Saturday, December 13, 2008

Not a retreat, but a backward advance

ServiceMaster®, which, until recently, contemplated building a new 100-acre $122 million corporate headquarters in Memphis, will lay off 50 headquarters employees instead. A company spokeswoman, who must have done her Master's in the works of Orwell, explained that this was a way to "Lead the market and grow the company."

If ServiceMaster merely found themselves short of office space, they might have relocated to Dubai (surely one of the world's largest potential markets for TruGreen® lawn care), a country that owns 20% of the London Stock Exchange and where 42 million square feet of office space were under construction recently, according to Christopher Dickey in Newsweek. In line with ServiceMaster's thinking, Dubai opened its Atlantis resort with a celebrity-packed event, featuring a $20 million fireworks display that was visible from space, while it laid off 500 immigrant workers and construction on its unfinished skyscrapers began to shut down, a ripple effect of the world financial crisis and falling oil revenues.

Speaking of fireworks visible from space, the latest flashpoint in the abortion issue is the discovery that choice is open not only to pregnant women but to health-care providers who don't approve of terminating pregnancy at will, an exercise of choice that many pro-choicers have greeted with astonishment and outrage. As described by attorney and columnist Dahlia Lithwick:

What does it tell us about the state of the abortion wars, that battles once waged over the dignity and autonomy of pregnant women have morphed into disputes over the dignity and autonomy of their health-care providers?

What it suggests to me, Dahlia, is that framing the entire matter in terms of "choice" was always a too-simple and, ultimately self-defeating approach; it was always just a matter of time until actors who were philosophical opponents of "reproductive freedom" suddenly realized that they had freedom as well and decided to exercise it. Just as the state's right to execute a criminal does not compel a doctor to participate in the execution, the legal right to terminate pregnancy cannot compel a pharmacist, nurse, or doctor to participate.

Of course Lithwick is well aware of this already and is specifically concerned about two emerging legal issues in the contest. She sees the first as both superfluous and harmful:

The first dispute concerns a new rule purporting to protect the "right of conscience" of American health-care workers. Under a new midnight regulation crammed through by the Bush Department of Health and Human Services and poised to become law any day now, any health-care worker may refuse to perform procedures, offer advice or dispense prescriptions, if doing so would offend their "religious beliefs or moral convictions." Congress has protected the right of physicians to opt out of providing abortions for decades. This new rule, which President-elect Obama can overturn (although it may take months), is far broader. It allows one's access to birth control, emergency contraception and even artificial insemination to turn on the moral preferences of a pharmacist, nurse or ambulance driver.

True, it does, and legal and medical relief that no one for 500 miles around will willingly provide, is hollow, but in a free society, that can't be helped. In a free society, laws have much more to do with prohibiting behavior than compelling it; my religious neighbor who believes that prayer is the sovereign remedy for all ills may not prevent me from going to the hospital, but neither is he compelled to drive me there. Of course we're talking specifically about health-care providers, not the public at large, and it is argued that a health-care provider who refuses to provide legally recognized services at discretion is at best acting with a lack of integrity but that, again, begs the question of whether the only morally defensible position is to support human intervention at will in reproductive matters, a position that many—including many in health care—find objectionable. Whatever the merits of that belief, it is as much their right to hold it—and act on it—as it is the right of a woman to terminate or a couple to use contraception. The nurse's or pharmacist's freedom does not end where someone else's preferences begin.

Lithwick is on much more solid ground with the second issue she raises:

The second dispute involves a South Dakota law that went into effect last summer after an appeals court lifted a preliminary injunction. The law requires physicians providing abortions to read from a state-mandated script advising the patient that she is about to "terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being" with whom she has an "existing relationship." The doctor must have her patient sign each page of a form indicating that she has been warned of the "statistically significant" risks of the procedure, including "increased risk of suicide ideation and suicide." These "risks" are almost completely unsupported by the scientific literature. A new comprehensive study released by Johns Hopkins found "no significant differences in long-term mental health between women in the United States who choose to terminate a pregnancy and those who do not." The disparity between the empirical data and the mandatory script thus forces physicians into a Hobson's choice between providing patients with accurate medical information, and possible license suspension and misdemeanor charges.

Even as someone who is strongly pro-life, I find the South Dakota law preposterous. As to psychological consequences to women, I'm not convinced of the virtually risk-free picture portrayed by the Johns Hopkins study, but the South Dakota script has other issues that render it absurd, and the doctor's legal duty to get it signed equally so. Without being explicitly religious, it comes as close as possible to giving the force of law to philosophical pronouncements about the present state of a fetus that simply can't be proven. The reasons for objecting to abortion on demand cannot and must not rest on near-metaphysical speculation about when consciousness and "personhood" begin but upon the fetus's potential value as a whole human life, a value that is likely to be realized unless we or nature intervene. If South Dakota isn't careful, the likely result of such a misbegotten law will be to leave citizens with no health-care providers but Native American shamans, the doctors all having fled to venues governed by more reasonable statutes. Of course the obvious approach should be for the doctor to administer the script but only after advising the patient that he or she is doing so only under legal compulsion and that it represents an unwarranted interference in the administration of health-care. Certainly, doctors who believe that a specific abortion decision is a mistake also have a right to present their views—voluntarily—and no one should prevent them. Awkward as it may be, it's part of what a free society is about.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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