Deep Thoughts, by Tacitus:
Suffice it to say that neither pole of the American ideological mainstream has a claim to a consistent life ethic. The left at large is willing to fight for the certain humanity of the most base savage; but it can barely be stirred for the probable humanity of the innocent child. The right at large defends the unborn with admirable tenacity; but it happily slaughters those whom a judiciary (that it otherwise despises) deems unfit to live, and thereby implicitly subscribes to an ethic whereby humanity’s value is a thing earned rather than inherent. Neither position is free of grave contradiction. Neither is worthy of continuance. Neither yields coherent policy. [my emphasis]
The pretensions to philosophy notwithstanding, we’re back to the hoary old junior-high school debating line: “How can you support abortion while opposing the death penalty? Or vice versa?” And the thing is, the argument is quite silly. A concept at such a high level of abstraction obviously cannot yield convincing contradictions, because all the interesting work is in the details. (And I should note that this cuts both ways: it is perfectly easy for those who support the death penalty and the criminalization of abortion to distinguish the two: the fetus is seen as an innocent life, while those subject to the death penalty are not, and all non-anarchists and pacifists accept some use of state violence to protect society even as they presumably oppose murder. You can disagree with this analysis, but there’s nothing inherently inconsistent about holding these positions. And there’s no reason for any non-Catholic to engage in moral reasoning that starts from an abstract, homogenous conception of “life.” )
And so, of course, Tacitus’ attempt to catch supporters of reproductive rights in a contradiction is only useful as an illustration if you’re trying to explain to someone what “begging the question” means. Since pro-choicers completely reject the premise that the fetus is a “child”, there is obviously no internal contradiction in the arguments of pro-choicers who oppose the death penalty. And then, of course, there’s the bigger question: why on earth should pro-choicers accept the premise that the fetus is the moral equivalent of a “child,” when most of the people who purportedly believe it aren’t willing to apply this principle with the slightest consistency?
We saw an amusing example of this in this recent thread, when Niels Jackson went from arguing that abortion consisted of “killing babies” to arguing that the vast majority of abortions are really like killing, er, bald eagles or something. (Or cats, maybe. But not cows, because then you couldn’t bootstrap criminal sanctions from a risibly arbitrary comparison. And since bald eagles generally do not live in women’s bodies, the analogy is null in any case.) At any rate, he’s already conceded that Tacitus’ frame is wrong. But that’s just one commenter—what does that prove? So let’s see what the platform of the party that controls all 3 branches of the federal government says about it:
We must keep our pledge to the first guarantee of the Declaration of Independence. That is why we say the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and we endorse legislation to make it clear that the 14th Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. Our purpose is to have legislative and judicial protection of that right against those who perform abortions. We oppose using public revenues for abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it. We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.
We oppose abortion, but our pro-life agenda does not include punitive action against women who have an abortion. We salute those who provide alternatives to abortion and offer adoption services, and we commend Congressional Republicans for expanding assistance to adopting families and for removing racial barriers to adoption.
Consider, first of all, the radicalism of the HRA plank. Considering the fetus a “person” under 14th Amendment would require—not permit, but require—abortion to be treated as first degree murder in all 50 states. But, if you believe Tacitus’ framing of the issue, this is the only logical outcome; laws against killing “children” already exist, and presumably they should be applied. The question at hand, however, is whether any actual abortion restrictions would actually look like the Republican proposal. And the answer is: of course not. Most of the abortion bans that existed in 1973 had significantly lower penalties, and yet they were virtually never enforced against doctors who performed abortions on affluent white women. And the reasons for this are obvious: abortion laws that rigorously applied harsh penalties would be immediately repealed, because people willing to consistently apply “pro-life” principles are a vanishingly small minority. Is there any reason to believe that such laws would be different now? Obviously not—public opinion on abortion is basically the same as it was in 1973, and considerably more liberal than it was in 1963 (when weak abortion laws were largely unenforced.) So already we see the seamless web of the allegedly “pro-life” position torn by grave internal contradictions.
But wait—it gets worse. We now get to the second clause, which exempts women who initiate the decision to get an abortion entirely from criminal penalties! So, in other words, women who procure abortions are committing first-degree murder—but should not be punished. (Enshrining this principle into criminal law would certainly have interesting consequences; if you want somebody killed, just pay somebody to do it, and as far as you’re concerned it’s all nice and legal.) There are two possible explanations for this bizarre combination of policies. The first—which is the reason that abortion laws passed in the 19th century (including the Texas law struck down in Roe) applied only to doctors—is that Republicans do not consider women to be responsible rights-bearing subjects (unlike, say, the first-trimester fetus that inhabits a woman’s body.) Given the extent to which the “pro-life” position tends to come packaged with a variety of other patriarchal regulations of female sexuality, this would seem to be a significant part of the puzzle. You may remember this kind of phony male chauvinist “compassion” from some of the conservative op-eds that came out in the wake of Karla Faye Tucker and Titanic—it used to be women and children first, but then those feminists ruined everything and now a woman can be executed as if the laws should apply to them because they’re legal persons or something. (I mean, sure, women couldn’t own property or vote or practice law or anything, but I bet they’d trade that for having doors held open for them regularly anytime!) Shorter American pro-life movement: fetuses are right-bearing subjects, adult women are not. But there is a second explanation: pro-lifers sincerely believe that women who get abortions are guilty of first-degree murder, but they are willing to abandon this purely for reasons of political expedience. If this is the case, this provides yet another glaring hint that new bans on abortion would be as internally contradictory and inequitably enforced as the old ones, and that the rhetoric of most “pro-lifers” about fetuses being “children” is not to be taken seriously.
And, of course, there are additional examples of pro-lifers being unwilling to apply their own first premises logically. Jill recently noted that the Netherlands has a much lower abortion rate than the United States. This is generally true of most liberal democracies with access to abortion; the U.S. is a distinct outlier when it comes to abortion rates. Even Canada, where abortion is both unregulated and state funded, has lower abortion rates. And the reasons for this are obvious: certain policies, like providing access to contraception, rational and scientifically accurate sex education, and subsidized child care, have the predictable effect of lowering abortion rates. (Not surprisingly, women who are aware of and have access to contraception generally prefer to use it rather than getting abortions.) Given that doctors performed large numbers of abortions even when the practice was formally illegal, one might think that “pro-lifers” would be interested in such policies. But, of course, they aren’t; there are individual exceptions, but for the most part Republican “pro-lifers” are much less likely to support such policies. Because, after all, policies that allow women to make sexual choices that conservatives disapprove of are the real enemy. Among the most odious recent example of this is conservative opposition to HPV vaccinations. (Death before unmarried sex—very “pro-life.”) People who oppose rational sex. ed. are, in fact, so powerful within the Republican party that they can force the physician who is the Republican leader in the Senate to pretend on national television that AIDS might be spread through tears and compel the government to put lies about the effectiveness of condoms on government websites. Whatever their subjective motivations are, we know that given a stark choice between protecting fetal life and maintaining reactionary and patriarchal conceptions of sexuality, most “pro-lifers” will choose the latter. Which leads us right back to the original point: if you don’t apply your own first premises logically, why should someone who rejects your first premises do so?
The positions of the vast majority of the American pro-life movement with respect to abortion, far from representing a coherent set of principles that may be used to evaluate other conservative policies and criticize the allegedly unprincipled positions of those who support reproductive freedom, are in fact a dog’s breakfast of illogic and staggeringly atavistic conceptions of gender roles and sexuality. Before he starts asserting that liberals have inconsistent positions about “life” because the fetus is an “innocent child,” Tacitus should start trying to convince the people who allegedly believe it first.