We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Thinking aloud on a mountainside

Imagine you are mountain climbing or hill walking with a friend. Disaster strikes, and your friend is badly injured. Weather conditions are such that if you leave him overnight, he will certainly die. With great difficulty you are able to half carry, half drag him most of the way down the mountain. At last you see the road in the distance. Making your friend comfortable as best you can, you leave him, stagger to the road, and wait a long time for a car to pass this lonely spot. Eventually one does – you stop it by practically throwing yourself in front of it – and tell the driver that there is a seriously injured man some way up the hill who badly needs help.

“I’m not getting blood all over the seats of my car,” says the driver and speeds off.

By the time another car comes it is too late.

Something a little like this happened to a man called Charles Handley climbing in Scotland in the 1950s or 60s. In 1985 the BBC made a gripping dramatised reconstruction starring Gareth Thomas (Blake from Blake’s 7) called Duel with An Teallach. In fact Handley’s experience was even worse: despite his incredible efforts at rescue, An Teallach claimed two of his friends that day. I could watch the play again online and clarify my nearly thirty year-old memories of it, but I won’t because it was one of the grimmest things I have ever seen.

Have you guessed where this post is going? Tweak the story a little. Now Charles Handley has a gun. You have a gun. You can damn well make that driver help you get your friend to safety. And if that means he has to carry your friend on his back to the car so that you can keep the gun trained on him, too bad.

Do you do it?

Stealing his car, even without the intention “permanently to deprive” him of it, as the Theft Act puts it, is a violation of his property rights. Temporarily enslaving him to help you carry your friend down to the car is even worse. I think I would do it, even so. Afterwards I would admit the crime, pay compensation and submit to punishment.

As anyone who has read Perry de Havilland’s post from yesterday will have guessed by now, what I have tried to do above is make a similar thought experiment to the one about being forced to rescue a drowning baby used by Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute, the one pretty much everybody but me had no sympathy for. I tried to present a scenario that would appeal rather more to the Samizdata audience than Bowman’s somewhat contrived one. I have tried to inveigle you into sympathising with the bad guy – the government – in Jaded Voluntaryist’s excellent re-casting of Bowman’s analogy:

As an aside, this is not even close to describing welfarism. The people holding the gun aren’t disabled. And the baby isn’t drowning. And it isn’t a baby. And you’re not able bodied (at least not compared to the gun wielder). In fact, in his metaphor he has the relative power relationship completely backwards.
The able bodied arsehole is waving the gun at a disabled man, ordering him to carry some random stranger on his back. A stranger who may be disabled, or may be stupid, or may be lazy, or may just be unlucky. The stranger’s complicity aside, none of that is the disabled victim’s fault. And yet carry him he must because he’s not the one with the gun.

Will I be joining the vast majority of citizens in the countries of the developed world in supporting the welfare state, then? No. There is one crucial element of Bowman’s analogy that I have kept in my scenario, but which, as Jaded Voluntaryist implied when he said the baby was not drowning, does not apply to welfarism. That element is that my story depicted desperate circumstances, which is another way of saying it was a one-off. Welfarism is a system of indefinitely repeated thefts and partial enslavements. They say that it is a continuous crisis, that as there are always babies drowning somewhere you must always be rescuing them, but the insincerity of this claim is demonstrated by the fact that “somewhere” only includes the territory of your nation, state or other tax-gathering unit. Babies outside that arbitrary circle – glug, glug, goodbye. And how can it be justified for you to be forced to spend, say, 55% of your time baby-rescuing but not 56%, or every waking hour?

Overlapping this, welfarism is legitimized repeated thefts and partial enslavements. The man with the gun does not acknowledge or make reparation for his crime. It is he who decides what constitutes crime.

Furthermore there are all the factors that Jaded Voluntaryist implied in his re-casting of Bowman’s analogy. It is not just babies you have to keep rescuing, but adults, and once your presence is a predictable part of the system, those adults start acting like babies on the assumption that you will always be there. That is not likely to end well for you or them.

I will refrain from re-stating further objections to the system of welfare. I am sure most of you have thought of them already, but all these thoughts did lead me to another topic upon which the opinions of Samizdata readers and writers are much harder to predict.

Having to carry a stranger because otherwise the stranger will die is approximately the position of a pregnant woman expecting an unwanted child.

A key part of the pro-abortion argument is opposition to forcing a woman to give up part of her body and her time to carry the child. Foetus. Whatever. For instance, this comment from yesterday’s Guardian by commenter ZappBrannigan says,

Don’t let them win the battle of symbols. Don’t use their terminology. They are not “pro-life”. I propose “mandatory-gestation” instead.

Or here is commenter Thaizinred from the same comment thread:

No already born person has a right to directly use another person’s body to stay alive. People aren’t forced to donate their bodies, or body parts, even if someone else will die without them, even if the person who will die is their child.

The latter’s argument overstates the case. The pregant woman does not have to permanently give up her body or her body parts, but the general point is starkly made, and in a way that will resonate with many libertarians.

I am anti-abortion with reservations and get-out clauses. So I mock the Guardian readers and other “liberals” (in the degraded modern sense) who one minute angrily make the arguments above; who denounce anyone who opposes welfare or jibs at high taxes as a callous, selfish sociopath; who would abort themselves with a rusty coathanger rather than admit that Ayn Rand ever said a good word – and who next minute channel Rand , becoming the purest of pure no-forced-assistance libertarians when the topic is abortion. Such people end up saying that you must give half your time to helping strangers in no particular danger but have no obligation to bear temporary inconvenience to save the life of a being you caused to exist.

So much for them. What about you? To some, I would guess, it is very simple. You are not inconsistent. You are pure libertarians, perhaps indeed Objectivists and proud of it, and you make your stand on the property right of the woman to permanent, uninterrupted, unconstrained use of her own body. You might, perhaps, also think that the foetus is not human until birth but your argument does not rest on that, as Thaizinred’s comment did not.

To use another analogy, your view is that if the captain of a ship at sea sees survivors of a shipwreck clinging to wreckage, the captain can and, for some of you, ought to rescue them, but he does not have to and must not be compelled to.

A minority of libertarians – including me – have views more like these guys: that the foetus becomes human before birth (I shall leave aside the question of exactly when, or if “when” can be exact) and his, her, or its parents (I am trying not to beg the question of whether the foetus is human by choice of pronouns) owe him, her or it protection whatever the inconvenience just as they owe protection to their one day old or one year old child.

And suddenly I’ve run out of steam. This always happens when I talk about abortion and the related question of obligations to small children. There are so many sides to the question. What about rape? What about unintended conception? What about the difference between actively killing and merely withdrawing sustenance? Can I come up with a reason to forbid the Spartans to expose their babies on the mountainside that does not open the door to welfarism and all its ruinous consequences? What about this, that and t’other?

Abortion is a sharp issue. Not many of us have carried out a life or death rescue, with or without force being used. Quite a lot of people have had abortions or been closely affected by them. I hope discussion won’t be too acrimonious, but I think almost anything is better discussed than not.

What about people who bomb abortion clinics in America?

When reading on the internet about Islamic terrorism, commenters often mention that there is also terrorism by Christian fundamentalists in America, where there have been bombings of abortion clinics and shootings of abortion providers.

How prevalent is this form of American domestic terrorism? In recent years there have been round about 15,000 – 20,000 murders in total per year in the US. How many of these were of abortion providers?

Guess now. Scribble your answer down.

If you had asked me a few months ago I would have said three or four murders per year.

Considered over the last fifteen years I was overestimating somewhat. According to the best-known pro-abortion organisation in the US, NARAL Pro-Choice America,

Since 1993, seven clinic workers – including three doctors, two clinic employees, a clinic escort, and a security guard – have been murdered in the United States. Seventeen attempted murders have also occurred since 1991.

That figure comes from a document published in December 2007. So far as I know the figures have not changed since then.

However the phrasing “Since 1993 seven abortion clinic workers have been murdered in the United States” could be re-arranged, with equal truth, to say that “since 1998 no abortion clinic workers have been murdered in the United States.”

The last such murder was ten years ago today.

When I first found out this fact I was surprised. Again and again I have read comments that assumed that this type of terrorism was less deadly than Islamic terrorism but was nonetheless a steadily lethal undercurrent of American life – a death here, a death there.

In the fight against any type of crime, no victory can ever be anything but temporary. The most you can ever say is that the trend is down. There have been several attempted murders of abortion providers during the last ten years and the fact that none of them have succeeded must owe something to mere chance. As has often been observed, the terrorist only has to get lucky once. However it does now seem probable there will be zero murders of abortion providers during the presidency of George W Bush. I doubt that he will be given much credit for this, though if the trend had been otherwise he would certainly have been given the discredit.

Does not compute

A Boston woman who gave birth after a failed abortion has filed a lawsuit against two doctors and Planned Parenthood seeking the costs of raising her child

This case should not long survive in the courts, for the simple reason that the mother can easily avoid all expenses related to raising the child simply by giving the kid up for adoption. She did not want the kid in the first place, so giving it up can not be much of a problem for her, can it? Or has Massachusetts jettisoned the basic legal rule that a plaintiff has the duty to mitigate her damages before seeking to recover them in court? The story does mention that:

The state’s high court ruled in 1990 that parents can sue physicians for child-rearing expenses, but limited those claims to cases in which children require extraordinary expenses because of medical problems, medical malpractice lawyer Andrew C. Meyer Jr. said.

But in the absence of the context of this finding, I can not say that it really stands for the proposition that the plaintiff in this case can have her cake and eat it too, by reaping the psychic benefits of parenthood while sending the bill to those who made it possible, however inadvertently and unintentionally.

Liberty and abortion

Abortion is an issue that is only simple for people at the extreme ends of the debate. Many leftists support abortion (and generally wants it to be taxpayer subsidised, of course) on the grounds it is a woman’s right to choose, which is ironic considering the left is dedicated to reducing personal choice in just about every other sphere. In truth I suspect many on the left support free abortion because so many conservatives oppose it.

Religious conservatives oppose abortion because of religious tenets, end of story, and many others oppose it because they feel that it is murder. And that is, of course, the issue. The issue of choice is moot until you deal with the issue of ‘is it murder?’ because we are not free to choose to murder people.

The way I see the debate is this: treating the chemical abortion of a cluster of cells a few days after conception as murder is preposterous (the general Christian position) because a potential person is not an actual person, but treating the abortion of a survivable unborn child a few days before delivery not as murder is also preposterous (yet that appears to be position of some Objectivists) .

Where does a reasonable person draw the line? I really do not know and upon that basis I think abortion should only be clearly illegal (i.e. murder) if it is late term even though I personally find the entire practice abhorrent. I am simply not prepared to support charging someone with murder unless I am certain a person has indeed been murdered. But how does one define a ‘person’? A two day old blob of human cells may be alive but is it a person? I think not but the devil is in the details. It is not an easy issue and as a result I do not regard my own position as fixed on this by any means.

Who pays the cost?

The Cost of “Choice”
Edited by Erika Bachiochi
Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2004

This is a frankly partisan book, and though subtitled Women Evaluate the Impact of Abortion, it would be fair to say that positive claims for any impact are given short shrift, and the editor is someone who has changed her mind. Changed her mind in what sense? Perhaps the greatest difference between British and American attitudes – and I must make clear that this is not the same as British and American practices – is that while here we regard abortion as a range of moral options, Americans have been polarised by their legal system into only two: for or against. This is an American book (the experience of other countries is hardly mentioned), the editor is American; she was once for abortion and is now against it. Under all circumstances? It is fair to say that this not much discussed.

The landmark decision on abortion in the US was the Supreme Court ruling (which has been strengthened by several subsequent ones) in Roe v. Wade in 1973, five years after the Abortion Act was passed in this country. Both effectively legalised abortion on demand, at any stage in the pregnancy, so that it was it was perfectly permissible to kill someone who, if born, could survive if supported by present-day technology, or even without it (p. 6). Personally I would like to think that such cases are uncommon. However, the on-going US debate on “partial birth” abortion, where parturition is induced so that the emerging baby can more conveniently be killed (p. 19), suggests otherwise. Congress passed a law against it, which was vetoed by President Clinton, but signed by President Bush in 2003; it may yet fail at the Supreme Court, which in 2000 declared partial-birth abortion legal.

Although in this country the matter was debated in Parliament (though without its later ramifications being even suspected) and laid to rest when the Act that legalized abortion passed into law, in the US “the decision of Roe v. Wade launched a civic debacle… [when] the Court abruptly brought this process to a halt (p. xii)”. There is no doubt that this decision, tortuously argued from a “right to privacy” not mentioned, let alone enshrined, anywhere in the US Constitution, was correctly called by one of the dissenting judges “a power grab” and by another “an exercise in raw judicial power”. And if legislatures could be circumvented in this way, where would it all end? → Continue reading: Who pays the cost?

Abortion and Constitutional government

The federal court sitting in (of course) San Francisco has struck down the recent federal ban on “partial-birth abortion.”

First, I agree with this decision, but on federalism grounds, not the privacy grounds cited by the Court. Nowhere does the US Constitution grant the national government the power to ban any medical procedure, as far as I can tell. It is interesting that this particular basis for overturning the statute apparently never occurred to the (liberal/statist) federal court in San Fran. Liberal statists are horrified by any reference to the fact that the Constitution grants the national government very limited powers, as taking these limitations seriously would probably require either extensive amendment of the Constitution or the junking of over half of what the national government does.

Second, it is interesting to observe the politics around this decision. The statement by the abortion rights spokesman that whether a fetus feels pain is irrelevant to a woman’s right to choose is utterly tone-deaf, and seems to be telegraphing a belief that at no point does a fetus acquire personhood that would negate or need to be balanced off against the woman’s right to choose. That is a losing position with the American electorate, and probably explains the rather noticeable silence from the Kerry camp.

The doctors probably have the law, and the morality of it, about right according to this article. The seminal Roe decision granted/recognized a right to choose abortion up until the point of viability, and was basically silent after that. I am no abortion scholar, but I do not think that the Supreme Court has ever really expanded on this time period in any explicit way, although it has danced around it in a number of decisions on ancillary and peripheral issues. Doubtless the inveterate Samizdata commenters will refine my understanding of the law, but I think that viability is not a bad place to draw a line on abortion rights. The difficulty is, of course, that technology constantly pushes the point of viability backwards, but that is a discussion for another day.

However, whether the common medical understanding of abortion rights is correct in turn begs the Constitutional question of whether the US Supreme Court had any business overturning state laws on abortion in the first place. The underlying reasoning, relying as it does on “emanations” and “penumbras,” has been endlessly mocked, and rightly so, for it signalled a Court that no longer cared much what the words on the page said, but rather what they wished the words on the page said.

This in turn showed a Court much less concerned with what the Constitution says than with what the Court says. This disregard for the plain meaning of the Constitution, although arguably employed in the service of individual rights in the abortion cases, paved the way for such utter travesties as a Court upholding extensive and explicit restrictions on political speech. Very little of the US Constitution’s substantive provisions concerning the powers of government and the rights of citizens are still operative in any meaningful way, because the primary enforcer of the Constitution no longer cares to apply the plain language of that document.

Samizdata slogan of the day

State funding of abortions is, however, a completely different matter. The pro-choicers say it’s a matter of choice. Let it stay that way, then, without forcing people who oppose infanticide to fund it.
- Tomas Kohl

Accommodating reality

I suspect the constant trench warfare in American politics over abortion is somewhat mystifying to our overseas observers, and I think abortion poses some real philosophical problems for libertarians stemming from the unanswerable question of when a “fetus” becomes a “person.” Those issues aside, this David Frum blog entry is full of wisdom, not only on abortion, but on the dangers of ideological absolutism in matters political and social.

Now let me say right off: I am not pro-life. I think abortion ought to be legal for the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy and available to protect the health of the mother during the weeks thereafter. I don’t see this as a matter of fundamental human rights, so much as one of accommodating reality. I can’t defend Roe v. Wade as a legal decision, and I would be very glad to see abortion become much more rare than it now, but if the law attempts to suppress abortion entirely, it is the law that will fail, rather than abortion that will disappear. Please don’t email me about this: I have thought about this issue just as hard as you have, and I’m not going to change my mind.

But precisely because I believe in accommodating the realities of abortion, I think those on the pro-abortion side need to acknowledge that the no-concessions approach of the organized abortion lobby is catastrophically mistaken. Abortion rights would be much more secure if they were confined within reasonable limits that squared better with the conscience of the nation.

→ Continue reading: Accommodating reality

Murder is always a crime

I have always taken what I regard to be a classically liberal and ruggedly secular approach to the issue of abortion, a matter which I feel is best dealt with by reference to degree rather than dogma.

It is for these reasons that I have (and still do) lean towards the view that abortion is a matter for the individual conscience rather than the dictates of the state. This does not mean that I think aborting a foetus is a good thing. It simply reflects my belief that a blanket prohibition would be a cure that proves to be worse than the disease.

However, there is abortion and then there is ‘partial-birth abortion’, a process that is conducted between the 20th and 26th week of gestation when the infant is dragged from the womb feet-first before being killed by a blow to the skull. For the life of me I cannot see how this barbaric process can be distinguished from murder most foul.

So I have no hesitation in endorsing British conservative Peter Cuthbertson in his welcome of this decision of the US Senate:

The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 received a 64-33 vote. It now heads to the Republican-led House, which passed the ban last year before it was stopped in the then-controlled Democratic Senate.

Peter has uploaded some photographic evidence of the horrific aftermath of a partial-birth abortion. He should make no apologies for doing so. That the truth is ugly and unpalatable is all the more reason for confronting it and it is not anti-liberty to protect a small human being from this brutal and undeserved fate.

Does a fetus have individual rights?

Capitalism Magazine’s article, Abortion Rights are Pro-Life, has convinced me that my position in the debate on abortion is weak. I used to take the view that abortion violated the rights of a child, and that therefore it was immoral (in most cases). On the other hand, I didn’t believe the government should do anything about abortion. As Milton Friedman said: “The government solution to a problem is usually worse than the problem.” The last things I want to happen are backstreet abortions, mothers killing themselves and so on. It would be morally acceptable for government to protect the rights of the fetus, but not practicable.

The fundamental shift in my thinking is that I no longer believe that a fetus has individual rights – or, at the very least, I’m not so sure as I once was. As the article says:

“what it actually is during the first trimester is a mass of relatively undifferentiated cells that exist as a part of a woman’s body. If we consider what it is rather than what it might become, we must acknowledge that the embryo under three months is something far more primitive than a frog or a fish.”

I’m very happy for fish and cows to be killed to provide me with food, and the reason is that I do not believe they have the same rights as humans. If a fetus is more primative than these, how can I justify saying its rights are greater?

Ban abortion to protect patient-doctor confidentiality

The accumulation of medical information by the state is a bad idea for too many reasons to list here. The reason its being done is part of the desperate attempt to make the National Health Service work at any cost. For my part I look forward to the News of the World (a very downmarket British tabloid) informing us which cabinet minister’s wife has head lice, which one takes Prozac, who’s receiving treatment for haemorroids and which cabinet minister’s children won’t have the autism jab.

Of course it is rather difficult arguing against breach of doctor-patient confidentiality on pragmatic grounds: first national databases could be handy in a bio-warfare emergency, it would be handy for the state to know where the greatest threat of smallpox epidemics are. Second, lawyers caved in on this issue of client confidentiality, banks on financial records, now doctors. Oddly enough the most principled professionals are the media. Perhaps it makes a difference that journalists, unlike doctors or lawyers, aren’t working in a licensed sector: a journalist who rats on sources is competing with others who will protect theirs.

The existence of the blogsphere and web media provides a “back street” media which is what the medical profession needs right now. If we had a flourishing industry of back-street abortionists, state centralized records would be meaningless. I confess that’s the most unlikely argument I’ve ever put forward for banning abortions.

Blogosophy

Chris Cooper’s Blog is slowly getting into its stride. It may never proceed at faster than a slow walk, which is fine by me. So far the postings have been longish and rather scholarly, in keeping with the new title at the top, Blogosophical Investigations. If Chris sets a slow pace but sticks to it, then all honour to him, I say. On current evidence I recommend a visit about once a week, with Friday being the day when the most seems to happen.

The latest posting is a meta-contextual comment on the abortion issue, which concludes thus:

There is no such thing as a right answer here. That’s not sitting on any fence: pointing to the existence of a hundred-foot high fence isn’t the same thing as sitting on it.

So chew on that, objectivists. It means that in a free society, people are going to divide into communities of divergent moralities, and the anti-abortionist ones are just going to have to live alongside communities of people whom they regard as murderers. As they already have to do, of course – but they’re not reconciled to the fact.

A week ago, there was a piece, with lengthy quotes, concerning the argument between Bjørn Lomborg and the Scientific American. No sitting on that fence either.