Why We May Lose Still

The story in today's New York Times about the upcoming partial-birth abortion case in the SCOTUS may seem to some a hopeful sign--at least cases like this are still getting that far. But one reason for worry has less to do with who's sitting on the bench than with who's sitting in the classroom. In spite of over thirty years of arguing about this, there are still folks out there who have absolutely no clue about the fundamental biological issues here.

Today I listened patiently to a student explain to the rest of the class that the term "living" does not apply to fetuses. They aren't "living" because they are still in the womb, where they need "life-support" from their mother. Their mother is the one who is "living". They are most definitely "not alive", he averred.

I have been listening to students say this, and similar things, for the twenty years I have been teaching. These kids aren't stupid--some of them are really quite bright. Today's student, for example, got a very good grade on a recent mid-term examination that, in my opinion, was very hard. The conceptual muddle that kids have gotten into is, I think, partly an artefact of the culture in which abortion is viewed as a sine qua non. They cannot imagine a world without abortion any more than we can imagine going back to legalized slavery. Not all that long ago, when my department was looking to hire an ethicist, a candidate was asked a question about a moral principle. The answer that came back was telling: "You can't endorse that kind of moral principle, because it would endanger abortion rights."

Think about that reasoning for a second: a moral principle that threatens the right to an abortion is ipso facto an unacceptable moral principle. It's not a matter of whether the moral principle is, in itself, intellectually justifiable--it's a matter of whether it coheres with results that we have already endorsed. So much for the Socratic attitude of self-criticism and introspection. Sorry, Mr. Lincoln, we can't endorse the concept of equality before the law, since that would endanger the institution of slavery.

As these students grow into citizens one can only hope that our polity does not deteriorate further than it already has.


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