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December 06, 2004

Supporting Our Troops?

Jeff McMahan: December 6, 2004

Vehicles in New Jersey are covered with decals representing little ribbons inscribed with the legend: “Support Our Troops.”  I have done a lot of driving recently and have noticed geographical disparities in the distribution of these symbols.  There are fewer in the Midwest and very few at all in the LA area.   They are also disproportionately displayed on SUVs and vans, which isn’t surprising given that the owners are disproportionately reliant on the oil supplies that our soldiers are in Iraq to protect (among their other purposes).

What is it exactly that these decals exhort us to do?  How can I, or anyone, support the troops themselves?  What can we possibly do for them?  It seems that the message is really an exhortation to support the war.  Why then don’t we ever see bumper stickers urging us more straightforwardly to support the war?  It seems dishonest, manipulative, and coercive to assert an equivalence between support for a war and support for the participants in the war.  The aim of such an effort is to make it seem that to criticize the war is to criticize our young soldiers and perhaps to increase their peril by weakening the war effort.

I recall that in the late stages of the presidential campaign Bush tried – successfully, it seems – to score points by claiming that to say the war in Iraq was wrong was tantamount to saying that those of our troops who had died there had died in vain.  And of course no one wanted to be accused of saying that.

But of course if the war is unjust they have died largely in vain and Bush is the person primarily responsible for that.  If they have been sent to die for a misconceived political agenda, that should be a source of remorse, not something to be exploited for further advantage in political debate.

If the war is unjust, as I believe it is, Bush’s remarks exploit the sacrifices of the dead while the ribbon decals further exploit those young soldiers still stationed in Iraq by invoking their peril to stifle opposition to a war in which they will remain embroiled.  The decals don’t support our troops but unnecessarily endanger them by seeking to prolong an unjust war.

March 25, 2005

Keeping abortion and prenatal injury distinct

Jeff McMahan: March 25, 2005

One point on which conservatives and liberals ought to be able to achieve consensus is the wrongfulness of inflicting prenatal injury.  Prenatal injury raises issues quite different from those raised by abortion because nothing about the morality of inflicting prenatal injury hinges on the controversial matter of the moral status of the fetus.  This is because the real victim of prenatal injury is not the fetus but the person into whom the fetus, if it survives, will develop.  Prenatal injury typically inflicts lasting damage that may affect an individual’s entire life for the worse.  For this reason, to injure a fetus in a certain way is little different morally from painlessly inflicting the same injury on a small child.

It is, of course, difficult to formulate legislation that will help deter pregnant women from injuring their own fetuses.  Liberals will resist such legislation because it would  impose substantial burdens on women not shared by men and would be difficult to enforce without violating women’s rights to privacy.  Conservatives who are averse to governmental intrusions into people’s private lives ought to share many of these same reservations.  And conservatives who oppose abortion have a further reason to object to legislation that would penalize women for giving birth to infants with defects traceable to maternal recklessness or negligence – namely, that in a society in which abortion is legal, such legislation would give a pregnant woman who fears that she may have injured her fetus an incentive to have an abortion rather than to bring the pregnancy to term.

Despite these obstacles, liberals and conservatives ought to be able to unite on this issue; but they will succeed in doing so only if they keep it separate from the issue of abortion.  And it is a very different issue, for the reason suggested in the first paragraph.  Suppose it’s true, as many liberals believe, that the moral status of a fetus is lower than that of a person and, as virtually everyone believes, that death isn’t tragic for a fetus in the way it is for an older child or adult.  In that case one may believe that a pregnant woman’s interests can sometimes, or even often, make it permissible for her to have an abortion.  For abortion would affect only the weak interests of a being of comparatively low moral status.  But the woman’s interests may not be sufficient to justify her doing what would inflict a nonlethal prenatal injury, for that would affect the interests of a person throughout the whole of his or her life.  In short, prenatal injury may be substantially more objectionable morally than abortion is.

There is, however, a serious pragmatic problem, which is to formulate any legislation that would criminalize prenatal injury in such a way as to distinguish between lethal and nonlethal injuries. Legislation that was passed not too long ago in both the House and the Senate that makes it possible to treat an assault on a pregnant woman as having two victims doesn’t recognize this important distinction. It seems to me that an assault that injures a pregnant woman and inflicts a nonlethal but lasting injury on her fetus does indeed have two victims. But an assault that injures or kills the pregnant woman and also kills her fetus does not have two victims – or at least not two victims of equivalent status. If a fetus has a lower moral status than that of a person and is not harmed by death in the way an older child or adult is, then the killing of the fetus may be a crime only, or primarily, because of its effects on the woman and any other persons who cared about the fetus. The woman in such a case is of course doubly victimized: she suffers not only the physical assault but also the loss of her future child.

Yet, as I noted, it would be very difficult to design legislation that would criminalize certain instances of prenatal injury for reasons independent of the effects on the pregnant woman, but only if the injury is nonlethal rather than lethal. Among other things, such legislation would give third party injurers an incentive to ensure that their assault would prove fatal to the fetus. If, for example, a man has assaulted a pregnant woman in anger, such legislation might make it in his interest later to assault her again to make sure he kills rather than merely injures her fetus. It would be crazy for the law to offer such an incentive. Yet a law, such as that which the House and Senate recently approved, that collapses the distinction between killing a fetus and injuring it in a way that causes lasting harm to a person is both morally untenable and inconsistent with constitutional protections of abortion.

If conservatives and liberals are to cooperate to try to overcome these obstacles to protecting fetuses from prenatal injury, liberals mustn’t allow their justifiable concern for the rights of pregnant women to prevent them from recognizing that the infliction of prenatal injury is just as grave a matter as the infliction of a comparable injury on a child. And conservatives must resist the temptation – which was clearly among the motivations behind the legislation to which I’ve referred – to use the issue of prenatal injury as a means of advancing an anti-abortion agenda.