Binary logic

March 31st, 2005 | by aobaoill |

Following the Terri Schiavo story I’ve been somewhat concerned by the binary nature of much of the discussion. “You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” except in pro-choice/pro-life terms. [At the outset I should say that there has also been serious engaged consideration such as by Zwichenzug at The Bellman.]
Just as with much debate on abortion you’ve got the pro-life crowd who place a blanket ban on consideration of the issue – if you engage with the possibility of abortion, or removing a feeding tube, or whatever, you are a murderer and a traitor to the cause. On the other side, pro-choice arguments can be just as absolutist. If you don’t automatically come down in favour of a right to abortion in all cases, or question issues around euthanasia, you are seen as a fascist, denying people autonomy over their bodies. Similarly, I’ve seen some complaints that Hillary Clinton’s comments about entering a dialogue on the issue of abortion is wrong, not because it might be an electoral ploy, or because it’s doomed to fail, but because there is no room for nuance in the debate – that talking about ways, from the pro-choice side, to reduce the circumstances in which women feel they need to get a termination is a betrayal.
Because the issues at stake are so fundamental each side is wary of taking anything other than an extreme, absolutist, position, for fear that it might be seen as a strategic error. It is perhaps because I generally self-identify in the pro-choice camp that I am more concerned about poor argument and knee-jerk reactions on this side of the fence. I’m particularly concerned when ‘liberal’ arguments are extended that ignore or conflict with the disability rights approach that many liberals (presumably) endorse in other situations. That’s why it was very interesting to see this article on Alternet where a pro-choice disability rights activist addressed the Schiavo case.
Two final points. First, one reason why we need to be careful, from a pro-choice perspective, in dealing with and talking about these issues is because an absolutist rhetoric can be used as cover for developments which we [can I say we?] would presumably not intend to endorse – such as eugenics. So, for instance, while we have (legitimate) concern at the abnormally and suspiciously low rates of female children in some countries, we separately have a rhetoric that would have us view this solely as a set of individual choices, with a concentration on the absolute liberty of each individual and, as with Clinton, any move towards a structural analysis seen as inappropriate and a betrayal. As I say above, I am personally pro-choice but – perhaps the political economist in me coming out – would argue for a continual analysis of structural issues (both causal and in terms of outcomes).
Second, much pro-choice commentary in the Schiavo case has concentrated on the governmental interference. While the legislative moves were in large part, I think, opportunistic electoral manouveuring and deserving of scorn on that basis, the notion of legislative input into the right-to-die issue as a whole is not something that need be dismissed out of hand. An extra layer (or layers) of judicial scrutiny in cases such as this is, in general, to be welcomed given the serious nature of the decisions being taken. It is not enough to say that the family should do as they wish – the state, reflecting social mores, must and does set limits on the range within which decisions can be taken. In this case we have the extra complication of a split between two groups, each claiming to know the likely wishes of Ms. Schiavo.

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