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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Thursday, November 18, 2004


Rights of Life

posted by Aziz P. at Thursday, November 18, 2004 permalink View blog reactions
I support Roe vs. Wade. The states-rights solution is simply not acceptable to me for the same reason that states' rights would not be acceptable for civil rights.

As a classical liberal, I firmly believe that the right of an individual over their person is supreme, and inviolate from interference from (1) government, (2) social entities, or (3) other individuals. As a humanist, I believe that the dignity of life is its single most important metric. These two principles, taken together, are why I consider myself a "modern" liberal.

However, with rights come responsibilities...
The problem with most pro-life positions is the complete denial of the classical principle of indivdual liberty. Liberal not in the "leftist/progressive" sense, but rather the concept of liberty itself. Fundamentally, "pro-life" is an autocratic, not a liberal, stance. Using the power of the state to prevent abortion is just as illiberal as using the power of the state to force abortions (such as is done in China).

Why isn't using the power of the state to prevent murder equally autocratic? Because there is universal moral concensus, independent of theological arguments, that murder of someone else (ie, external to your self) is unnacceptable. Murder is the ultimate violation of an individual's liberty.

The problem with most pro-choice positions is the complete denial of the humanist principle of the dignity of life. Humanist in the sense of celebrating the potential of the human being to contribute to society, be a force for good.

Why isn't euthanasia equally anti-humanistic? Because keeping someone alive beyond their time, in severe pain and no hope of cure, is cruelty, and violates that dignity of life. Death is a natural process, not one to be feared, or staved off desperately at all costs. Dignity and meaning is as essential to life as blood flowing through veins or breath intake of lungs.

It is precisely because the unborn child is in a grey area - neither completely "individual" in its own right, nor fully integrated into the mother's person. There is no such grey area with murder of another person. The existence of this grey area between autonomous individuality and dependent sub-entity is the driving force between allowing abortion at earlier stages of pregnancy and outlawing it at later phases.

These are difficult and highly subjective moral issues. But at the extremes, away from the grey area, we can at least claim more certainty. A child just weeks from full term is nearly autonomous - therefore, partial birth abortion procedures are indeed close cousins to murder. However, immediately post-conception, the fetus is barely more than a clump of the mother's own flesh, with some traces of genetic information from outside. Abortion in this case is a close cousin of liposuction or trimming your nails. I am deliberately using inflamatory analogies to murder or liposuction for these extremes to force those of us encamped solidly upon one or the other end of the spectrum to assess the full implications of our position. We must choose our principles first and then accept the consequences.

I am a classical liberal, in that I believe that the individual is an autonomous entity. I also am a humanist, which is why I support "modern" liberal causes such as welfare, social safety nets, etc because they provide the dignityof opportunity to the common man who for sake of circumstance may not enjoy the priveleged life that I lead. I think that it is possible - no, compulsory - to respect life and to appreciate and value the moral argument of preserving it when possible - but also to recognize that preserving life for its own sake, in violation of the principles of humanism and liberty, is not preserving that which makes life worth living.

And what about collateral damage in war? Next time.


A conservative response. I, too, am a classical liberal. I believe government should stay out of our lives in cases that are not about protecting our life, liberty, and property. I am a staunch believer in personal liberty and I trust individuals to make decisions about themselves much more than I trust government to do so.

Since we are both classical liberals, I think this shows the difficulty of dealing with abortion. It doesn't fall on any ideological spectrum. Unlike civil rights, women's rights, or gay rights that are all going to be taken for granted in the future, abortion did not follow the same path. Furthermore, there are many critics of abortion who are not religious. It fundamentally comes down to when you define a fetus as a life; thus, when you believe the right to life is applicable. Personally, I think it is arbitrary to choose anytime after conception and thus error on the side of caution and deem every life worthy of protection.

However, my main disagreement with your post is that you start by saying "I support Roe v. Wade" and then never mention the Constitution. You can support abortion-on-demand or be opposed to limiting abortion just by arguing for it; however, to support Roe v. Wade means you believe there is a Constitutional right to abortion. This to me is a much harder position to defend. Civil rights and women's rights derive directly from all men being created equal and the 14th amendment. But abortion rights appear nowhere in the Constitution. Furthermore, the right to privacy does not appear in the Constitution, but the Supreme Court has ruled that it is "implied." As a classical liberal, I believe the rule of law is the ultimate protector of individual rights. In my view the Supreme Court has usurped the role of legislatures in its Roe ruling.

Finally as a sidenote, opposition to murder (or slavery or rape) has not always held a universal moral consensus. People were trated as animals in the past by the oppresive classes. It took a recognition of murder being wrong in all cases for it to become a moral consensus. I must say that I hope abortion will become as reviled as murder, rape, and slavery in the future. And as I trust the American people to do what is right (even if it takes longer than I like sometimes), I expect abortion to be reviled, same sex couples to marry, and the country to continue moving toward a better state where life, liberty, and property are protected from government and from each other.


DoverSpa's response is an illustration of why I brought up the idea of a "states rights" solution a few weeks (I don't know if Aziz brought this up as a direct result of my post, or general discussion elsewhere in the blogosphere)

Can't we all see that we will NEVER come to agreement on this? And can't we see that both sides have valid arguments? As long as Democrats insist on standing firm on this issue, I believe it will ALWAYS be a critical wedge. There is no easy "purple state" solution. But allowing states to make up their own laws on this issue seems to be the most democratic solution.


I think its somewhat optimistic a view to argue that civil rights had a Constitutional basis, given that slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person:

Article 1. Section 2. Clause 3:

"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons"

I don't think you can support your case that new rights must have a original Constitutional basis to be valid - and you do your case no favor by invoking the 14th Amendment! That is, an Amendment. I don't see any reason to require of Roe a pre-existing mandate of the original document if civil rights themselves have none.

Strictly speaking, "All men are created equal" is in the Declaration of Independence, a document with no legal biding upon our present government (but one I hold even more dear than the Constitution itself). I am therefore inclined to support your invocation of it in defense of your argument. I too can invoke the Declaration, however - "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of appiness" is the central "classical liberal" ideology animating our liberal democracy, and one whose spirit Roe vs Wade is heir to.

I also have to point out that "all Men are created equal" has a different meaning of Men today than it did at the time of its drafting.

My point is not to quibble over the Founders' intentions. The Constitution is foremost a living document. We must interpret it in the context of the present day. Roe vs Wade is a protection of the classical liberty that is independent of that context - its just the details of how to preserve that liberty that are fluid. We cannot point to a static document in the past and critique Roe from that perspective.


Aziz, thank you for your analysis of the Constitution. I have only two comments. First, if abortion should be a Constitutional right, I ask you to amend the Constitution as we did with respect to discrimination with the 14th amendment. Slaves remained being worth 3/5ths a person until this provision was amended, no judge imposed his view on the situation and we fixed our mistake.

Second, your arguments still justify why a classical liberal may be for abortion-on-demand or more likely for abortion in some defined situations. Arguments such as "The Constitution is foremost a living document. We must interpret it in the context of the present day." are problematic in my view. What if "in the context of the present day" judges rule that a fetus' right to life is paramount and no one has a right to take it away. Would you defend that ruling just a vociferously?

I believe you defend Roe v. Wade because you support abortion, not because you support the finding in Roe. I hope in the future more moderates will support a states' rights solution to this intractable issue. Compromise bears many fruits and we are being forced to accept what 20% (abortion-on-demand supporters) of the country wants without letting the other 80% have any input. If Roe falls, it will be the biggest boon to Democrats in quite awhile. And I would return to swing voter status very quickly.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.