Sunday, May 11, 2008

Israel’s 60th Birthday: Some Thoughts

This week marked the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state. As Jeffery Goldberg at the Atlantic Monthly points out, Israel is the culmination of one of the most successful nationalist movements of the last century, and yet it still faces stark questions with respect to its identity and future.

I am Jewish by birth: my mother is Jewish, and Judaism is a matrilineal religion/culture. Like many Jews raised in New York City in a secular home with little exposure to explicitly Jewish culture, I have mixed emotions about both Judaism and Israel. I know that my ancestors were often singled out and persecuted, and that to this day Jews are still a hated minority in many parts of the world. I do not take lightly the struggles and pain of the Jewish people.

There are many things about Jewish culture that I respect, particularly its strong intellectual tradition and the fact that Jews by and large do not believe in proselytizing. At the same time, my strong aversion to organized religion puts me at odds with much of Jewish identity; I also find the notion of a “chosen people” offensive.

It is with respect to the state of Israel that my feelings are most mixed. There is something uplifting about a people so long reviled and persecuted finally realizing their dream of a state of their own, one which they have turned into the most prosperous in the Middle East. But the human costs on both sides have been tremendous; I’ve been reading about the history of the Israelis and the Palestinians for more than a decade, and I’m still not sure where the blame really lies.

Some things, however, are clear.

There is no doubt that suicide bombing is evil, and that the Arab states bent on Israel’s destruction are largely filled with vile opportunists who use the Palestinians as pawns to deflect attention away from their own corruption. Israel is not free from blame, either. The continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank clearly violates both international law and any proper sense of justice.

More importantly, the very nature of a “Jewish state” troubles me.

The essence of liberal democracy is that states are defined by ideals, not by ethnicity; yet so much of Israeli domestic and foreign policy is driven by the goal of maintaining a majority ethnic Jewish population. Because of higher Arab birth rates, this ultimately means that Israel will either have to create a two-tiered socioeconomic system (akin to apartheid in South Africa) or somehow decrease its Arab population (through expulsion or other means). In some ways the Jews may be suffering the “winner’s curse”: after thousands of years of struggle, they return to their homeland only to see demographics deny them their dream.

The bottom line is that Israel will eventually be faced with a difficult choice—either be democratic or be Jewish. Since I believe strongly in democracy, my own choice is clear; yet I can still sympathize with the fears and hopes of my ethnic relatives half-way across the world.

I hope and dream that one day humanity will be drawn together by shared ideals of freedom and universal human rights. In the meantime, religious and ethnic bonds will remain some of the strongest that both keep people together and tear them apart. Israel is ground zero for this dynamic, and will likely be for the foreseeable future.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Humbler and More Truthful American Narrative

The controversy surrounding the comments of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has once again highlighted a major divide in American politics. At one extreme are those who believe that America is an exceptional nation chosen by God to bring democracy and justice to the world; at the other are those who hold that America is no different than other imperial powers. Formed in slavery and genocide, it is as responsible as any other nation for the atrocities that stain human history.

Many on the left criticize those on the right for what they view as a form of mindless and blind patriotism, of obliviousness to the evils committed by Americans. Those on the right view many leftists as bordering on traitorous, unable to recognize that America has more often than not been a benevolent power that has sacrificed greatly to promote freedom around the globe.

The middle ground is rarely articulated in American political discourse, and yet this is where the truth lies. What we need is a humbler and more truthful American narrative.

Such a narrative would begin by acknowledging the great tragedies of Native American genocide and black slavery, the legacies of which linger to this day. It would recognize that slavery hardly ended with the Civil War; it continued in one form or another until WW II, and then morphed into an extremist racial segregation that continued until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In fact, of the more than 350 years of American history, fewer than 50 have been characterized by even a modicum of decency towards black Americans. It is not an exaggeration to describe the treatment of blacks in America as domestic terrorism, made all the more evil because it was perpetrated by American citizens against other American citizens who happened to be of a different color.

But the evils that were committed against blacks, Indians, and other immigrant groups throughout American history have always been tempered by the ideals set forth in our founding documents. The Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal. This was a revolutionary doctrine, and it was always there to prick the consciences of those who realized what it said about our treatment of blacks and Native Americans and yes, women too. Over generations, the ideal that all men and women are equal helped to create one of the most multi-ethnic and economically mobile civilizations of all time. America may be a nation of sinners, but it is also a nation that strives to live up to its ideals and to overcome its moral imperfections.

Americans, believing deeply that freedom is a universal right, have also sacrificed tremendously to help spread liberty throughout the world. Americans died by the hundreds of thousands fighting Nazism and Communism, wicked ideologies bent on world domination. Today American military bases around the world do more to prevent conflict than to incite it. While Iraq makes the headlines, no one hears about the relative peace and tranquility secured by American forces throughout much of the world.

America’s foreign policy has aided and abetted heinous crimes, but this was usually done to oppose what we understood to be even greater evils. For example, while there is no real excuse for American support of dictators and oppressors, we justified these steps during the Cold War in the face of Soviet aggression and expansionism. This irrationality reached its apex during the Vietnam War, when it became common practice to destroy entire villages in order to “save” them.

Despite all the contradictions and wrongdoings, the American experience has been marked by continual moral progress: by the knowledge that we must do more to live up to our highest ideals, and by our movement toward them. America will never be perfect, but this does not take away our legitimate right to try to influence world events. American power is best used with one eye on our own shortcomings, and the other on promoting those universal human rights that represent the best of who we are.

A more humble and truthful American narrative recognizes how easy it is to commit evil in the name of good, and the need to guard against this; at the same time, the narrative gives us confidence that our highest ideals are worth promoting across the globe.

P.S. A time stamp for the comments is coming soon. Thanks for your patience.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The State of Democracy 2008

It’s a mixed bag.

Here in the U.S. there is both good and bad news. On the positive front, turnout in the Democratic presidential primaries has shattered records week after week. While America is unique among modern democracies in its abysmal voter participation rates, there are hopeful signs. What is particularly inspiring is the increased youth vote; politicians continually urge young people to get out and vote, but no modern-day politician was able to get them there until now. In addition, while the role of big money in U.S. politics is rightly bemoaned, the fact that candidates can now raise hundreds of millions from small donors on the internet has tended to equalize the playing field and is a great development.

Two other developments, however, don’t bode well for U.S. democracy. The first is the Bush Administration’s continued blatant disregard for the rule of law and its now-admitted use of torture (for the disturbing details see Dahlia Lithwick’s piece in Slate). This will go down as a historic moral failing and a low point for American democracy.

The other troubling development is Hillary Clinton’s attempted power grab of the 366 delegates from Michigan and Florida. These states broke DNC rules by moving up their primaries; the DNC retaliated by stripping the delegates of their right to be seated at the convention. All the candidates agreed to abide by the DNC ruling and not to campaign in these states. But with the delegate race now looking incredibly tight, Hillary is making noises about seating the Michigan and Florida delegates; this despite the fact that Obama’s name wasn’t even on the ballot in Michigan, and both primaries, which Hillary “won,” were essentially a joke. Regular readers know that I’m an Obama supporter, but this is simply wrong. If she wins fair and square, fine; but what she’s suggesting is literally an attempt to steal the nomination, and it has the potential to destroy the Democratic Party and once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (for the sordid details see this piece in The New Republic).

On the global stage, unfortunately, the state of democracy and freedom is almost unambiguously bleak.

Freedom House recently published its 2007 rankings, and there has been a marked decline in democratic freedoms around the world: a global backsliding, led by such nations as China, Russia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Chad, Pakistan (Al Qeada's home base), and a mélange of Middle Eastern autocrats. So much for Bush’s “Freedom Agenda”. People can argue all they want about how his foreign policies will be viewed 50 years from now; according to current measurements, those policies have failed.

All of this should remind us yet again how fragile democracy is; it needs to be consistently defended and protected. It is not the natural state for humanity, but a system that is eternally vulnerable.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Humanist’s Conundrum

Modern-day humanism owes a large debt to economists like Adam Smith and his contemporaries. As products of the European Enlightenment, they were both informed by it and moved it forward in ways that were revolutionary at the time.

Smith’s free-market economics rests on the simple, yet profound premise that people are better off producing and trading with each other than fighting over resources; that economics need not be a zero-sum game, but an ever-expanding source of shared prosperity.

This was a radical idea in an age when countries battled for colonies and the conventional wisdom was that whoever could amass the most territory and wealth was the most powerful.

Yet even a cursory look at current affairs demonstrates that more than 200 years later the old views can still dominate. China, Iran, and Russia take and consider actions that threaten global stability; ethnic and religious strife and deep-seated class divisions still inflame passions; early in the 21st century we see conflicts that can tear countries apart, as is now the case in Kenya.

The transition to open societies has always been paved with bloodshed. The United States not only fought the Revolutionary War, but almost tore itself apart in the Civil War. Large parts of Europe were destroyed in two World Wars. Imperial Japan brought devastation and carnage to China and other parts of Asia. In Africa, nations once thought to be stable are mired in civil and regional wars that have killed millions over the past decade and a half. The Middle East is a powder keg of epic proportions.

The bottom line: Billions of people still live in societies with fundamental obstacles to achieving sustainable economic progress, i.e., progress that does not come from oppressing large segments of their own population or threatening other nations.

Enter the conundrum: Is there any hope that these societies can make a peaceful transition to modernity and freedom?

The humanist in me thinks that this is possible. I want to reject the notion that violence is needed to “purify” a nation, and rid it of ill-conceived ambitions and prejudices.

But I am not so sure that I can; history does not seem to be on my side.

Change always brings conflict; it is essentially a maxim of human affairs. Even the ultimately successful non-violent movements for independence in India and for civil rights in the U.S. were met with brutal force. In Ireland and South Africa, peace only came after sustained campaigns of terror. If there is ever to be peace between Israel and Palestine, how many more thousands of graves will it take?

I know there is a better way. If they are willing, the leaders and citizens of any society can compromise, use reason, and find their way to freedom and prosperity without violence. The economist and humanist in me is confident of these basic truths.

At the same time, I wouldn’t be sitting here comfortably if earlier generations of Americans hadn’t put their lives on the line. I am forever grateful to them: to those who died fighting the injustices that once plagued American society, to those who fell in two World Wars, to those who perished in Korea, Vietnam, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I wish these men and women hadn’t died, that peaceful resolutions could have been found.

But they weren’t. This gives me pause; it makes me see the world in ways that I find troubling, and contrary to my humanist worldview.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bush & “Pro-Lifers” Still Wrong On Stem Cells

The discovery that stem cells may be able to be produced without destroying a human embryo was announced two weeks ago. Ever since, Bush supporters and “pro-life” Republicans have been waxing triumphant about how Bush was right to oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research: Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, writers at The National Review and The Weekly Standard, and this week, Charles Krauthammer, also of the Washington Post, whose article “Stem Cell Vindication” flatly declares that “Bush won”.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, which coincidentally also appeared in another Post article. That article quoted a prominent genetic scientist who said that the Bush-imposed federal ban on embryonic stem cell research probably set the field back four to five years. A new avenue of research has been developed, but valuable time has been lost.

Stem cell research is likely to yield new medicines that can alleviate suffering and prolong life, hopefully in the near future. Then we will be able to calculate the needless suffering that Bush and his “pro-life” supporters caused; then we will be able to see the damage that can be done when religious ideology dictates policy.

But all of this is lost on the “pro-life” apologists. Not one of them mentions that this new line of research represents an opportunity cost of lost time doing other research, or the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists still supports continuing the earlier stem cell research (because it is too early to tell if the new avenue truly represents a complete and viable substitute).

Let me be clear: if this new research does make it unnecessary to destroy human embryos, that’s great. But it’s not the point. It never has been.

I have yet to meet a “pro-lifer” who opposes in vitro fertilization and calls it “murder”, even though embryos are destroyed in the process. The religious fundamentalists who tell us that abortion should be illegal are perfectly willing to let people go to great lengths to produce their own biological children; they know that the public would never agree to government interference in fertility decisions of this kind.

But when the destruction of an embryo might lead to a cure for cancer or paralysis (even an embryo that is going to be discarded anyway), the “pro-lifers” say that life can’t be taken. Their position is inherently inconsistent, and yet virtually no one calls them on it.

Hopefully, in 2009 we will elect a president who is willing to lift the ban on embryonic stem cell research. Let the best minds go figure out the best methods, unimpeded by religious fundamentalists.

Update:The Washington Post gets it right.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Dangers Of Utopianism

I just finished reading Arthur Koestler’s 1940 anti-Stalinist masterpiece Darkness at Noon. It’s about a former high-level Russian Communist who is jailed by the Party when things do not turn out as planned and reactionary forces take over. The novel grapples with the big moral question of how people can commit heinous crimes in the pursuit of utopian dreams.

In many ways it is a question as old as humanity itself. Groups that promise a new “golden age” are almost always willing to engage in the most barbarous acts in order to get there. These utopias can be religious or secular, they can lead their followers to the Crusades or to communism and fascism. No matter how much the brutality escalates, believers are always assured that the end is just around the corner and things will get better; they will make good on their promises and all will be forgiven.

The book’s main moral lesson is the rejection of the doctrine that “the ends justify the means”. Western Civilization is premised on the exact opposite precept: that individual liberties are inalienable rights, and are not to be trampled on and sacrificed in the name of some distant utopia.

But the urge for utopia is not confined to the great outrages of religious crusades and Russian communism; it also found in the history of colonialism and in its most recent incarnation, the Iraq War.

Colonialist history is filled with accounts of massive brutality waged against indigenous peoples in the name of making them more civilized. Without fail, the perpetrators of these crimes always cited the best interests of the natives; the colonizers convinced themselves (and tried to convince their victims) that the barbarity of the present would be rewarded with the stability and prosperity of the future.

Before I draw this analogy to the Iraq War let me make it clear that the goal of having a democratic Middle East is a noble goal, and in no way am I equating the Bush Administration and its supporters with the icons of communism and fascism. In addition, I believe that the American military has gone to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties and not engage in the “scorched Earth” policy that was common in previous wars.

But that is largely beside the point.

The invasion of Iraq has diminished if not destroyed the life prospects of an entire generation of Iraqi mothers, fathers and children. More than two million Iraqis have been displaced and may live out the rest of their lives in the squalor and second-class citizenship of refugee camps in foreign lands. Virtually no Iraqi families have escaped unscathed; almost all have had family members brutally murdered. The country’s infrastructure is in a shambles and daily life is miserable almost everywhere (except in the Kurdish north, which was stable even before the war).

But, we are told by the war supporters, in words eerily reminiscent of Darkness at Noon, that this is a “generational effort”; when we look back from the vantage point of history 50 years from now, Iraq will be prosperous and free; all of the death and destruction will have been worth it.

What they are saying is that the ends justify the means (and even these ends are not in the least guaranteed).

This is an immoral proposition that runs counter to the foundations of Western democracy and liberty. No Western power has the right to sacrifice an entire generation of Iraqis for some far-off and uncertain objective. It is not our choice to make. It is the Iraqis’ choice, and they did not ask to be guinea pigs in our grand experiment to remake the Middle East.

What we did have the right to do was protect ourselves, which after 9/11 legitimately included getting additional weapons inspectors into Iraq and even taking offensive action against Saddam Hussein if he didn’t cooperate. It did not include the right to invade and endlessly occupy the country, which led almost directly to the chaos and carnage that we now witness.

Utopian fantasies are always dangerous and immoral, even if they come wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy and freedom. This is a lesson that we have not learned, despite the fact that history is littered with examples.

P.S. As if on cue, there is a great piece in the NYT magazine that examines how Iraqi exiles are coming to grips with the failures in Iraq. The piece touches on many of the themes in this piece and also shows once again that Al Qeada has been a peripheral factor in the war, not the central actor as the neocons would have us believe.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Many Paths To Justice

For those who value universal human rights and equal opportunity for all, the political developments of the past few years have been depressing.

Internationally, democracy and human rights are in retreat as autocrats crack down and become more entrenched; in Iraq a fledging democracy can barely keep the lid on a violent civil war. Domestically, the Bush Administration’s signature achievements have been tax cuts for the wealthy, pro-big business judges, and attacks on a wide range of civil liberties.

But underneath it all there are some silver linings.

As one example, the Supreme Court’s recent decision striking down race-based affirmative action opened the door for economic status to serve as a substitute for race in admissions decisions. Numerous advocates including myself have often made the case that economic status is a superior metric for assessing opportunity or the lack thereof. Since ethnic minorities are often disproportionately poor, they would still benefit from a needs-based system (and such a system would likely be viewed much more favorably by the public). Such a shift is needed because it would begin to address the larger issue of class inequality that plagues America as much or more than racial discrimination.

In addition, despite years of a virulent anti-gay agenda by the Bush Administration, I was heartened to learn that gays persecuted abroad are increasingly winning asylum cases in America. I look forward to the day when gays will not face persecution anywhere, including in my own country; in the meantime these cases certainly represent a small step towards equal rights for gays, and they put America back on track as a refuge for the oppressed peoples of the world.

I have no doubt that a world community that fully respects human rights and promotes equal opportunity for all is in humanity’s future, despite whatever roadblocks the reactionaries and oppressors of the world put in the way.

In order to get there we need to think creatively and search for all possible avenues. When some doors are closed, often many more are opened.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

Ending The Legacy Of Slavery

We are nearing the end of the first decade of the 21st century and yet it is still true that the color of a person´s skin is probably the best predictor of their material standard of living. On my recent trip to Brazil I saw this firsthand and was struck yet again by the enduring legacy of slavery and racism.

In the elite neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities, the residents have almost entirely European features and the overwhelming majority of blacks are maids, street cleaners, or other service workers. The proportion of national income that goes to whites versus blacks has changed little in centuries and the concentration of wealth is even greater.

The same situation persists throughout Latin America, where the treatment of indigenous people also includes blatant human rights violations and virtual second-class citizenship. Whatever can be said about inequality in America and its racial component, we have come a long way and progressed much further than our Southern neighbors.

But we have a long way to go.

For four decades we have experimented with various methods of affirmative action based on raced-based preferences, which have resulted in significant upward mobility for blacks and other minority groups. That we have a fairly robust and sizeable black middle class and a rising Latino professional class is a testament to the success of affirmative action (which is not to say that many of these men and women would not have succeeded without racial preferences).

But there is a perception that racial preferences are un-American and amount to reverse discrimination. The perception has become widespread; there are too many examples of preferences being extending to the sons and daughters of the minority elite, and patience with affirmative action is wearing thin. Fortunately there is an easy fix that is starting to catch on. By simply changing preferences from race to economic status, we can lose the stigma of race and yet still lend a hand to those at the bottom of the economic ladder, who are disproportionately black and Hispanic. If we also happen to assist poor whites from Appalachia or the Pacific Northwest or anywhere else, all the better.

The second thing that should be done to help ameliorate the effects of racism is to wholeheartedly promote universal preschool education. For a long time educators have realized that a child´s cognitive potential is largely determined before the child ever sets foot in kindergarten. From birth until the ages of 3-4 a child´s brain is absorbing information at a staggering pace. Without significant stimuli, a child´s development during these years is severely handicapped and their potential significantly stymied. Increasingly, researchers are showing that investments in preschool are some of the best that individuals and society can make.

Neither of these policies will completely end the legacy of racism, but they represent improvements over the status quo. They are policies that all countries should adopt, especially those where slavery once reigned.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, May 6, 2007

Blacks, Civil Rights, and Gays

The state-sanctioned terrorism perpetrated against blacks in America for the better part of two centuries will forever be America’s greatest shame; conversely, the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement over the past fifty years are a profound testament to society’s ability to change for the better.

But the larger civil rights struggle in America didn’t end with equality for blacks (nor is it over with respect to blacks). Today, gays face discrimination in all facets of society, sometimes suffering physical violence from those so virulently anti-gay that they resort to brutality.

By any reasonable estimates the obstacles faced by gay people in America in the 21st century in no way approximate what blacks suffered for the majority of the nation’s existence. This is to be expected; historically, nations address the worst grievances first and then refine their moral compasses as time goes on.

One might expect that given their history of discrimination, blacks would rise to the defense of gays and stand at the forefront of the efforts for gay equality. In fact, the reality for the most part is just the opposite. The black community has a dirty secret that few are willing to discuss: blacks are some of the most stridently anti-gay in America. Animosity against gays seems most marked in the South, and is probably strongest among Caribbean blacks. (There are notable exceptions: Coretta Scott King has spoken out strongly in support of gay rights, but her words have largely fallen on deaf ears.)

Why are blacks in America so often intolerant with respect to gay rights? Much of it is due to religion. Whereas the Civil Rights Movement gained much of its inspiration from Southern evangelical churches, these churches are extremely socially conservative. In addition, it angers many blacks to hear their struggle against slavery, Jim Crow and the KKK compared with discrimination against gays.

The GOP senses that it can exploit the issue of gay rights to weaken the strong bonds between blacks and the Democratic Party, and has made this a part of their larger strategy. With the Iraq War and terrorism dominating the news, they have so far not been successful; all the same this is something to watch.

This brings me to the current Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who are competing for the “black vote”. I am curious to see what they have to say with respect to gay rights, especially in South Carolina where one of the first primaries will be held. Unfortunately the issue never came up during the first Democratic debate. Barack seems perfectly positioned to finally address the dirty secret of black animosity towards gays head-on. If he has the courage, he can make a forceful case that blacks should be sympathetic to the plight of gays and be working to extend civil rights to this disenfranchised community. That would truly be revolutionary.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Aftermath Of The Court's Latest Abortion Ruling

Make no mistake, if there are such things as “activist” judges the five who voted to uphold the Congressional ban on “partial birth abortion” are now the poster children. In a blatantly religiously and politically motivated decision, they ignored recent court precedent (only 7 years old), based their decision on discredited science, and interjected arguments about protecting women from their own decisions (because according to the “conservative” mindset, women are feeble and infantile and need to be prevented from doing things that they will later regret). It was a low point for a court that has not lacked for low points in recent years.

What is particularly sad is how predictable it was, and how Democrats never mounted a real fight to prevent it from happening. Replacing Sandra Day O’Connor, a moderate female judge, with Samuel Alito, a far right Scalia copy, who during his confirmation hearings made it clear that he still resented the “irresponsibility” of the 1960s, left no doubt about how the Court would change. Alito’s confirmation hearings even revealed memos that he submitted to the Reagan Administration outlining the exact strategy for stripping women’s rights that he helped put into effect in the latest decision.

But I think there are a number of silver linings worth noting. In fact, I think this decision may end up being a gift for progressives in their struggle to protect women’s rights. Here’s why:

1. Progressives need to confront the ethical challenges that late-term abortions pose. As I noted on VoR long ago, both extremes in the abortion debate lead to immoral policies. Those on the right who elevate embryos to the status of human beings strip women of their fundamental right to control their bodies, in addition to preventing medical advances that could well save millions. Those on the left refuse to acknowledge that a developed fetus has at least some rights: there is a point short of nine months when the fetus is sentient, conscious, and can feel pain.

Instead of trying to ignore this, progressives should be asking why significant numbers of women let pregnancies develop so long that a procedure hardly distinguishable from infanticide becomes necessary. No doubt there are cases where complications arise late in a woman’s pregnancy that threaten a woman’s health and make this procedure necessary; but just as surely there are cases that arise for less defensible reasons. Since the far right wants to criminalize abortion, their efforts to restrict and regulate the procedure are justly viewed as nothing but interim steps towards their ultimate goal; they cannot be trusted to have the best interests of women at heart. Only pro-choice progressives, who have fought and defended a woman’s right to choose, have the trust and confidence of women. It’s up to them to make a good faith effort to see that late-term abortions become even more rare. Perhaps they can never go down to zero, but that should be the goal. If progressives can get beyond the belief that any questioning of any abortion is a betrayal to women, they may realize that this issue provides an opportunity to continue to win over the public.

Abortion is an issue where the middle ground has it right. A strong majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all 50 states in the early part of pregnancy. This is when the embryo or fetus is in a pre-conscious state (and in fact when millions each year are destroyed through natural miscarriages). But the public recognizes that at 4-5 months these fetuses not only start resembling babies, they can also think and feel. So people want restrictions on late-term abortions: not because they want to deny women’s rights, but because they have legitimate moral qualms about destroying sentient beings.

The left must realize that affording moral status to highly developed fetuses does not make them “sell outs” and does not “buy into the right-wing frame”; it is instead an honest attempt to grapple with the issues that abortion presents. If they can make this leap, the left will find that public opinion supports their position.

2. This brings me to the second silver lining. If Roe v. Wade is ever overturned the conventional wisdom is that the “blue” states will legalize it and the “red” states will criminalize it in varying degrees, creating a patchwork of rules and regulations. What seems more likely to me, however, is that a federal law requiring all states to permit abortions would be enacted by a Democratic majority in Congress (Eliot Spitzer of NY has just produced a model for this type of legislation). This law would immediately be challenged and the case would make its way to the Supreme Court. The Justices would have to decide whether Congress has the right under the Commerce Clause to regulate abortion. Since women denied abortions in one state would obviously cross state lines to receive abortions, any sensible reading would indicate that of course Congress has this right.

More importantly, the Court’s recent ruling for the first time upheld a federal law regulating abortion. This gives the Court its own precedent validating this reading of the Commerce Clause. Justices Thomas and Scalia, recognizing that the precedent they were setting could be used to enact laws in favor of abortion rights, made it clear in their concurring opinions that they were not deciding on the merits of Congress’s authority, just on the specifics of the regulation. They obviously wanted to leave open the door to their ultimate goal: not only to overturn Roe v. Wade, but to deny the federal government any ability to require states to permit abortions.

Would three more Justices agree with such a radical position? A position which would obliterate centuries of precedent, and throw into question literally hundreds of Commerce Clause cases? After decrying “activist” liberal judges and saying for decades that abortion should be decided by the legislature, would five Justices have the nerve to deny the government this power? I don’t think so: it would destroy the Court’s reputation and legitimacy for decades. I cannot see a scenario where Chief Justice Roberts (or even Alito, who is if anything an incrementalist) would agree to this reading.

3. This brings me to whether the recent decision is a step towards overturning Roe v. Wade. I think it does the opposite. It further strengthens Roe because, more than anything, every new case that affirms Roe’s basic structure, as this did, solidifies Roe as precedent. While no doubt the Court undermined some of the spirit of Roe, particularly in its disrespect for women’s ability to make decisions for themselves, Kennedy in his majority opinion went out of his way to affirm Roe’s fundamental tenets. I think a woman’s virtually unfettered right to an early-term abortion has less of chance of being overruled now more than ever. I may be wrong. We will see what new obstructions the far right comes up with, and which if any the Court upholds.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Right Wing's Conflicting Narratives

It never takes long after a major tragedy in America for rightwing extremists to lay the blame on evolution and/or abortion.

After the Columbine massacre Tom Delay had this to say:

“Guns have little or nothing to do with juvenile violence. The causes of youth violence are working parents who put their kids into daycare, the teaching of evolution in the schools, and working mothers who take birth control pills.”

After 9/11 Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said that the ACLU, abortionists, feminists, gays and People For the American Way shared the blame for the attacks.

Karen Hughes, counselor to the president and now Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, once tried to compare supporters of abortion rights with terrorists when she said, “the fundamental issue between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life” (Tell that to the Iraqis, whose civilian deaths we refuse to count).

And now in the wake of the Virginia massacre we have these words from Pastor Parsley, president of the Center for Moral Clarity in the “On Faith” section of the Washington Post:

“Choosing a world view that excludes God and disregards the value of human life makes the unforgettable scenes from Virginia Tech possible.”

(Apparently Pastor Parsley didn’t read what the Virginia killer had to say about his motives, such as this: “Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”)

Obviously, the rightwing extremists in our society and government don’t care about facts. The places in the world where abortion is safe and legal are by and large the most peaceful and prosperous on earth; the societies where abortion has been criminalized are by and large repressive and filled with violence. Aside from most of the Middle East and Central Asia, take Brazil, where abortion is illegal except in cases of rape and incest: in the last five years almost 2,000 minors have been murdered in Rio alone.

The rightwing doesn’t seem to care that there are over 200 million guns in the hands of Americans, half of the world total for small arms, which helps to fuel the approximately 30,000 gun-related deaths per year. In fact, America is an anomaly in terms of the high level of violence in a country where abortion is legal.

But again, facts are beside the point. Even if abortion were criminalized (which will fortunately never happen; more on this next week) the rightwing would find someone or something to blame for the violence that persists because their worldview is not amenable to reason.

At the same time that we are told by the far right that our domestic violence is a product of our moral decay, President Bush tells us repeatedly that we are at war with terrorists because they “hate our freedoms”. Which freedoms I wonder? I doubt Osama Bin Laden cares that we have 500 channels to choose from or 10 types of toothpaste or even that we can own guns; he probably respects that part of our culture.

What bothers the Islamic terrorists is that we have freedom from religion. For the Islamists this is the greatest sacrilege: to have the arrogance to be a secular society. Islamists also hate the fact that women are free in our society, free to dress in skimpy clothes, free to be the bosses of men, and yes, free to control their own reproductive decisions.

This is where the rightwing’s narratives collide. On one hand they want us to believe that all of our problems are due to our secular society, but the freedoms of this secular society are supposedly what we are fighting to protect. The rightwing can’t have it both ways.

The far right’s continued efforts to criminalize abortion demonstrate their insistence that women are morally and intellectually infantile and that their bodies should be subjected to the whims of a patriarchal state; their continued attacks on evolution demonstrates that the far right wants to discredit basic science; their persistent and hate-filled attacks on homosexuals demonstrate that they want a sexually oppressive and unequal society. All of these goals are shared by the Islamic terrorists with whom we are at war.

I have one humble desire for our next president. I want him or her to work to strengthen, not undermine, the basic freedoms and liberties that our enemies despise. I want there to be nothing in common between the goals of my government and the goals of the Taliban, Al Qeada, Iran, and the rest of the Islamic extremists who are the enemies of free and just societies.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Essential Human Rights

I have often pointed out that democracy does not by itself lead to a respect for human rights and the development of institutions that lead to peace and stability. American democracy permitted domestic terrorism against blacks for well over a century; democracy in the Palestinian territories has increased the power of Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and gives every indication that it wants conflict rather than coexistence.

So the question arises, what are the crucial rights (besides the right to cast a ballot every few years) that do lead to peaceful and cohesive societies? Obviously it is hard to present anything comprehensive here, but I would like to suggest three areas which I believe hold the key:

1. The protection of minority rights

As pointed out by many thinkers over the centuries, democracies can easily degenerate into “tyrannies of the majority” if there aren’t provisions that explicitly protect minority rights. This is abundantly clear in Iraq, where the majority Shiites are trying to wrest virtually all power and leave the Sunnis with next to none. Almost all societies have minority populations that have at one time or another been exploited, disenfranchised or abused, and this is often the source of on-going conflicts that destabilize society and may lead to larger regional conflicts.

2. Freedom of speech

We take this for granted in the West, but without the freedom to openly criticize the government and its policies, as well as one another within society, it is very easy for propaganda and misinformation to reign supreme. Freedom of speech is a prerequisite for a vibrant and robust civil society, which is the foundation of any modern democracy.

3. Freedom from arbitrary detention

This freedom is the natural extension of freedom of speech, in that the latter only has meaning if one can express views without fear of being rounded up and jailed by the government. The primary tool of fear by non-free states is their ability to detain people at will, often without charge, an ability which instills fear, distrust and uncertainty in the population.

Just as future administrations would be wise to rethink the “war on terror” and provide a more precise definition of what it is we are fighting, they might also want to move beyond the simple language of “promoting democracy” abroad and consider exactly what it is that leads to peace within and between societies, apart from holding elections.

I submit that these are three areas on which to focus attention: the protection of minority rights, freedom of speech and its hand-in-glove collateral, freedom from arbitrary detention.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, March 4, 2007

Human Priorities In A Godless World

Last week I had nightmares after reading Nicholas Kristof’s description of the Guinea worm–a two-foot long parasite that lives inside human beings and slowly burrows out of their bodies in the most unpleasant places–in his editorial on Jimmy Carter’s work to eradicate the disease. Besides my sleepless night, the article helped to solidify two things for me.

The first is that parasites like the Guinea worm should forever lay to rest the notion that there is a benevolent god who created humans in his or her image and the Earth as the place for our dominion. (It’s ironic that Carter, a devout evangelical, has done more than any other single person to help wipe out this disease; then again, those who believe in a god who would send his only son down to earth to be tortured and nailed to a cross have set the bar very low for the evidence of a benevolent divinity).

Bottom line: In this world we are but one among millions of creatures competing for resources. There are many out to kill us, but also many living inside of us that do us great service (or great disservice). Within the cycle of life that we call nature we humans do not take precedence; we are not the end point of all natural processes. While on many dimensions we are the most advanced, there are areas where we are less advanced. But perhaps most important, the extent to which we adhere to moral principles and ethics is due solely to our own conceptions of how things ought to be, not how they are.

Where this morality comes from is one of the great questions humanity faces. Increasingly, I believe that evolutionary explanations are the most persuasive, but not necessarily in a traditional way. Yes, we evolved to cooperate because it was in our interests to do so; but as our knowledge has grown so has our ability to empathize with other humans and non-humans. This ability, I conjecture, is at the root of our moral progress. We know pain and are able to easily conceptualize how others feel pain. For most of us it makes us feel better to help prevent that pain rather than to inflict it. The more our ability to empathize grows the more we are willing to alter our behavior to serve the needs of others.

This brings me to my second realization. We really need to do a better job of prioritizing the problems that we address as a global community. Curing the world’s most terrible diseases and making sure that not a single human being ever has to suffer the pain and indignity of diseases like the Guinea worm should be at the top of the list. There are many other issues hovering near the top, such as providing clean drinking water for all. Only when those problems have been adequately addressed should we then turn our attention to the next tier of problems, no matter how pressing they may seem to some. This next tier includes many environmental concerns, which I specialize in.

In this spirit I decided to shift the bulk of my charitable giving in order to reflect these new priorities (even though this will mean not giving, at least temporarily, to causes that I have long supported). I also plan to shift some of my research to areas of higher priority as well.

I am thankful that Mr. Kristof helped to remind me of these priorities.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Other Disastrous War

It costs hundreds of billions of dollars, there’s no end in sight and tens of thousands have been killed. It is empowering our enemies and weakening our friends.

I’m referring to the “war on drugs”, probably the most misguided set of policies in the world today. It is a war that attempts to defy the law of supply and demand, eradicate one of the core desires of human beings and use military force to solve a social problem. All the while this “war” uses empty moralizing to mock freedom and liberty, diminish individual rights, and perpetrate a form of racial and class warfare that would make the KKK proud. In short, it is a delusional set of policies with disastrous consequences. I am 100% certain that people will look back and wonder how we could have been both so blind and so stupid.

In this piece I do not intend to list all of the facts that underlie my assessment; they have been documented ad nauseum for decades. Check out these websites: here, here, here, and here for detailed accounts of the grim statistics and how your tax money is being thrown down the drain. And here is a collection of essays in William F. Buckley’s ultra-conservative National Review on the utter futility of the “war on drugs”. In addition, a couple recent examples of collateral damage and violations of international sovereignty in the "war on drugs" are here and here.

What I want to focus on in this piece is one aspect of this war which is not as prominent as it should be, and which provides an opening for a courageous politician of either party.

A commitment to promoting families and “family values” is now something that all serious candidates for higher office must demonstrate. For most rightwing politicians this somehow has morphed into a bizarre platform of anti-abortion, anti-gay, and anti-sex education policies, combined with calls for greater censorship of the media (for sex only, of course, violence is okay). For the left, the issue of “family values” is somewhat vague and usually comes wrapped in calls for greater education funding, health care, and sometimes censorship as well.

But in the end, it is difficult-to-impossible for the government to legislate values. The problems that lead families to disintegrate are due to complex factors that have nothing to do with election cycles. There is no doubt that sex education and better health care can make a difference, but there is one policy shift that would have a dramatic and almost immediate effect on family life in America: the decriminalization of most illegal drugs.

Hundreds of thousands of families each year are devastated by the incarceration for drug offenses of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and uncles and aunts. Most of these offenses are non-violent, yet in many states they are met with hard time in prisons full of violence-prone people. Not only is this insanely unjust, but it hits the most vulnerable families the hardest, which are disproportionately minorities. Treating drug addiction not as a crime, but as an illness, would dramatically improve the lives of millions of people. No longer would children have to visit their parents, siblings and other relatives in jail; no longer would they become increasingly jaded and disconnected from society; no longer would they continue to use drugs behind bars. Instead they would be eligible for treatment programs, community service and other rehabilitation efforts.

Would this be a panacea? Of course not. But the current policy is simply unsustainable. We will eventually have to treat drug addiction as what it is: a health problem, not a criminal problem. In addition, casual users should be no more stigmatized than those who drink a few beers, smoke cigarettes, or pop one of the hundreds of legal drugs that Americans consume by the billions each year. It is not a crime to catch a buzz; it is an elemental part of human nature. (And as studies continue to demonstrate, many illegal drugs such as marijuana are safer than alcohol or tobacco.)

It will take a brave politician to state the obvious. The inevitable smear will surely follow, accusing him or her of being “soft on crime”. This in turn will be compounded by the prejudice that we have for people who choose to get high on things other than what are considered socially acceptable.

But the politician who breaks through this delusional fog and changes the terms of the debate will help to usher in a new era, one that will truly help families and ultimately end the “war on drugs”. This will be a legacy worthy of the highest praise.

P.S. On a completely unrelated note, I have entered my first novel into a writing competition on gather.com. If you're interested, you can read the first chapter and leave comments. Thanks.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Clarifying Freedom

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Yet it more than anything defines liberal democracies, and differentiates us from many of the “un-free” Muslim and Arab societies with which we are at odds.

Throughout Western Europe, which is experiencing an influx of largely unassimilated Muslims, there is the perception that some freedoms need to be curtailed in order to ensure that Muslim immigrants conform to European norms. In the Netherlands the Dutch have just passed a law banning the burqa and other types of Muslim clothing, and France has already banned the Muslim headscarves in schools. (In one of the biggest infringements of free speech in a liberal democracy, the Austrians have made it a crime to deny the Holocaust.)

While some of these laws are understandable from the standpoint of a people worried that its cultures and traditions are slowly being eroded by a foreign illiberal wave, they are largely misguided. What is needed is a careful clarification of what freedom means in the context of liberal democracies, including which ones are non-negotiable and which are more fungible. Tony Blair has begun to lay out such guidelines, making a point of which aspects of liberal democratic society in Britain all immigrants must respect if they are to be welcomed.

The bedrock principles of liberal democracies are equal rights for all, including women and minorities. Also, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from unlawful persecution, and freedom of association. The Western powers should go out of their way to make clear to the Muslims and Arabs who live in their societies that these elements are non-negotiable for all members of society; that where these principles conflict with Islamic principles, it is the principles of freedom that win out. The tenets of no religion or culture can supersede these basic freedoms.

At the same time it should also be made clear that all aspects of a person’s culture and way of life that do not conflict with these basic freedoms are left entirely up to them. If women freely chose to wear burqas or headscarves, fine; it is only when they are coerced that it is wrong. People are free to celebrate whatever holidays they want, and to practice their religion openly and freely; the West welcomes new cultures with open arms. (Keeping in mind of course that limits on freedom of speech and association for those who incite violence have always been a part of liberal democracies, and are not aimed at Muslims or Arabs).

In summary, there are fundamental rights that must be honored by everyone in a liberal democracy, and these need to continually be repeated and reinforced. However, members of other cultures should not be made to feel that all aspects of their cultures are under attack by the West.

Putting this in the context of American society, where we have been much more successful at assimilating minority religious and cultural groups, it is the U.S. Constitution that lays down these liberal democratic principles while it paves the way for an ever-evolving American culture. Those who argue that we are a Christian nation are wrong; we are a constitutional democracy that does not draw whatsoever on Christianity for its structure. However, it is correct that America’s cultural mores have predominantly been of the Judeo-Christian variety, including our holidays, slogans, and dominant religion. This can and likely will change. As the makeup of the American population changes so will our culture; we will further integrate the Hispanic and Muslim cultures, all the while maintaining our constitutional tradition.

A side note: It is ironic that demagogues such as the rightwing radio host Dennis Prager, who confuse and obscure the difference between our liberal democratic legal foundations and our cultural history, advocate contradicting our legal statutes in order to promote a narrow view of American culture. Prager caused a stir when he recently said that the new Muslim Congressman-elect must take his oath of office on a Bible and not a Koran. In reality, our legal tradition requires neither, nothing more than one’s right hand held in the air, and the Congressman has every right to choose to use a Koran for symbolic purposes as a representation of his culture. Prager’s insistence demonstrates that the right wing only believes in freedom of religion when it is Judeo-Christian religion; it is quick to call for unconstitutional rules, which infringe on religious freedom, when other religions seek a place within American culture. (The American Family Association is lobbying for a new law that requires swearing on the Bible for public office.)

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, December 3, 2006

It Is All About Sex Part #2

As if on cue, this week’s New York Times Magazine has a feature article on the increased repression of gays in many Arab and Muslim countries. Many of the details are harrowing: men being beaten, tortured, and blacklisted for nothing other than their sexual orientation. Perhaps even more disturbing is that one of the reasons given for this rise in anti-gay oppression is that tolerance towards gays is associated with “Western” culture, which many in the Arab and Muslim world violently reject.

A number of points which this article brings to mind are worth emphasizing:

1. Islamic fundamentalists do hate our freedoms

President Bush has often stated that we have been targeted by Al Queda and other Muslim radicals because they hate our freedom. Many have ridiculed the president for this simplistic notion, and correctly pointed out that many jihadists state clear political goals that are only marginally related to what America does or does not stand for. But there is still considerable truth to what the president says: Muslim fundamentalists despise a culture that allows what it perceives as hedonistic and lustful behavior in the name of freedom. The Taliban is the closest we have to the ideal world of Muslim extremists, and it is so authoritarian and repressive that everything from music to dancing to kite flying is prohibited, let alone displays of sexual desire.

2. The Christian Right has much in common with Muslim fundamentalists

Only on what are considered fringe leftwing blogs is this point ever mentioned, but it simply cannot be denied. While the Christian Right’s ideal America would never go as far as the Taliban, it shares many viewpoints, not the least of which is the disdain for and hatred of homosexuals. This is impolitic to say, but it needs to be said.

It also relates directly to what has always been one of my greatest criticisms of the Bush Administration, and why I do not think it has moral legitimacy. At the same time as the Administration has been fighting Islamic fundamentalists overseas, it has been busy empowering Christian fundamentalists at home. While I would never have supported the Iraq War (because I thought it was simply bad foreign policy), I would have at least believed that Bush was sincere if he had used his political capital from 9/11 to argue for a more inclusive and less fundamentalist vision of America. Instead we have the worst of both worlds: a terribly articulated and executed foreign policy and a radical fundamentalist agenda at home.

3. The struggle is for human rights above all

As I have argued in earlier pieces, while democracy is a worthy and noble goal and essential to any long-term peace in the Middle East, the global struggle we face is more about human rights than it is about democracy. Due to many factors, not the least of which is the insecurity and rapid change brought about by globalization, we are experiencing a reactionary moment in history when people of all stripes yearn for a fictional ‘golden age’ that is characterized by what they perceive as more stability. Invariably, however, what comes with this stability is less freedom and fewer human rights. The only way to combat this is to argue for and support universal human rights on all fronts and at all times.

Whether a gay man is beaten and killed in America or executed on the streets of the Iran, at bottom it is the same oppression with the same underlying motive. Until we see all these acts as part of the same larger struggle, our efforts will be only partial and largely unsuccessful.

Jason Scorse

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

It Is All About Sex

I have come to believe that the root of fundamentalism (which has spawned some of the most virulently anti-liberal and violent behavior in the world) is a dysfunctional view of sexuality. I know it seems extreme to boil one of the great geopolitical struggles down to this level, but I think the facts bear this out.

Let us begin at home. The most recent gay sex scandal involving the now-disgraced evangelical leader Ted Haggard has opened a window into a world that tens of millions of Americans belong to that most of us who live in cities, especially liberal ones, have no connection with. In this world, sexual purity, defined as no sexual experience outside of heterosexual marriage, is viewed as the ultimate virtuous behavior. Not only is homosexuality viewed as a temptation by the devil, but premarital sex and even masturbation are viewed as abhorrent in the eyes of God. Best-selling books by evangelical authors are dedicated to fighting the “evil urge” to masturbate and men with homosexual tendencies are “cured” through shock therapy. What is perhaps most sad and disturbing about this latest episode is that Mr. Haggard is so full of self-loathing for his homosexual behavior that he has committed himself to healing by none other than one of the most anti-gay bigots in the country, James Dobson of the Family Research Council (who recently said that he is too busy to counsel Ted). Mr. Haggard goes so far to deny that homosexuality even exists.

The obsession with sexuality has spilled over into the virulent anti-gay activity of many on the Christian Right and is also intimately linked with their campaigns against sex education. In addition, much of their case against abortion rests on the view that sex is strictly for procreation and nothing more. To an outsider like myself, the more I learn about the inner workings of the Christian Right, the more I realize what an unhealthy and combustible mix it is. It has established a movement with an almost singular focus on sexuality, while at the same time creating conditions in which sexual confusion and frustration thrive. By denying the genetic nature of homosexuality and associating virtually all sexual desire with shame, the Christian Right creates mandates that lead to profound cognitive dissonance. It then funnels the frustration people feel when they can’t live up to these impossible and unrealistic ideals against liberals, gays, lesbians, and Hollywood (recall, Jerry Falwell blamed the attacks of 9/11 on just these groups.)

At the other end of the spectrum, halfway across the world, we have the Muslim fundamentalists, who blow themselves up believing that they are going to be rewarded in paradise with 72 virgins. If there is anything more obviously driven by sexual dysfunction I don’t know what it is. Because of the disempowerment and distrust of women throughout much of the Arab and Muslim world, many Muslim men experience their first sexual relations with other men (and yet, in six Muslim countries homosexual acts are punishable by death). This too leads to extreme forms of shame and self-loathing. The belief that men are unable to control their wicked sexual impulses is so strong that a Muslim cleric in Australia just went on record saying that women who don’t cover themselves deserve to be raped because they have tempted men (and he is just one of many). The entire cultural phenomenon of covered women is little more than a means to control sexual impulses and achieve some unattainable and unhealthy version of sexual purity.

While I do not have statistics to back me up, I can say with some confidence that people who are comfortable with their sexuality are some of the most contented people in the world, while those who are sexually conflicted and frustrated are among the least contented. I believe this level of contentment is inversely correlated with many antisocial behaviors, including violent aggression, the need to scapegoat vulnerable groups, and the need to force others to conform to one’s own view of reality.

Where this all leads I am not sure. I do not want to downplay the problems that some people encounter when they engage in sex with numerous partners, including sexually-transmitted diseases. Nor do I want to discount the needs of children, who require loving and committed parents.

How to strike a balance between sexual freedom and acceptance of non-traditional views of sexuality with a commitment to strong relationships and family is difficult. But there is no doubt in my mind that fundamentalism at its core is driven by sexual dysfunction and that until this issue is approached head-on we can look forward to more gay-bashing, violence against women, and suicide bombers. If there really is a clash of civilizations it is between the fundamentalists and liberal society, and the most potent issue that separates these two groups is their views towards sex.

P.S. Someone read my piece and forwarded me a link to one of Bill Maher's rants that's too good to pass up. Check it out- it's hilarious and on the money!

Jason Scorse

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May 28, 2006

Standing Up for the Individual

The United States of America was founded upon the principle of the rights of the individual; they are paramount in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This emphasis on individual liberties represented a major paradigm shift in a world where monarchs could do whatever they wanted to their subjects. The secular humanist principles enshrined in our founding documents are the precursors to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established by the United Nations (which have, if nothing else, created the template by which we judge the humanitarian records of all governments throughout the world).

Unfortunately, the preeminence of individual rights seems to be going out of favor on both the left and the right in the U.S., which is a harbinger of a much less free and prosperous society.

The Republican social agenda has largely been taken over by religious extremists intent on enforcing their own doctrines on the rest of society, at the expense of individual liberty. From the attempts to criminalize abortion to enshrining discrimination against gays in the Constitution (among other virulently anti-gay measures), the Republicans have lost touch with the libertarian roots of conservative philosophy. Some conservative commentators have gone so far as to decry “radical individualism”, which as far as I can tell refers to the “radical” notion that people should be able to live the lives they want, not what reactionary social norms dictate.

In addition, the Republicans continue to try to restrict all forms of speech that they find “offensive” (which often has to do with sex acts, but never with violence in the media). Republicans used to counter the claims by Democrats, who insisted that they stood up for “the people”, by insisting that they stood up for the individual. That is no longer true. A country that values individual rights is one where the majority cannot enforce its will on the minority simply because members of the minority upset some people’s moral sensibilities.

Democrats have begun to shy away from individual rights because they have come to associate individualism with greed and a lack of concern for the greater good of society. As the left has become less comfortable with free markets and globalization, they have erroneously linked individual freedoms to laissez-faire capitalism, which they deplore. The latest round of anti-individualism to spring from the left is found in the recent issue of the American Prospect magazine, in which John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, in trying to come up with a unifying theme for the Democrats, conclude that they should stand for the “common good”. Not only does this strike me as a little too close to the word “communism” (I prefer “public interest”), but it demonstrates a lack of understanding that the common good is best supported by emphasizing individual liberty; this is something the left has often had a hard time grappling with.

As Adam Smith famously noted, it is people exercising their freedom of opportunity and advancement who drive progress in society. While the left and the Democrats would have us all do national service, it would be much better if all of the future Nobel Laureates and innovators spent that time honing their skills so that we could all benefit from them even sooner. Overall, society benefits less from getting everyone to spend a couple years working in communities doing service than by making sure that everyone’s unique skills are developed to the max. (Think of it this way: would it be better for society if Bill Gates had spent two years picking up trash in a poor community or getting Microsoft started earlier? Keep in mind that the Gates Foundation is the largest philanthropic organization in the world, and doing probably more good than most governmental aid programs.)

Both Democrats and Republicans have fallen victim to extremist “law and order” dogma with respect to individual drug use, and have backed unjust and draconian laws that punish people for their personal choices. The fact that cigarettes and alcohol are legal while people get jail sentences greater than for murderers and rapists for using marijuana or cocaine is insane, and will no doubt be a source of national shame in the future; it is clearly an attack on individual liberty. (There is a small class of drugs that incite violent behavior, e.g., PCP, and drugs such as these should be completely prohibited).

But what about civic virtue, a sense of shared sacrifice, and restraining the negative effects of certain behaviors?

All of these are crucial elements of a democracy, but they are best achieved in ways that minimally, if it all, restrict the freedom of individuals. Civic virtue is something that can be taught in schools at all levels. Getting students at a very young age engaged in politics, and reinforcing this all the way through college, is one way to ensure that citizens are informed and engaged in the democratic process. Our shared sense of sacrifice can best be harnessed through redistributive public policies. For example, basic universal health care will likely require some increase in taxes, and will require politicians to appeal to our sense of helping those who have fallen through the cracks of our health care system, many of whom are children. As to restraining the negative effects of certain behavior, these efforts need to be focused on areas where there is a clear demonstrable link between the behavior and its negative effects on others, and laws or regulations must also be properly fitted to the activity. For example, smoking cigarettes is legal but smoking in public places is not; drinking alcohol is legal, but driving drunk is not.

In summary, what has made America great is its emphasis on individual liberties and allowing individuals to exercise their own free will to fulfill their aspirations. This does not lead to moral chaos, but it does require people to accept that not everyone will make choices that correspond with one’s own moral convictions. In addition, societies focused on individual liberty often result in widely divergent socio-economic outcomes because not everyone will make the best decisions, and some people are endowed with greater talents than others. But society as a whole prospers most if the actions of individuals are only minimally constrained, and redistributive policies are enacted that help everyone to share in the prosperity.

I can only hope that future politicians will some day once again put the individual liberties at the top of their agenda. For Republicans this will mean a return to true conservative principles, while for Democrats it will require a greater appreciation for the benefits of the free market capitalist system.

J.S.

P.S. Here are two great articles by Susan Jacoby; the first on how the Constitution was a purposefully secular document and the second on why we should keep all religion out of politics.

Jason Scorse

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February 5, 2006

Democracy, Human Rights, And Peace: Lessons From Our Own History

This piece is an extension of last week’s piece on the collective irrationality that has gripped America ever since the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Putting aside the Bush Administration’s fear-mongering, deceptive use of information, secrecy, and all around incompetency in executing its foreign policy goals, I want to look at the fundamental premise that bringing democracy to the Middle East will decrease the terrorist threat to America.

On paper, the idea appears to have some merit. If we suppose that much of the anger in the Arab world is an outgrowth of the repressive authoritarian regimes that restrict freedom and have denied material progress to much of the Middle East then democracy and open societies might be the antidote. Of course, much of the anger (at least directed to the U.S.) is also due to a conflation of factors having to do with real and/or perceived historical actions by the U.S. against the interests of many Arab nations (e.g. the CIA’s overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran, our support of Saddam Hussein in the 1980sas well as supplying him with chemical weapons used on Iranians – , our support for the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) as well as our continued support of Israel and our perceived bias against the Palestinians.

Again putting aside the morality or wisdom of bringing democracy by military force to the Middle East, I want to delve into something even more fundamental: whether democracy is necessarily conducive to human rights and a more peaceful society. And there is no better place to start than with our own history.

Paradoxically, the American democratic experiment, with its commitment to individual liberty, began in the late 18th century when the slave trade was at its peak. Since Africans were not considered fully human it was easy for our founders to deny liberty to millions of blacks. In addition, women were given few rights in our new democratic experiment and brutal suppression and extermination of the Native Americans continued almost unabated throughout much of the 19th century. It is clear from these events that democracy, at least in its infancy and by earlier historical standards, can coexist alongside some of the world’s greatest atrocities.

Many argue (rightly to some extent) that it is problematic to judge people hundreds of years ago with the same moral lens that we have today. The fact that our republic was founded by people who were themselves slave owners for much of their lives, or who didn’t believe women should have the right to vote, does not diminish their astounding political accomplishments. But it does cast doubt on the premise that democracy in and of itself is necessarily consistent with human rights and peaceful societies.

In fact, the American subjugation of blacks continued in many parts of our nation for almost 200 years. My own parents grew up in America at a time when the South was segregated and blacks were routinely brutally murdered for nothing more than looking at a white person the wrong way or trying to exercise their democratic rights (even though the intensity of lynching decrease in the early to mid 20th century). In many parts of our great democratic nation domestic terrorist organizations with a worldview just as hideous as the Islamofascists (i.e. the KKK) reined for decade after decade, and the murder statistics don’t do justice to the intense suffering and fear these groups (and individuals) inflicted on millions of our own fellow American citizens. While all of these facts are common knowledge to most Americans, it is truly astounding to recognize that our democratic system based on liberty and freedom not only tolerated such psychopathic behavior for almost two centuries, but that many in our political establishment condoned it. As I have mentioned before, Democratic support in the South for Jim Crow and institutionalized brutality is a titanic shame that will always stain the Democratic Party.

But more importantly, our history puts firmly to rest any notion that democracy automatically leads to the promotion of human rights and peace, at least within the short-term. Sadly, majorities in democracies can easily use their power to oppress minorities and continue doing so for very long periods of time. We even see this practice continue today in America with the oppression of gays that is being institutionalized around the country (I am referring to the bans on not only gay marriage but even civil unions which have characterized most of the anti-gay legislation around the country).

It is clear that human rights, while no doubt easier to achieve in democratic societies, require much more than open societies and the right to vote.

As to the supposition that democratic nations do not incite wars of aggression this too is historically inaccurate. Hitler and the Nazis had widespread popular support in Germany and came to power through democratic means, and in addition to the imperialistic wars and conquests led by the democratic nations of Europe, America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War was also based on imperialistic motives. The Vietnam War was initiated based on false pretenses in the Gulf of Tonkin, and we overthrew the democratically-elected in Guatemala in the 1950s.

My point is not to insinuate the democracy is an unworthy goal (it is) or to excessively criticize the history of U.S. foreign policy, but to dispel the notion that somehow bringing democracy to the Middle East will greatly reduce the terrorist threat. By simply looking at our own history (as well as other historical examples), it is clear that democracies in the Middle East could easily thrive in conjunction with strongly anti-U.S. policies, terrorists, and all sorts of homegrown forms of oppression (the Iranian and Palestinian elections support this). And my guess is that bringing democracy by force to such a volatile region might very well magnify the chaotic and unpredictable forces that are unleashed when people experience greater individual freedom after centuries of abuse (e.g. there are lots of scores to settle).

In summary, there is little support for the core assumption underlying Bush’s primary foreign policy objective that bringing democracy to Iraq will decrease the threat of terrorism. Supporting democratic movements is a noble goal, but unless it is coupled with the promotion of human rights, economic integration, and international cooperation it is unlikely to translate into the establishment of peaceful and friendly allies that respect human rights. Bush’s policy has emphasized the democracy angle largely at the expense of these other dimensions and this is a recipe for disaster.

J.S.

P.S. I think the recent events surrounding the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons of Mohammed are a perfect example of the unique irrationality and danger that religion poses in the world. Can someone imagine any non-religious cartoon in a small European newspaper that could’ve provoked people around the world to weeks of violent fury? To think that some religions inculcates people with such insecurity and fanaticism that their entire worldview is threatened by a little satire (regardless of whether it is perceived as offensive or not) is truly terrifying.

Jason Scorse

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December 11, 2005

Taking The Life Out Of The Death Penalty

(The 1000th prisoner since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977 was executed on December 2nd. With that in mind, it’s a good time to reconsider this controversial policy.)

America stands alone among the developed industrialized nations in continuing to employ the death penalty. The reason is relatively straightforward: America is more religious than the rest of the developed world, and the “eye for an eye” morality of the Old Testament holds greater sway. A large majority of Americans believe the death penalty is justified.

Even I, who oppose the death penalty, can recognize that there is something intuitively appealing about it. Why should someone who murders be allowed to live and experience any degree of pleasure, freedom of movement, or even consciousness, after they have denied this to others? Why should the state feed, clothe, and provide for people who have used their freedom to deal irreversible blows to victims and their loved ones? Aren’t there acts so terrible that the individual has forfeited his or her right to life?

If we lived in a world of perfect information with a perfect criminal justice system, perhaps I would answer the last question in the affirmative. I think we can all conceive of acts so barbarous, so cruel, so “inhuman,” that erasing the perpetrator from the face of the earth seems like the only justifiable response. But herein lies the problem: our judicial system is imperfect, and the death penalty ultimately does not serve the interests of society. Here’s why:

1. Determining what types of crimes merit this utmost punishment is inherently arbitrary. What one jury in one state deems worthy of the death penalty may not be the same as another jury in another state. Despite significant reforms of the judicial system, this arbitrariness has resulted in a vastly disproportionate number of ethnic minorities and the poor being sentenced to death. This violates any semblance of equal protection under the Constitution.

2. The granting of clemency for death row inmates has allowed political calculations to creep into decisions over the life or death of inmates, which has corrupted the entire process. This can be witnessed in the recent attempt by celebrities and activists to convince Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant clemency to Stanley Williams. (As a side note, it boggles the mind that Williams, who has never expressed regret for his crimes-- murdering four people in cold blood--and whose defense team isn’t even arguing for a new trial based on new evidence that points to his innocence, has even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize! Watching celebrities line up to pose with the co-founder of the Crips, a murderous gang responsible for immense amounts of bloodshed, simply because he’s written a few children’s books while on death row, is utterly despicable. I am not, however, advocating that he should be put to death, only that using him as a model of "redemption" is absurd.)

In summary, while there may in fact be moral arguments in support of the death penalty in extreme circumstances (though this is debatable), the nature of our judicial and political system makes the implementation of such a policy unjust and subject to too many subjective forces. In addition there is no substantive evidence that the death penalty deters murders, and the judicial process is so litigious that it actually costs more money to put someone to death than to imprison them for their entire lives. On top of this, there is something disturbing when this element of our judicial system has more in common with China, Iran, North Korea, and Syria than with our allies in the EU and the rest of the developed world.

It is time to put an end to the death penalty once and for all in America.

J.S.

P.S. Here's a prime example of why the death penalty in America is so unjust.

Jason Scorse

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October 9, 2005

Counterfactuals in the Abortion Debate

Abortion is and will probably remain the most contentious moral issue in America. Just recently, Bill Bennett’s remarks on the subject sparked rightful condemnation and it is obvious that the religious right is uncomfortable with Katherine Miers because they are not convinced that she will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. I have already laid out what I believe to be a reasonable stance on the issue, but now I turn to a discussion of the central claim made by anti-abortion groups.

Those in the anti-abortion movement commonly cite the 25 million abortions performed in America since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision as evidence of mass murder; the implication that if abortion had not been legalized there would now be 25 million more Americans than there are today. For a number of reasons this logic is wrong.

To begin, many women who have abortions do go on to have children– children they likely would not have had if they had been forced to go through with earlier pregnancies. The logic is simple: many women choose to have abortions because they do not feel ready to raise a child, whether emotionally or financially, or because they are not part of a committed relationship, and the right to abortion allows them to put off having children until they are. For this subset of women (I don’t claim to have precise numbers) abortions result in children coming into this world who are planned, instead of those who are unplanned, while the total number of children brought into the world over their lifetimes is unchanged. I personally know a number of people for whom this situation applies– the children they have today are ones they would not have if they had carried earlier pregnancies to term.

There is another subset of women who if they had been forced to carry their pregnancies to term they would’ve likely taken birth control much more seriously in the future (perhaps even taking the extreme measure of having their tubes tied), given the responsibilities and demands of parenthood that would’ve been thrust upon them. In some sense, these women, who do in an indirect way use abortion as a form of birth control, would be forced to take their sexual lives more seriously and plan accordingly if abortion were not legal and easily accessible. Again, however, had abortion been illegal it is likely that these women would not have actually had as many children as the number of abortions might imply.

There is another subset of women for whom abortions would have been sought out regardless of the legality, and therefore, we can assume that not only would these pregnancies not have been brought to term, but these women would’ve been subjected to significantly increased health risks and turmoil.

There is another group of women for whom abortion was necessary on medical grounds, or those who chose to terminate a pregnancy when it was discovered that their future child would suffer from severe disabilities. In addition, there are those whose pregnancies were the result of incest or rape. For all of these women, it is almost universally agreed that these abortions were necessary and/or justified.

Finally, while it is true that many women who don’t fall into any of these categories may have opted to put their baby up for adoption if they had chosen to go through with the pregnancy, the fact is that already there are many more babies (and children) in need of adoption than there are people willing to adopt. For every American woman who gets pregnant and chooses to put her baby up for adoption, there is one less child in some other part of the world (or country) who is more likely to live its life in an orphanage. (Unfortunately, it really is this type of zero-sum scenario; however, I am not in any way making a case against adoption as an alternative to abortion- just simply stating the facts).

It is not difficult to understand why many millions of Americans are vehemently opposed to abortion; if one truly believes that from the moment of conception the rights of the future human being trump all other rights then millions of abortions will seem like an immense injustice. However, to call this position the “pro-life” position is wrong because this position is only pro-life in the narrowest sense. A woman’s reproductive decisions are entangled within a large web of present and future consequences that affect the lives of people across generations in very complex ways; for this reason the number of abortions does not equate in a one-to-one ratio with the number of people “missing” in society. Nor does such a narrow view take any account of the quality of life of both women and children.

In summary, despite the many inconsistencies in the anti-abortion position, if one’s personal morality leads one to oppose abortion under all circumstances that is certainly a valid position for a person to take in a free society. However, as a matter of policy this reasoning is too simplistic and does not account for all the moral issues involved.

Jason Scorse

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August 21, 2005

Choice is the Central Issue in the Abortion Debate

A few months ago I attempted to approach the issue of abortion in a reasonable manner since both sides of the discussion often seem to be incapable of civil discourse. With the recent Supreme Court vacancy, once again the issue of legalized abortion is in the news so I thought it would be appropriate to emphasize a couple of key points.

Even before their horrific showing in the 2004 election there was lots of discussion among Democrats on the issue of “framing.” In short, many political analysts have noted that the Democrats suffer from an inability to portray issues in ways that are conducive to their positions, while the Republicans have been extremely successful in this regard. A classic example is how the GOP turned the issue of the estate tax into the “death tax” or tax cuts in general into “tax relief.”

A number of influential political commentators, including Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, believe that in order to court “values” voters the Democrats need to moderate their position on abortion. Hillary Clinton seems to have gotten this message as well given some of her recent speeches. While decreasing abortions is a laudable goal (even if the rate of abortion is much more dependent on basic economics prosperity than on specific policies aimed at women– which is why abortions decreased dramatically during the booming 1990s and have risen since Bush took office), I think it is a big mistake for Democrats to de-emphasize their pro-choice position; i.e. this is the correct frame.

The GOP position, despite its pro-life label, is ultimately anti-choice and this is what needs to be driven home. If the GOP had its way it would be illegal for a woman to have an abortion, period. People need to seriously think about that. It means that if a woman got pregnant by accident and did not want to conceive then she would have one of two choices: either have a baby that she does not want or sacrifice her body for nine months so that her baby could be given to someone else. In effect, women would become reproducing agents of the state. The reality is that until we have 100% perfect contraception (which is extremely unlikely) and people who are 100% responsible (an impossibility) we are going to live in a society in which there are unintended pregnancies. In the GOP’s ideal world those women would be forced by the government to have those babies; there’s simply no other way so spin it.

In summary, no one on the Left or Right is pro-abortion, and no one is opposed to giving women additional opportunities and information so that they can make the best choices. But again, the issue is choice, and only one Party believes that women have the right to the choice of an abortion. The pro-life position, despite its many inconsistencies and contradictions, is at its most basic level the anti-choice position and this should not be forgotten.

Jason Scorse

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May 18, 2005

Human Rights and Animal Rights

Although it’s rarely stated so bluntly, many critics of the animal rights movement, and animal rights in general, view it as a form of wishy-washy sentimentalism; after all, with all the problems in the world – war, poverty, AIDS – doesn’t caring about pigs and cows and furry little creatures seem somewhat trivial? Unfortunately, the animal rights movement has often fed into this mindset with its focus on “charismatic fauna” (i.e., panda bears, dolphins, and baby seals).The enlisting of Hollywood celebrities hasn’t always helped the cause either. But animal rights is not trivial, or superfluous, even in the face of the immense human problems that plague us.

Animal rights begins with the basic premise that sentience and a sense of identity are the key factors which determine a being’s right to be free from pain and suffering. It is because humans have (an overall) greater capacity for these attributes that harming a human is worse than harming a spider; it is not simply because humans are better or somehow morally superior. Based on the criteria of sentience and identity, it is a scientific fact that there are some animals whose capacity for feeling is not far removed from a human’s capacity. For example, primates have extremely advanced nervous systems and can experience loneliness and loss. While millions of Americans take care of their dogs as if they were members of their family, pigs are actually smarter creatures.

There is no question that if one had to choose between ending the suffering for the people of Darfur, Sudan or saving the lives of an equivalent number of cows, the humans would win hands down. The same can be said for many similar comparisons. The problem with this logic is that it only looks at the benefits side, and not the costs. Obviously, if we had to choose between benefits, we would choose to relieve human suffering over animal suffering virtually 100% of the time. But this misses the key point: it is much easier to relieve animal suffering than human suffering, and it is not a zero-sum game; helping relieve animal suffering does not diminish our capacity to relieve our fellow humans (except perhaps in the realm of medical testing, which is a complicated issue that I will address in a later piece.)

Let’s take a couple of examples. The conflict in Sudan is genocide and stopping it should be a top priority. But how can individuals influence policy regarding Sudan? We can call our Congressman, write letters, and donate to human rights groups, but the chance of any individual influencing government policy regarding Sudan is miniscule. Or consider AIDs. While all of us can do similar things, the scope of the problem requires massive government coordination and funding, along with medical advances; the ability of individual citizens to relieve the suffering from this disease is relatively small.

Regarding animal suffering, however, the required actions (costs) are minor and have profound direct effects; the benefits-to-costs ratio is large and automatic. If people stop eating animal products, and stop buying leather clothes or fur, many animals will be saved from immense suffering and cruelty. In fact, there are no easier acts one can do that have as great an immediate impact on the level of suffering in the world. (In addition to fewer animals being mistreated and killed, the production of animals and fish for food is probably the single most environmentally damaging and ecologically wasteful activity in the world). It is precisely because what we have to give up is so trivial in comparison that the case for animal rights is so strong. Even though many people are accustomed to the taste of animals, it is a relatively easy thing to wean oneself of, especially in a society where vegetarian options continue to multiply. This can be done gradually over a period of months or years, or even simply with the movement towards vegetarianism without ever completely foregoing meat consumption. On the clothing side, fake leather and fur products last longer, are the same price or cheaper, and no one can tell the difference anymore so there’s simply no reason to go on wearing animals. (Here are links to a few places to buy them: here, here, and here.)

In summary, while human suffering is the worst kind, it is also the most difficult to prevent. Animal suffering, on the other hand, is largely due to consumer customs and habits that are amazingly easy to change. This is why the case for animal rights is so compelling. It is not a product of excessive sentimentality, but a rational response to a world in which we are learning that animals enjoy a much greater degree of sentience than we once believed, and their ability to live a life free of suffering is easier than ever to achieve; it’s as simple as what you buy at the store. I might even say that adjusting one’s behaviors in respect of animal rights should be the first step in promoting a “culture of life.”

J.S.

P.S. Here’s an example of the dark side of animal right’s activism, which unfortunately, tarnishes the entire movement.

Jason Scorse

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November 21, 2004

A Reasonable Stance on Abortion

Abortion is clearly the most divisive and inflammatory issue in the nation. Many might find it impossible to ever put “abortion” and “reasonable stance” in the same sentence, but I’m going to give it a try. To begin, I’m going to outline both extreme positions and show why they are not reasonable guides for public policy.

The most extreme anti-abortionists want to make the procedure illegal for every woman everywhere in the United States. In their view, from the moment of conception the fertilized egg should be granted the full rights of a human such that killing the embryo is analogous to murder. Let’s analyze this more closely. At the moment an egg is fertilized it is microscopic in size and comprised of a few undifferentiated cells. Strong anti-abortionists want society to accept that destroying this entity is morally equivalent to taking a gun and shooting a full-grown adult. While it is certainly within the rights of religious people to believe this, I see no logical argument based on anything besides religion that suggests that all members of society must be forced into accepting this logic. Remember, seconds before conception the sperm and egg did not have this moral status, but from the moment they meet they are then automatically granted the full rights of personhood, despite the fact that these cells have no identity, no consciousness, no nervous system, absolutely nothing that even remotely resembles a human being. Let me repeat, while it is certainly within the rights of religious people to believe that conception marks the beginning of full personhood, and base their individual choices on this perception, from a scientific basis a fertilized egg is a potential human being, not anything remotely close to an actual person, and therefore society is within its rights to not grant it the moral status as such.

Turning to those who are strongly supportive of abortion rights they make the case that a woman has a right to control her own reproductive destiny and that her rights always supersede the rights of the unborn. This position is also unreasonable. The moment a child is born we do afford it the full rights of personhood and killing it is considered murder. Therefore, at any stage at which the unborn is close to its mature state must also be considered killing. For example, almost all would surely agree that aborting a child the day before its birth is murder, and we even know that the unborn at even six or seven months shares most of the features of a nine-month year-old, and can typically survive on its own outside of the womb. While it is one thing to argue that an embryo a few weeks old is not a person, a fetus much longer along in its development is.

So where does this get us? To begin, abortion is one of those issues that is rightly considered a morally “slippery slope.” Anti-abortionists, on one hand, have clarity and consistency on their side since they make no arbitrary delineations as to when an embryo is a person; it is from the moment of conception. However, this firm stance is fraught with its own logical contradictions. A millisecond before conception the sperm and egg have zero rights within this moral framework, but then are granted the same rights as you and I in just as short a time. In addition, equating the destruction of a microscopic clump of cells with the murder of a fully conscious human being can only be justified on religious, not scientific, grounds. In effect, the consistency of the anti-abortion side is its Achilles Heel since there is no room for compromise; it is all or nothing. On the abortion rights side, the strength of the position lies in the ability to acknowledge that an embryo does not share the same moral status of a human being, but it runs into considerable trouble trying to figure out at what point it does. In some sense this will always be arbitrary, just as most of our age delineations throughout society are arbitrary; e.g. that children become adults at 18. This arbitrariness must be acknowledged.

As to the practical policy implications, it is clear from my arguments above that abortion should be legal and women should be allowed to destroy an embryo within their body in its early stages when it does not share the features of a conscious human being. Anti-abortionists make a strong argument that we have laws protecting children against abuse by their parents and that at some point a woman must take responsibility for the child she bears. This is true; there needs to be a point during a woman’s pregnancy beyond which we as a society can reasonable claim that she has decided to allow the embryo to become a person, and therefore she now has an obligation to protect it, at least until it is born, at which point she may choose to put it up for adoption. Defining this “point” is the most difficult challenge of all for which there are no easy answers. I think reasonable people, backed by science, can agree that within the first trimester an embryo is not a full person and therefore abortion during this period should be fully left to the discretion of the woman. The last trimester, however, is a time when the fetus has grown into a person and a woman should only be allowed to have an abortion if her life is threatened. This leaves us with a gray area between these two extremes that is very difficult to assess. Clearly, women who wait months before having an abortion may do so for a variety of reasons and these need to be explored before making a final judgment.

I think what I have laid out is a line of reasoning shared by a majority of Americans, although abortion is probably an issue that will forever divide us. Those who disagree with my logic most likely cite religious concerns, which they have the right to do, but not to impose on others. For example, I may think killing animals for food goes against God because God said to care for Creation, but it would be wrong for me to try to make eating meat illegal based on this religious interpretation.

In summary, abortion should be legal and the sooner in their pregnancy that women get them, the better. This means that early detection and the availability of safe and affordable abortions is crucial. Decreasing abortions in society is a noble goal and policies which achieve this, such as free or low-cost contraception, sex education, family planning clinics, etc. are to be encouraged. In addition, many women who get abortions do so because they believe they don’t have the economic wherewithal to support a child. Therefore, policies aimed at helping lower income women care for children may be another effective way to decrease abortion rates. The pro-choice constituency must acknowledge that there are serious moral issues involved and that as a fetus develops it earns increasing rights, which at some point shy of the full nine-month term trump the rights of the woman, given her parental obligations. This is why early pregnancy detection is essential.

Side Note: The issue of partisanship crops up frequently and being that VOR bills itself as a non-partisan site some discussion is in order. To begin, my conclusions above on abortion are clearly in line with the predominant Democratic position, and therefore on this issue I am largely advocating support of the Democratic stance. This is based on reasoning and facts, which of course can be disputed, but my position is not based on ideology. On the issues of free trade and school vouchers, for example, my exercise of reasons and facts lend more support to the predominant Republican position. The point is that it is easy to dismiss arguments as partisan if you don’t agree with them, as we see time and again with respect to judicial decisions; anything that people don’t like is automatically considered a product of “activist” judges. If any of our readers find the arguments expressed on VOR at odds with their party’s position we ask that you critically examine the specifics of our arguments. We at VOR are fallible and no doubt allow biases to creep into our reasoning despite attempts to the contrary, but the quality of the discourse all around will best be served if people can state specifically where there are holes or inconsistencies in our logic, and not simply brand something they disagree with as a product of partisanship.

Jason Scorse

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