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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Robert George on Obama on Roe v. Wade

I am always sorry that Robert George does not allow comments on his posts on Mirror of Justice, since I often find them worthy of commentary, but not necessarily worthy of a great deal of commentary.  Still, I thought I'd link to something of his.  Here, first, is President Obama's statement on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade:

Today marks the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that protects women’s health and reproductive freedom, and affirms a fundamental principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters.  I am committed to protecting this constitutional right.  I also remain committed to policies, initiatives, and programs that help prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and mothers, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption.  And on this anniversary, I hope that we will recommit ourselves more broadly to ensuring that our daughters have the same rights, the same freedoms, and the same opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams.

And here is George's response:

It is hard to say what was worst about President Obama's statement on the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.  Was it his silence on the plight of the tiny victim whose limbs are torn off, or whose skin is burned off, or the base of whose skull is pierced and whose brain is suctioned out, with the precise objective of ending his or her life?  Was it his reliance on tired (and increasingly futile) euphemisms such as "reproductive choice" to shuffle the victim out of view?  Was it his glaring unwillingness even to say the word "abortion" -- a word not mentioned at all in his encomium to the Supreme Court decision that manufactured a constitutional right to it?  Or was it--taking these things all together--President Obama's betrayal of his own call, at Notre Dame, for "open hearts, open minds, and fair-minded words" in the debate about abortion?

I actually agree with some of what George says.  I expect little from any presidential statement, especially one of this length, but it is true that the President relies on tired euphemisms and does not mention abortion by name.  He should have: if he cannot describe what he's defending, he has little business defending it.  

But "frank" is not always synonymous with "graphic."  Being graphic, like being euphemistic, can be a rhetorical device that conceals as much as it presents.  So it is with George's post and his description of abortion.  I am reminded of Richard Posner's statement in Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin v. Doyle: "Partial birth abortion is a gruesome procedure.  But all abortion procedures, and indeed a vast number of surgical procedures unrelated to the reproductive process, including forms of cosmetic surgery that strike many people as frivolous, are bloody and horrible."  I would hate to have been awake for the bloody carnage of my hip replacement surgery, in which my surgeons treated me (thank God) like a ragged piece of meat.  And I could describe the ways I dismembered last night's chicken dinner in ways that would make George's language seem like an ode.

My point is not to weigh in on the morality of abortion or abortion rights.  It is that George does not object to the nature of the violence done to the fetus, any more than he objects to the bloody assault on a human body that all surgery involves: he objects to any violence being done intentionally to a fetus.  If abortions were performed as gently as the death scene in Soylent Green, he would still object.  What is morally salient in his post, and all that is morally salient, is the language "with the precise objective of ending his or her life."  That stately language is not upsetting to most people.  Perhaps it should be.  (Again, I'm not entering that thicket here.)  But George, perhaps knowing it is not, resorts instead to "description" as invective: description that does not enlighten so much as it attempts to use emotion (specifically disgust) to persuade rather than reason.  

I suppose he has every right to do so.  Indeed, he is not so different from some animal-rights activists, who would use emotionally loaded descriptive language to argue that what I did to my chicken last night is as bad or worse than what doctors to do fetuses.  But what counts is whether the act is morally salient, not whether it is gruesome.  In that sense, his words are accurate, but I'm not sure they're "fair-minded."   


Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 25, 2011 at 04:11 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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"these procedures treat the little one's worse than cows"

How so exactly? Are embryos stored in little cages, forced fed hormones, killed via low skilled people while on some conveyor belt and so forth? Animal welfare is more of a concern, but I don't see it as much of a concern as the number of abortion laws out there suggest.

Yes, embryos ("little ones") don't survive abortion, but I'm not sure how that is relevant given the discussion at hand.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 14, 2011 7:52:46 PM

Just ran across this, but there's a fundamental disanalogy that you and Psoner seem to be missing. Posner survived his hip surgery. The little ones don't survive this surgery.

You are right to point out that a visceral or emotional response does not prove something is immoral. But they do hint at our native sensibilities. When I first touched meat myself to cook it, I realized how much grosser it was than I imagined.

But these procedures treat the little one's worse than cows and that should be kept in mind. That should amount to something in our moral analysis.

Posted by: Andrew | Jun 14, 2011 6:46:55 PM

Paul, I think we agree as a general matter. The emotional component that is elicited in an act like killing generally is morally salient (if one agrees with both of us that it is morally salient) because we otherwise consider killing wrong. But I'm not sure that's always the case, or that when it is not the case, our disgust is leading us astray. One example might be killing in war. A soldier who kills in war by shooting his enemy is (commonly considered) morally justified; but the same soldier who kills by shooting his enemy and then systematically dismembering and eating the enemy's limbs has done something different. At least for me, the difference is not the killing; it is the horribleness of the treatment, its gruesomeness, its disgustingness. Something similar is true for me with the crime of incest as between consenting adults. If I had to explain by careful reason why a consenting father and adult daughter ought not to have sex, I might have some difficulty. Here, it's the disgust that does much of the "work," the reasons which come later.

I think we agree because you say that digust must be "linked" to a "morally salient factor," and I think that this is right, though I'm not sure that that factor needs to predominate or somehow be lexically prior to the emotional response in order to qualify as a legitimate moral response.

Thanks for the interesting post and response.


Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jan 27, 2011 11:02:16 AM

Marc, I'm more sympathetic to your point than my post might have suggested. That is, I do not deny that disgust can be a relevant (although I think a very dangerous) input for moral reasoning and, indeed, I'm not sure there is such a thing as pure moral "reason" untouched by such considerations. But I think we need to watch for the work our "can't helps" are doing or not doing here. To my mind, the key word in your comment is "killing." Gruesomeness itself often elicits disgust -- I can't tell you I wouldn't feel such an emotion if I were watching a surgery or autopsy or the preparation of a body for burial -- but it is only a strong contributing factor to our discusion if it is linked to a morally salient factor that alters our understanding of that disgust, treating it as a relevant or irrelevant factor, one we should listen to or ignore. My point was that the intention to cause fetal death was what really moves George, and that his emotionally laden descriptions of the process of killing served a questionable purpose in his argument. Of course, as your example suggests, we may find something wrong (like murder) and still distinguish between more or less gruesome versions of that act. But the fact that they are bloody alone is not all that makes them gruesome, and if it is it may be an area where our disgust is leading us astray.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 27, 2011 10:37:03 AM

Paul, an interesting post, but I'm not sure I'm on board. The argument seems to presuppose that our intuitions about what is moral are not in some ways controlled by our emotional responses to particular acts, including disgust. I'm not sure that this is right. In fact, I do think that there is something quite wholesomely moral in the fact that we react quite differently to a gruesome killing than we do to a non-gruesome one. Part of this perhaps relates to ideas of, e.g., heinousness in criminal law. We react with an extra and distinctive sort of horror, revulsion, disgust, to killings done gruesomely than we do to other intentional killings that do not share these qualities.

I know that some people would like very much to do away with what seem to them to be not-well-thought-out and archaic reactions (I'm not suggesting you are one of these folks, though you may be!), but I'm not sure I can agree at all. The assumption that morality is a matter of rational argument all the way down (surely it is a matter of rational argument some of the way down) seems to me wrong in the special way that academics can be deeply wrong.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jan 27, 2011 9:58:11 AM

People know what Roe v. Wade was about, don't they? Also, as with Lawrence v. Texas, the case was NOT ultimately about "abortion" but the right to privately make various choices of which the specific subject matter is but one. When Lawrence is cited, and it to might merit an anniversary, should the sex act be required to be referenced?

The negative response is as trite as the statement is allegedly. Damn the president, e.g., for flagging the need to cut down unwanted pregnancies and promotion of pregnant women, mothers and adoptions. Again, clearly we are not aware that "pregnant" women and "mothers" involve embryos, fetuses and babies without being told. And, reduction of abortion is clearly best achieved via harsh anti-abortion rhetoric.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 26, 2011 11:11:46 AM

I like the distinction between "graphic" and "frank." I think the concern is that graphic depictions of violence can often conceal the substance of underlying arguments about policies by invoking a powerful disgust/aversion response. Certainly this is true in war settings. Graphic images of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu were enough to turn public opinion against US intervention in Somalia. And the US Goverment's very tight control over war images coming back from Iraq (with conspicuous exceptions like Abu Ghraib) illustrate the power of images to focus and change public opinion. Like all powerful rhetorical moves, it's one that can be used for good or ill but certainly the fact that acts can be gruesome can't always be used as evidence that the acts are morally wrongful (e.g., just wars will require some fairly awful conduct, such as perhaps the Allies' in WWII).

Posted by: Dave | Jan 25, 2011 5:21:05 PM

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