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Examining William Saletan’s Pretzel Logic on the Tebow Ad

John on February 6, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Over at Slate, William Saletan offers a desperate bit of argumentation for…well, I’m not even sure what it’s for. He’s pro-choice certainly, but the argument itself is so extended it requires Cliff’s notes to follow it. First the basic facts.

  • Pam Tebow had a “placental abruption” which is found in a small minority of pregnancies in the US, but more abroad.
  • In some cases, continuing a pregnancy with a placental abruption leads to low birth weight babies or other complications for the baby.
  • In some cases, continuing a pregnancy with a placental abruption leads to stillbirth.
  • In some cases, continuing a pregnancy with a placental abruption leads to complication for the mother and even death.
  • We don’t know how serious the abruption was in Tebow’s case.
  • She lived. Tim lived. (We’re all glad for it.)

Okay, now his argument about the facts:

  1. If Pam Tebow had died, she’d be a statistic.
  2. If she’d died, Tim Tebow would have died too and he’d be a statistic as well.
  3. If they’d both died, no one would know their story.
  4. She lived, but…
  5. Some people who do what Tebow’s mom did don’t live.
  6. Some of those women also were pro-life and died.
  7. Being pro-life can lead to death instead of Superbowl ads.
  8. Aborting the baby could lead to avoiding death (for the mother).
  9. That mother could go on to have another child later.
  10. That mother might have other children who need her.
  11. Pam Tebow got lucky. Some people don’t get lucky.

Now it’s not that Saletan’s argument is nonsensical. It does work if you agree to all his assumptions, but look back and see how far into the weeds we’ve traveled. This is such a long chain of counter-factual assumptions, a chain which could be diverted at any time with alternatives.

For instance, the majority of women with abruptions lived, even most of those who lost the baby (Some of the babies lived too of course). That means that it’s not really “luck” but playing the odds in most cases. Some of the women who lived had children later. Perhaps many of those women, even some who had other complications, don’t regret choosing life, even though it didn’t work out. Perhaps even some of the women who eventually died, while not being happy about dying, felt right up to the end that they made the right choice in giving the baby a chance at life rather than choosing to kill their child. Perhaps those that died didn’t have other children. And on and on we can go. The point is, there are lots of ways to tease this out. Saletan doesn’t examine all the possibilities. He’s on a mission, driving toward a particular desired outcome.

It seems to me the only real force in Saletan’s argument comes from a John Stuart Mill-esque utilitarian case for the greatest good, i.e. in certain rare cases more life is preserved by abortion than by being pro-life. Okay, that’s not completely implausible, but of course that’s not what happened in Tebow’s case. And using Saletan’s own figures, it’s not what happens in the majority of cases of placental abruption. The majority of those babies live, babies that would be dead if the mother had chosen an abortion. So if one were to weigh this on some sort of cosmic utilitarian scale, which case turns out better:

  1. Recommend abortion and have the mother choose to kill her own baby in hopes that she can live and try again later.
  2. Recommend against abortion and allow for the real possibility of a live baby now with the slight (but real) risk of a dead mom if further complications ensue.

It seems to me the argument for option #1 is pretty thin vs. #2 unless the threat to the mother’s life is overwhelmingly clear. According to Saletan, using statistics from Burkina Faso and Pakistan, up to 6% of women could die from an abruption. (By the way, do they get the Superbowl in Burkina Faso and Pakistan. I don’t know, maybe they do. I’m just saying, it seems to me that Saletan is really reaching here.) Doesn’t that mean that 94% of women don’t die? Those are pretty good odds if the question at hand is the life of one’s own son or daughter. Aren’t they?

Beyond the narrow utilitarian question of which choice produces more life overall, there is the question of the broader message the ad is sending. About 90% of the abortions taking place in this country take place for reasons of convenience, i.e. there is no particular risk to the life of the baby or the mother involved. What there is instead is a young woman with an unplanned pregnancy. What is the argument for choosing abortion in those cases? Not preserving mom’s life, that’s for certain. So what existential good is being done? Not surprisingly, Saletan doesn’t touch the topic which, ultimately, is the reason for the ad.

This twisted counter-factual argument that deals with a rare complication and the rarest of outcomes from it (death of the mother in less than .2% of US pregnancies) is really the best argument he’s got. Because of course the chance the baby will die in an abortion is awfully close to 100%. Since this seems to be a utilitarian argument, not a moral one, I’d say he has failed to make the case rather spectacularly.

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