Thursday, November 02, 2006

Racism and the Pro-Life Connection

I recently read a pro-lifer suggest that the pro-life position would one day come to be seen as the anti-racism position now is. It got me thinking about the connection between the two, and I came to a very different conclusion. Obviously I understand his point - both extend protection to more human beings than previously. Nevertheless actually I think if we look a bit deeper, we will find that a pro-choice position (certainly one which does not demand equal rights from conception) is the true heir of the anti-racism movement. To be clear, in no way do I suggest or believe that pro-lifers tend to be racist. However, I think that the very success of anti-racism suggests that the pro-choice position is to be preferred.

The reason for this is that the most widely-held intellectual justification of racism was that people of certain skin colours or ethnic origins are inherently inferior in some way to people of the favoured skin colour (usually white). Slavery was justified by the idea that black people were not worthy of protection as they were not like the slave owners. Now, as we know, skin colour is a genetic varient. The suggestion was that we can determine who is worthy of protection by genetic facts. The repudiation of the racist viewpoint is therefore a rejection of the idea that looking to genetics is enough. They were found to be wanting as an adequate explanation for why people are worth protecting.

On a superficial level the shift was from protection for whites to protection for humans. However, humanity is equally a genetic fact, albeit more widespread. If the shift was merely from one genetic fact to another then there appears to be no real justification for it. Why should we prefer one genetic fact to another? Was there any principle to the shift? Of course there was. People recognised that protection was needed because of the ability to suffer and feel pain or to grow and flourish. This is common to all colours and unifies our conception of those worthy of moral consideration. In short, the success of anti-racism was the success of a consideration of the characteristics of beings as beings, rather than merely their genetic make-up.

The pro-life movement (narowly defined as those who desire protection from conception) denies this shift. It argues that what is important is the genetic fact of humanity and nothing else. Thus all those genetically human must be protected whether or not they have any capacity for consciousness, pain or pleasure. They eschew any consideration of beings as beings. While they would use the wider genetic fact of humanity as their criterion, they fail to move past its arbitrary nature and merely insist that it is intuitively true, just as white supremacy was once intuitively true for so many people.

The shift from a genetic criterion to a beings as beings criterion was one from arbitrariness to principle. It expanded the scope of protection in some ways, to those of different colours. However it also excluded those who only fulfilled the biological condition of humanity without any of the characteristics (faculties and consciousness) of beings worthy of protection. Those desperate to protect such zygotes rely on a purely genetic argument in a way which, if accepted, would damage the coherence of the anti-racism movement. In the end, the pro-choice lobby is the heir of anti-racism.