Monday, February 14, 2005

Matters of Life and Death

When I read this opinion piece (free registration required) in last Saturday's Star Tribune, I had some trouble digesting it. I still don't understand what she is advocating. The author (Mary Morse) starts out by mentioning what she characterizes as Hillary Clinton's attempt to find common ground between the Democratic Party's pro-abortion politics and the pro-life folk mostly found in the GOP. She mentions the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, describes her view of the basic pro-life vs. pro-choice/abortion positions, then declares that the arguments lack intellectual rigor.

She attempts to add 'intellectual rigor' by discussing the what she calls the gray areas in how we value human life. First, she defines murder for us. The first part of her definition goes like this:

Murder is defined as the unlawful, malicious or premeditated killing of one human being by another.

So far, it fits what my Webster's says pretty well. But she adds another part to her definition:
It is also defined as killing a person inhumanely or barbarously, as in warfare.
The problem is that she assumes that warfare meets her definition of murder, because there is killing, frequently barbaric and inhumane, whatever that is. The problem is that war is not unlawful. If so, we wouldn't have spent so much time over the centuries making and changing the rules for it.

She goes on to lump together the pro-life argument against abortion with warfare and capital punishment, as if there is no difference between them if pro-lifers are consistent. The problem is, they are not the same. War and capital punishment are both decisions that are undertaken after great consideration, with the rules for both making the decision and the rules for conducting warfare/legal executions having been created after serious discussion.(in the case of warfare, the Geneva Conventions, for example) The discussion of abortion, however, was short-circuited by a narrowly-divided Supreme Court in 1973 and never really took place. Instead, we've spent 30+ years arguing about the court decision instead.

I think that she is trying to make the case that because we practice and sanction murder, we cannot resolve the issues surrounding the value of human life (thus abortion) without some sort of discussion. This is incorrect on at least two counts. First not all killing is murder, even by her own definition. Self defense is not murder as she defines it above (although she claims self defense is murder, therefore not to be sanctioned). War is a legal (although tragic, sad, and unfortunate) activity. Second, we've been having discussions on the value of human life, defining when killing is justified for most of civilized history. That discussion is still ongoing, even if it does involve religion and ethics (which the author claims cannot be the basis for this sort of discussion due to some sort of multiculturalism). If religion and ethics are not a basis for this discussion, what is? Ms. Morse doesn't provide a starting point for the 'productive discussion' she claims we need to have. Her article ends up almost as big a confusing mess as this post.

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