What Social Conservatives (and Liberals) Can Learn from Kyleen Wright

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One of my recurring frustrations with debates over social issues is that such debates often rest on moral principles over empirical evidence, sometimes to the point where the latter are dismissed or even disdained. Philosophically, I have no objection; we should all aim to be serious about our moral reasoning, and the First Amendment protects free expression. Pragmatically, though, arguments that are primarily or exclusively based on moral principles are vulnerable and problematic. Vulnerable, because it’s hard to build a lasting coalition of interest around a contentious and unverifiable premise. Problematic, because insofar as moral principles aren’t derived from evidence, moral arguments aren’t subject to re-evaluation in the face of contrary evidence. They’re not even subject to evidentiary standards in the first place, which creates another practical problem: moral arguments don’t anticipate or really even allow for the possibility of disagreement. They’re blunt instruments. Advocates may be able to use them to ram a bill through the legislature, but they won’t change anyone’s mind doing things that way, and they create suspicion and hostility on both sides. 

With that in mind, I wanted to point you all to the September issue of Texas Monthly, which features a chat with Kyleen Wright, the head of Texans for Life. They were one of the pro-life groups that advocated for the passage of last year’s omnibus abortion bill, and as Wright explained to me, their particular priority was the provision that requires doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges. The reason, she explained, was as follows. Two women had confided in her about their distressing abortion experiences–two women who were unrelated, except that they had seen the same doctor. It occurred to her that a law requiring hospital admitting privileges would effectively provide another layer of oversight and get some of the sketchier doctors out of the business. (Worth noting, although this was cut for space in the print edition: Wright added that they had run through the finite list of doctors who provide abortions in Texas and found that most of them either already had such admitting privileges or would be easily able to acquire them.) A year later, this was her overall summary of their work on the bill, and its effects: 

We had no idea how many clinics would close. I don’t want to be disingenuous: we’re not unhappy when abortion clinics close, because we think that abortion hurts women and we know that it ends the life of a separate, unique human being. But the part of the legislation that our organization was so passionate about was the hospital admitting privileges. That was about getting some bad actors out of the industry. We knew that that would mean fewer abortions, but we also knew that it would mean less trauma and a higher standard for women. 

As you can see from the full chat, I wasn’t necessarily persuaded by Wright’s reasoning. The situations she had described were already illegal under state law, and although her response was valid–that the shame and secrecy surrounding abortion prevent many women from seeking redress when the laws are broken–my personal feeling about it is that we can’t really solve the problem of people flouting a law by layering more laws on top of the original one.

What struck me, though, was that Wright’s argument on behalf of a policy was empirical, based on facts and circumstances about the world rather than referred to her moral belief that abortion is wrong. The latter is, for most pro-life advocates, a sincere belief, and that’s probably why many pro-life advocates begin and end with it: if an action is morally wrong, then being drawn into a serious debate about best practices relating to it might seem like fiddling while Rome burns, if not dealing with the devil. But it’s nonetheless a moral belief, so it can’t be proven (or disproven). If someone doesn’t share the premise, there’s no reason for them to agree with an argument that follows from it, unless the argument is supported by other, more tangible premises. Wright’s argument includes a moral premise; she’s the head of Texans for Life. But it includes other premises that can be assessed regardless of how you feel about the underlying moral premise. As such, it’s an argument that allows for engagement. And as such, it’s instructive for social conservatives and social liberals alike. 

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