Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. Professor Lim’s columns are usually up on Mondays, but our lovely blog editor is on vacation, so please excuse our tardiness this week. In the article below he looks at Obama and the issue of abortion. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
The pro-lifers single-mindedly protesting President Barack Obama’s receipt of an honorary degree from Notre Dame University have reduced the Catholic Catechism to a single issue. And it is precisely in the single-mindedness of such pro-life proponents that it can be showed that their concern is not, ultimately, about life.
The President is on the right side of Catholicism on immigration and the environment, just as previous Presidents Notre Dame has honored have been on the wrong side of the Church on issues like capital punishment and support for nuclear weapons. To pick on the current president is to pick one particular issue as the litmus test of a person’s contribution to advancing human excellence (the qualification for a honorary degree).
That is myopic, but worse still, many pro-lifers proffer their arguments in bad faith, or so Professor Sonu Bedi at Dartmouth argues (28:15 onwards). If opponents of abortion want to make the State compel women to carry their fetuses to term, Sonu Bedi compellingly asks: why don’t pro-lifers also demand that the State compels citizens who are uniquely situated to save a particular life to do so?
The latter are what Bedi calls “forced samaritan laws.” As Judith Jarvis Thomson made clear decades ago, a law prohibiting abortion is a forced samaritan law, because a woman considering abortion would be told by the State that she must perform her duty of preserving a life.
Fair enough. Perhaps we should legislate such a world, but the truth is we have not, and are not even trying. In the Common Law of the US, there is, in general, no duty to rescue. That is to say, no person can be held liable for doing nothing while another person’s life is in peril. In Vermont, one can be slapped with a $100 fine if one is uniquely positioned to save a life but fails to do so. Consider the glaring asymmetry of the law: $100 versus $2000-5000 in Texas if a woman is found to have undergone an illegal abortion.
Ah, but as the rejoinder goes, perhaps a woman has consented to sex and perhaps that is why she has a special duty to the child she helped create, and not so for the random passer-by who chooses not to save a drowning child. OK, (assuming consenting to sex is the same as consenting to procreation) why don’t we talk about laws alongside abortion laws that will also exact commensurate obligations on the father who also consented to the sexual intercourse that begot the child? Why are we so quick to pin consent and duty squarely on the woman seeking an abortion? Pro-lifers who seek laws against abortion but not laws for forced samaritanism are too quick to dismiss the immense physical and emotional costs of child-bearing that women have silently borne for millennia. And if they care only about protecting one type of life (and burdening only one group of people), then surely they are not, paradoxically, truly concerned about life but about something else, such as the preservation of traditional roles in the family.
If we value life, then we should dedicate our lobbying energy to saving any life writ large that is in imminent peril, and not merely the life in the womb. The burden of being pro-life should be equally born by all. Not only by women. If we are to be pro-life, then let us be pro-all-life, not just those lives that only women are uniquely privileged/burdened to save.