Wednesday, January 03, 2007

All the Philosophical Nonsense that's Fit to Print

Michelle Malkin has an interesting - in the sense of "amusing" - column on Townhall today. It's called "All the Abortion Lies Fit to Print" and, not surprisingly given the title, concerns a big "lie" in a New York Times lead story on the jailing of a woman in El Salvador on "abortion" charges.

One problem - the woman is actually guilty of infanticide. Forensic reports in the case apparently show that the child was born and healthy, and that the mother strangled it to death soon after birth.

I put "lie" in the previous paragraph in shock quotes because Malkin herself admits that the reporter didn't just make the incident up for kicks. He got some bad information from an El Salvadorian abortion rights group which he failed to fact-check. Now, I recognize that there will be various shades of opinion on whether a paper that printed a story based on a fact it failed to check is guilty of "lying" if it neglects to set the record straight. I can see the case that it is. After all, the entire story is based on this "fact," and it's a pretty "shocking" one (although - see below) at that. In any reputable paper, a fact-check on something like this would be standard operating procedure. But no surprises here: I have a (very) low opinion of the New York Times for repeated offenses of exactly this nature. I personally still don't call it a "lie." They got duped and don't have the balls to admit it. How many times have we heard this one from this paper before?

But that aside, what's more interesting to me is the tacit assumption in Malkin's article that abortion should not be punished by 30 years in prison. That seems like a strange position for an avowed pro-lifer to take.

Indeed, my main frustration with the abortion issue is that so few people have the courage to face the logical consequences of their positions. If you are "pro-life" because you think a foetus is an independent "life" deserving of full "rights," then why not put someone in prison for murder for killing it? That seems perfectly consistent to me! Abortion is, after all, hardly unpremeditated. It isn't "manslaughter" under any definition I'm aware of. You make a conscious decision to carry it out, usually consulting experts and paying a fee, no less. If a foetus has a full right to life, then surely this is murder like any other?

And yet, Malkin's argument that the New York Times is slandering abortion opponents with this "lie" depends on her reader's tacit agreement that a full murder sentence is an inappropriate punishment for abortion. Why? What's the difference? I'm afraid she can't have her cake and eat it too. Either abortion isn't really "murder" in the same sense - i.e. there's some kind of qualification - or else a 30-year sentence for abortion is actually somewhat lenient!

The trouble is this: if you admit qualifications to abortion's "murder" status, you start down an obvious slippery slope. If abortion isn't murder one, it can only be for one of two reasons: either the foetus isn't really a full human yet, or the woman has some right to bodily integrity that mitigates the child's right to life. I myself am pro-choice for the second of these reasons. It is irrelevant to me whether the foetus is a full human - no human has a right to life that outweighs another's right to bodily integrity. For me, the child gains full right-to-life status once it's born. Up to that point, it's the mother's property. And even there, I admit that I'm drawing a somewhat arbitrary line (because I haven't come up with an answer that I'm satisfied with concerning abortion/infanticide by exposure - which is not technically inconsistent with anything I've just said, though something I would like to be able to legally forbid). The point here, though, is surely that if we admit either of these (the child is not fully human, or the woman's rights mitigate the child's), the pro-life case is seriously undermined. And yet, Malkin must be admiting one, the other, or both if she honestly thinks that 30 years is "cruel and unusual" punishment for a late-term abortion!!!

For a true pro-lifer, there can be no magic significance to the moment of birth. The child is just as much a human in the the months leading up to birth as it is in the moments after. For a true pro-lifer - the dispute here is merely terminological. "Abortion" (at least, late-term abortion, if we allow for glossing over of some other difficult issues) is just a type of killing, just like "stabbing" or "shooting" or "strangulation" or whatever else, no? And just as most people agree that it's OK to kill in self-defense, most pro-lifers admit cases (rape, health concerns on the part of the mother) where abortion, even in the late term, can be permitted. But abortion for convenience is never acceptible to them - and on the grounds that it's not morally different from any other kind of killing for convenience.

So Malkin gives away the farm by accusing the New York Times of defaming the pro-life movement by associating it with those who would throw a woman in prison for 30 years for killing an unborn child. If the pro-life movement seriously believes what it says, it should, in fact, be proudly advocating just such sentences for the women who have abortions and the doctors who help them.

The reason it does not is because it is secretly uncomfortable with its own rhetoric. Try as it might, it cannot write the woman and her right to bodily integrity out of the picture entirely. And that is why you so rarely hear pro-lifers calling for prison sentences for people who commit abortions.

It's interesting that we can all broadly agree that infanticide, however, is something like murder. I say "something like" because I myself am uncomfortable with a 30-year prison sentence for even the actual crime that the NYT article mischaracterized as an "abortion." I can't see that strangling a newborn is substantively different from a late-term abortion in moral terms, actually, save that the umbilical cord is snapped. As I admitted earlier, I draw an arbitrary line at "moment of birth" for legal convenience. I can't advocate putting someone away for 30 years for something I myself admit is largely arbitrary and unsettled. And this is what I meant when I said earlier that the pro-choice side of this debate has some fessing up of its own to do. Most pro-choicers will advocate any number of extreme punishments for infanticide just to illustrate that they aren't callous and insensitive - that they care about children too. But this is disingenuous - because there isn't, when all is said and done, a significant difference between a late-term pre-born and a newborn. A newborn victim of infanticide is really just an abortion several hours late of deadline.

Well, I don't have all the answers here, and willingly admit that I'm not completely comfortable with my own opinions on the subject. What I can't condone under any circumstances is the idea that one person should be legally forced to serve another - and that goes for women carrying children too. If the mother decides, for whatever reason, that she wants out of the pregnancy, we should allow this even if it means the death of the child. So long as that right is protected, I am willing to accept any medically informed decision as to when "humanity" begins ("life" begins at conception).

My point is just that Malkin is way off base implying defamation for an article that accuses pro-lifers of supporting something that they really ought, if they are consistent, to support anyway. If abortion is murder, then a 30-year prison sentence seems reasonable, and anyone who can blithely allow this for infanticide but deny it for abortion clearly thinks there is something different about the two. The New York Times should correct its mistake, right - and pro-lifers should, for their part, come clean about what they really think and why. 

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