Faith and works

Babykillers
"If you saw this, you would take action — wouldn't you?"

That text, on a direct mail ad by an anti-Obama group, accompanies a photo of a baby carriage sitting on the railroad tracks.

This is why I can't take these people seriously.

Let's play along, shall we? Let's try, for the sake of argument, to accept the premise of this ad: Abortion is indistinguishable from killing babies and politicians who support abortion rights are the kind of people who would do nothing and pass by if they saw a baby — a poor, adorably helpless baby — abandoned in the path of an oncoming train.

The people who composed, prepared, funded and shipped this mailer do not believe any of that.

They're not lying, exactly. They like the idea that something like this might be true. They want the world to be like this. They want the world to be easily divided between heroes and villains, and they want to be able to count themselves on the heroic side of that divide. And if you really, really want something to be true — if you really, really, deep in your heart, wish you deserved to be able to think of yourself as the heroic rescuer of imperiled babies — then declaring it to be true isn't really lying, is it?

But however much they want to believe this, they don't. They can't.

I realize I'm not painting a very flattering picture of these folks. I've described them here as, at best, self-righteousness junkies inebriated by self-congratulatory delusions. Or at worst as the cynical, partisan manipulators of this intoxicating fantasy — duplicitous seekers of power who exploit this moralistic pose for their own ends.

But this is neither a hasty nor an uninformed portrait. I've known, and loved, these folks for a long time. I've been one of them.

And in any case, if this unflattering portrayal is not true, then we'd be forced to conclude something even worse. If these people really did wholeheartedly believe the thing they are here claiming to believe, then their response to that poor baby on the railroad tracks is woefully inadequate and irresponsible. It is that response — the urgency, proportionality and tone of it — that gives the lie to their claim to believe what it is they say they do. The claim and the response — or rather lack of response — cannot be reconciled.

So, as I said, let's play along. There is a baby on the railroad tracks and there is an approaching train. We are witnesses to this impending tragedy. What are we obliged to do? How ought we to respond?

Princeton law professor Robert George has thought long and hard about this. That baby on the railroad tracks, George says, ought "… to be the central issue in the consideration of any voter."

Huh?

Apparently there's no immediate urgency. No need to rush onto the tracks and whisk the baby away to safety before the train arrives. We just need to remember that the baby and the train are there and, every two or four years, make the abstract acknowledgement of that fact the "central issue" when we vote. If enough of us do this, the theory goes, we may, over time, establish a substantial Republican majority in our national and state legislatures. And that Republican majority may, over time, produce judicial appointments which might, in turn, over time, lead to a reinterpretation of the law and the Constitution in a way that might, over time, save that poor, innocent baby on the railroad tracks.

Seriously, can you imagine any human responding so dispassionately and abstractly and irresponsibly languidly to an actual baby-on-the-railroad-tracks scenario? Anyone who suggested such a response would be regarded, rightly, as a fool or a monster. It's almost too absurd to imagine such a response:

YOU: Ohmygod! There's a baby on the tracks!

THEM: Yes. Yes there is. And next November, we need to be sure that we
make this horrible situation the central — nay, the single – issue
that determines how we cast our votes.

YOU: But the train's coming! Shouldn't we –

THEM: Vote straight-ticket Republican? Yes we should. Yes we must. And, next November, yes we will.

Anyone who talked like that couldn't really believe that there was really a baby on the railroad tracks. And they don't really believe it.

I don't agree with the anti-abortion zealots who blockade the entrances to clinics and spend their every spare hour protesting at Planned Parenthood, but I appreciate that their actions are commensurate with the beliefs they claim. That's what makes it possible to disagree with them.

The tepid, abstract Republican operatives who sent out this mailer can neither be agreed nor disagreed with. The possibility of engaging their purported ideas collapses down the chasm between those ideas and their own actions.

  • Lee Ratner

    I think the right-wing orienatation and greater religiousity only partly explains the anti-abortion movement in the United States. I also think that how abortion was legalized plays no small part in the anti-abortion movement.
    In most, if not all, other countries with legalized abortions, abortion was legalized by the country’s legislative brance. In the United States this was not really possible. Congress lacked authority to legislate on this matter under the Constitution. This meant it would be up to the state legislatures to legalize abortion. There were movements amoung states to legalize abortion but the process was, by the quirks of the Ameircan system, slow and not universal. The only way to get universal abortion in the United States was to get the Supreme Court to declare it to be a right. This is what happened. Naturally to the anti-abortion people, this was offensive assault on the values of their communities/states and seen as extreme outside interference.
    I’m pro-choice. I recognize that a Supreme Court decision was the only practical way to legalize abortion across the board in the U.S. I really wished abortion could have been legalized by legislation though. It would have gone down better with the opponents of abortion if it was legalized by elected officials.*
    *I do not thing that the situation would necessarily be better if abortion was legal in the states that wanted legalized abortion and illegal in the more conservative states. I think that states where abortion is illegal would try to get federal legislation passed that would make abortion a crime under federal law, kind of like what happens when states try to decriminlize some light drugs like marijuana or legalize medical marijuana. The federal government is used as a back up enforcer. Abortion needs to be legal through out the United States.

  • Caravelle

    Tonio : Did the Greeks have poop and fart jokes? There’s a theory that those jokes in our culture are really about the delusion that we’re not animals. Despite our intellects, our bodies have those embarrassing behaviors.
    Never read Aristophanes, have you ? :p (though offhand I can’t think of any poop or fart joke from him, he’s mostly interested in… figs)

  • hapax

    Well, as far as the fundamentalist preoccupation with sexual issues goes, remember that there aren’t really many of the traditional demarcators of “purity” left available to them.
    It is very important to certain kinds of religious groups to show that they are somehow “different”, “separate” from the majority secular culture. Those Christian groups which wished for extra purity points have traditionally (by which I mean in the first fifteen hundred years or so) focussed on the more obvious, public kinds of abstinence — avoiding marriage (as a social binder, more important than sex, per se) was a big one, but just as important were food (fasting, avoiding meat, etc) and clothing (think plain monastic robes as well as hairshirts), ostentatious poverty, public penance….
    Well. In the late nineteenth century, a lot of these (fasting, penance) became associated with the despised Catholic immigrants. Others (specialized clothing, especially, but to a certain extent also the sort of communal self-support that permitted avoiding marriage ties and poverty) were co-opted by the Jews and traditionalist sects such as the Amish. Poverty was also a contra-indicated by the Calvinistic /Weberian sort of prosperity gospel that preached that material wealth was a sign of God’s favor.
    All that was left to the fundamentalists to indicate their “special” status, then, was to thunder about alcohol (which also, not incidentally, allowed athem to characterize other Christian traditions as drunkards, although tolerance and even celebration of alcohol has as lively a place in Protestantism as Catholicism and Orthodoxy) and sex.

  • http://doctorscience.blogspot.com Doctor Science

    There’s a question I’ve always wanted ask hapax or other life-begins-at-fertilization people:
    What about identical twins? They start with only a single fertilized egg, then split apart somewhere in the first week or two. It’s very common, too, for a blastocyst to split (twins!) and then rejoin (only one again!). Does that mean there were two people, briefly, and one has died? When do the two twins “count” as two people? What about conjoined (“Siamese”) twins?
    And what about people who are genetic mosaics because two non-identical blastocysts fused together? Or “molar twins”, where one twin grows to encapsulate the other, which stays as a small blob of cells?
    To me as a biologist, “life begins at fertilization” is clearly (a) absurd (“life begins” 3 billion years ago) and (b) not what people really believe anyway. Our legal system and most people’s beliefs agree on a “brain death” standard for death, so logically “brain life” is the earliest plausible standard for life — or ensoulment.

  • Froborr

    @Doc Science: Obviously, either each twin has half a soul, making them only half a person each, or one twin has a soul and the other is a soulless abomination that feeds on the living.

  • Tonio

    life-begins-at-fertilization people
    It should be possible to be agnostic on that question and still oppose having an abortion for one’s self, deciding that it’s not worth the risk.
    It is very important to certain kinds of religious groups to show that they are somehow “different”, “separate” from the majority secular culture.
    That sounds to me like denial of their basic humanity.

  • hapax

    Doctor Science, my honest answer is “I don’t know.”
    When “life” — let alone “human life”, which is really the issue here — “begins”* isn’t a scientific question. It’s a philosophical question, a social question, a religious question.
    And to a lot of those kinds of questions, “I don’t know” is not only the most honest answer, it is the only rational answer.
    But law, unfortunately, requires a lot of precise answers to such questions. Not surprisingly, the answers we choose to give for the sake of legal convenience tend to therefore depend on material, measurable, scientific criteria.
    But that doesn’t make them scientific questions, any more than “What is property? How do you determine who it belongs to?” is a scientific question because the law, of necessity, has forced us to place measurable qualifications around that — (e.g., who has physical possession? Did it cost more than twenty dollars? etc.)
    Obviously, the quantifiable measures accepted as legal standards change with both technological capabilities and social perceptions. But the latter, I would argue, should be the primary driving force. That is a legitimate topic for debate, however — but probably we should save it for Thursday. People tend to become a bit attached to the self-evident rationality and objectivity of their own favoured presuppositions.
    Fortunately, I am having a tough time imagining any possible case in which the questions you pose should require a legal answer. And therefore I am quite content to leave speculation about them where I leave questions such as “Do dogs have immortal souls?” and “Will married couples still be married in the afterlife?” — resolvable only by God and late night drinking sessions.
    *as is “when does it END?” (The protests around Terry Schiavo — not that I condone them! — certainly demonstrate that not everyone agrees on “brain death.”) Not to mention “what happens after that?”

  • Tonio

    one twin has a soul and the other is a soulless abomination that feeds on the living.
    Hah! Dumb question – why wouldn’t the churches simply postulate that the soul divides with the blastocyst?
    ensoulment
    Isn’t that what happened to Dusty Springfield when she went to Memphis?

  • http://doctorscience.blogspot.com Doctor Science

    Tonio:
    It should be possible to be agnostic on that question and still oppose having an abortion for one’s self, deciding that it’s not worth the risk.
    That’s why we call it *pro-CHOICE*. But I’m asking about the people who say human life begins at fertilization, e.g. everyone who votes for the Colorado Personhood Amendment.

  • hapax

    Oh! I have just thought of a possible relevant case. There have been real-life situations of conjoined twins, where one twin (usually the much less viable one) has been been killed (or, I suppose, allowed to die) in the process of a separation operation that allows for a much more functional life of the other.
    My answer to that is to get on my metaphorical knees and thank God that I am neither the parent, the surgeon, or the medical ethicists who have to decide on such issues.

  • hapax

    And Doctor Science, just to make clear, I would never have voted for such a poorly-defined and ill-thought-out measure, even if we were much closer to the Kingdom of God than at present.

  • Jeff

    Did the Greeks have poop and fart jokes?
    I seem to recall a write-up of a book on the history of jokes that had old fart jokes, but I’ve lost all details. A bit of Google-foo has revealed Philogelos or “Laughter-Lover”. A New Yorker review of this book (and a history of jokes in general) is here.
    The review doesn’t talk about fart jokes, but reading between the lines, I would say that they were around by at least the 4th century.

  • SchrodingersDuck

    The review doesn’t talk about fart jokes, but reading between the lines, I would say that they were around by at least the 4th century.
    In fact, the oldest known joke, from the 19th century BC Sumeria, was a fart joke. At least you can’t say society’s getting cruder.

  • Jessica

    JayH wrote,”I’ve never followed Dobson’s homophobic rantings closely, but I wonder if he thinks homosexuality = effeminacy = fear of one’s own masculinity.”
    Based on discussions with my Mum, that is exactly right. Not only homosexuality though. Transgenderism is included, too. If one was born a guy, and didn’t want to be one anymore, it’s not because there might be a legitimate issue, it’s because that person is repudiating their masculinity, or is afraid of it, or something. If he would just “man up” everything would be fine.

  • Tonio

    If he would just “man up” everything would be fine.
    Guys – feeling a little light in your loafers? Have a sudden urge to knit sweaters? Try Tonio’s Masculinity Emergency Kit! It includes everything you need to get you back on the straight and narrow – a can of Budweiser, Slim Jims, tickets to Talledega, and an issue of Penthouse. For $15 extra, you get a jersey of the NFL team of your choice. Folds up for easy travel when your wife or girlfriend drags you along for antiquing.

  • Fraser

    Lmm, the obvious flaw in that right-to-life argument is that many feminists do push for day-care and better support for stay-at-home mothers and favor self-defense. It’s anti-feminists who object that day-care (even provided by corporations w/out government intervention) is evil because anything less than having a full-time mother will Hurt the Children. And I’ve known one or two who think that if any self-defense should be done, the women should get the man in their life to do it.

  • Bugmaster

    Obviously, the quantifiable measures accepted as legal standards change with both technological capabilities and social perceptions. But the latter, I would argue, should be the primary driving force.

    Only in the case of abortion, or in all such cases ? If the answer is “abortion only”, then why is this issue so special ? If the answer is “for all such cases”, then wouldn’t this land us in trouble ? To use an extreme example, if religious fundamentalists gain power in the next couple years, they may not only outlaw abortion, but also non-Christian religions, gay marriage, and interracial marriage, as well — because it will be socially acceptable to do so.

  • hapax

    Mmm. Most cases. I except science education policy (although not all education policy), and those requiring specialized technical knowledge, such as how to build bridges and what can help alleviate global climate change.
    WHERE to build said bridges, and WHICH of several potentially useful solutions to adopt, however, should be adopted on the bases of social consensus.
    As to your objection, well, that’s a powerful motivator to NOT allow religious fundamentalists to gain majority power, isn’t it?
    If your worldview isn’t effective enough, important enough to you to try to get other people to understand and accept it, then I would argue you have no business trying to enshrine it into law.

  • LMM

    the obvious flaw in that right-to-life argument is that many feminists do push for day-care and better support for stay-at-home mothers and favor self-defense.
    Yes, I know. If the so-called “feminists for pro-life” were really *feminists*, they’d be lecturing the pro-lifers, not the feminists. As it stands, they’re just hypocrites hijacking a successful movement.

  • Froborr

    When “life” — let alone “human life”, which is really the issue here — “begins”* isn’t a scientific question. It’s a philosophical question, a social question, a religious question.
    This is simply untrue. Whether or not a given lump of matter is alive is entirely a scientific question. It’s also entirely immaterial to the abortion question, because destroying living human material is not in itself wrong — otherwise, somebody needs to be held accountable for the millions of sperm killed every time a male orgasms and the 1-3 eggs killed every time a fertile woman goes a month without being pregnant.
    The question is whether a given lump of matter is a person, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not it is alive (though we are not aware of any non-biological persons, I have no difficulty imagining such a thing). That requires defining what we mean by “person”, which, as you say, is a philosophical and moral question.

  • Froborr

    An example:
    Henrietta Lacks died in 1951.
    A sample of the cancer that killed her was grown into the HeLa line of cells. Like most cancers, the cells in question were genetically human and grew from Henrietta’s body.
    In 1954, Jonas Salk used the HeLa line to develop and test his polio vaccine. It has since been used to test the effects of a wide variety of industrial chemicals on the human body. At this point, the total mass of HeLa in the world is greater by far than Henrietta Lacks’ peak weight.
    There is absolutely nothing immoral about destroying HeLa cells because, while they are both alive and human, they are not people.
    My question for abortion opponents is simple: what is the essential difference between a blastocyst and a mass of HeLa that makes a blastocyst a person and HeLa not?

  • Hawker Hurricane

    A priest, a (liberal) pastor, and a rabbi are argueing about when life begins.
    The priest argues life begins at conception, as taught by the Catholic Church.
    The pastor argues that life begins at the first detectable movement of the fetus, as taught in the Bible.
    The rabbi argues that life begins when the youngest son graduates college…

  • hapax

    Froborr: The question is whether a given lump of matter is a person, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not it is alive
    Thank you, that is an excellent clarification. I wasn’t thinking clearly when I typed the bit you quoted.
    And now I have the closing song to Portal stuck in my head…

  • hapax

    The question is whether a given lump of matter is a person, which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not it is alive (though we are not aware of any non-biological persons, I have no difficulty imagining such a thing). That requires defining what we mean by “person”, which, as you say, is a philosophical and moral question.
    Thank you, Froborr. That is a graceful and precise clarification of what I MEANT, which, as you point out, isn’t at all what I SAID.
    And as such, I forgive you for inserting the closing song from Portal so firmly into my mental ear…

  • hapax

    I swear, that first post didn’t show up at all when I put in the second one…
    ///hates on Typepad///

  • http://www.TheGoldenDance.com Michele my bell-flower

    @JayH: OK, then will someone explain to me how the “morning-after” pill works? I was under the impression that it was essentially just a double-dose of BC pills.
    It depends on which “morning-after pill” you mean.
    Plan B works by preventing ovulation. If a woman has already ovulated it will not interfere with the natural progression of the pregnancy.
    RU-486 (AKA “the abortion pill”) prevents implantation of a fertilized egg.

  • http://www.TheGoldenDance.com Michele my bell-flower

    @Becky: (And yes, many women get periods on the pill, but it’s usually a lighter one because the uterine lining is not building to the full extent).
    Is it because the lining is not building up, or because it’s not sloughing off?

  • http://www.TheGoldenDance.com Michele my bell-flower

    Tonio’s Masculinity Emergency Kit!
    ROFLMAOASTC!!!!!!

  • Bugmaster

    I except science education policy (although not all education policy), and those requiring specialized technical knowledge, such as how to build bridges and what can help alleviate global climate change.

    Well, that’s you, tough. Many Christians think that the teaching of evolution, or the veracity of global climate change, are religious matters. On the other hand, many atheists (myself included) believe that the question of “where does personality begin ?” is better answered by science than by religion. I am not going to try and persuade you on either of these points, but, to me, the cutoff line you draw looks awfully arbitrary.

    As to your objection, well, that’s a powerful motivator to NOT allow religious fundamentalists to gain majority power, isn’t it?

    Yes, but I’m awfully uneasy about codifying popular opinion into policy just because it’s popular (and yes, I’m aware that I’ve just described democracy in a nutshell; bear with me). I understand that our government may work like that, but I personally am not willing to let popular opinion run my life (this is why I’ll be voting No on California’s Prop 8, for example). I think that if each person asked themselves not, “do most people think X is a good idea ?”, but “is there any evidence to believe that X is a good idea ?”, we’d live in a much better world.
    In fact, many governmental agencies, as well as private corporations, operate on this principle. The FDA doesn’t sanction “alternative” medicines, for example, even though most people believe them to be effective. Google doesn’t buy fruit-themed computers for their datacenters just because they’re shiny. Why can’t we maintain that level of diligence in all our affairs ?

    If your worldview isn’t effective enough, important enough to you to try to get other people to understand and accept it, then I would argue you have no business trying to enshrine it into law.

    The problem is that fundamentalist worldviews are incredibly effective at getting people to accept and propagate them.

  • Bugmaster
  • Tonio

    I think that if each person asked themselves not, “do most people think X is a good idea ?”, but “is there any evidence to believe that X is a good idea ?”, we’d live in a much better world.
    I see the compelling-government-interest test as part of the evidence. The problem with religious fundamentalists gaining majority power is not that they believe that popular opinion should be codified into policy. They often use that argument, claiming that “under God” belongs in the Pledge because a majority of Americans believe in a single god. But I suspect that’s purely a rhetorical device. Their absolutist worldview of “because our god said so” is inherently incomptable with democracy’s other principles, such as freedom of conscience and secular arguments for policy. It rejects the idea that two sides of a policy issue can have conflicting but equally valid arguments about government’s compelling interest.
    On the other hand, many atheists (myself included) believe that the question of “where does personality begin ?” is better answered by science than by religion.
    And one doesn’t have to be an atheist to make that assertion. That question is indeed a factor in making policy, and as Fred has written here, any suggested answer to that question for making policy has to have a secular nonsectarian basis to have any validity. Some religious answers to that question can be translated into secular nonsectarian terms, and others cannot.

  • hapax

    The problem is that fundamentalist worldviews are incredibly effective at getting people to accept and propagate them
    Well, to quote you, “that’s tough.”
    In fact, the fundamentalist worldviews are NOT the majority worldviews in the USA, not by a long chalk. Most surveys that show, for example, that a huge percentage of Americans “don’t believe in evolution” suffer from horrible question design; if you re-phrase the question to “living species show change over long periods of time”, for example, the vast majority do accept it.
    What fundamentalists are very good at is motivating those who accept their worldview to ACT on it. It’s all very well to say that
    I think that if each person asked themselves not, “do most people think X is a good idea ?”, but “is there any evidence to believe that X is a good idea ?”, we’d live in a much better world
    but if you just blithely sit around waiting for the rest of humanity to acknowledge the self-evident superiority of this point of view, you’ve got no-one to blame but yourself for the crappy world we actually live in.
    [And on that note, all U.S. citizens who haven't done so already, why aren't you voting?]

  • Tonio

    In fact, the fundamentalist worldviews are NOT the majority worldviews in the USA, not by a long chalk.
    Even negative media coverage of fundamentalism creates the impressions of a majority. First, the media has the habit of treating every issue as a controversy with two sides. Second, fundamentalists are vocal and organized far out of proportion to their numbers, with self-appointed spokespersons who know how to create controversy. Third, the media mistakenly treats “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” as synonyms, assuming that both mean “Christians who hold politically conservative views.”
    Most surveys that show, for example, that a huge percentage of Americans “don’t believe in evolution” suffer from horrible question design; if you re-phrase the question to “living species show change over long periods of time”, for example, the vast majority do accept it.
    I’m glad that someone else has noticed that. Many opponents of evolution assume that the term includes abiogenesis. Others say “evolution” when they really mean abiogenesis instead – they’re less interested in living species changing over time than in deities creating the universe.
    but if you just blithely sit around waiting for the rest of humanity to acknowledge the self-evident superiority of this point of view, you’ve got no-one to blame but yourself for the crappy world we actually live in.</em.
    So what is the best way to convince people to always challenge their own assumptions, so they constantly comparing what is in their heads with what they perceive with their senses? I need to do that myself.

  • Tonio

    Damn, did it again, forgot to type the slash in the closing quote. Sorry about that.

  • Froborr

    Tonio: The question of abiogenesis does not include the question of the origin of the universe, either. The origin of the universe, abiogenesis, and evolution are three entirely separate questions, and the answers to them can be entirely separate. You can tell, in part, from how much time elapsed between the questions being answered: the major mechanisms of evolution were determined in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, the origin of the universe wasn’t really settled until the 1980s (although the Big Bang theory is much older than that, Steady State theories didn’t really fall apart until the major microwave mapping projects like COBE), and the mechanism of abiogenesis is still unsettled, though there are several quite plausible and not necessarily exclusive theories extant. The point is, if we discovered tomorrow that the Big Bang theory was false and the entire universe was actually sneezed out by the Great Green Arkleseizure a la Adams, that’d have no bearing whatsoever on the abiogenesis question.

  • Tonio

    The origin of the universe, abiogenesis, and evolution are three entirely separate questions, and the answers to them can be entirely separate.
    I agree – I was criticizing the confusion of the two by creationists.

  • altered carbon

    Nice try, but a live baby on the railroad tracks is not the same as a blastocyst. They’re not babies they are a bunch of cells. Period. Allow me to demonstrate…I’m clapping my hands together and I’m destroying a bunch of cells! OMG, think of all the children on my palms whose lives I’ve just ended!
    Also, I just made a trip to the rest room to urinate and I’m fairly certain some spermatozoa escaped from my urethra. OMF, I’ve KILLED again. Think of all the children who were murdered while I was relieving my bladder!
    /sarc[h]asm

  • Caravelle

    hapax : if you re-phrase the question to “living species show change over long periods of time”, for example, the vast majority do accept it.
    But then if they’re well-versed in Creationism they would, because creationists nowadays make a big deal of believing in “micro-evolution” which they define as either change within a species, or if they’re sneaky and aware that the preceding definition doesn’t save them, change within a “kind”.

  • Froborr

    A biologist friend of mine defines micro-evolution as “Any evolutionary process so bloody obvious that even the creationists have to admit it exists.”

  • hagsrus

    ==A biologist friend of mine defines micro-evolution as “Any evolutionary process so bloody obvious that even the creationists have to admit it exists.”==
    Oh, nice one — my compliments to your friend!


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