Errol Naidoo, allegedly a Christian, on Marikana

Presented without comment, from his latest newsletter:

There has been much hand wringing and recrimination about the Marikana Massacre. But when human life is diminished in the womb, that callousness will find its way into the national psyche.

It is a tragedy that the Church of Christ has not developed a sustainable and coherent strategy to expose the grisly consequences of the culture of death – advanced by pro-death activists.

I have written a feature article about the Demographic Winter in the latest issue of Joy magazine. The culture of death is slowly killing off the human family in Western civilisation.

Abortion-on-demand – driven by radical feminist activists – and the homosexual agenda, lie at the heart of the culture of death. These anti-family groups are responsible for population decline.

[Edit]Contrary to expectations, there are people out there who are willing to say that Naidoo “has a point“, and that I quoted him out of context. Here’s the full newsletter, so you can judge for yourselves.[/edit]

Giubilini and Minerva on abortion and infanticide

As submitted to the Daily Maverick

To regard something as permissible does not necessarily entail that you’d like to see it encouraged, or to become a widespread practice. It’s also not necessarily the case that simply entertaining a possibility in thought or speech means that you are favourably inclined towards that possibility. But we seem to sometimes forget this, becoming nearly as offended by someone merely thinking or speaking about that which we find abhorrent as we would had they actually committed the act in question.

In the Journal of Medical Ethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva recently suggested that if abortion is permissible, infanticide (in certain cases) might also be. The public reaction – and also the reactions from other bio-ethicists – seemed to suggest that Giubilini and Minerva had been spotted introducing toxic feeding formula into the supply chain of their local maternity ward.

Their view, in short, is this: many of the existing instances in which we consider abortion justifiable hold equally for an infant, at least during a short period after birth. The authors don’t define the period in question, but this is irrelevant to the questions of principle and consistency that they raise. If, for example, an abnormality such as perinatal asphyxia is discovered only after birth, how is it that ending that life is now considered intolerable where the same severity of abnormality would have justified abortion six months earlier? I can’t do the article justice here, so please read it before assuming their position to be obviously wrong.

Of course many would find it shocking to imagine that compelling arguments for infanticide might exist. Some might even be shocked or horrified that people spend their time coming up with these arguments. For the most part, though, the arguments aren’t new – Michael Tooley and Peter Singer, among others, have said similar things in the past.

Tooley wrote “Abortion and infanticide” in 1972, though, so it’s mostly only those of us who studied philosophy who got to hear these arguments, because it was difficult for these sorts of texts to get widespread attention without the assistance of platforms like Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Consequently, it was also more difficult to foment the kind of moral outrage now being directed at the authors, including death threats and questions regarding when, if ever, it’s too late to consider (belated) infanticide for ethicists.

An increasingly common response to ideas we don’t like seems to be attempts at censorship, or the application of threats in pursuit of silencing, rather than debate. Debate and discussion should always be our preferred option though, because it can result in either the weakening of the viewpoint you’re contesting, or in giving us the opportunity to realise that we are wrong and should change our minds. If Giubilini and Minerva’s views are mistaken, in other words, we should be able to say why this is so.

Those who are opposed to abortion in general are obviously not challenged by their views, in that if abortion is impermissible, infanticide would clearly also be. (The authors use the term “post-birth abortion”, for reasons that are made clear in the paper, but this seems mostly to be in an attempt to avoid completely thoughtless outrage.) However, for those of us who think abortion in general permissible, the paper is usefully provocative in asking you to consider which features of the two cases make one permissible and the other not.

One feature which makes the cases very different is quite possibly simple human emotion, and the ability to make more dispassionate decisions with regard to a foetus than an infant. And while it’s common for philosophers to note this, and simply move on as if this human frailty is something to regret – certainly not a factor that should unduly influence our conceptions of right and wrong – I do think this is an important feature, and that Giubilini, Minerva and those that want to defend their views need to take it into account.

While I do think it’s true that we should aspire to being as rational as possible, this doesn’t mean that all non-rational or even irrational motivations are always flaws to be regretted and eliminated from our repertoire of responses. In this case, the disposition to value life (and especially life that is now exemplified in a fully-formed human rather than something more developmental) is in the majority of cases good for us and therefore perhaps a candidate for respect and encouragement rather than scorn.

Extending the range of beings that it’s permissible to kill, or the phases of development where they no longer count, serves as a signal to those of us who are living and aware of being so. The signal is one that lacks empathy for the majority of the population, who have the same fears as everyone else but often lack the resources to articulate those fears in the language of intellectuals. One could perhaps say that it would be ideal for us to be less sensitive and precious about killing and letting die, but this would only be on one model of the ideal human – the one that resembles a purely logical Spock more than it does any of the humans we actually know, and ourselves are.

The point is that both sides of debates like this are (at the margins at least) premised on caricatures of humanity. I do think it’s true that many cases of potential infanticide are no different from cases where we consider abortion justified. So to my mind, it’s true that we’re being inconsistent in being repelled by the former and not the latter. But to make this case in a way which presents both the foetus and the newborn as fleshy objects of logical analysis also misses something, namely the sorts of adult humans we’d like to be, and the sort of world that conduces to becoming that sort of adult.

We’re understandably reluctant to end lives, even though these are not the lives of persons. That reluctance is plausibly a virtue worth reinforcing, rather than trivialising. Yet we should be able to talk about these things without fear of death-threats, and without those discussions being hijacked by the likes of Glenn Beck as evidence of a “progressive” agenda to introduce eugenics.

Moral outrage is not a sufficient justification to shut people up, especially when those people could be pointing to an inconsistency in our reasoning we’d benefit from knowing about. We also don’t want the boundaries of debate to be set by those who are most strident, where death threats or accusations of eugenics become effective techniques in argument.

A level of despair at how quickly emotive topics such as this descend into that sort of name-calling is understandable and justified. But having these conversations is nevertheless important, and the reactionaries can’t be allowed to win through the rest of us simply not showing up to argue with them. So, Giubilini, Minerva, and others like them should keep asking these difficult questions. But even when the responses seem hysterical, let’s not forget that there might well be something to be said for remembering that we don’t only live in our heads, but in bodies, families and communities too.

Also see Keenan Malik and Peter Singer’s responses.

The ‘Protect Life Act’ and Republican conservatism

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

While President Obama could be accused of trying to curry favour with moral conservatives in rejecting the FDA’s recommendations on the “morning-after pill”, liberals can find some comfort in the fact that he’s at least pro-contraception, and isn’t planning to criminalise abortions just yet.

This puts him at odds with nearly every (plausible) Republican candidate with the exception of Mitt Romney who, while having changed his mind and become pro-life in 2004, is at least not a signatory to the regressive “Personhood Pledge” that has to date been signed by Santorum, Gingrich, Perry and Paul.

Ron Paul’s case is complicated by the addendum to his signing of the pledge, in which he disagrees with the Pledge’s assertion that the 14th amendment (which protects individual liberties from state encroachment) has a role to play in defending the interests of the unborn. While the addendum has led to some questioning of the sincerity of his commitment to the Pledge, he is nevertheless clear that “life begins at conception”, and that “it is the duty of the government to protect life”.

Of those who have not signed the Pledge (Huntsman and Romney), both want to repeal Roe vs. Wade, and Huntsman supports the introduction of a right to life amendment to the Constitution. While Romney thinks that current legislation has “cheapened the value of human life”, his stated intentions are to put abortion legislation in the hands of the state, rather than the Federal government.

Broadly speaking, then – because the details are, well, very detailed – all the candidates are pro-life to varying degrees of commitment. And while Romney and Paul can be credited with at least attempting to introduce a level of sophistication to their positions instead of simply appealing to the emotive fervour of a conservative base, the rest of the contenders speak of pre-born humans in terms that assume that the debate has an obvious conclusion, where a woman’s rights over her own body, and what to do with it, are significantly weakened.

As in most emotive issues, language is important here. A bias is immediately introduced in using terms like “pro-life”, given that it suggests an anti-life stance on the part of those that support abortion. Speaking of “unborn” or “pre-born” children introduces a similar bias, in that it encourages us to think of blastocysts, zygotes, embryos and foetuses as if they already had desires and aspirations capable of being dashed by those callous “anti-life” Democrats.

It is in the Personhood Pledge that these biases come to the fore in all their glory, where “every human being at every stage of development must be recognized as a person possessing the right to life”. While the Pledge’s opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia increase the intended threats to individual liberty, it’s the language on abortion that is of most concern here.

Because it’s not only this pledge, but also a legislative move that should be seen as a concern. It should be concerning to Americans – most directly American women – but also to the rest of us, in that these sorts of developments can easily serve as example and inspiration to those who want to undermine South African liberties in this regard. It’s not only the ACDP that might want to do so – President Zuma’s visit to the Rhema Church during campaigning in 2009 included a reassurance that he’d be willing to entertain changes to legislation permitting both abortion and same-sex marriages.

The (American) legislation at issue is H.R.358, the Protect Life Act, which passed the House of Representatives in October 2011. The bill is considered unlikely to pass in the Senate, and President Obama intends to veto it even if it does. But in the hypothetical absence of the current Democratic Senate and President, the bill gives a clear insight into the how dedicated the current crop of Republicans in the House are to defend the unborn human, no matter how nebulous its form.

The first version of the bill submitted to the House by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) called for a modification of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to only allow for health plans to cover abortions in cases of “forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest”. Women who fall pregnant as a result of gentle rape – or adult victims of incest – must presumably have had it coming.

That language was removed in the bill that passed the House (you can see each version here), which now allows for coverage in the event of “an act of rape or incest”. But this concession to the reality of women sometimes needing an abortion through no fault of their own does not address some of the worst aspects of the bill.

The Protect Life Act, if signed into law, would prevent women from buying even a private insurance plan through a state health care exchange (these are not insurers themselves, but entities that attempt to promote insurance transparency and accountability) if that plan covers abortions – even though most private insurance plans currently cover abortion.

It would require any insurer that operates under an exchange and covers abortion to also offer otherwise identical plans that exclude abortion coverage. The administrative costs of managing two near-identical schemes – where one would do, save this conservative agenda – might well result in many insurers thinking it’s simply not worth the trouble to offer a plan that covers abortion.

Of course, consumers can join a plan that isn’t offered through an exchange. But because of the extra visibility of plans offered under an exchange, and the consumer protections ensured by these exchanges, it seems likely that the only women who would do so are those who are well-informed and financially advantaged – raising the possibility of this bill introducing a bias against the poor, who need more protection than most.

Perhaps worst of all, the bill opens up an avenue for softening current requirements under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), signed into law by Reagan to protect poor and uninsured patients who need emergency care. The Protect Life Act would allow hospitals that are morally opposed to performing abortions to withhold treatment in cases where a woman requires an emergency abortion in order to save her life.

As Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) says of her own experience in this regard: “I was pregnant, I was miscarrying, I was bleeding. If I had to go from one hospital to the next trying to find one emergency room that would take me in, who knows if I would even be here today. What my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are trying to do is misogynist”.

Nobody should be required to die for the sake of someone else’s religious beliefs. And while I can understand the desire for abortion to be treated as a non-trivial matter, we shouldn’t satisfy this desire at the cost of eroding an existing and thinking person’s rights over her own body. While life might begin at conception, individual rights do not. This is the sort of case in which we might hope that public representatives attempt to fight the tide of populist sentiment, rather than allowing the most reactionary forms of that sentiment to stand the chance of influencing policy.

Logical sledgehammers can miss their targets

A recent opinion piece by Khaya Dlanga caught my eye, mostly because of a couple of blog posts written in response to it. Dlanga wrote on abortion, and reflected on whether a couple could sometimes desire an abortion for reasons too “frivolous” to be considered morally acceptable. Now, Khaya Dlanga is an ad-man and a columnist – not a philosopher (at least in the academic sense). His piece was also a opinion piece, and as someone who writes those on a fairly regular basis for The Daily Maverick, I’m well-aware of how difficult it can be to cover enough bases so that pedantic commentators won’t start foaming at the mouth, while also keeping things accessible to people who might only have a broad interest in the topic at hand.

Cape Times and Argus – holocaust denialists?

Taryn Hodgson – who you’ve read about previously, when she impersonated the typical student by a) writing a letter to the UCT student newspaper, and b) making little sense, is at it again. This time she focuses on (b) exclusively, and swaps her fake student hat out for the one worn in her capacity as the international co-ordinator of the Christian Action Network (CAN). Her current concern relates to the evil tolerated by the South African press:

In what appears to be a case of censorship by the press, The Cape Times and Argus have again refused to place an obituary notice (for aborted babies),” said Christian Action Network (CAN) international co-ordinator Taryn Hodgson in a statement.

The newspapers had refused to publish the advertisement in their classified “Deaths” and “Personal” sections, Hodgson said.

“Freedom of speech seems to be undermined when newspaper editors censor obituary notices and refuse to give appropriate media coverage to the hidden holocaust of 900 000 South African babies killed by abortion,” she said.

Without wanting to get into anything pesky like “science” – which would involve Taryn accommodating irritating details like EEG’s only showing brain activity around 30 weeks, therefore making the claim that “babies” are being killed rather unsustainable – Taryn’s arguments are again rather peculiar. The quite reasonable explanation provided by Independent Newspapers editor-in-chief Chris Whitfield (who said that it would be “inappropriate to publish the anti-abortion obituary in the “Deaths” section”, as “such advertisements would violate the ‘sensibilities for people who use the columns to commemorate loved ones'”) was dismissed as “hypocritical” by Taryn on the grounds that the newspapers’ classified sections “often contain legitimately offensive material such as strip joint advertisements”.

So, as our arbiter of what is “legitimately” offensive, Taryn wants us to believe that a) it’s morally incontrovertible that strip joints are offensive, and that b) it’s perfectly acceptable for my obituary for a dead mother, brother, wife, etc., who I didn’t want to die, and who I probably miss, should appear alongside an obituary (or obituaries) for 900 000 zygotes, blastocysts and foetuses, who may at some point have developed into babies that the parents presumably did not want to live? That seems rather offensive to me – or at least it would if my spouse’s obituary were published on the same day. And the lack of sensitivity displayed by CAN is amplified by the fact that their freedom to have their viewpoint heard is undeniable: they were welcome to publish their ode to lost (and fictional) souls in other sections of the newspaper, and they live in a country where their mystic mumbo-jumbo is fully tolerated, and even encouraged by our political leaders.

And even on her own standards, there’s a final peculiarity: Taryn will be leading a march to Parliament on February 1 in protest against the “thousands of babies, killed by abortion, who have never had a funeral”. Is she not aware that there are plenty of other babies (real and fake) killed by TB and AIDS (etc.) who die without funerals? Can we take her seriously until she insists on publishing obituaries for them, too – or are they less important for the purposes of this tasteless PR stunt in the service of Jesus?

Moral agency

I’ve been thinking more about the National Interfaith Leadership Council, following an invitation to participate in the After 8 Debate (SAFM, September 25, around 08h05 NOW POSTPONED) alongside Ray McCauley and a representative of the SA Council of Churches.

Part of the problem with religion hijacking moral discourse is the way in which it dumbs people down, and makes them unable to see that moral conclusions are the result of arguments – not simply absolute rules that we learn via some or other collection of myths (where how we choose which such collection to pay attention to is anyone’s guess).

In these moral arguments, a starting point that’s rarely considered is that of what makes something a moral issue in the first place – for example, I find it difficult to imagine any set of circumstances in which same-sex marriage even gets off the ground as a potential moral issue.

The other allegedly moral issue that the NILC have been making a noise about is abortion – something which barely counts as a moral issue, in that I’d like to think that moral agents need to be involved before something counts as a moral issue.

On the standard criteria of being able to reason and make judgements, foetuses are clearly not moral agents – and even on broader criteria such as sentience, or the ability to feel pain, early-stage foetuses would not make the grade either.

This is not to say that there are no good arguments against certain attitudes about, or laws regulating, abortion – it’s simply unlikely to be the case that they will be good moral arguments. And we should sometimes remember that not every issue we feel strongly about should also be considered a moral issue – and that not every moral issue should also be considered a legal issue.

I’m afraid that it’s a bit more complicated than that.