Do liberals misrepresent Mourdock?

As submitted to Daily Maverick

It’s not easy to be objective. In fact, it’s close to impossible – and it might not even be desirable. But being objective is not the same thing as being fair to the evidence, which is something we should always strive for. No matter what perspective you think the evidence justifies, you’re not going to get anywhere in persuading someone else of that perspective if they discover that you’re wrong about the facts.

Being right about the facts is itself difficult. Not only because the data we have can sometimes be contradictory, but because our datasets are always incomplete. The facts that contradict any given interpretation might not be known, and worse still, might not even be knowable at a given point in time.

What we can do, though, is to try to acknowledge the biases we do know of, and try to not allow those biases to lead to misrepresentation. Unless you care more about persuasion than being fair, that is. And in politics being fair often seems to take a back seat, because the stakes are high and people might pay attention for just long enough for you to plant some impression in their minds, but rarely for long enough that you could actually engage them in debate.

So, you won’t try talking theology or in this case, theodicy, with regard to Richard Mourdock. Far better to simply assert that he thinks God intends for rape to happen, and for that rape to result in an unwanted pregnancy (which, by his lights, it’s naturally immoral to terminate). That assertion is of course one interpretation of what he said at a recent Indiana Senate debate (see video below), and it’s an interpretation that fits neatly with a stereotype of Mourdock belonging to some disreputable group (whether this means Republicans, men, Christians, or whatever).

But shouldn’t we expect more from ourselves, and from our media? It’s invigorating to have cartoon villains roaming about, to be sure, because it allows for those impassioned speeches at the dinner table, and for us to cast some opposing force as the one who will save us from the approaching menace.

There’s no question that many Republican candidates (most, if you only count the ones we’ve been hearing from) are intent on rolling back the current permissive legal framework around termination of pregnancy. They go further than that in what’s been called the “war on women”, with suggestions for mandating invasive procedures like transvaginal ultrasounds rather than allowing women to choose other ultrasound methods.

As I’ve argued in previous columns (on Obama’s rejection of the FDA recommendations on the morning-after pill, and the Republican ‘Personhood Pledge’), the conservative moral voice does seem to hold a significant influence in American politics, and this influence tends to be exerted to the detriment of reproductive rights. I’ve firmly stated that to my mind the Republican view on this is wrong, and that voters (especially female ones, of course) should oppose these attempts at curtailing their freedom.

But this is because I don’t think a foetus morally significant. If you do – and perhaps especially if you do for reasons such as the sanctity of life – it would be unsurprising for you to think that abortions are immoral. And if you did think they were, this attitude would have to be expressed at the cost of women, because women are the ones who bear the full burden of bringing a child to term. So yes, you could cast this as a “war on women”. Or, you could cast abortion rights as a “war on unborn children” – and both would be hyperbolic, false, and eliminate a whole lot of potentially interesting conversation in favour of being able to hurl epithets at each other.

Just in case this column is triggering anybody’s confirmation bias, I’ll repeat that reproductive freedoms should not be curtailed (in fact, I’d wish for us to be able to discuss extending those freedoms, whether we choose to or not). Regardless of this, it simplifies the conversation to an unfair extent when opponents of abortion, like Mourdock, are cast as claiming that God desired for a woman to be raped.

Listen to the recording for yourselves. Most of you would disagree with him, just as I do. But what he says is that God intends for the life to happen, and he makes it clear that he’s struggled with this issue, and that rape is “terrible”. Sure, this doesn’t go as far as we might want it to. And yes, he wants to take away a women’s right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy or not, except in situations where her life would be endangered by bringing the child to term (which, we should note, makes him more progressive than some of them).

If what you hear, though, is a Republican candidate saying “God wanted you to be raped”, then the villain you see in front of you is at least partly a projection of your own moral outrage. I believe he he’s wrong, yes – but that he’s wrong for exactly the same reason that millions of Christians around the world are, in believing that one value (the preservation of life) trumps another (the woman’s right to choose). And, in believing that he can pick and choose when to attribute something to God’s plan (the pregnancy yes, the rape no), while simultaneously asserting that God’s ways and plans are ineffable.

So, if you want to pick a fight here, give some thought to whether you’re picking the right one. The same people who complain about Mourdock and the Republican war on women don’t seem to picket traditional Christian churches, where this same message on abortion is conveyed every week. We don’t see op-eds lambasting the one survivor of a bus crash for saying it was God’s plan for everyone else to die.

The outrage regarding Mourdock, in other words, is selective, unprincipled, and born of exactly the same cherry-picking that allows Mourdock to say the sorts of things he does.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.