Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

06/02/2009 (6:13 pm)

Abortion: Do We Really Believe? (Updated)

This is going to be long, but it’s important.

Rambo Scenarios

Recently a friend sent me what he called a dilemma for advocates favoring limited or no abortions. It was a hypothetical, designed to illustrate that advocates like me do not actually believe that the gestating human offspring in the womb is truly a human being, based on the way we might react if somebody was killing 2-year-olds. I dismissed the hypothetical as ridiculous, and the argument as meaningless.

And then, suddenly, it was current. Late-term abortionist Dr. George Tiller was murdered over the weekend by a lawless activist. Suddenly, the hypothetical my friend sent me started appearing elsewhere.

It was, for example, in Damon Linker’s question, here, at the New Republic:

But I have a question: If abortion truly is what the pro-life movement says it is — if it is the infliction of deadly violence against an innocent and defenseless human being — then doesn’t morality demand that pro-lifers act in any way they can to stop this violence? I mean, if I believed that a guy working in an office down the street was murdering innocent and defenseless human beings every day, and the governing authorities repeatedly refused to intervene on behalf of the victims, I might feel compelled to do something about it, perhaps even something unreasonable and irresponsible. Wouldn’t you?

This is the radicalizing logic of pro-life rhetoric. Which brings me to my question for pro-lifers: Who is the better, truer member of your movement? The man who murdered serial “baby killer” George Tiller? Or Robert George and other (comparative) moderates, who reject the use of violence to save the innocent?

Compelled? No. Tempted, certainly. It comes up from time to time. But none of us feel compelled.

What’s missing from his hypothetical “murdering defenseless humans” and “authorities refusing to intervene” is this: what they’re doing is perfectly legal, and authorities will intervene, with force, if we try to stop them. We’d not only forfeit our own lives and good fortune, but we’d discredit the entire movement — and we’d fail to stop abortions. So we’re very, very careful about what and how we advocate.

Then there’s this take from Slate.com’s William Saletan, which is a bit more pointed about what they’re trying to accomplish:

So is Roeder (Tiller’s murderer) getting support from the nation’s leading pro-life groups? Not a bit. They have roundly denounced the murder…

I applaud these statements. They affirm the value of life and nonviolence, two principles that should unite us. But they don’t square with what these organizations purport to espouse: a strict moral equation between the unborn and the born. If a doctor in Kansas were butchering hundreds of old or disabled people, and legal authorities failed to intervene, I doubt most members of the National Right to Life Committee would stand by waiting for “educational and legislative activities” to stop him. Somebody would use force.

The reason these pro-life groups have held their fire, both rhetorically and literally, is that they don’t really equate fetuses with old or disabled people.

There’s the motive, right there. They want us to stop arguing that gestating offspring are in the same category with disabled or old people. It’s “shut up” again, isn’t it?

And notice how he leaves out the same crucial factor that Linker left out: he says “butchering disabled people” and “legal authorities failed to intervene,” but he completely omits “the law is on their side” and “if you try to stop them by using violence, they’re going to send in the SWAT team and take you down.

Is he so completely sure that in this case, “somebody would use force?” Really? Surely the SWAT Team changes the equation somewhat, no?

In fact, somebody did use force this time, and it’s hurting us badly. Folks like Ezra Klein and Mary Mapes are using it to advocate stronger legislation protecting abortionists, and harsh legal reprisals against peaceful groups.

So, I want to discuss the hypothetical my friend sent me, which I’ll call the Shotgun Hypothetical, and why it’s wrong. Here we go:

People in the right to life camp face a pretty serious conundrum, which is illustrated by the following hypothetical. Suppose someone told you that inside a particular building, adults were grabbing two-year olds, one at a time, and killing them. Suppose further that when you asked the person, “did you call the police?” the person replied “it turns out that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all of the laws nationwide prohibiting the killing of anyone two-years old or less – what the adults are doing is perfectly legal.” Suppose that the person then picks up two shotguns, throws one to you and says, “I don’t care what the law says, I’m gonna put a stop to this. I’ll give them a chance to stop without shooting, but I’ll shoot if I have to. Are you with me?”

There’s absolutely no doubt that I’d be with him. It would be cowardly of me not to take decisive action, even if it required violence, to put a stop to the slaughter. And if anyone criticized me, which is almost unimaginable, it wouldn’t faze me in the least. Nor should it. In fact, I’d deserve severe criticism if I failed or refused to act and allowed the killing to continue. And if I had to shoot to get them to stop, so be it.


Of course you do!

…if the moral insight and the logic of its application are sound in the case of two-year olds, and you add the additional premise that fetal life at all stages shares the exact same moral status as a two year old – which is precisely what pro-lifers say they believe – then …

There’s that certainty again about what we’d do in the hypothetical. This guy astutely includes “what they’re doing is perfectly legal,” but leaves out SWAT. He counterbalances “legal” with a very strong emotional force, though, using 2-year-olds. And he doesn’t leave the decision to us, but makes it for us. “There is absolutely no doubt that I’d be with him… Agree? Of course you do!

Pardon my vulgarity, but… bullshit.

I mean, perhaps this fellow is one of those ex-mil types with weapons and SERE training, who would know how to live off the grid for the several years it would take for the manhunt to die down, like Gene Hackman’s character Brill in Enemy of the State. But that’s what it would take, and you’d only stop this one instance, not the millions going on all over the nation. The hypothetical is simply inaccurate, and the conclusion about how the ordinary person would respond, overblown. It’s Rambo movie heroism, not real life.

What we need to understand is that these folks are engaging in casuistry in an attempt to get us to back off of the claim that gestating human offspring are entitled to full rights. They’re not being careful to make clear and accurate hypotheticals; they’re omitting the crucial differentiators, either deliberately or by unthinking bias. As I said just this morning, if my argument required me to pretend that gestating offspring were not really part of the human life cycle, as theirs does, I might be tempted to a little casuistry myself.

A Real World Scenario

A more cogent hypothetical, and one much more meaningful to the current debate, is the Underground Railroad, the organized efforts in America to help slaves escape the pre-Civil-War South. There were laws against assisting fugitive slaves in all the slave states and several of the free ones, and a federal law as well, called the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Anyone caught assisting a runaway slave could be fined a huge amount and jailed for months. The issue in that instance was much like the instance here: a class of human life being treated as less than human, and not worthy of full rights. The law was on the side of the dehumanizers. And nobody behaved as today’s abortion advocates insist we must behave if we truly believe what we believe; nobody shot slave owners, even though many of them murdered their slaves, raped them, and abused them horribly. Nobody except John Brown, and he was hanged.

Megan McArdle picked up the similarity of that event a few days ago, in an article that everybody ought to read, entitled “The War on the War on Abortion.” Here’s what she said:

Imagine a future in which the moral consensus has changed, and our grandchildren regard abortion the way we regard slavery. Who will the hero of history be: Tiller, or his murderer? At the very least, they’ll be conflicted, the way we are about John Brown.

In fact, the Underground Railroad instance explains very clearly why we’re reticent to respond violently. The American Civil War lasted 5 years and cost more than 600,000 lives, not counting civilian casualties, and repercussions are still being felt almost 150 years later. It’s true that the War Between the States was not fought directly to free the slaves — it was fought to preserve the Union, in fact — but that does not mitigate the cost. This course is not to be embarked on lightly, or without being preceded by full-throated effort at change through peaceful, legal means.

The Human Norm

But the Underground Railroad and the fact that the Civil War was not fought to free the slaves both illustrate a crucial factor of this particular debate that both sides would rather we not consider; namely, how ordinary people normally respond when a group of human beings are deprived of their full human rights. The truth about it is not what we would like to think of ourselves.

History is actually replete with examples of groups being deprived of their human rights, and the ordinary response of most human beings is… nothing. In recent memory, nations are still reeling from the shame of having ignored a massive genocide in Rwanda, where the world stood by and did virtually nothing while angry Hutu mobs hacked hundreds of thousands of Tutsis to bits with machetes. Only a few decades back, the world failed to rise up and protect the Jews, who were slaughtered by the millions during Germany’s war of acquisition. And for every US citizen who participated in the Underground Railroad, there were hundreds who tut-tutted the plight of the black slaves — and then returned to their lives as usual, having done nothing at all. There were people on the continent who regarded slavery as an abomination from the first day a European ship made land in Massachusetts, but slavery lasted another 200 years here before it was abolished.

In these instances, and numerous others like them, was it the judgment of history that because people did not rise up, they did not truly believe the humans in question were fully human? Perhaps so, but how does that excuse it? The Shotgun Hypothetical may have the correct take; perhaps we are cowards, and the point of the argument is to explain to us that more action really is required. In all of the examples in the last paragraph, the difficult task was to convince enough people that they had a stake in the matter, so more of them would interrupt their ordinary lives — enough of them to make a difference.

And isn’t that the mortal sin of our generation? That too many of us are too enamored of our own comfort to look up and address the needs of others? That we can be moved to pamper and protect ourselves, but cannot be moved by human suffering?

It’s particularly difficult when the suffering object cannot be heard or seen, and goes by Latin terms reserved for clinical settings, like “fetus.” We all know 2-year-olds, and we think they’re cute; but none of us has ever seen a fetus, except in a clinical picture or a sonogram, and those look only vaguely human. They seem so alien. It’s like how we feel about The Elephant Man; if it doesn’t look human, can it really be human? This is an emotion, not an inference, but it’s real.

We need to be convinced that a central moral principle is at stake before we can be moved to action — which is what the opponents of abortion have been trying to do. Ours is the central task of any movement aiming at enfranchising some dehumanized group. We do believe they are fully human; our most crucial task is to convince everyone that they are.

Ultimately, the question regarding the fetus is not “Is it really alive?” In their hearts, everybody knows perfectly well that it is. The question is not “Is it human?” Again, in their hearts, everybody knows that it is. Rather, the central question is “What does it have to do with me?”

What we’ve discovered is that if it has any impact on limiting sexual activity we’d very much like to engage in, we’ll sacrifice our own humanity and that of 50 million others to indulge ourselves. We should all be deeply ashamed, every one of us. God will surely punish this…

He will punish all of us, even those who objected, because we did not object enough. Even those of us who understand the need for general sexual restraint face the same problem as when considering the starvation of people who live on other continents. Dispassionately, we don’t doubt they’re human, and we don’t doubt they’re suffering; but they and their world are so alien that we think “What does it have to do with me?” And we say, “What a shame, somebody ought to do something.” But we can’t be moved to action ourselves.

The folks I mentioned at the top are asking for a bad reason, but they’re asking a good question: why don’t we take more action? The correct answer may be “because we’re not human enough ourselves.” But the proper response to this knowledge is not to dehumanize even more human infants; it’s to take more of the right actions to save their lives.

UPDATE, 6/3: The Return of Scipio, a devoutly Catholic blog, linked here from an article that argues the moral justification for killing abortionists in starker terms than I do, and with less acknowledgment of the devastating impact of abandoning the rule of law. Still, his are thoughts worth thinking. The best of them is this one:

A man might shake his fist at God, demanding to know why He had not sent to earth those who might cure AIDS or cancer. God could answer with aplomb, “I did send these people, but you aborted them.” How would the man then respond?

Thanks for the link, Scip.