Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Infanticide, Abortion, Conservatives, and Liberals

Infanticide, Abortion, Conservatives, and Liberals

Today some time, my column will appear on This one is about the accusations that have surfaced against Obama, suggesting that he supports infanticide. The basis for the accusations is his "no" vote on a bill in Illinois that would have provided for liability against doctors and hospitals for neglecting or harming premature babies who are born alive after a failed abortion. The column discusses some legitimate reasons for Obama to oppose the law, even if he believes (as he does) that an infant who is born alive after a failed abortion is entitled to the same care as any other infant in the hospital.

In this post, I want to focus on the important principle that arises out of the view (held by most sane people) that once a baby is born, regardless of whether it was wanted or not, it should receive the same care as any other baby. It is generally conservatives who champion legislation (of the sort that the President signed into law, after near-unanimous congressional support, in 2002, entitled the "Born Alive Infants Protection Act"). Yet it is liberals who press for legislation ensuring that all children (and ultimately adults as well) have health insurance that will give them the care they need when they need it. In addition, it is typically liberals who champion maternal access to prenatal care (for women who have no desire or intention to have an abortion). What explains this distinction?

I suspect that a conservative would say the following. The government's proper role is to criminalize and punish violent behavior by one private person against another. Because I (said conservative) do not believe in a right to abortion, I consider abortion to be violent conduct by a provider against an unborn child and wish accordingly to prohibit and punish it. At the present time, the law does not allow me to do that, but I can at least save those babies who manage to survive abortion. Rather than permit a doctor – who does not want to disappoint his abortion patient – to continue what he started in utero, I support laws that would identify this form of infanticide (which happens on the heels of failed abortions) for what it is.

On the other hand, if a woman is pregnant and plans to keep her child, or if a child needs health care, it is the job of the family – the father and mother – to work hard and provide for their children, in the womb and out. The government should not act as a nanny in such cases, where no intervention is necessary. It is unfortunate, of course, if a child is malnourished, but the government does more harm than good if it allows dependencies to develop. Parents who know they must take care of themselves and their children are more likely to develop the skills and work ethic they need to do it. Welfare societies breed dependencies that ultimately and inevitably outpace the ability of the government to support them. In short, the government should protect people against violence (by their parents and others) but need not play the role of parent.

I understand this position but find it somewhat perplexing. The government is far more like a "nanny" when it intervenes in deliberate behavior (saying "no you can't") than when it provides services for the population that consumers want (such as the post office, fire fighting, and health care). In fact, given the high cost of backup emergency care that the U.S. does consider a proper government function, one could easily classify regular health care as an attempt to save taxpayers money in the long term. In any event, the focus on whether or not the government is playing a "nanny" role seems misconceived if what we ultimately care about is encouraging people to "do for themselves." After all, if we really believe that government intervention reduces people's intrinsic motivation to do what they are supposed to do (which it may, but the question is always "by how much?" relative to the costs of nonintervention), then wouldn't prohibitions against abortion tend to reduce the intrinsic motivation of large numbers of pregnant women to take care of themselves and their children? It would seem especially true in the case of pregnancy, where women have the power to do so much harm and so much good simply by deciding what to eat, that the government would not want to create the impression that women and their fetuses are adversaries that must be kept at bay by the criminal law.

Posted by Sherry Colb


Chris said...

"[I]f we really believe that government intervention reduces people's intrinsic motivation to do what they are supposed to do ... then wouldn't prohibitions against abortion tend to reduce the intrinsic motivation of large numbers of pregnant women to take care of themselves and their children?"

A better way to put the worry is that providing services to people may reduce their motivation to provide for themselves. But a prohibition on abortion wouldn't provide services to pregnant women--it would provide protective services to the unborn, who can't defend themselves in any event.

Matt said...

Prof. Colb,

Your FindLaw article on this subject contains a major scholary error that needs revision.

You accuse "right wingers" of hiding the differences between the 2002 Illinois bill and the federal bill.

But you either overlooked (or hid?) the fact that there was also an Illinois bill in 2003, that Obama opposed just as strenuously, and that is indeed identical to the federal bill.

This invalidates the entire premise of your article, and requires a retraction.

-Matt Bowman

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