26 June 2019

The Paradoxes of Abortion: Inconsistencies in the Pro-Life Position

Stephen Kershnar
The Paradoxes of Abortion
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 25, 2019

The pro-life position on abortion (abortion is morally wrong and should be illegal) contains a number of paradoxes that indicate that the pro-life side either doesn’t believe in or doesn’t understand its position.   

First, most pro-life advocates don’t support charging abortion-doctors and the women who hire them with murder. This is odd in that on the pro-life theory a fetus has the same status as a baby. If someone were to willfully, premeditatedly, and with malice aforethought kill a baby, he would be charged with murder. This is especially true if he did it for money. Hence, advocates should think that abortion-doctors and the women who hire them should be charged with murder, even if they don’t admit this publicly.

Second, most pro-life advocates don’t support shooting abortion-doctors. Yet killing aggressors to prevent them from slaughtering infants and young children intuitively seems permissible. In World War II, for example, were an American paratrooper to discover a Nazi worker about to dump poison (Zyklon B) into a room full of Jewish children, few doubt that he may shoot the worker if that were the only way to save the children. Even if it turned out the worker could have been prevented from dumping the poison without killing him, few would shed a tear for the worker. Perhaps pro-lifers think that their cause is better served by changing hearts and minds rather than violence. Still, on pain on inconsistency, they should think that such killings are just. Again, this is true even if they don’t want to admit it publicly.

Third, most people judge women who damaged their children in the womb through alcohol, drugs, or smoking far more harshly than they judge women who’ve had an abortion. Consider, for example, the millions of women who’ve used the morning-after pill and escape condemnation from their pro-life friends. It’s far worse to be killed than harmed and so women who’ve used the pill have done far worse to their fetuses than those who harmed their fetuses through drinking or drugs. For example, following a car accident, most people would want to live even if they didn’t think as well or weren’t as healthy as they were before the accident.   

Fourth, few pro-life people reassure themselves that abortion isn’t so tragic because aborted fetuses are going to enjoy everlasting life in heaven. This is odd in that, on their account, fetuses have the same status as babies and, on some lines of Christianity, babies who die go to heaven. A Catechism of the Catholic Church (1261) says that while we don’t know what happens to unbaptized infants, people may hope that they go to heaven. This likely includes aborted and miscarried fetuses. This is a reasonable interpretation of the Bible given that Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” [Mark 10:14].

Fifth, pro-lifers often think that people begin to exist at conception. Yet zygotes and embryos can’t think and so there is little reason to believe that they have souls. Having a soul is an essential feature of a person who can think and live millennia after his body dissolves away. Such an individual is no mere biological organism, but rather an immaterial thinking thing. It is odd, then, to think that people are organisms when thinking about abortion and immaterial souls when thinking about the afterlife.

What explains the seeming inconsistencies? Perhaps it is that pro-lifers don’t really believe that fetuses, especially early in pregnancy, are people. Instead, they might implicitly think that a fetus is a precursor to a person much as an acorn is a precursor to a tree. Alternatively, they might implicitly think that the fetus trespasses onto the women’s body and, thus, however distasteful, abortion is a woman’s right. The right is based on her owning her body rather than the state, fellow citizens, or fetus owning it. On this view, a woman may kill a fetus, even though it is innocent, just as she may kill a psychotic attacker, even though the attacker is innocent in the sense that a court would find him not guilty due to insanity.

Even the pro-life legal position is odd. The pro-life lawyers and law professors generally want Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) overturned and the matter kicked back to the states. This is strange given that the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses should be read to require that people be protected against maiming and murder by private parties, if anyone is protected against such violence. For example, it would not pass constitutional muster for individual states to get to decide whether private citizens may hire hit men to kill blacks, Jews, or teenagers. Yet this is precisely what pro-lifers argue for in claiming that the Supreme Court precedent on abortion should be merely reversed rather than replaced with an interpretation that protects fetuses in the same way that the Constitution would be read to protect blacks, Jews, and teenagers against private killings.

In the end, it is unclear to me what accounts for the inconsistencies. The issue is made worse by the fact that the pro-life movement’s home is in the Republican Party and, in other areas, it is far better at ensuring peace, freedom, and posterity than the loathsome Democratic Party.

Perhaps what accounts for the inconsistencies is the practical nature of the American people. In particular, Americans and their politicians are not especially interested in theory, but in practical solutions that allow people to ignore Washington and focus on themselves and their families. Perhaps, instead, abortion, like adultery and sex, are impolite topics of conversation and this prevents open discussion and, thereby, prevents people from noticing the inconsistencies. Neither explanation strikes me as correct, though, so I’m not sure what explains the inconsistencies.

14 June 2019

The Supreme Court Can't Keep Running Away: When Do People Begin to Exist?

Stephen Kershnar
When Do People Begin to Exist?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 19, 2019

In the near future, the Supreme Court will likely decide whether to overturn two landmark abortion cases: Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). If it does so, it will have to face the issue of when people begin to exist.  

In Roe, roughly, the Supreme Court held that during the first six months, a state may regulate abortion only in ways that are reasonably related to a woman’s health. It may not protect the fetus' life. The court reasoned that precedent did not view fetuses as people. It did not address the issue of when life begins because this is above its pay grade (specifically, it is not in a good position to speculate on the issue).     
Following Roe, Casey imposed the following rule: A state may not impose an undue burden on a woman who wants to have an abortion before the fetus is viable. A fetus is viable when it can survive outside of the woman. The court said that an undue burden is a law that has the purpose or effect of imposing a substantial obstacle on pre-viability abortions.

Despite these Supreme Court decisions, Alabama recently criminalized abortion except when there is a medical emergency. Six states have trigger laws that would make abortion illegal were Roe overturned. Nine states still have pre-Roe abortion-prohibitions on the books. These prohibitions would likely take effect were Roe overturned. Various states limit or ban abortions past various threshold. Among the thresholds are the following: conception (1 state), 6 weeks (4 states), 20 weeks (14 states), 24 weeks (6 states), 25 weeks (1 state), and viability (18 states). A number of states require a waiting period, ultrasound, or counseling in part to discourage abortion.

The problem with these laws is that an individual begins to exist when he has has a brain, specifically, a brain with the capacity for thought. Prior to when a fetus has a brain, abortion is more similar to contraception than infanticide.

To see this, consider other views on when people come into existence. Some people think people come into existence when an organism begins to exist. This likely occurs at conception. On this theory, a person is an organism (that is, an animal). Others, usually religious folk, think that people come into existence when their souls come into existence. On this theory, a person is a soul or, alternatively, a soul is part of a person.   

Consider the metaphysical arguments for the idea that a person begins to exist when his brain begins to exist and that he is located in whole or part where his brain is located. First, imagine a case of one body with two heads. Each head has different thoughts than the other. In fact, there is a case of conjoined twins, the Hensel twins, that looks like this, although for technical reasons this is probably not such a case. For example, if the Joker were to shoot them with .50 caliber desert eagle, he would and should be charged with two murders. This case shows that a person is brain not an organism (animal). This is because the body with two heads is only one organism. Biologically, it is one animal in the same way that a lion with an extra set of lungs is one animal. 

Second, you can imagine a case when we transplant one person’s head onto another person’s body and vice versa. Consider, for example, if we transplanted Bernie Sanders’ head onto Sylvester Stallone’s body and Stallone’s head onto Sander’s body. After transplantation, it intuitively seems that Stallone see the world from atop Sander’s flabby body and Sanders would see the world from atop Stallone’s chiseled body. Again, though, the animals did not switch places, only the brains did. This is not merely a thought experiment. A head transplant has been successfully performed on a monkey.   

Third, it intuitively seems that when a person’s brain (or, perhaps, just her cerebral cortex) is destroyed, she no longer exists because she can longer think. This is likely what happened in the Terri Schiavo case. Terri’s forebrain dissolved before her body stopped functioning. As a result, Terri no longer existed, although though her body still functioned. If this is correct, then a person comes into existence when her brain comes into existence. 

The notion that a person comes into existence at conception faces yet another problem. Consider a zygote that splits to form twins. Consider, for instance, Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen. Because they are not the same person, neither one was the zygote that split to form them. This is because if B and C are different people, then A cannot be identical to both without producing a contradiction. If this is correct, then they (and we) were never a zygote.

Religious people often believe that a person is a soul. This allows people to exist in heaven centuries after their bodies and brains have dissolved away. One problem with this view is that it is unsupported by science. A second problem is that it is unclear when a soul begins to exist. Proponents of this idea usually view the soul as the seat of consciousness. On this theory, then, a person begins to exist when he can become conscious.  

Were Roe overturned, a number of these states would criminalize abortion before people come into existence. They would thus treat something that is the moral equivalent of contraception as if it were murder (or some other felony). There is not what freedom-loving people do.    

The Supreme Court can’t keep ducking the issue of when people begin to exist. The Constitution limits what the federal government and states can do to people or what they can allow others to do to them. See, for example, the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. If so, the court will have to face the issue of when people begin to exist. Enter the brain.

03 June 2019

SUNY-Fredonia: Enrollment, Morale, and Finance Problems

Stephen Kershnar
Losing Ground
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 21, 2019

SUNY-Fredonia is similar to a ship listing in a storm. The issue is what, if anything, should be done to right it.

The college faces problems of enrollment, morale, and finance. First, consider enrollment. The number of students has declined by roughly 20% from a decade ago. In response to declining enrollment, the college now accepts a higher percentage of students who apply than in years past. Specifically, 53% of (first-year) applicants were accepted in 2014, 76% in 2018. Recently, the college has had large entering classes but because of declining retention, overall enrollment has, roughly, held steady or declined.  

Likely as a result of the greater acceptance rate, the caliber of students dropped. This can be seen in part in the significant increase in the percentage of freshmen from the bottom half and decrease in students in the top quarter of their high school class (2014 to 2018). In 2012, SUNY Central viewed Fredonia as similar to less selective SUNY schools (for example, Buffalo State, Farmingdale, and Old Westbury) rather than its more natural peers (Brockport, Oneonta, and Oswego). The retention rate declined, although it is unclear if this is the result of declining student ability. In 2012, Fredonia’s retention rate (for freshmen) was worse than the average for comprehensive SUNY colleges and it has dropped since then.

Second, consider morale. Faculty morale appears to be poor. Evidence that it is worse than peer SUNY colleges can be seen in a recent survey (COACHE survey). The survey indicates that the faculty take a dim view of the administration. It is reported to me, although I have not independently verified it, that an internal study indicates that Fredonia students’ view of the faculty has gotten worse. It is unclear if this is due to a decline in student ability, a decline in faculty teaching ability, faculty being insensitive to an increasingly diverse student body, or something else.

The poor relation between faculty and the administration can also be seen in part in the no-confidence motion that some faculty put forth in the university senate. A procedural vote on it indicated that it would likely pass. The president of the college (Virginia Horvath) retired, although it is unclear if she did so in response to the looming no-confidence vote. The underlying argument for the no-confidence vote was signed by a number of senior faculty including those from art, biology, English, math, music, and philosophy. Not only is the president retiring, but the provost (head of academic affairs) has been a finalist for the presidency of several universities and is clearly looking to leave, albeit as part of a perfectly normal desire to move up the academic food chain. Thus, at the top, academic leadership has one foot out the door. The senate took the unusual step of inviting an outside study team onto the campus to diagnose the school’s problems.

The poor relation between the administration and faculty can also be seen in that the university senate had an in-depth discussion of the provost’s plan to radically restructure the academic affairs division and, as a transition plan, eliminate chair positions in four departments (disclosure: philosophy is one of them). It voted against these changes. The provost (Terry Brown) announced that despite the senate’s vote, the restructuring will occur anyway, the senate be damned. This despite promising that she wouldn’t make such a change if the faculty didn’t buy into it. Her reasoning was that the university is sinking financially and the restructuring will not only save desperately needed money but also allow the college to better serve students with a 21st Century design. The discussion over the restructuring plan was accompanied by charges of miscalculation and bad faith on both sides.

Third, consider the college’s finances. The college will receive a $3.5 million dollar loan next year from SUNY Central. It is thus in danger of going into receivership, that is, having adult supervision.

The college’s problems are related. The declining student ability, number, and retention and increased acceptance rate are likely related. Declining enrollment creates financial difficulty. The difficulty worsens the relation between administration and faculty and lowers morale. The allegedly worsening view of the students toward faculty is, perhaps, in part the result of the change in (average) student ability and demographics that in turn are a response to declining enrollment.

To right the ship, the college will probably have to take several steps. First, it will have to shrink in size. This might be done by having fewer employees (administrators, faculty, and staff) and, perhaps, fewer programs. This might be done bluntly (via hiring freeze or uniform cuts) or not.

Second, the school will have to make a choice as to whether it wants to be similar to its historical peers or weaker comprehensive SUNY colleges. That is, it will have to choose between better students and more students. On some accounts and aside from its powerful presence in the arts, the university lacks a distinctive identity. This might not be a bad thing, though, as this is likely also true for its peers as well.

Third, relations between the faculty and administration need to be repaired or, at least, stabilized. The administration has lost respect for the university senate. Perhaps this is a good thing because faculty unduly focus on parochial matters or don’t appreciate the college’s financial straits. Also, the senate has a significant number of members who are not tenure-track faculty, specifically, contingent faculty, staff, and students. This has increasingly democratized the campus, but weakened the senate. This also might be a good reason to give the senate’s decisions less weight. On the other hand, the faculty have more experience at the college, because, in general, they’ve been there longer, are more talented academics, and bring in more perspectives.

Fredonia State won’t be shuttered. It’s too big to fail. Still, the school either needs to face its enrollment, morale, and finance problems or learn to live with them.