Jill Lepore’s War on Logic

by James Taranto



Monday, 14 November 11

When we saw that The New Yorker had published a piece (available online only to subscribers) by Jill Lepore described in the table of contents as chronicling “The war against Planned Parenthood,” we figured it would be sympathetic to the government-subsidized abortion provider and unsympathetic to its critics. We expected, however, that it would show some respect for facts and logic. On the latter point, we were disappointed. Here’s one passage to illustrate our point:


Lately, human life amendments have been supplanted by personhood amendments, one of which appeared on the ballot in Mississippi this month. The Mississippi amendment reads, “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization. Personhood amendments could be interepreted to make several forms of birth control illegal, challenging not only Roe v. Wade but also Griswold v. Connecticut, which placed contraception under the protection of a constitutional right to privacy. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that, as regards free speech, a corporation is a person. How that Court would rule on a personhood amendment is uncertain.


Those last two sentences contain three errors. First, the description of the court’s ruling, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission , is inaccurate. Although corporations are considered legal persons for some purposes, in Citizens United the court “rejected the argument that political speech of corporations or other associations should be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not ‘natural persons.’ ” That is, the First Amendment protects teh free-speech rights of organizations as well as persons.


Second, in the context of abortion, corporate personhood is a non sequitur in any case. Corporations can be “persons” only inasmuch as it makes sense to think of them as having personal rights and responsibilities. As they are not alive, the right to life is not among the relevant set of rights.


Finally–although this is an error of interpretation, so that Lepore’s statement of ignorance is defensible on the ground that anything can happen–it actually is quite clear how the current court would rule on a case involving a “personhood” amendment (though it won’t soon get that chance, as the Mississippi ballot measure failed). It would hold, pursuant to Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), that such a provision is unconstitutional if applied in a way that poses an “undue burden” to a woman’s right to abort.


Another Lepore passage criticizes the Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion political group, for evoking Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul as “pro-life women of the past”:

There are, in history, very few straight lines. Still, even on this winding road a turn that has conservative women invoking Susan B. Anthony to attack Planned Parenthood is a hairpin. Margaret Sanger opened that first clinic in Brooklyn four years before the passage of what was called, at the time, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. . . . Women had only just got the right to vote when the Equal Rights Amendment, written by Alice Paul, was introduced to Congress. . . . Revisions were introduced in every session from 1923 to 1971. In 1972, the E.R.A. passed and went to the states for ratification. Its eventual defeat was accomplished by conservatives led by Phyllis Schlafly, who opposed the women’s-rights movement and supported a human-life amendment. Schlafly, not Anthony, is the grandmother of the pro-life movement.


Notice what’s missing here? Any evidence countering the SBA List’s assertion that Anthony and Paul opposed abortion. Lepore establishes only that Paul in the 1920s and Schlafly in the 1970s took opposite positions on the ERA. She takes a similarly evasive approach to the claim that Sanger, Planned Parenthood’s founder, favored eugenics:

She really did court eugenicists; at one point, the American Birth Control League discussed a merger with the American Eugenics Society. But Sanger was a socialist, which often put her at odds with the eugenicists, and with her own organization as well.


We can infer from this that not all eugenicists were socialists, but not that all socialists were not eugenicists, or that Sanger was not a eugenicist.


We’ve heard abortion opponents make the claims that Susan B. Anthony opposed abortion and that Margaret Sanger advocated eugenics. We’ve never been interested enough to research the matter, but if this is the best Lepore can do to rebut the claims, surely they are true.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. Curt Stoller says:

    Many a modern mind is governed by a faith in autonomy and believes that the world of man is secure in the same sense that nature is secure. If nature is ordered and guided by laws that make it reliable, then surely human autonomy must likewise be guided by laws which will give humans the same security that natural laws give the cosmos. This is a tragically false assumption. It neglects human freedom which carries a potentiality for evil that no myth of security or progress can overcome. You would have thought that the experience of Nazi Germany would forever destroy the myth of the indefectability of human nature and the myth of progress. But now we have radical feminist myths that have stepped in to replace the so-called Nordic myths of Adolph Hitler. An idea like “person” has a history. Centuries of theology on the Blessed Trinity and the Hypostatic Union connect the idea of the human person to its root in Divine Revelation. Cut off from the root, the notion of person becomes whatever judicial positivism says it is. And faith in the indefectability of judicial positivism is also a myth. If you pull a flower out of the ground by its roots, how long will it live in a vase? Cut the concept of person from its Catholic roots and it becomes lifeless. Pro-lifers use words like “person,” but they don’t mean it in the sense that Christians do. But even if you ignore 2000+ years of Catholic culture, look at the pre-Christian Oath of Hypocrites: “I will not give a woman a pessary for an abortion.” Natural Law!

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