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local decisions about abortion - Ilya Shlyakhter (notestaff) - letters to editors
September 21st, 2007
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local decisions about abortion
Who Should Decide About Abortion?

Re: Anti-Roe and Pro-Rudy" (op-ed, Sept 14)

If to “decide, state by state, about abortion” is better than to decide as a country, isn’t deciding individual by individual better still?

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From:to_the_editor
Date:September 23rd, 2007 07:31 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Eric Johnston wrote:

> Ilya,
>
> My argument was not "state by state" vs. "as a country" but democratic
> vs. not democratic. So your argument doesn't really have anything to
> do with my piece.
>
> Surely you don't think *every* decision should be "individual by
> individual." Do you think it would be better for individuals to
> decide on their own tax policies? Should individuals decide what they
> consider to be animal cruelty, or rape, or murder? In those cases, of
> course, the problem is that there are two individuals: the rapist and
> the person who is raped. Which is the problem with abortion, too:
> it's hard to understand why it should be treated as a matter of
> individualism when a woman kills her child.
>
> The argument you have to make is not just individualism--which doesn't
> make sense, since our actions almost always involve other
> "individuals"--but why killing an unborn child is an individual matter
> while things like murder or taxes or cruelty to animals are not.
>
> Overturning Roe, as my article notes, would not outlaw abortion, it
> would just allow us to have a public discussion about this, and let
> democratically-elected representatives decide which abortions should
> be covered by law and which should not. I think most places, and most
> voters, would say there's something wrong with killing a baby that
> could live outside the womb. I think voters would be divided, and
> would have to talk and think carefully, about whether it's wrong to
> kill a 20-week old fetus, or 15, or 10.
>
> My article seems to have annoyed you. Do you not want voters to have
> this conversation?
>
> Thank you for your interest,
> Eric Johnston
>
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 23rd, 2007 07:32 pm (UTC)
(Link)
eric,

thanks for your message. i have several comments.

> My argument was not "state by state" vs. "as a country" but democratic
> vs. not democratic.

Your article discusses how best to impose your pre-determined beliefs on as many
people as possible, given the current political realities. You would
consider it your moral duty to impose your beliefs by judicial fiat,
if you thought that route would work. So don't pretend to be
primarily motivated by concern for the integrity of democracy. Your
primary concern is to impose your beliefs on others by whatever method
works. I know your beliefs are deep and sincere, but that does not
make imposing them any more acceptable.

Moral vegetarians consider the killing of animals evil. To them, it
is as self-evidently evil as abortion is to you. But do they seek to
ban the killing of animals? No; they live their beliefs, and educate
others in the hope that others will adopt these beliefs. What
prevents pro-lifers from doing the same?

If federal interference with local customs bothers you, think about
how much worse it
must be for women to have outside interference with their bodies.
That was the main
point of my letter. (I'm a man, by the way.)

>Do you think it would be better for individuals to
>decide on their own tax policies? Should individuals decide what they
>consider to be animal cruelty, or rape, or murder?

The consensus that these things should be crimes is overwhelming,
unlike on abortion. The threshold for making something a crime
should be "overwhelming consensus", not "simple majority".
In many situations more than a simple majority is rightly required
(jury verdicts, constitutional amendments, overriding presidential
vetoes, etc); criminalizing something is certainly one such situation.

>why it should be treated as a matter of
>individualism when a woman kills her child.

There's far from an overwhelming consensus on whether a fetus is a
child. I understand that you have a strong conviction on this point.
Many people have equally strong convictions on many points about what
conduct is and is not acceptable; the only way we survive as a country
is by preventing anyone from imposing their strong convictions on
anyone else, no matter how strong the conviction. You may only curb
another's conduct if that conduct harms you directly. "It makes me
uncomfortable" or "it undermines respect for life" are not strong
enough reasons to forbid the conduct. In the case of senseless animal
cruelty, the conduct doesn't harm you directly but it makes
_practically everyone_ deeply uncomfortable and has no
counterbalancing rationale. Killing animals for food may be cruel to
the animals but has a counterbalancing rationale and there's not an
overwhelming consensus against it. Same with abortion.

> Do you not want voters to have
> this conversation?

Oh I want people to have all the conversations they want, just as
moral vegetarians are free to dialogue with everyone and make their
points. What I don't want is to criminalize something so personal
without overwhelming consensus that extends over a wide area. Sure,
you can find overwhelming consensus for your position in a given
church, but that's not the test. For questions like murder, rape,
animal cruelty and taxes, you can find overwhelming consensus over the
whole country, and that is a stronger test and the one to be used.

Separately from the above arguments, I want to point something out.
Let's say your religion compels you to "go save babies". There are so
many ways to do that: go to medical school and become a pediatrician;
or become a researcher and find cures to childhood illnesses; or
become a politician that advocates for children; or start the next
Microsoft or Google and use the proceeds to help children. Of course,
all these things require great effort and sacrifice *from you
personally*, before you can feel like you've done something for
children. How much easier it is to go out and wave a placard "ban
abortion" -- then all the costs and difficulties are paid by others,
and in an instant you feel like you're "protecting children". Isn't
there something wrong with that?

best,

ilya
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 24th, 2007 09:08 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Ilya,

I will do my best to respond to a couple of the issues you raised in
your last email.

You doubt my sincerity in opposing judicial fiat. There's not really
anything I can say to this. If you accuse me, on principle, of being
a liar, that's a non-falsifiable claim. All I can do is assert the
contrary: I actually am quite committed to democracy and the rule of
law, and I do not believe that judicial fiat is a good way to rule a
country. I would rather have a democracy make somewhat permissive
rules about abortion than have an unelected judiciary make laws. You
can doubt that if you wish. But it does seem sort of pointless to
write back and forth if you think me insincere.

You point out that "There's far from an overwhelming consensus on
whether a fetus is a child." That's true. I must admit that I am not
convinced that the fetus is the same kind of thing, or "human" in the
same way in early pregnancy as in later pregnancy. (Incidentally,
before twentieth-century science, the Catholic Church always opposed
abortion but also always believed that a fetus became fully human a
few months into pregnancy. DNA has someone confused the issue -- but
I don't think DNA is sufficient to establish that an early fetus is
fully "human." That does not change my belief that early abortion is
wrong and should not be legal, for reasons I will explain below.)

I think there is an overwhelming consensus that, whatever line
determines when someone becomes fully human, or a "child," that line
is not birth. A very tiny minority (mostly Peter Singer at Princeton)
thinks that a child is not fully human *after* birth, and infanticide
should be allowed. I think an "overwhelming consensus" believes the
opposite: a child becomes a bearer of rights (whatever that means)
sometime along, maybe around viability (half way through a pregnancy).
In other words, I think there *is* an overwhelming consensus that
late-term abortions are, in fact, killing an innocent person.

But even if there isn't "overwhelming consensus," it seems odd to me
to err on the side of killing the innocent. I mean, if you're going
to tear down a building, you first make darned sure that there are no
people inside. You err on the side of safety. You don't say "well,
unless there's an overwhelming consensus that somebody's in there, we
won't worry about it." If there's considerable doubt, I think we
should try not to kill.

The pro-choice response, of course, is that the needs of the woman are
perfectly clear while the life of the child is in doubt--so we err on
the side of the woman. I respect that logic, but I don't think it
applies.

There's an awful lot of rhetoric about abortion as "women's rights."
But I think abortion is extraordinarily oppressive of women. Abortion
absolve fatherly responsibility. Without abortion, if a man has sex
with a woman and (surprise surprise) conceives a child, he is legally
and (according to most people) morally responsible to care for that
child and his mother for life. With abortion, however, a man can
father a "fetus" (or whatever) and then tell the woman that it is
*her* fault for not aborting. This, I think, happens all the time.
It is no coincidence, in my opinion, that the black community has a
vastly disproportionate share of both abortions and fatherless
children. Abortion has absolve black men -- and plenty of white men
-- or responsibility for their actions.

I have no idea what motivates your opinions about abortion. You may
very well think that you are being "pro-woman." But I think many men
like abortion because it is a back-up for contraception. They can use
women, impregnate women, and then blame the woman if she doesn't kill
the result. I don't know if you've ever stood outside an abortion
clinic, but there are an awful lot of what *appears* to be men forcing
women to get abortions. Dropping them off at the front door, for
example: not exactly gentle support during a traumatic procedure.
Just coercion. I don't think men should be allowed to do this.

From:to_the_editor
Date:September 24th, 2007 09:09 pm (UTC)

(eric's response continued)

(Link)
Abortion also benefits abortionists, who are overwhelmingly men.
Under our present abortion laws, abortionists are absolved of every
oversight required for other doctors. They charge exorbitant fees and
have no oversight, for doing a pretty simple job -- killing is a lot
easier than healing. They are not required even to be honest. For
example, in a high-profile case in New Jersey recently, a woman went
to an abortionist and asked him if there was a "baby in there." He
said, "Don't be stupid," he said--that's a quote, "it's just blood."
Well now, whatever you think about the word "baby," what the doctor
said is blatantly untrue. Later she suffered complications, because
there were parts of . . . whatever you want to call it still in there.
She studied up and was horrified. Because when she asked the doctor
if there was a "baby in there," she didn't mean, "what is your
philosophical position on what constitutes human life?" She meant,
"what is this procedure going to do?" The doctor lied to her. And
the courts took the side of the doctor. I don't think that's fair. I
think an "overwhelming consensus" would say that's not fair. If
nothing else, the woman should be allowed to decide for herself. But
because of the Court's abortion regime, informed consent falls to the
wayside if it might interfere with abortion. This isn't reproductive
freedom. This is a morally debatable procedure being forced on
people.

Finally, I don't think abortion is an option that should be allowed to
individuals, apart from male pressure. You can call me paternalistic
if you like. I think allowing abortion is like handing guns to
depressed people. Physically, abortion greatly increases a woman's
likelihood of contracting breast cancer, as well as having a host of
side effects -- it's actually pretty traumatic to have a fetus scraped
out of your womb. Emotionally, abortion greatly increases the
likelihood of suicide and depression -- for obvious reasons. You may
not be personally convinced that what the woman killed is a child, but
she is left, for the rest of her life, to wonder: what did I do? I
think this has a lot to do with the stridency of pro-abortion women:
they are terrified that they did something terribly wrong, and the
only way they can deal with that is by lashing out against people who
would have tried to stop them. I don't think women should have to be
put through that kind of emotional trauma. I think there are better
options.

From:to_the_editor
Date:September 24th, 2007 09:10 pm (UTC)

(eric's response concluded)

(Link)
Adoption puts a woman in a totally different state. Socially, it's a
little awkward. A woman is obviously pregnant for four or five
months. (My wife and I have two children, and hope to have more.)
Physically, birth is much healthier than abortion. It's actually what
women's bodies were built to do (if you believe in evolution).
Emotionally, women who put their children up for adoption (I know a
few) spend the rest of their lives feeling like heroes, instead of
wondering if they've done something horrible. I don't know if you
have kids, but the connection between a woman and her child is pretty
amazing -- again, for obvious evolutionary reasons. Women are
hard-wired to protect their children, just like mother bears.
Adoption works with that hard-wiring. Abortion works against it.

I can appreciate why a woman would contemplate abortion. To get
pregnant unexpectedly must be terrifying. But there are long lines
all over the country waiting to adopt (I also know several people in
this position). And a woman can get through it, and feel much better
down the road. Precisely because I can imagine why women would
contemplate abortion, I think we should do our best to prevent it from
happening--including by prosecuting the men who make money taking
advantage of women in these positions. I know young women who have
been depressed and have gotten into "cutting," or self-mutilation with
a knife. The obvious answer for these people is to get them help, and
to keep them from hurting themselves--not to hand them knives. I know
people who have contemplated suicide--I even know one person who
succeeded. Again, the answer is to help them get better, not to hand
them a gun, or push them off a building.

You can call this "legislating morality," but I think we need to make
some careful distinctions. First, I am not trying to stop people just
because I don't like it. It's not like legislating that people
shouldn't eat ketchup, because I think it's gross. I think abortion
is an exploitative practice, that men use to hurt women. I think it
should be illegal, just like I think rape and sex trafficking should
be illegal. (Incidentally, I work part-time for an organization that
looks for ways, both legal and otherwise, to help rescue women who are
victims of sex slavery. It's a pretty horrific crime.)

Second, I think we need to be awfully clear that all law legislates
morality. That's what law does. It's hard for me to understand how
someone intelligent enough to have gone to MIT could think that tax
policy is not a moral issue, and not controversial, and not "imposing
strong convictions on anyone else," and an example of "curbing
another's conduct only if that conduct harms you directly." Perhaps
we have a cultural issue here -- I don't know what nationality
Shlyakhter is, or whether you've lived in America your whole life --
but in this country we have all kinds of laws that go much further
than "what harms you directly," and the democratic process provides
all sorts of laws that are pretty controversial, and that are
continually changing. I challenge you to name a single law that does
not impose strong convictions on conduct that does not harm you
directly. (Even laws against murder don't fit your description -- if
I just wanted to prevent people from murdering me, I'd just get a lot
of guns and security guards. We pass laws because we don't want other
people to get murdered either.) That's civilization.

If Roe were overturned, the conversation we are having now would be
much more common. Laws would be passed that are much more complex
than "all abortion is illegal" or "all abortion is legal," because
there is not overwhelming consensus for either of those positions.
There would be conversation, there might be some more careful thought
on both sides of the issue, and there would be laws that reflected as
best as democracy can what the consensus of the people really is. I
hope those laws would protect more women from being hurt by men. You
have a right to disagree, and if Roe were overturned, we would have a
right to try to convince other people. That's democracy.

Thank you for your thoughtful responses,
Eric
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 24th, 2007 11:20 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
eric,

thanks for your email. in regards to your comments:

> You doubt my sincerity in opposing judicial fiat.
>I actually am quite committed to democracy

I'm just pointing out that your article is saying, in short: "We pro-lifers
know that abortion must be banned; now, how do we best achieve this
result in the current political climate?" So your goal is not
promoting democracy
per se -- if it were, you would write an article about how to improve democracy
in general (by making sure voters are more informed about the issues,
for example).
And it's completely ok to do that -- I hope conservatives hold all
their political strategy
sessions on the pages of NYTimes. But it's disingenuous to say you're motivated
solely by concern for democracy. You're motivated by your deep belief
that abortion is wrong and that you're complicit in the wrong unless
you actively work to ban it.

Also, not everything should be up for a referendum; that's why we have
a judiciary
and a Bill of Rights. Splitting Bill Gates' fortune among everyone
may be a popular
choice, but may not be done even the vote is 300 million to 1.
Segregation was quite popular in the South, but was struck down by
judges. Certain rights are just too
fundamental to be put up for a simple majority vote; the consensus
must be overwhelming before such rights are severely restricted.
Having a judiciary protects these rights from being curbed except by
overwhelming consensus.
A woman's right to control her body and her life is one such right.
Your right to
"not live in a country that tolerates abortion" is not.

>the Catholic Church always opposed
> abortion but also always believed that a fetus became fully human a
> few months into pregnancy.

Such unreviewable and implacable stances are precisely why we have
separation of church and state. Any Church is free to preach its views, but not
to use the state's coercion apparatus to impose them on unwilling people.

>I think there *is* an overwhelming consensus that
>late-term abortions are, in fact, killing an innocent person.

Which is why Roe doesn't cover them, which is as it should be. Where there's
such overwhelming consensus for banning something, it may be banned.
There's nothing close to such consensus re: early-term abortion.

>DNA has someone confused the issue -- but
>I don't think DNA is sufficient to establish that an early fetus is
>fully "human."

The above makes no biological sense (I'm a computational biologist).
What does DNA (the genetic material that is the same in every cell
of a living organism) have to do with when a fetus becomes a person?

>my belief that early abortion is
>wrong and should not be legal

"Wrong" and "illegal" are very different things. The legal system exists
to protect us from each other, not to protect us from our own bad choices.
It may not be used to protect women from the possible harmful consequences
of abortions. So all your descriptions of these harmful consequences are beside
the point. It's ok for you to argue that you're trying to protect
the fetus, because
the fetus is a child. But, of course, there's no consensus on that point.
It's completely not ok though for you to use criminal courts to "protect" women
from themselves.

You're free to broadcast your information about the physical and psychological
dangers of abortion, to the point where it becomes common knowledge.
If abortion
is as self-evidently bad in every case as you say, women will be plenty smart
enough to see it for themselves.

If some doctors misinform their patients,
the answer is to punish such doctors -- not to ban their specialty.

>allowing abortion is like handing guns to
>depressed people.

You must be declared legally insane to be prevented from buying a gun.
Are you saying all women should be assumed "legally insane"?

Besides, owning a gun is
a much less fundamental right than controlling your body and your life.
You have many ways to protect yourself if you cannot own a gun
(get a non-lethal weapon, move to a safer neighborhood, call the police).
So the right to have a gun may be taken away on lighter evidence than
the right to an abortion.
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 24th, 2007 11:20 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)

>a man can
>father a "fetus" (or whatever) and then tell the woman that it is
>*her* fault for not aborting.

And banning abortions will make such deadbeat fathers more likely to
support the child, because they'll recognize that the woman had
no choice? Have you any evidence that this actually happens?

In any case, the way to force deadbeats to support their children
(and to think twice before fathering children they can't support)
is to have stricter laws and enforcement against the deadbeats --
not to restrict what women can do.

> I think it
>should be illegal, just like I think rape and sex trafficking should
>be illegal.

Rape and sex trafficking are involuntary things done to women.
Abortion is a voluntary choice. So, there's no analogy here.

>we have all kinds of laws that go much further
>than "what harms you directly,"

And all such laws are strongly suspect, for the reasons discussed above.

>Even laws against murder don't fit your description

Yes they do: I can't protect myself against murder, so I need the
state to protect me.
Not everyone can protect themselves with guns.

Laws against abortion may be justified as "protecting the fetus"; but
whether that
is ok is, as we discussed, not settled. Laws against abortion may not
be justified as
"protecting women from themselves" or based on some generalized
social-policy considerations. The right to control one's body and
one's life is just too basic to
be subject to such indirect reasoning.

>If Roe were overturned, the conversation we are having now would be
>much more common.

There's nothing right now to prevent a very public conversation on the subject.

> if Roe were overturned, we would have a
>right to try to convince other people

You already have a right to try to convince anyone to voluntarily
forgo an abortion.
Why is that not enough?

> Laws would be passed that are much more complex
>than "all abortion is illegal" or "all abortion is legal," because
>there is not overwhelming consensus for either of those positions.

If there isn't an overwhelming consensus then laws restricting a basic right
should not be passed at all. The question is not which laws should be passed
but why it's ok to pass laws on this, rather than let every person decide this
very personal matter for themselves. The presumption in this country is that
liberties should not be restricted except for good public-safety reasons.
(I've lived here for 18 years and am a citizen, by the way.)

From:to_the_editor
Date:September 24th, 2007 11:21 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
>abortion greatly increases a woman's
>likelihood of contracting breast cancer

1. Smoking, is way more physically harmful than abortion;
why aren't you seeking to criminalize smoking?

2.
Please read the NYTimes article,
"Breast Cancer Not Linked to Abortion, Study Says" (April 24, 2007)
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/24/health/24canc.html?emc=eta1

If you're going to make such sweeping claims, shouldn't you keep up-to-date
on the relevant science?

This, I think, is very telling. You would oppose abortion just as adamantly if
the link to breast cancer was never suggested. You just believe, in
your heart,
that abortion (including early-term abortion) kills babies, or might
kill babies,
and you cannot sit still and allow that to happen. All your other arguments --
about breast cancer or social policy or what not -- stem directly from
this feeling
in your heart, and you would seek to ban abortion even if none of the other
arguments existed. Is that correct?

Protecting innocent life is certainly a worthy sentiment. But there's a debate
as to whether early-term abortion kills babies, and there's a reason
there's a debate --
because it's not obvious. Early fetuses are much less aware and conscious than
adult animals, for example, whom we kill without compunction. And banning
abortion invades a fundamental right (privacy) in such ways that it may not be
undertaken without overwhelming consensus.

Also note, that you must consider the real-life effect of your
proposed policies on real people -- not just the abstract "moral
value" of some law. Banning abortions drives
them underground, leading to unsafe coat-hanger abortions. For you
to say "this is
illegal so it's not my responsibility when people do something
illegal" does not cut it.
It often seems that pro-lifers want to ban abortion to "cover their
behind" -- "we have done our part to eradicate an evil, and what
happens outside the law is not our moral responsibility". Well, no.
All effects of your actions are your moral responsibility,
and if you pass a law that is destructive in practice, the destructive
effects are your fault.

It is precisely this elevation of "abstract moral arguments" above
effects on real people
than turns me and many others off from religion.

best,

ilya
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 25th, 2007 06:03 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
Ilya,

I don't think we're going to get much further in this conversation, so
this will be my last post. I'm trying to finish my dissertation,
working a couple jobs to support my family, and applying for long-term
positions. It sounds like you've written a dissertation, so I hope
you can understand. I'll write this last post to express why I think
we've reached a stand-still, and then I'll let you get in your last
word, but I really can't respond. Although it's certainly been fun
sparring with you!

I guess I'll mostly just quote some of your passages (only from your
last email), under headings that explain why I think this conversation
is circular and going nowhere.

First, there are your assumptions about what I think about abortion:

1. "But it's disingenuous to say you're motivated solely by concern
for democracy. You're motivated by your deep belief that abortion is
wrong and that you're complicit in the wrong unless you actively work
to ban it."
(Of course I'm not "solely" motivated by concern for democracy. But
that doesn't mean I'm motivated "solely" by my opposition to abortion.
In logic, your argument is called the "fallacy of the excluded
middle." Just because I oppose abortion doesn't mean I like judicial
fiats.)

2. "You just believe, in your heart, that abortion (including
early-term abortion) kills babies, or might kill babies, and you
cannot sit still and allow that to happen. All your other arguments
-- about breast cancer or social policy or what not -- stem directly
from
this feeling in your heart, and you would seek to ban abortion even if
none of the other
arguments existed."

3. "Certain rights are just too fundamental to be put up for a simple
majority vote; the consensus must be overwhelming before such rights
are severely restricted. . . . A woman's right to control her body and
her life is one such right. Your right to "not live in a country that
tolerates abortion" is not."
(Of course your quotes are pretty dishonest, since I have never said
that and never argued that. You are totally misrepresenting my
position. So you know, every thing I quote below is an actual
quotation from your email.)

Yesterday I poured out my heart to you trying to explain why I think
abortion should be illegal. Your response is that I'm lying. You can
think that. And really, there's nothing I can do to stop you from
thinking that. But it's pointless for me to express my point of view
to you when you don't take me seriously. You are simply mistaken --
but again, there is no way I can prove that to you, because your
assumptions about pro-lifers, and about me personally, trump anything
I say.

From:to_the_editor
Date:September 25th, 2007 06:04 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
Second:
A particular example of this is what I said about early life. You are
so sure you know what I think that you responded as if I said exactly
the opposite of what I did say. Are are some quotes:

I said, "I don't think DNA is sufficient to establish that an early
fetus is fully "human.""

You responded (immediately after that), "The above makes no biological
sense (I'm a computational biologist). What does DNA (the genetic
material that is the same in every cell of a living organism) have to
do with when a fetus becomes a person?"

Your response doesn't make any sense, because I agree with you, and
the sentence to which you were responding agreed with you. I don't
think DNA makes a fetus a person either. You're so sure you know what
I think, that you ignored what I said. I also pointed out that until
very recently the Catholic Church *never* said that DNA makes a fetus
a person, and *never* said that the early fetus *is* a person: it
assumed, in fact, exactly what you are saying: an early fetus does not
have "sufficient matter" -- does not have a developed enough body --
to be considered fully human. Only recently has the Church started to
talk more like the early fetus is a bearer of rights -- but there is
still no official contradiction of your position. I agree with you.
Thomas Aquinas (my specialty) agreed with you.

The Catholic Church does not directly contradict you, and for most of
its history clearly agreed with you. Your response to this is to say
the Church has "unreviewable and implacable stances" and to call for a
stronger "separation of Church and state" (which, whatever it actually
means in political theory, you seem to think means: separation of
religious people from legislative decisions). The "unreviewable and
implacable stance," my friend, is yours: no matter what I say about my
own opinion and the intellectual history I have spent seven years of
graduate school studying, you assume you already know everything, and
respond as if I had not spoken at all. This is a pointless argument.

Let me point out, that this is a pretty important issue: because it
means that my position on legal abortion, and the Catholic Church's
position, is *not* based solely on "defending the innocent." It is
based on all the reasons that you shrugged off because they don't fit
your paradigm.
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 25th, 2007 06:05 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
Third:
Your position on the State is simply dogmatic. I hate to bore you
with quotations -- I know I always skim over them when I read emails
-- but here are several, just from your last email. Each of them
simply assumes a roughly Hobbesian theory of government. That theory
is arguably coherent -- I would argue it is not, but I see how it can
seem coherent -- but in no wise is it 'established' or rational. It
is just your opinion, treated as irrefutable dogma:

1. "Certain rights are just too fundamental to be put up for a simple
majority vote; the consensus must be overwhelming before such rights
are severely restricted. Having a judiciary protects these rights
from being curbed except by overwhelming consensus. [fine so far] A
woman's right to control her body and her life is one such right."
(Why? And of course, why does "right to control her life" mean "right
to kill her unborn fetus"? I know you have an answer -- but it
ultimately rests on dogmatic assumptions about political order.)

2. "The legal system exists to protect us from each other, not to
protect us from our own bad choices. It may not be used to protect
women from the possible harmful onsequences
of abortions."
Why not? Where do you get this definition of the legal system? It is
just your opinion.

3. "It's completely not ok though for you to use criminal courts to
"protect" women
from themselves."
Why not?

4. "owning a gun is a much less fundamental right than controlling
your body and your life."
Why is that? And again, why does "controlling your body and your
life" equal abortion?

5. "Laws against abortion may not be justified as "protecting women
from themselves" or based on some generalized social-policy
considerations. The right to control one's body and one's life is
just too basic to be subject to such indirect reasoning."
Too basic? Why?

6. "The presumption in this country is that liberties should not be
restricted except for good public-safety reasons."
Of course that is not the presumption of an "overwhelming consensus"
or we would not be having this conversation. Nor does it remotely
explain the democratic process in America. The presumption is simply
your own.

7. "banning abortion invades a fundamental right (privacy) in such
ways that it may not be undertaken without overwhelming consensus."
Why is privacy a fundamental right, in what sense does regulating
medical procedures invade one's privacy (we regulate *every* other
medical procedure), and in what sense is a parent's relationship to
her child "private"?
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 25th, 2007 06:05 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
Ilya, I am absolutely *not* doubting you have answers to these
questions. Again, Hobbesianism (and its modern variants) is a fairly
well-worked out system, and is arguably coherent. All I'm saying is
that ultimately you come down to some basic assumptions, and you and I
disagree. Both of our positions are, in that sense, dogmatic. I
think the two main assumptions are (a) when a human entity becomes a
bearer of legal rights and (b) whether government exists to defend
life or to promote the good life.

(Maybe that second one won't make sense to you. I'm putting you on
the first side -- ironically, I think the pro-choicer wants to just
"defend life." What I mean is, I think government exists to make life
better, to help people live more fulfilled lives in society. Your
assertions above all come down to the rejection of that position, and
the assertion that government only exists to protect us from external
harm. That is a coherent position. So is mine. You don't like mine,
I don't like yours. They are both "basic," "fundamental," "presumed,"
to use your words. *Part* of what divides us is the question of who
should be defended -- that's the standard question of whether an
unborn fetus is a legal "person." But I think the bigger part is
whether "defense" is the sole job of government. One job, to be sure.
But the sole job? You and I simply disagree on this. Welcome to
post-modernity.)

Fourth:
Your semi-dogmatic attachment to individual rights, and your
presumption that abortion is a key example of such rights, seems to
trump your engagement with actual facts about abortion. Three
examples:

1. I said, "I think there *is* an overwhelming consensus that
late-term abortion are, in fact, killing an innocent person." You
responded, "Which is why Roe doesn't cover them, which is as it should
be."
In a literal sense, you are right. Roe does not cover late-term
abortions. In fact, from what I've read, Roe doesn't cover anything
anymore. It's been replaced by a series of later decisions with
different rationales, especially Casey. In the case of late-term
abortion, I think the ruling precedent is Stenberg, which says you
cannot ban them without a broad exception for the "health" of the
woman, which includes . . . well, anything that would make her
uncomfortable. It really comes down to the same as Casey: if the
child would conflict with her personal desires, she can abort it, even
at nine months. Last year's Carhart ruled that one particular
*method* can be banned, as long as women still have free access to
other methods of late-term abortion. I assume you don't support
Carhart -- since it was decided by pro-life hacks, overrulling all the
pro-choice justices 5-4.

When I say Roe, I mean, like most people, the Court's whole abortion
regime. If your position is that Roe should be upheld, but every
subsequent decision extending it should be repealed . . . that would
be interesting, and would need some elaboration -- a whole lot more
elaboration than my position that the whole thing stinks. In any
case, I also don't think that Roe is necessary to protect early-term
abortions: you could win that battle democratically, even if we beat
you in the courts.
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 25th, 2007 06:06 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
2. "If some doctors misinform their patients, the answer is to punish
such doctors -- not to ban their specialty."
Such a strange thing to say in response to what I said. Because, in
fact, the Roe regime, as recently interpreted by a federal court, says
precisely that the doctor should not be punished. So again, maybe
you're defending "Roe" in a very literal sense, in such a way that you
disagree with what the Court has determined that Roe means. But you
have not engaged the actual real world, where Roe is held to prevent
malpractice cases against abortionists.

3. "Have you any evidence that this actually happens?"
You say this, again strangely, in response to my claim that abortion
promotes fatherlessness. What is strange is that I cited evidence:
the example of the black community, where fatherlessness and abortion
have climbed, in synch, at a rate disproprotionate to the rest of the
country. All though the same synchronization has happened in every
other community. Yes I have evidence. No, it is not sufficient to
overcome your dogmatic attachment to abortion.

4. "Banning abortions drives them underground, leading to unsafe
coat-hanger abortions."
I throw your question back at you, "Have you any evidence that this
actually happens?" I presume you are well enough read to know that
Bernard Nathanson, an expert witness in Roe in favor of abortion (he
was himself an abortionist), the one who originally "documented"
so-called "back-alley" abortions, later repudiated these claims and
admitted that the "coat-hanger" phenomenon was totally made up to
achieve a policy end. Of course we have no evidence for what happened
in dark back alleys in the sixties, but the people who made your
sacred claim in the first place have admitted that they *made it up*.
What evidence we have suggests that the number of abortions exploded
when it became legal -- surprise surprise. It doesn't take a social
scientist to guess that would happen.

(Let me acknowledge, in passing, that most of what you say is *much*
more intelligent than the coat-hanger argument. I disagree with you,
I think you are extraordinarily bad at engaging a position you
disagree with, and I think your positions are even more dogmatic than
mine -- but coat-hangers is really beneath you, because it is such a
scare tactic and so utterly unfounded in any kind of evidence.)
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 25th, 2007 06:06 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
Finally:
"It often seems that pro-lifers want to ban abortion to "cover their
behind" -- "we have done our part to eradicate an evil, and what
happens outside the law is not our moral responsibility"."

You made this argument in your previous email, too, and I forgot to
respond to it. Let me say that I am sensitive to the argument. I
also abhor moralistic arguments that lay no hold on the speaker. I
absolutely affirm your desire to stamp this out. But I don't think it
applies.

Because the terrible thing about laws banning abortion is that they
apply equally to everyone. If we ban abortion and my wife gets raped,
she is just as much a "victim" of that law as anyone else. If we get
pregnant unexpectedly, a ban on abortion stops us from terminating the
pregnancy too. That doesn't stop my wife from being absolutely
opposed to abortion -- much more viscerally than I am.

(I suppose you'd say that my wife wouldn't want to get an abortion
anyway . . . but that seems to undermine much of the pro-choice
rhetoric. Most pro-choicers say they would never "choose" abortion,
but would only get one in an emergency -- emergencies ranging from
incest and rape to birth defects or a bad economic situation. In
other words, they think anyone would want an abortion in a bad
situation. But my wife and I would be just as much "victims" of such
situations as anyone. We are taking a big "risk," in the pro-choice
calculus, by trying to ban a procedure that we might "need." We are
not imposing any risk on others that we are not taking on ourselves.)

In any case, I feel like a lot of liberalism fits your bill a lot
better than conservatism. (It doesn't sound like you are a
liberal--more a libertarian?--so this probably doesn't apply to you.)
Conservatism, generally, wants to regulate sexual behavior but not
economic behavior, whereas liberalism wants the opposite. It seems to
me that paying high taxes and being forced to recycle is a pretty easy
way to be "moral." Anyone can do that. But being bound to stick with
a marriage even if you don't feel like it? That's hard for
*everyone*. Pornography is tempting for everyone. Abortion is
tempting for anyone in a bad position. Adultery is tempting for
everyone. And all of these on a much more visceral, personal level
than high taxes. In other words, it seems to me that conservative
moral "crusaders" are fighting for laws that hit a lot closer to home
than the laws urged by liberals. When liberals fight to keep
pornography legal but to ban smoking in bars, I think they are
choosing an easy moralism while keeping the things that they really
desire: because everyone gets more excited about pornography than
about a cigarette.

You probably won't agree with this last section. My only point is
that I am sensitive to the criticism of easy moralism, but I don't
think banning sexual behaviors (which so often involve exploitation
and the hurting of children) is nearly so "easy" as the Left's
moralism.

(Incidentally, you are also leaving out a tremendous lot of work done
by the pro-life community beyond banning abortion: especially crisis
pregnancy centers. A few of my friends have even adopted babies who
were going to be aborted. That is not easy.)
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 25th, 2007 06:07 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
Well, Ilya, I guess that's it. I spent a lot of time on this this
morning, because I want to give you a decent response and explain why
I'm not going to respond in the future. I took up this correspondence
with you in the first place for two reasons: first, because it seemed
the polite response to an email, and second, because I wanted to show
you that pro-lifers are not as stupid as you think they are. I think
I've fulfilled my duties on the first count -- in part by trying to
explain, here, why I'm breaking off the correspondence. I rather
doubt I've gotten anywhere on the second one, because you seem
unwilling to take me seriously and unwilling to recognize your own
presuppositions. But I've done what I can, and I don't think it's a
good use of my time to try to do any more. I hope I've given you a
little food for thought.

I'll look forward to your parting blast!

I wish you the best,
Eric Johnston

(ps - you're welcome to post these emails, if you really want to. For
the record, the NYT piece was solicited, not submitted -- I'm really
not looking for ways to get into this conversation. But someone at
their op-ed page heard of me and thought it would be entertaining to
post my position. I'm really not all that concerned what goes on the
web about me, good or bad.)
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 25th, 2007 06:07 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
hi eric,

ok. i'm sorry where i offended you or misheard you, and i appreciate
your taking
the time to explain yourself. i probably did rely on some stereotypes that
may not applly to you specifically.

you're right that some of our disagreements cannot be bridged. i
think discussions
are useful regardless of that, as they help everyone refine their position and
understand better the other side's thinking, even while still
disagreeing with it.

now, let me respond to some of your points, and after that i'll just
wish you the
best luck with your dissertation and everything else you're doing.

i don't believe that government should do nothing but protect us from
each other (as you can easily see by reading my letters at
http://ilya.cc/lett ); i think the government should provide a robust
social safety net, and help people with education, job training,
universal health care etc. but these are all services that the
government offers. that's very different from when the government
forbids you to do something. i very strongly believe that the
government may not forbid you to do anything unless it demonstrably
harms someone else. smoking is bars is banned to protect non-smoking
patrons, not to protect the smokers. the unfortunate result of
permitting everything that doesn't harm others is that we must permit
apparently distasteful things like pornography. but the alternative,
to protect people from self-harm by banning self-harmful behaviors, is
worse. who decides what is self-harmful? some will say that reading
Noam Chomsky is too harmful to be permitted. some will say that
mountain climbing is too risky to allow. who decides? the only
viable solution is to allow everything unless it harms someone. we
have regrettable exceptions to this (like criminalizing nonviolent
drug use), but the answer is to remove the exceptions -- not to
criminalize more "victimless" crimes.
social engineering is a fine thing, and there are many effective ways
to accomplish it.
you can reduce abortions by promoting sex education and contraception
(something the Catholic Church recklessly opposes), by promoting
adoption like your friends are doing, by educating women on the
psychological dangers of abortion, by creating jobs so that everyone
can afford to raise their kids, by increasing enforcement of child
support, and in many other ways. just as, you can fight smoking by
educating people about its dangers and providing smoking cessation
programs. if it's possible to achieve laudable social goals without
the abhorrent action of creating victimless crimes, then that route
should be pursued; and as illustrated above, that is almost always
possible.
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 25th, 2007 06:08 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
of course, we disagree about whether creating victimless crimes, i.e.
protecting people from themselves by threatening them with jail if
they do self-harmful things that harm no one else, is such a bad
thing. in general, most things currently defined as crimes in our
society _do_ have identifiable victimes other than the perpetrator.
that seems to be a reflection of a live-and-let-live consensus in our
society. i think this live-and-let-live approach is a large reason
for this country's prosperity and power, compared with more moralistic
and restrictive societies like iran.

you're right that my strong attachment to individual rights -- that
invasive things may not be done to you except to protect others -- is
an axiom. it is also tempered in many ways; e.g. i support higher
taxes to fund social programs, because taking away part of your income
is less invasive than controlling your medical procedures. and i
support gun control because, again, there are many alternative means
of self-defense, so the particular self-defense method of owning a
lethal gun is a less basic right than controlling whether you have a
child. most of all, "invading" your life by taxing your income or
restricting what guns you may owe is for a clear benefit to others.
invading your life by controlling whether you may abort a fetus that
is not a child, is of no benefit to others. these two considerations
-- how bad is the invasion of your life, and how big the benefit to
others -- must be balanced in all decisions. we just disagree about
what the acceptable balance is.

> (Incidentally, you are also leaving out a tremendous lot of work done
> by the pro-life community beyond banning abortion: especially crisis
> pregnancy centers. A few of my friends have even adopted babies who
> were going to be aborted. That is not easy.)

where did i say that such things are bad? on the contrary, i respect them
very much. but if you can reduce abortions by such voluntary means,
without criminalizing victimless behavior, then there is no need to do
something as drastic as defining a new victimless crime.

>We are
> not imposing any risk on others that we are not taking on ourselves.

that is certainly a welcome change from what many "conservatives" do
(like sending others' children to war but not their own). in practice,
the well-off would still have abortions available to them ( by traveling to
another state or country ), so overturning Roe would ban abortions
mainly for the indigent.

more important, that you live your moral beliefs is very respectable,
but not a justification to impose them on others. jehova's witnesses may
"abstain from blood" in a car accident, but may not force others to do so.
moral vegetarians may not impose vegetarianism on others.
living your beliefs is certainly necessary before you try to impose
them on others,
but is hardly sufficient.

>Just because I oppose abortion doesn't mean I like judicial
> fiats.

i understand that your commitment to democracy is real. we just disagree
about which personal behaviors may fairly be voted upon by others.
clearly not 100% of everything is up for a majority vote, as the Bill
of Rights shows.
exactly what _is_ up for a vote -- that we disagree upon.
From:to_the_editor
Date:September 25th, 2007 06:08 pm (UTC)

Re: (eric's response concluded)

(Link)
>DNA makes a fetus a person
all i was saying is that "having DNA" has nothing to do with personhood
(viruses have it, bacteria have it), so it was strange to hear DNA brought up
in the context of the discussion. certainly there are other biological
features of fetuses that may be elucidated by science, that will help clarify
when a fetus becomes a person. but "having DNA" is not such a feature.

>my position on legal abortion, and the Catholic Church's
> position, is *not* based solely on "defending the innocent."

Ok, good to hear that. It's also based on "protecting people from themselves
by threatening them with jail if they do something self-harmful, or by
threatening
with jail anyone who facilitates their willing self-harm". As noted above,
we disagree on whether this is ok. Certainly, if these things are ok, I don't
understand why cigarette smokers and makers are not jailed.

> in what sense does regulating
> medical procedures invade one's privacy (we regulate *every* other
> medical procedure

"Regulating" medical procedures involves letting you opt for a risky medical
procedure that may harm you physically and psychologically, as long as
the risks are explained to you. Regulating medical procedures does not
involve banning procedures simply because some people may have
regrets afterwards.

This is different for children, of course; the parents or guardians
decide what's
best for the child. But once you're an adult, you're allowed to take risks and
possibly harm yourself. The state is no longer your "parent" in the same sense
that your mother and father were.

>But you
> have not engaged the actual real world, where Roe is held to prevent
> malpractice cases against abortionists.

If women routinely don't have accurate information about what an
abortion entails,
the answer is to improve communication. There is no reason why "in
the real world"
you cannot communicate a message to people willing to hear it.
I'm all for pre-abortion counseling, perhaps by specially licensed counselors
unaffiliated witht abortion clinics. But ultimately, after all the counseling,
the choice must be the woman's, since it's her life and she has to live with the
consequences, and she's an adult.

>fatherlessness and abortion
> have climbed, in synch, at a rate disproprotionate to the rest of the
> country.

Correlation doesn't mean causation -- both these things could be caused
simultaneously by a third factor, such as an economic downturn that
disproportionately affects that group. But in any case, since there are
measures short of criminalizing abortion for reducing fatherlessness --
stronger enforcement of child support, better access to sex education and
contraception, educating women so they have more power and can
stand up to irresponsible demands by men -- the justification for doing
something as drastic as restricting women's choices is not there.
Of course, we disagree whether restricting abortion is such a drastic thing.

>your dogmatic attachment to abortion.

Of course, my attachment is not to abortion per se, but to not forbidding any
victimless personal behavior. I'm uncomfortable with abortion, as I am with
homosexuality for example; I'm just far more uncomfortable with controlling
people's lives in major ways, without justification rooted in public safety.
I do believe in helping people not harm themselves ( I volunteer on
suicide/listening hotlines, for example ); but I believe this should be done
non-coercively.

Ok, I tried to address some of your points. Thanks again for taking
the time to write. Best wishes for your dissertation, your job search
and your family.

regards,

ilya
Ilya Shlyakhter Powered by LiveJournal.com