The Corner

Sneering at South Dakota

I’ve long admired William Saletan’s work, and so I was taken aback by his post on South Dakota’s new informed-consent law on abortion, which has a much higher snark-to-substance ratio than I have come to expect from him. The law requires abortionists to tell women seeking their services that abortion “will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.” According to Saletan, the South Dakota legislators are “lying to women about their bodies.”

It’s actually a little hard to tease out Saletan’s argument. As far as I can make out, he has two objections to the word “separate” in the required message. First, he does not consider the embryo “separate” because, for example, it is implanted in and nourished by a mother’s womb. But obviously the word “separate” has multiple meanings; there is no contradiction or even tension in saying that an embryo is a being separate (=distinct) from the mother while also being within her. An infant is nourished by others without calling into question its separateness in the relevant sense.

Argument 1(b) is that the embryo isn’t separate because maternal RNA directs its growth. Saletan has made a big deal out of this point in the past. But his argument still makes no sense. Yes, the embryo’s RNA is derived from the mother and crucial to its development. So is half the embryo’s DNA. The other half is from the father, but the embryo is a being distinct from the father. So too is it distinct from the mother. Saletan’s argument is a bit like taking someone literally when he says that a baby has “his father’s eyes.”

Second, I think Saletan is trying to say that if the embryo is a separate being from the mother, then there can be no objection to removing it from the womb (and thus causing its death). The pro-life position collapses into logical incoherence. If the embryo is already separate, that is, what can be wrong with separating it from the mother? I hesitate to ascribe this position to Saletan because it seems so pathetic. Again, he is trading on the different meanings of the word “separate” as though ignorant of the way language operates. Rephrase the argument: “If the embryo is distinct from the mother, what can be wrong with physically removing it from the mother?” You can see that the argument has no force. In addition, abortion is not typically a mere removal of an embryo or fetus from the mother with the unfortunate side-effect of killing it. Killing it is almost always both the goal and the method of the procedure.

In short, the rubes of South Dakota are right and the sophisticated sneerer is wrong.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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