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Hullabaloo


Monday, December 20, 2004

 
Reframing Respect For Life

...in all its complexities.

Via Avedon Carol, I found this post by Max Blumenthal about the new It-Democrats, Democrats For Life. This article is fascinating, too.

I do give them credit for being impressively morally consistent. They are for the abolition of abortion rights, right to die legislation, the death penalty and stem cell research. (And they are members in good standing of the Democratic party, so the tent must not be so damned small after all.)

I must point out, however, that I am against the death penalty and also pro-choice, pro stem cell research and pro right to die. And that view is also perfectly consistent and moral because I simply don't believe that a tribunal or a judge or, least of all, a politician, is capable of making these complicated moral decisions about life and death. If I had my way, I'm sure that some guilty people who deserve to die would live to be 90 (imprisoned, I trust) because of this stand. And I assume that some women would have abortions for selfish and shallow reasons. But until human perfection can be achieved, which is never, these extremely complicated moral issues cannot be dealt with through law without often being immoral themselves. It is not capable of sorting out the morality involved when a desperate 36 year old woman with three kids finds herself pregnant after her drunken ex-husband begged for forgiveness for his philandering and she gave in. You can't say that the death penalty is consistent when the legal system cannot account for lawyers and judges who just aren't very good or witnessess who truly believe they saw something they didn't see. It doesn't make sense to say that nobody should be allowed the right to die when you look at an old man who is dying in terrible pain and just wants to be set free.

I'm reminded of a very thought provoking article by William Saletan, in which he frames the argument exactly as I see it:

[S]ome conservative evangelicals and progressive Catholics are proposing to broaden the debate[on capital punishment]. While we're rethinking capital punishment, they say, we ought to rethink another kind of killing as well: abortion. But their analogy is upside-down. The reason we're rethinking the death penalty today is the same reason we liberalized abortion laws 30 years ago: We're learning that the state is too clumsy to handle it.

To abortion opponents, the essential principle in both cases is life. "If people on the so-called liberal spectrum of American politics are against capital punishment, then they certainly should be against the taking of innocent life of the unborn," Robertson argued on "Meet the Press" last month. Writing in The New York Times Magazine two weeks later, Andrew Sullivan challenged anti-abortion conservatives and anti-execution liberals to embrace the Catholic "seamless garment" doctrine, which holds that, on both subjects, "life is life is life. From conception to natural death, our first duty is to defend it."

But there's another, less obvious connection between the two issues. The administration of capital punishment, like the regulation of abortion, depends upon agents of the state--legislators, judges, pardon boards, governors--to translate morality into law. And, in both cases, much is lost in the translation. Nearly everyone agrees that abortion is morally troubling and that murderers should be punished. Most people concede that some abortions ought to be forbidden and some murderers ought to die. But it's quite another matter to sort out exactly when. What about the 16-year-old girl knocked up by her abusive boyfriend? What about the career criminal scheduled for lethal injection because a fellow inmate pinned a murder rap on him in exchange for time off? People who support the death penalty in principle are getting cold feet about its application because they are coming to doubt that the government makes these decisions wisely. That kind of doubt is not a reason to support tougher abortion laws. It's a reason to oppose them.

[...]

This kind of piecemeal uncertainty, not moral revelation, is what's driving today's reevaluation of the death penalty. Robertson, Ryan, and Will still support capital punishment in principle. What they question is the government's competence to decide fairly or accurately who should receive it. Texas's execution of Karla Faye Tucker--who, according to Robertson, was "out of her mind" when she committed murder and was later "born again" in prison--shook Robertson's faith that the state could be trusted to distinguish killers who deserve death from killers who don't. Meanwhile, the post-conviction exonerations of numerous death-row inmates prompted Will to counsel "skepticism" about the death penalty, on the theory that "it's a government program and will be messed up."

[...]

Will a similar anxiety about the state's sloppy management of life and death affect the abortion debate? It already has. Four decades ago, when abortion was prohibited, stories of illegal abortions and the wretched circumstances that drove many women to seek them began to penetrate public consciousness. Americans disliked abortion in principle, but the more they heard about the moral complexity of these cases, the more uncomfortable they became with the procedure's criminalization. They began to suspect not that abortion was defensible in general but that the laws against it failed to recognize circumstances in which it might be justified. Many states created or broadened loopholes to permit the procedure. By 1973, when the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade, the country's abortion laws were already unraveling.

The question of abortion, like that of execution, can be put in practical terms: How confident are you of the state's ability to comprehend and resolve the morality of each individual case? If you have misgivings about both the death penalty and broad restrictions on abortion, are you inconsistent in your respect for life? Or are you consistent in your respect for life's complexity? At its core, this perspective isn't about saving lives or fighting for women's freedom. It's about the limits of our ability to apply rigid principles. It's about humility.

This is the lesson Casey taught about capital punishment. The more he examined death-penalty cases, the more he second-guessed the system. Judges and legislators, he realized, lacked the dexterity to apply shared values to such diverse circumstances. The assembly line's flaws generated telltale errors: the moral kind that shattered Robertson's confidence in the clemency process, and the factual kind that convinced Ryan to halt executions in Illinois. In various ways, they are all raising the same question: whether decisions about capital punishment are too complicated to make on an assembly line. Maybe, just maybe, they should ask the same question about abortion.


The answer is yes.

So, the Democrats want to reframe the social issues. Here's one way to think about it. I know it doesn't involve any fun Sistah Soljah shaming or sexy self flagellation so perhaps it won't be as satisfying for the media. And the religious right is assured of the morality of its position in all things, so I'm afraid they won't be rushing into our big tent with this sort of argument. But there might just be a few voters out here in the western part of the country who agree that the blunt instrument of politics isn't a very good tool for regulating the most delicate matters of life and death with which even the philosophers and theologians struggle for clarity.

Instead of trying to convince people that we are moral because we share their discomfort about our deeply held principles, perhaps we should instead just hold to our deeply held principles and explain why they are moral in terms they can understand. I think that's what reframing is all about, actually.





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