The President’s reckless rhetoric

 […] This is a country where everyone deserves the same freedom and opportunities to fulfill their dreams.

–From the Statement by the President on Roe v. Wade Anniversary, January 22, 2014

So end President Obama’s remarks about Roe v. Wade and his administration’s official stance on abortion, released on the 41st anniversary of the decision.  Unfortunately, the President’s remarks are deeply problematic, for reasons he probably didn’t intend.

The problem lies with the rhetoric: it is broad.  Too broad.  Much too broad.  So broad that an aircraft carrier can be parallel parked in the gap it leaves.  The logic of the statement is quite simple: abortion is a good thing because it helps women maintain equal footing and allows them to pursue their goals.  What could possibly be wrong with such a statement?

In his article for the Christian Research Journal, bioethicist Scott Klusendorf quotes several ethicists who defend the position that newborns and infants may be terminated on the basis of disability or a simple lack of development, or simply because they are not considered persons who have human rights until a given point after birth.  Klusendorf quotes Singer:

“Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

Consider also, from his textbook Practical Ethics:

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of the happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.

To be fair, Singer says that in most cases infanticide may be morally wrong–but that claim seems dubious in light of his much earlier claim about the moral worth of the lives of newborns.  But Singer is not alone.  Other ethicists have echoed Singer and have gone farther than him.  Klusendorf quotes Michael Tooley from 1972, the year before Roe, and draws the logical conclusion:

“[A human being] possess[es] a serious right to life only if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity.”  Infants do not qualify.

Klusendorf’s discussion of another ethicist’s comments deserve attention as well.

More recently, American University philosophy professor Jeffrey Reiman has asserted that unlike mature human beings, infants do not “possess in their own right a property that makes it wrong to kill them.” He explicitly holds that infants are not persons with a right to life and that “there will be permissible exceptions to the rule against killing infants that will not apply to the rule against killing adults and children.”

So with these philosophers in mind, let’s revisit the President’s remarks.  The logic is unambiguous: if abortion can allow a woman to achieve her goals, it should be permissible.  But the President’s rhetoric is careless: these ethicists have given reasons why they think infanticide should be permissible, and all of them are grounded in the same defense of abortion that Obama has appealed to.

Which raises some uncomfortable questions for President Obama.  What reasons can he give for his stated defense of abortion that do not equally apply to Singers,’ Tooley’s, and Reiman’s defenses of infanticide?  If abortion–the act of ending a human life–is acceptable at one stage based upon the physical attributes of the unborn, as far as the ambitions of women or families are concerned, then Singer’s point that the newly born are developmentally similar to the unborn means that Singer and company can (and has)  use that very same rhetoric in the defense of infanticide on the basis that it will allow for the very same goals and opportunities to be pursued.

Which is surely not what the President meant to say, but the logic of his statement is unavoidable.  Why not follow Singer, Tooley, and others in their arguments about abortion and infanticide?  Would not more goals and ambitions be pursued by allowing infanticide?  Surely the good would outweigh the bad in such a scenario.  If size, location, or degrees of dependency or development can be appealed to to terminate a human being so that another can achieve a particular objective, why not grant more achievement?

But Singer is right in pointing out that newborns are developmentally similar to their unborn counterparts, and there is something of a circular firing squad within pro-choice philosophy.  To quote Christopher Kaczor, “Arguments against infanticide often apply equally well to abortion while arguments in favor of abortion often apply equally well to infanticide (The Ethics of Abortion, p. 41).”

And it is into this disturbing philosophical tempest that the President deploys his remarks.  Surely President Obama does not mean to allow such an application of his statement, but his sentiments are not used by defenders of abortion alone.  When his rhetoric can be used–and is used–by those defending infanticide, that rhetoric needs to be critically examined.

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