Last Friday, the Philadelphia Inquirer published the Tony Auth cartoon below.
Apparently referring to the fact that the five Supreme Court justices who voted last week in Gonzales v. Carhart to uphold the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 are all Catholics, Mr. Auth’s point seems to be that the Catholic justices were relying on their religious convictions, not legitimate legal arguments, in reaching the conclusions they did.
I leave aside the anti-Catholic slur in Mr. Auth’s cartoon because I find more worthy of attention the way in which he attempts to make his point. Faced with a serious disagreement about a matter of public concern, Mr. Auth makes no arguments on the point in dispute. Rather, he says, in effect, that the people who disagree with his view are doing so because of an unjust desire to impose the peculiar norms of their religion on others.
Now, whenever two people disagree, each is committed to saying that the other’s view is false and that his arguments are unsound; that’s just what disagreement means, and no one should be upset at this. But Mr. Auth goes much further. He’s saying not only that his opponents are wrong and that their arguments are unsound, but also that his opponents in fact have no reasonable arguments at all. If they had reasonable arguments, even ultimately unsound ones, then Mr. Auth would have to admit that they could well disagree with him on the basis of such arguments. So Mr. Auth is making an extremely strong claim here: not only that he’s right and his opponents are wrong, but also that all reasonable people have to agree with him, and anyone who disagrees with him is, to that extent, unreasonable. Such strong claims are almost always false. In my view, on virtually any issue of public importance, any view that commands any sizeable portion of the population probably has some reasonable arguments in its favor.
On the particular matter in question here¯the constitutionality of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003¯Mr. Auth’s claim is especially implausible. All kinds of people who are non-Catholics have reasons for supporting this act. Witness the fact that the law was enacted in the main by non-Catholics, including many Democrats (it passed 64-34 in the Senate and 281-142 in the House of Representatives) and was then signed into law by a non-Catholic president.
Similarly, until the last few decades, Anglo-American law, which has historically been dominated by non-Catholics, treated abortion as a serious crime, even in early pregnancy, and consistently did so in order to protect the life of the unborn child. If you’re heard otherwise, see the monumental new history of Anglo-American abortion laws by Professor Joseph W. Dellapenna, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History , a massive work spanning eight centuries and 1,200 pages, which is destined to become the magisterial treatment of the subject. Note to Mr. Auth: Prof. Dellapenna is not a Catholic; he describes himself as a lapsed Unitarian.
Furthermore, if Mr. Auth bothered to read the philosophical literature on abortion, he’d find that there are serious arguments on both sides of this issue. In particular, he might be surprised to learn that many of the most sophisticated defenders of abortion rights long ago conceded that a human fetus is a human being, not a clump of cells (it’s rather difficult to know much about embryology and conclude otherwise). Hence, most such philosophers defend abortion either by arguing that abortion is a permissible form of homicide, such as self-defense, or else by distinguishing human beings from human persons (human persons being human beings with some minimal level of mental capacity) and arguing that only human persons and not human beings generally are entitled to moral protection.
For my part, I sense in both these doctrines a reductio ad absurdum of the view they are meant to defend, and so I think the arguments fall out very largely on the pro-life side. Still, I recognize that the issues here are very complex and involve many contestable points in ethics and meta-ethics, and so I appreciate that other people, reasonably and in good faith, often come to views different from my own. Mr. Auth, probably because of his complete ignorance of the relevant arguments, is unable to say the same.
And this I find somewhat depressing. I can accept that arguments I think are right fail to carry the day in the public square. What I cannot accept¯and what no one ought to accept¯is that people with genuine arguments to make in the public square are dismissed as if they had none. This is just what Mr. Auth is doing: He is cutting off argument in order to advance his own view. He gets away with it, of course, because he also appeals to anti-Catholic prejudice, but once this sort of thing becomes socially acceptable in respected venues like national newspapers, the whole social function of the public square is imperiled. Militant know-nothingism, which is the psychological prerequisite to Mr. Auth’s style of argument, is an erratic force, and there is no telling where it might turn next.
Whenever writing about such hotly contested issues as abortion, I try to remember to say, as I did above, that I think people who disagree with me on such issues are good people who have reasonable arguments for their views. Mr. Auth is only a political cartoonist, and so one cannot take him very seriously, but many other defenders of abortion rights made the same point following the decision in the Gonzales case. Consequently I think that public intellectuals who favor abortion rights but who know full well the complexity of the issues at stake have a special responsibility to come to the defense of those whose good faith is being impugned and make it clear that such people have reasonable grounds for their views.
People who make their livings dealing in arguments and have faith in the power of argument to make the world a better place should see that there is a principle at stake here larger even than abortion rights. It is a matter of fundamental intellectual integrity.
Robert T. Miller is an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law.