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Does Anyone Really Think That?

Digby raises a good point about the "culture of life" crowd, namely that while certain elements of their doctrine certainly do seem to have a very broad appeal, almost nobody appears to really buy the whole thing. Ronald Dworkin wrote a worthwhile article years ago questioning whether anybody genuinely believes that "abortion is murder" pointing out that pretty much no one seems to think that a woman who procures an illegal abortion (after the ban comes in, of course) should really be treated the way we treat people convicted of pre-meditated murder of a child. I mean, probably somebody thinks we should do that, but it's not a large group of people. Similarly, in the pre-Roe era there wasn't a great deal of legal effort going in to dealing out harsh penalties to women who went abroad to have abortions performed, although clearly under pro-life moral theory it doesn't suddenly stop being murder just because you got on a bus to Toronto to have the procedure performed.

And then there's Digby's example of stem cells. By whatever moral reasoning you get to the conclusion that federal funding of stem cell research is wrong, then surely stem cell research -- and fertility clinics -- should be banned, not just the funding. Last buy by no means least, the "culture of life" entails, of course, an absolute rejection of the death penalty. Not only am I unaware of conservative politicians who hold this view, but I actually think it's a pretty silly (if some 100 percent reliable culpability-assessment mechanism were available and could be deployed fairly, I'd see no reason not to execute the people it discovered to be really, really culpable) thing for anyone who's not also going to be a blanket pacifist to endorse.

March 28, 2005 | Permalink

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Aw, man. There was a big debate about this in comments to your last abortion post. http://yglesias.typepad.com/matthew/2005/03/the_elusive_mid.html

Without trying to kick off a repeat performance, I'll just make one point. It does seem clear that pro-lifers don't think a woman who has an abortion is guilty of murder. But it really does not follow -- not at all -- that they don't think a fetus is really a person in the morally relevant sense.

Posted by: Chris | Mar 28, 2005 1:53:58 AM

Semi-OT, but I recently changed my mind on the death penalty, from pro-in-theory to anti. Before, I believed in the Islamic doctrine, that after the murderer had been found guilty of 1st-degree murder, it was up to the family (ies) of the victim to decide whether or not to execute him. What changed my mind is the realization that we are better off when there is a semi-clear bright line that separates the good guys from the bad guys: that the good guys hate killing, and don't kill unless it is necessary, and the good guys don't kill in cold blood. When the good guys execute people, then the firm commandment "Don't kill in cold blood" changes to "Don't kill in cold blood without justification"

Because human beings are so good at rationalizing and manufacturing justifications for their preferred actions, I think this is dangerous, and that's why I think we'd be better off without the death penalty. And yes, this includes Osama & Saddam, if they were captured alive. Though obviously you'd want the conditions of captivity to be as spartan as possible.

Just because the people who use the phrase "culture of life" don't consistently believe in it themselves doesn't necessarily mean it's a false ideal with no value.

Posted by: roublen vesseau | Mar 28, 2005 2:22:24 AM

"Similarly, in the pre-Roe era there wasn't a great deal of legal effort going in to dealing out harsh penalties to women who went abroad to have abortions performed."

Its much more than that; abortion laws were systmetacally unenforced on abortions performed in state, so long as doctors didn't advertise and didn't perform them on the wrong people. The tiny minoirty of sincere, consistent "pro-lifers" have never had enough power to get laws enforced even on in-state abortions, let alone those taking place across state or international boundaries. Unless someone can some up with an argument about why the fetuses of wealthy white women aren't human life but those of poor women all, the way abortion laws were enforced makes it clear that almost nobody really believes the only plausible justification for abortion laws.

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Mar 28, 2005 2:29:22 AM

"If some 100 percent reliable culpability-assessment mechanism were available and could be deployed fairly, I'd see no reason not to execute the people it discovered to be really, really culpable."

I've long thought that this was the decisive objection to the death penalty: if you inflict it often enough to get the desired detterence effects, you're bound to execute an innocent person sooner or later (see Illinois.) I never thought that this was the *only* objection, though.

Also, while there may not be any prominent pro-life politicians who are also anti death penalty, there are a few prominent pro-life commentators. I think George Will had a conversion experience a few years ago.

Posted by: Julian | Mar 28, 2005 2:48:48 AM

Tim Kaine is a true pro-lifer. I believe Mark Hatfield was too. They opposed abortion and the death penalty.

Posted by: Elrod | Mar 28, 2005 2:52:58 AM

I consider it bad style to put a three-line parenthesis between an adjective and the noun it modifies.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Mar 28, 2005 4:39:53 AM

Mr. Rat:

It's beyond mere bad style. I had to re-scan that sentence three times to figure out what the hell it meant. My eye kept skipping the elusive "thing" after the end parens.

Posted by: Barry Freed | Mar 28, 2005 7:41:00 AM

Its much more than that; abortion laws were systmetacally unenforced on abortions performed in state, so long as doctors didn't advertise and didn't perform them on the wrong people.

It was even more hypocritical than that pre-Roe. Pre-Roe, wealthier women (i.e., women from wealthier families) could get abortions in hospitals. They weren't recorded as being abortions, but that was what they were. Women from poorer families, if they could get abortions at all, were relegated to--let's just say--less sanitary environments for their abortions.

Posted by: raj | Mar 28, 2005 7:46:16 AM

I don’t think it is disingenuous to want abortion to be illegal but not want the penalty to be the same as murder of a fully developed adult.

A well reasoned pro-choice argument could be made that it should not be illegal for a mother to kill her new born infant since (if you do not have religious beliefs) the new born is no more “human” than a chimpanzee, only a potential human life. Such killing is illegal, but I think if you look at cases where mothers throw their newborns in the trash, they are not punished nearly as severely as someone who commits premeditated murder of a fully developed adult.

Is it disingenuous to think that killing ones new born should be illegal, yet not want to throw mothers who do so into prison for life or give them the death penalty? I don’t think so.

Posted by: Robert Brown | Mar 28, 2005 8:03:50 AM

First, do not try to reason out the full extent anything you hear from the right. It is short sighted and may actually be a reaction to our fast changing world.

And second, opinions on behavior by many on the right apply to other people and not themselves. The hallmark of their belief in righteous behavior is that it applies to other people.

These are two big mistakes (among others) the liberals make in dealing with conservatives. Conservatives do not behave as they moralize; they do not practice what they preach.

If you fight fair – you’ll loose.

Posted by: scou29c | Mar 28, 2005 8:26:37 AM

My anti-death penalty stance is, for me, an oddly libertarian one. I think it's a bad idea for a variety of reasons to give the state the right to kill its own citizens.

Posted by: Atrios | Mar 28, 2005 8:33:41 AM

...clearly under pro-life moral theory it doesn't suddenly stop being murder just because you got on a bus to Toronto to have the procedure performed.

Which is exactly where pro-life (and every other) moral theory carries zero weight. Ordinary murder is defined by law, not by moral theory, and law has jurisdiction. So let's do remember this, please--it's very important to keep these things clearly separated, even if the mush in pro-lifers' heads prevents them from doing the same.

Posted by: some guy | Mar 28, 2005 8:37:33 AM

As Peter Singer notes, scientists believe that for every child born, 1-4 fertilized eggs fail to attach to the uterus and are lost in menstruation.

Are we to think of this as an ongoing holocaust that requires government intervention?

Posted by: David | Mar 28, 2005 9:01:13 AM

As Peter Singer notes, scientists believe that for every child born, 1-4 fertilized eggs fail to attach to the uterus and are lost in menstruation.


Are we to think of this as an ongoing holocaust that requires government intervention?

Let me be the first to say: Never again!

Posted by: Barry Freed | Mar 28, 2005 9:03:32 AM

Under pro-life moral theory it doesn't suddenly stop being murder just because you got on a bus to Toronto to have the procedure performed.

But under the law, that's exactly what happens. Anybody who rejects this fact ultimately rejects the validity of the rule of law entirely:

Say I grow up in a jurisdiction that bumps murder down to manslaughter in the event of Extreme Emotional Disturbance. While out of town, I become extremely emotionally disturbed and kill someone. Is the legal system in Jurisdiction 2 going to adopt the assessment of culpability that the God-fearing yokels of Jurisdiction 1 accepts? Hellz, no.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Mar 28, 2005 9:19:17 AM

There are probably a few genuinely pro-life people -- anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, pacifists -- but not many.

Almost everyone feels squeamish about abortion. That's one of the reasons why most pro-choice people are also very much in favor of making sure everyone understands and has access to birth control.

On the other hand, most anti-abortion people don't seem very enthusiastic (to put it mildly) about birth control.

This isn't really a conundrum. Anti-abortion beliefs aren't about life, they're about sexual anxiety especially as it relates to women. Sex is sinful, only slightly mitigated by its procreative function in sanctioned settings, i.e., marriage. Being forced to carry a pregnancy to term out of wedlock is the proper wages of sin.

Being against stem cell research is window dressing, with the advantage that it has a separate hysteria associated with it, i.e., "life is the province of G-d, not man" -- the kind of thing that makes people upset about cloning and genetic engineering. The confusion of these hysterias however is useful to its window-dressing function. Hence also the lack of concern about IVF. I haven't seen any studies but I imagine that people who are against abortion are also against gay marriage and have anti-homosexual opinions generally. Decisions to allow vegetative people to die are also fraught, but again I think the natural emotion surrounding this has a somewhat distinct cause (although again the confusion is useful). Religious notions of "soul" no doubt enter into this as well.

I know this is not a novel analysis. I suppose it's worth taking "culture of life" claims at face value at one level, in order to argue with them. But we shouldn't waste too much time on it -- the real issues lie elsewhere and moral and political progress both require that we address those real issues, not the window dressing.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Mar 28, 2005 9:26:03 AM

"I'd see no reason not to execute the people it discovered to be really, really culpable"

Glad to see you've thoroughly thought through the issue & provided a telling rejoinder to those who think otherwise.

Ah, Matt sees no reason not to fry 'em...b/c he says so.

Very well-reasoned.

Nothing like the glory of the State killing its own citizens. Nothing like a firm religious belief that ultimate Judgment is not to be had by mere humans. That martyr-dom is precisely what some would want (should we really fry Osama if we caught him? Wouldn't that spawn even more recruits? What if we kept him alive in a jail, displaying our humanity & respect for the rule of law to the entire world--see Muslims, we are NOT out to get & kill all of you, we are a nation of civilized people who abide by rules). etc

I thought about this for precisely 5 minutes...

Posted by: J | Mar 28, 2005 9:36:22 AM

Really, Matt? Not only
if some 100 percent reliable culpability-assessment mechanism were available and could be deployed fairly, I'd see no reason not to execute the people it discovered to be really, really culpable
but even
I actually think it's a pretty silly thing for anyone who's not also going to be a blanket pacifist to endorse.
? Only a silly person or an extreme pacifist could reasonably think your proposed 100%-confidence death penalty was a bad thing?
Phil Ochs once sang, in re: a convicted - and culpable - murderer who later repented and wrote a novel, "Paul Crump is alive today, he's sittin' in his cell, he's got something to say; every man has got something to give, and if a man can change, then a man should live."
Something to consider, I think. Do you really think the world's better off without Karla Faye Tucker? Without every person who killed someone when they were 18 or 19, but became a truly different person after years in prison? I don't, and I'm not an extreme pacifist.

Or by really, really culpable did you mean "a mass murderer or serial killer"?

Posted by: The Navigator | Mar 28, 2005 9:44:15 AM

Re: Ronald Dworkin wrote a worthwhile article years ago questioning whether anybody genuinely believes that "abortion is murder" pointing out that pretty much no one seems to think that a woman who procures an illegal abortion (after the ban comes in, of course) should really be treated the way we treat people convicted of pre-meditated murder of a child.

There is a weird disconnect on this in the pro-Life movement. Almost no one seem to think that a woman who has an abortion is morally culpable, at least not to the same extent that the physician who performs the abortion is. It’s almost as if the pro-life folks think that doctors are sending out thugs to dragoon women into abortion clinics and aborting their children against their will. I have never yet seen any pro-Lifer argue for any severe form of punishment for the woman, just for the doctor. Either there’s a degree of political cynicism involved—the pro-Life folks fear that the public would never tolerate severe punishment for the woman if abortion is made illegal. Or perhaps they think that women are non compos mentis and cannot be held responsible. Or somehow they just cannot wrap their minds around the idea that a woman might not want to have the child she is pregnant with.

Re: Similarly, in the pre-Roe era there wasn't a great deal of legal effort going in to dealing out harsh penalties to women who went abroad to have abortions performed, although clearly under pro-life moral theory it doesn't suddenly stop being murder just because you got on a bus to Toronto to have the procedure performed.

This is a good deal less mysterious. Under the ancient principle (valid in both Roman and English law) of “sine lege, nulle crimen” (No law, no crime) you can’t prosecute someone for committing a crime in a jusrisdiction, or at a time, when there was/is no law against the act. For example prostitution is legal in parts of Nevada. A citizen of Utah who visits a whore house in one of those Nevada counties cannot be prosecuted for it when he returns to Utah since Utah law cannot apply outisde Utah’s jurisdiction. So yes, from a legal POV, abortion does indeed stop being murder when and where there is no law aganst it.

Posted by: Jonf | Mar 28, 2005 9:50:56 AM

"I actually think it's a pretty silly ... thing for anyone who's not also going to be a blanket pacifist to endorse."
In that you differ from the vast majority of the industrialized world outside the US, who find the death penalty barbaric and futile. It costs more than life imprisonment and has no deterrent effect. USA! USA! USA!

Posted by: John Isbell | Mar 28, 2005 9:55:16 AM

PS Bill O'Reilly opposes the death penalty.

Posted by: John Isbell | Mar 28, 2005 9:59:15 AM

A well reasoned pro-choice argument could be made that it should not be illegal for a mother to kill her new born infant since (if you do not have religious beliefs) the new born is no more "human" than a chimpanzee, only a potential human life.

Oh, please, give us that argument. You sound like a pro-lifer who's too retarded to give any actual arguments so you're going to lie about what the other side is saying.

Such killing is illegal, but I think if you look at cases where mothers throw their newborns in the trash, they are not punished nearly as severely as someone who commits premeditated murder of a fully developed adult.
Any mother who throws her new born baby in the trash is probably not totally sane anyway so any punishment would take that into account.

The fact that pro-lifers aren't willing to prosecute women who have abortions with murder also shows their analogy that treating fetuses as non-human is just as bad as treating blacks as non-human is stupid. If one said those who murdered a black person (as opposed to a white person) should not be prosecuted for murder, one would be dismissed as a racist. Yet the pro-lifers have no problem with prosecuting those who murder an adult for murder while not prosecuting those who "murder" a fetus for murder.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Mar 28, 2005 10:15:05 AM

I doubt that many people who call themselves “pro-life” believe that destroying a fertilized egg should be punished the same as killing a fully developed human, even though they throw around the “murder” charge in political debates.

I think that most people who are pro-life or very uncomfortable with abortion understand that there are increasing degrees of “humanness” beginning at conception through the first couple years after birth. The debate is whether the fetus ever becomes human enough to override a woman’s desire not to go through child birth. Pro-choicers say never, pro-lifers say yes. But, profilers demonstrate by their actions (if not their rhetoric) that they do not consider and unborn fetus as “human” as a three year old, say.

Likewise, pro-choicers (Peter Singer possibly excepted) and pro-lifers agree that a new born has a right to lift, but society demonstrates that they do not consider killing a new born as serious as killing a fully developed human by the penalties they impose on mothers who kill their babies.

Posted by: Robert Brown | Mar 28, 2005 10:37:39 AM

Some logical clarification might benefit many of the commenters above: One does not have to believe that fetuses have all of the value of adult human beings in order to believe that they shouldn't be killed. (Example: I don't have to believe that the spotted owl is the equivalent of a human being to think that it shouldn't be killed, even if it's on someone's property.) Thus, even if you don't think abortion should be treated the same as murder, you can still believe that abortion is nonetheless wrong.

An additional logical clarification: People who believe in a "culture of life" are not strictly obligated to be opposed to the death penalty, though many are. It's perfectly logical to think that innocent life should be protected to the extent possible, even while believing that brutal murderers have forfeited their right to life. Nothing inconsistent or hypocritical about that combination of beliefs. Indeed, a few people would even argue that, properly administered, the death penalty is a good way to SUPPORT a culture of life, by emphatically showing that someone who kills other human beings deserves the strictest punishment.

Posted by: Jack V. | Mar 28, 2005 10:41:19 AM

Indeed, a few people would even argue that, properly administered, the death penalty is a good way to SUPPORT a culture of life, by emphatically showing that someone who kills other human beings deserves the strictest punishment.

Well yes, I suppose a few people would argue that. And a few people, as evidenced by recent events, are objectively batshit insane. But that doesn't really prove anything now, does it.

Posted by: Barry Freed | Mar 28, 2005 10:49:52 AM

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