Sunday, May 17, 2009

Obama, Notre Dame, Abortion

The pro-lifers single-mindedly protesting President Barack Obama's receipt of an honorary degree from Notre Dame University have reduced the Catholic Catechism to a single issue. And it is precisely in the single-mindedness of such pro-life proponents that it can be showed that their concern is not, ultimately, about life.

The president is on the right side of Catholicism on immigration and the environment, just as previous presidents Notre Dame has honored have been on the wrong side of the Church on issues like capital punishment and support for nuclear weapons. To pick on the current president is to pick one particular issue as the litmus test of a person's contribution to advancing human excellence (the qualification for a honorary degree).

That is myopic, but worse still, many pro-lifers proffer their arguments in bad faith, or so Professor Sonu Bedi at Dartmouth argues (28:15 onwards).

If opponents of abortion want to make the State compel women to carry their foetuses to term, Sonu Bedi compellingly asks: why don't pro-lifers also demand that the State compels citizens who are uniquely situated to save a particular life to do so?

The latter are what Bedi calls "forced samaritan laws." As Judith Jarvis Thomson made clear decades ago, a law prohibiting abortion is a forced samaritan law, because a woman considering abortion would be told by the State that she must perform her duty of preserving a life.

Fair enough. Perhaps we should legislate such a world, but the truth is we have not, and are not even trying. In the Common Law of the US, there is, in general, no duty to rescue. That is to say, no person can be held liable for doing nothing while another person's life is in peril. In Vermont, one can be slapped with a $100 fine if one is uniquely positioned to save a life but fails to do so. Consider the glaring asymmetry of the law: $100 versus $2000-5000 in Texas if a woman is found to have undergone an illegal abortion.

Ah, but as the rejoinder goes, perhaps a woman has consented to sex and perhaps that is why she has a special duty to the child she helped create, and not so for the random passer-by who chooses not to save a drowning child. OK, (assuming consenting to sex is the same as consenting to procreation) why don't we talk about laws alongside abortion laws that will also exact commensurate obligations on the father who also consented to the sexual intercourse that begot the child? Why are we so quick to pin consent and duty squarely on the woman seeking an abortion? Pro-lifers who seek laws against abortion but not laws for forced samaritanism are too quick to dismiss the immense physical and emotional costs of child-bearing that women have silently borne for millenia. And if they care only about protecting one type of life (and burdening only one group of people), then surely they are not, paradoxically, truly concerned about life but about something else, such as the preservation of traditional roles in the family.

If we value life, then we should dedicate our lobbying energy to saving any life writ large that is in imminent peril, and not merely the life in the womb. The burden of being pro-life should be equally born by all. Not only by women. If we are to be pro-life, then let us be pro-all-life, not just those lives that only women are uniquely privileged/burdened to save.


Jared said...

You are right that there is a single-mindedness to many pro-life proponents, but not all those who have a problem with Notre Dame on this particular matter are so “single-minded” as you assume. You imply that if pro-lifers were really following the Church on all matters then they would be just as concerned about Notre Dame’s honoring of individuals with apparently contra-Church views on immigration, the environment, capital punishment and support for nuclear weapons. I’ll accept that to a degree.

The problem is that each of these issues, according to Catholic teaching, has a different moral weight, and with several of them there is plenty of room for debate in the way in which one applies the values contained in the Church’s teaching on them. Concerning the environment, the Church teaches that one should be concerned about it and act responsibly toward it, but what that actually looks like is a little more vague. It could even be argued that Obama’s specific views toward the environment tend to be very much against Catholic teaching in light of his “socialistic” tendencies in dealing with the problem and Catholicism’s condemnation of socialism. The Catholic Church, given its explicit teachings on subsidiarity, is primarily interested in dealing with such issues as the environment on the smallest possible level where individual virtue is more likely to be fostered (though this certainly doesn’t rule out the occasional need for govt. intervention).

Immigration and capital punishment are slightly different of course, but they do not rise to the same level as abortion, which they must for your argument to work.

The Catholic Church teaches that abortion, however, is a very “grave matter.” On cannot be in good standing as a Catholic and be in favor of abortion or apathetic about its importance. One can, however, be in good standing with the Catholic Church and disagree whole-heartedly with Obama on the environment, or disagree with/be unsure about Church teaching on immigration and capital punishment (incidentally, the Catholic Church has never absolutely condemned capital punishment) because these issues do not lay claim to the conscience of the faithful like abortion does.

You come closest, I think, when you compare it to the Catholic teaching on nuclear weapons. On this I don’t know quite as much about Catholic teaching. I think that a distinction can be made between having them and actually using them, since there is certainly something to the argument that having nuclear weapons as a threat keeps nations from using them. Whether or not the Catholic Church thinks that distinction ultimately matters, I do not know. On the other hand, creating nuclear weapons in the first place is a huge problem. If memory serves, when the crossbow was first invented it was considered too indiscriminate of a weapon.

Additionally, the comparison of pro-life positions with “forced Samaritan laws” does not work. The pro-life argument is that a parent (or in certain cases the guardian) has an intrinsic responsibility toward the child. This goes not merely for the mother but for whoever fathered the child as well. That the state will hold parents accountable to child-neglect is not in any way a “forced Samaritan law” but simply the state holding someone accountable to their intrinsic responsibilities (I don’t know of a state that doesn’t make this distinction). So also is a parent’s responsibility to an unborn child. To compare it to Samaritan laws is to say that the status of the child in relationship to the parents is no different from the status of the child in relation to anyone else, or, similarly, the status of the parents in relation to someone else’s child. But of course no one actually believes that. If they did then no one would have any problem with a stranger disciplining their child, teaching the child their own values, etc., no matter how much they differed from their own. Have you ever seen the reaction of a good parent when someone else is seen to be taking over their specific

Unknown said...

Dr. Lim,
As a pro-lifer I agree we should be more well rounded. Having said that, (I'll go ahead and say our favorite pro-life cliche) it's important to distinguish between someone on death row and an innocent baby. Also, many would argue that there is a clear difference between actively choosing to abort a baby and being too lazy to save a life in danger. The proposed life saver did nothing to get the other individual in the situation they are in. And also, realize that most pro-lifers will have no beef with you calling them out on being more concerned about one type of life (unborn child) over others. At last, I do agree we should spread the responsibility around to fathers as well.