Monday, June 26, 2006

On matters of life and death

There's an interesting contribution to the abortion debate from Roy Hattersley over at comment is free. Unsatisfied with the contributions made by a couple of Catholic clerics to the argument, he argues for a humanist reworking of the terms of the Abortion debate based around an understanding of when the unborn child is capable of independent life:
"Humanists should fill the moral vacuum. We put respect for human life at the heart of our creed and we pride ourselves in pursuing that central tenet of belief with uncompromising logic rather than reliance on mysticism or magic. The rules that should govern an ethically acceptable policy on abortion are not difficult to define. Metaphysics aside, it is reasonable to conclude that the new human being begins when the foetus is capable of independent life. Before that, an abortion is undesirable but tolerable. After that, it is only acceptable in the most extreme cases. They do not include the psychological trauma of the expectant mother. A civilised society does not kill one person in order to alleviate the distress of another, no matter how traumatic it may be."
While those opposed to abortion on any grounds would no doubt accuse Roy Hattersley of compromising the sanctity of life by allowing his argument to shift into shades of grey, it is actually a fairly uncompromising position he takes and one that is probably still relatively unusual amongst those who would identify themselves as being 'liberal-left'.

It's significant that those taking what has traditionally been seen as a more conservative position on abortion feel the need to address even in a limited way the charge that such a stance is either reactionary or misogynistic. Mr Grumpy, for example, commenting on a previous post of mine, describes his growing unease with the typical liberal-left position and goes on to add:
"I am quite certain there are people who know me who, if they read this post, would take it as conclusive proof that I have become a reactionary, misogynistic turncoat. But there's a bit too much at stake to be influenced by the fear of losing friends."
I was brought up in the broad-church of the centre-left and while I still consider myself a member, I'm well past caring if people don't agree. And in particular, should my rejection of the traditional liberal position on this issue be taken as evidence of my apostasy, I couldn't care less because it has never made sense to me.

For instance, and as you can see if you read the comments below Hattersley's piece, a common criticism of the 'rightwing' position is that it is contradictory, since religious conservatives in particular tend to oppose abortion yet support the death penalty. I've never been able to understand how people can possibly consider this a killer argument. Some religious people - Catholics in particular - believe all human life is sacrosanct. But my impression is they tend to be reasonably consistent about this if that's their view and often oppose executions and wars as well as abortions.

And those who don't and support the death penalty, for example - why is this seen as a contradiction? They would argue that a refusal to countenance the use of the death penalty is evidence that human life is not regarded highly enough, since the severity of the punishment is usually held to reflect the gravity of the offence. It's not that I agree with it but it has the virtue of making some sense - which is more than can be said for the notion that the life of the mass-murderer is sacrosanct but that of the unborn child is not.

Anyway, why is consistency held to be such a great virtue? Is this why liberals loved Clinton so much? Because he supported the right to use military intervention if necessary, the right to an abortion and in the necessity of the death penalty, especially during election time. Which is nothing if not consistent.

I used the expression 'abortion debate' although in some senses there hasn't been one. Fred mentions his discomfort at the way in which "the 'woman's right to choose' slogan is chanted at full volume to drown out discussion of the ethical assumptions it rests on." Then there's the "pro-Life" crowd who picket abortion clinics because they love humanity in the abstract but not in particular. There hasn't been a debate between these two entreched camps because theirs is a rights-based position and since rights must be at base absolute, they have been essentially engaged in a screeching competition.

Mr Grumpy is, despite his name, obviously a thoughtful and sensitive sort - more so than me, I reckon. I wouldn't care what people called me or even if I lost their friendship for taking the position I do. Because anyone who believes misogyny is the root of all opposition or misgivings about abortion is an utter fool.

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