Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Katha Pollitt's Intuition

Claremont Review of Books recently invited me to review Katha Pollitt’s new book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, alongside two other books on abortion, for their upcoming summer issue. I’ll post when the review is out, but for now, I wanted to cut through much of what has been written contra Pollitt’s book—and there is good reason for pro-lifers to express frustration on almost every page with a real misapprehension of the substantive arguments within the abortion debate—to point out an intuition of Pollitt’s that resurfaces throughout, the response to which needs to be integrated more fully into pro-life argument.

Even though Pollitt concedes the science, she, like so many of her friends in academia, is stuck in the philosophically untenable (and historically embarrassing) distinction between “human beings” and “human persons.” But here’s the intuition that Pollitt enunciates, following Ronald Dworkin, as a reductio ad absurdum in the pro-life movement: killing an embryo cannot be morally equated with killing a five year old, an infant, or even a late term fetus, but the pro-life position necessitates this moral equivalency in its support of fetal personhood. Pollitt maintains that pro-lifers don’t really even believe in this moral equivalency (after all, we don’t see pro-lifers picketing at IVF clinics where spare embryos are routinely discarded).

Perhaps if people who claim zygotes are persons had to spend a week arguing with Ronald Dworkin, they would collapse in exhaustion and admit that a fertilized egg is not the same as a five-year-old. Perhaps they would admit that they, too, would be more upset by a fire that killed four hundred workers in a factory or young people in a club…than at a fire in a fertility clinic that destroyed four hundred frozen embryos.

And so, Pollitt reasons, pro-lifers must believe what any reasonable person believes: human worth grows as the human being grows, thus not all human beings are worthy of equal legal protection (especially in a contest with a pregnant woman).

But here’s where I think Pollitt is right:  most pro-lifers don’t really believe that killing an embryo is the same as killing a five year old. But, I think, many pro-lifers think they should believe that—to be fully pro-life. They aren’t comfortable making the distinction, for fear of falling into philosophical gradualism. And here’s where masterful pro-life philosopher Christopher Kaczor comes in: in a 2011 First Things article that is short enough to be required reading for everyone reading this post and articulated whenever Pollitt/Dworkin’s argument is raised, Kaczor shows that pro-lifers need not believe that all killings are equally egregious to resist the gradualism at the heart of much academic pro-choice thinking. All human individuals have equal moral worth. This is the pro-life position. But it is more egregious to kill a five year old or even a late term fetus than it is to kill an embryo, andyet each of these killings is still morally wrong. Taking Kaczor’s argument a step further, it is more devastating to lose four hundred workers in a factory than four hundred embryos, even if, tragically, four hundred human lives have been lost in both. The sorts of philosophical distinctions Kaczor makes are necessary to grasping the real consistency within pro-life argumentation—distinctions Americans are less and less capable of making (and understanding) in political debate today.  


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