The Pro-Life Movement's Absolutism

I commended Mitt Romney's pro-life but subtly pro-choice-for-now position yesterday. I did not mean to duck the deeper issue, and the third chapter of my book deals with this in great detail. This reader puts it very well, I'd say:

The problem with the pro-life movement isn't merely that it is prohibitionist, but that its fundamental position cannot be formulated in any fashion that is coherent to someone, except that they first accept some bit of magic that turns a few cells into the moral equivalent of a person. Yes, there is plenty of argument about abortion in its later stages. But the pro-life movement has no interest in fashioning a dividing line based on the neurological criteria. If that were the mode of discussion, there would be far less fervor and more ready compromise. Few of us on the pro-choice side argue that our interest in personal liberty is SO great that we will abide NO restriction on late-term abortion.

But that's not the mode of discussion. The pro-life position requires acceptance of a notion that is both religious in origin and odious to common sense, that even the earliest zygote should be treated as a person. The philosophical gedanken often used to exhibit the absurdity of this position is whether, caught in a burning fertility clinic, and able to save only one, you would choose to rescue a child? Or a tray holding thousands of viable embryos, ready for implantation into would-be mothers?

Pro-lifers twist themselves in knots when they try to deal with that question. If they take their position at face value, they must do what we all know is repugnant, saving the far greater number of embryos, pretending that they are people. The alternative -- the sane alternative -- is to recognize that yes, there is a great difference between a person and an embryo. The gedanken's question isn't even tough. One saves the child. Of course. There is a difference between someone who is aware and who has experienced consciousness, and something that has never been more than unconscious tissue. Of course. It is a difference that should have moral and legal consequence. Of course.

The pro-choice position is not just about arguing the consequence of that difference should include more reproductive freedom than the pro-life movement desires. It also is about preserving sanity in how these issues are argued.