Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
The recent South Dakota law banning almost all abortions is clearly intended as a strategic move in an effort to allow and newly-anti-choice Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade; the content of the law or its supposed justification are almost beside the point, and its backers have hardly pretended otherwise. It is still somewhat startling, however, to read the actual words of the rube who wrote this law. The gasping scientific ignorance, legal confusion, and sheer dunderheadedness they betray is almost as dismaying as the law itself.
A USA Today editorial by Roger Hunt, the South Dakota legislator who sponsored the anti-abortion law, states, among other things:
In the 33 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, its landmark decision on abortion, medical and scientific studies have produced a wealth of credible information about unborn children, fetal pain and post-abortion problems experienced by women, information not considered by the court. DNA studies clearly establish that the unborn child is not a glob of tissue but is a human being, separate and distinct from its mother. Abortions terminate the lives of unborn children.
In 2005, South Dakota created a 17-member state task force to gather information and evidence about abortions. The task force received testimony and materials from many national and international medical and scientific experts on abortions and unborn children, and more than 2,000 affidavits from women who had had abortions. The task force concluded that life begins at conception and that abortions harm women. Neither of these facts was considered or contemplated by the Roe court. . . .
Because the bill passed by the South Dakota Legislature only criminalizes the intentional taking of human life, conventional emergency contraceptives (for rape or incest) are not prohibited. But once human life can be medically determined, that unborn human life enjoys the same right to due process and equal protection of the law that a born human being does.
This is nonsense of many varieties.
To deal with the easiest first, the “task force” established by the legislature was a put-up job that embarrassed itself with its unbelievably shoddy report. The committee – officially mandated to “gain freedom for the unborn” – was deliberately overbalanced with explicity anti-choice members (16/17s of whom were male), called legions of explicitly anti-choice witnesses, and produced a report so distorted and unfactual that it became an instant laughingstock. But it appears nobody in South Dakota has learned anything about the issue since.
The “scientific” grounding of these anti-choice machinations continues to be touted, and continues to be as spuriously uninformed as ever. The scientific consensus on fetal pain perception has moved from 26 weeks’ gestation to “somewhere between 21 and 26 weeks” at most; claims of “post-abortion trauma” remain as bogus as ever and have been repeatedly repudiated, even famously by anti-choice figures such as Surgeon General C. Everett Koop; as to what science has learned about “unborn children” in 33 years, none of it sheds light on the moral issue of abortion. That, in fact, is the central fallacy of this pseudo-scientific posturing that has become so popular among the mandatory-pregnancy crowd: that any given fact about the fetus will ratify their position on the morality of abortion. The basic claim itself screams “naturalistic fallacy” – the idea that a fact of nature is believed to be equivalent to a moral fact with no moral principle intervening – that you can just say “oh, the fetus is thus-and-so, therefore we have to treat it as a moral person” with no claim at all that links being thus-and-so with moral personhood. And the eagerness with which any fact that seems to aggrandize the fetus is seized on as a springboard to that conclusion (a partial list: it has a beating heart, it has “brainwaves”, it feels pain, it has fingers or toes, it has human DNA, it has unique human DNA, it moves, it “screams”, it yawns . . .), and how flimsy and irrelevant such facts are, demonstrates how irrelevant real moral reasoning is to the anti-choice position.
Hunt’s editorial is a classic case in point: whatever may be the biological or moral status of the fetus, “DNA studies” have contributed nothing to its understanding. No one has ever been in doubt that a fetus is a “human being” in a biological sense, or that it was an individual organism “distinct” from its mother. That it is “separate” from that mother is errant nonsense: it’s inside her, and the whole point to abortion is to separate it from her. (Of course, if we were allowed to treat his words as if they made sense, we could end the entire argument right here: since the fetus, Hunt has determined, is already separate from the mother, then obviously nothing can happen if we simply . . . create a little space . . . between the placenta and the endometrium, or between the fetus’s body and its – separate and distinct – mother’s.) More importantly, Hunt knows (or, at least, most anti-choice activists know – what Hunt knows is gravely in doubt) that the real question is not biological but moral: the scientific fact that a fetus is biologically a human being is not the issue unless you introduce the moral proposition that all and every biologically human being is also a moral person – a claim that is an inescapable implicit premise of every “scientific” anti-choice argument but one that almost never gets made openly. It is a tremendous stroke of luck for anti-choicers that the phrase most lay people use to refer to moral persons is the more biologically-loaded term “human being”; that allows them to disingenuously make a biological claim (human fetuses are human) in the same words most people would use to make a moral claim (human fetuses are moral persons), without acknowledging the difference. Hunt thus silently slips morally-loaded terms like “human being” and “child” into a debate in which he has not bothered to introduce any actual moral premises, claiming that “medical and scientific studies” have proven them correct. The noise about “DNA studies” has become a recent anti-choice trope; it is both factually false (there have been no DNA studies of relevance to the abortion debate) and logically ungrounded, but it sounds so up-to-date and factual that morons like Hunt can use it, likely without even knowing why they’re wrong, and more sophisticated anti-choices can use it as yet another means to obfuscate their position.
Hunt also seems confused as to which hymnbook the Church of the Mandatory Pregnancy is singing from this week. He claims his bill cannot prohibit emergency contraception “(for rape or incest)” because it only addresses the “intentional taking of human life”. But his own opening paragraph informs us that “DNA studies clearly establish” that “a human being, separate and distinct from its mother” is an “unborn child” and deserving of protection. As his fellow anti-choicers would no doubt quickly inform him, this means that the one-celled zygote or pre-implanted embryo is also an “unborn child” – since it is certainly just as “distinct” from the woman, on the basis of its DNA, as an implanted embryo, and a hell of a lot more “separate”. This is the whole point to the furor over emergency contraception taking place in other wings of the mandatory-pregnancy movement – a trend based on exactly the same arguments Hunt uses to establish (on scientific grounds) the moral status of the implanted embryo. The anti-EC crowd claims that precisely the scientific facts Hunt notes make the non-implanted conceptus a moral person as well. And if that is the case, then taking EC to prevent the further development of that conceptus would have to be regarded as “the intentional taking of human life”. Either Hunt doesn’t understand his own bill, or he doesn’t understand the implications of his own bogus “arguments”, or both.
As to what he means by “once human life can be medically determined” . . . I don’t know. It’s not even grammatical, let alone sensible, and his conclusion from this medical fact – “that unborn human life enjoys the same right to due process and equal protection of the law that a born human being does” – is both a moral and legal flight of fancy that, characteristically, rests on no further argumentative premise whatsoever beyond the bare “medical fact” that he mentions. It is yet another example of the magical hidden moral principle that somehow makes all anti-choice arguments follow validly from biological facts alone.
As Mark Twain put it:
There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
This letter stands as testimony to both the ignorance and the gross disingenuity of the anti-choice movement. Whatever seems in some way compatible with their bizarrely obsessive vision of the fetus is taken by them to be proof of its truth – and that truth is taken by itself to justify their moral and policy positions with nothing added. The worst of them – and somehow Hunt strikes me as more blundering than devious, though I could be wrong – are completely oblivious to the gaps and leaps this entails; the most cynical of them use their ambiguous language and attention-getting overhype of “science” to deliberately obfuscate and mislead. Hunt gives us a pretty fair sample platter of anti-choice confusion here, and that he does so in public defense of the most virulently anti-choice bill in recent memory illustrates how shameless that movement is. Their typical arguments wouldn’t pass muster in a first-semester logic course, and they either don’t care or don’t need to bother. Even if some of them are so confused that they don’t know they’re spouting nonsense, the more influential leaders are not – and so have succeeded in hornswoggling their own followers as part of their attempt to do so with the rest of the public.
Here’s a question: what percentage of the anti-choice movement (not just the general public that leans anti-choice on polls, but actual mandatory pregnancy activists or people really strongly committed to it as an issue) realizes it’s full of shit? That is, what percentage holds a strong anti-choice position not because they have considered, consciously-held moral principles that hold women less important than fetuses, but instead because they believe false claims of fact or grossly distorted logical arguments without knowing it? And would it help to educate these people, or are those fallacious arguments just rationalizations for generally conservative leanings that are not going to go away no matter what?
I’ll leave you by noting that Twain also said:
All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.
It’s clearly working for Roger Hunt, and many of his kind.
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