The series of Planned Parenthood hidden camera videos being slowly released by the Center for Medical Progress has reopened raw wounds around what had been a relatively quiescent debate about abortion. The images are indeed shocking, yet public opinion could not be more polarized.
Anti-abortion activists are using the videos to mount another attack on Roe v. Wade, while abortion defenders circle the wagons. Conservative politicians are trying to cut off taxpayer funding for the nation’s largest abortion provider, while liberal politicians stoke fears that this would deny needed health care services to the poor. “Shades of Mengele!” shouts one side; “War on Women!” the other.
Welcome to the world of pluralistic democracy, where believers and atheists must learn to live and govern together. In such a polity, on what grounds does one argue for regulatory limits on abortion? Or legally restrict the use of fresh fetal tissue for scientific research. Or decide what is and is not appropriate to be funded with taxpayer money?
Notice how carefully I word the question: “How does one argue?” Not, “What is the correct answer?”
I’d like to take a different approach to this fraught conversation by not attempting to argue morality. Instead, we need to sit down together as reasonable people and draw some clear lines. Here’s how.
Some people believe that an immortal soul is infused into a human being at the moment of conception, and that abortion is murder plain and simple. Others think such beliefs are based on superstition, and that if a democratic majority of voters decide that, say, infanticide is sound social policy, what’s to stop them?
It is not possible to engage in productive moral arguments on issues like this when people hold such disparate premises. So let’s leave that aside, and agree to disagree on the moral question. Instead, I suggest we argue the case for some reasonable restrictions on late-term abortions, taxpayer funding, and medical experimentation from an aesthetic and practical perspective.
Ask yourself, why do we ban blood sports like cockfighting and bullfighting, even though we slaughter and eat chickens and cows with scant remorse? For that matter, why do we ban televised gladiator fights to the death between consenting terminal cancer patients who are going to die anyway and might prefer to go out to in a blaze of glory? If you can answer these questions persuasively, you have some hope of navigating your way out of the Planned Parenthood quagmire.
Moral issues aside, blood sports and gladiator fights brutalize society. That is an aesthetic judgment. Such spectacles inure us to the infliction of pain and suffering, inevitably coarsening our social interactions while opening the door to the acceptance of ever more pathological behaviors.
Yes, this is a slippery-slope argument with no clear bright lines. For example, some make the claim that violent movies and video games also brutalize society. Others say the same about boxing. Yet, we can all agree that these arguments are fair game even if we disagree with the conclusion that boxing or violent movies and videogames should be banned. This state of mind is a good place to start.
We don’t all need to share the same metaphysical premises to have a productive argument about the things that do or do not brutalize society. All that’s required is that we stop and listen to each other with an open mind and then, together, decide whether and where we should draw lines.
This is actually a case where majoritarian democracy has a shot of coming up with practical solutions we can all learn to live with, including the decision to allow certain practices as long as they don’t dip into the public purse. While such a split decision won’t please everyone, it can help defuse some of the passion with which zealots continue to go at each other.
To weigh in on the discussion in an informed matter, you must have a look for yourself. Arguing about the practice of harvesting tissue and organs from late-stage fetal remains without having personally watched the Planned Parenthood videos and listened to the technicians discuss their gruesome tasks using euphemisms is intellectual cowardice.
And just as I can watch videos of a slaughterhouse and still enjoy a steak dinner, I remain supportive of a woman’s “right to choose” (in the first trimester). I also have no aesthetic objection to clumps of cells being turned over to scientific researchers provided the woman gives informed consent. But if chortling while you cut a recognizable baby’s face open whose heart is still beating to harvest its brain is not beyond the pale, nothing is.