Free to Be

An anti-abortion rights letter in today’s Washington Post speaks volumes about the right-wing mind. Jonathan Imbody of the Christian Medical Association writes,

If a revival of federalism sent the abortion issue back to the states, states such as Virginia would not be likely to follow the Left Coast’s lead in denying the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the unborn.

Dr. Imbody, exactly what rights to “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” does a fetus require? (I discuss “right to life” below.)

This reminds me of the scene from “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” in which Stan (Eric Idle) announces he wants to be called Loretta.

JUDITH: Well, why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?

LORETTA: I want to have babies.

REG: You want to have babies?!

LORETTA: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.

REG: But… you can’t have babies.

LORETTA: Don’t you oppress me.

REG: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! — Where’s the fetus going to gestate?! You going to keep it in a box?!

LORETTA: [crying]

JUDITH: Here! I– I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the right to have babies.

FRANCIS: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother. Sister. Sorry.

REG: What’s the point?


REG: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can’t have babies?!

FRANCIS: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.

REG: Symbolic of his struggle against reality.

A great moment in cinema. Anyway, Roe v. Wade allows states to ban elective abortion when a fetus has reached the point in gestation — late in the second trimester — when it might be viable and survive separated from mother. This is, IMO, a sensible and even conservative point at which one might decide a fetus has “rights.” (Arguably, the “pursuit of happiness” begins when an infant first perceives discomfort and expresses a desire to be made comfortable — at birth, in other words.)

But I wanted to call out Dr. Imbody’s letter because it exemplifies several common features of rightie rhetoric.

First, words like freedom and liberty, not to mention rights, don’t actually mean anything to righties. Such words are merely rhetorical devices, planted like flags in otherwise untenable arguments. For example, to righties, warrantless surveillance is OK if it’s done for “freedom.”

Also, notice that at no point in this letter does Dr. Imbody mention women. When women do appear in rightie anti-choice rhetoric, they are either helplessly brainless children who need men to protect them from their bad decisions, or hopelessly selfish “wacko women” who enjoy killing babies. Remember, once righties take an ideological position, anyone who gets in their way must be demonized, trivialized, and swift-boated. Recently there’s been a trend to simply not mention women at all. (On the other hand, tender solicitation is given to the fetus, which is endowed with sentience, free will, and remarkable verbal skill.)

Dr. Imbody also writes that because only some states would criminalize abortion,

Overturning the injustice of Roe would result in a network of safe-haven states where inalienable rights and equal protection are accorded to all members of the human race.

Translation: Women are not members of the human race with inalienable rights and who deserve equal protection.

Dr. Imbody continues,

As with slavery, Americans regret the injustice of abortion on demand. A Gallup poll released in June showed that an overwhelming (2-to-1) majority of Americans consider it “morally wrong.”

A majority might find abortion morally wrong, but Gallup also found “Most Americans oppose the idea of passing laws to outlaw abortion and they soundly reject the idea of overturning Roe. v. Wade.”

Also, unless Gallup released two polls about abortion in June 2007, Imbody is flat-out lying about the “overwhelming” majority. Gallup: “At the same time, a slight majority (51%) believes abortion is morally wrong; only 40% say it is morally acceptable.”

This illustrates another common feature of rightie rhetoric; several features, actually. The outright lies are common enough. But what is more common is what we might call selective use of facts in support of deceptive conclusions. For argument’s sake, let’s pretend Imbody was not lying that an “overwhelming” majority of people think abortion is morally wrong. He implies — without specifically saying so — that this opinion demonstrates regret over legalization of abortion. “Like slavery,” abortion should be outlawed. A person reading Imbody’s letter would likely conclude that the Gallup organization found a majority opinion in favor of criminalizing abortion. Imbody leaves out Gallup’s finding that “Most Americans oppose the idea of passing laws to outlaw abortion and they soundly reject the idea of overturning Roe. v. Wade.”

This is a variation on warrantless surveillance for “freedom.” In this case, Imbody is telling lies for “truth,” truth being whatever Imbody wants to believe it is. He probably doesn’t consider his lies to be lies, because people ought to be for criminalizing abortion, so it’s just a technicality that they aren’t.

In the real world, life doesn’t sort itself into a series of neat binary choices — good/bad, black/white, right/wrong. We humans are messy and complicated creatures, and we exist within complex webs of relationships and responsibilities that affect our personal and “moral” decisions in countless ways. I think most people understand that, which is why many Americans who consider abortion to be “morally wrong” are still reluctant to criminalize it. We need only to look at the real-world consequences of criminalizing abortion to see the harm caused by shoving abortion underground.

As I argued here, the interests of morality and legality are sometimes the same, but sometimes not. Civilization requires enforcement of some matters — respect for ownership of property, enforcement of contracts, assurance that citizens cannot slaughter each other without penalty. Without these basic social agreements we humans wouldn’t be able to live in communities at all. We’d still be guarding our caves from other cave dwellers. But when governments go too far to control citizens’ behavior, even for benevolent purposes, it can backfire. Restrictions can cause bigger social problems than the ones the restrictions were supposed to solve. Prohibition is a classic example. Many of us would agree that the “war on drugs” is another example. The experiences of women in nations that ban abortions reveal that the bans do nothing to stop abortion but do create other problems — death and mutilation from back alley abortions, a black market for abortifacient drugs, women who hesitate to seek medical help after a miscarriage for fear they’ll be prosecuted for abortion.

Awhile back Scott Lemieux argued,

If the goal of abortion [law] is to protect fetal life, criminalization is at best an ineffective and grossly inequitable means of achieving this goal, and the bundle of policies favoring reproductive freedom (including legal abortion) generally produces lower abortion rates than the illegal abortion-no rational sex ed-limited access to contraception-threadbare welfare state usually favored by the American forced pregnancy lobby. If, on the other hand, you’re in it more for the injuring women than for the protection of fetal life, then criminalizing abortion makes good sense.

What about the “right to life”? The concept of “rights” is one that evolved slowly over the past several centuries. Though Jefferson’s “endowed by their Creator” is a lovely phrase, mankind was not aware of this endowment until some Enlightenment philosophers thought up the Rights of Man.

This essay on Rights from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes intriguing reading and demonstrates that we’re still struggling to define what “rights” are and how they are justified. However you define “rights,” they are usually about personal autonomy and the exercise of free will. A “right” extended to an organism incapable of free will, and even of sentience, makes the word right as meaningless as rightie usage of freedom. Also, the rights of one person can clash with the rights of another, which means that the exercise of rights cannot always be absolute.

The philosopher Ronald Dworkin proposed that rights are like a trump card that override other considerations. But the Stanford Encclopedia Essay says,

Dworkin’s metaphor only requires that rights trump non-right objectives, such as increasing national wealth. What of the priority of one right with respect to another? We can keep to the trumps metaphor while recognizing that some rights have a higher priority than others. Within the trump suit, a jack still beats a seven or a three. Your right of way at a flashing yellow light has priority over the right of way of the driver facing a flashing red; and the right of way of an ambulance trumps you both.

This metaphor of trumps leads naturally to the question of whether there is any right that has priority to absolutely all other normative considerations: whether there is an “ace of rights.” Gewirth (1981) asserts that there is at least one such absolute right: the right of all persons not to be made the victim of a homicidal project. For such a right to be absolute it would have to trump every other consideration whatsoever: other rights, economic efficiency, saving lives, everything. Not all would agree with Gewirth that even this very powerful right overrides every conceivable normative concern. Some would think it might be justifiable to infringe even this right were this somehow necessary, for example, to prevent the deaths of a great many people. If it is permissible to kill one in order to save a billion, then not even Gewirth’s right is absolute.

Anti-choice arguments insist that the “rights” of an embryo at any stage of development trump those of its mother. Those of us who are pro-choice think a woman’s well being and free will trump any honorary “rights” of an embryo or fetus prior to viability. Brushing rights aside, plenty of real-world examples show us that criminalizing abortion has a widespread, detrimental impact on the health of women, even women who don’t choose to terminate pregnancies. Indeed, an absolutist “right to life” position is detrimental to the health of embryos. That, to me, settles the argument.

But this takes us to one more point about right-wing rhetoric — the extent to which righties have adopted liberal rhetoric to defend illiberal views. For example, creationists have adopted “liberal” language about “inclusiveness” and “balance” to argue for teaching creationism in science class. Human rights are the most liberal of all liberal values. There’s a kind of evil genius at work when “rights” become an instrument of oppression.

11 thoughts on “Free to Be

  1. This is the biggest Con of all right here:

    “But this takes us to one more point about right-wing rhetoric — the extent to which righties have adopted liberal rhetoric to defend illiberal views.”

    Rightwing ideas are abhorrent. When people understand what they are actually talking about, they recoil in horror. Therefore the Right has learned to cannibalize the language of the Left. “Rights,” “freedom,” etc.

    We need to be calling them on this stuff every time.

  2. OK, I acknowledge that I’m on cold medicine and haven’t slept properly, but I’m strangely fascinated by the idea of a fetus in “pursuit of happiness”. How does a fetus define happiness? How do we know?

    Maybe a fetus is never as happy as when it is floating all warm and cozy in its fluid bath. It’s all downhill from there really, if it develops into an actual baby and gets born, with all that squeezing and cold and light and slapping and breathing air and whatnot? Ick. And having to grow up to make a living? Sure, you and I may think that extra-uterine living has a lot to speak for it, but to a fetus? Has anyone asked a fetus if it wants to be born? (There’s certainly a lot of crying when it happens.)

    I mean, if we’re going to go so far as to ascribe the ability to choose, and ‘pursue happiness’ to fetuses, I think it’s inevitable that we’ll have to bring the issues of assisted suicide into the discussion. I’m sure some fetuses, given the choice, would rather get it over with quickly, rather than endure a long, drawn-out 70 years or so of suffering and embarrassment before death. Don’t we owe them the choice of death with dignity?

    True, fetuses are mostly unable to act on their own in this regard. Of course, we do have a long-established tradition of having the parent act on behalf of citizens who are too young to fully understand or exercise their rights. Presumably the mother would be best suited to decide for the fetus how it would want its rights exercised. Maybe we should let her decide.

    I’d move on to thinking about what ‘liberty’ would mean to a mammalian organism that requires an umbilical cord and womb for its existence, but my head hurts enough already.

    Imbody’s rhetoric isn’t actually about rights, it’s about trying to coopt the language of the other side. It’s like me arguing that banning abortions would be against God’s will, since He could have stopped them Himself, if he wanted. Neither is intended as a honest attempt at sound political reasoning.

  3. I can imagine the Founders of the this country rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, and muttering “what have we wrought?” over the unbelievable notion of their descendents arguing about a fetus’ right to pursue happiness.

  4. Well, what about sperm rights?.. The religious right is denying them their pursuit of happiness with their abstinence only programs.

    This guy Imbody is a nut-job and he should be dismissed as a nut-job.

  5. (Arguably, the “pursuit of happiness” begins when an infant first perceives discomfort and expresses a desire to be made comfortable — at birth, in other words.)

    This would seem to apply equally to the brain-dead and people in comas. Would you agree? (The argument that a person in a coma might someday wake up is less convincing than the argument that a fetus will almost certainly grow into a person, so that’s not really an issue.)

  6. grendelkhan — the brain dead yes, if you mean that their pursuit of happiness has ended for good; people in comas no. Comas can be a temporary condition. I’ve known people in comas who came out of them. It’s not that unusual.

  7. This is the same spinning they use for everything, most recently torture.
    Quaint Gonzales defined torture as physical or mental contact inducing major organ failure, waterboarding does not produce major ( perhaps minor) organ failure, therefore it is not torture.
    In speeches the sociopath in charge simply says the USA does not torture in speeches. Next question.

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