A Great Idea

Sharing information and viewpoints on complex public policy issues will almost certainly reduce disagreements; and just as certainly not eliminate them.


Being in the desert isn’t all about hiking and birdwatching. Some of it is about being in a place that can feel like, well, a different country altogether. Herewith, something that might not have made the news Way Up North.

A Republican state legislator in Arizona reportedly wrote an email to a constituent saying that women should witness an abortion before having an abortion. The email published on a political blog on the Arizona Republic‘s website Tuesday is apparently from State Rep. Terri Proud (R-Tucson) and appears to have been sent from a state email, the paper said. Source: Huffington Post

This is a Great Idea. It’s so great, it shouldn’t be limited to abortions.

I hereby propose that anyone thinking about undergoing any surgical procedure — from wart removal to heart-valve replacement — be required to watch the applicable procedure first. What an eye opener that would be: biopsies and their long needles; the circular saws used (or so I’ve heard) in hip replacements; the cavalierly personal conversations in operating rooms. (Or is that just on Grey’s Anatomy? Anyway. Not to get distracted.)

I propose that anyone thinking about undergoing any surgical procedure also be required to talk to someone whose operation went badly. To hear from the grieving family, in the worst case. To talk to someone who lost functionality unexpectedly and permanently. Moreover, I propose that anyone thinking about undergoing any surgical procedure be required to talk to someone whose operation went exactly as planned, but who still required months of painful rehabilitation.

And shall we stop with surgical procedures? No, we shall not. I propose that anyone thinking about undergoing any diagnostic test be required to watch someone else undergoing said test. What an eye opener that would be: the industrial-strength hydraulic compressor used in mammograms; the charming day of preparation before a colonoscopy.

And wait: there’s more. I propose that anyone thinking of taking any prescription medication be required to talk to someone who had a nasty side effect, or an interaction with other medications.

Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? This single reform would dramatically cut wait times, as people elect out of operations and screening procedures in droves. It would relieve any concerns about limited supplies of medications. It would dramatically cut healthcare costs.

Of course, there’s the possibility that cutting healthcare costs wasn’t the purpose of this alleged proposal. It’s just possible that its purpose — and the state representative’s focus — was to try to bring other women to her own point of view on abortion (against it, as it turns out). As a slightly reluctant pro-choicer myself, I’m not fond of abortion either. I’m even less fond, though, of what I suspect is the underlying rationale for this proposal, even when I see it in my own thinking.

At its core, this rationale assumes that if you just knew the things that I do, you would think the way that I do. If I could just get you to understand what I understand, you would agree with me. Because there is One Right Way and I have found it, in everything from loading a dishwasher to crafting public policy. Just ask me. Or better yet, let me tell you.

Of course we can reduce disagreements — even on complex public policy issues — by sharing information and viewpoints. But every time we want to force someone to understand our viewpoint — to ‘transmit’, as it were — we’d better also be ready to try to understand their viewpoint — to ‘receive’. Regrettably, none of this can be legislated. Worse, it requires us to give up a highly seductive construct: the One Right Way. It’s a shame, really: it was such a Great Idea.

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8 Responses to A Great Idea

  1. Ralph says:

    Thanks Isabel!
    I agree, on this specific instance and on your core issue, and therefore am confident that you are “spot on.” 🙂
    But I am uncertain by what process a diverse society should assign a continuous range of “disagreements” (marriage for whom, choice, capital punishment, racist ideologies, personal weapons, etc.) into permissible and impermissible categories. As a society we don’t seem to deal with this sort of issue with a process any more sophisticated, or effective, than ratcheting up the rhetoric.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ralph – Ratcheting up the rhetoric!! What the hell do you mean by that? Seriously, you identify a real problem. Prochoicers see abortion solely as a matter of personal responsibility; seeing abortion as murder, prolifers put it in the same category as capital punishment, subject to societal override. If gay marriage is OK, why not polygamy? And so on. It beats me how we’re going to work through these differences or address your framework question. (John Robson has a useful point of view on this sort of thing. I invite other suggestions….) What drives me crazy is the assumption that, somehow, all these differences are resolvable – usually by you finally realizing that I’ve been right all along!

  2. Derek Smith says:

    Heaven help the US if they had to send freshly minted infantry recruits to Iraq/Afghanistan before committing to service.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Derek – Hey, I’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, and can’t imagine trying to get anyone to commit to any active military service if they’d actually experienced it. That doesn’t account, of course, for the ‘re-ups’. For that matter, I vaguely remember a science fiction story about people having to go through a simulation of parenting–with all its attendant wonder, wackiness and weeping–before having their temporary, state-imposed sterility reversed. Before being allowed to try to conceive. Something like that. Once again, You must understand this in what I deem to be a complete way…

  3. Jim taylor says:

    Great column — makes me wish you’d venture into political commentary more often!
    As for the “One Right Way”, moral philosopher Lawrence Kohlberg offered an explanation some 40 years ago. Kohlberg — you’ve heard of him, haven’t you? — identified the stages of what he called “moral development.” The bottom level was pure authoritarianism: “Mommy says it’s wrong, so it must be wrong.” The top was pure principle: “If this is wrong for one, it’s wrong for everyone.” But in between he identified how we move from one stage to another. And one of his findings is that if you spend too long in any one stage, it becomes impossible for you to break free from the thinking patterns of that stage — or worse, even to appreciate the thinking pattern of any other stage.
    Seems to me that the proponents of the One Right Way have fossilized.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Hmm. Fossilized, eh? Could be. My mother used to quote someone who said that you could tell someone’s age by how much discomfort they experienced when confronted with a new idea. Maybe that’s related to the notion that you raise – the business of getting stuck in one pattern of thought. And I still want to know how we answer Ralph’s question which at least in part seems to me to be about how we distinguish the things on which there must be one answer for everyone in society (or close to that), and the things on which we can agree to disagree and just do our own thing, without causing irreparable damage to the body politic.

  4. steven says:

    I could use some tips on loading the dishwasher.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Steven – Tips? TIPS? More like Absolute Rules. Separate cutlery to eliminate nesting. Put plastics on the top rack. Rinse before stowing, especially to remove rice. These are part of the One Right Way to load dishwashers.

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