Tag Archives: abortion

No Clarence, You Do Not Have Clearance

Justice Thomas recently wrote a 20 page concurrence to a decision about an abortion law. Someday, this exposition will be renowned as the most extensive, inside-out examination of the genetic fallacy in history. Every textbook will cite it, eventually. To hasten its ascendance, I will make these observations on the Justice’s writing.

First some background. The law at issue is one which restricts abortion in a number of ways, only one of which really got the Judge going.

“This statute makes it illegal for an abortion provider to perform an abortion in Indiana when the provider knows that the mother is seeking the abortion solely because of the child’s race, sex, diagnosis of Down syndrome, disability, or related characteristics. §§16–34–4–1 to 16–34–4–8; see §16–34– 4–1(b) (excluding “lethal fetal anomal[ies]” from the definition of disability).”

We’ll get back to the “child” verbiage. What’s the upshot of this provision, the one which provoked such logorrhea from Thomas?

“Put differently, this law and other laws like it promote a State’s compelling interest in preventing abortion from becoming a tool of modern-day eugenics.2”

Wow, that is a big claim, and it is going to need a lot of support. But what he brings is: “Eugenicists are bad. Things Eugenicists like are bad. This is the sort of thing Eugenicists like, so it is bad.”

On the surface, his argument is just bad, mundane, and not even original. But he is a supreme court justice, so he digs deeper, and we get to see all the sub-strata of the genetic fallacy, and so why it, like all informal fallacies, merits its label.

The first purpose of the genetic fallacy is to shut down one’s opponents. By nature, it contains an accusation of guilt by association, not only for the position which it seeks to defame but for any advocates of that position as well.

Quite a bit of Thomas’ concurrence enumerates the deplorable sayings of Galton, Sanger, Stoddard, etc.. These are people to be reviled and feared. Galton originated the notion of social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest. Thomas provides this example of Stoddard’s toxicity:

Stoddard feared that without “artificial barriers,” the races “will increasingly mingle, and the inevitable result will be the supplanting or absorption of the higher by the lower types.”

But, wait a minute. If the higher types and lower types can’t keep it straight, then how are they ‘types’ at all? This kind of contradiction permeates eugenics, especially when it comes to the use of birth control to advance the cause. If a woman chooses to use birth control to give her children a better economic heritage, or to spare her child a brief and impoverished existence, she would seem to have met the superior-type criteria. Which brings us to the real problem with eugenics: It inevitably classifies on phenotype, with an assumption that the genotype follows. Furthermore, even their assessment of phenotype is hopelessly crude, because it includes social status as big part of the phenotype’s constitution. The blond hair and blue eyes come with a 3-piece suit.

It turns out that the eugenicists are just a bunch of crackpots who don’t really understand genetics, not the scary, evil geniuses referenced in Thomas’ argument. And that’s one problem with the genetic fallacy in general. To taint a position, the associated villains must have some potency to their poison – they must be right to some extent, or at least attractive – yet they must also be wrong, to discredit the position, and repugnant. In the end, you can’t have it both ways.

But the Justice does not stop in the upper layers of the genetic fallacy; he is digging for gold. Underlying every good deployment of this fallacy, there is a slippery slope argument as well. Usually the slippery slope remains implied. It risks being overlooked, in that case. Justice Thomas is not about to let that happen.

If “the masses” were given “practical education in Birth Control”—for which there was “almost universal demand”—then the “Eugenic educator” could use “Birth Control propaganda” to “direct a thorough education in Eugenics” and influence the reproductive decisions of the unfit. Propaganda 5. In this way, “the campaign for Birth Control [was] not merely of eugenic value, but [was] practically identical in ideal with the final aims of Eugenics.”

If you thought Sanger was bad, just wait. She was merely the vanguard. who aimed to soften us all up for the real assault.

And with today’s prenatal screening tests and other technologies, abortion can easily be used to eliminate children with unwanted characteristics. Indeed, the individualized nature of abortion gives it even more eugenic potential than birth control, which simply reduces the chance of conceiving any child. As petitioners and several amicus curiae briefs point out, moreover, abortion has proved to be a disturbingly effective tool for implementing the discriminatory preferences that undergird eugenics.

We are looking down a black diamond run. The last bit, however, brings us to the deeper reasons for rejecting genetic fallacies. In the course of his exposition, Justice Thomas reveals a profound misunderstanding of fetal anomalies, prenatal testing, and worst of all, Freakonomics (he must not have listened very carefully to the episode referenced on page 17). The genetic fallacy generally serves to smooth over such rough spots for its user. For Justice Thomas, it is a smoke bomb which he hopes will cover him while he slips past the implications of words like “child” tossed in to refer to – what? Does he mean zygote, blastocyst, embryo, fetus? What are the physiologic correlates of childhood? Or is it possession of a soul, and if so, just what the hell is a soul, and by what means do we know of it? He concludes:

Although the Court declines to wade into these issues today, we cannot avoid them forever. Having created the constitutional right to an abortion, this Court is dutybound to address its scope.

Indeed, you can’t hide forever.

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Buddy the Blastocyst Gets a Soul (or does he?)

Nobody likes abortion – not the people who go through the procedure, not the people who perform the procedure, not the people who make the rules – and for good reason. For the patient, it is emotionally and physically traumatic. For the physician, it is one of those sad duties on the ethical borders of the profession. For the society,  it is desensitizing and it ‘whites out’ a gray ethical situation. From proponents, abortion rights call for a sober advocacy, the kind of favor given a less bad thing. Only one thing makes the whole mess worthy of a fight, and that is the contention of abortion opponents that abortion is murder. To qualify as murder, Buddy the Blastocyst’s destruction must be the destruction of a human. To qualify as a human, Buddy the Blastocyst must have a soul. What makes the accusation of murder objectionable is the murder which justifies the accusation. That murder is the murder of the soul, or at least one concept of it.

Most religious people are dualists; they believe in a soul which is a substance separate from the body. In this model of the soul, the nature of the substance is a sort of nascent self- consciousness or quality of humanness – a realized version of what it’s like to be human. The soul then forms a nidus for the mind, as well as a motive force, and through its one-way, motivating influence on the mind, causes the body to act. Though the body’s actions may  indirectly represent the soul’s intent, the soul is only affected by its own decisions independent of the body and the parts of the mind that gather and manipulate information from the physical world. In this model, we are soul puppets. Though it is subtle and convoluted, this arrangement is necessary to have the soul be one substance with the deity. The deity then encounters no philosophical problems in being the direct creator and ultimate owner of the soul.

Obviously, skeptics and other monists do not subscribe to the soul puppet model. However, most still believe that there is something it is like to be human, and so believe in a version of the soul. But this version is a dependent soul. It derives from the gradual realization of the potential to be what a human is like, over an individual’s lifetime. The soul is thus an accretion on the body and mind, with the potential quality of humanness as its nidus. This is the idea of soul which the soul puppet people are bound to destroy. To properly understand this imperative, it helps to examine the implications of being a soul puppet for Buddy the Blastocyst.

Let’s say Buddy forms under the dualist model. He has a soul, created by the deity, which is a substance separate from his body and rational mind. His soul may indirectly affect his body and mind, and to remain a separate substance, may not be directly affected by the body and mind. As soon as Buddy comes to be, there is about a forty percent chance that he will  quickly cease to be. The uterus may not be ready for him or he may have a fatal genetic abnormality. For a variety of reasons, a large proportion of early pregnancies fail. On superficial examination, this fact seems to pose some problems for Buddy the soul puppet. Perhaps the deity is a cruel practical joker, who bestows Buddy with a soul only strip it away. Perhaps the deity knows Buddy will fail and so does not give Buddy a soul in the first place.

Buddy needn’t worry though. Just as the motives of his soul are not directly accessible to his mind and body, neither are the motives of the deity. In an ironic twist, the benevolence of divine caprice saves Buddy from predestination and arbitrary judgement. Just as the soul must affect itself and merely be represented in mind and body, so the greater material world must symbolize the deity’s motive, but in context of the deity’s real condition alone, which is separate and self-contained, completely encompassing and determining the material world. Otherwise, movements in the material world begin to operate on the same rules as in the divine, and so begin to have a direct meaning for the deity, bringing the deity under their influence (even if he/she must only choose to ignore them). Then he/she is no longer a separate substance, just a separate category.

So, Buddy is saved by never being able to know god’s mind through interpretation of material events. However, by the same ironic twist which allows Buddy the soul puppet to dodge potential problems with predestination and arbitrary judgement, the real consequence he suffers is condemnation to thorough-going Nihilism. He can’t know the motives of his soul in terms of material objects subject to his reason. He can rationalize the material representation of the deity’s will, though he can never know its significance. Forever pushing around symbols he can’t read in a game with rules not relevant to anything outside themselves, on all but the very deepest level, he is a zombie. But if he comes to see himself as a soul puppet, accepting the viewpoint of those who would call his destruction murder, his future can be a happy  condition of necessary ignorance.

The material world will no longer be a big problem once Buddy comes to that conclusion. It will be very convenient for him if he can rationalize its relationships, but consistency is not vital. Likewise, the moral sense that he may feel could be indigestion, but it may just as well be a one-way communique from his soul. He will be justified in believing his intuitions, though he can never really validate them. He then has a choice of two paths to follow. He can decide to do as the Shakers and others have and simply avoid confusing situations where an underlying psychological motive might masquerade as inspiration. Conversely, he can follow the majority of his fellow soul puppets, hold all his intuitions to be inspiration from the higher realm, and simply have faith that he is not deceived.

Still, it takes a tremendous amount of faith to walk about in pitch black dark. Like so many of us, Buddy may not cope well with uncertainty. He may seek solace in the scriptures which record  inspirational intuitions concordant with his own. History is cold comfort, though. He may wish to know something in his own time and space which validates his intuitions. Then, the only means available is comparison of his intuitions with those of others, and he may feel, since he is justified in believing his own intuitions true, that others’ intuitions must coincide with his own. He may demand a substantial soul for every blastocyst, and seek to silence any talk, or even implication, of an accreted soul.

The demand for consistency may seem inconsistent, but if it is driven by an intuition related to religious sentiment, the soul puppet may be justified in believing it is just as close to the truth as an action based on reason. Actually, if an intuitive conclusion cannot be related to a cause based in the material world, he may be more justified in believing such a conclusion is true. Distinguishing  discomfort from inspiration requires insight in the soul puppet’s world, and in that world insight is not more reliable than intuition. He might as well flip a coin.

This is the problem: in a material world where we are all weak from time to time, the soul puppet perspective ultimately requires universal participation. It is too uncomfortable otherwise, and in a system where the difference between discomfort and inspiration is not reliably discernible, relief becomes an imperative. So, the soul puppets are justified in crying ‘murder’, and more. They are justified in demanding that everyone else cry ‘murder’, and more. It isn’t abortion that’s a fighting matter, it’s the imperative behind the cries of  murder. Everyone may not agree on the nature of the soul, but no one wants to be a pawn in another person’s scheme to insulate himself from the implications of his own beliefs. Even a blastocyst deserves protection from that.

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