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The Wrong Strategy

The Arizona-related brouhaha largely overshadowed an interesting incident unfolding in Oklahoma.  It’s a bit of pro-life legislation that passed the state legislature, was vetoed, was passed by overriding the veto, and has now been suspended by a state judge.

Before I continue, please take a moment to review my disclaimer.

Back?  Okay.  Now, the law requires any woman who wants an abortion to first have an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the baby and its beating heart.  Another law that also overturned a veto prevents women from suing doctors for not reporting birth defects.

I was immediately reminded of the stories that the pro-choice blogosphere have been circulating about crisis pregnancy centers.  One woman says that she visited a crisis pregnancy center but ended up having an abortion anyway.  The center subsequently sent her birthday cards for her baby splattered with red ink.  She and others report centers violating confidentiality by calling parents, friends, and roommates–or even the police.  Many report being told that they would go to Hell for killing their baby and similar threats.  Many others received misinformation about their pregnancies, pregnancy tests, and abortion procedures, apparently with the goal of confusing and delaying them until it was too late for an abortion.

Maybe those stories are true and maybe they aren’t.  Trying to get an accurate perception from the combined views of these people and these people is a futile enterprise.  However, CPCs have been convicted of false advertising for claiming to be clinics when they’re often staffed by volunteers with no medical training who administer off-the-shelf pregnancy tests, and for claiming to provide “options” when, in fact, they are only going to tell women one thing.  It’s also well-documented that they administer off-the-shelf pregnancy tests, which only take 3-5 minutes to yield a result, but make the woman wait for as much as half an hour while watching graphic abortion videos.  As for the more drastic accounts, it seems most likely that they’re true but uncommon; an unbiased study on the subject is desperately needed.

Regardless of the actual state of crisis pregnancy centers, the laws are certainly true.  Florida is trying to pass a similar law.  Oklahoma also passed a law in the fall, now suspended, requiring physicians to list specific demographic details such as age, race, and marital status for every woman who had an abortion–on a publicly accessible website.

The laws and the strategies employed by crisis pregnancy centers demonstrate a troubling willingness to decrease abortions through coercion, deception, and harassment.  They are acting as though the end justifies the means.

Well, does it?  I invite any pro-choicers reading to take a breath and assume the pro-life view for a minute, if they are capable of doing so.  Assuming that fetuses are human beings, we’re talking over a million deaths per year in the US–about half the total death rate of born human beings.  Surely if there were that many murders (or executions, or war casualties, or what have you) every year, we would do whatever we could to stop it.

Well, maybe.  We don’t seem to do much about the 100,000-odd deaths by accidents, mostly traffic accidents, although those are largely preventable and could be decreased countless ways.  This is because we culturally don’t care about actual safety, but rather perceived safety, hence our hysterical fear of the infinitesimally small chance of being killed in a terrorist attack, but I digress.  The pertinent question isn’t whether we would do whatever was possible, but whether we should, and specifically whether we should use coercive tactics.

I was stymied by this hypothetical.  There is simply no comparable situation I can think of where, on either a large or small scale, where lies and harassment (of the potential killer) would be the best way of preventing deaths.  Concealment of information can be a legitimate strategy and that often requires outright deception, as in the standard lying-to-the-Nazis dilemma, but lying to an enfranchised dictatorship with a murderous agenda hardly seems comparable to lying to a confused victim.  So let’s move away from analogies and address the question directly.

If the end justifies the means, then Scott Roeder was right.

There are far more abortions than abortion doctors in America.  Undoubtedly, if we killed all abortion doctors, there would be a net positive, even accounting for women who died of pregnancy complications, babies who were abandoned, and women and babies who died through botched abortion attempts.  We could go ahead and throw in vocal proponents of abortion and still come out ahead.  But we shouldn’t, because that’s a terrible, terrible strategy.

I’ve never been a very dedicated ethicist; one’s beliefs about what is so strongly influence what ought to be that I think it’s more profitable to try to hash out presuppositions.  Nevertheless, from a Christian perspective, which I think most people would lay somewhere between Kantian and utilitarian ethics but closer to the Kantian end, it seems that the end occasionally justifies the means, but doesn’t usually.  There are exceptions to our moral rules under extraordinary circumstances (or, to quote Barbossa, “The rules are more like guidelines anyway”), but the majority of the time, the rules should be adhered to–even when they appear to yield a bad result.  Most of the time, the rules will probably yield a better result than the combination of one’s personal moral compass and ability to predict results.  Only when the results of standard moral behavior are obviously very bad, and the alternative clearly far better, should the rules be intentionally transgressed.

In case I’m getting obtuse, the moral behavior in question is that we shouldn’t harass or deceive people, and the context in which the rule is being questioned is when the harass-ee is a pregnant woman who wants to get an abortion.  Assuming the abortion-is-murder premise, as we’ve been doing, this looks like a case where the consequences are clearly bad.  However, I don’t think it’s a case where rulebreaking is justified.  It fails in the second condition: the alternative is not clearly better.

The alternative would clearly be better if all women who underwent this coercion ended up not having abortions and would have otherwise, and if these ends could not have been achieved through non-coercive means, like Biblical counseling and providing free prenatal care.  That’s a lot of variables.  With crisis pregnancy centers, comparing the actual outcome to the averted outcome is futile, but the results of the Oklahoma law are clear enough, and I doubt we’ll see a sudden cessation of abortions.  If the woman has an abortion anyway, then the result will merely be that the woman is more miserable than she would otherwise be–a worse outcome*.  As the issues become more and more complex, it’s sensible to return to the default standards of behavior: honesty, kindness, and good faith.

The use of ugly, graphic videos of abortions is particularly irritating to me because it’s a fallacious emotional appeal.  You could show disgusting images of open-heart surgery or animals being slaughtered, but it has no bearing on whether those acts are wrong or not.  Similarly, to a lesser degree, pictures and videos showing how human fetuses are.  Plenty of things look human but aren’t, and animals sometimes act uncannily human but aren’t.  One could just as well make the argument that CG characters have rights because they seem so human.  Of course there are real arguments for considering fetuses to be human, but that’s precisely why the pointless non-arguments should stop.

This leads me to the final consequence at play: cultural perceptions.  Any good pro-lifer knows that, while brute-force solutions like laws may be necessary steps, the real battle is changing cultural perceptions.  Build a culture where no one considers abortion an option and the problem is solved.  Whatever else the new Oklahoma laws do, they won’t open a floodgate of sympathy for the pro-life cause.  Pro-lifers will likely find it a Pyrrhic victory: winning the battle is making them lose the war**.

Of course I am not telling pro-lifers to lay down their arms.  By no means!  There is much to be done.  Counsel some teenagers, bring meals to a single mother, and if you’re really serious about your pro-life beliefs, foster or adopt (if you’re really, really serious, adopt instead of having your own children).  These acts advance your goals and are morally laudable in and of themselves.  It is precisely because there is so much good to be done that harassing and deceiving women who are considering abortion is the wrong strategy.

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*Pro-choice feminists will claim that this is the primary and intended outcome: that the goal of saving babies is only a cover for the real, albeit perhaps subliminal, goal of making women feel guilty about their sexuality.  This is a violation of AGI and a strawman with respect to strong pro-lifers I’ve known personally.  Still, there’s a spark of truth to it as regards the side-taking nature of the abortion issue: “I didn’t stop her, but at least I made her feel really, really bad.”  More on this when I’ve recovered from my weariness with the whole debate.

**Yes, I’m channeling Reinhold Niebuhr here, but I haven’t read enough of his work to justly invoke him.

Crisis pregnancy centers always make me think of that scene from Jesus Camp.

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Tools for Pro-Lifers

Yesterday, as you may know, was Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.  I don’t blog on Sundays, but today I thought I’d offer up a little sympathy to my pro-life readers  (If you’re wondering about my personal position, you should read my disclaimer).  Midterm years are a frustrating time to be a pro-lifer.  It’s almost three more years until you can take your next shot at electing a president who will appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.  You’ll vote for pro-life candidates at the midterms, of course, but with the sneaking knowledge that this is a purely ideological choice, since they can’t do the first thing towards actually banning abortion.  Aside from that, there’s nothing for you to do between now and November 2010 except pass out flyers in front of Planned Parenthood.

But take heart!  There are things you can do in the intervening time.  You may never have thought of some of these because they’re grounded in the principle that you don’t have to just work towards a complete ban on abortion: any reduction in the number of abortions is a small victory, too.  Moreover, these small victories are actually the best steps you can take towards your larger goal, because once abortion has become something that, socially, no one does, there will be a much weaker lobby for keeping it legal.  Many atrocities have been outlawed this way.  It can feel so slow as to be worthless, but this is how real change happens.

1. Support birth control.  Every kind of birth control.  Well, not the morning-after pill.  You can also decide for yourself about the pill, even though it’s your best ally in this fight, since the religious community isn’t sure about that one either.  But you should be advocating putting condoms in school lunches.

Won’t this increase teen sex?  Yes.  But which one are you really supporting–ending abortion or keeping teens from misbehaving?  I know you want both.  I know that achieving the second would make huge headway against the first.  But steps taken towards the latter, like abstinence-only education, actually undermine  the former, as has been well documented.  If prenatal life is more important to you than teenage behavior, support birth control.

2. Adopt.  This is a tough cookie because I’m asking you to make a major lifestyle change and an 18-year commitment in support of something you believe in, but it’s no more than you expect anyone who gets accidentally pregnant to do, and you’re in a far better position because you can adopt when you’re married and have a steady job, as opposed to being a teenager from a poor inner-city family who might now have to drop out of school.

Every baby born to a teenaged mother or given up to an orphanage is entering the same cycle of poverty and pressure that caused his or her mother to get pregnant in the first place, and these children are more likely to have accidental pregnancies themselves.  Thus, paradoxical as it may seem, reducing abortions now will actually increase abortions a generation later.  To break the cycle, these kids need to be placed into stable homes.  You can only guarantee the existence of one stable home: your own.

If you’re really committed to the pro-life movement, you should place it in preference even to your own life goals.  Therefore, you should adopt instead of having children of your own.  Every child you have is one that you could have adopted instead, and thus is one more child trudging down the hopeless path that is the U.S. foster care system (I’m not, by the way, saying that all foster parents are bad, but that the system as a whole is an unhealthy environment for kids that leaves them with very few options when they get turned out of it on their eighteenth birthdays).  While you’re at it, become a foster parent.  These are children that you specifically wanted to exist, so it’s your responsibility as much as anyone else’s to make sure that they have good lives.

3.  Don’t get any fertility treatments.  Where did you think all those embryonic stem cells came from?  Even if you’re not using fertility treatments that create extra embryos, you shouldn’t be trying so hard to have children anyway, because you should adopt.  Why not adopt one of those stem cell embryos?

4.  Support any and all poverty legislation.  “But it’s  their own fault they’re poor!”  Doesn’t matter.  “But it’ll create big government!”  I know.  Which is more important to you, though: opposing big government or reducing abortions?  If abortion is really the greatest moral issue of our time, you should support any legislation that might reduce it, even if it was proposed by a Democrat.  Poor families are more likely to have abortions.  Do everything you can to increase the income,  stability, and quality of life for the poor, and you’ll see more and more people decide to have children rather than aborting them, simply because they feel like they can support them.

5.  Support healthcare reform.  Make it as easy as possible for women of any background to get prenatal care, have safe deliveries, and get all the checkups and routine care that a growing child needs.  Every little bit of incentive helps.

6.  Don’t hold signs or hand out flyers.  This goes against the whole principle of Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, which according to their website does nothing but sell brochures, but I doubt even one person has ever chosen not to have an abortion because there were protesters outside the clinic.  Plenty have probably chosen to come back another time or go to a different clinic.  The problem is that your pamphlet about how being a mother is the world’s highest calling is trying to change their minds on ideological grounds.  But the people going into Planned Parenthood aren’t there for ideological reasons.  They’re there for practical reasons.  Also, it’s incredibly difficult to change people’s minds on ideological grounds, as that’s generally where people stand the firmest.

What you are accomplishing is making them feel antagonized by you.  You are making them view pro-lifers as the enemy, as people who see them as sinners and bad people.  It doesn’t matter that you aren’t trying to antagonize them; that’s still how they feel.  By making them uncomfortable, you are making yourself and pro-life institutions the last places they would ever go for actual help or counsel.

So there you have it: six tools that you can use to reduce abortion.  I know it’s a tall order, because these aren’t six easy steps; they demand major change and ask you to rethink some of the things you hold most dear.  But you can’t expect major social change without major personal change.  This is your chance to do your part.

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Abortion, Gay Marriage, and Irrationality

I will not be disclosing my positions on abortion and homosexuality on this blog.

There!  That’s all.  Shortest post ever.

Just kidding.  I do in fact have opinions on both of these issues and anyone who actually knows me could probably divine them without much difficulty, but I won’t be revealing them here, because I have found that these issues make otherwise reasonable people on both side of the aisle act irrationally.

To be specific, most people read an article on either topic just closely enough to determine whether the author agrees with them or not and then, if the answer is “not,” stop paying attention and switch straight into disagreement mode, where they will lob attacks at the author as though she were the most polar example of the opposite position, even if she were actually promoting a completely moderate position.

For example, whether you agree with them or not, it’s pretty easy to understand the logic that makes pro-lifers believe that abortion is equivalent to murder.  It’s a little more arcane trying to understand why pro-choicers think that any sort of restriction on abortion is also equivalent to murder.  The logic, for those who have not had the misfortune to encounter it, is that any sort of restriction might prevent someone from being able to get a safe, legal abortion, which might make them decide to get an unsafe, back-alley abortion instead, which might cause complications or even death.  This applies even if the restriction was as mild as California’s Prop 4, which required minors to inform their parents before getting an abortion.

The sad thing is that I’ll now have to explain what is wrong with that argument.  The easiest strategy is to point out restrictions on how many other things are equivalent to murder by this logic.  Female circumcision, certainly: it’s traditional in many cultures, and failing to provide a safe doctor’s office operation might cause someone to attempt an unsafe operation at home.  But pro-choicers are not pro-female circumcision, even though the logic is identical, because the argument isn’t a logical argument at all.  It’s an irrational argument: basically, a justified-sounding way of calling you a murderer.

(The reason pro-choicers would be adamantly against female circumcision, by the way, is that pro-choice is really pro-sexuality.  They support whatever policy is the most sexually permissive.  This is consistent in its own way, but the preceding argument is still not logically applicable.  More on this to come, of course.)

Here are some more logically rigorous objections to the restrictions-on-abortion-equal-murder argument, and in particular why it’s inequivalent to the corresponding pro-life argument.

First, if you believe that a fetus is a person, it should be obvious that one abortion equals one death per terminated pregnancy.  On the other hand, if there is a small restriction on abortion, only a small number of people who want a legal abortion will be unable to get one.  Of those, an even smaller number will subsequently choose to get an illegal abortion, and of those, a smaller number still will have complications that might lead to death.  A restriction on abortion, therefore, is more equivalent to a thousandth or a millionth of a death per pregnancy.  Of course even one death per million pregnancies is worse than no deaths, but it’s not a one-to-one equivalence, as implied.

Second, there’s the fact that the chain of reasoning includes at least one place where the woman herself has to choose a potentially dangerous option.  It doesn’t make much sense to hold you responsible for a result that can only happen if the victim, who is under no coercion, chooses it.

Third, there’s simply the matter of degrees of separation.  Surely you can’t be held personally responsible for every result three or four steps removed from every single one of your actions; I’m sure we’re all murderers by that logic.

The above argument demonstrates the kind of drivel that people will start spouting on these topics as soon as they figure out that you might not completely agree with their position on abortion.  The same dynamic comes into play with gay marriage.  In this case, I’ll be concealing my underlying opinion on homosexuality, but I’ll share my opinion on the  legality of gay marriage:  It should be legal.  This is regardless of whether you think it’s moral or not.  Even if you think it’s the darkest sin from the pit of Sodom (because you didn’t read Ezekiel), it should still be legal.  You can’t legislate morality.  That won’t make people be moral.

More to come?  Definitely.

Hopefully, I choose to optimistically believe, if I don’t reveal whether or not I agree with the reader’s preconceived opinions, I might be able to keep him or her reading instead of just pigeonholing me as an ally or an opponent.  Then, perhaps, we can take a look at some of the nuances to these issues, the things in the middle that get overlooked because everyone has pushed him- or herself so far to one side or the other.

While I’m on the topic, I should mention that I’m not free of this kind of knee-jerk response myself.  The topic is not abortion or gay marriage, but rather global warming.  It’s so clearly happening and its deniers so obviously have selfish motives or are intentionally keeping themselves ignorant that it’s easy for me to read an article on the topic guardedly, trying to figure out whether the author is a denier or not (and, if he or she is, to reject the rest of the article out of hand).  Attempting to curb that instinct is one way that I hope this blog will make me a better person and a stronger discussion partner.

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