Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Let's take a moment to talk about abortion and Nazis. Kindly turn down your Godwin sensors for the duration of the discussion.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Action T4 euthanasia program, one part (along with the Holocaust and the Lebensborn program) of the Nazis' overall program of social Darwinism. By the end of the war, they'd murdered over a quarter of a million people judged detrimental to the race, from epileptics to chronic alcoholics. But it began with a much smaller test. From the Wikipedia* article:

Although officially started in September 1939, Action T4 might have been initiated with a sort of trial balloon; in late 1938, Adolf Hitler instructed his personal physician Karl Brandt to evaluate a family's petition for the "mercy killing" of their blind, retarded and disabled infant boy. The boy was eventually killed in July 1939...

Hitler was in favour of killing those whom he judged to be "unworthy of life". In a 1939 conference with health minister Leonardo Conti and the head of the Reich Chancellery, Hans Lammers, a few months before the euthanasia decree, Hitler gave as examples of "life unworthy of life" severely mentally ill people who he believed could only be bedded on sawdust or sand because they "perpetually dirtied themselves", or who "put their own excrement into their mouths, eating it and so on".

Now. Abortion.

After long and difficult consideration of the balance of a mother's rights against the rights of the fetus, I've come to the painful conclusion that I can't support any restrictions on abortion. Not weighed based on the medical threat to the mother; not based on the the state of the child's development; not except-in-cases-of-rape-or-incest... No free person should ever be told that she may not control her own body, period. No matter how much I may hate abortion and care for the human rights of the fetus, one person's human rights can never include the right to use another person's body.

So abortion-rights advocates and me, we're on the same side of that particular binary issue. What's repulsive, though, and what fundamentally undermines the modern abortion-rights movement, is that subset of the movement that glibly handwaves away the extremely difficult moral question by simply insisting that the fetus has no human rights because it isn't a person. Suggesting that one person's bodily sovereignty (or even moreso, her right to privacy) is so important that she has the right to deliberately kill an innocent person rather than let that person affect her life against her will... That's a statement of principle with huge implications. And frankly, I can see why some abortion-rights advocates don't want to make it; some of the implications are a poor fit with the policies of the contemporary American left.

But this alternative--that we can say some humans are unpersons without even the most basic right to live... Thoughtful conservatives are not stupid or sexist for being horrified by that suggestion**. People like to roll their eyes at slippery slope arguments, but it's been less than a century since we've seen an industrialized western nation slide down just this slope. When we reject the principle that being human by itself makes you a person with all the attendant fundamental rights, we open up a vast analog spectrum of capacities from the vegetative to the excellent, with no concrete point between them. If a fetal human can be killed without any consideration for its rights because it's "just a lump of tissue"? Why not that blind, retarded, disabled infant, whose capacity is arguably no better? I don't honestly think that we'll see American alcoholics frogmarched into gas chambers because of our abortion policy. But there's a great deal of room short of that extreme for unacceptable consequences if we accept that people can be unpersoned based on judgments about their capacity or "viability".

In the real world, people are dealing with difficult, judgment-based issues regarding incurable illness, mental incapacity, and conflicts of rights every minute of every day. They're arguably the primary reason legal systems exist. There's no reason we can't apply the same standards to the discussion of abortion. Acknowledging my right to travel doesn't mean you have to let me into your living room. It's time the left moved past the fear that acknowledging a fetal human's right to life will mean a woman will have no right to evict it from her uterus.

In short, the correct answer to "abortion is murder" is not "abortion isn't murder because the victim isn't a person". It's "abortion isn't murder because it's justifiable homicide."

I bring this up (and risk drawing the fell gaze of the Drama Llama) not just because I'm horrified by the unperson argument, but also because I want a strong, intellectually robust abortion-rights movement that doesn't rely on simplistic dismissals of the fetus's personhood, a legally shaky Supreme Court decision, and stereotyping their opposition as tyrannical misogynists obsessed with controlling women's bodies. 'Cause let me tell you, it ain't working. It's been nearly forty years since Roe, and the country is still split down the middle on "pro-choice" versus "pro-life"--for that matter, more specific polls tend to show that only a small minority of Americans think abortion should be truly elective, with a clear majority open to restrictions short of a total ban. People haven't embraced the simplistic argument, and the stereotyping will only get weaker with time, since outside the most liberal enclaves, everybody knows people who don't buy the argument and don't hate women. And on a gut level, I think most Americans do in fact think a fetus is a person with rights, and are already intuitively doing the right-balancing dance. Without commitment to a stronger position, no cultural consensus for strong abortion rights can be reached, and we'll always be at risk of a new patchwork of bans or onerous restrictions.

[* - Yes, I know. But this excerpt has little blue numbers in it, so it's true.]

[** - And I mean thoughtful conservatives. You obviously can't get far with the conservatives who insist on a fundamental right to life that trumps all other rights but only for fetuses, any more than with the liberals who propose an all-trumping right to choose, but only as far as abortion and sex are concerned.]


  1. You know, thank you for writing this so I don't have to

  2. On some level, I appreciate this article, Elmo. It shows a more complete compassion and understanding than I usually get from pro-choicers. But you still haven't sold me on your sense of priorities. It still amounts to, as my (nonreligious) friend put it, "You complicate my life; f*** you; die." With an unwanted pregnancy, somebody must surrender control of their own body. Only abortion means that one surrenders ALL control.

  3. Pretty late to this party, huh? ;)

    I don't actually disagree with you: I think killing a baby because you don't want to carry it any more is pretty terrible. I might (might) go so far as to say there's a moral obligation to carry it to term. I just reject the idea of making moral obligations into legal ones.

    Let me connect this to self defense, for example. If you're attacked by a smaller person who you know is unarmed and can't cause you any permanent injury, but will rough you up a bit in a fistfight, I think it would be really shitty to shoot him. But I insist that you have the _right_ to do so, because you should never be obligated to let somebody else impose on your body for that person's good. My moral opposition to killing a petty attacker can't be justification for legally compelling you to take a beating.

    Same deal with abortion: you and I weigh this up and say that the level of imposition doesn't reach the point of justifying deadly force against the imposer. The only difference is that I'm saying it isn't our choice to make. Go ahead and disapprove, condemn--shame, for that matter. But if you start talking about using force to make a woman accept the imposition... That's when we ain't on the same side no more.

    You should be aware by the way, if you're not already, that I'm a strong libertarian, ideologically speaking. I'm aware that my position here (rights are not subject to interest-balancing) is well outside the mainstream liberal and conservative models.