Nation-Building >> Theater of Abortion | return to front page

"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

Add to Google Reader or Homepage Subscribe in Bloglines Subscribe in NewsGator Online Add to netvibes

website stats

Previous Posts
Netflix, Inc.
ThinkGeek T-Shirts will make you cool!
illy coffee - 2 cans, 2 mugs for just $26.

Monday, November 22, 2004


Theater of Abortion

posted by Razib Khan at Monday, November 22, 2004 permalink View blog reactions
Since Aziz posted about abortion, I figured I would give it a try. Unlike many people who assert that they personally oppose abortion but back the right to choose, I personally support first trimester abortion without qualification but am ambivalent about the courts imposing its universal national legality via the right to privacy. Though in the generality I support Roe vs. Wade I worry about the corroding impact it has had on the legitimacy of the courts and the respect for law by the citizenry of the republic. But I come here not to rehash my own qualms, but to address something a bit different: the reliance on reflective thinking on the issue of abortion and its limitations.
When individuals speak of abortion in a political context, they have their talking points. For example, if you are "pro-choice" (support abortion-rights) you believe that a woman has a right to privacy, a right to her own body, etc. (if you are an anarcho-capitalist you would reframe it as a woman having a right to her own bodily property). If you are "pro-life" (oppose abortion-rights) you would assert (more or less) that life-starts-at-conception, or that there is a sanctity of life, and so on.

The general mode of thought here is to present axioms, infer propositions and offer up a chain of reasoning by which you support your argument. This is great in terms of clarifying the positions linguistically, but I believe it has resulted in a perception of more polarization than actually exists substantively on this issue and tends to expose contradictions in behavior.

For example, pro-life individuals often question the logic of pro-choice Catholics who believe that abortion is wrong personally, who even grant that it is murder, but still support its legality. I tend to sympathize with their confusion because I share it. Nevertheless, I must go one step further, and ask, why do the pro-life individuals not take up arms (as some have) in defense of the rights of human beings, persons, who they believe are being exterminated, acts of infanticide which in their literature are labeled a Holocaust? Some pro-life individuals might be pacifists, but many are not. In the past year many conservatives have defended an invasion of Iraq, resulting in the shedding of American life, in the name of freeing Iraqis from the bondage of a dictator. Why is it that these same pro-life conservative Americans simply choose to use political means (which have for the past generation been rather ineffectual) in opposing what they believe to be the murder of millions of innocents, potential co-citizens?

I think the problem is that we are overemphasizing reflective rational thinking. I don't believe that language expresses well the gray area of personhood that the fetus encompasses. Though pro-life individuals will assert an identity between an autonomous person and the fetus, their actions belie such a belief. Rather, the fetus exists in a gray land between non-human and human, it demands political action in its interests, but does not command the moral outrage that is necessary for violent action. Similarly, though some abortion-rights supporters might be unequivocal about their support for the legality of the practice and might even assent to the assertion by some activists that the fetus is just a "clump of cells," if like Bill Clinton they were confronted with an aborted fetus in a jar they would recoil. Though they might make the assertion that the fetus is just a clump of cells, intuitively they feel that it is something more, it is the gray land between cells and person, and so its naked presentation can elict revulsion, shock and outrage.

At this point you might be wondering if I am suggesting a Kassian "Wisdom of Repugnance" argument is appropriate to this issue. Not really, because I don't think repugnance is inherently wise. It just is. We must not deny that we have predispositions, biases, that issue from the basic structure of our brains, shaped by evolution and given form by the interaction between our genetic template and environmental input. When I titled this post the "Theater of Abortion" I am playing upon Daniel Dennett's idea of the "Cartesian Theater," that we have the conceit that all our actions and beliefs are exposed to the world and under the guidance of the conscious mind. When it comes to abortion we behave in such a fashion, as if our religious teachings or secular political beliefs are the sum totality of our feeling on this topic. I think this is a superficial element that is easily extracted and repackaged for political debate, but there are things going on "under the hood" that must be addressed.

Many cognitive scientists have suggested that the human mind is organized as specialized modules, independent functions designed by evolution to deal with certain problems. Additionally we have cognitive predispositions to various behaviors and mental constructs. We learn language with ease, all humans share a similar taxonomy for animals (folk biology), we tend to have similar interest in gossip (Theory of the Mind), even toddlers have a basic understanding of physics (folk physics). Infants when presented with animals or objects can clearly anticipate that the animal will move and interact with it in a protean fashion, while mechanical objects tend to be stable or reactive. They are surprised when objects disappear or reappear in peculiar ways, or manifest behaviors outside the anticipated range for their "kind." I am not saying here that humans are born with a knowledge of rocks and birds, I am just saying that we have predispositions, templates, neural channels, that are ready to receive inputs that express certain ideas or feed us specific stimuli.

What does this have to do with abortion? Well, let's look at the example of a dead body first. If you are a Abrahamic monotheist you officially accept the idea of bodily resurrection so the body is sacred. Fine. I am skeptical that most Abrahamic monotheists emphasize this idea over the alternative that the soul ascends to heaven after death leaving the body to decay (the more Hellenistic rather than Hebrew strand in Judeo-Christo-Islamic thought), but you have an axiomatic out. Nevertheless, I would assert that non-Abrahamic religionists and nonreligious people still imbue the body with some amount of sanctity that their axioms would deny as rational. After all the body is not going to be resurrected, it is empty of life or soul, it is an inanimate piece of decaying flesh. But still the body is generally revered in some fashion. Why? The dead body still looks human! It triggers cognitive templates of "humanness," and so you still want to interact with it in a human like fashion. You also note that the dead body is inanimate, as if it was an object. So you know it isn't human no matter what your gut tells you. The body is in a no-mans land, it is not recycled organic matter quite yet, but neither is it an animate human being. We need to honor and respect it, after which we can bury it (where it is decomposed and dehumanized) or cremate it (a conscious attempt to blot out its signs of human-form). After this it ceases to trouble our imaginations and we can focus on the memory of the individual as they were when they lived.

Now you probably know where I am going: just as the dead body stimulates the human template, so images of a fetus, or the knowledge of what a fetus looks like will tend to stimulate the human template. I don't care how much N.A.R.A.L. tells you it's just a clump of cells, once the cell develops and organizes to the point where the fetus is recognizably humanoid, then you enter the gray land of not-human and human. But the fetus is not a fully fleshed person, it does not interact with us, it is not autonomous and not normally animate. In other words it does not trigger all the cues that tells us that someone is human and we should interact with them as a human. And so you have the reason why pro-life people can get enraged, but not enraged enough to pick up their guns and prevent murder.

Of course you aren't going to get pro-life and pro-choice people to get together and admit, "Yeah, the fetus is somewhat human, somewhat not," and make peace. Nevertheless, I think the Japanese have one answer: they mourn the aborted fetus. Perhaps the perception by some pro-lifers that abortion-rights supporters are callous about life could be mitigated if there was more public acknowledgement and ritualistic mourning, something that indicates that something not quite animal and not quite human was killed, if not in any rationally definable fashion, at least on some instinctive level. Human beings are social animals. The rhetoric of abortion-rights tends to deny this, that is, it is a choice between a woman and her God (or what not), but that woman lives in a world filled with other human beings who care about her and her choices. I do not mean to imply that women should be ashamed or repentant about abortion, but I have known women personally who make a great effort to assert that they are cavalier about the act. Pro-life tracts which glorify and depict post-operative women as traumatized no doubt play up the stress for effect, but I do think they are effective propaganda because it seems highly plausible that abortion is a traumatic and psychically charged act. Acceptance of this reality is the first step to some sort of operational modus vivendi between the two sides of the debate. It is a nod to the reality that there are things outside the rational and explicable at work here, forces deeply personal and private that defy simply clarification into talking points.


Xcellent post, Razib! (though I need to move your first para to "abovethe fold" as a teaser)

minor quibble - the sacredness of the body is not uniform through the Abrahamic traditions. However, your point stands, and in fact is strengthened by the idea thatthe fetus which is "somewhat human" is so by virtue of teh potential of its soul, not by virtue of its (ahem) meat. Its the gray area of the soul that is at issue and which both sides need to come together to acknowledge.

The fact about the Japanese mourning the aborted fetus is a striking one. Much food for thought on how a similar tradition, if it could be inculcated on the Left, would transform the debate. How do we convince Planned Parenthood?


Very thorough post. Let me give one explanation for the lack of violent means by pro-lifers. Most are religious to some degree and almost all are against violence (which may explain being against abortion). Despite what the MSM tries to feed us, most Christians are very big on forgiveness and turning the other cheek. I don't condone revenge to "teach a lesson," but I certainly understand the feeling of helplessness that pro-lifers feel when trying to defend unborn children.

Furthermore, I don't see many liberals attempting attacks on those who use the death penalty either even if they are against the practice. I don't believe this is because those on death row are some form of part human/part non-human. It's because we all respect the law even when we disagree with it.



which abrahamic religions do not consider the body sacred? i assumed that bodily ressurection was a common idea among all the big three? (i believe a few groups like mormons have other ideas) as for ensoulment, i avoided the issue becase this seems an issue where ideas can change, the catholic church for example has shifted from "quickening," which did allow abortion in the early months, to life-at-conception (that is, ensoulment-at-conception).


on the idea of religious people being against violence. some points.

1) generally only the "seamless fabric" catholics take a consistent stand against abortion, the death penalty to a lesse extent violence in general in the form of pacificism (or at least the support for peace).

2) many protestant evangelical pro-life individuals support the death penalty. in michael barrone's alamanac of american politics i remember reading that minnesota was an exception because the pro-life/anti-death penalty position was very common.

3) i have already given the military example: the scotch-irish martial tradition is also a very religious tradition.

4) as for turn the other cheek, sociologists have found that southerners tend to be much more likely to confront and physically threathen someone who purposely bumps them in a hallway (that is, it is a question of honor). so this is not universal, though i do agree that turn the other cheek is practiced on some occassions, it is selective. eg; black christian civil rights activists practiced while white christian segregations attacked, threatened to attack or heckled them in the 1960s.

5) i don't think the death penalty/abortion comparison is symmetric because.

A) the scale of 'murder' is very difference, millions vs. dozens per year.

B) death roe inmates have decades of appeals and the legal process gives them due process. fetuses really have no advocates if their mother decides to abort them.


As way of introduction, I meandered into this blog a few days ago, following some rather obscure links, and rather enjoyed the discussion so I stayed.

I am a neonatologist of south asian extraction ( arent we all?. so let me put in some of my emperical musings from the front lines bereft of any quantifiable data. Otherwise known as opinionated opinion.

Running a neonatatal intensive care unit, and occasionally covering a pediatric ICU as well, dealing with death of a child and the families responses to it are part of my job description I guess.

Consistent Observation: familial responses to death, while varied, have consistent tenor, in that the older the child the more the grief. And the more immature the premature, the more the detached nature of the emotional response to death.

My personal feeling on this was that this discordance in grief was consequent to the nature of the interaction enjoyed by the families with the child who died. So when a 10 year old dies, the outpouring of grief is simply more intense as the parents have known this human being for a decade and have had a decade of " human" verbal and non verbal interaction with him or her. They have known this " person" thus the intense nature of the emotion.

In the case of a premature, who dies, the nature of the grief is very different. And the more premature the infant, the more the reaction tends to be stoical (is there such a word or am i mangeling the english language). Hiotherto, I had ascribed this discordance to the nature and duration of interaction the parents have with the child. My thesis being that the interaction ascribes the child with more "humanity".

The views expressed above, intrigue the heck out of me. Is it the morphologic differences between the premature (and if any of you have ever seen a 22 weeker you will know what I am talking about) that determine parental emotive responses to their biologic child or the duration and quality of interaction.

How does this play out in the context of the abortion debate?
What is going to be the effect of a Neonatologists pushing the envelope of viability on the abortin debate? Already our center and others are starting to approach 40-50% survial rates at 22 weeks. Are we forever going to be constrained in our emotional responses to abortion and prematurity by our evolutionary programming by the non-human or less than human appeasrance of the second trimester fetus/newborn?

Please excuse me if I meandered too far offtopic.


Post a Comment


View blog top tags
The Assault on Reason

Obama 2008 - I want my country back

I want my country back - Obama 2008

About Nation-Building

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.