My friend (and Ethics Alarms Ethics Blogger of the Year) Rick Jones went full-Django on New Mexico State Legislator Cathrynn Brown for her proposed, now withdrawn, measure forbidding women who are pregnant as the result of incest or rape from getting an abortion on the theory that it constitutes “destruction of evidence.” The attempt launched Rick into rare form:
“Every once in a while someone mixes up a cocktail of such mind-melting stupidity, monumental inconsistency, and transcendent arrogance that there is little for the rest of us to do but drop everything and gaze in slack-jawed wonderment at the inanity before us. Behold, therefore, one Cathrynn Brown (right), a New Mexico legislator whose latest bill rockets off the scale, leaving “moronic” and “horrific” as feeble understatements of the idiocy involved.”
Let’s calm ourselves and consider, shall we?
Anti-abortion advocates who maintain that any fetus is a human life deserving full legal and constitutional protection often append their principled objection to abortion with an exception for rape and incest, thus, in my view, invalidating their argument, waffling to pander to casual public opinion, and marking them as ethics hypocrites. What this version of the so-called pro-life view really says is “a woman shouldn’t have the right to terminate her own pregnancy unless I personally approve of her reasons. Rape’s a good reason, but the fact that getting pregnant will ruin her life isn’t, and makes her a baby-killer.” It also adds the element of fault to an equation where it unbalances the math. The argument that a fetus is a life should have nothing to do with why the fetus exists: if it’s a life, it’s a life regardless of whether it was created in a sublime union of bodies and souls in moment of sexual bliss and love, a meeting in a Petri dish, a turkey baster liaison or an armed attack. Anti-abortion activists who accept the rape and incest exception either do it because they aren’t thinking clearly, or to cynically appeal to others who aren’t thinking clearly, those whose knee-jerk reaction is “it’s horrible to make a woman have a baby that she was forced to conceive!” Yes, it is, but it’s not as horrible as killing a human being who has nothing to do with the crime—if that’s what you think an abortion would be.
Cathrynn Brown, whatever her flaws, gets points from me for not being one of these mealy-mouthed abortion opponents, and getting that part of the argument right. She believes that a fetus is a person, and that abortion is a currently legal but monstrous procedure that continues to end the lives of millions of innocents every year. This is, to pull a random example out of the air, a far more reasonable position than the belief that the existence of gun magazines with capacity of more than ten rounds poses and urgent and immediate threat to the nation’s elementary schools.
She also gets ethics points for taking the position that if the Supreme Court won’t protect all of the unborn, maybe her law will save some of them. That’s her objective, and its an ethical objective, if you believe what she believes. Rick quotes ThinkProgress approvingly in its critique of Brown’s proposal:
“While anti-choice advocates maintain that a fetus should be afforded the full rights of personhood, charging abortion as “tampering with evidence” effectively turns the fetus into an object. This isn’t the first time so-called pro-life supporters have dropped the fetal personhood crusade when it was convenient—last year, a Catholic hospital in Colorado reversed its stance on fetal personhood in a malpractice suit, arguing in court that the term “person” should only apply to individuals who have already been born.”
Ethics foul there, Rick. The Catholic hospitals’ reversal was pure hypocrisy, changing course to avoid damages, abandoning its moral stand to save money. This tells us a lot about lawyers Catholic hospitals, and nothing about principled abortion opponents. Brown is trying to save innocent lives, and since the law, as she sees it, prevents her from doing so directly, then she’ll do it the best way she can. She’ll call fetuses objects, evidence, or macaroni if it will save lives. That doesn’t make her a hypocrite. That makes her a problem-solver. Law-makers and lawyers often use verbal legerdemain to accomplish by guile what can’t be accomplished directly, and that is an honorable method when employed appropriately.
I have a similar objection to Rick’s complaint that the proposal was especially heinous because it would make illegal the abortions that many pro-life advocates say should be legal. He writes,
“The long-time equivocation of some “centrists,” allowing the procedure in cases of rape and incest, may or may not be logically consistent (it makes sense if and only if the rights of the unborn are extant but not absolute), is here turned on its head: now, such victims are the only group specifically forbidden from getting an abortion.”
Yes, and since the equivocation is intellectually and ethically invalid, what’s the matter with that? Rick is condemning Brown for hypocrisy that would be true of one of his “centrists,” but clearly isn’t true of her. If the complaint is that it is unethical to try to ban the least controversial of abortions without banning the rest, it amounts to allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. This is a particularly good example of The Consistency Obsession, #15 and rising on the Ethics Alarms rationalization hit list. Since Brown regards the offspring of rape and incest just as human as legally created fetuses, there is nothing foolish, inconsistent or unethical about her devising a way to save their lives, since she is effectively blocked from saving the rest unless and until Roe v. Wade is overturned.
Thus Brown’s proposal was a well-intentioned law, an honorable law and an ethical law. Rick is quite correct, however, that it would have also been a sloppy, unenforceable, vague and almost certainly unconstitutional law, as written. Such laws are unethical because they are incompetent and irresponsible. Cathrynn Brown’s objective, however, in the context of her beliefs, was ethical.
Pointer, Graphic and Source: Curmudgeon Central