The Lure of Sewing on Alligators Print
By Hadley Arkes   
Monday, 02 August 2010

I’ve been making the case in these columns for a design of pro-life legislation that keeps its focus on the victim. Of course, we know that there are two victims. The woman who undergoes the hazards of the surgery, who absorbs the dangers of breast cancer later in life, and who may be tormented later by the recognition of what she has done – that woman may bear a lasting injury and surely count as a victim. But I’ve entered the plea that there is a danger of subtly shifting from the central moral question when we concentrate on the harms absorbed by the pregnant woman and take the focus away from that small being who is being poisoned or dismembered.

My own preference has run then to legislation that strikes at the premises of that right to kill the nascent life in the womb. But the irony here is that some of the measures that are more oblique – less challenging to the premises of abortion – may actually have more of an effect in reducing abortions. The political scientist Michael New has become one of the leading experts on the effectiveness of different pro-life legislation. New tells us that, apart from legislation requiring the involvement of parents, the most notable effects come from the laws in Pennsylvania and four other States that mandate a “waiting period” of twenty-four hours.  

After the law in Pennsylvania went into effect in 1994, the number of abortions declined by 19 percent in the next two years. A period of waiting gives the chance for people to think again, especially when it is joined with a requirement of “counseling.” But the effect seems to come mainly from the fact that some women have to wait an added day to see a counselor, and the need to make yet a second trip may raise the cost just enough to induce some women to change their minds.

I’ve suggested in these columns a thought-experiment of this kind: Imagine that we found, in a system of counseling, that if we simply played a version of “Melancholy Baby” or some other romantic tune, 90 percent of women seeking abortions would change their minds. But if our people were still serene in their surety that they had a right to kill the child in the womb for virtually any reason, something would still be gravely wrong. Something will have been disfigured in the souls of our people.

And all of that brings me to a story once told by Woody Allen. The story involved a businessman in “men’s ready to wear.” His shirts were not selling. He pleads with God for guidance. And God tells him: “Sew a small alligator on the shirt.” Why that should make a difference, no one could say. But he has the alligators sewn on, and sure enough, the shirts “sell like gangbusters.” The story is not far from our experience: Often we find moves that seem to have little rational connection to the end that inspires them, and yet for some unaccountable reason, they seem to work.  

One notable example here came with the move years ago to bring down the regime of apartheid in South Africa by selling off the stock of companies doing business in that country. With that in mind,  I once awakened an audience of engineers to the logic of morals by asking them to explain what was wrong with this proposition: “It is morally wrong for people to own human beings as slaves. Therefore I will sell my slave.” And in selling it, of course, making someone else the owner of slaves. I wouldn’t say, “Abortion is morally wrong – therefore I will sell my stock in the clinic.” The so-called “divestment strategy” is morally incoherent. And yet it might well have hastened the end of the regime of apartheid in South Africa.

Now imagine someone told us, in the style of that advice on the alligators, “Start painting walls with polka dots. And for reasons you cannot see just yet, that move will bring an end to elective abortions in this country.” As with the alligators, it may indeed work. But as with every prediction it is problematic, and let’s say that it doesn’t work. We may find ourselves, ten years from now, with walls and buildings filled with polka dots. They will be monuments – to what?

In contrast, let us suppose that we were committing our days to measures that were more directly aimed at establishing the human standing of the child in the womb and the wrongness of taking that innocent life. And let’s say that, after ten or even thirty years, we have saved only a handful of lives. Someone may ask, “What you have spent your energies doing over these many years?” But when that question is posed, we could say at least this: that we can give a morally coherent account of how we have spent our days and years.

For we can explain the rational connection between our acts and the ends that called them forth. Our efforts may not have brought the fuller success they deserved, but we were not spending our time painting polka dots or doing things slightly off the main point. The consolation comes in the understanding that we have lived our lives with acts directed to ends that are enduringly rightful.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths:  The Touchstone of the Natural Law

© 2010 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing
is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own. 

Other Articles By This Author