Aborted Thinking

We all like autonomy, and all concede it has to end somewhere. As I once heard an ethicist quip, my autonomy to swing a stick certainly ends where your nose begins.
08/08/2014 10:57 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2014

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro recently introduced a bill for a national soda tax. Don't worry, this isn't about a soda tax, exactly.

Congresswoman DeLauro introduced her bill. Mark Bittman wrote about it in the New York Times. I shared Mr. Bittman's column via social media, and appended my thanks to Congresswoman DeLauro for being a consistent champion of public health. In response, I found this in my email inbox, via LinkedIN, from a sender whose name I am omitting: "when this jerk off [Katz] wants to tell me what he squats and or what his bodyfat % is then we can start talking about how we should be putting a tax on soda..." I have no idea, by the way, what Congresswoman DeLauro "squats."

In response to that cordial invitation, I wrote one of my blog columns for LinkedIN, and refer those so inclined to it here. But that's not today's topic either. One of the comments in response to that blog, and my opinion that we are fortunate to have Representative DeLauro in our congressional delegation in Connecticut read as follows: "Yeah, are you fortunate to have a representative, who as a matter of public policy is for the killing of innocent little babies in a mother's womb?"

So now, at last, we come to today's topic courtesy of yet another non sequitur.

I will leave Representative DeLauro's position on this matter to the congresswoman. As for mine, I have hazarded the topic of abortion before, and see no reason to do it again. But I think there is a case for taking on the topic of aborted thinking -- the kind informing both of the uncivil, and substantially irrelevant comments above. Because aborted thinking is not limited to those two provocateurs, alas; it is rampant across our culture. It is rampant across the full expanse of ideologies, and the entire political spectrum. Aborted thinking is epidemic, and it is toxic to dialogue and understanding, and thus may be one of the great scourges of modern culture in its own right.

Consider, for instance, that we on the Left do, indeed, argue for abortion rights not because we are "for" abortion, but because we don't believe the government should legislate a woman's control over her own body. We believe that clinical decisions are best left to individual doctor and patient, and we defend each woman's autonomy. Autonomy is at the very heart of the issue.

But let's acknowledge that we are the same crowd that routinely advocates for such things as soda taxes and big soda bans, to which our brothers and sisters on the Right object on the basis of -- you guessed it -- autonomy. As best I can tell, we Lefties are generally too busy rolling our eyes to bother even listening to them. But since we invoke autonomy, too, isn't it possible they have a point?

Those on the Right don't want the government telling us what to have for breakfast. They want... autonomy.

Now, of course, we on the Left have good arguments to rebut the inalienable rights of McDonald's to put toys in Happy Meals, or schools to pass out cupcakes for every birthday. But if we dig down to the bedrock of first principles, we are advocating for autonomy when it suits us, and against it when it doesn't.

Of course, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and our cousins to the Right of us are doing much the same. They invoke autonomy to protest a soda tax, but argue that the government should revoke a woman's autonomy in the case of a pregnancy she never wanted, perhaps even in the aftermath of rape. The argument extends to the heavy hand of government clapped over a doctor's mouth in the case of "gag" rules, precluding even discussion of abortion as an option.

There are sound arguments in defense of this position, perhaps, deriving from concern for the sanctity of life. But it's the same crowd railing against abortion that tends to advocate for capital punishment, and the free flow of guns for use in lethal self-defense. So, is life only sanctified while embryonic? My notably conservative friend Mike Huckabee once noted that there was no good basis anywhere on the political spectrum for policies practiced as if life began at conception, but ended at birth. Amen.

Another argument against abortion is derived, of course, from religious conviction. But here, again, we have a fundamental conflict, and characteristically aborted thinking. The same faction most likely to argue against abortion is most apt to invoke the U.S. Constitution as a basis for civil liberties, defense of the Second Amendment in particular. But the very Constitution being invoked to defend the Second Amendment establishes the separation of church and state (although not in those exact words) as a key plank in our national platform. The Constitution cannot be invoked to advance the Second Amendment, then dismissed with regard to the First, at least not by anyone who cares about making even a little bit of sense.

And that's the point; we don't make much sense, not even when talking to ourselves. This is not about soda taxes, or abortion, or cupcakes, or guns. It's about all of those, and everything else that matters to us -- and our stunning inability to talk to one another about these things with even rudimentary cogency.

Such inconsistencies hint at opportunities to sympathize more with one another if we would only acknowledge them in the first place. Our cultural problem is not disagreement about abortion, but aborted thinking about our disagreements in general. What we have here is not only a failure to communicate, but a failure to think through to logical conclusions.

Autonomy is merely an illustration, one of many principles that matter to us all, Left and Right alike. But both Left and Right invoke autonomy to make our arguments, and dismiss it summarily when used by the other side. One might like to think that as adults with the power to shape our culture, our arguments would have evolved past: "I know you are, but what am I?" But the evidence is much to the contrary.

The result is not just intractable disagreements with one another, but comparably intractable disagreements with ourselves, to which we are blithely inattentive. If we acknowledge and confront these inconsistencies in ourselves, we might find we are less entirely at odds with one another than prevailing patterns suggest. We all like autonomy, and all concede it has to end somewhere. As I once heard an ethicist quip, my autonomy to swing a stick certainly ends where your nose begins. We might productively put our noses together to start sniffing around for the right places to draw our lines.

Were we to bother doing so, we might find those lines lead to a patch of common ground far more hospitable to genuine dialog, and less accommodating of reflexive disdain. Were we to force ourselves past the indulgences of aborted thinking and inconsistency within ourselves, we might find we actually have something to talk about with one another.


David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, and President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He loves his three dogs, but really hates dogma.