A somewhat shorter post in response to Megan’s long post on abortion by mattsteinglass
June 2, 2009, 4:12 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Terrorism

I’m going to try and keep my response to this post as brief as possible.

“The difference between our reaction to the two is that now we know Africans are people.”

If you wonder whether Africans are people, go and ask one of them. If you wonder whether they should be slaves, try asking them for their opinions on the subject.

If you wonder whether a fetus is a person, asking it won’t get you very far.

Let’s think about the significance of this. In order to perpetuate the enslavement of Africans or to exterminate Jews, the first step that had to be taken was to exclude their voices and opinions from consideration via ideological, legal and practical means.

The fact that fetuses cannot speak, and do not have opinions — the absence of that autonomous voice — changes the entire nature of the issue. There cannot be an “Up From Slavery” or “Diary of Anne Frank” of the fetal experience. Instead what we have are people claiming to speak for fetal persons, arrogating to themselves the role of defenders of an entity which others do not believe to exist and for which there cannot ever be evidence of existence.

There are ample psychological and political rewards to assuming the role of defender of the defenseless. It is a role that is even easier to assume when the defenseless entities are incapable of speaking for themselves, because there is no “themselves” to speak.

Now let’s turn to the real thrust of Megan’s post, which is I think a powerful and interesting one. It is that we ought to be as concerned with the motivations of pro-life Christianist terrorists as we are with the motivations of Palestinian terrorists:

Like many contributers to Obsidian Wings, I can understand the structural forces that contribute to Palestinian terrorism without believing the terrorism is legitimate.  Unlike them, apparently, I don’t find it all that hard to transfer that understanding to the fringes of our own democratic system.

There are different ways for polities to respond to the problem of violence at the fringes of the political system. And the proper response depends both on the nature of the people who are engaging in the violence, and on the legitimacy or remediability of their claims.

Pro-life terrorists in the US are less like Palestinian terrorists than they are like the Serbian death squads who carried out ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, or the Oklahoma City or 9/11 terrorists. Palestinian terrorists act mainly in pursuit of national self-determination and an end to Israeli oppression. These are real interests appertaining to real people who also speak for themselves. But the Serbians who assassinated Kosovars in defense of the proposition that “Kosovo shall always be Serbian” (regardless of who actually lived there), or the 9/11 terrorists who killed 3000 people as part of a messianic crusade to restore the Caliphate (or something), or the Oklahoma City bombers who acted to stop the Tyrant Bill Clinton from establishing an atheist one-world government, were acting on behalf of imaginary constituencies.

Our response to such terrorism cannot address the causes the terrorists themselves voice, because those causes make no sense to anyone outside their own religious or ideological community. Instead we address such irrational violence indirectly — that is, to the extent that Islamist terrorism is really driven by fury over the Israel-Palestine conflict, we can push for a Palestinian state to relax the tension, and so on. And while we apply these indirect measures of conciliation, we also attack the zealots with the full force of the law and the full opprobrium of moral condemnation.

As we seek to take such rational steps, we are constantly frustrated by a self-reinforcing dynamic of extremism: it is in the interest of extremist groups to set their demands at a level which cannot be remediated by the opposing side. They have an interest in making demands the enemy cannot meet, in order to perpetuate the conflict that fuels their organization. In the case of the pro-life movement, they have placed the locus of their demands inside the bodies of the enemy. They demand that in my family, if my teenage daughter should become pregnant, she be forced to carry the baby to term. They would demand this on behalf of the baby — a person that does not exist.

I once met a woman in Africa who believed with deeply felt urgency that a neighbor had killed her cousin by turning herself into a bat and sucking out her soul at night. I am sure she believed with utter sincerity that a murder had taken place and that she was morally obligated to seek justice. I am sure there were structural reasons that made it psychologically or pragmatically useful for her to believe in witchcraft. But, from my rationalist perspective, I could do nothing for her moral urgency except to recommend that she seek spiritual solace for the emotional pain she had suffered. From my perspective, pro-life extremists are seeking protection and justice and vengeance for imaginary entities, and it is imperative to make it clear to them that the rules of our social order prohibit them enforcing such claims on me, my family, or anyone else.


4 Comments so far
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Okay, right, if you start by assuming that it’s ridiculous to believe that a fetus/unborn child is a person, then of course their aims are lunatic and make no sense. The same is, of course, true of Palestinians. If you start by assuming that a fetus might legitimately be a person, then they aren’t lunatics, and their claims need consideration. I think the belief that a fetus might be a person is more likely than the belief that it definitely never is.

The “talk to them” standard is silly. I can’t talk to a baby, or a deaf-mute, or an Albanian (unless they speak English), yet all are indisputably people. On the other hand, I can talk to a parrot, which indisputably isn’t a person.

The more analytical way to put that is that you view “ask them” as a prerequisite for personhood because you accept the current definition of “all humans who have been born” as constituting personhood. It’s not, as I pointed out, actually a good rule: it includes non-persons, and exclude persons. But even if it were, Southern whites had a different (wrong) standard. “Ask them” would not satisfy that standard, in somewhat the way that I could train a parrot to say that it was a person, and yet, it still wouldn’t be a person. Whiteness was irreducibly constitutive of personhood. Their definition was stupid and self-serving, but then, arguably so is the requirement that a “person” have been born through the mother’s volition.

Comment by Megan McArdle

It’s not that it’s ridiculous to believe that a fetus is a person. It’s just that I don’t agree, and there are no grounds for resolving the dispute. In fact I think fetuses should be entitled to increasing consideration as they develop, just as animals are entitled to some consideration, and so forth. But different people think differently on this and because fetuses can’t voice their opinions, any effort to assert their interests is largely an exercise in mystic channeling.

I never said that someone you cannot talk to cannot in some unusual cases be a person. What I said is that in the situations you’ve tried to analogize abortion to — slavery and genocide — everyone was communicating with each other perfectly clearly. That renders both of those situations fundamentally different from the abortion conflict. You can’t compare a situation in which people are sticking up for their own rights to be considered persons, to a situation in which people are discussing whether some third entity incapable of communication has rights.

You can’t actually talk to a parrot in any meaningful way.

You note that 19th-century white supremacists would not have accepted that all people who could talk to them were persons. To say that is to ignore the role that slave narratives played in broadening public consciousness of the humanity of black people and public support for abolition. As you’ve noted, white supremacist ideology came into existence to justify the pre-existing institution of slavery, not the other way around. It was needed because, unlike 16th-century Spain, 19th-century America had an ideology of political equality that gradually demanded that if black people weren’t going to be treated equally, there had to be some kind of substantive way they were different from white people, apart from the color of their skin. White supremacists had to actually convince themselves that blacks were innately intellectually inferior and innately morally depraved or immature. The social interaction of blacks and whites, the voices of blacks who disproved the thesis of white supremacy, were crucial to the overturning of racist ideology. With the fetal personhood movement, you’ll never have that. In fact, pro-choicers and pro-lifers are in substantial agreement about what’s going on with the fetus, in terms of its mental life at different stages. There are minor disagreements, but that’s not where the real conflict lies. The real conflict is over a legal and ethical abstraction: pro-lifers say this entity is entitled to the right to be brought to term pretty much regardless of the desires of the mother, and pro-choicers say, no it isn’t. And there really isn’t any way to get past that.

Comment by mattsteinglass

I keep deleting and rewriting this comment, I think I’m on version 5,6,7 at this point.

I find the concept that “fetuses can’t speak for themselves, and thus do not exist” unpersuasive, since we were both fetuses at one point, and we are, in fact, speaking for ourselves.

PETA, presumably, works to recognize animal rights not because the animals have asked for the rights, but because we are better humans for recognizing that they exist, and we have some ethical consideration to care for them.

You say you feel that fetuses, like animals, are deserving of some considerations. Care to elaborate?

Comment by jb

First of all I think Ta-Nehisi Coates today did a better job than me of expressing why the fact that black people were fighting for their own freedom makes that situation fundamentally different from this one.

Like TNC, I think the abortion debate is closer to the veganism debate than to the slavery debate.

As for fetal personhood, I think one of the problems is that as a legacy of America’s history of official racism, we’ve decided that it’s very important to have a single universal standard of personhood that we don’t want to dilute. TNC has an amazing quote from Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Obviously we don’t want to allow the possibility of that kind of ideology gaining a toehold.

But in fact there are living beings that have claims to some kind of rights, but not the full personhood package. Children, obviously, are granted less autonomy, but we don’t generally weigh children’s worth as being lesser than that of adults. We don’t think a child’s welfare is worth less than an adult’s. But in the case of animals, we do actually think an animal’s welfare is worth less than a human’s — that a dog that bites humans should be put down — even though we also have laws against mistreating that dog for no reason.

I think the current US system does a pretty good job of balancing the consideration due to a fetus at different stages with the consideration due to the desires and interests of the mother. It makes sense to restrict third-trimester abortions to situations where the health of the mother is threatened or where the fetus’s life would be worse than if it had not been born. And so on.

That’s about all I have to say for the moment.

Comment by mattsteinglass

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