Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Abortion Campaign: What's A Centrist to Think

Obama and McCain had a back-and-forth about abortion. A friend sent me Robert George's scathing attack on Obama as the most pro-abortion major candidate ever. Five minutes with pro-life and pro-choice websites will give you your daily quotient of hysteria - and despair.

My position on abortion, in case you need to know that before reading the rest, is that it should be safe, legal, and abhorent.

My argument today, though, is about how we tend to argue about abortion, and other controversial issues, especially in election campaigns. So let us look at a potentially important outcome of this election: the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). Obama told Planned Parenthood that signing this act, assuming it passed Congress, would be the first thing he would do as president. Robbie George, a very smart guy and fellow Swarthmorean, says this act

would create a federally guaranteed ''fundamental right'' to abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, including ... a right to abort a fully developed child in the final weeks for undefined 'health' reasons. In essence, FOCA would abolish virtually every existing state and federal limitation on abortion, including parental consent and notification laws for minors, state and federal funding restrictions on abortion, and conscience protections for pro-life citizens working in the health-care industry-protections against being forced to participate in the practice of abortion or else lose their jobs.

So, what does FOCA actually say?

It is the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability, or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.

So how do you get from what the act says to all the things that George fears? The answer to this question could be repeated dozens of times in this polarized debate, and most others: Anything the other side does not explicitly prohibit, they must favor.

The point of this kind of argument is not to illuminate the truth. The point of this kind of argument is to create polarization. The point is to eliminate all middle positions. The point is to increase fear of the other side -- by reducing all arguments to Us and The Other Side.

In a free society, you can't prohibit polarizing and fear-mongering. What a centrist can do, though, is be skeptical of any argument that says if you do not prohibit every bad possibility, you must be for evil.


Virginia said...

Today's "Slate" features a really excellent article on taking the polemic out of the abortion debate, something a Centrist can appreciate:

Gruntled said...

Thank you, Virginia. Will Saletan's Slate article is helpful, and points out a change in NARAL's approach that I had not fully appreciated.

Saletan, by the way, is also a fellow Swarthmorean.

Anonymous said...

We humans have the marvelous capacity of being inconsistent.
I remember people advocating the right to abortion-until-viability-only being adamant and indignant when it was suggested that this was an arbitrary line which would be crossed. They insisted they would never do that, and maybe they didn't do it themselves, but others, many others, certainly did.
The health-of-the-mother argument has been used to justify abortion in case of unwanted pregnancies.
Some people now justify killing a born baby with a birth defect that wasn't detected before birth, but if it was, it could have led to an abortion. If the numbers of those justifying this are still relatively small, it is very safe to assume that they will grow. When people are confronted with the case of a 22-year old mother who put her healthy newborn in a dumpster where it died, it is not obvious for all, that she has committed murder. Juries might come with the "not guilty" verdict in such cases. After all, a healthy mother would never do such a thing!
The slippery slope argument, in other words, is not as crazy or unfair as it sometimes is said to be. No, it cannot be applied to everybody. Many people will never justify acts that are the logical consequence of their viewpoint. But if there is no real logical reason for drawing a line somewhere, the slippery slope will work its devastation sooner or later.
So, FOCA's undefined health-of-the-mother argument can, and will (at least for some) mean anything, including "unwanted for whatever reason". Abortionists don't ask for a reason and simply do it it "on demand". And what is a fundamental right, really, if you cannot afford to pay? Is it crazy to assume that some will look for a case and a court to get the desired outcome of a court ordering a government agency to guarantee that right by paying for people who cannot afford it? Even though FOCA doesn't say it explicitly, it opens the door wide to such logical consequences. How can one limit a fundamental right?!

halifax said...

George's conclusion is drawn from the second clause, which protects the right to abort at any time to protect the life/health of the mother. In other essays, George and others have pointed out that the health protection clause has been used consistently by anti-life/pro-choice (I'm pro-choice in terms of the epithet) advocates to undercut any restrictions at all on abortion rights by including vague references to anxiety, psychic distress, etc. as adequate health justifications. Anti-choicers/pro-lifers have some evidence that the other side doesn’t agree with your own conception of abortion as abhorrent.

I would be delighted to see the SC overturn Roe and return the issue to the states (where it belongs under any reasonable reading of the Constitution). The result would likely be great political news for Democrats (not something that pleases me), but it would also result in a much greater amount of legitimacy for certain forms of legalized abortion because they will have actually been passed by a legislature and not mandated by the Nocturnal Council, I mean the Supreme Court.

I’m sympathetic to your position on the issue, though I think that a much more restrictive regime should be enforced which would acknowledge the moral revulsion toward abortions felt by many, especially toward late-term abortions. However, it's still a difficult position to maintain that individuals have some sort of natural right to engage in activities which society (or a significant portion thereof) finds abhorrent.

What I mean here is that we generally value rights in the abstract (e.g. free speech, free exercise, etc.), though we recognize that the rights might be abused but tolerated (e.g. hate speech, pornography, etc.). In that vein, what is the intrinsic value of the right to abort? I don’t think that there is one, nor can I find many people outside of performance artists who would even make such an argument.

If, instead of a right to abort, it is a right to control our own bodies that justifies abortion, then why can’t I create a market for body parts, organs, etc. and buy and sell my own and those of others who have given their consent? Should women be the only people who have the right to control their bodies? If so, why shouldn’t women continue to ‘own’ the aborted fetus and be allowed to sell it to stem cell researchers, et al.? I aver that neither of these are the case because most reasonable people (e.g. non-activists) think of abortion as a policy/prudential issue and not in terms of rights, either of the woman over her own body or of the fetus to life, liberty, etc.

Anonymous said...

There is no logic in your safe, legal but abhorrent argument. You claim to be a Christian but I don't see it in this case. How do you ever justify the taking of an innocent life? I can't imagine you saying that you think that murder should be safe, legal but abhorrent and to those of us who believe that abortion is intrinsically evil, that is what you are saying.

Remember, when your day of judgment comes, you will be face to face with those aborted souls and will have to answer for your words, your decisions and your votes.

I also think you are being intellectually dishonest with yourself when you say you don't see how George can draw the conclusions he has drawn. There is plenty of ambiguity in that act for a lawyer to manipulate it to fit his agenda.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the last anonymous comment. I do not see how anyone can be a Christian and support abortion. When I found out that Obama voted against the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act I knew that there was no way I could ever vote for him. I cannot believe that any Christian, especially a Catholic, could support this man.

Allowing a baby who is born alive after a late term abortion to be left to die, refusing medical assistance for the child, is an act of unbelievable monstrosity. What does it say about us as a society that we are on the verge of electing a man who thinks that this is ok (and yes, I'm aware of his contorted legal argument as to why he voted against the act -- doesn't hold water for me).

Bruce Byrne said...


Why, in your view, is abortion "abhorrent"? Do you believe that abortion is the intentional taking of innocent human life because it is unwanted (for some reason)? If not, which of those terms would you disagree with? Certainly abortion is taking life. Certainly the life that is taken is both human and innocent. Where am I wrong here?

Can you name another form of homicide that should be kept safe and legal?

Bruce Byrne

Marty said...

Question for you Gruntled:

Safe? check.
Legal? check.
Abhorrent? depends on who you ask...

The question is, how should society work to ensure that abortion is viewed as 'abhorrent'?

Cause you know, that might mean stigmatizing some people...

Gruntled said...

Illinois already had a law requiring doctors to saved partially delivered babies if possible. That is why Obama said that part of the law wasn't necessary.

As to how centrist pro-choice plan to greatly reduce abortion, see my previous post “95-10” is a Good Centrist Plan to Reduce Abortion.

Aaron X said...

Women for McCain

Anonymous said...

Aaron X,

Bring something real to the conversation. Do you think these people posting here do not know what the positions of the candidates are? Those videos aren't going to change their minds; they aren't a bunch of teenage bloggers. They've carefully thought through their positions and it would take real dialog and logic to sway them.

ceemac said...

Gruntled wrote:

The answer to this question could be repeated dozens of times in this polarized debate, and most others: Anything the other side does not explicitly prohibit, they must favor.

I'll respond:

That's a great point. It's really something to chew on. I'll try to watch for it happening in argumetns I observe. And perhaps more importantly in arguments I make.

ceemac said...


by the way

Thinking about the line "Anything the other side does not explicitly prohibit, they must favor" reminds me that there is a strand in our Reformed tribe that hold the view that if something is not explicitly permitted in scripture then it must be prohibited.

I don't know if there is a connection but I thought it intersting.

Gruntled said...

One thing I like about the Magisterial Reformation -- the main line of Lutheran and Reformed churches -- is that we a biblically serious without arguing that the "primitive church" is the only legitimate way to be a Christian.

Walter L. Taylor said...

What makes the language of FOCA so extreme and dangerous is how it appeals to abortion in any instance when it is for the "health" of the woman. This term, "health," has been defined in the widest possible sense (mental health, emotional health, etc.) so that any reason may be provided for the abortion. In effect, the "health" of the woman means anything the woman wants it to mean.

Given the fact that somewhere in the area of 45 to 54 million abortions have taken place in the USA since Roe v. Wade (a legal case buit on a lie and a fiction), I don't think that Mr. Weston can count on our culture coming to "abhor" abortions.

Given Mr. Weston's claim to be a "centrist" on the issue, I would invite him to take a true Christian "centrist" position. The Christian church, from times ancient (see the Didache), through the Reformation (check Calvin's commentaries), and up until the time that the "Me Generation" decided by decree to change it) has always taught that abortion is a horrid evil.

Incidentally, Mr. Weston, the next time that you and your fellow "centrists" begin to worry about the solvency of Social Security, ask yourselves what it would mean for the good of Social Security and our society if there were 45 to 50 million more people 35 years of age and young in the USA. That is what our present abortion culture has destroyed.

Safe, legal, and abhorant? Give me a break.

Constructive Feedback said...

Safe - Understood. This is a function of the medical establishment. No problem here. If the doctor injures you - he will face a malpractice lawsuit.

Legal - Understood. This is a function of the legal and criminal justice system. No problem here. You violate someone's ability to abort their child - you receive sanction.

Abhorrent - Here we have a problem.
If you don't mind could you explain your gray area?

WHO enforces "abhorrence"?

WHAT happens in your edition if an when the "society", who I will assume as your enforcers, loses it's "abhorrence" to this procedure?

Is there such a thing as "Too many Abortions" in a society after which this legal procedure becomes the birth control method of choice in a society that removes most prohibitions to casual sex and thus this act the primary means of abstraction of the natural consequences of their actions.

Again - thank you in advance