an interesting point and if most people actually reasoned this way it might indeed open up more space for compromise. But in fact I think the question of whether a fetus is a human being is not so fundamental after all, in the sense that one's position on this is basically the result of backwards reasoning from the more pressing, relevant, and direct question of abortion. That is, one's position on the latter leads one to induce the former (anti-abortion, therefore fetuses are human; pro-choice, therefore they are not). You are entirely right in saying that this is a philosophical question not a scientific one, but of course the most morally pressing issue for people who feel ardently about abortion is abortion itself; the status of the fetus, while it seems more fundamental, is actually secondary.

Anonymous said...

One very important point missing from this analysis is that a woman very definitely is a human and has human rights, one of which is the right of dominion over her own body. Even if you were to decide that a fetus is a form of life, you still have to balance the rights of the woman with any rights the fetus may have. That is what the Supreme Court did in Roe v. Wade. The balance or compromise is that a woman has a right to terminate a pregnancy prior to viability without providing any justification to anyone, and she further has the right to terminate a pregnancy at any time if her own health is threatened by the fetus.

Matoko said...

Je refuse.
I find stuff like Ross' plea for the left to help fix the whackjob LIFE!fanatics in his party by "compromising" on Roe v Wade profoundly distasteful.
Hey, Douthat, you loved those morons when they were helping you win elections.
Fix your own damn electorate problem.
How bout chu just tell the socons that they will never win another national election unles they abandon the desire to force their religious views on other citizens?
Grow some nads, Ross.

Anonymous said...

I am pro-choice and a woman. I'm finding this male-centric conversation interesting mainly because, regardless of what any of you think, unwanted pregnancy is ultimately not ever going to be your problem. You will never experience the terror of being forced to carry an unwanted child inside you. You will never understand the disgust and fear when someone says to you, "you're a slut and a whore and this is your punishment."
In the 90s I volunteered as a clinic defender at the height of the Operation Rescue insanity. I have never seen more men (and yes, the "protesters" were almost always older white christianist men) filled with hatred and violence toward women in my life. One of my jobs was to escort patients into the clinic, and it was the only time in my life that I felt truly in danger for my own life. I was kicked, punched, spit on, shoved, tripped, and called names you wouldn't believe. As you can imagine, my sympathy for the so called "pro-life" movement is low.
This experience also put me in contact with dozens of women. Let me say to the poster who thinks that women get abortions because they're "fun,"---No woman thinks abortion is fun. Most of these women's stories were tragic and sad. Like the teenager whose parents were going to kick her out if she had a baby. Or the older man who came in with his 11 year old daughter, and it slowly dawned on us that he was the father. Or the woman with kids whose husband left her when he found out she was pregnant again. This is the reality of what pro-choice really means to these women. It means that they aren't forced by their biology or their circumstances to become mothers against their will. It is not, and should never be, a question about whether a fetus is a human or the point when life begins. It should always be this: do we want to have a government that forces women to give birth against their will?

Matoko said...

anonymous, I'm a grrl too.
And what you said is exactly right.
The doesn't own any citizen's body.
And pregnancy only happens to women....and girls.

Matoko said...

The State.
Remember the Magdalenes?
The last Magdalene Asylum in Ireland closed on September 25, 1996.

Matoko said...

Paul, John, Ross, the Culture of LIFE! is your problem.
Most americans do NOT approve of a ban on abortion.
Fix your own problem with the electorate, or let evolution of culture fix it.
Personally, I think the GOP is lurching off to the right, excommunicating and devaluing moderate voices like Kmiec, and that conservatives are are going to wind up just as politically powerful as the dodo, and just as extinct.

Patrick Dennis said...

The quality of arguement on both sides is abysmal. Pro-choice needs finally to acknowledge that the designation of a fetus as something other than "human life" is completely arbitrary. The line is man-made. If you say "human life" does not begin until birth, fine. But that's your definition, might not be the same as mine, and is in no way supported by science, for which "human life" doesn't exist as a concept. (The biologist can tell you if it's human, and if it is alive, but has no more idea what "human life" is than do you or I.) Pro-life, for its part must recognize that the surest way to fewer abortions lies in widespread knowledge and acceptance of contraception.

Tiparillo said...

Compromise and then compromise agian and then compromise again and compromise again......when does it end?

Anonymous said...

I'm with Anonymous on this. Premising the debate on whether a fetus is a human life or not completely ignores the larger context of women's lives. For women to have full equality they need to have control of their reproductive choices. I often think that the true goal of the "pro-life" movement is not protecting babies, but controlling women. And in that context, I don't see how it is easier for the pro-choice side to compromise. In fact we have already done way too much compromising.

James said...

The last anonymous makes exactly the error that has made this debate such a mess. Don't imagine that simply because you argue from a position of female autonomy that they are arguing the reverse. I see no reason not to take them at their word, unless you are some grand conspiracy theorist.

They aren't, they are saying that they cherish all human life. And I say that that's nonsense. Until you do too we aren't going to get anywhere.

Chris Cathcart said...

I think that the "pro-life" side of the argument tends to be much more inflexible and not much open to persuasion because of a faith-based approach to "reasoning." It's just held as some kind of dogmatic, unsupported certainty that a zygote is essentially human in the morally relevant ways necessary to have rights. The philosophical justifications for this are murky at best and I've very rarely been impressed by the arguments (such as they are) for it. Much of it, I think, is a psychological devotion to beings who are potentially just like us ("beings with futures like ours," to use Don Marquis's phrase). But I just don't think this cuts it, because: what about those -- namely, women who can get pregnant -- who already ARE just like us?

This gets into a whole area of justification of who ever has rights to begin with and why. In a foundational understanding of rights and why we ever have rights-talk to begin with, rights are socially-recognized protections for morally-responsible actions. Any other kinds of rights have to "piggy-back" on this fundamental basis. The burden rests squarely on those who want to ground rights for zygotes. The burden is squarely on the "pro-life" side and I've not seen anything that comes close to meeting that burden. I have more to say on this in a blog entry:

Chris Cathcart said...

Oops, I'll try again with that blog entry:

Chris Cathcart said...

This blog discussion has gotten me to write more on this subject.

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