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Learning To Flinch

[ 3 ] September 11, 2006 |

Speaking of degenerative projects, in responding to Jon Rauch’s point that in The Party of Death he flinches at the implications of his underlying philosophical premises, Ramesh Ponnuru says:

Second: It’s not as though Rauch welcomes my efforts to find a middle ground. If I say, for example, that I think abortion should generally be prohibited but women who seek it should not be jailed, Rauch doesn’t praise my moderation. He says I’m being inconsistent and ducking the issues. His whole line of argument — and in this he is very typical of sophisticated pro-choice writers — is designed to push pro-lifers such as me toward a more extreme position.

A few points:

  • I would no more praise someone’s “moderation” in believing that women shouldn’t be punished for taking a life than I would praise someone for wanting laws against infanticide repealed. I’ve already been through this at length, but Ponnuru’s position here is simply indefensible. We can argue about differential punishments, etc.–not every state punishes murder in the same way–but to hold that getting an abortion is akin to murder when justifying criminalization but less serious than jaywalking when it comes time to apply criminal sanctions is to fatally undermine the justification. Exempting women from legal sanctions isn’t a compromise of pro-life principles; it’s a repudiation of them. And while I don’t think that this is true of Ponnuru specifically–indeed, I have little doubt that he would happily lock women who get abortions up and throw away the key if it were viable–it also can’t be avoided that the exemption of women from punishment has its roots in sexist conceptions of women as passive victims who aren’t quite moral agents.
  • Another problem is that Ponnuru’s pragmatism doesn’t go far enough. If we can compromise to this extent to tailor policies to political reality, don’t we need to consider the effectiveness of laws? And if we do, we will find that criminalization is a largely ineffective and grossly inequitable way of reducing abortion rates. A society in which women can’t spend a day in jail for getting an abortion (which also means that increasingly viable forms of self-abortion couldn’t be punished at all) is not a society in which abortion laws can be effective even if their ends were desirable.
  • It is true, in a sense, that I am trying to push Ponnuru to more “extreme” positions. This is for the simple reason that given the choice between an even minimally consistent pro-life legal framework and a pro-choice legal framework, I am unshakably convinced that the public would support the latter. As Ponnuru half-concedes earlier in his reply, what seems to be a fairly robust pro-life minority is largely artificial; once abortion bans become halfway rational support for them craters, and non-arbitrary enforcement would reduce this support to LaRouchian levels. The fact that intelligent and principled pro-lifers aren’t willing to support laws that are logically consistent with their premises makes it clear that they understand this too.
  • And, of course, given that most people are not willing to act in a way that is even minimally consistent that terminating a pregnancy is like killing a child, the pro-choice position is the correct one. In a free society, leaving the choice to individual women–which does not compel anyone morally opposed to abortion to obtain one–makes far more sense than enacting irrational regulations that accomplish nothing but to force the most disadvantaged women to obtain abortions that, on balance, will be much less safe. On issues such as abortion, where moral positions are simply incommensurable and fundamental liberties are involved, splitting the difference is not laudable.

…since this seems to be coming up a lot in comments, in re: the effectiveness of criminalization, note that Latin American countries where abortion is illegal have far higher abortion rates than liberal democracies where abortion is legal (and in most cases state-funded.) While I’m sure abortion bans have a net negative effect on abortion rates, 1)many other factors are more important, and 2)doctors perform large numbers of abortions under any legal regime. Again, the question about banning abortion is not whether abortions will be effectively banned, but whether poor women will be able to get safe ones.