Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Abortive Attempt to Reform Health Care

I recently had an exchange with an old and dear friend, who, as a result of a comic case of mistaken identity, engaged me in a discussion of abortion, its legality, and the best way to help assure that abortions do not happen.

My friend encouraged me to support adoption, rather than decry abortion, saying that time and resources are better spent in positive rather than destructive work.

Below is an excerpt from my reply, revised and expanded for present purposes:

Dear ________,

I share in your dismay over many pro-lifers' incessant and often seemingly exclusive desire to condemn, decry and denounce.

I do believe that people who hold in the sanctity of life have a duty to allow their conviction to inform their action.

I often find myself saying to fellow pro-lifers: "Well, why would you expect the folks on the other side of the issue to listen to what you have to say, after treating them as you have? Are you generally well disposed to total strangers who accost you on the street and call you a murderous monster? Screaming and shouting invective may make you feel better for five minutes, but if what you want from your pro-life advocacy is a fleeting feeling of righteousness, or worse, a permanent sense of moral superiority, then I am afraid I cannot come with you."

The thing is, the vast majority of pro-life people see it as I do, and act accordingly. You and most folks hear only the loudest, and not the best or most representative voices in our chorus. This is very sad, for it leads many people, as it has apparently led you, to believe that people in the pro-life camp are angry, self-righteous prigs perpetually in peril of tumbling permanently into full-blown hypocrisy. When you have for your interlocutors such people as I have described, and only such as I have described, it is easy to avoid asking yourself whether the position they espouse may have some small grain of merit, their convictions a crumb of truth.

Too easy, if I may.

More important, however, and much more disappointing, is your apparent inability to distinguish the question of personal witness, which is essentially private, from the essentially public question of policy, and the debate of the relative merits of various public policy positions, and the more basic issues on the ground of which those questions of policy are debated.

Take Roe, for example: I think it is a bad opinion, and ought to be overturned. I think it ought to be overturned in a way that returns the question to the states, where the power to police the medical profession has traditionally been and generally is lodged in our system.

I think Roe is bad because it is based on the notion that the absolute liberty of opinion, which we have by nature and in which we are protected under fundamental law, circumscribes a whole area of conduct and segregates it from the oversight and regulation of legislatures - and so on grounds that the area is "private".

There are two problems with this:

1. Nothing involving more than one person is private: abortion involves at least the pregnant woman and a doctor. The claim to protection under privacy constructions, even granting these last, mus appear to you to be utterly absurd, when you consider that abortion clinics and providers are subject to all public health laws.

2. While it is true that no man-made law can compel a person’s assent to a given opinion, yet a government must be able to regulate conduct in order to fulfill its duty to protect life; in a regime such as the American one, where the power to make law rests with elected legislatures, such bodies must be assumed not only competent, but duty-bound to enact laws based upon the informed consensus their members reach regarding opinable questions such as the proper age to drink, the maximum permissible speed at which a motor vehicle may move, and when human life begins.

Now, you may not ever come to agree with my way of thinking. You may not dismiss it as religiously motivated, let alone as the raving of a religious fanatic.
Let me offer the following appeal to everyone involved in public policy debate, and especially to those in public intellectual life: as we engage each other, let us always remember to ask our interlocutors to share their their position(s), and let us never foist personal caricatures upon our interlocutors.

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