Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Life doesn’t begin at conception (Part I)

Okay, that’s not really true. So far as I can tell, so far as my reason allows me to understand these things, it would appear that life does in fact begin at conception. But it’s time to stop arguing that it does. (Bear with me here, and keep your finger off the “flame this SOB” key until you finish reading.)

First, it is the settled law of the land that life does not begin at conception. Roe v. Wade, as bad and muddled a decision as it is (and please, don’t argue about it with me or anyone else if you haven’t read at least the 4-5 page summary part of the decision) is clear on this much. And Roe has achieved the kind of status in law that is extraordinarily hard to dislodge. “Stare decisis” has been invoked around it in too many cases for it to have much probability of being overturned. Short of a constitutional amendment, I don’t think the United States Code or Constitution will ever directly afford legal protection to a nonviable fetus.

Second, it’s not a good argument to make, when those who make it are almost all religious people, and many of those who oppose it are not. For, obviously, it is a matter of faith that life begins at conception. And while it is equally true that it is a matter of faith for people who favor abortion that life does not begin at conception, you will never get them to admit this, any more than they admit atheism has become a faith unto itself. You can’t win an argument with an opponent who is not honest about his premises.

If we cannot expect, then, to change the law of the land to respect life at its earliest stages, and we cannot hope to persuade abortion proponents that life begins very early indeed, how can we possibly hope to fulfill our duty to protect life?

The answer lies in the rhetoric of the opposition, at the heart of their argument, in the very words “a woman’s right to choose.” I must admit a candid admiration for the Madison Avenue fellow who crafted this phrase: no corporate slogan has ever resonated so clearly and fully with its intended argument. Whoever it was clearly served the Devil, of course, but those who profess to be on the side of the Light, were we to serve God half as well, would surely have triumphed long ago.

It is clever for what it seems to say, and what it omits. It implies without ever actually saying something that all right-thinking people ought to favor: a woman’s right to make choices. What serious Christian would ever argue that a woman ought not make choices? Free will, after all, is an essential component of all serious Christian thought. I will return to this point in a moment.

Its omissions are equally devious. A binary infinitive that lacks an object is really an excellent choice for obfuscation. When you say you are going “to choose” you are generally choosing among a finite list of possibilities, most often between two (hence, the “binary” aspect). That is, however many possibilities you begin with, when you make a final decision it almost always comes down only to this or that, as reason pares away improbable choices well in advance of the ultimate one.

By omitting the object of the choice, one strengthens the idea, first, that it is really the absolute power ever to decide anything for oneself that is at stake, and, second, it avoids an unpleasant discussion of the particular act that is under consideration. Since nearly everyone alive (except certain totalitarians and Peter Singer) would rule at least a few possible choices out of bounds a priori--and would candidly acknowledge that no one’s choices are completely unfettered—this is a really remarkable sleight of hand.

Part II will tomorrow take up what to do with this information.


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