"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, September 15, 2008

Did Palin have a choice?

by Perry Robinson

One of the lines beginning to codify as a criticism of the Republican V.P pick Sarah Palin is that she made a choice to have a child with Down syndrome but that she would deny that choice to other women. She is therefore a hypocrite. Dr. Rahul K. Parikh over at Salon.com is one of many Obama surrogates who puts forward what looks like an argument. But this in fact isn’t a good argument against voting for Palin or her political position. In fact it is far from clear that Dr. Parikh or others who I have seen put forward this line have even grasped the issue.

But before looking at the reasoning, it is useful to examine Dr. Parikh’s article for the way the popular press usually frames the matter. Often enough doctors are employed as political mouthpieces since our society holds doctors generally in high esteem. Doctors have expert knowledge in things medical, and abortion is a medical procedure. But there is logical legerdemain here. While doctors do have expert knowledge in medical procedures, they rarely have expertise in the ethics of those procedures or ethics in general. Vivisection is also a medical procedure but hardly moral. The question on the table is not a question of technique or skill but of permissibility and obligation. As Socrates warned, craftsmen were still fools, for while they actually possessed some knowledge in a few areas, they made the mistake of thinking they were qualified to speak as experts in others. Readers should treat physicians as laymen in the field of ethics unless they have good reason to think otherwise.

Another way the matter is usually framed is in terms of being a scientific question. Authors drone on about this or that procedure dropping the litter of technical jargon as they go. Dr. Parikh wastes a good deal of his reader’s time describing and explaining genetic and statistical data as if the cause of disagreement was a lack of information on one side. The issue on the table is the ethics of abortion and whether Gov. Palin is violating some sound legal or ethical principle in wanting to deny the legal right to abort a child with Down syndrome or a perfectly healthy child for that matter. None of the scientific information that Dr. Parikh cites and elucidates moves the ball down the argumentative field.

Often the sympathy is moved from the recipient of the procedure to the hardships to be endured by the parents of a special needs child. Dr. Parikh makes this shift when he argues that the appropriate way of looking at the matter is not one of eugenics but of pity. “But try telling that to a mother who is told early on in her pregnancy that she will be raising a child who will have a host of medical and developmental problems, requiring intense medical and social attention for the rest of his or her life. It can be tragic and nearly impossible news to bear.” But no one doubts the hardship of raising a special needs child. What is more, it is difficult to see how we get from the hardship of raising such a child to the conclusion that it would be morally better to make the child the recipient of suffering in the womb. It is eugenics even if it is dressed p in an appeal to pity..

But even more so, Dr. Parikh begs the question. If the unborn entity is a human being and hence not capable of being classed in terms of property, then it is really quite irrelevant the hardship that the parents will face in raising such a child. And here is where Dr. Parikh has failed to grasp the issue. Are humans capable of being legitimately classed as property? If the fetus is my property, then it is my choice what I do with my property. If it is merely connected to my body but not my property, then choice goes out the window.

Looking at the matter squarely should remind American readers that we have had this discussion before in the debate over slavery. It is fundamentally the same debate just recast in the context of size and development. Slave owners made similar arguments in defense of slavery. They weren’t forcing their choice to own slave on any one else. They wished to leave that question open and this was because they presupposed that Africans were not human beings. They were “pro-choice” and the abolitionists desired to remove from the law that choice since the humanity of Africans morally trumped choice. As Kant wrote, objects have a price, but persons have a value.

The question that Dr. Parikh has failed to face is whether humans in the womb are legitimately classed as property or not. If not, then Gov. Palin is not violating some ethical norm or legal principle in advocating the removal from private choice the act of abortion. She is no hypocrite as Dr. Parikh suggests. In fact, for Palin, I’d argue it already is a matter of law. For her I’d suspect along with say Dr. King, the moral law trumps the written law of the land. For Palin, she never had the kind of choice that Dr. Parikh imagines she did. It is akin to asking me if I would torture my three year old for ten bucks. It isn’t ever going to happen. It might as well be a law of nature.
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