THE BLOG
10/08/2005 02:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Latest Innocent Embryo to Protect: Harriet Miers

This blog entry is a chimera. That means it’s really two entries mixed together. As you’ll see, chimeras figure prominently in the argument I am going to make. The first part is about abortion, while the second part is about Harriet Miers.

Re Abortion: The approach to this most personal of political issues has to be personal. I am recently married, very happily, and a pregnancy would be welcome right about now. If there’s an intelligent designer in charge of these things, hey bud, don’t hesitate!

There was an occasion, though, when an old girlfriend of mine chose to have an abortion, and I must say the event haunted me profoundly. Was some metaphysical continuation of life cut short? I cannot say. There’s no use pretending the abortion felt to me like any ordinary medical procedure. I can imagine that opponents of abortion are probably haunted in the same way I was, and I hope admitting that can close the gap between us at least a little bit.

Here is how I came to think about it. Life is full of paths not taken. There were other relationships in my past that perhaps might have been salvageable by some means that was beyond us, and perhaps those would have resulted in children, so each breakup might equally well have cut short a continuation of life to exactly the same degree as the abortion. Just because a new technology is involved, the stakes don’t really get higher. The metaphysics, whatever they are, are still with us either way.

There’s something terribly non-humble about believing that just because we are starting to be able to manipulate biology a bit, we are really in charge of whatever metaphysical events might be going on. It is amazing to me that some religious people place technology on such a high pedestal. If technical education was more common, people would mystify technology less, and this way of thinking would decline.

To be fair to religious people, there’s a constant stream of rhetoric from the sciences that promotes exactly the idea that science is taking over whatever metaphysics there might be. This is a game scientists play to get media attention by being provocative. Every new computer demo from MIT seems to be sold as a form of “Artificial Intelligence” on CNN and many a new gene or observation of activity in the brain is described using terminology associated with religion in the popular press. A robot is said to acquire emotions, while a gene might be described as governing a component of character, and a brain region as housing an aspect of morality, like honesty. These claims could just as well be stated in a more sober and cautious way, and in fact that is how they are usually communicated in the scientific literature. It is urgent that scientists learn to find different ways to get attention, and that people upset by this sort of rhetoric learn to discount it.

From a scientific perspective, embryos themselves don’t adhere to the ideas of the Religious Right. An embryo does not treat itself as having a uniquely destined individual identity. Instead, embryos sometimes combine into chimeras. A chimera is an individual who started out as two distinct embryos in the womb. These embryos happened to bump into each other and merge during the process of development, so the adult has cells containing DNA from different embryo starts in different parts of the body. This can result in interesting patterned variations in skin and hair color, but sometimes there are no obvious outward signs. No one knows how common the condition is in people. It is common in cats, where it’s called being a calico! Any particular embryo might or might not combine with other embryos. That means it isn’t linked with an individual human identity at conception. If there was an Intelligent Designer, it didn’t think of embryos as people.

Moral and religious traditions also don’t seem to treat conceptions as being linked to specific future individuals. For instance, in the Christian tradition, there’s little evidence that Jesus would have agreed with having the police arrest women to prevent abortions. He defended prostitutes from the cruel disciplinarians of his day, and it must be pointed out that in Roman times, prostitutes used herb-induced abortion as a birth control method.

I don’t want to pretend that these are easy ideas. In order to be moral, most people grant a status to other people that amounts to faith that there’s someone in that other head, something beyond just machinery, so there’s usually a metaphysical component to morality. There are plenty of instances where it’s hard to decide where to place such metaphysical faith. Should animals have the same rights as humans? What about vegetative humans? These are decisions that must be left to people close to a given situation, because otherwise we’ll ruin each other’s freedoms by enforcing metaphysical ideas on each other.

There were moments when I truly did not want that old abortion to take place, but I would have been crazy to call the police in to bring my ex’s body into custody in order to force a particular baby into the world. Freedom and life are both rather mysterious and I certainly had no right to tinker with someone else’s freedom. The state was correct in not empowering me to abort someone else’s liberty just because I was distressed.

The rights of embryos are beyond any objective measure, while the rights of a person as understood historically are as demonstrable as anything can be, since people speak for themselves. I can respect someone who acts according to the belief that embryos are people, but such people must recognize that they are acting on faith and not an objective standard.

It is precisely the lack of evidence for personhood that makes embryos so politically appealing to the Religious Right. Embryos can’t speak for themselves. Speaking for a silent surrogate is preferable to speaking for oneself, because everyone is flawed. No one is good enough to be an absolute moral standards bearer. Speak for yourself and you will be attacked for who you are, because people don’t seem to be able to resist ad hominem arguments.

The Right doesn’t play this game alone. Let’s be honest, the Left does it too. That’s why the animal rights movement is so energized. From time to time Martyrs, Spirits, and even Alien Abductors have also played the role of the perfectly pure, mute surrogate.

Which brings us to Harriet Miers.

Harriet Miers has a lot in common with the embryos she will be asked to prefer over real live women if she actually becomes a supreme court justice. She’s a complete unknown, right out of the Dylan song.

President Bush chose a personal crony, but his circle is so tight that his crony isn’t anyone else’s crony, so even the elites of the Right at large feel left out cold. She is Bush’s fetus-like surrogate. She has said nothing substantial and will say nothing substantial during her confirmation hearings. I hate to abuse the damned word Virtual after all it has put me through, but she is Bush’s virtual fetus.

We are likely to lose Roe soon, and then the battle will become legislative. The battle will be to save the USA as a single, functional country. It will not be easy. A few thoughts on how to wage it:

The Bush administration seems to cower critics by engaging, intentionally or not, in “Big Surrealities,” which are higher-tech than old-fashioned Big Lies. The regulation of the private lives of Americans is about to turn on the secret thoughts of a single person no one knows. The only link between this person’s rise to top power and the democratic process is a single politician who is in office at least in part by the graces of the court she is to join. The situation is so circular and weird that it’s almost impossible to keep it in mind. Eventually it starts to feel as though current events can’t possibly be that strange, for nothing could be that strange. That’s when the Big Surreality has started to work its magic.

How to respond to the Big Surreality? All too often the Left takes the bait and tries to discern the most plausible conspiracy theory to make sense of inscrutable events. In the present case, maybe Miers is being set up to not be confirmed, so that a hardliner can sail in once everyone is exhausted by the whole process. Or she has a secret agreement governing her future rulings, which can only be shared at this time with pastors who can influence endlessly gullible Religious Right voters. (The latter plot seems to be the conspiracy actually claimed by the principals in this drama, which makes me doubt that it’s true.)

It’s hard to untangle conspiracy theories and the very mode of thinking drags well-meaning people into an inferior psychological position. There’s no one who has disempowered himself or herself more than a conspiracy theorist. You only add to the sense of surreality by trying to guess what’s going on behind the curtain. That’s why Michael Moore’s films aren’t persuasive enough to cross the Red/Blue divide. If someone is already flummoxed by the Big Surreality, telling them that things are even MORE surreal than they appear only reinforces the initial stupor.

The alternative to falling into the Surreality trap is to be more clear and honest than the competition. Clarity and honesty in the case of abortion mean admitting that there might very well be something to the other side’s morality, that fate and life are beyond all of us, and then hoping that the other side will see that both humility and patriotism require that they not impose their faith on other people.

Call me a crazy idealist, but I have enough faith in the other side to believe they’ll eventually come around, at least enough to keep the country from falling in two. A calico divided against itself cannot stand .