Sunday, September 07, 2008

Human Rights and Gut Reactions

I recently read a fascinating post by Frank Schaeffer on Huffington Post on political compromise in abortion. His approach is interesting and compelling enough that it deserves some response:

First of all I don't want to minimize the significance of the biggest liberal site on the net arguing that late abortions are brutal murders and that Democrats should overturn Roe v. Wade. I hope this this realization will be an important step in the gradual political progress that will hopefully lead us away from the violence of abortion.

The ethics of the post, however, are so problematic that they must be pointed out:

"To most Americans--including me--it is gut-check self-evident that a fertilized egg is not a person, because personhood is a lot more than a collection of chromosomes in a Petri dish or in the womb. To most Americans--including me--it is also gut-check self-evident that an unborn baby is mighty like one of us, and that a lot of fast talking about reproductive rights and choice or a woman's mental well being, doesn't answer the horror of a three-pound child with her head deliberately caved in lying in a medical waste receptacle. Perception is reality in politics, maybe in ethics too."

Human Rights should not be based on emotional gut reactions! Emotional reaction doesn't always lead to right ethics. A European 200 years ago would have said it was gut-check self-evident that people of color couldn't live without white supervision. It sometimes seems obvious that people who cut me off in traffic deserve to die. It seems gut-check obvious that torturing one terrorist would be alright if it might prevent attacks. Gut feelings sometimes lead to good deeds and sometimes lead to enslavement and genocide. We debate human rights because gut reactions aren't enough.

Schaeffer calls “absolutists” who would either permit or ban all abortions “stupid” and claims that they are ruining our hope for political progress in America. I disagree, absolutists are the only ones actually thinking about abortion. Schaffer believes most people could agree on First Trimester as a place to draw the legal line for terminating a pregnancy. But any line in the middle of a pregnancy would be arbitrary. What would make an 11-week 6-day fetus a piece of tissue that can be removed, and a 12-week fetus a person deserving of protection? Almost nothing. The development from one-cell to infant is gradual.

There are only two monumental changes that could be logical candidates for conferring human rights: conception and birth. If you deserve rights from conception then all abortion is murder—and we should not compromise on murder. If before birth no one deserving of rights exists in the uterus then shackling a woman for 9 months to a fetus she doesn't want is unjust imprisonment—and we should not compromise on imprisonment of the innocent. While these are extremes, they strike me as the only thoughtful approaches to abortion. We may compromise on all sorts of politics (economics, healthcare, taxes, immigration) but we shouldn't compromise on human rights.

Schaffer's idea might offer a workable political compromise. Drawing an arbitrary line at the end of the first trimester could let some voters rid themselves of the nagging gut reactions that unsettle them now. Such a compromise would work like the “moderate” policy of whites in America between the Civil War and Civil Rights. Whites wanted to acknowledge the humanity of blacks while denying them legal equality or political power. Human rights compromises may work politically for a time but they are inherent contradictions that struggle under the weight of their own absurdity. Only one side can be right. Only one idea will win in the end. I can only hope that eventually a great human rights movement like the one lead by Martin Luther King will bring our divided culture to agree on the moral bankruptcy of killing unborn humans at any stage.

Schaffer is both insightful and correct on one assertion: If Obama loses this election it will be because of the voters like me who would have happily voted for him except for his unwavering support for abortion.