Sentence of the day

Pro-life and pro-choice debaters delight in presenting each other with exquisitely extreme moral dilemmas: “Would you ban abortion even in case of rape?” “Would you permit abortion even when done only to select the sex of the child?”

These dorm-room hypotheticals do not have very much to do with the realities of abortion in the U.S. and elsewhere.

That is conservative commentator David Frum writing at CNN.com.

Of the women who choose abortion, 58% are in their 20s. Some 61% of them already have a child. Almost 70% of them are poor or near poor.

Three-quarters say they cannot afford another child.

…Abortion is a product of poverty and maternal distress.

I think this overstates the case, and I’d like to see some serious empirical research. But while we’re waiting 10 years for the peer-reviewed article, this seems like a reasonable working hypothesis.

I’m a little doubtful, however, the pro-life religious conservative movement will begin supporting Obamacare, maternity leave, and support for impoverished mothers. If you don’t become seriously anti-poverty when Jesus tells you, I’m not sure David Frum makes much of a difference.

37 thoughts on “Sentence of the day

  1. From a pro-choice friend of mine:

    ” Here’s a dorm-room hypothetical: Would you permit abortion *one day* before the predicted birth date? If not, why not, and what about two days? Three? (Continue asking until the answer is “yes” and ask “OK, why X days?”)

    If “yes,” you would permit abortion one day before the predicted birth date, then state clearly what the *precise* *moral* difference between killing a one-day-old infant and aborting one day before the predicted birth date? (in case this isn’t clear, the two operative words in that sentence are “precise” and “moral”) “

  2. What is the “precise”, “moral” difference between squishing an egg one picosecond after the sperm enters it, and squishing it one picosecond before the sperm enters it? What is the “precise”, “moral” definition of the distance through the egg’s wall that the sperm must have traveled before it constitutes a human being? Perhaps structuring this debate around “precise”, “moral” definitions is completely fruiteless.

  3. Fetuses only acquire brainwaves during the third trimester and even then they are asleep (thus the bawling when they leave the womb – scary!) I would say that prior to acquisition of a remotely functional brain that the fetus lacks moral relevance.

    Of course I have an interest today in my mother’s decision to bring my first trimester fetus to term many years ago. Just as I have an interest today in having my father present on the evening of conception, as opposed to being away on a business trip. I don’t think I had such an interest back then though.

  4. The empirical limits of his position aside, there’s nothing abortion debates need more than to move from universals claims and moral extremes to a framework that recognizes the way these decisions are made on the margin. I like it.

  5. “If you don’t become seriously anti-poverty when Jesus tells you, I’m not sure David Frum makes much of a difference.”

    I think this kind of statement misses the mark completely. Favoring public policy that forces everyone to give money to the govt which then gives that money to poor people is nothing like what Jesus says in the bible. The Jesus in the bible wants people to give to the poor of their own free will.

  6. No, he doesn’t miss the point. We fellow Christians don’t give nearly enough to cover what needs to be covered. If we did there would have been no need for SS in the first place. Never mind that conservative Christians are also the 1st in line to cut what limited spending there is. Ryan is no friend of social justice.

  7. As a top 1 percenter I support abortion for the poor.

    It saves a lot of money down the road in welfare payments. It may even lower my taxes.

  8. @Michael Clemens, Yeah, maybe.

    But I think my friend asked that question because some pro-choice liberals like her believe it is permissible to perform a third-trimester abortion, but not to kill an infant, though why the event of birth should make the former forgivable and the latter murder isn’t entirely clear, and she wants to explore her own reasons for believing these two rather serious moral claims. There is a certain inconsistency between them that needs to be addressed — why birth is such a magical event that it should make the difference between murder and not murder. The point isn’t that it *couldn’t* be addressed, just that it should be.

    I don’t think it’s fruitless to ask such questions. Most sophisticated Christians will have a precise moral answer to your question, actually, which you’re calling fruitless. And maybe they’re not wrong! I’m not positive of this, but I think I imagine what their answer could be, and while I don’t necessarily agree with it I would have to expend some energy to suggest why it’s wrong. It’s a tough issue. A Christian’s answer would probably involve some notion of personhood and human rights, inspired by some mix of faith and science. Or maybe some consequentialist answer about the effects of living in a society where fetuses are not considered full persons. Or whatever. And I’ll ask a few Christian friends of mine to see what they say, because I think it’s important! Without answering it you really can’t say for sure whether abortion is permissible, or not.

    *You* could, similarly, surely answer the question if it were framed like this:

    “What is the “precise”, “moral” difference between causing the death of a lymphoma patient one minute after having received her informed consent, nay, *request,* for an assisted suicide, and one minute *before* receiving such a request?”

    …and you can see why it’d be a good idea to have an answer! You might consider the latter murder and the former assisted suicide, which would carry very different moral consequences, because the event of a lymphoma patient requesting and permitting assisted suicide has some “precise,” “moral” consequences that follow naturally from some “precise,” “moral” framework, like Utilitarianism or Kantian moral philosophy or whatever, which you and I and anyone else might consider rational on its own merits. Or not. Maybe we’d come to an answer on this, or maybe we wouldn’t. But without even *considering* the question of what the “precise,” “moral” difference is in the first place, we’d risk mistakenly permitting murder or mistakenly prohibiting assisted suicide, outcomes I think we both don’t like! So the question isn’t necessarily fruitless.

  9. Okay,if we are just talking about abortions as far as right to life goes, well the right starts at conception but ends at birth,at least that is how it seems. No one on this side of the argument wants to help take care of these unwanted children..or if not unwanted,children that can’t be afforded. Once they are born in these circumstances they become part of Rommney’s 47%,and are no longer right to lifers concern. What about the whole BS right to life argument/all life is sacred crap(granted many do have religious reasons for their stance…ignoring of course their religons hypocracies from biblical record when GOD demands Isrealites to abort enimies unborn children and commit genocide on some peoples), most nowadays that support the right to life also favor capital punishment…kind of a contradiction isn’t it? How about the fact that the planet seems to be aproaching critical mass for Humans exsisting,and in the process killing other species like mass extinctions have done in the past. Is the right to life only for babies,baby humans that is,what about everything else..what about the planet? The right to life is morally bankrupt as it is inconsistent,as well as short sighted..we could easily populate ourselves of the planet. Just saying, not to mention being right to life denies the actions of their own god…granted that god doesn’t exist but so what.

  10. “I’m a little doubtful, however, the pro-life religious conservative movement will begin supporting Obamacare, maternity leave, and support for impoverished mothers. If you don’t become seriously anti-poverty when Jesus tells you, I’m not sure David Frum makes much of a difference.”

    I think you underestimate the extent to which young evangelicals are getting sick of one-issue politics. I think this argument could actually be quite powerful. The problem is that no political candidate would actually run on it.

  11. The real problem in most cases is that people want a binary measure of life, whether it is pro-life folks who want the switch to flip at conception or pro-choice folks who want it to flip at birth. In actuality, although we rarely acknowledge it to ourselves, essentially none of us believe it to be binary: most pro-life folks are okay with abortion to save the life of the mother (or after rape and incest) and all pro-choice folks think that a fetus at 35 weeks of gestation should be protected and saved if possible.

    Mathematically this is all very easy to accomplish if we are willing to be explicit, which frankly we need to be. My father and I and coauthors came up with one version, trying to be very careful about the demography, to be used in conjunction with worldwide estimates of the global burden of disease: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11805/
    Note that we assign a multiplier of 0 from conception through age -0.25 years (~27 weeks gestation), after which it continuously rises, crossing age 0 (birth) until finally attaining a full value of 1 at age 5 years. Obviously one can change this as desired: becoming positive at conception; attaining full value at birth (or age 1); having a discontinuity at birth; whatever. The point is to have a framework and then decide as a democratic society what parameters should be used for social, medical, and economic policy.

  12. “If “yes,” you would permit abortion one day before the predicted birth date, then state clearly what the *precise* *moral* difference between killing a one-day-old infant and aborting one day before the predicted birth date? (in case this isn’t clear, the two operative words in that sentence are “precise” and “moral”) “”

    There is little to no moral difference. One can demonstrate that sometimes killing a baby can be the morally correct thing to do (although, clearly, extremely distressing):

    Consider a hypothetical mother and newborn lost in a desert with no help, and only enough water for the mother to walk to safety if she abandons the baby; if she gives it some water, she will die before reaching safety. Clearly, there is no point giving water to the baby, because it can’t survive once the mother is dead. It’s a choice between one death or two, and clearly the morally correct choice must be to save one life.

  13. I’m surprised to see you equate “Obamacare, maternity leave, and support for impoverished mothers” with the anti-poverty message of Jesus. I think Jesus’s message was about actually doing good for the poor, rather than giving your money to Caesar in hopes he would take care of them instead.

  14. The problem with anti-abortion folks goes beyond their indifference to human suffering. The basis of anti-abortion is a theological conception of human life, a sort of sacred biology. Outlawing abortion violates the separation of church and state. You might as well have a federal law mandating transubstantiation since the “personhood” supposedly present in the zygote is just as undetectable as the body of Christ in the consecrated host.

    People come into existence gradually. That is an empirically verifiable fact, which justifies making distinctions between early term abortion, which is nobody’s business but the mothers, and reasonable limitations on very late term abortions where the fetus is more or less viable.

  15. If “yes,” you would permit abortion one day before the predicted birth date, then state clearly what the *precise* *moral* difference between killing a one-day-old infant and aborting one day before the predicted birth date?

    The one-day-old infant is breathing through its nostrils. This precise moral difference arises from revealed Divine authority, specifically Genesis 2:7 (and chapter 7, tractate Ohalot in the Oral Law). Anything else?