Dialoguing over abortion

Here’s something I see everyday among my children: An older, crafty child, takes away a toy from a younger, trusting child, and then when the younger child begins to scream, the older child remains calm, smiles, and acts as though his younger sibling’s “irrationality” is a sign of the rightness of his own position.

Or, consider this example. Suppose the CEO of a company makes an unpopular decision -- say, business dress (rather than “dressing down”) is now required on Fridays-- and he holds an (optional) meeting with employees to discuss it. The meeting, he explains, is for purposes of “dialogue” over the decision.

But at the beginning of the meeting he makes it perfectly clear that his decision is irrevocable, and that nothing that any one says will change his view. If some employees then leave the meeting, are they against “dialogue”?

Two lessons from these examples: The first is that an appeal to “dialogue” can sometimes be a tool of oppression. Martin Luther King Jr. was well aware of this: his Letter from a Birmingham jail was written in response to clergyman who implied that he was an extremist, closed to further “dialogue” about segregation.

The second is that, in matters of action (not matters of thought or doctrine), there is no true “dialogue” if nothing can change as a result of a discussion.

Both of these points are relevant to President Obama’s address last month upon receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame.

Obama’s basic message was that people should presume good will among those who disagree with them over abortion, and commit themselves to dialogue and mutual understanding.

That’s a great message -- but the wrong time for it, and the wrong audience. A U.S. President might valuably have delivered such a message in 1972 to the Supreme Court, rather than telling it now to the assembled students and parents of a Notre Dame graduating class. Change the context, and the meaning of the message changes as well.

Let’s review some elementary history. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade overturned the laws of 47 states which prohibited abortion.

This was the most “anti-dialogue” decision in history. Prior to Roe, citizens “dialogued” with good will over the wrongness of abortion. In nearly all states they decided it was wrong. And then they passed laws against it.

But then the Supreme Court intervened and declared one side of the debate the winner. It took the claims of that one side and enshrined them in a “constitutional right”-- that is to say, that side’s view became irrevocably fixed in law. Finally, the Court demonized the pro-life side, claiming that laws against abortion had never been passed in goodwill-- that is, for the protection of nascent human beings-- but had always been merely a tool for men to oppress women.

Since 1973, pro-lifers have worked themselves to the bone trying to revive a civic dialogue that was crushed by the Supreme Court, despite the most unfavorable conditions. The media continues to report, mistakenly, that Roe made abortion legal through the first trimester only. Abortions are never shown on television and always referred to euphemistically. Major institutions -- law schools, universities, professional associations -- regularly “screen out” pro-life colleagues. Rejection of the pro-life view is mandatory for advancement in most circles of U.S. society, including a major political party.

The civic reality in this country is that constructive public discussion of abortion was eliminated in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

One would expect a President to address himself to this reality and take pains to change it. Instead, Obama has made it perfectly clear that he favors the status quo and will appoint only Supreme Court justices who uphold it.

It’s hard to know what is more absurd and ridiculous -- a President who preaches “dialogue” over abortion while being firmly committed to the elimination of constructive civic dialogue, or a Catholic university which smiles with self-satisfaction at hearing his message -- and which seems incapable of detecting and explaining the fallacies in it.

Another truism about dialogue is that you can’t dialogue if you don’t grasp what the other person is saying. Did you ever have what you thought was a discussion with someone, only to discover, by some chance comment he makes near the end, that he never heard you all along?

Obama’s Notre Dame speech was like that as well. Near the end, after declaring (quite falsely) that all faith implies doubt, Obama said, “if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together ... It is, of course, the Golden Rule -- the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated.” He then summarized the history of the Civil Rights movement, saying that it was an application of this rule, and he congratulated it for realizing at last, “the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children.”

Huh... come again? Weren’t we supposed to be “dialoguing” over abortion, and sensitive to the views of others? But as those pro-lifers see it, the unborn are included among “God’s children,” and the Golden Rule implies it is wrong to procure an abortion.

The President spoke as if he was oblivious to all that and had never really grasped what pro-life people are saying.

He is -- and he hasn’t.

Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, VA. In May he was a visiting professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.