Saturday, 6 June 2009

A Tale of Two Decisions

Via CMR, I was made aware of a book review in the June issue of Psychiatric Services, which I gather is the official journal of the American Psychiatric Association. The reviewed book is named Three Generations, No Imbeciles and recounts the history of an infamous US Supreme Court decision from he 1920's, Buck v. Bell, which assured mental institutions of the right to forcibly sterilize their patients (inmates, rather). The decision was outright fraudulent as the poor woman who had brought the case was supplied a lawyer who "was a prominent sterilization advocate with ties to the institution petitioning for her sterilization" and the expert witness "had a eugenics agenda." Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously stated in his opinion, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." (Holmes was, by the way, in his time viewed as a 'progressive'.) The decision resulted in hundreds of thousands of poor and disabled people being coerced into sterilization for 'social purposes' right into the 1970's.

I am not sure whether it is the book itself or the reviewer who makes the connection to another infamous SCOTUS decision, but it is a very interesting one:

This book also resonates with policy questions about the tension between individual autonomy and protecting people with disabilities. Lombardo sees Buck v. Bell and Roe v. Wade as fundamentally opposed because the former gives the power over reproductive decision making to the state and the latter reserves it to the individual. But Roe v. Wade was used to overturn protective state legislation banning sterilization of people with mental retardation and enabling guardians to impose sterilization on their wards (2). Thus each case has been used to support sterilization of people with mental disabilities. Our continuing social ambivalence about these issues makes Lombardo's book starkly relevant today, when women are using the rights they gained under Roe v. Wade to abort fetuses found to have Down's syndrome and the Supreme Court protects hospitals that follow parents' direction to provide only palliative care to infants born disabled when those infants could have been treated and lived (3). Is it hypocritical to criticize the statement that "three generations of imbeciles are enough" when individuals today decide that even one generation is too many?

This is a meticulously detailed and researched history that should be read not only by those who enjoy history but also because, as Lombardo says, "one of the important lessons of the Buck story [is that] a small number of zealous advocates can have an impact on the law that defies both science and conventional wisdom." As Lombardo shows, the move to sterilize "social undesirables" is far from extinct today.

The complete review is available here.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Reflections on the Murder of Abortionist Dr. Tiller

The American media has been much preoccupied with the murder of the radical abortionist, the gynaecologist Dr. George Tiller. Dr. Tiller was, as abortionists go, rather extreme: he specialised in third-trimester abortions and is reputed to have killed a large number of perfectly viable babies for very spurious reasons. Recently, he was brought before a court to answer charges that he had broken state laws that require parental consent before conducting abortions on minors but was acquitted.

Not surprsingly, a radical anti-abortion activist has been arrested on suspicion of the murder. Blogs and various media outlets are teeming with vitriolic statements against the whole pro-life movement. The State Attorney has even announced that the federal government will provide protection for abortion providers across the country - an enormous overreaction, if you ask me. I don't have the facts at hand myself, but LifeSiteNews reports that it has been eleven years since the last murder of an abortion provider in the US. Hardly an everyday occurrence.

There are two implications of this worth noting:

  1. I fear that this murder is providing pro-abortionists with an opportunity to whip up a state of mass hysteria that will make life difficult for the whole pro-life movement. For instance, laws might be enacted which prevented demonstrations to take place within hundreds of yards of abortion clinics, thus destroying the possibilities of helping young mothers to reverse their decision to abort their child (mind you, there have already been instances where people have been prosecuted for doing this). After 9/11, Liberals were falling over themselves to express support for Muslims and reminding everyone that Islam was a 'religion of peace'. Now, these same people label pro-lifers who deplore this murder 'hypocrites'. Double standard anyone?
  2. I have even heard some pro-lifers voicing concerns that the rhetoric used by pro-lifers in the abortion debate - calling abortion 'murder' etc. creates opportunities for radicalisation. In other words, voicing the opinion (which has more than a fair share of basis in science as well as in the intuition of most people) that abortion entails the killing of a human person is arguably 'hate speech', and is something which should be avoided for the sake of the harmony of society. This illustrates how futile the whole 'hate speech' debate is. If people cannot call things by what they earnestly believe is their proper name, public discourse devolves into the exchange of insincere platitudes. Labelling a certain person who is convicted of molesting children as a 'paedophile' or even as a 'child molester' also arguably constitutes hate speech as it puts that man in danger of being assaulted. Should we call him a 'person with a compulsion of a sexual nature towards persons below the legal age of consent' instead? And his crime? 'Improper consorting with a person below the legal age of consent while himself being above that age'? In a world ruled by fear of the inflammatory potential of language, public speech becomes neutered and meaningless.

Let it be said once and for all: vigilantism is wrong. According to Christian moral teaching, it is the responsibility of the state to exert justice in this world, and all citizens are to abide by the laws and the decisions of the state. Dr. Tiller was tried before a court and was acquitted. He was not tried for his major crimes, but that is because the state does not view them as criminal. While that is highly unsatisfactory, no person has the right to usurp the power of the state to dispense justice.

It is tempting for persons who feel strongly about any issue to think in consequentialist terms: if I do such-and-such, this will be the outcome; this will save so-and-so many lives, etc. Christian moral teaching does not permit such reasoning. There are actions that are inherently evil and are never permissible under any circumstances. Such is the taking of innocent life. Dr. Tiller was not innocent in the eyes of God, but he was in the eyes of the state, and so the above principles apply. Now, a person may legitimately exert violence against another person in order to prevent that person from killing another. But this requires 1) that the person presents an immediate danger to another and 2) that only the necessary minimum use of force is employed. None of these principles apply to this case. The last observation I will make is that it is under certain circumstances permitted for persons to usurp the authority of the state and effect an armed uprising. However, this is limited to the rare circumstances when there is prolonged and severe oppression of fundamental rights by the state or an occupying power. In the US, the state does not enforce abortion, but only permits it (and, to some extent, encourages it). It is, thus, not the state that is the source of the injustice, but the mothers who abort their children. The state is not liable for their actions and so it may not be attacked because of them. The crime of the state is its failure to protect the most vulnerable of its citizens, but since a democracy takes its legitimacy from its voting citizens, it is ultimately those citizens who are responsible for this failure. Ending abortion may only and will only be accomplished by legal means: pushing for the overturning of Roe v. Wade and for state laws criminalizing abortion, which will only be made possible by educating the public on the issue. There is no other way.