Monday, December 04, 2006

Fetal Pain and Fantasy Laws

The culture of the Republican Party appears to be particularly unable to legislate in the real world. Instead, they pretend to live in a fantasy world where they have the power to alter reality merely by wishing it were different, then legislating in relationship to that alternate reality. Unfortunately, the problem with passing real legislation geared for a fantasy world is the same as the problem of driving a real car down a fantasy road that exists only in the driver’s imagination. Reality has an unfortunate tendency to be unforgiving to those who ignore it.

Some of their efforts to legislate in a fantasy world concerns their fantasies of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a universe where greenhouse gasses do not contribute to global warming, and one in which prayer in public school will protect our citizens from earthquakes, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks.

With just a few legislating days left in this session of Congress, the Republicans are going to use their last days in control of Congress to again legislate in a fantasy world. They want to push a bill (that has no chance of passing in the Senate) that declares that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks after conception, require doctors to tell this to patients, even though this is widely rejected in the medical community.

Two major groups who looked into this issue concluded that the physical elements necessary for a fetus to feel pain are not present until 26 weeks.

Conservatives respond to this criticism with doctor’s claims before Senate committees (which are not subject to peer review) and by employing ad hominem logical fallacies against the members of these groups.

The ad hominem fallacy is one in which an individual attempts to refute another person’s argument by directing his attention away from the area of dispute and onto some irrelevant matter; specifically, by making claims about the person who makes the argument, rather than the argument itself.

Imagine a trial, where a plaintiff was not able to say a word to advance his case because the lawyer for the defendant argues that the plaintiff wants to win. Imagine somebody making the argument, “The only reason that the plaintiff produced the signed contract where my client promised to pay him $5,000 is because he wants to collect $5,000. Because the plaintiff has a vested interest in winning the case, nothing he says or does in defense of his position should be trusted.”

This is the type of reasoning that these people are providing in criticism of these studies. It is, at least, consistent with what appears to be an overall inability to reason.

The proper way to respond to an argument such as that which was put forward by these two groups, or a person trying to collect $5,000 in court, or anybody who is defending a position that they actually believe in and wants to win requires FIRST proving that there is a flaw in their argument. It requires FIRST finding a false assertion or invalid reasoning. AFTER such a flaw has been found, it becomes legitimate to ask why the individual made that mistake (or performed an intentional act of deception). The answer to that question might be found in the individual’s interest in winning the case. However, this does not change the fact that the first step must always be to prove that there is a mistake to be explained.

These Republican legislators wish to pass laws built on the claim that these two groups made a mistake without taking the morally and logically necessary first step in showing that a mistake has been made.

They are legislating fantasy. And current history shows that when politicians legislate fantasy the country gets significantly poorer, innocent people get hurt, and innocent people get killed.

Their method of operation in this case using the claim that a fetus feels pain at 20 weeks is no different than their claim 4 years ago that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and their claims over the past 20 years that humans are not causing global warming. It is a matter of picking a desired conclusion and ignoring the logic and the evidence that says, “You are wrong. If you base your decisions on your cherry picked evidence you are going to destroy peoples’ lives for no good reason. Do you care?”

The Bush Administration itself sent its own people to stand before the microphones and confuse the weapons of mass destruction issue – playing favorites with the evidence and continuing to make claims long after they had been discredited. The cost has been $300 billion dollars, 20,000 Americans wounded, 3,000 dead, and killed and wounded Iraqis that now number in the hundreds of thousands – not counting the displaced and the hardships imposed on those lucky enough not to get killed or wounded.

Energy companies found people willing to confuse the global warming issue, and paid to get them in front of microphones for the sake of confusing the public and allowing these companies to continue to profit through destroying the lives and property of others. The cost will be trillions to tens of trillions of dollars in damage to real property – for the sake of putting a few additional billions dollars into the pockets of oil executives.

To be fair, we do have reasons for concern. Two hundred years ago, vivisectionists were cutting open live animals, putting them in situations that must have been the most brutal torture, cutting them open so the researcher could see how the organs functioned in a living (and conscious) creature. They justified this in part by claiming that animals could not feel pain. All they ever did was show reflex actions to stimuli – nothing as horrible as actual pain.

Yet, we now know that those animals did feel pain. They were tortured by people who were simply unwilling to accept the reality of the real-world harm they were doing to real-world creatures, and who invented a useful fiction that allowed them to inflict suffering without guilt.

This is a poor argument to be used in defense of the Republican culture pushing the fantasy that underlies this bill, however. The evidence that we use to show that those animals did, in fact, feel pain comes from our increased knowledge of how the body works. It is the same knowledge that those groups used to argue that a fetus does not feel pain until the 26th week.

People who live in a fantasy world, who want to play king in a land where the world works the way they want it to work, where they do not have to pay attention to real-world facts in making their decisions, are perfectly free to do so. Only, they are not entitled to do so in ways that harm other people. This is where the Republican culture of legislating fantasies runs into problems.

Republicans need to get their political act together and start living and legislating in the real world. They are doing real-world harm to real-world people because they insist on rewriting the evidence to fit their policies, rather than rewriting their policies to fit the evidence. Those real-world victims of their fantasy laws have no reason to accept this.


Anonymous said...


According to the article you link to regarding fetal pain, it appears that two groups concluded the fetus feels pain at 20 weeks, and two groups concluded 26 weeks.

I'm not sure it's fair to say that the claim of 20 weeks has been refuted. We'll need a number of additional studies to take place before we can really conclude.

Now, the ridiculousness of making this aspect of scientific inquiry part of our laws (particularly considering that no true conclusions exist yet) is another matter.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The two 20-week citations that I mentioned involved testimony before Congress - which is not on the same level as a peer-reviewed journal article. Indeed, legislators have a habit of inviting people willing to say what the congressperson wants said.

As I wrote in the article, any criticism of these findings needs to take the form of objections to the findings themselves of a quality sufficient to make their way into peer-reviewed journals.