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November 20, 2008



Stanley Fish argues that Bush will be the comeback kid--fondly regarded within a year. I doubt it will happen. Bush is part of the group, conservative Christians, that it is now permissable to slander at will. The preposterously biased media fuels the fire. I think that history will not be so unkind to GHW Bush, though. As for Obama, well, he has a media ready to applaud his every move, but frankly, I hope he does great things and earns the applause he is bound to get no matter what he does. I didn't vote for him, but I have learned over the past 8 years that it is important to respect the president even if he was not your choice, and I am going to live by that.

Nathan Smith

Christians have been slandered for thousands of years. There's something about Christianity that makes people mad. Though not about Jesus: He personally seems to appeal to everyone. The critics of Christians often say they're hypocrites, not living up to Jesus's teachings, a charge with which wise Christians will hasten to agree. The charge contains a certain concession of inferiority of aspiration on the part of the critics. Yes, Jesus's teaching are sublime, but you don't live by them; I don't either; but at least, not pretending to live by them, I am not a hypocrite. Christians' best response, though, is not to return the charge of hypocrisy against the critics, but to try to live up to their own ideals better-- though that does not necessarily, or even typically, mean living the way the *critics* want them to live. Most Christians have much to learn about the Gospel Way, and the sneers of the world may serve as a reminder of that, for Jesus and the saints have inspired worse men to look up to them and change their ways.

I think Christians need to make a few changes, most importantly on immigration. Serious Christians are already somewhat pro-immigration, I think, but not strongly enough. Until it has become a stylized fact of US politics that political Christianity welcomes the stranger in, conservative Christians deserve to be scorned. Also, I wonder if this wouldn't be a good time to shift a bit on welfare. I mean the following: political Christians say they're against abortion, and at the end of the day this is just a defense of democracy since Roe v. Wade is a clear assault on democracy, a usurpation of the legislative function by unworthy judges. However, since we can't change that anytime soon, we might try a different-- not inconsistent, but complementary-- approach: make it easier, financially and, hopefully, socially, for women who get pregnant to keep their babies. In the past, conservatives have tended to be against welfare for single mothers, not wanting to encourage vice. But it's more important to save lives.

I don't hope Obama does great things, because if he does, I think the odds are that they'll be great bad things. I just hope he doesn't do too much damage. I also don't think it's important to respect the president. I think it's very important, however, never to *hate* the president. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Joyless Moralist

For the record, Jesus did make people pretty mad in his own time. Not many people would admit to hating him these days. But partly I think that's because he's far enough removed from us temporally that they can mentally make him into whomever they want him to be... and we definitely see plenty of that.

I likewise don't really know how to "respect" a president like Barack Obama. I certainly don't want to descend into mindless taunting of the sort we so often see directed towards George Bush. But as far as respect goes... I think I have some idea at least of the sort of person Obama is, and I can't approve of it. To put it simply, I don't think he is an honorable man. In addition to an almost overpowering narcissism, I think he wants to play out a vision of the world that is on several levels virulently opposed to things that I take to be most important. And, more particularly, I think he is deeply complicit in what I see as one of the most grievous moral evils of our time. Now again, I don't want to be pouting and petty about it all, but how could I *respect* someone like that?

Nathan, I'm surprised to hear you support more welfare for single mothers... of course you know all too well the reasons for not doing that, namely that it tends to undermine the same family and community structures that would support a woman trying to raise a child. It's more complicated than just "encouraging vice", and in the long run it's not really clear whether more welfare does lead to less abortions. In a way, our millions of abortions are just the most hideous consequence of a large-scale collapse in family and sexual values, in which welfare has certainly played a role, especially among the poorer classes. That's not to say, by the way, that I'm unilaterally opposed to aiding women in "crisis pregnancies." It's certainly good to have some organizations that do this; better, though, when they're more locally organized. On a state of national level, I guess I'd be more in favor of making it easy to get things like free prenatal care and suchlike, less in favor of making it easy to get eighteen years of welfare checks. But obviously those things are very complicated.

What isn't complicated is that offering no-questions-asked abortion on demand leads to more abortions. It also makes the state formally complicit in this atrocity, especially if it does things like pass legislation designed to enshrine the killing of one's own unborn children as a "right." I can't understand why the right couldn't do a better job of making it clear just how enthusiastically pro-infanticide Obama really is. (I know the media were working hard on Obama's behalf to keep the debate on more comfortable turf. Still.) I'm still kind of stunned that we really just elected a man who, in the state senate, actually opposed a bill forbidding hospitals to simply dispose of already born, live infants (whose parents didn't want them.) And who has been very public about planning *as his first presidential act* to propose a bill (which, given the makeup of Congress, he can probably pass) guaranteeing all women a right to get abortions, and voiding reams of other anti-abortion legislation (parental consent laws, waiting periods, etc.) that have significantly diminished the number of abortions in multiple states. It isn't clear what exactly the FOCA would do, but if it looks much like what proponents want, it might even overturn exemptions for religious clinics and hospitals that won't perform abortions now -- the Catholic bishops have apparently already discussed this at their latest meeting and mostly agreed in that event that they'd just have to close their hospitals. Which I, naturally, think would be the right thing to do. But suddenly closing more than five hundred hospitals nationwide would obviously be a pretty huge thing. So how come this issue never got any air time in mainstream debates? It's in Obama's platform, but I find that a majority of people don't seem even to have heard of the FOCA.

I say this because you touch a nerve with me when you put out the "can't do anything about abortion so maybe we should just focus on welfare" line. It was a really popular one with Catholics who wanted an excuse to vote for Obama (despite some pretty stern statements from a lot of the bishops). Obviously I know that isn't your motivation, but I still hate hearing it repeated, because the thing is, we *could* have gotten a lot more done about abortion, both in the early 80's when the Democratic party first decided to jump on the pro-choice train, and at other times since then. Most obviously, we could have chosen not to elect one of the most pro-abortion politicians in America (much more pro-abortion than the average American) as our next president. We haven't taken those opportunities, in part, I think, because most people would really rather just not think too much about abortion. Its victims are voiceless, and die without ever having names, so it's comparatively easy (and certainly appealing) to shrug and move on to other things. But if (and this is at least the way I see it) we're slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocents every year, legally, right here on our own soil, it seems singularly inappropriate to let ourselves slide into that kind of complacency.

Anyway. Like you, Nathan, I've never stopped liking George Bush. That's not to say I've liked every single thing he's done -- but when do we ever, for any politician? -- but he's made me feel proud to be an American plenty of times. And I really think (of course this is what the left finds most incredible, but there it is) that he is a good man, and a *humble* one, with real convictions and a genuine understanding of himself as a public servant. Ironically, that's precisely why people have pegged him as arrogant and self-serving -- because he cares more about doing the right thing than constantly playing for public opinion. But, that being the case, I think it's very likely that history will be kinder to him than recent years have been.


You're right, Joyless, his stance on abortion is dispicable. I'm hoping that even though there is a democratic congress, they will be reluctant to overthrow a lot of legislation supported by their constituents. One thing to think about though--I agree that Obama has all the wrong views on social issues, but the AA response to prop 8 in CA shows that there is a significant part of his constituency that doesn't agree with him on some of these things. I hope they have some powerful influence with him.

Nathan Smith

re: "Nathan, I'm surprised to hear you support more welfare for single mothers... of course you know all too well the reasons for not doing that, namely that it tends to undermine the same family and community structures that would support a woman trying to raise a child."

Yes, it would have to be done delicately. I wouldn't want to revive the AFDC exactly as it was before. Rather, I would say, let's try to figure out what makes young girls choose abortions, and to the extent that some of them are afraid of the medical costs or don't think they can support a child, let's try to make sure there's some help. More "workfare" than "welfare," if we can, and of course there's a danger that you can create incentives for irresponsible behavior that could lead to more abortions. But I think it could be designed so that, on balance, the number of abortions would tend to fall.

It could also change the culture a bit, make abortion less "automatic." If it made people say: "Have you thought of keeping it? The government provides a lot of help these days..." some people might think twice. Set examples. Also, it would be a different way of keeping the abortion issue on people's minds. People learn to zone out whenever the issue is mentioned. The language about "murder" etc. is like a button that turns people's ears off. If they heard people saying, "Look, girls who get pregnant should at least have the option of not getting an abortion, and if their economic situation makes that too hard for them, the government should be ready to lend a helping hand," the mere novelty of the issue could keep alive an issue that seems to have lost its power to win elections.

"What isn't complicated is that offering no-questions-asked abortion on demand leads to more abortions. It also makes the state formally complicit in this atrocity, especially if it does things like pass legislation designed to enshrine the killing of one's own unborn children as a 'right.'"

Now, I'm not sure about this. Suppose X does bad action A. If I *do not prevent* X from doing A, am I complicit in A? I think this is one reason why people react so badly to abortion politics. People understand if you say that action A is against your religion. They get uncomfortable when you say your religion requires you to try to take over the state apparatus and use its coercive powers to prevent anyone *else* from doing action A, either. If you did that, say, through a coup, they would regard you as traitors. As long as you do it through the democratic process, they have to tolerate you, but if you turn into a single-issue voter and, in a way, secede from all the normal processes of democratic deliberation, that seems like a mild form of disloyalty to democracy. I'm not endorsing these views exactly; I'm trying to summarize what I think is a common attitude. Of course, there could be a more extreme case, say, that of a (special kind of) Muslim who thinks his religion requires him to attempt to overthrow the state and establish sharia. If he thinks his best hope of doing so is through the democratic process, we have to tolerate him. We have to credit him, I suppose, with doing what his religion requires. But we cannot but regard his loyalty to the democratic process as troublingly tenuous, and regard him as a bit of a menace to our freedoms.

Now, if Catholics, and perhaps other Christians, are really required not only to refrain from abortion personally, but also to do everything in their power to hijack the coercive powers of the state, against the will of many or most of the citizenry, to prevent anyone else from doing it, then we can only say they are fated to be citizens with a somewhat tenuous loyalty to democracy. Which is maybe OK. Christians' first loyalty, indeed, must be to a kingdom not of this world. And yet in the midst of all this Christianity and violence seem to be mingled in a way that seems a mistake to me, a discord with the Gospel message. Because Jesus simply did not preach coercion. He preached "Do not resist the evil man" and "Turn the other cheek." He told Peter to put away his sword. He went to the cross without resisting. Abortion and even infanticide were practiced in the Roman Empire, I believe. Jesus did not agitate for the state to prohibit them. He had no interest in the state.

I think the Gospel Way is apolitical, and at the same time, Christians are not necessarily wrong to interest themselves in politics. That has something to do with our being "in the world but not of it": we are in the world, and to the extent that we accept what it gives-- physical security, for example, for those of us who live in states-- we become caught, to some extent, in its webs of obligations. That is, on one side, a measure of our falling short, but Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and anyway, one ought, usually, to fulfill even a promise one ought not to have made. I guess my point is that things like voting are worldly duties, not Christian duties, and it's important not to get the two mixed up. If one lives in societies with abhorrent practices like slavery or abortion, one should not let one's identity as a Christian become bound up with a struggle to seize power in order to abolish them. One might do so as a citizen, and the way one carries out one's duties as a citizen might be influenced by one's Christianity, but the identities remain separate.

Suppose that a whore is a Christian. While still regarding her profession as a sin that she hoped to find the will to escape, the Gospel might still influence the way she practiced it, making her kinder to her customers, perhaps, or more honest in her financial dealings, or more generous to other with her earnings. She might try to prey less upon married men, or to tempt those who could not afford her services. These changes in her behavior would be to her credit. But I think it would be a mistake if she said that she was developing a new practice of "Christian harlotry."

Joyless Moralist

Well, here's the first thing that needs to be said: I don't understand my opposition to abortion as a specifically "Christian" position. Of course that's not saying they're unrelated; in some sense everything I believe is related to my religious beliefs, or at least that's what I would try for. But no special revelation or religious teaching is needed to understand this issue. So, no, I'm not merely stating that my religion says that abortion is wrong. I'm saying that abortion IS wrong. In a way, people of our time have much less excuse for not understanding this than the abortion proponents of the Greco-Roman world. They didn't really know much about embryology and such, so they might reasonably have believed that the fetus was merely an attachment of the mother, with no significant human features of his own, until at least a late stage in pregnancy. In our time, we know better. That's why protesters outside abortion clinics like to hold ultrasound pictures of fetuses and embryos (it's obvious from a very early stage that the embryo is human) and signs that say things like "abortion stops a beating heart."

Regarding whether the government is "complicit." I think we generally do blame governments to some degree when terrible atrocities happen under their watch and they simply stand by. So, for example, the Kyrgyz government was blamed for simply standing by and watching while the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks massacred one another in the village of Uzgen. Southern states have often been blamed for basically turning a blind eye to KKK activity, or to lynchings of blacks, within their own borders. Obviously we could name more examples. One of a government's more minimal obligations is to protect people from being violently attacked.

But even if you don't think that, say, turning a blind eye to the KKK makes a government "complicit" in the evil acts, surely providing legal protections for them would. At the point at which you begin offering them funding, and passing legislation establishing a "right" to lynch, the complicity is pretty obvious. Obama has expressed a clear intention to do those things with respect to abortion.

In my case: it's perfectly true that my commitment to democracy is much less firm than my commitment to life. How could it be otherwise, when I take democracy to be only one of multiple possibly acceptable forms of government, while the killing of innocents is a grave offense for all human societies? It doesn't follow, obviously, that I take bloody resistance to be the appropriate course of action in a society that permits abortion.

However, these arguments about "legislating religion" and "subverting the democratic process" (and I recognize that you're not necessarily putting yourself behind them) are nonsense, just another blind for people who prefer not to think about what is really happening in abortion clinics all across the country. Since when have we held "normal processes of democratic deliberation" to be sacred such that nothing should intrude on them? What exactly are those, anyway? One of our greatest cultural heroes (rightly or wrongly) is Martin Luther King, a man whose single-minded devotion to his particular cause often "subverted the normal processes of democratic deliberation." And also, incidentally, he had no objection to making use of religious language to press his point, when circumstances warranted it. Nobody complains about that these days, because they just figure his cause was clearly right, and in the face of grave injustice it was necessary to push the envelope a little. Well, killing hundreds of thousands of our own children is also a grave injustice, and anyone who recognizes that really should be more concerned about that evil than about preserving some ill-defined notion of democratic decorum. So even though I agree that the courts have behaved improperly here, my opposition to abortion is not "really" a defense of democracy; it is a defense of the lives of the unborn.

I guess the most important thing for me to get across is that persuading people that abortion is wrong is not a matter of getting them to buy into any specifically religious worldview. It's about getting them *past* a particular *flawed* perspective that enables them to sanction something that their ordinary intuitions (particularly when paired with the findings of modern medicine) ought clearly to indicate to them that abortion is evil.

On your suggestions about welfare for single mothers -- again, these things are complicated, but I'd say you're thinking along the right lines. I'm supportive, certainly, of organizations like Birthright and the Gabriel Project. My friend Cara Beth once volunteered at an organization called the Mother House, which basically provided a home and various sorts of support for young girls expecting babies who didn't have anywhere else to go. The house had pretty strict rules from what she said, so they'd make sure the girls had food and medical care and all, but they insisted on also finding them jobs, and I think then charging them rent (appropriately adjusted depending on what they were earning.) Applying principles like that on a larger scale could certainly be a good idea. And you make another good point, which I've sometimes pressed against pro-choice friends and peers: supposedly "choice" is the primary good here, but once abortion is permitted, the system tends to orient itself in favor of abortions at least for those women who are in a non-optimal situation for having a child. So, for example, a lot of universities will help an undergraduate student to get an abortion, but won't do much of anything for a student having a baby. Depending on the feelings of her family or the father of her child, that might not leave her with very much actual choice.

Nathan Smith

Mostly in agreement. Please note, though, that Martin Luther King was quite definitely on the *receiving* end of coercion, not advocating it. He was deliberately imitating Mahatma Gandhi, who in turn was inspired by Tolstoy, a leading thinker in Christian (though rather heterodox) pacifist-anarchism. Civil disobedience is a moral challenge to democratic but unjust laws, but it does not seek to acquire control over the coercive levers of the state, or challenge the state's monopoly of violence.

I agree with you about opposition to abortion not being a specifically Christian position, just an extension of the general rules against murder (although I don't think abortion is precisely murder when those who abort babies do not *believe* that the fetus is a person). I don't exactly want to blame the Catholic Church for its political activism on this issue... If anything, I might say it's doing the right thing... sort of... Well, I don't know. It's just that to me, Christian politics should be Christian in means as well as ends. The Christian means in political matters should be civil disobedience. And the fact that civil disobedience can't really be applied to the abortion issue makes me uncomfortable with the idea of churches trying to push hard for specific political outcomes here.

Think about the right to lynching. In feudal times private violence was much more normal than today. Did the Church press for a legal ban? Not exactly. It was more inclined to exhort at the individual level.

Joyless Moralist

I don't really understand what distinction you're drawing here. I mean, I don't want to kick this back into a discussion of "coercion" and the Christian position on that. We already know we have significant disagreements there. But I'm not proposing bloody revolutions here; I just think we should make abortion illegal. The most obvious result would be shutting down organizations like Planned Parenthood that legally provide and promote abortion as an option. And the means that I've endorsed/employed as a means of bringing about that end are 1) voting for candidates that support those aims, and encouraging others to do the same, and 2) peaceful protest, for example by holding signs, praying, and distributing information outside of abortion clinics. The bishops are doing similar things, though of course they have more clout than me. But how is any of this so different from what the Civil Rights Movement was doing?

Nathan Smith

It seems to me that you're NOT proposing anything outside of the normal democratic process. However, to the extent that Catholics basically say it's a religious duty to vote Republican, since the Republicans are the only pro-life party, this amounts to a mobilization of political power through religious channels, by an organization that explicitly acknowledges that its first allegiance is not to the democratic constitution. An American Bolshevik Party would be perfectly at liberty to try to elect Congressman who would pass a constitutional amendment abolishing democracy and establishing communism, too. I can understand why people are uncomfortable with it. But, you're perfectly within your rights. Within your legal rights, in particular.

Martin Luther King WAS doing things outside of the normal democratic process. But the means for which he was most famous were purely non-coercive. Voting is indirectly coercive since it is an attempt by groupings of people to commandeer the coercive apparatus of the state for their ends. No doubt MLK and his followers did vote, but what they're famous for is actions that were illegal yet peaceful.

Joyless Moralist

Yes, sure, and I'm not necessarily opposed to going outside of the normal democratic process for something like this, if there was any means of doing that that seemed likely to be effective. As I've said, one of the problems for pro-life people is that the victims of abortion are by their nature nameless and voiceless, so you can't throw them into the spotlight in quite the way MLK and his people did with black Americans.

Catholics don't say that it's a religious duty to vote Republican, only that it's potentially sinful to vote for pro-choice candidates (unless there are significant other components that might outweigh the harms, and a lot of the bishops were strongly indicating to their constituents that in this case, there were not.) Maybe in practice that implies voting for the Republicans, though I did know some who didn't vote or threw their vote away. I didn't advise anyone to do that, and I myself voted for McCain, but I don't think those people did anything sinful. I guess I understand why people are uncomfortable with it (but then, people are uncomfortable with the Catholic bishops taking a strong line on anything. People are just uncomfortable with the idea of religious authority being exercised.) but it's obviously legitimate for religious authorities to advise people of what they take to be spiritual dangers.

It may be true that the Church didn't press for legal bans on all kinds of violence in feudal times, but of course, democracy is a bit special in that ordinary people express a kind of allegiance, or engage in a moral act, just in going to the polls and expressing their political will. For that reason alone, bishops might reasonably think it's their place to advise people when they might be voting in a way that makes them complicit in a grave moral evil.

The other thing to mention is that the legal means that most Christians would like to see employed to end abortion would rarely be coercive in the sort of way that most bothers you. I'm not claiming that it absolutely wouldn't happen -- if abortion was illegal then of course you'd have to consider the possibility of punishment for people who perform abortions, maybe even for people who get them, and that would presumably involve some physical coercion. We're a long way from discussing the specifics of that end of things. But you'd accomplish a lot just by refusing to allow organizations like Planned Parenthood to stay in the abortion business, and from not allowing licensed hospitals to perform them. That sort of change wouldn't require any physical coercion.

Nathan Smith

Well, it would involve *some* physical coercion. What happens to a hospital whose license is revoked? Presumably it's prohibited from doing business. But, again, I don't disagree with much here. It does seem to make a difference, by the way-- I hadn't thought of this-- that the Catholics aren't pressuring people to vote for Republicans, only not to vote for (most) Democrats. Although in this case your reason for not voting for a Democrat is that you would be preventing a certain kind of coercion, namely the shutting down of abortion clinics. But whatever, this gets to hair-splitting.


Opponents of abortion are fighting a losing battle. The fact is that abortion does not negatively impact society, not directly anyway. The worst thing about abortion is that its opponents zealousness has taken away attention from much more important issues effecting actual people (as opposed to "potential" people). The political landscape has been completely realigned due to this single issue, and it has not been for the better. But banning abortion entirely would most likely result in many terrible unintended consequences, and ultimately, I feel a restriction on personal freedom of that nature would be unethical.

Nathan Smith

I think it's the negative impact on the lives of the unborn, not "society," that activists are worried about. Though the fall in the birthrate that abortion has helped cause is a problem, too. Social Security would be in a lot less trouble if a few millions of abortion victims were alive today.

The "potential people" line is a bit flippant. Also, what is the significance of the scare quotes? Who are you quoting? If you're imputing the word to abortion opponents I think you're mistaken. Personally I don't quite understand how anybody thinks they know how to distinguish actual/potential people or whatever the issue in question is. I know which side one should err on, though.


Out of curiosity, I calculated the average quarterly real and per-capita real GDP growth for every presidential term since 1960:

gross: 0.907
per-capita: 0.537
Johnson term 2:
gross: 0.963
per-capita: 0.688

Nixon term 1:
gross: 0.531
per-capita: 0.251
gross: 0.318
per-capita: 0.079

Carter term 1:
gross: 0.526
per-capita: 0.252

Reagan term 1:
gross: 0.569
per-capita: 0.339
Reagan term 2:
gross: 0.707
per-capita: 0.479

Bush I term1:
gross: 0.223
per-capita: -0.082

Clinton term 1:
gross: 0.504
per-capita: 0.202
Clinton term 2:
gross: 0.686
per-capita: 0.401

Bush II term 1:
gross: 0.311
per-capita: 0.070
Bush II term 2:
gross: 0.313
per-capita: 0.077

So, Bush II beats Bush I, but both of his terms have been worse than the next worst results in the last half century (Nixon/Ford), and closer to Bush I's results than the next worst after that (Clinton term 1). It seems unlikely that QIV 2008 will bring up his averages. Financial crisis or no, if the economy under Obama is worse than it has been under Bush, it will be fairly amazing and very disappointing.

Joyless Moralist

The impacts of abortion really are wider than just the loss of those 800 thousand-odd lives per year. As Nathan pointed out, it impacts our demographics in a negative way. But also, abortion can be very traumatic for the mother (or what would have been a mother) and often for other family members as well. Much more so, often, than they themselves anticipate in advance. Obviously it isn't in the interests of groups like Planned Parenthood, for whom abortions are the major source of income, to warn people that they may suffer a significant burden of guilt or grief afterwards.

But yes. To my mind it is missing the point in a serious way to say that abortion has "no impacts on society." If the death of hundreds of thousands doesn't count as an impact in itself, I have trouble imagining what would. Suppose we passed a law allowing people to kill their elderly relatives once they had reached an age where they needed significant amounts of care. You can imagine someone making the same sorts of arguments for such a law that you make for abortion. Now that the boomers are starting to retire, the larger numbers of elderly people are going to be putting more and more of a burden on society, representing a significant "restriction on personal freedom" as you might say for children and grandchildren who feel obliged to care for them. And they never really got a choice in the matter. Pregnant women usually (there are exceptions, of course) participated voluntarily in the act that made pregnancy possible, but we have no choice at all about our relationship to older generations. And once they've passed a certain age, the very elderly won't be contributing much to the economy, and in most cases won't be making many contributions of any kind. So there would be no impact to society, right, if we just bashed their heads in?

You can see the debate shaping up in some ways very much like the abortion debate. Some might point out that there was no OBLIGATION to kill the elderly; if you prefer to keep your own aged parents alive to the end, you're perfectly free to do so. Careful provisions could be added so that nobody could be killed unless they were genuinely dependent; elderly people who were still capable of living on their own (or paying for care from their own savings) had to be allowed to live. Various arguments could be made that the quality of life of the very elderly is below average anyway. Good law, right?

Anyway. On your bit about "potential persons" -- I'm well familiar with the line of argumentation, which has been advanced by people like Mary Ann Warren and Michael Tooley for some years now. But I am not a personist, and I think it's a very problematic position to hold. The personist tries to argue that individual rights attach only to persons, who are marked by displaying various person-appropriate characteristics such as problem-solving skills, sociability, ability to use language, etc. On this description, fetuses don't seem to count as "persons" so it's okay to kill them. But the thing is, no matter how you slice it, you will have to rely on the concept of "potentiality" to some degree in determining who has a right to live. When I'm sleeping (let's say in non-REM sleep, so no dreaming or sleep-talking) I'm not manifesting the characteristics of personhood; in a sense they are merely "potential" at that time. That potentiality is admittedly not far from fulfillment since all you'd have to do is wake me up to make me a person again. But if you can kill me without waking me up, is that ethical, since I'm merely a potential person? Maybe, given the likelihood of my waking, that might seem too risky. But what if I'm unconscious? Or in a coma? Now the potentiality is somewhat further removed from its fulfillment. And if we're talking about a nine-month-old child, personhood characteristics definitely seem to be "potential" to a significant degree; this is what leads people like Singer and Warren to concede that it probably is all right to kill babies up until the ages of two or three... provided that nobody is very attached to them, of course.

I simply reject the whole line of investigation as irrelevant. It is our obligation to protect human life. We don't need to worry about when it does or doesn't qualify for "personhood."

Nathan Smith

That's interesting. I hadn't thought about it that way before.


As a point of fact, Planned Parenthood loses money on its medical services. It makes any sort of "profit" only because private donations (amounting to about a third of income) put it over the top. Abortions probably amount to close to half of PP's expenses, and no more than about a third of income. They do get government funds, of course, but that is largely for STI testing and treatment, birth control, prenatal care and other such services to the indigent. PP's commitment to abortion provision is motivated ideologically, not financially.

Joyless Moralist

I don't think what you say is true, Nato. Or at any rate, if it is, Planned Parenthood have themselves been guilty of spreading misinformation. When various forms of state legislation have succeeded in diminishing the numbers of abortions in a region, they have at various times pleaded with supporters to increase their donations to make up for the lost revenue.

Of course I agree with you that Planned Parenthood is also ideologically committed to providing abortion. Their appeals for private donations are also mostly directed at people who are passionate about making abortion available on demand. But the important point for my purposes is that Planned Parenthood is in no way committed to helping to decrease the number of abortions that happen in the United States. Quite the contrary.


I'm unaware of PP attributing lost revenue to fewer abortions. Could you direct me to an example? In my experience, they attribute lost revenue to something that makes it more expensive to provide abortions or other reproductive medicine. Feel free to look at their balance sheets, which are made public. Clinics are well over half their costs and fees for services are perhaps a third of their revenues.

Joyless Moralist

A parish I used to attend had a sassy pastor who used to post all their requests for aid on the parish bulletin board. I've just done a few Google searches online but can't find copies... sorry. I suppose it's true that the exact wording might matter. The general impression was "legislation is making it more difficult for women to get abortions, and so our clinics are doing badly. Please help!" But I suppose things might have been carefully worded to leave open the possibility that it was the red tape, not the decrease in abortions, that was causing greater expense.

As far as balance sheets go, those are always the source of considerable controversy, but I think the most reasonable interpretation is that, as you say, the clinics as a whole cost more money than they bring in (donations and government grants make up the rest), but abortions individually are profitable such that it is in Planned Parenthood's interests to have more of them.

On the whole Planned Parenthood has been a very profitable organization over the last few years; last year it admitted to making $63 million in profits. (Or, since it's a not-for-profit organization I guess I'm supposed to describe it as "revenue in excess of costs.") Particularly given that consideration, I consider it rather scandalous that they continue to enjoy heavy government sponsorship in addition to non-profit status. While I won't deny that some of their activities are in themselves good, an ideological commitment to promoting abortion remains a central part of their mission, and in addition to their nearly three hundred million abortions and their widespread distribution of contraceptives, they've donated many millions to promoting pro-abortion politicians. There are multiple other organizations that would gladly do the research that they do and provide the services that they offer. Actually I should say: there are other organizations that *do* provide the services they offer, but less extensively and in less locations because they lack the funding. Some of these have the advantage of not having their roots in the eugenics movement, and of not having been caught more than once of concealing incidents of statutory rape. However, given recent turns of events, it's probably safe to say that Planned Parenthood will be on firm financial footing for some time to come.


As a nonprofit that is, of course, always holding out its tin cup, I'm sure it doesn't help PP's fundraising efforts to remind potential donors that they're doing well financially. I have yet to receive a communication from any organization to which I donate that does not present the situation as dire. Perhaps this is a function of the kinds of organizations to which I've donated during the Bush years, to most of which he is ideologically opposed.

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