Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Some Choices

Ross Douthat’s column yesterday in the New York Times has some strange reasoning as to what to do about abortion.

The argument for unregulated abortion rests on the idea that where there are exceptions, there cannot be a rule. Because rape and incest can lead to pregnancy, because abortion can save women’s lives, because babies can be born into suffering and certain death, there should be no restrictions on abortion whatsoever.

As a matter of moral philosophy, this makes a certain sense. Either a fetus has a claim to life or it doesn’t. The circumstances of its conception and the state of its health shouldn’t enter into the equation.

But the law is a not a philosophy seminar. It’s the place where morality meets custom, and compromise, and common sense. And it can take account of tragic situations without universalizing their lessons.

This is the kind of absolutist logic that makes the discussion about abortion over before it starts. As Hilzoy says,

The whole point of bringing up cases of rape and incest is to argue that the circumstances of a fetus’ conception are relevant to the question whether abortion should be legal. If we were convinced that a fetus was a full person, they wouldn’t be: we do not think it’s OK for a mother to kill her five year old child on the grounds that it is the product of rape or incest. Likewise, the point of bringing up the fact that “babies can be born into suffering and certain death” is to say that the state of the fetus’ health is relevant, not that it isn’t.

What Douthat wrote makes about as much sense as saying: “The argument for not hitting yourself on the head with a hammer is that it would cause you a whole lot of pain. As a matter of moral philosophy, this makes a certain sense: hitting yourself on the head with a hammer is either right or wrong regardless of how it makes you feel.” To which the only possible response is: Huh???

Mr. Douthat seems to be arguing that we either have an absolute ban on all abortions, or no rules at all. I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone — other than total whack-jobs — who argue for either case.

Abortions and the choice to have one or not does not exist in a vacuum, and Roe v. Wade did not clear the decks for an absolute right to abortion any more than there is an absolute right to free speech. It’s clear that Mr. Douthat sees the question of reproductive choice in the abstract and that he’s never faced a situation in his own life where the agonizing choice must be made, or if he has, he’s desensitized to it. In either case, he’s not the best person to be telling women, doctors, or lawmakers how to deal with making this decision.