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Seeing the Suffering We Cause

Andrew Fiala

The South Carolina legislature is still considering a bill--passed by the State Assembly last week--that would require those who want abortions to see an ultrasound image of the fetus to be aborted. This proposal reminds us of the importance of seeing what we do. It is a good idea to make sure that the consequences of all of our actions are made visible. To make good judgments we need all the information we can get.

However, while it might seem reasonable that women should have to fully face what they are choosing to do in having an abortion, such a requirement is unfair. No one else is forced to confront images that show the consequences of what we do. But perhaps we would all be better off if we were completely honest about the suffering we cause.

Our daily lives are built upon a foundation of suffering, although our culture protects us from seeing it. To see, on a daily basis, the suffering caused by our lifestyle choices would be unbearable to many of us; but it might force us to change our ways. Imagine for a moment what life would be like if we were forced to confront the suffering that we cause every day.

Let's begin with the most obvious example: war. Perhaps we should be required to see the death and destruction of the wars we support. Images of flag-draped coffins are not enough. We should be required to see the battle scenes, the carnage, and the dismembered bodies. Indeed, perhaps we should also be required to hear the screams of those killed and wounded. This should not only focus on our own dead and wounded soldiers. We should also be required to see the mutilated bodies and hear the dying cries of the women and children killed in the wars we fight. At the very least, these images should be on the front page of the newspaper and in the national news everyday. But a more forceful measure might require citizens to review the year's casualties—perhaps via a DVD provided by the IRS—at tax time, since those taxes pay for war.

Maybe we should also be required to see the carnage of the slaughterhouse. Every package of hamburger sold in the supermarket should have on its label a series of photos that shows the process through which the cow is butchered. Fast food restaurants should have to display pictures of headless chickens with their necks draining blood next to the pictures of tasty chicken nuggets for sale. And in fancier restaurants, each menu should include pictures that show how veal or sausage is made.

A further proposal might require people who use cosmetics or medicines that are tested on animals to watch a video that shows how these products were tested. Women who use mascara or eye make-up should be forced to watch animals being slowly blinded by the application of these substances directly to their eyes. At the very least, drug companies should be required to disclose on medicine bottles the numbers of animals who were tortured and killed during the process of research and development.

We might also demand that citizens be shown images from crime scenes and prisons. The news should contain explicit images of murder, rape, and assault. That way we would know why we need to punish criminals. The news should also include regular updates about the living conditions of those in prison. In this way, we would know whether prisoners are actually being punished or whether they are really only watching TV and lifting weights. Finally, when prisoners are executed, the news should be required to show the prisoner's march to the gurney and the process by which the lethal drip ends his life.

In considering these examples, I am not suggesting that any of these practices are wrong or right. It takes quite a lot of deep thought to argue that war, meat-eating and animal testing, the death penalty, or abortion are right or wrong. To reach good conclusions about these tough practices, we need detailed knowledge about them. But for the most part we lack this knowledge because the "wet work" happens behind closed doors, where we cannot see it or judge it.

Full disclosure is always helpful in making better judgments. However, unless we are willing to disclose the horrors of all of our practices, it certainly seems hypocritical to single pregnant women out for this sort of treatment.

Andrew Fiala is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Fresno.

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