Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Looking Away in Horror


Way back during my high school days, the biology teachers shared a small office between two classrooms. There, they kept a number of old biology texts that were available to all students, but which were primarily for their own reference and mostly disregarded by the student body. One of the texts was a reprint of an early 20th century book on fetal abnormalities. The text focused on severe, mostly lethal abnormalities, and each entry was accompanied by a photograph of a stillborn baby illustrating the abnormality. Some of the pictures looked scarcely human, some looked like the babies had been the victims of torture, and a few weren't even recognizably human.

Sensitivities have changed since the original publication, which described the babies it depicted as "monsters". At the time of its publication, you might have seen babies (real or fake) with similar deformities preserved in formaldehyde and presented at "freak shows". Historically, in much of the Christian world, a child with this type of deformity who survived (or even one with far lesser deformity or genetic abnormality) might have been shuttered away from the world, their parents and siblings keeping their very existence a secret, or institutionalized.

Ross Douthat's latest essay on abortion rights is mostly a restatement of what he's said before, and a lot of people have taken issue with the points he makes. But I have yet to see this addressed:
Over the last week, there’s been an outpouring of testimonials, across the Internet, from women (and some men) who lived through these hard cases. They help explain why Tiller thought he was doing the Lord’s work, even though that work involved destroying something that we wouldn’t hesitate to call a baby if we saw it struggling for life in a hospital bed. They help explain why so many Americans defend his right to do it.
Why, then, did Douthat's Catholic forbears accept the labeling of such children as "monsters" and "grotesques"? Why did it countenance the keeping of their births and existence a secret? Why did it help perpetuate a culture of shame around having a child with a birth defect? What's its explanation for why God would create a baby, destined to struggle for life for minutes, days, weeks, or perhaps even a few excruciatingly pain-filled years, before inevitably succumbing to a congenital or genetic abnormality? A baby who might inspire somebody, not prepared to see it, to avert her eyes in horror? How is this consistent with God's infallibility? I don't mean to single out Catholicism in this regard; but that's the prism through which Douthat sees the world.

As usual, instead of stating a clear position, Douthat waffles and begs the question. Following up on the straw man proposition that the "argument for unregulated abortion rests on the idea that where there are exceptions, there cannot be a rule", Douthat proclaims,
As a matter of moral philosophy, this makes a certain sense. Either a fetus has a claim to life or it doesn’t. The circumstances of its conception and the state of its health shouldn’t enter into the equation.
It wouldn't take much courage for Douthat to state what his arguments, present and historic, suggest that he believes: That a fetus has a claim to life without regard to the circumstances of its conception and the state of its health. I'm not sure whether Douthat chooses not to do so out of some sense that he can depict himself as unbiased on these issues, or simply because he lacks courage. Instead of taking a position he lectures,
But the law is a not a philosophy seminar. It’s the place where morality meets custom, and compromise, and common sense. And it can take account of tragic situations without universalizing their lessons.
Douthat confuses law with politics. It's very simple to draft a law that says "Abortion is illegal under all circumstances" - perhaps Douthat should consult his Priest about something called "canon law". The fact is, if you deviate from the dogmatic line that abortion should be prohibited in all circumstances - whether it be to allow "abortions on women facing life-threatening complications, on women whose children would be born dead or dying, on women who had been raped, on 'women' who were really girls of 10" - you're pro-choice. The only difference between you and somebody who favors few (or even no) restrictions on access to abortion is where you choose to draw the line.

If Douthat were interested in that debate, he would spend less time building straw men or making statements so absurdly false (e.g., "Under current law, if you want to restrict abortion, post-viability procedures are the only kind you’re allowed to even regulate") that the most charitable interpretation is that they betray a level of ignorance that should disqualify him from writing on this issue.

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