09 September 2006

Debating Abortion

We're back! Due to my inability to read katakana, I accidentally deleted the blog--right before Labor Day weekend, of course, so it took Blogger a little while to restore it for us. My apologies to all. The Objectivist has scared up a Fredonia Philosophy colleague to pinch-hit for a column or three while I'm in Japan, so without further ado, let me introduce The Theist.

--The Constructivist


The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
The Standard Abortion Argument

On March 7, 2006, South Dakota's government enacted a law (HB 1215) that criminalized abortion except where it is necessary to save the woman's life. The law makes no exceptions for rape and incest. In November, South Dakota voters will face a referendum on the law. About 800 abortions a year occur within South Dakota and the state only has one abortion clinic, which is operated by Planned Parenthood. In 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 8% of the pregnancies in South Dakota were aborted. This is low compared to the rest of the country where 21% of pregnancies were aborted (1.3 million abortions). At current rates, the Institute estimates that one third of American women will have had an abortion by the time they reach 45. Given the referendum, it's worth looking at the standard pro-choice argument.

In 1971, Judith Jarvis Thomson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology famously argued that women have a right to an abortion, by which she meant that no one may forcibly prevent her from having one. Her main idea was that in abortion-related cases, a fetus (that is, human life between conception and birth) does not have a right to be in the woman's body.

In some cases, Thomson noted, the fetus never had the right to be in the woman. In the case of rape or failed contraception, Thomson asserted, the woman did not consent to the fetus entering her body. Even in the case of intercourse without contraception, she says, the woman did not give the fetus permission to enter the woman. Critics responded that the woman took the risk by having intercourse under conditions that posed a substantial risk of pregnancy. But merely having taken a risk that someone will come into your body or property, even a negligent one, does not constitute permission. For example, imagine that I live in the worst part of Detroit and I leave my house unlocked. As a result, a homeless man enters it and proceeds to eat my Cool Ranch Doritos, I haven't given him permission to do so even if the threat of such break-ins is well-known and easily avoided.

In the case where the woman purposely became pregnant and then changed her mind, Thomson notes, the fetus had but then lost the right to remain inside the woman. This is similar to the way in which a woman having intercourse may withdraw her consent if it becomes painful. This is especially true if her partner prefers to continue for another hour.

The rest of the pro-choice argument is straightforward. On this account, the fetus has no right to be in the woman's body and may thus be forcibly removed. On this line of argument, since forcible removal can only be accomplished through killing the invading fetus and since the invasion is a very serious one, the woman is permitted to kill the fetus. Abortion is a killing since the most common methods involve the physician dismembering the fetus (for example, via suction tubes with sharp cutting edges and other methods involve poisoning the fetus).

Some pro-lifers concede that a woman may use lethal force against a rapist but assert that a fetus is nothing like a rapist. After all, they claim, fetuses are innocents and rapists are bad guys. However, this is to equate being an aggressor and moral guilt and they are not the same. An individual can be an aggressor even if he is not blameworthy. Consider the Staten Island Slasher, Juan Gonzalez. He was a schizophrenic who killed two and wounded nine with a sword. On some accounts, Gonzalez was morally innocent and in fact was called "a model patient" and "extremely well-mannered" in the psychiatric facility in which he lived. A woman endangered by Gonzalez may kill him regardless of whether Gonzalez knew what he was doing.

As far as I can tell, Thomson's argument is convincing. Compare it to the arguments that are sometimes used to oppose abortion. It is sometimes argued that abortion is wrong because all human beings have a right to life. The U.S. Catholic Bishops, for example, make this argument. This argument is plainly unsound. Last week I argued that it is persons and not human beings that have rights. Even if this conclusion were not true, human beings who attack or invade others temporarily forfeit their right to life. This explains why killing in self-defense and wartime is permissible. Some Christians argue that fetuses can't be killed because they have souls or because they have the potential to become persons. Of course neither claim establishes that the fetus has a right to be inside the woman when she doesn't want it there.

Pro-choice groups don't help things when they make silly arguments about avoiding back-alley abortions or allowing each woman to decide for herself when life begins. Nevertheless their position is correct and South Dakota is embarrassing itself by stepping on women's rights.


The Theist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
Why Most Abortions Are Wrong

Why would it be wrong for me to kill you? If I did that, I'd be depriving you of something of great value, namely, the rest of your natural life. (I'd be depriving countless others as well, but the harm to you is usually enough to make the killing wrong.) Now in certain circumstances, say, if you're threatening to shoot me, or if you're a soldier in an opposing army, arguably, I'd do no wrong in killing you. But in most circumstances, it would be very wrong for someone to kill you.

You used to be a baby. If I'd killed you back then because I didn't like the smell of your diaper, I'd have done something very wrong. Before you were a baby, you were a fetus. If I had kicked your nine-months pregnant mother in her big stomach, resulting in your death, I would have done something very wrong. In general, fetus killing is morally wrong for the same reasons that most homicides are wrong--the victim is thereby deprived of the rest of its natural life. Now what if your mom had wanted to abort you in the ninth month? Most of us, again following common sense (and I note, even most professing "pro-choicers") would say that this would be wrong. Just as infanticide is wrong, for the same reasons, late-term abortions are wrong.

How far back in time does your life go? You didn't pop into existence at birth, or at the ninth month of pregnancy, or even at the point of "viability." The science of biology presents us with a picture of a single, continuously developing thing. There's no reason to think that you existed before a certain conception within your mother. But were you formerly a zygote? Perhaps--no one knows for sure. But that's a reason not to seek a very early term abortion. If I don't know whether or not killing the zygote is depriving a being of a future life containing the joys of music, sex, and NFL football, then I ought not kill that zygote. If I can't see whether or not any children are hiding in a large tree, then I ought not chop it down.

I'm glad I wasn't aborted, and I'll bet you are as well. Argue all you want about whether or not unborn members of homo sapiens are "humans," "persons," or endowed with souls. In any case, it seems that killing these things is generally wrong for the same reasons that killing adult humans is generally wrong. If we're going to deprive something of a massively valuable future life, we need to have a very good reason to do so, such as self-defense. Sorry, but "I really don't want to have a baby right now" doesn't seem to be a strong enough reason to make the killing morally permissible, any more than "I'm really tired of this marriage and don't have time for a divorce" would make it permissible for a man to kill his wife.

If like me you believe in God, you probably have additional reasons for thinking that most abortions are wrong. But note that none of the preceding depends on religious considerations. Careful reasoning can lead to a wide consensus on this, as it has on issues such as infanticide, slavery, and female genital mutilation, if people are willing to lay down their culture-wars mentality and carefully reason through the issue.

What The Objectivist calls "the standard pro-choice argument" is standard only among a small class of intellectuals. This argument is almost never heard at the popular level of discourse; it grants that the unborn are human persons, and argues that even so, at least if the couple used birth control which failed, the woman does no wrong in aborting, even in the ninth month. (Ever heard a "pro-choice politician or activist argue that way?) The deepest problem with the argument is its assumption that morality is fundamentally based on contracts. The idea is that as long as the woman didn't enter in to a contract with the fetus, or with society to support the fetus's life, she has no moral obligation not to kill the fetus. This assumption is false. She has obligations to the fetus in virtue of that fact that the pathetic little thing, a thing of great potential and value, needs help which only she can give, and has much to lose, and also the fact that she is its biological mother.

How would The Objectivist reply to my anti-abortion argument? Although he agrees that he was once a baby (fetus, embryo) he thinks that back then he had no moral rights at all. He holds that only "persons" (defined as beings with highly developed mental abilities) have moral rights. This claim pretty well refutes itself. Let it suffice to say that if this were true, then non-persons such as babies, advanced Alzheimer patients, and the mentally handicapped have no moral rights. So if you killed one just for fun, in The Objectivist's view, you wouldn't have done anything morally wrong (unless you thereby violated the rights of someone other than the victim). Yeah, sure.


The Constructivist said...

O & T, I find your exchange quite interesting in that I support O's conclusion in favor of a woman's right to choose while supporting T's critique of the limits of property and contract law for grounding ethical and rights claims. T, given that the Anglo-American legal tradition (or at least what I perceive as the dominant strain within it) privileges property and contract concepts and metaphors, would you mind expanding on your critique of it? What, in your view, is a viable alternative ethical model that has the potential to carry comparable legal/political weight? O, do you think a mother's right to end a pregnancy trumps a father's right to raise a child? And to both, how do you respond to a frequent commenters earlier claim that technological advances will allow women to end pregnancies without ending the life of the embryo/fetus, thereby making the abortion debate moot?

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

I don't see how the rights of the father are relevant. His body isn't being invaded by the fetus and so he has no self-defense related claims.

I think that the situation when the woman can end a pregnancy without killing the fetus is a possible one. It then will change the issue to whether the fetus has rights. I suspect it doesn't since it isn't a person (an autonomous being). And hence the parents (there the father's rights come into play) do have a right to have it killed, just as they can kill other organisms they own.

I like your questions.