On Physical and Moral Plagues
Nicholas Frankovich has written a very thoughtful essay—provocative in the best sense—building a case for avoiding absolute positions on how to protect the nation against the coronavirus and on how to approach the abortion issue. It’s a fine essay and deserves a respectful response. In my opinion he has made some errors (largely of omission) in treating the first of these issues, and one major error in dealing with the second.
He starts by inviting the reader to make sense of two conflicting images he saw in a photograph online: A metropolitan-looking young woman is holding an American flag and a sign showing an image of a powder-blue face mask with a red slash across it. Her physical appearance suggests that she leans left, but the slashed mask and the flag suggest a rightward tilt. Further complicating the picture are two verbal provocations: the pro-abortion motto, “My body, my choice” at the top of her sign and, at its base, “Trump 2020.” So she’s both prochoice and pro-Trump. Is there anything coherent we pull out of this strange juxtaposition? He speculates that she’s maybe a pro-Trumper after all, but he seems to leave room for other interpretations. Actually, the one that seems more congruent both with the illustration and with his argument throughout his essay is that she’s both pro-choice and pro-Trump—and wrong on both counts. Frankovich aims to take on both a) anti-abortion absolutists who are indifferent about the need for face masks and lockdowns and b) the absolutists on the other side, the pro-abortion feminists who shout, “My body, my choice.” Both sides are guilty of thinking only of their own causes, ignoring the lethal effects on other human beings when their doctrines are put into effect.
Let’s consider the first of the two, the pro-life absolutists. Here his prime example is Donald Trump. But it is far from clear that Trump is an absolutist on abortion. To my knowledge Trump never said he believes that human life is sacred from the moment of conception until natural death, the position of pro-life absolutists. Yet it is true that Trump’s rhetoric sometimes sounded absolutist. I almost fell out of my chair watching his debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016 and hearing him characterize abortion as “ripping the baby out of a mother’s womb.” I had never heard any Republican politician talk like that before. He was also the first Republican president not just to phone it in but to attend and speak in person at the annual March for Life in Washington. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Trump is an absolutist on abortion.
But when it comes to the coronavirus Trump was a compromiser while in office—too much of a compromiser for Frankovich’s taste, especially when it comes to using masks and lockdowns to fight the virus. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” That tweet of Trump in March of 2020 annoys Frankovich; it seems to him not only irresponsible but self-serving: “Efforts to reduce the spread of the virus would depress the economy and thereby harm Trump’s reelection campaign. . . .” That’s no doubt true, but was that the only conceivable motive Trump could have had? What about guarding the country against excessive and unnecessary regulations that damage the economy and make people’s lives miserable? And even if reelection were uppermost in his mind, why did Trump think these regulations would hurt his chances for reelection? Maybe because people hate them! In a democracy, politicians are supposed to pay some attention to public opinion.
The rejoinder is that they should also pay attention to “the science.” But for at least the first three months of the virus in this country, while it was spreading like wildfire, nobody seemed to know what was going on—not even the scientists, and certainly not the politicians and news outlets, the people who are supposed to keep us informed. On January 21, 2020, a week after the first patient arrived here from China, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), declared: “This is not a major threat. . . . This is not something that citizens of the United States should be worried about.” On January 31, when the White House imposed a travel ban from China to stop any more infected arrivals, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Trump of “racism” and “xenophobia,” and introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to stop the ban. Former vice president Joe Biden accused Trump of “hysteria, xenophobia, and fear-mongering.” A Washington Post headline the next day said, “Get a Grippe, America, the Flu Is a Much Bigger Threat.” On February 2, the New York City Health Commissioner said, “The risk to New Yorkers from the Coronavirus is low There is no reason not to take the subway, not to take the bus, not to go out to your favorite restaurant, and certainly not to miss the [Chinese New Year] next Sunday I’m going to be there.” Speaker Pelosi added her own endorsement more than three weeks later, on February 24: “We want to be careful about how we deal with it, but we do want to say to people, ‘Come to Chinatown, here we are come, join us.’” Five days later, Dr. Fauci again: “Right now there is no need to change anything you’re doing.” As late as March 8, Fauci said, “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” He covered himself, though: “That could change.”
If there was confusion and uncertainty about masks in 2020 there was even more when it came to the lockdowns. Masks are a sufferable nuisance, but lockdowns cause real harm to restaurants, stores, schools, to the people who run them, who use them, and work in them. And to the national economy: Because of the lockdowns, between January and April of 2020 employment rates fell by five percent, more than the drop during and after the Great Recession of 2008. In addition, 44 percent of the population experienced a decline in earning and 54 percent a decrease in savings. Long-established businesses closed, many of them never to reopen. Researchers have documented the human costs of the lockdowns: spikes in mental illness, alcoholism and drug abuse, domestic violence, and suicides. We do not know how many people put off doctor’s appointments and surgery during this period, worsening their condition, but there are statistics suggesting that there were significantly more deaths—deaths not caused by the virus itself—than would have occurred during a similar period before the virus arrived.
Here is how Frankovich sums up the reactions to the Covid crisis in America: “Trump and his supporters minimized its seriousness, said their detractors, who, in turn, were accused of exaggerating it. Even if you thought that the call to vigilance and caution was misguided, it was understandable.” Understandable perhaps, but heedless of the damage they caused. Again, it was more than economic damage; it was lethal damage, it cost lives. How could anyone think that this was not going to become “politicized,” especially during a presidential election year? That is what politics is for, at least in a democracy: to locate a crisis, bring it into the open, into the public arena for debate, and see if a resolution can be found.
Frankovich is not opposed to public debate, or to compromise at the end of it. He quotes approvingly a National Review writer who says that “making tradeoffs between lives and other things we value is simply a fact of, well, life.” Indeed, Frankovich might say, “that is my whole point. What I am saying is that activists on both sides of the debates over coronavirus and abortion need to climb down from their absolutist positions and recognize that virtually all benefits entail costs.” He does not cite this example but I’ll use it here because it fits his argument: In March 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a directive that barred nursing homes from refusing to take in Covid patients from nearby hospitals. As a result, between March 25 and May 8, approximately 6,326 Covid-positive patients were admitted to nursing homes throughout the state. We do not know exactly how many vulnerable old people were killed by those transfers, but we do know, thanks to a 2021 report by New York Attorney General Letitia James, that the Governor understated by more than half the number of fatalities resulting from the transfer. By the end of 2020, New York State had one of the highest death tolls in the nation, with more than 12,000 deaths in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Of course, we do not know how many of those deaths could be attributable to the arrival of the infected patients, but it must have been several hundred at the least. Some of Cuomo’s harshest critics have charged him with “killing old people,” but I have seen no evidence that Cuomo intended to kill anybody or make any conscious assumption that old people’s lives are less valuable than young people’s. His intention, he said, was to mitigate what he thought was going to be a tsunami of Covid sufferers pouring into New York hospitals, overwhelming staff and facilities. It was a classic trade-off, in this case a tragically stupid one, but trade-offs do have to be made in crisis situations. As the National Review writer might have said, they are “simply a fact of, well, life.”
But it is just here that we come to what I think is the underlying mistake running through the next part, the abortion part, of Frankovich’s essay: a category mistake.
The term “category mistake” was coined by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle in 1949, in criticizing the philosophy of René Descartes, who had written a famous treatise on mind-body dualism. A category mistake means confusing two very different entities, thinking them to be in the same category. We often talk of people mixing up “apples and oranges,” but at least apples and oranges are both in the same category, fruits. But a category mistake is more radical; it’s like mixing up apples and monkey wrenches. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives other examples of this kind of mistake: “The number two is blue,” “The theory of relativity is eating breakfast.”
I think Frankovich has made a similar error, not as egregious as in those hypotheticals, but far more consequential: He has confused fatal errors with deliberate killing. He poses the question of whether “the coronavirus pandemic [is] like assisted suicide,” and his answer is, “The two issues bear some obvious resemblance.” What is obvious is that in both cases people get dead. But what makes them die is, on the one hand, incompetent planning, and on the other, deliberate intent.
In 2020 Governor Cuomo made what theologians call a prudential judgment, the same kind of judgment an airline pilot has to make when a bird gets sucked into one of the engines and he has to decide whether to return to the airport or try an emergency landing in the river. The wrong judgment will kill hundreds of passengers and himself, but that doesn’t mean that the pilot is a killer; it means that he’s not Sully Sullenberger. Had Sullenberger made the wrong decision and perished with the passengers, no one would have found any moral fault with him. It was in that same category of prudential judgment, then, that Andrew Cuomo made his decision, one that attempted to balance the risks on both sides. A purely prudential judgment may be correct or incorrect; in either case, though, it is not per se good or evil. But judgments about abortion—whether to get them, perform them, subsidize them, promote them—put us into a very different discussion category. They are not prudential judgments; they are moral judgments. The two are as different as apples and monkey wrenches.
Some years ago, I attended a debate between the late Henry Hyde (the U.S. Representative who authored the Hyde Amendment, banning federal money to pay for abortions) versus someone on the “pro-choice” side. The pro-choicer, passionately and at length, described the physical, psychological, and economic hardships a woman can face in bringing to term an unwanted child. There needs to be some remedy, he said, some procedure, to free her from this burden. Hyde, who had been listening quietly, suddenly burst out: “But abortion is a killing procedure.” The reason my memory of that moment is so vivid stems from that single word. The blast from it continues to blow away all the euphemisms built around it since Roe v. Wade in 1973.
We know now that the fetus is not a thing: not a boil, not a tumor, not “the fertilized entrails of a woman,” as one imaginative abortion supporter put it, but a tiny human being in a journey of development that will continue into adulthood—if permitted. But each year permission is denied to more than 42 million of them worldwide. They are cut up and vacuumed out of their mothers in pieces or, in later pregnancies, removed intact and left to die in the operating room. Either way it is not a nice-looking process, and seeing it has caused some former participants in it to join the ranks of the prolifers. The decision about whether or not to approve the process is not a prudential judgment, like those a doctor must make to ensure the survival and health of a premature baby. It is a moral judgment, a judgment that it is OK to kill an innocent and utterly helpless human being.
What does Frankovich think about abortion?
Clearly, he doesn’t like it. He rejects “My body, my choice,” because he knows there’s another body acted upon in the procedure. He sneers at the New York Times for defending a woman’s right to abortion “while never using the words fetus or unborn child.” But throughout his essay he keeps dropping hints that prolifers need to be more “pragmatic,” to be more “sensitive to the plight of women with unwanted pregnancies.” He never says what that would mean in practice. Abortion allowable only for the first trimester, or 20 weeks, or what? When does the fetus become a human being that you absolutely cannot kill? He does not directly answer that question himself, but he does quote a famous professor of bioethics at Princeton, in apparent agreement with the professor that “the intrinsic worth of human life” is nothing more than a “fine phrase,” completely empty of meaning. The name of the bioethicist is Peter Singer.
“Whoa,” I said to myself when I read this, “Is this the same Peter Singer who wrote Practical Ethics and Should the Baby Live?” It is. In Practical Ethics, Singer wrote, “human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons.” But animals are self-aware, and therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” In Should the Baby Live? Singer and his co-author Helga Kuhse suggested that “a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to live as others.” They made the case for killing newborns suffering from birth defects such as spina bifida and Down syndrome. (When Singer spoke to an assembly at a hospital near me, security guards were posted at the door, and the moderator ruled out any critical questioning from audience members.) Does Frankovich really want to be in that company?
He might reply that it is unfair to assume that he would ever carry his premise to such a conclusion. But the premise carries itself there. This is a Dostoevskian situation: Once we agree that “the intrinsic value of human life” is just “a fine phrase,” why spare the life of someone with no human potential? Rodion Raskolnikov, the ragged college student in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, overhears a conversation between two other students as one of them talks about a “horrid old woman” pawnbroker in the neighborhood who extorts punishing terms on the poor:
[She is] not simply useless but doing actual mischief, who has not an idea what she is living for herself. On the other side, fresh young lives thrown away for want of help by the thousands, on every side. A hundred thousand good deeds could be done and helped, on that old woman’s money which will be buried in a monastery. Hundreds, thousands perhaps, might be set on the right path; dozens of families saved from destitution, from ruin, from vice. Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote yourself to the service of humanity and the good of all.
It was idle student talk, but Raskolnikov was “violently agitated” on hearing it because he realized that at that very moment “his own brain was just conceiving the very same ideas.”
Raskolnikov soon put those ideas into effect, taking an ax to the head of the pawnbroker (and to her mentally disabled younger sister when she came on the scene). For the next four hundred or so pages we are led through the young man’s sad, half-hearted attempts to escape detection, his eventual arrest, trial, and punishment. Exiled for years in Siberia, he is converted to Christianity by his faithful lover, who has followed him into exile. It is Jesus in the New Testament who makes him understand the sacredness of human life.
In Western history it was the arrival of Christianity that brought the notion of the sacredness of each person into the world. It was unknown before then. In pre-Christian Rome, if for any reason a newborn baby was rejected by his or her father (this happened much more often with female babies), out the baby went to the forest for a quick end by wolves or a more prolonged death from starvation or whatever. The whole crazy notion that each human life has inherent value—that human lives matter—was what inspired early Christians to set up orphanages, hospitals, and other institutions for the needy, the impaired, and the others who had always been treated with contempt by society. Whether that view can survive the decline of Christianity in the West is debatable. It has clearly lost the debate in Peter Singer’s mind (if he ever debated it) because he has concluded that “It does not seem wise to add to the burden on limited resources by increasing the number of severely disabled children.” By disposing of them, parents can always have “another pregnancy, which has a good chance of being normal.”
In rejecting this kind of thinking, do I find myself trapped by the inconsistency suggested by Nicholas Frankovich at the start of his essay: of being an absolutist about the sacredness of every human life and a compromiser when it comes to masks and lockdowns? My answer is no, because they belong in two very different categories of thought.
George McKenna is professor emeritus of political science at City College of New York.