Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Liberty, Abortion and the "Salamanca Declaration"

Warning: this article may offend some readers. 
(Not much pseph in it either; a little bit in the Emily's Voice section mainly.)

It has been, for the most part, an unedifying fortnight in Tasmanian public debate, and I am not about to make it better.  I generally dislike writing about abortion-related issues at all, because there are too many people who appear to believe that being emotional on behalf of "unborn babies" trumps not only every opposing philosophical argument, but also the most basic responsibility of understanding the existing legislative situation and understanding what changes are actually being proposed.  Admittedly, understanding the existing legislative situation has been too much for not just ranting objectors, but for many doctors as well, and that is exactly one of the reasons why the Lower House has attempted to change it.

Abortion Law Reform: The Vote

Finally late last night, abortion law reform was passed 13-11 by the House of Assembly and is off to the Legislative Council.  The bill that was passed has the following key features:

* Abortion becomes a matter between a woman and her (singular) doctor up to 16 weeks of gestation.

* Beyond 16 weeks, the existing requirement to obtain approval of two doctors who consider "that the continuation of the pregnancy would involve greater risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman than if the pregnancy were terminated" is maintained, but it is specified that doctors are obliged to "have regard to the woman's current and future physical, psychological, economic and social circumstances" in making that decision.  In the previous framework there was no direction on what doctors were to take into account.

* Departure from the legal framework becomes primarily a matter of professional rather than criminal sanctions for doctors, while penalties for women who undergo illegal abortions are removed.  Abortion is also covered by its own legislation rather than just the Criminal Code. 

* "Access zones" of 150 m radius are created around abortion clinics, in which harassment, obstruction and public protest (all related to terminations) are disallowed.  

* Conscientious objection provisions are stated for practitioners, with some limits including cases where a woman is at risk of death or serious injury if a termination is not performed.

For more information you can see the draft discussion paper here and the bill in the form that passed Second Reading (following which a few minor amendments were made) here.

The commonest of many misconceptions was that the bill was designed to allow for late-term abortions for the first time.  Here's an example from an advertisement:

Wrong wrong wrong, Margaret Tighe! Abortion up til birth was already allowed here in certain cases; what is changing is the conditions, and not so greatly so.

The bill was supposedly a conscience vote for all parties but in the end the vote breakdown was identical to that on same-sex marriage - all the Liberals and speaker Michael Polley on one side, all the Greens and the remaining nine Labor MHAs on the other.  However disagreements between Labor MHAs seem to have forced the change in the cutoff point for single-doctor approval down from the original 24 weeks (as in Victoria) to the final 16 weeks. As the vast majority of abortions occur before that stage, and as abortion between 16 and 24 weeks is still allowed (just more difficult to obtain permission for) the impact of this change was not enormous, but the reduction to 16 weeks rather than, say, 20 or 22, seemed to be based more on numbers on the floor and lobbying from opponents than evidence concerning viability, complexity of procedure or similar. In the committee stage Rebecca White asked Michelle O'Byrne a question about why 16 weeks was used as a cutoff rather than 20, and O'Byrne produced a very long reply that, given the numbers on the floor, could have been effectively culled down to something like "'cause Brenton says".

Overall my impression is that "conscience votes" on these sorts of issues are not working very well in the current environment.  There have been some exceptions, eg on same-sex adoption on which the Liberals split (effectively 5-5) but I have a general sense that the relative closeness of numbers in the parliament is creating political imperatives that are stopping some of the Liberals from voting as they otherwise might.  The more progressive Liberals on the issue basically said they were more or less supportive of the bill then scuttled back to vote against it (not even choosing to vote for the second reading then advance their issues in committee) on the basis of process and other negotiable or amendable concerns.  Jeremy Rockliff says he will get serious about abortion reform in government, but if the Liberals have a sizeable majority and he can't bring his colleagues with him, it won't help.  Some Liberals also seemed quite keen to grab the pro-choice mantle without realising that confining a pro-choice attitude to the first trimester is better than nothing, but doesn't really qualify.

I don't think the Speaker's form in breaking ranks on the Labor side says too much more in favour of the institution of the conscience vote either, since I strongly believe that on both this and same-sex marriage, he has been following not specifically his "conscience", but rather his religion.   But that is the main function that the institution of the "conscience vote" serves in Australian politics - as a licence for often religious illiberalism on matters that should ideally be none of the parliament's business, by which too many politicians use their "conscience" to attempt to deprive us of the ability to use ours. 

I did not hear the full parliamentary debate, and I may have detailed comments on polling-related matters explored in it at a later date.  In what I did hear, there were, as usual, attempts by opponents of the bill to claim that the numbers of submissions to government or signatures on petitions were reliable indicators of public opinion. As I have pointed out on a wide range of issues now, submissions processes and petitions are not polls and must not be treated as such.  They measure only the size and degree of organisation of the most polarised views in any given debate, and not what the population by and large thinks (which in matters of individual freedom should often be irrelevant anyway.) Indeed, one of the arguments made against the present reforms by some objectors - the limited consultation period - is also an argument against taking the numbers of signatures for the two sides seriously, since signatures were still pouring in to both e-petitions at the time.

Emily's Voice - But What Were Her Questions?

One recent Tasmanian "poll" that did get a few runs in the debate was the Emily's Voice commissioned Galaxy poll reported on the Emily's Voice website here.  These are the claimed results:

The February poll of 300 respondents, aged 16-49 shows Tasmanians are opposed (73%) to late-term abortions (after 20 weeks), when the child has mild disabilities (59%), for the purposes of sex selection (92%), when continuing a pregnancy would cause financial hardship (66%), affect the mother’s career (79%), or when parents feel they have enough children (63%).

While many Tasmanians are generally supportive of access to abortion, with 16-24-year-olds least supportive at just 50%, the only specific circumstance in which the majority of respondents actually supported abortion was when the child had severe disabilities (72%). 

The problem here is not so much the small sample size (the margin of error for 300 respondents for a 50% result is 5.7%, or for a 75% result it's 4.9%), but that we do not know how the questions were phrased including any preamble read to respondents.  Therefore, we don't know whether or not this was what I call a skew-poll (a poll in which the design of the poll is likely to have distorted the result). Most commissioned polls brandished by activist groups are skew-polls of one sort or another, and anyone who wasn't aborted yesterday should by now have noticed that groups that want to trot out polling that apparently supports their views so often seem to be able to find it somewhere.  A poll commissioned by a strident activist group, without the full questions and results being published verbatim, needs to be treated with extreme caution.

Galaxy has some known form for being willing to conduct skew-polls on behalf of clients (as do, I add, quite a lot of otherwise good pollsters).  To show that I don't only rip into skew-polls commissioned on behalf of groups pushing ideas I'm opposed to, here's an old Pollytics thread (last 11 comments are missing including the tail end of the debate) where I point out that a Galaxy poll commissioned by a same-sex marriage group was a blatant skew-poll, despite the otherwise good record of polls available on that issue.  Galaxy has even come up with some pretty odd wording for surveys not commissioned by groups with axes to grind - for instance their wording of questions on AWU late last year.

Emily's Voice have had every opportunity to put the full details of their poll up on their website so that commentators can examine their survey design.  They haven't done so. Why not? 

Thou Shalt Not Take The Name Of Salamanca In Vain!

Religion of course is never far away in debates about euthanasia, same-sex marriage or abortion, and last week we saw nineteen prominent church figures issue something they both unoriginally and provocatively called the "Salamanca Declaration" (not to be confused with the 1994 statement on special needs education or other documents bearing the same name.)  I say provocatively because Hobart's Salamanca Place is the location of a regular Saturday market, many of the stallholders and frequenters of which are secular or "spiritualist" left-wingers who may have found the declaration and the co-opting of said place in its name a tad offensive.  (That's not to say there has never been any overtly religious presence, as can be testified by those who remember the Speakers Corner days of Walter "TURN TO CLIST OR YE WILL BURN IN HELLLLLL!" Gadziel.) Anyway the Declaration, here available in expanded form, is a statement against voluntary euthanasia, against same-sex marriage, against abortion (with no circumstances stated as acceptable) and in favour of free speech ... of a sort.

Wasting Liberty On Supporting Attacks On Liberty

The expanded "Liberty" section refers to:

"the right to worship God individually and in a faith community [..] freedom of conscience, and freedom to speak, gather, worship and generally act in accordance with the beliefs of their faith community. [..] freedom to publish, express, or proclaim their views in order to help shape our democracy."

It is not quite clear what this section refers to, although some Christian groups did object to certain  aspects of the Anti-Discrimination amendments passed through the House of Assembly late last year and still buried well down the pile in the Legislative Council's massive backlog.  (For my criticism of those changes see here and here).  While I would certainly agree that certain aspects of the Anti-Discrimination changes restrict foundational liberties, I am not sure what the declarers are banging on about when they write:

"The phrase, "The separation of Church and State" is frequently used to justify dismissal of church criticism of public policy proposals. This phrase was originally understood to mean that the State had no jurisdiction over matters of religious belief or practice, but is now often misapplied to challenge the legitimate rights of believers to exercise their beliefs through full participation in political processes."

In general, those who object to the churches sticking their noses into politics are not doing so because they think the churches should be banned from doing so.  It seems the declarers are employing that melodramatic old canard of treating all dismissal of their opinions as a dismissal of their liberty to express them.  Even saying "I think the churches should shut up about (issue X)" is not denying their right to speak on it, it is just suggesting it would be more appropriate if they chose not to exercise that right.  Saying "I think the churches should be banned from speaking on issue X" would be a different matter - but hardly anybody says that.

The other problem here is that while the church leaders assert their right to express their own beliefs, they seem completely insensitive to the illiberal nature of those beliefs, and hence to their inconsistency in advocating liberty for themselves while advocating its denial on other issues for those who do not agree with them.   If we take this issue by issue through the declaration's three main concerns -

* Euthanasia - the declaration refers to the "right to life" but fails to consider that liberty means not only the right to life but also the right to sanely and reasonably choose to stop living or to be assisted to stop living.  The "right" to anything is not the same as being coerced to have that thing even if you do not want it.  Subject to appropriate safeguards against too-hasty decisions to end one's own life, the position of the declarers is fundamentally illiberal.

* Same-sex marriage - While it is sometimes argued that same-sex marriage isn't a matter of liberty because it is all about government recognition, bans on same-sex marriage do at least affect the economic liberties of marriage celebrants, and indeed ultimately the economic liberty of tourism providers and all others who would benefit from government recognition of same-sex marriage.  Additionally, given that governments do confer benefits based on relationship recognition, to allow those benefits to be awarded through a mixed-sex marriage ceremony while denying a same-sex marriage ceremony the same rights fails to maximise liberty.  (There are much stronger arguments in favour of allowing same-sex marriage than those purely focused on individual liberty, but here I am concerned just with demonstrating that the Salamanca Declarers' support for liberty is inconsistent.)

* Abortion - This is the trickiest of the three and there are some who maintain that abortion violates the liberty of an unborn human life and is hence tantamount to murder.  I, for one, believe that that position is simplistic in the extreme and therefore nonsense. I believe this for two reasons.  The first is that liberty is not something that has an objective status as following from some logical basis that forces us to extend it to all or even any thin-end-of-the-wedge cases. The assignment of liberty to all who are born (to a reduced extent in the case of children, although not one that stops them attending political rallies) is a result of social consensus between holders of a range of views.

The general consensus at the moment does not (for instance) grant equal liberty to "sentient" animals as to humans, although there are some who consider this to be simply arbitrary and rampant "speciesism" (to which a possible reply is "look Oscar the Orca, we'll look after our species, and you guys can look after yours").  If we decide that liberty pertains to all humans who have been born and not those who haven't, even if the line being drawn is arguably arbitrary when debating a viable fetus vs a baby born prematurely at the same stage, then there isn't any valid argument against drawing such a line.  (If anyone requests me to get into how this relates to drawing lines that include some living humans and not others - eg racist or sexist ones - I can do that in comments.)

The second is that liberty, or the "right to life", isn't unconditional anyway.   Suppose that a mentally deranged person (whose insanity was no fault of his own) announces that he is going to take a woman hostage on and off for several months and injure, but probably not kill, her.  The woman objects and the police are called.  What will happen here will be that the deranged person will be asked to release his hostage, if he resists the police will attempt to arrest him, and if he resists arrest and insists on taking the hostage anyway, and there is absolutely no other way around it, he's very likely going to eventually be shot dead.  The right to life does not entail the right to cause significant injury to another person, and that applies even if the condition causing the injurer to do so is no fault of their own.  Situations that are tantamount to the impact of an undesired pregnancy on the woman carrying it, as applied to normal "right to life" discussions, are so peculiar and artificial that the concept is just not normally applicable to them.

The standard counter-argument (and see the paragraph at the bottom of this article) is that a woman consents to carrying a child if she allows herself to avoidably become pregnant (or even if she doesn't allow it and it happens anyway, if your name is Todd Akin).  However, many women who become pregnant do so either while not aiming to do so or while attempting to actively avoid doing so by pretty much any practical available means other than destroying their own sex lives.   Others may initially think it is a good idea to have a child then later decide otherwise if their circumstances irreversibly and unexpectedly change.  The consent argument only applies if there is effectively continual consent, and when there is continual consent then there is nothing to debate.  

Ultimately, the anti-abortion case restricts the liberty of women, and does so on the basis of claims about the liberty or rights of the unborn that are disputable or problematic at best.  While the Salamanca Declarers may think that banning women from having legal abortions in most cases and bringing back the proverbial coathanger brigade is a mark of a civilised society, I think the mark of a civilised society is not getting caught in simplistic philosophical traps, and especially not doing so on account of decidedly unmodern religious beliefs expressed in un"civilised" texts. 

The Salamanca Declarers, in common with far too many (but by no means all) western Christians, seem to think that "liberty" is some kind of part-time philosophical mistress who they can have a flirty no-commitment ideological fling with whenever they just want to use her for their own satisfaction.  The rest of the time they'll mistreat, criticise, abuse and ignore her without a second thought for her feelings, eager to keep her in her place lest she interfere with their existing  (and amusingly, same-sex) philosophical marriage to Jesus/God.  Yet they not only expect she will run to their side whenever they need her, they insist on it.  Sorry boys (and yes, every one of the original 18 Charter Signatories to this statement supporting limits on female reproductive rights was male!) but liberty is not that kind of girl. 

Does this look like an easy date to you? (Image credit)
School's Out!
Another aspect of the debate that has attracted attention has been the presence of lots of schoolchildren dressed in uniform from probably taxpayer-funded Christian schools at two anti-abortion rallies.  Now, I have no problem with the idea that sometimes children have strong ideas about social and political issues and want to express them, nor really with the idea that they should express them (and if they stuff it up, be criticised like anyone else, and learn from their mistakes).

After all, I well remember my own form in this regard, whether it was arguing with the preacher at my cousin's baptism when I was four, writing vivid eco-fantasies in which Harry Holgate was bombarded by crack squadrons of orange-bellied parrots at ten, or declining my Bicentennial Medallion in protest about Indigenous issues (or something) at sixteen.  Think I was let out of my upmarket left-leaning private school to go to the odd rally with the Greens candidate for Nelson, too.

But there is a point where the view that the odd precociously opinionated teenage nuisance is having their genuine say, unprompted by their parents or teachers, can give way to a fair degree of cynicism.  For me, that point comes when you have young children in school uniform from the same school in large numbers protesting during school hours.  A lot of children will do almost anything to get out of the classroom, or even in some cases the school grounds.  Some of them will even play in chess tournaments, even if they actually don't much like chess and do not know the rules!  Children are as capable of cynical responses to incentives as anyone else.  And again, I had some form on this one too ...

... at the age of seven I recited the Lord's Prayer in front of my class in state primary school in Queensland, where scripture was compulsory.  I did this although I was an atheist, and did not endorse one word of what I was saying, though I don't believe I was generally unusually dishonest at that age.  I did it because the scripture teacher offered a reward for the first person in the class who could correctly recite the Lord's Prayer.  The reward was a writing pad in the shape of a frog, an item so fantastically awesome and useful that I have not been able to find its like via Google Search (I may still have the odd page from it somewhere.)

Nick's Bizarre Adventures In Free Speech

One of the more unusual involvements in the debate came from Greens Leader Nick McKim, though it is not yet clear to me whether any of his colleagues were having a bar of it.  When the initial wording of the "access zones" legislation was raised, McKim raised concerns that the inclusion of the word "protest" in the forms of banned conduct - even though those words specifically related to abortion-related protests within 150 m of clinics - represented a threat to free speech:

According to the ABC:

"Greens leader Nick McKim is concerned about the move to outlaw protests near abortion clinics, saying it will significantly curtail freedom of speech. 

Nick McKim says it is draconian. 

"I'm appalled at some of the things we see from around the world about how anti-abortion advocates go about intimidating women who come in for abortions, it's unconscionable and I'm appalled by it," he said.

"But we also need to take into account the democratic rights that many Tasmanians and Australians have died for in wars to protect.""

Nick was another one staging a sporadic flirtation with liberty as he mounted a strange defence of the supposed right of anti-abortionists to protest specifically near an abortion clinic, so long as they didn't harass anyone.  He was ignoring that the specific purpose of holding even "peaceful" anti-abortion protests near clinics is typically to harass and shame women going to those clinics.  Anti-abortionists can protest pretty much anywhere else they like, so their free speech is not significantly curtailed by access zone bans.  So it was quite odd to me that the Greens leader took this stance when, along with all his colleagues, he had last year waved through genuinely draconian anti-discrimination amendments that would make it illegal to ridicule or offend someone on behalf of their political opinions - even if they utterly deserved it - without exemptions - anywhere! 

Now I am really not sure what this was all about.  I do wonder if McKim felt wedged into standing up for anti-abortion protest rights out of a view that to not do so would result in him being seen as inconsistent.  After all, the Greens frequently and incorrectly support the supposed right of anti-logging protestors to protest more or less wherever they like, even if it is illegal and avoidably disruptive to industry, and even though alternative legal means of protest are available.  But anyway, it all ended with a face-saving whimper - an amendment to clarify that supposed "protests" invisible and inaudible to the public (like an anti-abortion poster inside somebody's house) would not be affected. 

Have We Reached The Bottom of the Barrel Yet?

I think so, finally.  Of all the nonsense on display this fortnight there is one example that I think takes the cake (and eats it too), and the absolute winner is rally organiser Gaye James:

``I strongly believe that this is not just a woman's decision... every man has the right to say that's my child and I want that child,'' she said.

``Don't have sex if you don't expect to fall pregnant.''

So, because pregnancy is one of the possible consequences of sex and a man might want the child, a woman can be made to go through a pregnancy on account of his desires.

But it's also possible that pregnancy might occur and a woman might not want a child, yet James doesn't consider it acceptable that the man might then have to go through having his prospective offspring aborted, something that does not impact upon him physically.

So of the two possible outcomes in the case where a woman falls pregnant against her will but the man wants the child, James asserts rights for the party that is not physically affected by the outcome, over the party that is - not just in the terms of the rights of the putative child but in terms of the rights to own the child of the prospective father.

Every man does indeed have the right to merely say "that's my child and I want that child".

And every woman has the right to reply "then carry it yourself".


Note re comments (if there are any): any comments more than twice as ranty as the article itself will probably be rejected, especially anything SHOUTY.  Rational debate welcome.


PS (19 April):  The Institute of Public Affairs has now weighed in with claims that the access zone provisions threaten free speech.  I am well aware that many of my more left-wing readers (and a few of the right-wing ones too) will dismiss whatever the IPA says out of hand, but given that I recently agreed with them about a different free speech issue, and given that this article is about the L-word, I thought I'd just say why I don't agree with them on this.

Frankly their press release isn't exactly long on substantiation, but their main argument is that "singling out particular premises for special treatment undermines equality before the law."  They don't say whose equality.  They go on to say "The Tasmanian government should not ban protests, whether they occur outside an abortion clinic or a timber mill."

That's a rather clumsy wording for a free market think-tank to employ, since I would assume they would actually trenchantly oppose protests occurring outside a timber mill if those protests occurred on private property and the protestors were trespassing, as is frequently the case.  That being said there are many legitimate reasons to prevent protests on public land.  I am sure the IPA would agree with me that given that there are state-owned forests (something which they may for all I know oppose) then an entity like Forestry Tasmania should be allowed to harvest them, and it is not a threat to free speech to ban anti-logging protestors from protesting against logging in those coupes at the time they are being logged.  They can always protest somewhere else or at some other time.

It is also not an unreasonable curtailment of liberty to bar people from protesting in a given area of public land surrounding the scene of a visit by an overseas leader who is a high security risk, if allowing protests within the area would greatly increase the cost of securing it and the same protests could easily be staged outside the immediate area.  And, since the IPA mentions sporting venues, it is not an unreasonable curtailment of liberty to ban ethnically-motivated political protests outside sporting venues featuring teams of a rival ethnicity, if there is a reasonable fear that allowing the protests to be there will result in violent clashes between the two groups that waste police resources.

I could give many other examples.  In the case of abortion, the problem is that it is possible to mount a silent anti-abortion protest outside a clinic without directly engaging in anything defined by existing laws as intimidation, harassment or obstruction, but with such a protest nonetheless alarming, creeping out, stigmatising or shaming those who enter.  It's not generally an accepted liberty to run down the street calling random people murderers to their face, but the implications of such protests are exactly that.

There are, thus, behaviours that are "unacceptable" that are not directly controlled under existing laws, unless you take the circular position that since these protests are not any kind of already accepted-as-such and banned form of unacceptability, they must then be acceptable.

I would be interested to know whether Simon Breheny, who wrote the piece, thinks that American laws limiting protests outside military funerals, and aimed primarily at the Westboro Baptist Church, are also unacceptable curtailments of individual liberty.  In practice, the effect of such laws has had little or no bearing on the WBC's ability to spew the same sort of hatred and stupidity that they always do, in a large number of places.  It has just created some zones in which they cannot do it because it is not considered reasonable that they be allowed to upset grieving family members of soldiers in search of cheap publicity and confrontation. 


A response and a reply (21 April):

I've received by email a philosophical response headed as an "open letter" from John Wigg, which should be viewable as a Google Doc here.  It was also copied to the three Tasmanian party leaders, Speaker Michael Polley and Declaration charter signatories Rev. Campbell Markham and Dean Richard Humphrey. 

The second to fifth paragraphs, referring to my opening comment about the emotional nature of the abortion debate, read rather more into my comments about the role of emotion in the debate than was actually stated, and allege a "simplistic" polemic against emotion that I actually didn't conduct.

Among other things, Mr Wigg reasons that since I deny that emotionalism trumps pro-choice philosophical arguments, I therefore assert that pro-choice philosophical arguments trump emotionalism.  This is a false dilemma since a third position is that neither trumps the other.  Moral philosophy doesn't ultimately resolve the divide between those who on a very basic level want abortion to be allowed and those who on a very basic level don't.  My article covers a couple of the major reasons why the "right to life" arguments that attempt to do so do not work. 

My own preference being that people be allowed to do their own thing barring very good reasons why not, I therefore support abortion rights.  But my comment about emotion was more about the often irritating nature of the abortion debate.  It's one in which it can be hard to engage without someone emoting in an urgent and grottily personal way that if you don't agree with them you're not just mistaken, but the kind of person who would strangle a one-year-old to make a snuff film for a dollar.  Mr Wigg's reply was at the other end of the scale to those kinds of responses and I appreciate that.

In his eighth paragraph, Mr Wigg writes "Your own atheist Weltanschauung, I am sure, informs your personal conscience on all issues. "  I'm quite sure it doesn't, and the reason for this is that atheism isn't a Weltanschauung (loose translation: comprehensive worldview) but rather a summary heading for a very wide range of world views and beliefs that share only that those holding them don't believe in God.  Atheists are extremely diverse in their approaches to politics, ethics and matters of personal conscience, and I reject attempts (including by certain atheists!) to unite them under a single political philosophy.

Mr Wigg also asks regarding my comment about religion-vs-conscience in the case of Michael Polley, "May we not therefore allow Mr Polley the possibility that he maintains his adherence to the faith of Rome as a matter of personal, reasoned conviction and his own free volition?"  That's a contradiction in terms in my view, and this goes to the general absurdity of the very widespread belief among Christians that people choose what they think and can hence "decide" to believe or not believe in God.  If personal, reasoned conviction causes someone to think X is true, then I don't believe they have the "free volition" to suddenly decide despite that that it isn't.  Cutting out the "free volition" bit, we can allow any possibility that hasn't been debunked, but when the "conscience votes" of politicians so obviously align with their religious views (of which some Liberals, at least, were also guilty) then this is merely swapping one kind of party solidarity for another.  When a politician decides it is unconscionable for them to impose their religion's moral views on others, then I think we have something more interesting happening.

Following this Mr Wigg goes into the "Judaeo-Christian view of liberty" that "has Man born a slave - prisoner to his own appetites - possessed of a fallen “heart of darkness”".  I think he's quite right to diagnose this whole freedom-in-Christ thing as at the base of the Salamanca Declarers' invoking of liberty.  But just as Nietzsche viewed Christianity as representing the low-water mark in the development of the God-type, I think that freedom-in-Christ is very close to the bottom of the pile in terms of conceptions of liberty.

For starters, if the solution to a supposed non-freedom arising out of "appetites" involves accepting a far more stringent list of shalt-nots and shalts than is necessary to keep the "appetites" from developing to the level of life-consuming addictions, then this is a dismal, out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire conception of liberty in which one doesn't get much of it either way.  That might make sense if those were the facts of the two alternatives, but the real facts are that professed religious belief is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of avoiding supposed imprisonment, and religion seems to have plenty of appetite traps of its own.  The "heart of darkness" stuff overplays the worst in humanity in order to reassure the flock with the belief that they're not missing out on much anyway, and is propped up by the completely silly "original sin" idea that a God even remotely worth taking seriously would punish the whole of humanity because Adam was a naughty boy.  

Of course, no-one is compelled to exercise all possible freedoms nor necessarily the worse for not doing so.  So those finding freedom in Christ would bother me no more than those finding freedom in casinos, were it not for the way in which too many of those claiming to have found the former have wished to control the way in which those having not the slightest interest in, or empirically demonstrable need for, such a limited ideal of "freedom" can make their own choices. 

It is this we see with the Salamanca Declarers.   It is one thing to just have an anaemic and timid conception of one's own capacity for freedom, and some people may be more comfortable like that.  But it is another entirely to then seek to impose it by force of law on everyone else, and a matter of the grossest hypocrisy to do so while complaining about threats to the "liberty" to parade one's own beliefs.  If this is really the best the "Judaeo-Christian view of liberty" can do for itself then it is really way past its philosophical bedtime.  However, I'm sure there are plenty of "liberal theologians" out there who believe it can do better than that - starting by ditching the attempts to control the lives of unbelievers.

Mr Wigg ends with some fun stuff (fun for me anyway!) about Nietzsche, the Will to Power, and "a certain rampant, progressive “revaluation of all values”" supposedly underway in Tasmania.  Try as I might to imagine Nick McKim as Frothy Fritz, Lara Giddings as Lou Andreas-Salomé, and Brian Wightman as Peter Gast (with Rene Hidding as Richard Wagner), it isn't quite working for me!  

Nietzsche would have echoed the critique of Max Stirner before him, that at base, the ethical precepts of today's left "progressive" movement are not so different from those of Christianity.  Rights movements for hitherto discriminated minorities, protection for women facing social stigma, and supporting the rights of those who are suffering to choose their own time of dying - none of this is so radically different from supposed Christian sympathy (in practice inconsistently applied) for the vulnerable.  Indeed the most extreme "revaluation" this government has yet attempted - its Anti-Discrimination changes to the fabric of political speech in Tasmania - is motivated, of all things, by the desire to protect victims of "internet bullying". 

I don't think a possibly distilled secular equivalent of a part of Christian doctrine clashing with the conservative inconsistencies in religion's social and political legacies is really what Nietzsche was after.  


Bizarre Comment by Wilkinson (24 April):

Jim Wilkinson MLC has made a serious attempt to compete with Gaye James for the prize for the silliest thing said by anyone even remotely prominent in the debate so far.  In arguing against the current bill, Wilkinson has been quoted as saying:

"It still allows people to have an abortion at 38 to 39 weeks for issues such as economic or social reasons, now that's just not good enough,"

Quite aside from the question of whether a doctor could actually be found or have any reason to perform an abortion at that stage (around the stage of the average birth), a woman can't just have an abortion post 16 weeks under the bill that passed the Lower House simply for "economic or social reasons".  Rather, as already outlined above, economic or social reasons would need to be factors taken into account in determining whether or not there was a greater risk to the "physical or mental health" of the woman involved through continuing with the pregnancy as opposed to ending it at that late stage.  Economic and social reasons are not new pretexts for termination; they are new factors that must be considered by doctors in making their decision about health risks - but any remotely competent doctor who was not strongly opposed to abortion would be considering them, to the extent that they are relevant, in making that decision already.  

So (a) this isn't something the current bill is significantly changing, and (b) it's fearmongering with a non-issue anyway.
Based on his performance on this one, it's just as well Wilkinson is giving up the law if re-elected! 


  1. "I generally dislike writing about abortion-related issues at all, because there are too many people who appear to believe that being emotional on behalf of "unborn babies" trumps not only every opposing philosophical argument, but also the most basic responsibility of understanding the existing legislative situation and understanding what changes are actually being proposed" Since when did you begin disliking discussing things people had illogical, ill-informed opinions on? Have you become more concerned with popularity than expressing your own considered opinions? I ask this in all sincerity as I would be VERY (sorry for shouting) disappointed to discover that this was the case. Regards Spikey

  2. Probably nothing to worry about there Spikey. What I was trying to express there is absolutely specific to the issue of abortion, and is something I've said a number of times in various forums over the years, rather than anything on which my tendencies have changed. In the main article I didn't express it clearly enough to distinguish it from other issues where people are irrationally emotional and I enjoy rubbing their noses in it all the more for it. My response to John Wigg got into what I was getting at a little better there when I wrote:

    "But my comment about emotion was more about the often irritating nature of the abortion debate. It's one in which it can be hard to engage without someone emoting in an urgent and grottily personal way that if you don't agree with them you're not just mistaken, but the kind of person who would strangle a one-year-old to make a snuff film for a dollar. "

    And, while I dislike having to deal with those sorts of responses at all - in which people insist on taking an intellectual difference personally and sometimes do it in a manner I find really unfortunate and irritating - as you may have noticed, it doesn't stop me.