Monday, April 27, 2009

Political Language, Abortion and the Middle Road

Every once in a while, it is good to remind people (there are many that come here) how powerful interest groups employ language to reflect their interests. This is an unfortunate reality, and while I have no empirical data, I do have some qualitative notions that help to pump this intuition. In the American political climate, we can just see how normal people discuss "abortion." Consider that there is no nuanced position that reflects the following two propositions: 1) Some abortions are morally justified and 2) Some reasons don't justify abortion at all. One must be either pro-life OR pro-choice. In that forced disjunction, 1) or 2) make little sense. I contend that 1) and 2) make more sense when we consider how complex the different moral situations are across cases of abortion.

At the outset, I'm not going to claim that I can solve the abortion debate. Many philosophers have engaged this problem in a variety of ways. From Mary Anne Warren, Judith Jarvis Thomson to Don Marquis have said a great deal. Moreover, I am not going to engage in popular debates (like the argument from bodily autonomy), nor propose some radical new idea in this post. That's not the point. The point of abortion is a test case for seeing how 1) or 2) are excluded.

We can take a better look at the interest of pro-life groups by understanding the term "pro-life" and "pro-choice." First, the term suggest that the opposition would be "anti-life." The term sets up that one would never want to be against life. But, that's just an oversimplification of a very complicated moral issue. Consider the opposite of pro-choice, "anti-choice." Would anyone really want to be against the ability to make choices? That also doesn't sound to fruitful. In both cases, the actual complexity of the moral issue is reduced to bumper-sticker mentality, and I've always been more attracted to a view of morality that attempts to see a moral issue in terms of the case by case basis that one might adjudicate, say, in a court room. Not all cases are identical, and for that reason, a little intellectual humility is involved in seeing in what types of cases succeed in allowing abortion, and others that fail to generate a reason for abortion.

Consider the following bumper sticker. Keeping your laws off one's body follows the idea that the positive argument for abortions stem completely from bodily autonomy. However, this idea that one can do with one's body what one may doesn't follow or make much sense. Getting an abortion isn't morally neutral like cutting one's hair and painting one's fingernails.

Consider the bumper sticker that abortion stops a beating heart. Such a sticker construes again the oversimplified notion that the impermissibility of abortion rests on the presupposition that a fetus is like you or I---a fully blown member of the moral community with a status of personhood.

In both cases, the language used conceals the philosophical complexity of two concepts central to the abortion debate: autonomy and personhood. Critical reflection moves past these, and I think I could show cases for 1) and 2) or refer back to Thomson, Warren and Marquis for how these terms get better attention in moral philosophy.

Now, one should take this case by case basis for morality without conflating morality and legality. Morality is more fundamental than the law. We don't legislate all forms of immorality. We don't make it illegal to cheat or your spouse, or lie to your neighbor. So, when I say that morality is complicated by the types of situations that engender different moral responses, we should take moral justification for what it is, and not confuse the analogy of cases with legal justification. That's not where I am going.

Let's take 1) Some abortions are morally justified. There might be several cases in which abortion is justifed prima facie. First, if a woman is raped, she has no responsibility for being the victim of a sexual offense. Typically, we do not hold victims of crime's accountable for the effects of the crime, and this is the central premise that will do the work needed to explain the sexual offense case. An insurance company would never make the claimant pay for things damaged in a fire as long as the fire was not initiated by the claimant. Secondly, if the mother's life is in danger due to pregnancy, the life of the mother trumps the life trying to enter the world. Our moral intuitions favor the health of those that are here before us, present in our lives. A husband might have to decide in favor of aborting the fetus while the wife is incapacitated during labor.

Let's take 2) Some reasons don't justify abortion at all. Let's go back to the bumper sticker about bodily autonomy. If I wanted to do with my body as I wanted, and part of this was vanity, then it is conceivable that someone might be vain about their personal appearance. If I heard someone say they didn't want to get fat, or would not look good in a skiing outfit due to pregnancy, these reasons do not support or mesh with the seriousness of abortion. In fact, we would think there is something seriously wrong with this person. Consider a second case. If a teenager said that simply out of fear, she wanted an abortion. We couldn't take fear alone as a reason to justify abortion anymore than vanity.

Moreover, the later development of a fetus provokes reactions in us that early first trimester abortions don't. We seem more permissive with first-term abortions than the complexity revealed in selective late term procedures. Clearly, the fetus has developed and the closer it gets to emerging in the world as a moral person.

To summarize up to this point, I have not proposed anything substantial about the abortion debate. Instead, I have only advanced the opinion that morality by a case to case consideration actually reflects a proper understanding of the issue. This is meant as a contrast to the over-simplified politics of abortion. My point is to show that this understanding of morality should be reflected in how it is portrayed in public debates, yet this is not the language employed. Instead, one is either for abortion in all cases, or strictly against it. However, like all either/or's in political language, it is a false dilemma. There is more going on in abortion than reflected, more options between the one's presented in the either for it or against it categories.

In some ways, I feel that politics and our culture dumb things down for our immediate consumption. News coverage, political debate and the populism of information have all contributed to a culture so bent on attaining what is needed now that the civic virtues of understanding, organizing and communicating have flown out the window. Being a philosopher leaves one with a bad taste in one's mouth as I look at the case of politics. I take my cue from Socrates that most profess knowledge they truly don't know, and every once in a while, you have to remind people that the world is more complicated philosophically than the comfort of faith, science or common-sense alone provide.

No comments: