“Real disagreement is a rare achievement, because so much of what passes for disagreement is really just confusion.” So said moderator Mary Ann Glendon (quoting John Courtney Murray) at the end of a discussion —it was pointedly and pointlessly distinguished from a debate —between Robert George and Doug Kmiec held at the National Press Club on May 28. Prof. Glendon was happy to announce that the audience had been treated to a real disagreement.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this was true. George’s lucid and helpful analyses kept the event from being a waste of time, but the interlocutors were often talking past each other.

This was Kmiec’s fault for ignoring the (quite restricted) scope of the discussion. The event had been billed as follows: “The Obama Administration and the Sanctity of Human Life: Is There a Common Ground on Life Issues? What is the Right Response by ‘Pro-Life’ Citizens?” It was reasonable to expect the discussants to establish a common understanding of Obama’s stance on life issues and discuss whether pro-lifers could make any common cause with his administration on these questions given that stance.

Instead, Kmiec (who spoke first) offered an engaging but tendentious and mostly irrelevant meditation on the proper comportment of Catholic citizens in a pluralist democracy, punctuated by embarrassing hymns to the president.

George, by contrast, dutifully addressed the question. He established beyond a reasonable doubt that there could be no common ground between Obama and pro-lifers either on the basic moral question of the dignity of prenatal human life or on any questions of policy. The president, in contrast to many other pro-choice politicians, does not even claim to regard abortion as a necessary evil. Rather, he thinks it is in itself neutral and in context may be good, much like knee surgery. Furthermore, he is explicitly committed to maintaining and expanding the abortion license. Pro-life citizens (George said) can therefore do nothing but find common ground with each other in fighting Obama’s anti-life policies, pushing him to yield or compromise (and compromising is clearly quite different from standing arm-in-arm on common ground) wherever possible.

Still, even though George’s was easily the superior performance (for arguably only he even showed up for the debate), one important argument, hidden in the tangle of Kmiec’s irrelevant rhetoric, was left unanswered. George made clear that Obama did not share any political ends with pro-lifers qua pro-lifers. There could therefore be no common ground in the sense of (even partially) shared pro-life intentions. Yet Obama’s carefully worded claim that he would like to reduce the number of women seeking abortions (not because fetuses have moral value but because abortions are usually sought by women in straitened circumstances) does open up the possibility of sharing political means. If reduction in the number of abortions is likely to be a collateral benefit of many of Obama’s social policies, then shouldn’t pro-life citizens re-direct much of their energy and collaborate vigorously with Obama to implement them?

Of course, to demonstrate that this is a bad suggestion (which it is) requires something other than the philosophical analysis at which George excels. Is it reasonable to expect Obama’s other policies to compensate for or even outweigh his aggressive pro-choice policies? Such questions can only be answered by painstaking empirical investigation and a complex and unavoidably uncertain weighing of relative probabilities. (George does clearly recognize the general relevance of empirics. He referred, for instance, to studies showing that restrictive abortion laws generally led to fewer abortions. But such findings would matter less if, for instance, Obama waged a successful war on poverty.) A pair of statistically inclined veteran politicos would have arrived at “real disagreement” about these empirical judgments, but that was probably too much to expect from a discussion between a philosopher and a suave shill.

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