How Sincere are Anti-abortionists?

I find this video [hat tip: Francois Tremblay] confusing. Anti-abortion protestors are asked whether abortion should be illegal, and answer in the affirmative. When asked what the punishment should be, however, most say they haven’t thought about it and will not endorse time in prison, or any punishment at all. 

In addition to having a strange conception of what “illegal” means, these people  have something morally very strange going on. At one level they think abortion is murder, yet at another level they clearly see that it’s not. It’s as if they happily see abortion as murder at an abstract level when there is little at stake, but back off once they start to think about the practical consequences of what they propose. They are only being asked about punishment, however, and so there is still nothing at stake. Seems plausible to me that the punishment question puts them in a consequentialist state of mind. 

In one sense, this is heartening for those with liberal values: people aren’t really that willing to impose penalties on women who have abortions. In another sense it’s very worrying: with an appropriately framed policy platform, a political candidate could gain popular support for banning abortion, punishment and all, even if few people actually support punishment. 

The degree to which I favour anarchism just increased by at least .1, though it’s still slightly below .5. A couple more videos like this could well push me over the edge.

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7 Responses

  1. These people are extremely odd!

    Premise 1: Abortion is the killing of an innocent person (a “baby”, even!)

    Premise 2: ???

    Conclusion: Women who have abortions ought not to be punished.

    It’s true that they might just be moving into a consequentialist frame of mind, but I doubt they move there when it comes to assessing the punishment of your typical murderer.

    Videos like this one confirm the worst stereotypes feminists use to criticize those in the pro-life movement, e.g. they they don’t really consider pregnant women to be moral agents, capable of being held responsible for their actions.

  2. I think that for many on the Christian right, things like abortion serve more as moral signals to the community: things should be made illegal less to stop them from happening (’cause they know deep down it’s ineffective) and more to signal to others (and especially children) the type of community that they want to be in. So making abortion nominally illegal but with exemptions in case of medical necessity (and very very lax definitions of medical necessity) is a kind of a stable equilibrium.

    This at least is consistent with the phenomenon you’re trying to explain, I’d think.

  3. Eric: absolutely agree on the moral signals. Not just on the Christian right, either. My mother’s stock defence of drug prohibition is that the government should not make smoking pot seem like an acceptable activity.

    I think that would explain why a lot of people would prefer abortion illegal. I’m not convinced that it can explain protesters who are willing to stand outside an abortion clinic and claim that abortion is the same thing as murder not supporting at least some penalty.

    Does banning abortion really not work? Some women will still have abortions, but less. There are plenty of harmful side effects of prohibition, but these only really affect the woman having the abortion. Nobody cries for murderers who have more accidents on the job because they have to do it in secret…

    These people seem to believe that a blastocyst has a soul, and is therefore a moral patient. If I had their factual beliefs, I’m pretty sure I would want to hold those babykillers to account!

  4. True. My argument applies to the median voter far more than to the protesters.

    Modification: the folks for whom law is a social signal can’t support punishing those currently getting an abortion as it’s currently not illegal and we can’t punish folks for things that aren’t illegal; with a change in law, nobody would get an abortion so there’s no need to think hard about punishment. Passing a law solves everything.

  5. […] endogenous. New issues can be brought to the agenda and voted upon. This is a big problem if, like me, you think that political behaviour is more about signalling what values you hold and what sort of […]

  6. […] it to express moral distaste, even if they don’t really think the activity they wish to ban should be punishable. When someone says ‘there ought to be a law’ they often don’t mean to say […]

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