Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Sunday, February 17, 2002


Well, I have been "ranted at" by Ben Kepple, who takes issue with my interpretation of his arguments on abortion, especially with respect to the "establishment clause". Mr. Kepple is kind enough to offer, in great detail, his response (and call me Dr., something only my mother does), but the kindness ends there. I will respond to his objections right now. If this doesn't interest you, sorry!
First, a clarification; I did say that I disagree with Mr Kepple, but I also admire his utter faith (in the secular sense) in his correctness. Few people are able to see with such utter clarity. Now, we can argue all day about what the establishment clause of the First Amendment does, but what it clearly does not do is allow for any one religious viewpoint to be taken on by the state, or the several sovereign states. This is quite clearly prohibited (it's the very first rule, dammit!!). Let's have some fun with the establishment clause, and while we are at it, examine the wonderful world of strawman arguments. Here is what Mr. Kepple says.
While many people -- presumably Dr Orwin is one of them -- like to believe that the Establishment Clause frees them from having to deal with any aspect of religion in public life, that is not the case. The only thing it does is prevent one particular religious view from becoming, well, established. For example, if a public high school were to offer a course on religion, it could not present the United Methodists' View of the World as Holy Writ. It would have to deal with that and other religions without offering the State's backing for any one of them.
You will note that this has absolutely nothing to do with my point. My point, as was crystal clear, was that the opposition to abortion is related to a specific religious dogma, that human life begins at conception. If the state were to adopt this viewpoint, it would be establishing a religious viewpoint. This is quite clearly distinct from other laws against robbery, murder, etc, which are based mainly (I'm no legal scholar) in English common law, although they do match the "Judeo-Christian ethic." In any event, Mr. Kepple has now created, out of whole cloth, a convenient argument to attack, and he does.
That said, the Establishment Clause does not forbid lawmakers from doing their jobs. We make laws all the time based on religious beliefs, but the laws are not religious in nature. Now, if a law was introduced into Congress declaring that the Southern Baptist Church was the official state religion, and that all faith-based charitable funds would go to Southern Baptist groups, that would violate the Establishment Clause. Making decisions about matters of morality, about good and evil, and about natural law deal with human behaviour and not religious belief, even if there is a religious sentiment or belief behind them. After all, our laws have declared that embezzlement is wrong, jaywalking is wrong, murder is wrong, and rape is wrong. It is the proper role of the State to thus determine whether abortion is right or wrong.
Please note that Mr. Kepple is arguing with himself at this point, as it has nothing to do with my point. I never claimed that law wasn't based on morality, but I do not make the mistake of equating morality with Christian theology. The laws we make, as I mentioned above, are not based on religious morality, although the arguments used to support them often do used religion. The laws are made for the common good. To make a far too obvious point, a society that did not outlaw murder would not last, regardless of its religion or its morality.
I will give Mr. Kepple credit for his understanding of the workings of the judicial system, and his explanation of what reversal of Roe v. Wade would do is accurate, although simplistic. It leaves out completely the very real and tangible social upheaval that would result as some states outlawed abortion, and others didn't. That said, I am really not interested in arguing that point, as it is not, and never was, the thrust of my post.
We now come to my favorite part of the "rant," where Mr. Kepple tells us that the question of when life begins, which has vexed other, lesser philosophers, lawmakers, theologians and scientists since time immemorial, is actually obvious!
I also don't see how the Roman Church's position is debatable when it comes to life beginning at conception. We know it does; anyone can see that. The cells start dividing right off the bat. The foetus doesn't just pop into existence; it grows and changes and evolves, if you will, over time. This process starts at conception. Let's be clear. The question we're debating is when it is acceptable to extinguish that life. I argue doing that is never acceptable for any reason. If you don't agree with me, fine, but let's not claim an objective truth falls into the realm of religious belief.
I have in fact posted before on this subject, in the context of the cloning debate, but to summarize, the biology of the situation simply doesn't support Mr. Kepple's argument. The development from fertilized egg to human being is not a straight line, and a number of very difficult hurdles are present along the way. These include transit down the fallopian tube, implantation in the uterine wall, and many, many developmental checkpoints during embryonic growth. At any point in this pathway, a random event, or a problem in development due to genetic malformation, may result in abortion of the fetus. Does this mean that it was never alive? I don't know. If we accept the R.C. premise, however, we ought to be bending our wills toward saving those millions of poor "souls" that perish cruelly due to the vagaries of Mother Nature. I think, however, that the prudent, rational mind can accept that real, tangible human life begins at some point beyond conception. Just to drive the point home, a single fertilized egg can give rise to two fully formed children. Mr. Kepple confuses being living tissue, as a bit of skin or blood in a petri dish is, with being a live human being, which is something else altogether. As a matter of fact, my personal opinion is that this is a philosophical question, not a scientific one.
This reminds me of an old joke, which goes something like "Catholic Mothers believe their son's life begins at conception, Jewish Mothers believe it begins in Medical School!"
I will plead hyperbole to the charge about the following passage;
As for Dr Orwin's statement that, "We simply cannot make laws based on religious beliefs. That is far more wrong than any given act that we wish to outlaw," I would say the absurdity of such a claim -- think about it -- is so readily apparent it does not need commenting on.
I can only say that I am not perfect, but thank goodness Kepple set me straight!
Fortunately, Mr. Kepple now understands my worldview completely, and can set me straight on that as well.
The first is that he feels my position on abortion is a "perfectly ok perspective to have," even though he strongly disagrees with it. Well, no. I don't think his position is perfectly acceptable at all. I think he's wrong. I'm not going to not speak with him or not have him for coffee because of it, but I don't think he's right. So it should go with mine. Either I am right or I am wrong. That's it. To do otherwise makes one a moral relativist.
Mr. Kepple totally misunderstands not only my position, but also the discussion we are having. This is a public policy debate, and we must be able to enter that debate without the idea that it is not ok to take the other side. This is not the same as thinking that the other guy is right, or even that he might be. Perhaps I was unclear. By the way, although "moral relativist" is a particularly common slander in these web parts, I will respond. It does not make one a moral relativist to believe that nuanced, coherent arguments can be made on two sides of an issue. It doesn't make one a moral relativist to believe that this particular issue is not as black or white as Mr. Kepple would like. It is, in fact, the mark of poor critical thinking that makes one shout "moral relativist!" at anyone who disagrees with you. I simply believe that it is ok for someone to believe that abortion is wrong, while I happen to believe that it is not always wrong. Other things are always wrong, and other things are always right. There are far too many examples to list of each, and I frankly shouldn't have to explain this shit!
Moving on, to the final stanza of the rant, we come to Mr. Kepple's response to this little number;
"Quick notes; the web is great for getting diverse opinions, but you can bank on a couple of things. 1). People will be uninformed about a lot of what they write about, and 2). That will not stop them from writing! Now, a blog is supposed to be mainly one's own opinion (IMO is a given for just about any post), so it is a given that it should be taken as such. What is not always clear is what that opinion is based on. The four things that will always come up in any blog eventually, IMO, are in no particular order politics, religion, abortion and evolution."


Am I to assume from this that I am being lectured on how the world works? That's just insulting. And, quite frankly, I find it appalling -- given the quality of this man's argument -- that he would have the gall to make such an arrogant statement about the work of any other blogger.

Actually, Mr. Kepple, I was making an observation about the world of blogging, one that you (and I) have quite clearly proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. I had much more respect for your argument before your response.



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