Thursday, October 14, 2004

Kerry, Value-Neutrality, and Abortion

I thought Kerry had an interesting statement during the second presidential debate that reflects a broader problem I often hear in public policy debates involving competing determinations of value. Kerry was asked whether he supports taxpayer-funded abortion. Here's the question and answer:

DEGENHART: Senator Kerry, suppose you are speaking with a voter who believed abortion is murder and the voter asked for reassurance that his or her tax dollars would not go to support abortion, what would you say to that person?
KERRY: I would say to that person exactly what I will say to you right now.
First of all, I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins. I'm a Catholic, raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy. Religion has been a huge part of my life. It helped lead me through a war, leads me today. But I can't take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn't share that article of faith, whether they be agnostic, atheist, Jew, Protestant, whatever. I can't do that. But I can counsel people. I can talk reasonably about life and about responsibility. I can talk to people, as my wife Teresa does, about making other choices, and about abstinence, and about all these other things that we ought to do as a responsible society. But as a president, I have to represent all the people in the nation. And I have to make that judgment. Now, I believe that you can take that position and not be pro- abortion, but you have to afford people their constitutional rights. And that means being smart about allowing people to be fully educated, to know what their options are in life, and making certain that you don't deny a poor person the right to be able to have whatever the constitution affords them if they can't afford it otherwise.

This is an interesting answer, for two reasons.

(1) First, Kerry chose to use the language of value-neutrality that is sometimes offerred as the ideal in a pluralistic, (classically) liberal society. One might directly attack this ideal as an illusion that smuggles in certain values of its own. On the abortion question, for example, one article of faith asserts that fetuses are persons deserving legal protection, while another denies this or is agnostic on the question. Is a philosophy that requires the government, in the name of value-neutrality, to behave as if the latter article of faith is true, really neutral between the propositions?

Even if value-neutrality is possible, however, I am more intrigued by what seems to me to be a convenient inconsistency in the way that Kerry and many value-neutral proponents selectively employ the rationale. As Chris has pointed out, the logic of non-discrimination laws often put them on a collision course with other value systems. California, because of its article of faith that gender inequity is wrong, now requires employers to provide contraception coverage to their employees, regardless of their competing articles of faith. If Congress adopts Kerry's view and passes the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the federal government, based on its article of faith that sexual orientation is not a morally valid ground for distinguishing between empolyees, will intervene into the private decisions of employers whose articles of faith may view sexual orientation as an indication of one's character. And of course, by passing the 13th and 14th amendments, the federal government ended its 70-year toleration of differing articles of faith regarding slavery and endorsed racial equality, eventually even intervening in the private decisions of employers and social clubs on behalf of its egalitarian principles.

Now, my personal predilections would probably fall on the government's side on all three of these articles of faith. But I cannot help but recognize them for what they are: decisions by the government to choose a side in a cultural struggle, and to impose upon the losing side its vision of equality.

When one accepts historic examples of government imposition into private decisions based on racial and gender equity, workers and children's rights, or other progressive visions, or when one endorses proposed interventions such as ENDA, but refuses to embrace other interventions based on the logic of value-neutrality, doesn't neutrality become simply a convenient cover for one of two propositions: either one really holds to a competing value (in this case, the value of reproductive freedom), or one holds to a heirarchy of value importance that mandates intervention in some but not others (in this case, valuing sexual orientation equality in the workplace over a right to be born)?

(2) The other intersting thing about Kerry's answer was his hinting at something like affirmative rights, along the lines that Justice Marshall endorsed in arguing for a constitutional right to federal funds for abortion. He says, breathtakingly, that we must "mak[e] certain that you don't deny a poor person the right to be able to have whatever the constitution affords them." I'm sure he meant only certain fundamental liberty interests that the constitution affords, but this still struck me as a remarkable position. One's freedom of speech, to peaceably assemble, and to practice a religion at times may require an expenditure of funds. The constitutional right to freedom of religion particularly came to my mind. One can imagine a religion, say, one founded by a popular science fiction writer, whose tenets requre the purchasing of various books, tapes, and materials attendance at seminars, workshops, and retreats. This religion could get very expensive.


Blogger Chris said...

Interestingly, Matt--to your second point--he also endorsed a position (i.e., that the government should pay for abortions, at least some of the time) that a) most Americans don't endorse, and b) that the Supreme Court has said (in Harris v. McRae and Maher v. Roe) is not constitutionally required. Either this was a gaffe, or he's not as much of a panderer as people think.

October 14, 2004 at 5:55 PM  
Blogger Matt Peed said...

I thought it was a gaffe, until I did some more research. This is something Kerry really believes in, despite its unpopularity. At least on abortion, you can't accuse him of waffling.

October 16, 2004 at 12:20 AM  
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