This Country Needs to Stop Beating around the Bush on Abortion

You’ve all heard the brouhaha surrounding Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame, and you’ve also probably heard the somewhat emerging consensus that he handled the controversy well, mostly by doing that “Obama” thing that he does, which, according to this John Dickerson piece in Slate, is this:

“Here’s how he explained this approach as it applies to his decision-making: “[Opponents] might not, at the end of it, agree with me, but having seen how I’m thinking about a problem, having a sense of how I’m making decisions, that I understand their point of view, that I can actually make their argument for them, and that that’s part of the decision-making process, it gives them a sense, at least, that they’ve been heard, and … it pushes us away from the dogmas and caricatures that I think get in the way of good policymaking and a more civil tone in our politics.””

This is all well and good, except it does not address the underlying normative question: whether the coercive powers of the state should be used to either allow or prohibit abortions.

Having a fair interpretation of your political/philosophical opponents’ arguments might be necessary to resolve political/philosophical questions, but it surely cannot be sufficient. Let me give an example. In any undergraduate philosophy course on applied ethics, abortion is usually taught. And in such a typical course, the student usually reads two papers, considered paradigmatic, by Don Marquis (PDF version here) and Judith Thompson (regular HTML version here), arguing against and for abortion, respectively. And in this typical undergraduate philosophy course on applied ethics, you can expect a typical essay assignment to be defending either Marquis’ or Thompson’s position regarding abortion. Now, at the very least, a competent paper at the undergraduate level will provide a fair reading of the two papers, examine their various premises, and then critique one or the other to support the student’s own position. If the student does well, the paper usually gets a decent to good grade.

If this were the case, the student would be acting exactly the same as Obama says: he has taken his opponent’s arguments, gave them a fair reading, critically examined them in depth, critiqued them cogently, and made a normative argument. But would anyone consider this, by itself, sufficient to resolve the underlying philosophical difference?


So really, Obama is dodging the issue big time here. One can easily demonstrate one’s good faith in taking one’s opponents’ arguments seriously, but what does this have to do, ultimately, with taking a stand one way or another? How does this really resolve the question at hand?

But here, one must give at least a crude account of what it means to “resolve” the questions. My own crude account is that there are at broadly two ways of conceiving a resolution to the question. First, there is the realist conception: namely, one can resolve the question by arguing that either one side or the other is TRUE in a normative sense. That is, either abortion is right, or it is wrong. The history of the debate shows that this question isn’t likely going to be resolved soon on this realist account, but nothing in the question itself suggests that an answer is conceptually impossible. One thing is for sure: knowing the other side’s arguments, giving them a fair reading, and showing the other side that you have given their arguments a fair reading, aren’t enough to resolve the question.

Which leads me to the second broad conception of resolving the abortion question: the political resolution. In this conception, the question of whether abortion IS right or wrong is bracketed aside. The appeal to one’s opponents is no longer based on the truth of the normative claim, but on consensus. Take, for example, the right to free speech. A citizen who happens to be a Christian, an utilitarian of the Millian persuasion, or a dyed-in-the-wools Kantian might all agree that free speech should be protected, but their reasons for their conclusions are probably very much different from one another’s. But nevertheless, the question of “should the state protect free speech” is resolved politically because the resolution does not depend on harmony between the differing and conflicted normative schemes these citizens hold.

Is such a political resolution possible for abortion? Again, Obama simply evades the issue, by talking about how both pro- and anti-abortion folks can agree on the fact that we should institute policies that decrease unwanted pregnancies. Sure, there might factually be a consensus, but what does this have to do with the question at hand?

In this case, the history of the intractability of the abortion debate does constitute very strong evidence that perhaps a political resolution is not possible for abortion, because the history and the content of the debate both show that inevitably, debates about abortion could not bracket aside these differing, conflicted, and fundamental normative schemes that each side holds.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us in a stalemate, both philosophically and politically. At least philosophically, we have not closed the door on the possibility of resolving the questions, but for all intents and purposes, politically, abortion is at a stand still. Obama can do all he wants to make the debate itself not acrimonious in how it is carried on, but he can’t do anything about the intractability of it. We can all be very civil, but civility ultimately does nothing to answer the question.

What will ultimately answer the question, at least on a political level, is coercion: coercion in the form of a fair vote with the majority, whichever side that might be, “winning.” But this result isn’t going to satisfy anyone, because the losing side will feel alienated from the decision and feel that it is illegitimate. And political winds change over time, so the majority will also change. But this isn’t going to be something that the losing side, whichever it might be, can reasonably accept. No matter who “wins” politically, the losing side will feel the “win” to be illegitimate and arbitrary.

And in a sense, it is arbitrary, because we have simply not answered the question. But the existence of this arbitrary conclusion, for a question of this magnitude, both normatively and politically, presents a challenge to our notions of political legitimacy.

And this is the possible conclusion that this country, Obama included, has been trying so hard to push to the bottom. This country simply refuses to acknowledge even the possibility of this conclusion, but given all the history, all the evidence, I don’t see how anyone can simply brush the possibility of this conclusion aside.

No matter how much Obama talks about the need to find common ground, to make the debate civil and not acrimonious, this possibility exists. And it is time that we, as citizens, start to think seriously about its implications.

The New Yorker has Endorsed Obama

So there is no possible way he can lose now:

“We cannot expect one man to heal every wound, to solve every major crisis of policy. So much of the Presidency, as they say, is a matter of waking up in the morning and trying to drink from a fire hydrant. In the quiet of the Oval Office, the noise of immediate demands can be deafening. And yet Obama has precisely the temperament to shut out the noise when necessary and concentrate on the essential. The election of Obama—a man of mixed ethnicity, at once comfortable in the world and utterly representative of twenty-first-century America—would, at a stroke, reverse our country’s image abroad and refresh its spirit at home. His ascendance to the Presidency would be a symbolic culmination of the civil- and voting-rights acts of the nineteen-sixties and the century-long struggles for equality that preceded them. It could not help but say something encouraging, even exhilarating, about the country, about its dedication to tolerance and inclusiveness, about its fidelity, after all, to the values it proclaims in its textbooks. At a moment of economic calamity, international perplexity, political failure, and battered morale, America needs both uplift and realism, both change and steadiness. It needs a leader temperamentally, intellectually, and emotionally attuned to the complexities of our troubled globe. That leader’s name is Barack Obama.”

Nothing really new, but at least with The New Yorker, you can always count on competent to good writing.

Real Means Real?

But that, of course, depends on what “real” really means:

“Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina said that he had heard no discussion about removing Ms. Palin from the ticket. In fact, he said, he thought her daughter’s pregnancy would not hurt her with voters.

“People are looking for real,” he said in an interview. “Real means blemishes, real means warts, real means real. These family imperfections make people say, ‘That family isn’t so different from my family.’”

My own opinion is that this doesn’t matter at all: how they choose to deal with their underage daughter’s pregnancy is their business alone.

But the interesting angle to this story, at least to me, is the need to frame this story as an instance of Sarah Palin’s “realness.” In fact, this whole campaign has been framed recently in terms of how “real” candidates are: Michelle Obama took the stage at the first night of the DNC to talk about her family in order to assuage ordinary Americans (read: elderly white voters in key mid-western states) that the Obama family is “just like them;” John McCain was busted when he showed his wealth by blurting out that he doesn’t know how many houses he own; Joe Biden emphasized his Scranton, Pennsylvania roots to show that he’s “not a Washington insider” (the most boldfaced lie ever); now, it’s Sarah Palin’s turn to be “real.”

My question is: has none of these people or his/her respective staffers ever seen that episode of the Dave Chappelle show with a sketched called “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong?

This fucking obsession with “realness” has got to fucking stop man. Who gives a flying FUCK if these people ain’t “real?” It’s the fucking policy that matters. If my sole basis for voting is based on “realness” and how closely I identify with these two candidates, I wouldn’t even fucking vote. After all, what the fuck does a former ‘Nam POW and a biracial African American have in common with me?

For fuck’s sake, I am a goddamn Chinese immigrant; I don’t know what the fuck it’s like to be imprisoned as a POW, and I sure as hell don’t know what it’s like to be of mixed heritage. I mean, sure, you can always pick and choose biographical nuggets to make the story fit, but that kind of shit is just not logically rigorous: it is purely post hoc rationalization.

So stop with the “realness” shit. And also, as The Dude once said to Walter: Walter, what the FUCK does Vietnam have to do with ANYTHING?

Verily, I say unto you, They have their reward

“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”

-Matthew 6:6

Apparently, someone should have told both Obama and McCain before they appeared with Rick Warren and discussed issues of faith.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with either Obama’s or McCain’s being devout Christians, and even as a former Catholic and now atheist, I am not militant against religion: otherwise, why would I quote the Gospel of Matthews and use the very terms of the Bible to criticize them?

What disturbs me about tonight’s spectacle are the two things: religion as theatre and the creeping phenomenon of a de facto religious test in American electoral politics.

The first trend–of religion as theatre and spectacle–is explicitly condemned in the Bible by Jesus himself in the passage I quoted at the very beginning. I find the very idea of a “megachurch” offensive, because even as an atheist, I find myself agreeing with Kierkegaard that faith is essentially an intensely subjective experience. It cannot be expressed in collectivity, and any such attempt inevitably demeans the experience of having faith. Thus, as religion becomes more theatrical, it becomes less and less authentically religious: it is being transformed from an existential experience to an entertaining one. The institution of religion will have become more central than the religious experience itself.

The second trend–the establishment of a de facto religious test for office–in my opinion violates the Constitution. I mean, let’s face it: the only reason why both Obama and McCain appeared in Rick Warren’s church is because of how big the potential constituency is. It has become conventional wisdom that any presidential candidate must successfully court the “value voters,” which is just code for religious people. But the conventional wisdom unjustfiably assumes that religious voters constitute a single, coherent electoral base, when the truth cannot be any further. Not only that, by giving the religious voting-bloc, if such a thing exists, the kind of electoral power that candidates seem to believe, then this is in fact establishing a religious test for office. Sure, it’s not a de jure one, but it is definitely a de facto one.

The establishment of a de facto religious test for the office of the president raises two troubling issues. First, it demonstrates John Stuart Mill’s argument that sometimes, it is not the established laws that violate individual rights, but rather it is social customs and convention that seriously limit individual liberty. Mill would not be shocked were he alive today to see the phenomenon: sure, Obama and McCain do not “technically” need to pander to the religious voters, but in reality, they do.

Second, a de facto religious test is self-sustaining: because it has become a political necessity, future candidates will have to deal with it. And this means that unless something dramatic happens, the de facto religious test is here to say. And if it is here to stay, then whether or not it is officially instituted no longer makes a difference because the effect is the same in the end.

So yes, verily I say unto Obama and McCain: you have your reward. If they can successfully court the religious voters, then their chances of winning will have increased. So yes, they are going to talk about their faith loudly and publicly, but by doing so, they are demeaning both religion and politics.