Ethics: May 2007 Archives

Abortion Doctors

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I've read a number of criticisms of Justice Kennedy's decision in Carhart v. Stenberg, which upheld the federal partial-birth abortion ban. One theme I've seen several times is the claim that Kennedy's use of the term 'abortion doctors' is somehow pejorative and inappropriate. In fact, this meme seems to have initiated with Justice Ginsburg's dissent. See here for Justice Ginsburg's words in making this criticism.

When I first read about this, it seemed an unfair and illegitimate complaint, but I didn't really spend much time thinking about it or looking at the use of the term 'abortion doctor'. I decided to look around a little when I saw this post by Stuart Buck, which points out that one person now making this complaint had only two years earlier used the same expression in an entirely positive context. I did a Google search for "abortion doctor" OR "abortion doctors". Here are some of the results.

1. a directory of abortion providers
2. someone's explanation "Why I Am An Abortion Doctor"
3. a 1998 CNN news story about the murder of an abortion doctor
4. a 2003 AP news story about the execution of someone who killed an abortion doctor
5. the entry for the book associated with #2
6. a 1997 pro-choice website seeking to organize the pro-choice movement against a murder charge an abortion doctor was facing
7. a 2003 Fox News story about the same events of #4 above
8. a 2007 Los Angeles Times piece on an aspiring abortion doctor still in medical school, which I have to note is (a) very positive about her and (b) significantly after the Kennedy opinion
9. another article about the 2003 case, this time hosted at a site about dangeous cults that places this killer in a larger category of anti-abortion extremists
10. an abortion provider directory at, which as far as I can tell has removed whatever reference it had that placed it in the listings for this Google search

Suppose we're convinced that a certain issue is more important than any other, and it's on the level of urgent moral necessity to do whatever we can to make progress on that issue and that issue, even if it sets us back quite a ways on other issues. I don't think that's true of the issue of abortion. Having pro-life leaders on the national level isn't better than having pro-choice leaders if the pro-life leaders are going to do things that are even worse than the status quo on abortion. I wouldn't vote for someone who thinks abortion is wrong if the person also thinks we ought to put the majority of the population in machines for eight hours a day that cause intense pain and shorten their lives conserably, merely to make the lives of a few elite people comfortable. While I think abortion is evil and unjust, I'd rather make little progress or even move backward on that score if it's a choice between that and moving into a society that's so bad that the abortion status quo pales in comparison. Those who tolerate grave evil are still better than those who would deliberately perpatuate a greater evil.

But even if we consider a certain issue to be so all-defining that we think we should care very little about anything else, I think we have a moral obligation to prefer someone who is closer to us on that issue than someone else who is further from us on the issue, even if we think both of them hold immoral views and are too tolerant of evil. This may well end up being the case with the 2008 presidential race for pro-lifers if it turns out that the two frontrunners get their respective party nominations. Rudy Giuliani is pro-choice. So is Hillary Clinton. According to the pro-life view, both of them are willing to tolerate serious evil, and that is immoral. However, even given the false premise that abortion is the only morally relevant issue, it simply doesn't follow that pro-life voters ought to stay home or vote for a third party if those two candidates receive their party nominations.

Even if abortion is the only issue under consideration, Hillary Clinton is far worse from a pro-life perspective than Rudy Giuliani is. When he was mayor of a very liberal city, he did virtually nothing to increase women's rights to have abortions, and the abortion rate went down. Some of that may have been just part of a national trend going on at the same time, but it doesn't seem as if he cared enough about the issue to promote abortion rights, never mind to expand them. Rather, he seems to have been expressing a pro-choice view mainly because he's not too motivated by pro-life concerns and not because he holds Hillary Clinton's view that the right to abortion is so inviolable that we should never restrict it under any circumstances.

He seems open to letting states decide, as is his general view on many issues. He worked in the Reagan Justice Department, which suggest some kind of judicial conservatism, and he has gone on record supporting judicial nominees like Roberts and Alito, as opposed to those like Kennedy, O'Connor, or other Republican appointees who have safeguarded Roe v. Wade. Even if the pro-life voter can't trust how faithful he'd be to that, he obviously isn't so dedicated to the pro-choice view that he'll let it affect anything else he does as if it's one of the most important rights one might poseess, which is exactly what Hillary Clinton would do.

Ann and Bob's cooperation is jointly necessary for doing something that both are morally obligated to do. Ann and Bob can't agree on how they should go about doing that thing. Ann refuses to do it Bob's way, and Bob refuses to do it Ann's way. In both cases they believe they are morally required not to do it the other's way. So Ann sets out to do it her way, and Bob refuses to cooperate, because he believes her way is immoral. Ann then complains that Bob is refusing to fulfill his moral obligation. Bob complains that Ann is refusing to fulfill hers. The obligation does not get fulfilled.

Can Ann claim that Bob (and Bob alone) is refusing to carry out that responsibility? Can Bob say the same of Ann? My impression from the case as I just explained it is that neither is any more or less responsible than the other for not completing the obligation. Both are equally to blame, and both are somewhat to blame. But consider a slightly altered example. Ann and Bob can fulfill their moral obligation by cooperating, but it would mean Ann does not do something that she also thinks is morally required. Bob wouldn't be sacrificing any moral obligation he believes he has to fulfill the one, but he thinks he'd be doing something wrong to cooperate in the other.

In this case, Ann refuses to do it, because she thinks she ought to do both, and if Bob won't let her do both then she'll do neither. In this second case, then, Ann is morally to blame for not doing the obligation that both agree they have, and Bob is not to blame for not fulfilling that obligation. The fact that Ann thinks there's a further obligation that Bob doesn't think he has does not give her the moral freedom to abandon the one obligation she can fulfill, since it's better to fulfill one moral obligation that you can fulfill even if there's no way the other person will let you do what's necessary to meet the other obligation that you think you have.

Now consider the Congressional leadership and President Bush on the issue of funding of troops in Iraq. Both parties agree that they have an obligation to fund the troops in Iraq right now. The Congressional leadership thinks they have a further obligation to get the troops out of there very soon with an explicit deadline. Bush disagrees. He in fact thinks he has an obligation not to allow that. He thinks they have no such obligation. Now they fashion a method of doing both at once, but he considers that meeting one obligation (temporarily) while violating another. If they followed his recommendation, they would be meeting one obligation while not meeting what they consider to be another one.

J.K. Rowling regularly speaks against this sort of thing. It's one thing to photshop women as a matter of course to increase their bust size and thin their waist. Not that it's not immoral with adult women, but it seems to me to be a completely different matter to do it with someone who is underage (just turned 17, probably 16 when she took the picture) who is portraying someone even more underage (15 at the beginning of the movie, 16 at the end).

Several of the commenters have already made this point, but I'll make it again here. If whoever was responsible for this perverse act doesn't think Emma Watson is attractive enough to teenagagers as she is, then our culture's standards of beauty have become even more warped than I had thought (and I've long thought them to be pretty twisted). We already tell girls in too many ways that they're not good enough unless they look like Emma Watson. Now it turns out even Emma Watson isn't even good enough as she is.

Update: More here. I've also now linked above to Rowling's own rant against this sort of thing.

Update 2: Warner Brothers claims that they didn't authorize this. They've asked IMAX to remove it from their site. 



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