I’ve always viewed Snopes.com in much the same way I view Wikipedia–at best, a good place to start your research, and never to be trusted on its face.
More justification for my skepticism was provided to me recently by a friend, here. The Snopes article attacks this article here, titled, “TRENDING: More college students support post-birth abortion.”
I wasn’t personally planning on dwelling the TRENDING piece because I have already spent loads of time discussing contemporary trends towards ‘post-birth abortion’ on this site. However, one of the tactics I’ve observed amongst proponents of abortion on demand is the pooh-poohing of assertions (such as I have made) linking the arguments for abortion on demand to ‘post-birth abortion’ and euthanasia and assisted suicide, etc. This is precisely what the Snopes piece amounts to: pooh-poohing.
There is so little of merit and substance within the Snopes article to discuss, that in my opinion, the simple truth is that Snopes wanted to put a ‘hit’ on the TRENDING article, and were looking for any pretext to do so. You are free to draw your own conclusion; in fact, I’m hoping you will.
The problem starts right at the beginning. The title of the Snopes article is: “The Old College Sigh: Claim — A growing number of college students support “post-birth abortions,” extending to children as old as four or five.” The claim, Snopes says, is FALSE. The ‘example’ they provide is telling. It is a ‘tweet’ that reads thusly:
WOW! New study says college students r starting to support POST-BIRTH #abortion until 5 yrs old cuz they don’t have self awareness #justsick
Look at what the Snopes-folk say about this Tweet:
“The claims were quickly picked up on blogs and in the course of their travels and anecdotes morphed into the results of a “study” about a worrisome moral decay on campuses nationwide.”
The TRENDING article itself does not say that it is a study. The Snopes-folk themselves quote the article’s use of the phrase “anecdotal” and correctly characterizes the TRENDING article as “citing word-of-mouth claims made by anti-abortion activists”, which the TRENDING article actually submits that it is doing! There is nothing in the article itself to suggest anything more than that, and certainly no hint in the TRENDING article that they carried out a study of any kind. Is it really the case that the claims “morphed” into a study? Well, no. The original tweet does not even give a link to the TRENDING article, which you can see for yourself, here. Note that as of this writing, there is only one one tweeter characterized the TRENDING article (assuming of course, that’s the article the tweeter had in mind) as being a study, and this tweeter only had 3 re-tweets. The notion that the TRENDING article represented a “new study” wasn’t exactly a viral sensation.
The TRENDING article itself went viral, but as you can see for yourself, very few others amongst the tens of millions of tweeters out there characterized it as a ‘study.’ See here and here to start. I can only find one other instance where the TRENDING article was regarded as a “study.” It seems that these were folks who just didn’t read the TRENDING article carefully, which says in its opening lines,
A trend seen by prolife activists that frequently engage college students on campuses nationwide is the growing acceptance of post-birth abortion, or killing the infant after he or she is born, campus prolife outreach leaders tell The College Fix.
Anecdotal evidence by leaders of prolife groups such as Created Equal and Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust said in interviews that not only do they see more college students willing to say they support post-birth abortion, but some students even suggest children up to 4 or 5-years-old can also be killed, because they are not yet “self aware.”
Can you see the sleight of hand? The Snopes article calls the claim “A growing number of students support ‘post-birth abortion'” false, when in fact it is only this one tweeter that has been shown false, who characterized the TRENDING article as a ‘study.’ The TRENDING article itself cannot be false unless the people The College Fix interviewed were lying about their experiences, or The College Fix misrepresented the ones they interviewed. People’s assertions about what they’ve experienced may be anecdotal to you and me and not something we can build a position around, but that doesn’t mean people didn’t experience what they say they experienced.
To illustrate the irrationality of this, consider this scenario.
I write a blog post saying that I went to the store and bought lettuce and saw three other people buying lettuce. Someone references my post in a tweet, saying, “Study shows people buying lettuce!” Snopes notices this tweet and uses it as an argument against my blog post, headlining their article with: “Claim: People are buying lettuce… FALSE.”
The Snopes article proceeds to show how the claim in my blog post is wrong, using the tweeter as an illustration. But I did not claim that I was carrying out a study, and it is true that I and three other people bought lettuce. To say that my claim about my experiences is false because someone else characterized it as a study is absurd beyond measure.
If one saw a bit of logic like that, one would question the intelligence of the person employing it. If that person normally seems intelligent, one may seek other explanations, like perhaps they were looking for a reason to attack the view that some people are buying lettuce.
Alright, so there are about fifteen paragraphs total in the Snopes piece. The first four are directed towards highlighting and quoting the TRENDING piece’s explicit references to reporting anecdotal accounts. The last four refer to an entirely unrelated “2013 media kerfuffle” regarding ‘fourth trimester’ abortions, which the TRENDING article makes no mention of. The implication is that they are connected, but it is a connection entirely of Snope’s making. Of the remaining 7 paragraphs, three of them are quotations from the TRENDING article (in fact, 7 of the 15 paragraphs are quotations from other material), which leaves just 4 paragraphs of substance for us to address, plus a few sentences here and there:
Immediately, the article veered into “friend of a friend” territory, citing word-of-mouth claims made by anti-abortion activists who frequently demonstrate on campuses.
The article lacks a number of key credibility markers. Among crucial corroborating information missing is on which campuses purported polling might have occurred, the number of respondents espousing this shocking viewpoint, the number of college students polled, what specifically constitutes “reguarly,” and the most crucially relevant portion: what specific language was used to extract this specific admission from college students asked about their support of abortion or reproductive law?
Harrington himself pointed to a single individual as evidence of this alarming “trend” favoring infanticide, and the claim relied solely on his assertion such a conversation occurred:
Even if Harrington did speak with one young man at one campus who believed that children up to the age of five were not “persons,” there is no evidence of any large-scale support for similar beliefs. The site also quotes anti-abortion activist Kristina Garza, who similarly claims that “a common [age] going around is 4 years old” in this purported new trend of post-birth abortion support. Garza points to 35 year old literature as the culprit inspiring college kids to embrace the philosophy:
As for the trend, Garza said there’s an explanation for it. For one, the arguments put forth by Peter Singer and other philosophers who support infanticide are given as reading assignments to college students.
Singer wrote in 1979 that “human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons … [therefore] the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”
Garza did not elaborate on why a philosophy more than three decades old would be suddenly sweeping college campuses.
No evidence is presented to support the claim that college students favor “post-birth abortions,” and no public opinion polls reflect the increase of such a sentiment.
The article didn’t ‘veer’ into ‘friend of a friend’ territory. It explicitly said it was going there! It did not make any mention of “purported polling.” According to Snopes, if perchance Harrington really did speak with someone with such views, and if, perchance, Garza similarly had such an encounter, Snopes asserts “there is no evidence of any large-scale support for similar beliefs” of “this purported new trend of post-birth abortion support.” In trying to marginalize an admittedly anecdotal article by insinuating that perhaps Harrington and Garza were lying, Snopes conveniently fails to mention the link to a Youtube experience that Harrington’s group actually recorded and made available, which is actually linked to in the TRENDING article. “Even if Harrington did speak…” says Snopes, as if the neither Harrington or the TRENDING article offered no illustration or corroboration whatsoever for the ‘trends’ they say they were seeing.
Either the Snopes-folk were themselves careless in their reading of the original TRENDING article or they are guilty of one of the most vile hatchet jobs I’ve ever seen–and there are some doozies out there!
Now we get the snide comment, wondering why a 30 year old philosophy would be ‘suddenly sweeping college campuses.’ Here is another instance of Snopes selectively presenting material that seems arranged to make the TRENDING article seem spurious (like choosing not to mention the corroborating video provided in the original article). Snopes quotes Garza’s line about Singer making a specific statement in 1979, and then insinuates that people don’t believe philosophies if they are over a certain age. But in the original TRENDING article, the quote continues: “He has been saying things like this since the 70s…” [emphasis added]
In other words, setting aside the silly bit of logic that no one takes seriously philosophies that are thirty years old, the person quoting makes it clear that Singer has since said similar things after that. Indeed, in a book widely used on college campuses today called Practical Ethics, reprinted in 1993 and again in 2011, Singer explicitly argued that if one accepts his arguments for abortion on demand, logic dictates that they should be extended to infanticide and euthanasia and assisted suicide:
In dealing with an objection to the view of abortion presented in Chapter 6, we have already looked beyond abortion to infanticide. In so doing we will have confirmed the suspicion of supporters of the sanctity of human life that once abortion is accepted, euthanasia lurks around the next comer – and for them, euthanasia is an unequivocal evil. […] I do not deny that if one accepts abortion on the grounds provided in Chapter 6, the case for killing other human beings, in certain circumstances, is strong.
Possibly, the Snopes-folk don’t know who Singer is. The enduring academic credentials that Practical Ethics has is attested by the reviews and comments posted at the Amazon page for the 2011 third edition:
“….It is a widely read and widely taught introduction to the philosophical dimensions of practical moral problems…. All of the chapters have been revised and updated, and a chapter has been added on climate change. Singer’s lucid style of exposition and argument are perfect for this sort of introductory text. Every library should have a copy of this book…. Highly recommended….”
–J. H. Spence, Adrian College, CHOICE
“…This third edition keeps the lucid style and provocative arguments of its predecessors, but with a more up to date perspective into current ethical challenges. This makes Practical Ethics not only an ideal text for university courses, but also for anyone who wants to dedicate some serious thinking into how she or he ought to live…. remains a relevant and welcome contribution to ethics.”
–Laura Cabrera, Institute for Biomedical Ethics, Basel University, Metapsychology Online Review
For thirty years, Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics has been the classic introduction to applied ethics. For this third edition, the author has revised and updated all the chapters, and added a new chapter addressing climate change, one of the most important ethical challenges of our generation.
Because I am not very confident in the general literacy skills of many of my possible readers, I have highlighted the phrases that should indicate wide, contemporary, use of Singer’s arguments.
The notion that Singer’s ideas are from a bygone era or that they might only just now be “sweeping college campuses” is positively absurd for anyone who has even a smidgen of exposure to these issues. Anyone who would like to take a survey of college level ethics courses will find that Singer is well-regarded. Personally, with the high level of deference to ‘experts’ that the Snopes-folk are inclined to show, I find it highly unlikely that they are unaware of Singer and his modern currency both inside and outside of academia. I think they deliberately ignored this in an effort to slam the TRENDING article. That is not the most charitable take on their article, but to me it is hard to believe that a site that makes its money by supposedly sourcing and researching its articles to the max would not be aware of who Singer is.
So, that pretty much dispenses with the precious few paragraphs of substance that the Snopes article provides, leaving us with just one scant line at the end,
No evidence is presented to support the claim that college students favor “post-birth abortions,” and no public opinion polls reflect the increase of such a sentiment. [Emphasis added]
But in point of fact, the TRENDING article itself is producing evidence–the testimony of people on the front line of this debate on college campuses, which, as already pointed out, was never presented as anything more than testimony. But what of ‘public opinion polls’? What evidence does Snopes itself provide for its claim that “no public opinion polls reflect the increase of such a sentiment”?
Does Snopes produce a link to a public opinion poll that addresses the question at all? No. Does such an opinion poll even exist? The way Snopes phrases it, we are led to believe there is, but I think it is reasonable to assume that if such a survey exists, they would have actually listed it. Now, you may find that anecdote is a weak basis upon which to shout “TREND!” in a crowded theater, but Snopes cannot even offer anecdote to support its rebuttal!
As we survey the Snopes article, we are unable to find even a single sentence with redeemable value. Not one line directed at the TRENDING article is defensible. Snopes declares the claim “FALSE” but the only thing FALSE is the tweeter’s characterization of the TRENDING article. Sadly, most people who land on the Snopes page for this article will be ones looking for info on the TRENDING article and will not look further than Snope’s bald assertion. Perhaps that is precisely what the folks at Snopes are counting on.
You may wish to dig a little deeper about Snopes. Rumors have abounded that Snopes takes sides–usually the liberal progressive’s side–and I submit that this hit piece is evidence of just that.
The above analysis is centered only on the Snopes treatment of the TRENDING article, a treatment that was, I’m afraid to say, beyond sad and pathetic. We may as well now take a moment to evaluate the merit of the TRENDING article.
Personally, I disagree with the TRENDING article’s characterization that it is only “more recently that this type of ideology is being promoted on college campuses.” (Note that the assertion that this trend is “suddenly sweeping college campuses” is Snope’s characterization, not the TRENDING article’s.) From my own reading and research, this type of ideology has been on college campuses for a long time–longer than 30 years. If there is a genuine ‘uptick’ in college students with such views, it is because a large number of their professors already have those views, and are transmitting them. However, I am not in a position, and neither is Snopes, to speak to whether or not the people interviewed for the article are really having these experiences or challenge their statements that they are having more of them. If only we had a public opinion survey to throw at poor Garza and Harrington we could assure them that their experiences were actually just hallucinations! Alas, we have no such survey, despite the fact that the always impartial and unbiased Snopes implied it existed.
Indeed, it seems to me that if no one is carrying out such surveys, then the only people who would even know there might be a trend would be pro-life advocates who frequent college campuses. Why, that seems to be just the case in this instance!
What are we to suppose instead? That word of acceptance of infanticide should first reach the ears of the local dentist? Perhaps the cashier at the local department store, as they are well known for engaging in heady debates on deep ethical issues. Call me crazy, but it seems more reasonable that Garza and Harrington and other pro-lifers would have a better feel for these issues than the used car salesman at the end of the street.
Even so, some people may want to know if this is really a trend or not, and since public opinion surveys do not seem to be forthcoming, they will have to seek other avenues for corroboration. Not me; the article didn’t really tell me anything that I didn’t know. Utilitarian ethics permeate bioethical conversations and have been codified in institutions large and small. Singer’s book was Practical Ethics, after all. The relative frequency of college kids having such views is one that doesn’t interest me that much, and so I have no desire or intention to defend that particular assertion.
However, the Snopes article dismissed it as if it was absurd on its face, and offered not a shred of evidence for that dismissal. We can at least take a minute to establish that it is, at minimum, plausible that the article’s assertion transcends anecdote and reflects a real trend. (I’m not sure what that would mean to some readers, even if it was a real trend. Would they be worried about it? Are they going to do something about it? Are they going to demand that their universities start teaching something else? What?)
I already laid some groundwork for such a demonstration, by highlighting the fact that Singer’s book is now in its third edition, favorably reviewed by college professors, and explicitly described as “an ideal text for university courses” and is billed as ” the classic introduction to applied ethics” “for thirty years.”
(Readers will forgive me for using the word ‘explicit’ often. However, I have a regular reader who does not know what the word means, and does not understand that if you claim that someone believes something, and then provide EXACT statements by that person SAYING they believe that thing [ie, them explicitly saying it], it is not hearsay or conjecture, but rather rock-solid corroboration of my claims. In this context, I am not spinning fairy tales out of my rear, whimsically characterizing Singer’s book as commonly used at universities when in fact there is ‘no evidence’ for that… its actually described as that, on its own Amazon page! For good reason.)
Now, just because the publisher says such things doesn’t mean the book is really used in colleges, but one is surely grasping at straws if they want to take it to that level. Does the reader really doubt that this is the case? I personally have run into too many people who exhibit awareness, and acceptance, of Singer’s viewpoints, right up to the contention that if you accept the rationale for abortion on demand, it logically follows that it is logical to “abort” people who are already born. It strikes me as eminently plausible that they heard these viewpoints in college, so again, I’m not particularly surprised to hear others having similar encounters.
But perhaps Singer is being misrepresented? Well, he explicitly states this in his textbook:
“In dealing with an objection to the view of abortion presented in Chapter 6, we have already looked beyond abortion to infanticide. In so doing we will have confirmed the suspicion of supporters of the sanctity of human life that once abortion is accepted, euthanasia lurks around the next comer – and for them, euthanasia is an unequivocal evil. […] I do not deny that if one accepts abortion on the grounds provided in Chapter 6, the case for killing other human beings, in certain circumstances, is strong.”
Since intelligent and wise people defer to experts, and college students are trained to be wise in this way, upon hearing such an argument from such an esteemed expert, should we really be surprised that whereever such material is read, there will be more people who accept such arguments? Who are you to take a different line? Are you an expert? I think not.
Now, here is the thing. Anyone who already knows anything about contemporary ethics, knows that Peter Singer has a prominent place in the discussion and well regarded throughout academia. More broadly, utilitarian ethics as a whole (eg, Bentham and Mill) get wide treatment. It would be a sad, sad, person who disputed this with me. The one who needs to see if utilitarianism and Singer in particular is a common staple in college-level ethics courses are the ones who haven’t yet been initiated into these realities. It is really for this latter group that I invest hours of my time writing and researching and the one for whom the TRENDING article might serve as a wake-up call. Honestly, whether or not a society fully drinks the utilitarian-tea might have wide ranging life and death implications for the unborn and born.
So, if I was in that latter group and I wanted to corroborate the claims made by the people interviewed in the article, and not prepared to accept this present author’s testimony about what he has experienced, I might want to look at the course descriptions and required readings and the professors of the ethics courses at universities around the country and the world. But here’s another thing: it would practically be academic negligence not to cover utilitarianism in an ethics course, given the fact that every Dr. Tom, Dick and Harry, PhD, out there is well-versed in it and potentially in positions to act on such philosophies. If I were teaching an ethics course, I would mention utilitarianism too, and certainly would reference Singer and a slew of others. It would not therefore be enough to evaluate the curriculum for a given ethics course. One would want to know something of the worldview of the instructor presenting the course: does he push a utilitarian perspective at the expense of others? does he even mention other perspectives? if he mentions other perspectives, is it disparagingly? does he carry out the disparaging by assigning readings that do the disparaging for him? And so on.
If you are now thinking to yourself, “Huh. I don’t really think a ‘public opinion poll’ is really going to be the best measure of the acceptance of ‘after-birth abortion,'” you’ve caught on and can see how silly, even infantile, it is for Snopes to appeal to non-existent surveys of college students to make its rebuttal. Even if you had that data, what would be the significance? Surely it says more about the college professors than it does the students! And most college kids are not going to find their way into positions where even if they had such views, they could implement them.
No, the really useful survey would be of the people in positions of influence and power. Importantly, in real life, one doesn’t just graduate from college and start whacking born children with birth defects or heading up boards of ethics at the local hospital or chairing the local university’s philosophy department, or taking a position on the Independent Payment Advisory Board. Its going to take years, if not decades, for someone to rise to those positions of responsibility. I personally find it difficult to imagine any pollster wishing to take the time necessary to sift this sort of thing out and the much easier poll, of the general population of college students today, would (in my opinion) have limited value. If anything, what we needed was such a survey done thirty years ago, before the present crop of bioethics administrators came into their positions of influence, and then a correlation of their views of yesteryear with their views at present.
One really ought to drill down further, focusing only on the fields where it is reasonable to expect graduates to eventually attain these positions of influence.
So where does that leave us?
As you have probably gathered, while the TRENDING article may be of interest, if it prompts us to do anything, it is to focus not on the students but on their teachers, and on the teachers of their teachers, and even the teachers of those teachers. We should be scrutinizing the positions of those on ethics boards, or in charge of designing our system of socialized medicine, or the genetic counselor talking things over with the parent who just found out their unborn child has a birth defect. And so on. And what then? Obviously, a radical overhaul of the education system itself would be required to make any difference, and it would take a generation to see any results.
Singer said, “…if one accepts abortion on the grounds provided [earlier], the case for killing other human beings, in certain circumstances, is strong.” Ultimately, its the ‘grounds’ that need to be subverted. The plant has got to come out at its root, and this throughout all of society. There is no question in my mind that we will never see such a development unless the utilitarian plant is allowed to come to harvest.
It would make me very sad if someone went to the Snopes site and walked away thinking there was nothing to the matter, just because the TRENDING article only invoked anecdotes. The fact is that the utilitarian ethic pervades all of secular society, and this is easily discovered by anyone who even casually investigates things. The service that the TRENDING article provides is the drawing of attention to the logic of abortion on demand and its rational applicability to people already born. If that is news to you, you better get studying. Your life, and the life of those you love, may very well hang in the balance.