Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
The anti-choice brigade has a peculiar fondness for chirpy slogans, including many that don’t even make any sense. (“It’s a Baby, Not a Choice”; “Attention, Rebellious Jezebels“) Among their most annoying tics are the constant equation of marginally-differentiated embryos with whatever else they can think of that seems to carry some kind of emotional punch but has no moral parallel with the issue at hand (toddlers, black slaves, Holocaust victims), betraying not the slightest comprehension that the equation of those persons with marginally-differentiated embryos is an insult to the people they are piggybacking their obsession on. But logical rigor is not a part of that movement. For that reason, children’s story-books are as meaningful a moral argument, to them, as anything else.
In particular, I have heard the catchphrase from Horton Hears a Who - Dr. Seuss’s paen to tolerance and understanding – used as an anti-choice slogan. The story, as I’m sure you recall, involves Horton, an elephant who, with his big ears and profound moral sensitivity, hears tiny noises coming from a small speck of dust he finds one day; listening carefully, he discerns that there is an entire world of microscopic creatures living inside the dust speck. When he reports it, he is declared insane by the moral troglodytes around him, who seek not only to imprison Horton but to commit genocide by boiling the dust speck to put an end to all such nonsense. Horton goes to heroic lengths to save the dust speck until the Whos inside finally succeed – by joining all their voices together equally, including that of the youngest child in the town – in making themselves heard and thus acknowledged as persons in their own right. Horton bountifully concludes: “A person’s a person no matter how small.”
As Wikipedia notes, the book was published in 1954, and the roles of the chief villains in the book seem to parallel that of Joseph McCarthy in his witch-hunts against unpopular or dissenting voices. It has been co-opted by anti-choice activists and organizations since then, however.
Which brings me to the point of this post, which is merely to predict and warn against a resurgence of ironically Seuss-based medical McCarthyism in the wake of the upcoming live/animated film version of the book, slated for release on March 14th. Seemingly unnecessary, given the existence of the lovely 1970 Chuck Jones animated version that brightened my childhood so long ago, the movie stars the annoyingly talented Jim Carrey, as well as Steve Carell and a raft of guest stars. It’ll probably be fun, but will probably kick off an incessant clangor of smug, misogynist voices chanting “A person’s a person no matter how small” with absolutely no appreciation of the irony that in doing so they thereby embrace the concept of “personhood” that the anti-choice movement usually tries to avoid or obscure.
I don’t advocate starting a slogan war over a children’s movie, nor do I advocate hanging women’s freedom from slogans and catch-phrases to begin with. But, as with the annual Roe v. Wade Day protests, organized clinic harassment, and the like, it’s as well to be aware of what’s coming.
UPDATE: It’s beginning. From the movie review page of Christianity Today: A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction:
Seuss’ beloved phrase, “a person’s a person, no matter how small” . . . embodies a principle as simple as it is profound, and speaks to so all areas of our lives and, indeed, our faith. It is a mantra that endows all created things with a sacredness and value found only in their Creator. While Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) never intended his phrase to become a salvo in the abortion debate, many see in its simplicity the totality of the pro-life message.
The film also acts, equally inadvertently, as a model of religious conviction. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” says the writer of Hebrews, “the evidence of things not seen.” Contrasting the words of Hebrews 11:1, Sour Kangaroo tells Horton, “If you can’t hear, see or feel something, it does not exist.” But Horton is persuaded. He knows that the Mayor and the Whos of Who-ville are real, despite not being able to see them. In the same way, Horton’s immensity actually makes him invisible to the microscopic Mayor. When trying to describe Horton to the rest of the Whos, the Mayor frequently employs the sort of language one uses to describe a God who has yet to make himself visible to us.
Here we have a grand Christian missing-the-point Double Stuff.
Of course “a person’s a person” at any size. The question is, are the Whos persons? And the answer, again of course, is that they are. Why do we think so? Because we see that they are – they have houses and villages, a Mayor, a community, thoughts and interests and fears. They’re aware of themselves and care about what happens in their own lives. They have all the moral content of personhood, living lives of interest and value to themselves as persons. Sadly for them, they’re easy to overlook, which decreases the likelihood that their interests will be recognized, let alone valued. But nobody questions that their interests deserve consideration, as soon as it is recognized that they have interests. Which captures in a nutshell the utter boneheadedness of the attempt to analogize their plight to the issue of abortion. The Whos’ problem was that nobody knew they existed; as soon as their existence was demonstrated, their personhood was self-evident. (Once they were heard, they could claim their own interests, which is pretty good evidence of having some.) Not the most evil anti-dust-speck denizen of Seuss’s world denies the moral standing of the Whos, once it is known they exist. But no such question arises at all in regard of the human fetus. The controversy in that case is precisely the opposite of the one facing the Whos. We have always known the fetus exists – but even having seen them, there is no evidence whatsoever that fetuses are persons. It is not merely that they can’t be heard, like the Whos (or, more exactly, can’t speak at all) – it is that they have no thoughts to express, no awareness of themselves to get anxious about, no consciousness of their own existence, no interests, no values, no moral content to the biological processes that make up the sum and total of their lives for at least most of their gestational period if not beyond. The Whos are persons – no matter how small. Fetuses are not persons – no matter how big. That’s the crucial difference that is nowhere acknowledged in anti-choice nattering about tiny little dust-speck lives. And, ironically, that idiocy is actually expressed using the term “person” – but using it in a way utterly oblivious to its meaning, and to the moral difference between entities that are, and that are not, persons. Hilariously, Dr. Seuss uses the term correctly, but his anti-choice followers lack the perception to understand the moral meaning of even a Dr. Seuss story.
The second blunder is just as dumb. Virtually nothing in the second paragraph quoted above is correct. “Faith” may well be as dunderheaded as the Bible describes it to be – certainly it seems to be in common practice. But Sour Kangaroo is exactly right (speaking in somewhat metaphorical terms), and both Horton and Dr. Seuss know it. Horton does not know the Whos are real “despite not being able to see them” – he knows they are real because he perceives them (by hearing them, not by seeing them, but with his physical senses in any case). And it is precisely because the other jungle citizens finally gain physical evidence of the Whos’ existence (supplied by the purely physical process of sound amplification by increased power input) that they finally come to believe as well – and immediately change their minds about the existence of the source of the sensory input that was previously undetectable, after once detecting it. It may be that the Mayor of Whoville “employs the sort of language one uses to describe God”, when referring to the larger world, but if he does so he’s as dumb as a Christian movie reviewer. Why would his constituents believe him when he persists in talking like an idiot? The reason their world shakes and trembles, of course, is that it is subject to large forces imposed from outside – and when the citizens of Whoville gain clear knowledge of the source of those forces, they then change their minds about the existence of the elephant, just as the jungle citizens changed their minds about the existence of the Whos when presented with evidence. And both groups are justified in refusing to believe until they are presented with that evidence – but neither persists in a false belief when the evidence has been supplied. The story is a beautiful illustration of the scientific method. Not only does this reviewer not understand that, but, unlike either the Whos or Horton’s fellow jungle-dwellers, she is incapable of seeing what is put right in front of her. Throughout and throughout the Who story, people insist on physical evidence for claims of the existence of physical objects, and then accept the evidence as soon as it is made perceivable. This reviewer insists on claiming, in sheer defiance of that obvious sequence of events, that they are acting on “faith”. They simply are not – there’s no two ways about it – but you can be sure that fact will in no way stem the flood of false and stupid nonsense we’re going to hear about this – and related – issues.
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