Saturday, February 25, 2006

An Abortion of a Law

The last thing I want is for this blog to become another battlefield in the abortion wars. While I recognize the critical importance of the issue to many on both sides of the debate, the issue itself doesn't resonate deeply with this particular middle-aged male. I don't intend to even declare my position here. Some folks who know me may think they have reasons to guess one way; others may guess the other way; I ain't saying either way. I find that the mere mention of the issue tends to banish clear thinking from the conversation.

And that's exactly why even though I don't want to talk about abortion, I do want to talk about South Dakota's new abortion law, which passed the state's senate last Wednesday and appears on its way to full passage and signature.

The emotion that surrounds abortion has long distorted politics and governance in this country in ways that extend far beyond the boundaries of this one issue. It polarizes the both the electorate and our leaders (and office-seekers), leading to votes and appointments and decisions that are driven by the abortion issue but whose impact is much broader. For instance, how many religious folk who fundamentally agree with Democrats on issues of social justice nevertheless feel morally compelled to vote against the pro-choice party? And given the closeness of the last two presidential elections, how difficult is it to imagine that people voting against their own broader principles because of this one issue swayed the outcome? How many times has the selection of judges and high-level officials been colored by the abortion "litmus test"? (I believe that metaphor is now mandated by federal law.) How often has our national debate about important public policy issues such as medical research, health care, education, public hygiene, etc., been hijacked by abortion concerns, often things that are trivial and peripheral to the real issue.

This is not just a rant about the current Republican administration, either: For the more than 3 decades since Roe v Wade (and no doubt for years before that), abortion has provided the axis around which American politics has rotated... too often, to the detriment of the other legitimate business of the people.

The thing is, the most committed people on both sides might think it's right and just that this issue dominates our politics, because fundamental principles involved are so important. But this new law, and the arguments around it, hint that neither side is truly committed to their ostensible principles. Here's what I mean:

The principle on which the anti-abortion position stands is the assertion that a fetus is a human person, and that each abortion is a homicide, and that a public policy of legal abortion constitutes a horrifying holocaust. OK, let's follow that logic.

South Dakota law defines first-degree murder -- a Class A felony -- in part this way: "Homicide is murder in the first degree when perpetrated without authority of law and with a premeditated design to effect the death of the person killed or of any other human being...."

...and an abortion is clearly a "premeditated design" to terminate the life of a fetus. If we stipulate that a fetus is in fact a person, and remove from abortion the "authority of law," it follows as night follows day that an abortion is an instance of first-degree murder as defined by South Dakota's existing law. Further, in South Dakota a Class A felony is punishable by death, if certain aggravating circumstances obtain:

"Pursuant to §§ 23A-27A-2 to 23A-27A-6, inclusive, in all cases for which the death penalty may be authorized, the judge shall consider, or shall include in instructions to the jury for it to consider, any mitigating circumstances and any of the following aggravating circumstances which may be supported by the evidence:
. . . .

(5) The defendant caused or directed another to commit murder or committed murder as an agent or employee of another person;"

That is, as either the instigator or the so-called triggerman in a murder for hire... which, if you stipulate that the fetus is a person, means both the mother and the doctor in an abortion scenario, not to mention possibly any third party who knowingly paid for the abortion. Another aggravating circumstance is if...

"(6) The offense was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim. Any murder is wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman if the victim is less than thirteen years of age;" [emphasis added]

...and a fetus is certainly less than 13 years old. Once you declare, as a matter of law, that a fetus is a person, it's logically impossible to view in abortion as anything other than a murder-for-hire conspiracy... a serious crime punishable by serious sanctions, up to and including death, against all members of the conspiracy. So what does the proposed South Dakota law provide? Well, it provides for a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison for the doctor... and no punishment at all for the mother.

Excuse me? 5 years max for a hit man?!? Hired to kill a baby?!? And the person who hired him walks?!? The anti-abortion movement wants us to believe that a baby has the same fundamental rights 5 months before it's born as it does 5 months after, but the sponsors of this law clearly don't believe that: Try to imagine the outcry if anyone suggested a mother could hire a hit man to kill her 5-month-old infant and get off scott free. And that even the hit man could get no more than 5 years in prison. No, this law fundamentally fails to do justice to the very principle that is its ostensible justification... and in so doing, it casts doubt on whether its supporters actually believe what they claim to believe. Are anti-abortion activists, their opponents might wonder, really all that concerned about defending life, or is it all just a hook on which they hang their attempts to enforce a conservative public policy regarding sexuality?

But before the abortion-rights folks start feeling smug, let me note that there's plenty of sauce for both the goose and the gander here. Consider that the arguments against the South Dakota law began with complaints that the law lacked exceptions for rape or incest, and that it lacked a sufficiently broad exception to protect the mother's health. I confess I've never understood the rape-or-incest issue: If the fetus is not a person, all talk of exceptions is moot, but if it is a person, well... at what point did we decide it was alright to kill a child as long as you can show that the child's father is a rapist? The very idea that the sins of the father should be visited on the child even unto death seems positively medieval. Yet abortion rights activists often base their attack against proposed restrictions on the technical question of exceptions, and in the process risk implicitly conceding the underlying proposition. In effect, they're arguing for a law that defines abortion as killing but includes sufficient loopholes that anyone who wants to can get away with murder.

I'm sorry, but on the question of exceptions, the South Dakota law has it right, at least in terms of internal logic: Once you stipulate that the fetus is legally equivalent to a born child, you logically can't allow any exceptions other than to save the life of the mother. As a society, we recognize individuals' right to kill to save their own lives, but not to save themselves from embarrassment or inconvenience or even non-life-threatening illness. Can you imagine anyone saying it was OK for a mother to kill her 5-month-old sick infant to avoid catching the flu? Or to avoid the psychological pain of being constantly reminded of the man who raped her? Surely not... yet these are precisely the sort of mother's health exceptions that invariably come up in these debates.

Look, I understand that politics is the art of the possible, and at some level these are positions of political pragmatism. Abortion foes know people won't stand for a law that treats friendly small-town OB/Gyns like mob hitters and sweet college girls-next-door like stone killers. Abortion rights activists similarly realize that large segments of the country can't reconcile themselves to a totally permissive legal regime. So both sides make compromises, working for the future, and for a law that embodies as much of what they believe in as they can get.

The problem is that when your position is grounded in absolute principle, any compromise at all invalidates your whole argument. At the core of this debate, a fetus either is or is not a person. To say, on the one hand, that it is a person but you're willing to negotiate away a big chunk of its personal value to get your way or, on the other hand, that it's not a person but you're willing to pretend it's sort of one to mollify your opponents... well, either way, it's as ridiculous and unjustified as counting slaves as 3/5 person was. (Note that I do think it's logically and morally possible to assert that we can't know for sure whether/when a fetus is a person, and then argue about what sort of notice, if any, the law should take of that uncertainty. But in my experience, neither side ever takes this tack.) For some issues -- and this is one of them, I think -- the politics of "whatever works" just doesn't work.

Aside from the failure of either the law or its opponents to honor their ostensible underlying principles, there's another thing about this story that should concern even people who aren't deeply concerned about abortion: It's happening in South Dakota, and it's happening now.

The abortion ban law passed the South Dakota senate with just 23 "ayes." Earlier, there were 47 yes votes for the house version. Presuming the bill makes it through conference and the governor signs it, that'll be a total of 71 people -- just 71 citizens of a sparsely populated state (ranked 46th in population, with only one city of more than 100,000 people) -- who will have put their names to a measure that might well change the lives of nearly 300 million Americans. Why South Dakota? I can't prove it, but it's not hard to imagine that an out-of-the-way (and not incidentally, out-of-the-media-glare) state with a small, accessible legislature makes a perfect launching point for a stealth-bomber mission against "settled law."

I'm no constitutional lawyer, but even a layman can see that the South Dakota law, as written, is unconstitutional under Roe and a raft of supporting decisions, including some recent ones. So why bother? And why now? Did South Dakotans experience a wave of fervor around the issue? Maybe so, but it's equally probable that somebody noticed the membership of the U.S. Supreme has changed just a skosh recently. Most of the press accounts about this legislation frankly admit that its purpose is to provoke a showdown over Roe.

Now, there's an honorable tradition of creating test laws or test cases to effect change in the legal landscape... but in this case, we're talking about a tiny number of legislators representing a (relatively) tiny number of voters tipping over the first domino, and all the other dominos will fall within the courts, out of reach of voters in the rest of the country. I'm not sure there's fundamentally anything wrong with that, but it makes me distinctly uneasy. I would think other concerned non-South Dakotans -- on both sides of the issue -- would feel similarly queasy.

I guess we'll learn earlier rather than later what to expect from our remade Supreme Court. That's one thing....

Unit of the Day: galileo, the CGS unit of acceleration, is used primarily by geologists to measure tiny local variations in surface gravity due to geologic formations. Abbreviated Gal, the galileo (yes, it's named after that Galileo) is equal to an acceleration of 1 centimeter per second per second. As small a quantity as that is (approximately 0.0010197 g), it's still large compared to the variations geologists are trying to measure; they typically work in milliGals.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Almost a Custom

I had so much fun last night posting about How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurement that I've decided to institute a recurring feature here at the Spleen: the Unit of the Day. Each time I post (not necessarily every day, as you've guessed by now), I'll pick out a unit of measure that strikes me as interestingly obscure or otherwise amusing and post it, along with its definition and whatever pithy comment I might have to add. Unless I say otherwise, all the Units of the Day will be based on information from How Many? (and be linked to it, though in some cases you may need to scroll to find the unit).

To get things started...

Unit of the Day: snit, a U.S. unit of volume equal to 2 jiggers (3 U.S. fluid ounces) of liquor. Of course, it might also signify what you'd be in if a bartender refused to serve you 2 jiggers of liquor!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Big Unit(s)

I was looking something up today at work, and it occurred to me to share with y'all one of my favorite online resources: How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurement. Now, for some of you, this might seem like a pretty geeky site to list among my favorites... but if you are (as I am) one of those people who can look up a word in a common dictionary and get sucked into browsing for hours, you'll find this site every bit as dangerously compelling as your Funk and Wagnalls. It's full not only of ordinary, everyday units of measure like inches and amperes and footcandles, but also of the arcane and obscure: units from ancient times (ever wonder what a cubit really is?) or foreign lands (bet you didn't know that in Central America a manzana is unit of land equal in area to a square 100 varas on a side), and units for things you never knew anyone bothered to measure (lunar eclipse brightness? the hardness of tablets [i.e., pills]? the darkness of beer or honey?)

As a technical writer, I often use this site to confirm the proper usage, abbreviation, symbol, etc., of units that appear in the documents I edit... but sometimes the information is of more, umm, topical use. If, for instance, you're thinking of going hunting with Dick Cheney, you might be interested in how they measure birdshot pellet sizes or shotgun gauges, and your next of kin might want to bone up on the Glasgow Coma Scale. And if you've been following the Winter Olympics in Italy, you might be interested to learn that the Torino Impact Hazard Scale measures not the force with which an ice dancer's hip hits the rink, but rather the risk of devastating impact posed by a near-Earth asteroid or comet.

Fascinating, eh? This is all the brainchild of one Russ Rowlett, director of the University of North Carolina's Center for Mathematics and Science Education. Check it out... but when you find you've wasted way too many hours learning (for instance) that a butt is generally defined as two hogsheads, don't blame me; blame Dr. Rowlett.


Friday, February 17, 2006

Space Sports Follow-Up

Hey, I got an e-mail from Rocky Persaud, president of IPX Entertainment, about my earlier posting on their space sports proposals. He tells me they're now casting for a space-sports reality show related to their zero-gee game. I had actually already seen the press release, and planned to post the news here, but it was fascinating to hear from him. When I told him I'd try out myself if I weren't a middle-aged fat guy, he replied that they have other contests in development that would be open to regular, non-athlete type folks like myself. Cool, eh?

It's also cool that somebody outside my small circle of acquaintances has stumbled across this blog. If there's anyone else out there listening, besides atalbot and Mara, I'd love to hear from you.

Update (21 February 2006): Here's an interview with Rocky Persaud about Space Champions and the future plans of IPX Entertainment.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Science Fiction Double Feature

First a correction: In my earlier post on the State of the Union human-animal hybrid issue, I made a reference to " if anyone outside a Jules Verne novel were even contemplating the creation of human-animal hybrids!" Well, on further review, I believe I was actually thinking of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which is not by Verne but by the other giant of pre-20th century science fiction, H.G. Wells. Either I was remembering the French name in the title of Wells' work and therefore incorrectly attributing it to Verne... or more likely, I was confusing Moreau with Verne's The Mysterious Island, which actually continues the story of Captain Nemo and has (as far as I know) nothing to do with bizarre man-beasts. Oh, well... c'est la guerre, eh?

While on the subject of science fiction, though, I'm fascinated -- and more than moderately delighted -- to note that my daughter's high-school book club is soon to read Robert Heinlein's seminal 1961 novel A Stranger in a Strange Land. Why delighted? Well, aside from the fact that I've been a rabid Heinlein fan since discovering Red Planet in junior high shool, and the fact that the Heinlein Forum was my earliest online "home," I guess I'm pleased with the selection because the book's just so dangerous!

Stranger, which famously added the word "grok" to the language (and inspired an actual neopagan church that still exists), is sometimes credited as the original prototype for communal, free-love ideals of 1960s hippies. I think that's a bit of a stretch, but there's no denying that the novel (which I've just finished rereading) presents... shall we say challenging?... ideas about some cherished social values, especially including sexuality and religion. Through the story of a human raised from infancy by Martians and then returned to Earth as a young adult, Heinlein offers a unique perspective on human social, sexual, and religious practices, mercilessly testing our underlying assumptions about sexual morality and the nature of God. Though some of it seems slightly dated now, as a whole, it's just as threatening to today's orthodoxy as it was to 1961's... perhaps more so. In short, it's just the sort of book that parents and pastors and "family values" advocates agitate to have removed from public schools.

And that's exactly why I'm delighted that my daughter's school is encouraging her to read it (admittedly in an extracurricular club rather than a class, but still...). In an era that is, for my tastes, all too prudish, prissy, and protective about the ideas we're willing for our children (or ourselves, for that matter) to be exposed to, such a fearless choice pleases me immensely. And it's not just this book: the RHS Book Club regularly draws its material not from the "safe ground" of the Young Adult section of the library, but from the best contemporary literary fiction, even when that means confronting adult themes. That the Book Club's faculty sponsors take this approach, that they (apparently) meet little opposition from the community, and -- it must be said -- that there's a ready audience of teenagers mature and thoughtful and inquisitive enough for these works... these facts help give me hope that our society is not quite so close to a new Dark Ages as I sometimes fear.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Good God, Y'all! What Is it Good For?

War, that is.

One more bit about the SotU; I promise my next post won't be political (or at least not obviously so; I'm beginning to believe that, at some level, everything is politics).

All the commentary I listened to and read after the SotU reminded me of something that's been bugging me since... oh, maybe about September 25, 2001. You see, I keep hearing folks who oppose the Bush administration's Iraq policy falling all over themselves to say that of course we have to win the "War on Terror"; we just disagree on strategy... and tactics... and how much of our civil liberty we're willing to give up for the cause, and.... Well, here's the thing (my favorite Bill Bryson line): There is no "War on Terror"!

Mind you, I understand that as a matter of political reality, Democrats and liberals who hold or seek elective office have to protect themselves against the charge that they're weak on national defense; too soft to perform the cardinal function of government. And I don't mean to minimize the gravity of the struggle against terrorism, nor the evil of the terrorists. But "war" as a specific term has significant and unavoidable implications, and it's extraordinarily dangerous to use the word carelessly.

Cynical people will say this administration does everything carelessly; really cynical people may suspect there's more care -- of a Machiavellian sort -- than we might like in the administration's use of the word "war." You see, we historically have been willing to surrender rights and make other sacrifices in time of war, for the sake of ensuring the survival of the nation. We're willing to tolerate these temporary sacrifices in large part because they are presumed to be temporary. Notwithstanding the existence in world history of a Thirty Years' War and a Hundred Years' War, wars are always understood to be finite: Each side expects to win, lose, or reach a negotiated peace. In the World Wars of the 20th Century, folks happily accepted rationing, censorship of the mail, blackouts, air-raid drills, and a variety of other sacrifices "for the duration," and expression that survives in common usage to this day. That very phrase implies the expectation of an END.

We (justifiably) fought a war in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; we (unjustifiably, it seems to me) fought a war in Iraq. Both either are over, or will be over at some point in the foreseeable future (depending on how you view the ongoing operations in both places). We have defeated the Taliban and Iraqi armies and overturned the governments that fielded them. But however successful we are in thwarting terrorist plots and capturing or killing individual terrorists, we can, almost by definition, never win a broader "War on Terror."

Friends, the good news is that we as a nation are vastly, literally incredibly, blessed... blessed with material, spiritual, intellectual, and cultural riches most of the people of the world can only dream about. In addition, we are hugely powerful, able to act on the global stage essentially unchallenged. The bad news is that as long as we are this rich, this enviable, there will be people who envy us... and some of them will seek to channel their envy into unspeakably evil acts. And as long as we're powerful, there will be people who fear and mistrust our power... and some of them, too, will manifest their fear as violence.

This is NOT an apology for terrorism: In most cases, the terrorists' envy and fear and hatred are misplaced, and even when our opponents have arguably valid reasons for opposing us, no grievance can ever justify indiscriminate violence against innocent noncombatants. Murder is murder, no matter how good a reason the murderer thinks he has for being angry. There's no doubt that terrorists are our enemies... the enemies of decent people everywhere. We must struggle against them, diligently, earnestly, aggressively, bravely... but they are not nations, with armies and territory and governments that we can defeat or with which we can negotiate peace. Even terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda have no standing to surrender on behalf of global terrorism as a whole, nor will defeating them militarily end all terrorism.

No, terrorists are our foreign enemies more in the sense that criminals are our domestic enemies, and we have about as much chance of ever really "defeating" terrorism as we do of defeating crime. Until there's no more wealth, people will try to steal; until there's no more personal conflict, people will try to maim and kill. Similarly, until we are no longer enviable or powerful (an outcome you could hardly think of as "victory"), people in the world will try to steal our freedom, kill our peace.

We must, of course, keep up the struggle... but we can't fool ourselves into thinking there's an end to it. If we must, we can call the struggle against global terrorism the "moral equivalent of war," as Jimmy Carter called the energy crisis of the late 1970s, but if we actually call it "war" -- if we in the opposition acquiesce to the administration calling it "war" -- well, a permanent state of war leads to permanent war powers. (Can you say "Patriot Act"? I knew you could.) And permanent war powers have long been a stepping stone to totalitarianism, in history and in cautionary fiction.

Just ask George Orwell.

Say it again!