The Corner

Not That Hard a Question

I just saw that Josh Patashnik at the New Republic is intrigued and confounded by my position on abortion. He writes in part:

The question I’d like to ask Jonah is, why is it seemingly only in the context of abortion that Jonah believes uncertainty militates in the direction of governmental activism on behalf of those whose lives could be at risk? Abortion laws, like the other examples cited above, come at the expense of personal freedom and don’t always work as expected (see, for example, last week’s New York Times story indicating that stricter abortion laws don’t actually seem to reduce abortion rates). So why should only they be exempt from the calculus that usually inclines Jonah toward libertarianism? 

Me: Well there are a whole bunch of possible answers here and I’d hate to offer some at the expense of others.  But first of all, abortion deals with a class of humans and whether they deserve protection of the state from summary execution. The pro-choicer can respond, “No they’re not humans.” But that gets us back to the start. Are they or aren’t they? I don’t know, so I’m inclined to err on the side of life. But even though I’m unsure, it’s necessary to point out that this isn’t like asking “Are chairs humans?” We know fetuses become humans. We know babies are humans one second before they’re born. Two seconds, before, they’re born. Two weeks before they’re born, and so on. Figuring out when, exactly babies stop being humans is difficult and serious stuff and gets at the core of what a legitimate government and regime is about. That’s why they’re are plenty of libertarians who are far more adamantly pro-life than I am.  They see no contradiction between being pro-life and for limited government.  And when Patashnik says he can’t really discern the difference between banning smoking and banning abortion, not only is it a bad analogy, I suspect some people find it offensive. 

There’s also the question of personal responsibility. Put aside the question of the unborn for a moment. Humans have a natural moral sense that says babies are deserving of special protections because they can’t protect themselves. Grown-ups meanwhile don’t need to be treated like babies. A person who smokes or drinks makes a decision about their own health. A person who smokes around their baby or feeds them alcohol may well get a visit from the state. If a guy in a bar pees on me, society and law basically say I get to punch him very hard. If a baby pees on me, I go to jail if I punch it. And we are a just civilization for maintaining these distinctions.  In other words, babies aren’t responsible for their actions. But we are responsible for our actions toward babies. The pro-choicer may respond, “but it’s not a baby.” But, once again, that brings us back to the beginning.  

Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan is right when he says my position  smacks of a conservatism of doubt. But, I think he misses the point somewhat when he suggests that doubt about the fundamental question can’t lead to absolutism of a sort on the procedural ones. Death penalty opponents often admit that some people might deserve to be executed, but ultimately they don’t believe the state can know who deserves to die and who doesn’t and so they take an absolutist position and say the state should just get out of the execution business. I disagree with  them, but I think it’s an honorable and intellectually respectable position.  Sullivan might look to his absolutism on torture for guidance. He takes the principled stand that anything that smacks of torture must be absolutely taboo, even though his assertions on what is and isn’t torture ultimately boil down to his own subjective judgments. In fact, with some caveats, I’ve basically moved to that basic position myself (more on that later).  

Oh, and lastly, it’s just not true that I’m “statist” only in the area of abortion. I’m a statist when it comes  to slavery, the currency, property rights and all sorts of stuff. But I should be clear that as a consistent federalist, I think America would be a better place if we threw abortion back to the states as well.  And I’m pretty much certain that it would be a better place today if  the Supreme Court had never seized the issue with Roe v. Wade in the first place.  

Anyway, I could on, and I reserve the right to revise and extend my answers later.  But that’s enough for a Friday night.

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