Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Abortion: The jury is in

I've been following the Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor over the last several days. Her confirmation, as admitted by Republicans, is almost a certainty. It's difficult to argue against her qualifications, so all that's left is an attack on her opinions, which may or may not reflect her judgment.

Today, The New York Times reports that Republican senators are pressing her to speak about her stance on abortion and all the legal precedent surround Roe vs. Wade. This move is idiotic for three reasons.

First, Sotomayor gains nothing from taking a stance one way or the other, so she won't. Republicans know this, and so does everybody else, so go ahead and pander to your constituents, but let's just all acknowledge that it's grandstanding and move on.

Second -- and this one might be my own crackpot theory -- Republicans could give a fuck about making abortion illegal. Overturning Roe vs. Wade just sends the issues to the states, and it's virtually a guarantee that abortion will be legal somewhere in America if the legal precedent is changed. While this move might help local politicians grab single issue voters (and if you are one, please kill yourself, or at least stop voting), it does nothing for pro-life politicians on Capitol Hill. Gaining votes on the promise to abolish abortion is a much simpler -- and a much more renewable -- path to campaign success that actually changing the law. There's too much political capital to be gained in preserving the status quo.

Third, given my strong belief that the status quo will remain, I don't think Roe vs. Wade is going anywhere, and rightfully so. In a country founded on the principals of freedom, it seems counter productive to take certain freedoms away. If one disagrees with the practice of abortion, there are ways to limit it without taking painfully slow legal action -- like moving beyond abstinence-only education for instance. Yes, somewhere along the line adventurous teens make mistakes and shack up with a drifter with a motorcycle (for me it was Bob, but to be fair, prison is a lonely place), so let latex be your savior and prevent the "problem" before it starts.

Perhaps more importantly, the existence of abortion as allocated by Roe vs. Wade is part of our social contract, and it creates a point where we have to address incongruities within our sanctity of life arguments. My stance here is utilitarian and somewhat abstract, so I tend to agree with thinkers like Peter Singer.

According to Singer, not all life is equal, nor should it be. Voluntary euthanasia, abortion, and perhaps even infanticide are justifiable in certain circumstances as acceptable utilitarian reactions in the world in which we actually live, not the world in which we hope to. This means reframing the abortion debate completely.

Logically, there is no significant dividing line between the fetus and the newborn infant. "The location of the being," says Singer, "-- inside or outside of the womb -- should not make that much difference to the wrongness of killing it." Singer doesn't argue this as a victory for conservatives, for he believes infanticide could be justifiable in certain cases since the fetus/baby distinction is so poor. (I won't attempt to explain this argument in full here. It is complicated an typically misunderstood, but if you are interested in further reading, I highly recommend his book, Writings on an Ethical Life.)

Furthermore, given the fact that a fetus or an infant is essentially a blank slate, there are valid arguments for bettering the lives of those involved in killing decisions by invoking ideas of replacement value. "A woman may plan to have two children," says Singer. "If one dies while she is of childbearing age, she may conceive another in its place. Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child and then gives birth to a hemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. It is also plausible to suppose that the prospects of a happy life are better for a normal child that for a hemophiliac."

I'm aware that this is an emotionally cold stance, but I appreciate Singer's ability to jar one's standard way of thinking and force his reader to approach difficult issues from a new vantage point.

If, according to the sanctity of life argument, all life is equal, why should it matter if one aborts a child now and gives birth to one at a later date? Assuming the woman wishes to have only one child, the end result is the same either way. The only change is timing. Is this wrong? I honestly don't know, but it is worth consideration.

And while I disagree with Senator Coburn on many issues, he raised an interesting point about our societal approach toward abortion during the hearings:

At another point, Mr. Coburn observed that "we now record fetal heartbeats at 14 days post-conception. We record fetal brainwaves at 39 days post-conception."

"And I don’t expect you to answer this, but I do expect you to pay attention to it as you contemplate these big issues," Mr. Coburn continued. "We have this schizophrenic rule of the law where we have defined death as the absence of those, but we refuse to define life as the presence of those."

I would argue that lacking those characteristics mark death, but having them is necessary but not sufficient to mark life. But he is right to urge for a clearer understanding of what constitutes life or death. My opinion though, is that we move forward from a framework in which Roe vs. Wade is intact, because I don't see us backtracking.

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