Monday, August 18, 2008

Abortion and Thoughtfulness

In Rick Warren's excellent interview with Obama there was only one part I found disturbing: Obama's response to the abortion question. His response reflected a lack of thoughtfullness, which struck me as odd - because I definitely think Obama is generally more thoughtful than McCain. In response to Warren's question: "At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?", Obama answered:
Whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is, you know, above my pay grade.
Given the context, this was not a good answer. It was very bad. It was somewhat flippant, elusive, and inappropriately incorporating humor at a moment requiring upmost seriousness. What he says afterwords I can whole-heartedly agree with, but it does not answer the question:
But let me speak more generally about the issue of abortion. Because this is something, obviously, the country wrestles with. One thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is that there is a moral and ethical element to this issue. And So I think that anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue is not paying attention.
I'm not saying that McCain's knee-jerk response, "At the moment of conception" was anymore thoughtful, but at least he answered the question. Obama's response, on the other hand, tells us he doesn't have an answer. But given Obama's admission of the moral gravity of the abortion issue, he should be able to say something more enlightening. Maybe there is no scholarly consensus, but he has cast his lots with those who argue for the permissibility of abortion under certain circumstances, and therefore he needs a principled reason for doing so.

The question that was posed does strike at the heart of the main argument against the moral permissibility of abortion and so he's got to contend with it. I'm not saying that there aren't other considerations to take into account and I'm not saying his response needs to be soundbite-able, but it needs to be considered. Now, no doubt those who oppose abortion often rely on simplistic, scientifically unprovable, or thoughtless assumptions which should not go unchallenged. What reason do they offer for attributing full human rights at the moment of conception? As Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out, the Vatican itself hedges on the issue. According to Ratzinger:
"The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature [as to the time of ensoulment], but it constantly affirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion."
But then again, if we cannot pinpoint a time in which a fetus, infant, or whatever, should gain human rights, then at least someone could argue that federal laws should err on the side of caution.

I just starting reading Jeff McMahan's beefy book "The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life". In the Preface he writes:
...although I defend the permissibility of abortion...., I do not believe the debate should end until we have the kind of intellectual and moral certainty about abortion that we have about slavery. It is important to notice that the ostensible victims of abortion--fetuses--are not parties to the debate, while of those who are involved in it, the only ones who have a significant personal interest or stake in the outcome are those who would benefit from the practice. There is therefore a danger that abortion could triumph in the political arena simply because it is favored by self-interest and opposed only by ideals. We should therefore be wary of the possibility of abortion becoming an unreflective practice, like meat eating, simply because it serves the interests of those who have the power to determine whether it is practiced.
Very well said.
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