Dr Tiller’s murder, moral relativism and activism

After reading another comment on the murder of Dr George Tiller, I put some more thought into my reaction and reflections more generally on reproductive freedom — and also the actions of those opposed to a women’s right to choose (how they present, often non-considered, challenges to those undertaking action on social justice/environmental/animal issues). I have long supported a women’s right to choose, though still had some questions I had been unable to fully address. I think I have now come to a point where I am able to address lingering questions I had, albeit without a basis free from potential criticism.

There have been numerous responses to the murder of Dr Tiller, some directly addressing the support and services the Wichita clinic provided for women, with some demonising these and others selectively addressing these (i.e. leaving aside what are perceived as the more controversial). It was the coverage on Democracy Now! that spawned further thought, and led me to being able to address some of the long held questions I had. These thoughts were very much shaped by the (no directly related) writings of Michel Foucault, a conversation I had with Antonio Negri, and the prolific work of Gene Sharp — specifically his consent theory of power — that have emerged from more than 50 years of research into the tactics, strategies and effectiveness of nonviolent action.

Unlike some other coverage from the left,the Democracy Now! coverage unwaveringly detailed the services provided by the Wichita clinic, specifically mentioning the second trimester (elective and therapeutic) abortions and third-trimester therapeutic abortions. Whilst I have long supported a women’s right over her own body, there were some questions/aspects I had not been able to find cognitive closure with. I had always fallen back to it coming down to control over one’s body, because it is a women’s body. My concerns were related to non-theraputic late term abortions.

Before I go over the basis for this inability to achieve cognitive closure, nonviolence and consent theory of power require defining. Whilst some may argue semantics, non-violence and nonviolence are different concepts. Non-violence is an oppositional framework, whereas nonviolence is a different concept and approach. There have been debates amongst proponents as to whether a different term to nonviolence would be more effective based on the potential misunderstandings. Brian Martin provides a succinct description of Gene Sharp’s theory, which is based on a pluralist conception of political power:

people in society may be divided into rulers and subjects; the power of the rulers derives from consent by the subjects; non-violent action is a process of withdrawing consent and thus is a way to challenge the key modern problems of dictatorship, genocide, war and systems of oppression (Martin 1989: 213).

Gene Sharp provides a clear delineation between consent achieved through ‘obedience’ as opposed to ‘coercion’:

If, for example, a [wo]man who is ordered to go to prison refuses to do so and is physically dragged there (that is, [s]he is coerced by direct physical violation), [s]he cannot be said to obey… But if [s]he walks to prison under a command backed by threat of a sanction, then [s]he in fact obeys and consents to the act, although [s]he may not approve of the command. Obedience thus exists only when one has complied with or submitted to the command (Sharp 1973: 27).

The basis for outlining consent theory of power is to illustrate that the exercise of power is the exercise of power over another. It is when we have power exercised over ourselves, or are in a position that someone can exercise power over us, that we can feel quite uncomfortable — in the sense of control, or a lack of it. For many, whether it is someone who is opposed to reproductive freedom, this lack of control can be a source of their will to act (i.e. to gain control over a situation). It is much the same for other taking action on other causes.

In regards to late term/third-trimester therapeutic abortions, those opposed to the procedure base the views on their moral outlook. This gets to the source of the issue. To impose on others is to impose moral authority based on the assumption one’s beliefs are morally superior. This is something quite common and pervasive. In regards to abortion, further use of medical technologies that assist a fetus is living independently of the mother’s body (i.e. ‘viability’ of the fetus) and attempts to delineate therapeutic abortion from the process based on (or, perhaps more accurately, represented as) a personal choice can only further this.

How do we address different moral perspectives? Do we merely accept difference? There are pitfalls — some clear, some not sox. The first, and more general, is the notion of moral relativism and being lost in a sea of differing perspectives. Stephen Lukes has given the challenges and pitfalls of moral relativism some significant thought. An easily digestible account was provided on Against the Grain when C.S. Soong interviewed Lukes about his recent book so titled.

What may be a simple way to reflect on some of the pitfalls with moral relativism is the practice of female genital mutilation. In using those terms to refer to the practice, I have already positioned it in a certain way (i.e. Mutilation = bad). Yet, what if the women consents. What if this is consent beyond coercion (referring to the consent theory of power)? How do you respond if coerced? How would you respond if it was consented to? The latter is more a challenge to moral relativism. The former, many may find taking action to be justified.

To bring it back to the murder of Dr Tiller, are the actions of those who have targeted Doctors who provide such services any different from the actions of those who target vivisector’s, or other corporate criminals? Are these not based on moral assumptions? Where is the line drawn? For a number of years, there have been deference’s to the notion of ‘all tools in the toolbox’ by animal and environmental activists. Yet how many would support the use of the same tactics by those they oppose? I have commented on these issues before, though the seem to prop up sporadically… I think the issue is clear — whatever actions you use in support of your cause, you cannot speak out when others do so.

Martin, B. 1989. ‘Gene Sharp’s Theory of Power’, Journal of Peace Research, 36(2).

Sharp, G. 1973. The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Part One – Power and Struggle, Boston: Porter Sargent.

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