Saturday, July 28, 2007

The word "Child" means precisely what I intend it to mean. Nothing less and nothing more.

While we have been looking at the meaning of the word "Church", there is another word that has become seriously wobbly of late: the word "Child".

International (and possibly even interstate) readers will not be aware that our Parliament here in the State of Victoria is looking at removing abortion from the criminal law and incorporating it instead into the Health Act. The surprise and completely voluntary resignation yesterday of both our Premier and Deputy-Premier is not likely to have much effect upon this debate.

There was a very challenging article in yesterday's edition of The Age, by Rita Joseph entitled "The Right to Life is the Most Challenging of All". In this article, she argues that
Such an attack on laws that protect unborn children contravenes the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognised the child before birth as having human rights to be protected by the rule of law.
Not being any expert in International Law, I still thought she might be drawing a bit of a long bow when saying that the 1948 Declaration explicity recognised the rights of the the child before birth. She is on more solid ground, I reckon, with the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which does include the following "whereas":
Whereas the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.
Of course the weakness here is in the phrase "appropriate", which seems to be left up to each individual state to decide.

Nevertheless it was a valiant attempt to point out that abortion must really be considered under these categories of the basic human right to life and the rights of the unborn child.

But it was no surprise to read a letter to the Editor in this morning's edition by John Tobin, senior lecturer in the faculty of law at the University of Melbourne, entitled: "International law silent on abortion". Here he contends (quite possibly rightly--he is rather more expert in these matters than me):
Rita Joseph (Opinion, 27/7) is entitled to raise concerns in relation to Victorian MP Candy Broad's attempt to decriminalise abortion. But she has no basis upon which to enlist international human rights law in support of her view. International law is silent on abortion and provides no rights to the unborn child.
The disturbing bit is what comes next, when Tobin writes:
When states drafted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the question of when life began was one of the most contentious matters. Catholic states wanted life to begin at conception, while numerous Western states, including Australia, preferred birth. The result is a compromise — each country is entitled to determine when childhood and life begins. There is no foundation to argue that the right to life under international law prohibits abortion.
Well. That must just about blow the whole business of human rights in general and rights of the child in particular out of the water. What possible meaning can it have to affirm that each humanbeing/child has the inalienable right to life and "appropriate legal protection", if it is then left up to each particular state to define for its own purposes what or who a humanbeing/child actually is.

The 1948 Declaration of Human Rights was meant to protect us against the likes of this fellow (pictured) and his ideas ever rising to the surface of the human political pond again. Lewis Carroll's character pictured above might seem a little cuddlier, but madness is their common denominator.


At Sunday, July 29, 2007 2:45:00 am , Anonymous Lucian said...

I see You've treated the same subject, and in the same manner as I did.

At Sunday, July 29, 2007 2:47:00 am , Anonymous Lucian said...

... and since mine is older than Yours, I think I'm also gonna sue You, and make a lot of money out of You. (This will also still my savagew, anti-Catholic anger). ;D

At Monday, July 30, 2007 9:54:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

Nah, Lucian, your suit would be hopeless. Indeed we both treat the same subject matter with the same observation (ie. the attitude toward the unborn today is suspiciously similar to the attitude toward the Jews under Hitler), and I know that there's nothing new there, but I was addressing a particular situation in a particular manner in a way that bears no similarity to your blog.

But thanks for the link to your blog.

At Monday, July 30, 2007 1:17:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

What this illustrates is that all attempts to argue for legal restrictions on abortion on the basis that this is necessary for the protection of fundamental human rights are pointless unless you first of all secure acceptance of the philosophical position that the unborn child is, from the moment of conception, a human person. Without an acceptance of that premise, the conclusion that you are arguing for simply will not follow.

This is hardly a novel insight, and yet it is one that a significant section of the pro-live movement seems consistently to ignore.

Once we accept the reality that this particular view of personhood is not generally shared, I think we have two ways of responding.

1. We can seek to persuade people to this view of personhood. But we must realise that simply asserting that human personhood begins at conception will do nothing to persuade people to this view, and if we assert it loudly enough and persistently enough we run the risk of alienating people from this view, in which case we are actually – though unintentionally – fostering a pro-choice culture.

2. We can try to find alternative arguments, proceeding from more broadly accepted premises, for restricting or discouraging recourse to abortion.

My impression is that the American/Irish/Australian pro-life movements have focussed on abortion as a human rights issue, have advanced the human rights argument as the central plank in their campaign against permissive abortion laws, and have been largely unsuccessful. The problem with the rights-based argument is that it tends to be a polarising one, and if not completely successful it tends to achieve nothing at all, or even to be counter-productive.

I think we would do well to look elsewhere, and in particular to look at countries which have relatively permissive abortion laws and yet have low rates of abortion. While a low rate of abortion is not an ideal or acceptable outcome, it suggests that the strategies adopted in other countries have been more effective at delivering practical protection to the unborn than the strategies so far adopted in Australia, and they must surely be worth examining. I think we may find that the discourse about abortion in these countries does not revolve around fundamental human rights to quite the same extent as here.

At Monday, July 30, 2007 4:11:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

I hear you, Peregrinus, but think your arguement leads down an equally dead-end path. Unless we are convinced that and can convince others that the subject being aborted is a real human being, what possible reason could there be to try to "restrict or discourage recourse to abortion"?

I will re-use your paragraph with the Nazi/Jewish analogy Lucian and I (and others) have used:

"1. We can seek to persuade people of the personhood of Jews. But we must realise that simply asserting the human personhood of Jews will do nothing to persuade people to this view, and if we assert it loudly enough and persistently enough we run the risk of alienating people from this view, in which case we are actually – though unintentionally – fostering a culture that wants to exterminate Jews."

I hope you see how absurd and indeed how frighteningly repulsive such a statement would be when applied to Jewish human beings, and realise that it is no less absurd and frighteningly repulsive when applied to unborn human beings.

(By the way, I think the "personhood" vocabulary is a dead end garden path too, because the word "personhood" is even more open to "Mad Hatter definitions" than the term "human being").

At Monday, July 30, 2007 5:18:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

I hear you, Peregrinus, but think your argument leads down an equally dead-end path. Unless we are convinced that and can convince others that the subject being aborted is a real human being, what possible reason could there be to try to "restrict or discourage recourse to abortion"?

Well . . .

I might personally be convinced to work to prevent or limit abortions by my belief that abortion is a grievous wrong against an individual’s human rights.

Recognising, however, that you do not share that belief, I might seek to persuade you to join me by framing arguments calculated to appeal to the beliefs that you do hold. This does not involve a denial of my beliefs, or a direct challenge to yours, and it might actually succeed in saving lives, which presumably is my object, so it should certainly be considered.

For instance, it occurs to me that many of the tortured discussions and debates about abortion come down to arguments about ‘hard cases’ or comparatively extreme situations – threats to the life of the mother, late-term abortions, cases of disability, rape, etc. But the overwhelming majority of abortions actually carried out in Australia are early abortions, carried out for conventional family planning reasons, as an alternative to other methods of birth control – whether abstinence, natural methods, pharmaceutical methods or others.

Leaving aside debates about Catholic perspectives on some methods of family planning, I think there should be general agreement that, of all possible methods of family planning, abortion is, from every perspective, the worst – medically, emotionally, morally, psychologically, in every way. Australia has an extraordinarily high rate of abortion, and this should be deplored on every side as a disastrous failure.

The reason it isn’t, I believe, is precisely because of the rights-based discourse that we have on this subject, in which both pro-life and pro-choice advocates seem themselves as defending fundamental human rights, and as therefore unable to compromise. A polarised debate of this kind can only result in total victory for one side and total defeat for the other. We know which side consistently wins.

If we could move away from these polarised positions, we might actually find there is substantial common ground that the Australian rate of abortion is not a good thing, and that actions designed to promote laws, policies and actions that would reduce it would enjoy a broader acceptance than the current debate suggests. And we have reason to be hopeful that such policies can be effective; there are many other countries with liberal abortion laws and not particular Christian populations which have much lower abortion rates than Australia does.

I think we need to decide whether it is more important to

- proclaim the truth, or

- reduce the number of abortions

We cannot delude ourselves that proclaiming the truth on this issue does reduce the number of abortions, because the evidence is overwhelming that it does not. We must also honestly address the possibility that proclaiming the truth, at least in some manifestations of that activity, can actually increase recourse to abortion – an appalling prospect, but we have a responsibility to face it.

(By the way, I think the "personhood" vocabulary is a dead end garden path too, because the word "personhood" is even more open to "Mad Hatter definitions" than the term "human being")

I completely agree. Likewise the word ‘child’, which is where this discussion started from. But this cuts both ways; it‘s not difficult to frame an argument that calling a fertilized zygote a “child” is a distortion of language.

Arguing about definitions is pointless. The challenge is to find an argument that avoids the trap, and stands some realistic chance of winning sufficiently broad support to actually provide some practical protection to the unborn.

At Tuesday, July 31, 2007 8:58:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

I think we need to decide whether it is more important to
- proclaim the truth, or
- reduce the number of abortions

You know the saying "Truth is the first casualty of war", Peregrinus?

Again, I want to say that I hear what you are saying, but I don't agree with your conclusions.

I do agree that we need good "natural law", "scientific", "reasoned" arguments. But it isn't as if this stuff is difficult. Rather it is that people don't want to hear about it.

There are only two reasons for refusing to recognise the obvious humanity of the human being before birth--and both are based on convenience rather than logic or reason:

1) for some ulterior purpose (eg. a desire to maintain personal autonomy over "my body", or to gain access to embryos for non-therepeutic procedures)

2) apathy (it doesn't concern me so I'm not going to bother to examine the arguments too closely).

In other words, we need to show the latter that the issue is important and it does concern them, and the former that the ends does not justify the means, in fact, it leads to horrors beyond imagination.

At Tuesday, July 31, 2007 11:05:00 am , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

There are only two reasons for refusing to recognise the obvious humanity of the human being before birth--and both are based on convenience rather than logic or reason . . .

David, this isn’t going to wash, for two reasons.

First, the pragmatic reason: it is never going to win over anybody who disagrees with you on this issue; it is positively offensive to them. Therefore as a tactic for improving the protection of this unborn, the deployment of this line of argument is a non-starter. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate the statement, but it does at least demand a recognition that making the statement is not a rational or useful part of any pro-life campaign, and could conceivably be counter-productive.

Secondly, I don’t think the statement is true. The humanity of the unborn from the moment of conception is not “obvious”.

Yes, the scientific/genetic/medical humanity of the unborn is obvious. The unborn child has human DNA.

But this is also true of fingernail clipping, amputated limbs and shedded skin cells, so clearly the ‘humanity’ on which a pro-life position rests involves more than pointing to DNA.

I know you don’t like the word ‘personhood’, but even if you substitute the term ‘humanity’ you’re still essentially engaging with the same argument. What is it that is intrinsic to the unborn child which demands that we respect it as a being with a status and rights the same as our own?

To say that the answer to this question is “obvious” is to ignore the undoubted reality that there are many sincere, honest, thoughtful and reflective people who don’t find it at all obvious - whose position on this question differs from yours and mine. To assert that their position depends on convenience is not only tactically unwise; it looks horribly like a (convenient?) attempt to avoid any real engagement with their position, and the reasons they have arrived at it.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that these contrasting positions are essentially matters of philosophy, not science, and therefore they are not susceptible of objectively verifiable truth or falsification. You can try to persuade people to share your view by appealing to prior philosophical positions which they hold, and then reasoning from those, but ultimately philosophy – like faith – is a matter of individual choice.

The result is that, to be effective, a pro-life strategy must either

- succeed in persuading people to the view that the unborn is entitled to the status and rights of a person from the moment of conception, or

find some other basis for persuading the community that abortions are undesirable, and should be avoided.

If you can succeed in the first, great. All I’m saying is that experience suggests that the second strategy may actually be the more effective.

At Wednesday, August 01, 2007 12:13:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

I'm not stupid, Peregrinus (it's just the way the dress me in the mornings).

I have no intention of using the argumentation I have outlined in my previous comment as a method of persuasion in dialogue with those who do not accept the obvious fact of the humanity of the unborn child. Give me some credit for having some experience of dialogue. After all, it is my bread and butter.

In saying that those who refuse to recognise the obvious fact of the humanity of the unborn child were doing so simply because it would be inconvenient for them to make such a recognition, I was simply outlining the facts as I see it.

And sorry, but I also beg to differ from you on the other point as well. I do believe that it is bleedin' obvious that the unborn child is a human being. I do not say that my toe-nails or any other sample of my body is "a human being". It might be human DNA, or a part of a human, but it is not "human" in the sense that it is an individual human being, whole and entire, with its own individual identity.

And that is precisely what an unborn child is. There is no scientific evidence that at any point between conception and birth there is a rupture in the continuity of development of the human being. Arguments of from the idea of independance ("it is a parasite", "it couldn't survive without the mother") do not hold as this could equally be said of a post-natal human being.

The fact is that the only logical approach--scientifically and philosophically as well as theologically--is to employ a "hermeneutic of continuity": the person that I am today is the same as the person who was born of my mother 41 years ago and that is the same as the person who was conceived 9 months before that.

What "is intrinsic to the unborn child which demands that we respect it as a being with a status and rights the same as our own"? The fact that I was once such a being, and that the being that I then was is completely continuous with the being that I now am: ie. a human being, with the full and inalienable rights that come--NOT with maturity, NOT with independance, NOT with age, NOT with context (inside or outside the womb)--but simply with my inherant and essential nature as a human being.

Science and philosophy are inseparable here. Science can show--and does show--that the development of the human being is continuous from the moment of fertilization. There are stages, but not disruptions, to this development, just as the human being goes through stages of development (puberty, menopause etc.) after birth. This fits perfectly with the philosophy of continuity, and thus with the full human dignity of the unborn human being.

At Wednesday, August 01, 2007 2:59:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

Hi David

I certainly didn’t intend to imply that you are stupid, and I apologise with almost embarrassing fulsomeness for that tone in my posts.

The truth is that, rereading them, they do look a bit lecture-y. What’s at work here, though, is that I use these conversations to try and nut out my own thinking on matters like this. To the extent that I’m lecturing, it’s actually myself that I’m lecturing. So, if you detect a patronising note to anything I say, of your charity try to assume that I am the patronised, as well as the patron.

I share your view as to the intrinsic humanity of the unborn child. My point, though, is that other’s don’t, and it’s not good enough – i.e. it’s not actually correct – to dismiss their standpoints as having been arrived at “for convenience”. When you say that the humanity of the unborn is obvious, all you can really mean is that it is obvious ,to you.

I don’t want to go through your arguments for humanity-from-conception and refute them point to point (not least because I agree with them), but let me give one example. The humanity-from-conception position is coherent and appealing to us because – among other things – it avoids what would otherwise be a problem; when exactly does the unborn become a human being? It is difficult or impossible to point to a decisive event or stage in the development of the unborn as the start of humanity.

Some attempt to get around this by pointing to this or that event or moment as the start of humanity. None of these attempts are (to me) convincing, and they focus on an astonishing range of events, some occurring shortly after conception (e.g. implantation), and some shortly before birth (e.g. some measure of viability).

But others respond by saying that the lack of a clear dividing line is unimportant; there are differences between the fertilised ovum and the full-term baby which (they argue) are relevant and material to the morality of abortion, and the lack of a clear dividing line does not make those differences irrelevant or immaterial. In other words, they see no need for a “hermeneutic of continuity”. Given that standpoint, the fact that we cannot point to a moment when “humanity” commences is not, for them, proof, or even a strong argument, that it must have been present from conception.

It is not enough to say that that is a position they hold because it is convenient to do so. After all, precisely this argument could be made against our position. We demand a discernible starting point because we want simplicity, clarity, certainty and security. We can’t deal with the complexities that human life presents; we want to reduce everything to simpler terms so we will always know where we stand, etc, etc,. I’m sure you know the line.

The bottom line, I think, is that anybody’s philosophical or theological standpoint may be influenced by who his is – his experiences, his formation, his needs, his psychology. A standpoint which supports a pro-choice attitude could be adopted “for convenience”, but so could a standpoint supporting a pro-life attitude. So what? This doesn’t really help us to evaluate the truth, validity or usefulness of the standpoint concerned. Nor does it make it any easier to change the minds of those who disagree with us. If anything, it suggests that it will be more difficult to do so.

I come back to where I started here, which is that from the point of view of actually protecting the unborn, there is limited value in critiquing the philosophical or theological positions of those who take a pro-choice position, or in asserting philosophical or theological positions which support a pro-life position. I think we have long since reached the point where the primary effect of this is simply to polarise the discourse.

There is some reason to hope that we achieve more by trying to build a broader consensus than has been achieved so far, and one which can accommodate – or, at least, does not necessarily confront – different perspectives. I think that those concerned with the protection of the unborn have a responsibility at least to be open to that. Lives depend upon it.


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