Bodily Rights and a Better Idea

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A positive review of “Bodily Rights and a Better Idea” has appeared in Life Matters Journal Volume 5 Issue 1 — April 2016, written by LMJ Deputy Editor C.J. Williams.

 

For a reasonable number of readers, I can provide a Word version of the essay. The Word version contains bookmarks and hyperlinks to make cross-referencing different parts of the essay easy. Email me using the address on my About page.

 

George McFall clearly needed some of David Shimp’s bone marrow more than Shimp needed it. When Shimp – McFall’s first cousin – refused to give it, McFall took him to court.

The judge’s gavel came down. He wasn’t enthralled with Shimp as a person, but every speck of the bone marrow in Shimp’s body was, in the eyes of society, private property – Shimp’s private property. McFall’s eyes closed on the world, for the last time, before his 25th birthday.

A caring society views both such persons as equally valuable. Such a society has an interest in seeing both thrive and not come to harm. It would seem completely logical for society to have instructed Shimp to hand over some bone marrow, and if he did not do so peacefully, to have taken it forcibly. Why doesn’t society do that? Is society wrong not to do that?

Society sometimes grants to its citizens surprisingly strong body-related rights – body-related rights that are out of proportion to what a rational fairness would seem to demand. I don’t think that that is necessarily wrong. People are psychologically constructed with a strong sense of ownership of their bodies. [Edit: Ownership of any kind has no foundation in science, and a strong principle of individual body ownership would be very debatable philosophically, but the psychological sense is a reality. And due to sharing that sense, which is to say, due to belief in the validity of that sense – or due at least to a pragmatic recognition of the strength of that sense – society sometimes grants to its citizens surprising rights such as those of Shimp that we have just seen. A belief in the validity of that sense could also be termed a moral intuition (whether or not it is a correct moral intuition) that near-inviolable body ownership ought to be respected.]

I basically support such rights, at least in this part of this century. Perhaps Shimp should have been sentenced to a lot of community service for refusing to help McFall. But I say that I basically support such rights because I do not think he should have been tied down and his bone marrow removed forcibly.

It is important that the laws and conventions of society should give that psychological sense of ownership, and the actual ownership that society tends to think underlies it, its due. But is the current concept of bodily rights the most logical and coherent way to accomplish that?

The bodily-rights argument for legal abortion is usually advanced through thought experiments that create analogies with pregnancy – analogies in which our sympathies will be on the side of a right to refuse to let one’s body be used. And those arguments are usually contested by showing the disanalogies between the situations of the thought experiments, and the situation of actual pregnancy. In this essay, however, the approach will be to analyze the concept of bodily rights, rather than to deal with thought experiments that elicit our intuitions about bodily rights.

SYNOPSIS

I wrote, “People are psychologically constructed with a strong sense of ownership of their bodies. . . . And . . . due to belief in the validity of that sense, society sometimes grants to its citizens surprising rights . . .” I will first try to show that the current concept of bodily rights reflects some awareness of that psychological reality, but (among other problems with the concept) the awareness it reflects is an unclear one. The concept misleadingly suggests that some defined degree of trespass of bodily boundaries will always do a defined degree of psychological harm; that is, that any trespass of bodily boundaries will harm and that deeper trespass will harm more. This off-target concept of bodily rights in turn easily lends itself to a kind of absolutism about infringements on bodily boundaries, which is then used particularly by advocates of abortion rights to argue for their cause.

Bodily-rights arguments against abortion restrictions show us that denial of abortion is a degree of trespass on one’s bodily boundaries similar to the degree of trespass involved in other situations (such as the forcible appropriation of a body part) which nearly everyone’s moral intuitions agree are wrong. Bone marrow or a kidney is located deep within the body, and the uterus is located deep within the body. The arguments thus tend to persuade us that denial of abortion is also wrong. But as I will show, it is only the offense to one’s psychological sense of body ownership that is a real harm (a real mental harm) caused by trespass per se, and the degree of that offense is only partially and unpredictably related to the degree of trespass. Real mental harm is somewhat independent of the degree of trespass.

The moral intuition that body ownership ought to be respected seems to stem, as mentioned earlier, from the wish to spare our fellow human beings the mental harm of offense to their strong psychological sense of body ownership (which sense is an undeniable reality). So to answer the question whether there should be a right to refuse the use of one’s uterus – a right comparable in strength to the right to refuse to donate one’s bone marrow – we have to answer the question whether the mental harm to a woman when abortion is denied is really comparable to the mental harm that would occur if one’s bone marrow or kidney were taken forcibly. Since I think I can show that real mental harm is somewhat independent of the degree of trespass of one’s bodily boundaries, it is not enough to show that the uterus is deep within one’s body, just as bone marrow and one’s kidneys are deep within the body. Rather, the degree of real mental harm when abortion is denied could be approximately determined only by psychological study focusing on the psychological phenomenon of harm in that specific situation, not by possible biological similarities with other situations.

In the present undeveloped state of psychology and neuroscience, we have to rely on our empathy and intuition about the degree of that harm, and then rely on our moral intuitions, to decide whether the degree of that harm for a pregnant woman, as we estimate it to be (taken together with all the other physical and mental harms of the denial of a particular abortion), is so great as to outweigh the harm of death for the child, with the consequence that we would feel it right to let that child die rather than to so greatly offend the sense of body ownership of the woman. To understand it in this way is to liberate our minds from the misleading features of various analogies, as we seek our most correct moral intuitions about abortion.

The moral intuitions of nearly everyone agree that the harm of offending Shimp’s sense of body ownership by forcibly taking his bone marrow (when added on to the modicum of physical harm to him) would have been greater than the harm of death for McFall, but as mentioned, what counts is “the psychological phenomenon of harm in [a] specific situation,” not “biological similarities with other situations.” And the moral intuitions of many, many people (though I won’t say of everyone or nearly everyone) do NOT agree that in the specific situation of a typical proposed abortion, the harm of offending the pregnant woman’s sense of body ownership (taken together with all the other physical and mental harms of the denial of a particular abortion), is so great as to outweigh the harm of death for the child.

In this essay I will not prove that abortion should be illegal, but I think I will at least show that if the virtues and defects of the bodily-rights concept are correctly understood, there is no strong bodily-rights argument against making many abortions illegal.

(The entire argument of my essay can be outlined in eleven points – see below. The foregoing three paragraphs can be broken down into points 1-9 of the outline.)

Moreover, if society holds and sustains a “right not to be unjustly harmed physically or mentally,” and the idea of “harm” incorporates an understanding of the psychology of ownership, including body ownership, that will serve all purposes, and society can dispense with the off-target and therefore sometimes misleading idea of bodily rights. (This sentence can be broken down into points 10 and 11, i.e., the last points, of my outline.)

I would like to proceed now according to the following outline:

1. Rights are only meaningful and useful in terms of protection against wrongs, that is, against unjust harm, so the concept of bodily rights can be meaningful and useful only if and as there is a potential for unjust harm to be done that is defined solely by trespass of one’s bodily boundaries.

2. Harm can be only harm to the body or harm to the mind.

3. In terms of a right to freedom from bodily harm, the concept of bodily rights doesn’t add anything to more obvious ethical notions. So though the current concept of bodily rights aims to protect against both physical and mental harm caused by trespass of bodily boundaries, in relation to bodily harm, the concept is not particularly useful.

4. In terms of a right to freedom from mental harm, the concept of bodily rights could be meaningful as one possible way of framing that right. (Even if it is not the best way.) People have a sense of ownership of their bodies, such that trespass on their bodily boundaries can be a source of mental harm, and “bodily rights” would be one way to protect from that mental harm. But it is the degree of that psychological harm (which is only partially and unpredictably related to the degree of trespass on the body), taken together with the degree of more obvious harms, that become the real yardstick of a right to refuse the use of one’s body.

5. Because of the sense of body ownership (and the actual ownership assumed to underlie it), in a situation of opposing interests between two innocent people that involves one person needing to use the body of the other, society does not make a simple decision in favor of the person who is likely to suffer the greater harm of obvious kinds — that is, of kinds other than offense to the sense of ownership. It counts that kind of mental harm as harm, which weights its decision in the direction of the person whose body stands to be used by the other.

6. Society weights its decision in this way so strongly, that in many cases it decrees that a particular offense against one person’s sense of body ownership is not justified even if the other person will die.

7. Although the concept of bodily rights is often expressed as a very simple absolute principle, when people actually apply it to different real-life situations, we see a patchwork of different attitudes, depending on each situation. This renders the concept vague and confusing as a yardstick in any situation that has not yet been resolved, such as a proposal to abort. It turns out that the degree of mental harm caused by offense to one’s sense of ownership, which society believes to be morally meaningful, is inconsistently related to the degree of trespass on the body – which is morally meaningless apart from harm. Since it is inconsistently related to the degree of trespass, the degree of that harm when abortion is denied could be approximately determined only by psychological study focusing on the psychological phenomenon of harm in that specific situation – not simply by knowing the degree of trespass.

8. Proponents of the bodily-rights argument for abortion rights claim that because society decrees in many cases that a particular offense against one person’s sense of body ownership is not justified even if the other person will die, there must therefore be a universal principle to that effect, i.e., society must so decree in all such cases – or claim at least that the situation of unwanted pregnancy should not be an exception. This claim does not hold up.

9. Some actions that trespass a person’s bodily boundaries without the person’s consent are countenanced or supported by society in general (meaning that society in general does not take very seriously any offense to the sense of ownership in such cases). In my personal view, still more such actions should be countenanced or supported.

10. What matters, in terms of the rights that society should choose to sustain in this area of law and ethics, is that those rights should reflect a recognition of the sense of body ownership and its nuances – and of the possibilities of mental harm based on that sense of ownership and its nuances.

11. If society holds and sustains a “right not to be unjustly harmed physically or mentally,”
and the idea of “harm” incorporates an understanding of the psychology of ownership, including body ownership, that will serve all purposes, and society can dispense with the idea of bodily rights.

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Why Focus on Abortion?

 

This essay was first published, with illustrations, in Life Matters Journal Volume 5 Issue 5 — April 2017.

 

I think I’m not alone among pro-life advocates, in that people sometimes ask me, “Why only abortion? Why do you advocate on this issue only?” When pro-choicers ask me that question, it often takes the form of “Why don’t you talk about the problems of women?”

My first reply might be that I do not in fact ignore other issues. I have done a lot of pondering about the miserable treatment of women throughout most of history, in most of the world, and I have even ventured to write about a pro-life feminist approach toward rectifying all of that. I volunteer for an organization that works to lift people out of poverty.

Most of the pro-lifers I know actually do approach abortion with a holistic view of the world. But it is true that some of us, including me, do also spend a disproportionate amount of our advocacy time focused on the abortion issue specifically.

For me, this is because I feel that the pro-life cause, much more than any other cause, can be a vehicle for a higher human consciousness that will uplift us morally in how we respond to all issues, not only the abortion issue.

As Javier Cuadros wrote:

Science is a process of knowledge in which we penetrate ever deeper. . . . As the observations multiply . . . it is typical that the original appearances . . . are shown to be incorrect. The reality is different. . . . This is why I have always been puzzled about the reluctance of scientists to apply the same program of investigation to the nature of the human embryo. Are human embryos men and women and thus entitled to the inalienable right to life and respect for their dignity and physical integrity, or are they not? Here, many scientists . . . are for applying the simple criterion of appearances. No, [embryos] are not men and women, they say, because they do not look like a person. Agreed, they do not look like a developed human being. But the earth looks like it is stationary. . . . shape does not make a human being. It has been shown that the most fundamental element of the presence and identity of a human being is the existence of a specific DNA molecule . . .

 
Most people in the world, if we may indulge in broad strokes, have one of these two perceptions of the early unborn: 1) either they feel that the early unborn is not possessed of the moral value of other human beings because it doesn’t look like most of the human beings we know (or doesn’t seem quite as bright as most of the human beings we know, or some such criterion); or 2) they feel that the early unborn does have the same moral value as the other human beings we know because the genetic information it possesses has set it on an inexorable path – a path such that it will soon enough be a human being similar to others we know (if only somebody doesn’t kill it first).

And I think that among those who hold the second category of perception, there are also some who got there without an understanding of DNA and chromosomes. They got there simply by pondering deeply over some such thought as this: “A human life is one seamless process that has to start somewhere, and how can it be expected that it won’t start extremely small?”

Now, can we call either of the two perceptions better than the other? Well, the first perception is like a still picture. It is a perception of the organism as if it were frozen in time. The second perception is of a process. If you kill a small clump of cells lacking, perhaps, even a beating heart, it is correct to say that you are killing an organism whose life presently has little value; and that therefore the organism itself would – if no future lay ahead of it – have little value. But it is also correct to say that you are depriving that organism of the complete human life which has started in it as a process. We cannot deem that either perception is more scientific than the other. But obviously the perception of the process is a more complete perception.

The perception of the process is not necessarily more scientific, but it is more complete. It is richer. I think that perception helps explain the joy that we see on the faces of “the pro-life generation” at the March for Life and on almost every campus in the country. So for me, it reflects the higher consciousness that I spoke of above, a more evolved consciousness. It reflects a forward evolution in a person’s inner world. It reflects an expansion.

When Barack Obama announced his support for gay marriage in 2012, after sixteen years in politics, he famously described that pivot of his as “an evolution.” Well, Mr. Obama, that’s great! Evolution is a liberating experience. Any one person’s moral evolution surely has wonderful consequences for us all. And now, Mr. Obama – and Hillary Clinton, and Cecile Richards, and Gloria Steinem – you have a chance to go on evolving, to evolve still more. Wouldn’t it be great to do so? The path is before you. We’ll all be cheering you on.

Though not wishing to minimize how big an evolutionary step it was for straight people to come to perceive gays as fully human, I think that coming to perceive embryos as fully human will be an even bigger step. It will also be a bigger step than coming to perceive other races as fully human, or other genders as fully human, or the differently abled as fully human. Why? Because – to get back to Cuadros above – gay people, and people of other races and genders, and the differently abled, look like persons. We can “apply the simple criterion of appearances.” Urgent though it is to advocate the causes of refugees and earthquake victims, at least society may be able to see them as human beings without our help – not so, it seems, for the unborn.

Moreover, let us remember Martin Luther King’s observation that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Unlike other groups that have won society’s respect, the preborn do not themselves strike the least fear in the hearts of those who would mistreat them. If rights are to be secured for them, it will be the first time in history that rights have been secured for a human group who could not fight back somewhat, or at least clamor shrilly. So coming to truly perceive the unborn as fully human, though completely in accord with science, will be a grander mental achievement than in the case of other groups. This last frontier of civil rights will be the most difficult. But by the same token it will represent a more significant expansion of consciousness.

A pro-life position taken on this basis will mean a greater connectedness with our origins and hence a greater connectedness with the universe. This connectedness will certainly spill over into all our activities and all our decisions. It will be a big evolutionary step, a step to what I called above “a higher human consciousness that will uplift us morally in how we respond to all issues, not only the abortion issue.”

I also said, however, that “the pro-life cause, much more than any other cause, can be a vehicle for a higher human consciousness.” The cause may seem clearly to be a way in which that higher consciousness gets expressed when one already has that consciousness, but is the cause also a vehicle for creating such a consciousness in those who don’t yet have it?

It is natural for the mind to try to confine one’s human family to a small circle. We fear having to care for people, or kinds of people, outside that circle. Our mental walls constructed around that circle, however, get smashed when confronted by facts that are incompatible with such encirclement, or confronted by incompatible, yet persuasive, viewpoints coming from people who command our respect. The smashing of our mental walls is an uncomfortable experience, a disturbing experience, but once one manages to grasp the idea that a human life is one seamless process, and hence equally valuable at all points in time, it is an idea that becomes very persuasive. It is a more complete view than to perceive the organism as if it were frozen in time. Moreover, once we include within the circle of our family people we had formerly excluded, we emerge with fewer fears than we had before. In this way also our minds expand. Thus the pro-life cause can be a vehicle for a higher human consciousness, and thus this, to me, is the issue to focus on.

People whom we do not respect, however, are unlikely to persuade us. Among other things, pro-life advocates who are to be persuasive must be people who truly have that expanded vision – which cannot be said of all pro-life advocates. I think that many religious people who are originally pro-life by virtue of rote religious doctrine later become prompted by their doctrines, or by other forces, to do some deep thinking of their own, and develop that expanded vision. But those who came to a pro-life position out of rote religious doctrine alone (without further reflection), not to mention those who came to it out of political opportunism, will not have that vision. Only those who genuinely have it will be able to articulate it in a way that touches non-believers; others may even create a big backlash among skeptics.

A few years back John Koenig coined the word “sonder,” a noun whose definition begins, “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own . . .” It is the ultimate sense of human connectedness, and as the founder of Life Matters Journal has pointed out, it is a state of mind out of which consistent pro-life behavior in all one’s actions must inevitably flow. I think that activism on behalf of the unborn can do more than anything else to further this outlook in the human race.

Now I have said a lot about establishing in people’s minds the perception that the unborn is a full-fledged member of our human family. But by now some will be asking, in order for the pro-life cause to prevail, will such convincing alone be sufficient? What about the bodily-rights position, which concedes for the sake of argument that the unborn is indeed fully human, yet claims a right to kill it nonetheless? But I think that the understanding that the preborn is a full-fledged member of our human family is, in fact, virtually sufficient. It seems to me almost always that those who concede for the sake of argument that the unborn is truly a human being, yet claim a right to kill, make that concession only for the sake of argument. Very few of them – perhaps only Naomi Wolf and Camille Paglia – have made that concession in their hearts. I think that almost anyone who really sees the unborn as our little sisters and brothers, will quickly dig a little deeper and discover the weaknesses in the bodily-rights argument.

© 2017

 

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

A Civilization That Was

 

A blog post for April Fool’s Day.

 

Beneath the sagebrush and grasses of what is now the Oregon high desert, there was once an advanced civilization, archeologists revealed on Friday.

Standing on the rim of one of a dozen recent excavations, Dr. Karuna Banerjee, leader of a team from the University of Minnesota, talked to reporters. Large-rimmed dark glasses protected her eyes from the fierce sunlight. She explained that the team had been able to deduce a lot from the art themes on the pottery of that vanished race, and from the minimal number of lethal weapons the team had unearthed. It was clear, she said, that they had been a well-educated people, and had developed their arts to a high degree. Technologically they had been unequalled for their time. They had had a culture that espoused tolerance, and values of mutual respect. “Overall,” she said, “I find it heartwarming to think of such a people, though a few things about them might raise eyebrows today.”

Banerjee particularly contrasted those people, whom her team had named the “Ivies,” with one tribe of their nearest neighbors. Those neighbors, she said, had been a warlike people, aggressive toward the “Ivies” and toward all their other neighbors. They had been unkind as well to those of their own people who were too fat, or weak, or differently abled. The researchers had dubbed that tribe the “Yokels.”

For the Ivies, those dull-witted neighbors of theirs, clinging to their spears and their religion, were sometimes a source of amusement. The martial contests of those people were not art, the Ivies said. In moments of pity, the Ivies would discuss how they might best be able to help those neighbors to “change their deep-seated religious beliefs.”

The most hilarious thing of all, to the sophisticated Ivies, was how those neighboring people would go into hissy fits about the joyful Ivy custom known as the “happy send-off.”

The “happy send-off” was entirely based on empirical reality. It is, after all, an observable and undeniable fact of the natural world that life leads to death. Therefore, the best way to celebrate life is simply to hasten death. “We’re living in the sixteenth century and we have no use for the superstitions of the past,” they would say. “We believe in science and rationality.”

In Ivy society, one out of every five children was selected to be given a happy send-off. The Ivies would organize outdoor concerts from time to time, and the participating bands would set up on the steps of that culture’s pyramidal temples. While the bands played and the populace swayed to the rhythm, some of the designated children would be led, one by one, to the top of the temple and “sent off.”

Sometimes the parents needed convincing. “It is not killing,” the Ivies would explain. “Nature is cyclical, and this is just speeding up your children’s life cycle. It nourishes the overall quality of Ivy life and improves the lives of all our other children.”

“And of our pets, too,” they would sometimes add.

Children who had been selected were nicknamed “raindrops” – by falling they would improve the lives of others – and were no longer considered people. “Why should they grow up as unwanted boys and girls?” the Ivies would say. “This is a win for everybody. We call it ‘send-off care.’ Have you got something against freedom and progress?” Most bands were happy to perform without remuneration, and the proceeds would go to support the white-coated personnel of the organization that performed the send-offs.

“If you don’t like send-offs,” the Ivies would say, “then don’t attend the concerts. But why spoil our lifestyle choices with your hypocritical rants? This is non-negotiable. Send-offs on demand – without apology!”

Banerjee was asked why such an advanced civilization had survived for such a short time. “There came a point,” she replied, “when nearly everyone in the society had played some role or other in the happy send-offs. The treatment of people as objects began to take more and more forms in that society, not only the happy send-offs. When that occurred, because of their long-time participation in the send-offs, those with a capacity for leadership were not in a position to criticize.

“There was no violent breakdown of society, no,” she went on. “Blood did not start flowing in the streets. But when people’s natural urge for idealism finds only such banal outlets, clamoring for ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ ‘my freedom,’ ‘my rights,’ cynicism grows and grows. The Ivies did not entirely lose their will to live, but they lost that necessary edge.”

Banerjee was asked what had happened to the Yokels. “They began to reflect,” she replied, “that if children should not be sacrificially objectified, maybe other forms of objectification are wrong also. Maybe we should treat everybody in our society better. Maybe we should stop our unjust wars. They learned to cooperate with other tribes.”

“They changed,” Banerjee said. “Their civilization lasted for a long time.”

Shadows lengthened over the high desert as the sun set. Dr. Banerjee folded her dark glasses and grew pensive. “I always feel we can learn a lot from these ancient civilizations,” she said.

© 2017

 

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

Why It’s Not Murder

At Wayne State University last November 16, Scott Klusendorf, perhaps the dean of pro-life apologists, ably debated abortion with Nadine Strossen, a former president of the ACLU. Klusendorf based his pro-life argument on the humanity of the unborn and the wrongness of intentionally killing an innocent human being.

At 1:08:57 Klusendorf indicates a possible openness to health exceptions. Strossen insists on more specifics – what kind of health condition would be serious enough to reach the threshold at which Klusendorf would agree to make an exception? Klusendorf replies:

Sure, I’ll answer that. Let me make an observation, though. Even if my answer were inconsistent, it wouldn’t eradicate the syllogism I put forward. . . . So even if I answered this question in a way that seemed inconsistent with my view, it would only show I’m inconsistent. It wouldn’t rule out the evidence I presented.

Then he brings up Doe v. Bolton’s overly-broad standard of “health,” and the empirical rarity of cases that would raise a real ethical question; but Strossen insists on a specific example even if “hypothetically,” and offers “Let’s say she will not lose her life, but she will be rendered infertile . . . ?” Klusendorf replies, “In that case the mother stands to lose one good, the child stands to lose an ultimate good” – meaning that impending infertility would not be a sufficient reason to abort. Strossen then moves on to other topics.

So Klusendorf laid the groundwork for a defense in case he might say something “inconsistent.” In the event, he was not forced to say anything inconsistent, but to my mind Strossen let him off the hook. Suppose instead of the infertility example, she had framed the hypothetical as “Let’s say she will not lose her life, but most likely her brain will be damaged, seriously affecting her motor skills and memory for the rest of her life.”

I don’t know what Klusendorf would have replied to that example, but I, and I think many pro-lifers, would say, “In that case, no, she should be allowed to abort if she so decides. I will admire her if she doesn’t, but in terms of legal obligation, society should not compel her to carry the pregnancy.”

Yet it remains generally true for my brand of pro-lifers that “It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being,” and it remains true for us that the unborn is an innocent human being – so that it would seem impermissible to kill it. Moreover, if in an analogous situation a mother could avoid serious brain damage only by killing her innocent born child, it would almost certainly be illegal for her to do so. Suppose that in an earthquake a mother and her toddler become trapped in a small space beneath the rubble. They can hear the voices of rescuers a few yards above them, but the air is running out and the mother’s brain will become damaged by oxygen deprivation if the toddler keeps breathing also. If she were to put her hand over the toddler’s mouth and nose, thus killing it, that would almost certainly be illegal. Thus since the unborn is a human being like the toddler, allowing the woman to abort, as I and many pro-lifers would do, would seem inconsistent both with existing legal protections for born human beings, and with a syllogism that we basically support.

How to explain this? Do many pro-lifers not really believe that the unborn is an innocent human being? Well, clearly it is innocent, so the question becomes, do we not really believe that it is a human being? (Many pro-choicers, of course, like to push the idea that we do not really believe that.)

The answer is: we do believe that the unborn is an innocent human being, but we feel that society has no right to compel anyone to take huge risks with their body, even to save the life of an innocent human being.

Virtually all pro-lifers, like anyone else, respect the mental sense of body ownership that underlies the concept of bodily rights. The importance accorded to that sense rests on a kind of intuition, and hence the importance varies somewhat from person to person, but I don’t think there is a night-and-day difference in that regard between pro-lifers as a group and pro-choicers as a group. To put it more simply, pro-lifers as well as pro-choicers believe in “bodily rights.” So pro-lifers feel that as a moral starting point, or as a default moral principle, everyone should have a legal right to refuse to let their body be used unless they give permission. Certainly one’s body cannot be used for just any purpose under the sun. Where pro-lifers differ from pro-choicers is that pro-lifers are likely to feel that a woman should not have that legal right when her body is the only hope for survival of a new human being – a situation that they feel confers some degree of responsibility on her. (I have discussed elsewhere how I, as one pro-lifer, come to that conclusion.)

Yet the tipping of the scales on the side of the child’s life is not an extremely pronounced one. The belief in a default principle of bodily rights, on one side of the balance, never disappears, with the consequence that for some pro-lifers (including me), if the woman’s pregnancy is expected to be exceptionally rough or dangerous, then, in this conflict of rights, her bodily rights will again prevail. It is not that the unborn is not what Klusendorf calls a “distinct, living and whole human being;” it is indeed that human being; but society has no right to compel anyone to take huge risks with their body, even to save the life of an innocent human being.

This explains and resolves the seeming inconsistency. If in a situation analogous to pregnancy a mother could avoid lifetime brain damage only by killing her innocent born child, it would almost certainly be illegal for her to do so, whereas if a pregnant woman could avoid lifetime brain damage only by killing her innocent unborn child, many of us would allow that. The difference is bodily rights that operate when a person’s body stands to be used in a particular way, but otherwise do not operate.

And a corollary is this: For pro-lifers such as us, society’s right to outlaw abortion in the case of a normal pregnancy is based, as mentioned, on a somewhat close balance. On one side of the balance is the value of a human life, on the other side, the burdens of a normal pregnancy coupled with the woman’s bodily rights. The human life wins out. But the woman’s bodily rights that are there by default never disappear; and therefore if a normally pregnant woman violates the law and claims those default bodily rights, it is not fully the same as killing a born child who is not infringing on her bodily rights. It is, though a defiance of the law, something less than murder.

Almost all pro-lifers think of the unborn at any stage as full-fledged persons, as members of our human family. And I think it is safe to say that very few pro-choicers think of them that way. Pro-choicers who use bodily-rights arguments think that they can justify abortion regardless of unborn personhood (as mentioned, I find that bodily-rights approach strong but not quite strong enough in normal pregnancies). So those who use such an approach normally concede for the sake of argument that the unborn are persons; but I think that almost always, they make that concession only for the sake of argument. As pro-choicers who genuinely think of the unborn as persons, I can only think of Naomi Wolf, who said, “Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the foetus, in its full humanity, must die. But it is never right or necessary to minimise the value of the lives involved,” and Camille Paglia, who said, “A liberal credo that is variously anti-war, anti-fur, vegan, and committed to environmental protection of endangered species like the sage grouse or spotted owl should not be so stridently withholding its imagination and compassion from the unborn.” I don’t know how far those two base the pro-choice position they hold on bodily rights, but any pro-choicers who do rely on bodily rights, and genuinely see the unborn as persons, could make statements just like theirs.

So how should we frame a face-off over a normal pregnancy, between pro-lifers such as me, and those few bodily-rights pro-choicers who genuinely see the unborn as persons? It would be like the pro-choice side declaring, “There is a close contest between bodily rights and the right to life of a full-fledged person, in which bodily rights prevail,” and the pro-life side declaring, “There is a close contest between bodily rights and the right to life of a full-fledged person, in which bodily rights don’t quite prevail.” For me personally, though it is clear that the outcome of the contest is on the pro-life side, I wouldn’t call the margin of the outcome (in terms of what should or shouldn’t be legal) a very pronounced one.

Doesn’t it always seem strange that there should be so much polarization on the abortion issue? Understanding those few conversations (such as the imagined one above) that are free from polarization helps illuminate the sources of the polarization that more typically occurs. Polarization stems mainly from widely disparate views of the unborn, so a conversation such as the above is bound to be free from polarization. Therefore there is another corollary of the “somewhat close balance” view of the abortion issue: those few pro-choicers who really see the unborn as our little sisters and brothers will share that “somewhat close” view with the pro-lifers who hold it, and those two groups will not be each other’s hated enemies. Both groups will agree that the issue involves a balance that could understandably tip the other way in the other person’s mind. There will not be the acrimony that is usual between pro-choicers and pro-lifers. They will be able to talk. (If the pro-choicers deprecate the unborn, on the other hand, there will be a big fight.)

© 2017

Appendix

I originally wrote the following version of the first few paragraphs, but replaced it with the above version for the sake of brevity. Some readers might be interested in further details of what led up to Klusendorf’s Even if my answer were inconsistent . . .:

At Wayne State University last November 16, Scott Klusendorf, perhaps the dean of pro-life apologists, ably debated abortion with Nadine Strossen, a former president of the ACLU. Early on, Klusendorf based his pro-life position on this simple syllogism:

Premise 1: It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.
Premise 2: Abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.
Conclusion: Therefore abortion is wrong.

At 1:07:01 Strossen asks Klusendorf about exceptions: “when it’s necessary to save a woman’s life, when it’s necessary for her health, when she is the victim of rape or incest . . .” Klusendorf gives the example of an ectopic pregnancy threatening the life of a woman and affirms that this would be an exception and that any pro-life physician would agree. Strossen then asks about health exceptions: “if it’s not a matter of literally saving a pregnant woman’s life, but . . . serious adverse health impact . . .” Klusendorf replies in terms of the rarity of such serious cases (serious cases other than ectopic pregnancies). He also points out that Doe v. Bolton had allowed an overly broad health exception; but his answer implies that if Doe had not made things so broad, he would agree to a health exception. Strossen then asks, “What do you define as health [that is, a health condition whose seriousness would reach the threshold at which he would agree to make an exception]?”

At 1:12:01 Klusendorf says, Sure, I’ll answer that. Let me make an observation, though. Even if my answer were inconsistent, it wouldn’t eradicate the syllogism I put forward. . . . So even if I answered this question in a way that seemed inconsistent with my view, it would only show I’m inconsistent. It wouldn’t rule out the evidence I presented.

At that point he again brings up the overly-broad standards and the empirical rarity of serious cases, but Strossen insists on a specific example even if “hypothetically,” and offers “Let’s say she will not lose her life, but she will be rendered infertile. . . . Would that be a situation where you would say the pregnancy could be terminated?” He replies, “In that case the mother stands to lose one good, the child stands to lose an ultimate good” – meaning that impending infertility would not be a sufficient reason to abort. Strossen then moves on to other topics.

 

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Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

A Pro-Life Feminist Balance Sheet

 

Secular Pro-Life has published an article of mine under their paid blogging program.

 

A sentence in the next-to-last paragraph reads:

Because even if the legality of abortion is morally neutral and abortion does not psychologically harm women, there is no question that reliance on the practice to solve various problems denigrates women’s femaleness, instead of honoring it and demanding that society accommodate it (remember the point about female functions above) . . .

But as I said in a main comment under the article, “I should have written ‘Because even if keeping abortion legal is not morally wrong and abortion does not psychologically harm women, there is no question that reliance on the practice to attain equality with men denigrates women’s femaleness, instead [etc.].’” The entire comment reads:

I wrote in the article, Because even if the legality of abortion is morally neutral and abortion does not psychologically harm women, there is no question that reliance on the practice to solve various problems denigrates women’s femaleness, instead of honoring it and demanding that society accommodate it (remember the point about female functions above) . . .

I should have written “Because even if keeping abortion legal is not morally wrong and abortion does not psychologically harm women, there is no question that reliance on the practice to attain equality with men denigrates women’s femaleness, instead [etc.].” I was trying to be brief, but I wasn’t very successful in being both brief and clear.

Early in the article I had written: Women will no longer have to live in a society that gives official sanction to the idea “. . . Often, the female sex can become equal to the male only by assaulting a female function . . .” There were a number of reasons that abortion was originally made legal in the US. The stated reason was “privacy,” but that does not mean that that was the actual main reason in the collective inner mind of society – or if it was, the main reasons might have shifted – and I don’t think that in popular belief that is now the main justification for the legality. Justice Ginsburg wrote in Gonzales v. Carhart, quoting from Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “[Women's] ability to realize their full potential . . . is intimately connected to ‘their ability to control their reproductive lives.’ Thus, legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures . . . center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature…

Ginsburg was talking about equal citizenship stature to be achieved by assaulting the normal bodily functioning of a female who has happened to get pregnant. She was giving official sanction to the idea that that is sometimes the price of equality and thus that women are by nature less than equal. (Which pro-life feminism disputes. Pro-life feminism blames society rather for not accommodating women’s nature.) If in the popular mind the reasons for the legality of abortion were other than such equality – for instance if people believed that it is legal because making it legal is, due to bodily rights or whatever, morally neutral or morally right, then the legality of abortion would not have the effect of denigrating women’s femaleness – but if people believe the reason to be equality, then the message they get from official quarters is that by nature, women are less than equal.

And in a reply to a commenter, I further wrote –

Suppose I had said, “there is no question that if a pregnant person allows her physiology, which scientific consensus calls female and not-male, to function unhindered, the result will be a born baby (or at least is much more likely to be a born baby than if she deliberately hinders the functioning)” — ? I think you would say, okay, there’s no question.

However, am I justified in equating unhindered female functioning with femaleness? Though I might think twice about how I use “femaleness” if I find that word has been used differently by pro-life feminist thinkers, I guess I would define it as “female anatomy/physiology (along with any inborn, hardwired female behavior traits, if there are any) as the ultimate basis of female identity.” Let me explain.

Suppose a person has typical male anatomy and physiology but identifies as female. Okay, so if you ask me the person’s gender identity, I will say “female”. But does that mean that anatomy is completely unrelated to identity, as some might claim? I don’t think so, because the fact that the person identifies as female means there is such a thing as a female. And what defines that concept of “female” that the person is using? It can only be what scientific consensus calls female anatomy and female physiology. Unless “female anatomy/physiology is the ultimate basis of female identity,” then there can be no such thing as feminism, there can be no meaning to “women’s struggle,” “women’s rights,” “Women’s March,” “women’s health.” Or even “equality of men and women.”

So, a few or many females (by identity) may have male anatomy, but still female anatomy/physiology is the ultimate basis of female identity. Take away that basis and female identity will become meaningless

You might be trying to tell me, “If women hinder their physiological functioning, that is not denigrating their female identity, because they don’t identify with their anatomy/physiology.” But they DO identify with it.

I wrote, “there is no question that reliance on the practice to solve various problems denigrates women’s femaleness.” I should have said “certain problems,” or more specifically “problems that jeopardize their equality.” If a woman’s problem is that the unborn has some cosmetic defect, that’s not a good reason to abort, but she is not aborting for the sake of equality with men. But if she aborts in order to compete with men at work,* then the abortion is a statement “If I allow my normal physiological functioning then I’m inferior to men.” An abortion for that reason denigrates her femaleness.

* The Justice Ginsburg justification for legal abortion — see the main comment that I made in this comments section.

Whereas if the woman said, “I’m going to go ahead and deliver the baby, maybe even raise it, and I demand that society reward me for doing that job as much as it rewards the men whom I will now lag behind at the office,” then she’s a pro-life feminist. PL feminists say No, I can have my normal physiological functioning without being inferior to men. But I will be different from men, and society has to accommodate me along with my difference . . .

– and to another commenter I wrote:

. . . The institution of legal abortion, as the article says, entails both benefits and losses for women, and most of those benefits and losses are primarily material, not moral. For instance, if abortion is legal, it will be a little safer — a benefit in terms of the health of aborting women, a material benefit. However, if the institution of legal abortion is morally wrong and if that institution exists, then the whole society becomes to that extent an immoral society and everyone (including women) will be polluted morally by having to live in it. Whereas if the institution of legal abortion is morally right and if that institution DOESN’T exist, then the whole society becomes to that extent an immoral society and everyone (including women) will be polluted morally by having to live in it. So though the article counts up mostly material benefits and losses that stem from making abortion illegal, there will also be a benefit or loss in terms of moral pollution BY THE VERY FACT that abortion is legal or illegal.

Though I think myself that the institution of legal abortion is morally wrong, some think it’s morally right, and I wanted all the benefits and losses to be undebatable, so as you may have understood, I did not (in this particular article) come to any conclusion about its morality.

But I did say that if the institution of legal abortion is not morally wrong, then as an institution (THE VERY FACT that it is legal), it doesn’t come in the “losses” column. But even if the institution of legal abortion is not morally wrong, that institution DOES send the message that femaleness is inferior — that institution denigrates women — which DOES come in the losses column. That’s what the sentence is saying.

That denigration is not exactly a material loss or a loss in terms of moral pollution. It’s an image loss . . .

 

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

Should the Pro-Life States Secede from the Union?

I suppose it’s conceivable that Trump will be elected in November and miraculously, within a few years, give us a pro-life Supreme Court while not bringing on the end of civilization in some way. If we are not so lucky, the pro-life cause in the United States seems doomed for another couple of decades at least. It is hard to see how even a nominally pro-life Senate could resist the extreme pro-choice Supreme Court picks to be expected of a President Clinton. We will see, if not the so-called Women’s Health Protection Act, then the equivalent by judicial fiat, sweeping away the best efforts that can be made at the state level.

The pro-life cause in the United States may be doomed. But is the United States our only option?

The first time I floated the idea that the pro-life states might peacefully secede from the Union, the response was an expression of doubt that for the pro-life states to do so would actually save lives. And in the short run, considering that the legal-abortion states would not be far away from the pro-life states, and that travel would probably be easy, and that laws only deter a certain percentage of abortions even where they are in effect, secession might not save many lives.

But I don’t think of secession first and foremost in terms of lives saved in the short run. I think it all starts with a question of moral integrity. If Kansans, for example, are pro-life and are free to live, if they wish, under laws that protect unborn life, and opt not to do so, how much of their moral integrity on that issue can they preserve, and what message do they send to others?

I ask myself, if the Hyde Amendment is repealed and tax money starts flowing for abortions, will pro-lifers dutifully line up and pay their taxes?

But at this point, let’s get real and admit that presently there would be nowhere near enough popular support for the pro-life states to actually secede. Surveys show that there are not a great many single-issue voters on the abortion issue, and it is doubtful that even a majority of those single-issue voters are ardent enough to let go of their loyalty to the United States, even if that loyalty is no longer deserved; to embrace the security and economic uncertainties of such a move; to embrace possible complications in traveling to see friends and relatives; and to embrace the unknown in general.

What I would really propose, though, is to start a long-term movement, aimed at eventual secession, right now. (Or in November.) The original feminists did not live to see women’s suffrage in the United States, but suffrage would not have been won had someone not taken the first step. As pro-lifers we often tell ourselves that the real war over life is not a political war, but a cultural war. Yet how can a cultural war be won if the warriors do not walk their talk and put their politics where their professed values are? It is a question of moral integrity, and moral integrity shows. By showing just how serious we are within a peaceful framework, an ardent secessionist movement will be a jolt to everyone’s minds that will help us to win the cultural war in all states. This will be particularly so if secularists are prominent, visibly so, in the leadership of the movement. It will be important also that African-Americans are prominent among the leadership, so that this present secession movement cannot be painted with the brush of the secession in 1861.

There is no need to mention the importance of leadership by women, since women are already leading the pro-life movement.

A dynamic secessionist movement with visible secular leadership will force pro-choicers to ask, many of them for the first time, why these people are so passionate. The national discourse will for the first time attain the intense focus on a philosophical question – “What is the nature of the unborn?” – without which a decisive shift, for the better, in the balance of the cultural war will never be possible. A secessionist movement will be the evidence, that is now lacking, that we are serious in our assertions that abortion is a serious wrong.

If such a movement succeeds in creating a Pro-Life States of America, well and good. And if before that happens, it succeeds in jolting the United States enough, bringing people to their senses enough, to form an effective pro-life majority (“effective” meaning reflected in the Supreme Court and all branches of government), so much the better.

With modern communications ideas travel faster than they used to, and unlike the first feminists, some of us who take this initiative may actually live to see a culture of life and the consequent legal concern for life, whether within the political framework of a new country or of the one we have known.

The pro-life cause in the US has somehow come to be called “conservative,” despite its seemingly greater affinity, as pointed out by Charles Camosy and others, with some values that the Democratic Party champions or once championed. And the fact is that the pro-life states are conservative in many ways. I personally see this as a downside to secession. In particular, I think that governments, as representatives of our human family, should help pregnant women, mothers, and children without waiting for the market and the private sector to do it (which I think would be the approach of most conservatives). I oppose the death penalty, which many conservatives support. If I had to label myself in terms of political and economic thinking with just one conventional word, the word would be “socialist.” So I do not advance the idea of a Pro-Life States of America, and the free hand it might give to conservatives in those states on other issues, without trepidation. But in balance I would be ready to try it and face what might come in that regard.

So should we at least start a movement for secession? If Trump is elected (no thanks to us) in November, and if the world survives, let’s wait a bit and see. If Clinton is elected, let’s start a movement immediately.

Though I have lived most of my adult life in India, some of my ancestors came to America from Britain long before 1776, and I recognize the contributions that the United States as a country has made. I wouldn’t take lightly the fragmentation of that remarkable country. But nothing lasts forever. National states should serve their citizens, and not vice versa. If pro-lifers have the will, they can have a country that represents their values. The unborn can have a country where they belong, and which does not throw them under the bus. If things don’t, somehow, immediately start getting better in November, let’s strike a blow for the most victimized members our human family, and for our own psychological and moral health, and draw a real breath of fresh air.

© 2016

 

Should the Pro-Life States Secede from the Union? can be shared on Facebook here, and retweeted on Twitter here.

 

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Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

Can a Pro-Lifer Be Both Open-Minded and Confident?

Can a pro-lifer be both open-minded and confident?

If only because it’s hard to prove a negative, one can never be completely confident that there is not some evidence out there somewhere that would lead one to become pro-choice.

And the less familiar a pro-lifer is with the literature on the abortion issue — Boonin, Beckwith, Kaczor, etc. — the less reason that person would have to be confident in that way. A person who has read everything and has ended up with strong pro-life convictions, may perhaps feel that it is only in theory that he might encounter a new pro-choice argument that he will not be able to defeat, or some new scientific or statistical evidence that might change everything for him. But we can safely guess that most pro-lifers have never read a book on the subject. How can someone who has never read Boonin feel confident that nothing he might read in Boonin, if he reads open-mindedly, might overturn his pro-life views?

So I think that the only way a pro-lifer can be both open-minded and confident is if he has a plan B for how he will operate if the evidence leads him to be pro-choice.

By such a plan B, I don’t necessarily mean a rehearsed speech that he will use to explain to his friends how he had made a mistake. I just mean that he must have confidence that life will still be worth living even if he changes his most cherished opinions. And in fact life should still be worth living if not even more worth living than it was before, because presumably he will change from an old opinion only to a new opinion that carries more truth.

In other words, a pro-lifer can be open-minded and confident if he is confident in always progressing toward more and more truth, but not if he is confident in remaining always pro-life.

I think it is extremely unlikely that the evidence will ever lead me to become pro-choice, by the way. My point is just that being really open-minded can only mean being ready to change any opinion at all.

© 2016

 

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Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

The Democratic National Convention: Pro-Choice, or Pro-Abortion?

 

Secular Pro-Life has published an article of mine under their paid blogging program.

 

Two paragraphs in the article read:

Anyway, we can certainly say that Hogue’s remarks were enthusiastically received. But what exactly was the crowd applauding? The first burst of applause that followed Hogue’s remarks about the “tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path” might be chalked up to support for abortion “choice.” Some Democrats, in the past at least, have notably said that they personally oppose abortion, but that women should have the choice because of back-alley abortions, or bodily rights, or for the sake of “not imposing beliefs.”

But what of the applause that followed Hogue’s proclamation that women like her make the “decisions that are best for us”? Did the crowd applaud the decision-making power (choice), or did they applaud the idea that abortion is often for the best (as Hogue claims it was in the case of her own pregnancy)? Well, if they applauded choice, it was not choice because of back-alley abortions or bodily rights or “not imposing beliefs.” It was choice because choice is likely to result in “the best” decision—it was because abortion is often for the best, or specifically the best for the woman, regardless of what it means for anyone else. That is what they were applauding.

A somewhat elaborated answer to the question “what exactly was the crowd applauding?” would be as follows:

The first burst of applause followed upon Hogue’s remarks about the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path and then her I made the decision that was best for me. “The tools, the trust, and the chance” clearly refers to choice. Some Democrats, in the past at least, have notably said that they personally oppose abortion, but that women should have the choice because of back-alley abortions, or bodily rights, or “not imposing beliefs.” So even though the second bit goes beyond choice and says that her abortion itself was good, that burst of applause might have been for the first bit and might have been pro-choice, not pro-abortion.

I just said that the second bit, “I made the decision that was best for me,” says that her abortion itself was good. But does it say only that? No, we cannot view it even that charitably – it doesn’t say simply that her abortion was good; it says that it was good for her, regardless of what it was for anyone else.

And the second burst of applause followed upon Hogue’s remark . . . it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women . . .  each making decisions that are best for us. So that time, did the crowd applaud the decision-making power (choice) or did they applaud the idea that abortion is often for the best? Well, if they applauded choice, it was not choice because of back-alley abortions or bodily rights or “not imposing beliefs.” It was choice because choice is likely to result in “the best” decision – it was because abortion is often for the best, or specifically the best for the woman, regardless of what it means for anyone else. That is what they were applauding.

 

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

Judith Jarvis Thomson on Responsibility

Though I do not think that a responsibility argument is necessary in order to dismantle the bodily-rights argument or other pro-choice arguments, the responsibility incurred in the creation of a new human being is a very important consideration in pregnancies other than rape pregnancies. I would like to take issue with an attempt to deny much of that importance:

If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it, and a burglar climbs in, it would be absurd to say, “Ah, now he can stay, she’s given him a right to the use of her house – for she is partially responsible for his presence there, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars, and that burglars burgle.” It would be still more absurd to say this if I had had bars installed outside my windows, precisely to prevent burglars from getting in, and a burglar got in only because of a defect in the bars. It remains equally absurd if we imagine it is not a burglar who climbs in, but an innocent person who blunders or falls in. Again, suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not – despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors. But this won’t do – for by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army.

The first thing to notice is that if we read this paragraph by Judith Jarvis Thomson literally, she finds her burglar analogy and her people-seeds analogy to lead to two quite different conclusions about responsibility. Since burglars are unwanted, a homeowner does not have to accept the presence of a burglar who does enter, even if the homeowner has voluntarily left the window open; and therefore Thomson reasons that if an unborn child is unwanted, the mother does not have to accept its presence, even if she has voluntarily had sex. It would be “absurd” to say that she did. It would be “still more absurd” if she had taken careful precautions (in the analogy, putting bars on the windows), but absurd even if she hadn’t.

But in the people-seeds analogy, her conclusion of non-acceptance – “Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not . . .” – depends on very careful precautions. “. . . fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy . . .” is a condition for “Surely not.” (“Surely not,” of course, means “You are surely not responsible, so the unborn child has no right.”)

So in the event of carelessness about contraception – according to the people-seeds argument – the woman does incur some responsibility.

We might think that perhaps Thomson’s underlying thought was not what she literally said, and perhaps her people-seeds argument was intended merely to expand on what she had already said about the burglar – despite the use of two different metaphors – and hence would not change her “absurd” conclusion about the burglar.

We might think that, if not for her “recapitulation” near the end of her paper:

if [parents] have taken all reasonable precautions against having a child, they do not simply by virtue of their biological relationship to the child who comes into existence have a special responsibility for it.

(The sentence refers literally to a born child, but this is a recapitulation of what she had said earlier about the unborn. So both of the moral principles – the “do not,” and the “if” condition without which the “do not” would become a “do” – apply to an unborn child as well.)

Another Kind of Responsibility

At this point we should mention a kind of responsibility other than the kind incurred simply in the act of creation of a new human being. Thomson in her paper considers the possibility of a right not to be killed, and, as we have seen above, also addresses the possibility that responsibility for another human being can be incurred in some way through the process of that person’s creation. Does she also consider the possibility of a responsibility that might be incumbent simply because a helpless person not only has a right not to be killed, but also a right to be taken care of? Yes, she does consider that possibility, though she does not say “responsibility” – she speaks of “Minimally Decent Samaritan laws.”

An argument for strong laws of this kind is the “de facto guardian” argument. The authors of “De Facto Guardian” find, within themselves, moral intuitions to the effect that an adult “in a situation in which she is the only person in the vicinity who can help a child in need. . . . now shoulders the same obligations of a parent or guardian . . . temporarily.” My intuition agrees at least up to this point. (I have explored correct and incorrect moral intuitions elsewhere.)

The farthest Thomson, however, seems willing to go is when she says:

It would [meaning with legal weight] be indecent in the woman to request an abortion, and indecent in a doctor to perform it, if she is in her seventh month, and wants the abortion just to avoid the nuisance of postponing a trip abroad.

So the only thing further that needs to be said about this kind of responsibility is that Thomson’s moral intuitions don’t allow it to extend as far as do my intuitions and those of some others.

Thomson does, however, take for granted the legitimate interest of the state in protecting unborn persons – and hence the state’s duty to protect them – though she thinks that that interest and duty should not usually prevail, due to lack of responsibility (as she sees it) and other considerations.

 

Getting back now to the burglar and the people-seeds, and looking at each of those arguments literally, we can say that Thomson’s burglar argument depends for its validity on four elements all working:

1. we must agree with the moral intuition that a homeowner need not tolerate a burglar in their house, even if they left the window open (I think Thomson has laid an effective groundwork here by picking a moral intuition we can certainly agree with)

2. we must agree that in assessing a homeowner’s or a pregnant woman’s responsibility – responsibility in terms of freedom to evict or a lack of such freedom – it does not make any difference what is being evicted – a burglar or an unborn child

3. we must agree that a pregnant woman is no more responsible for a sperm having entered her body than a homeowner is for a burglar having entered his/her house

4. we must agree that (analogous to the reasonableness of leaving a window open) it would be unreasonable to expect abstinence from sex – she says in the people-seeds analogy, but it would apply to the burglar as well: “Someone may argue that you are responsible . . . that [the people-seed] does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors” (an argument she rejects).

So her burglar argument depends for its validity on these four elements working; and her people-seeds argument depends basically on the same four working, except that with the people-seeds argument Thomson concedes more in the first element. So that element becomes:

1. we must agree with the moral intuition that a homeowner need not tolerate a people-seed in his/her house, if the homeowner has taken very careful precautions against it

Though we will all agree with the burglar version of 1, I don’t think we should fully agree with the people-seeds version of 1. And in the cases of both the burglar argument and the people-seeds argument, I don’t think we should agree with 2 or 3. And I think there is a logical flaw in 4.

But before I get to the people-seeds version of 1, let’s see what is wrong with 2, 3 and 4 in the burglar argument.

The problem with 2, of course, is that there is in fact a difference between a burglar and an unborn child. Anyone capable of burgling a house, if ushered out, will survive. An undeveloped child will die, unless some arrangement for it has been made. Here I feel that the de facto guardian concept should come into play. Thomson will eventually go on to speak of a very minimal (indeed) Minimally Decent Samaritanism, but here, where she uses the word “responsibility” itself, she does not concede even that much.

However, Thomson does here do the surprising segue from the burglar to the people-seeds. People-seeds, if the homeowner cannot turn them over to someone else, are dependent on the homeowner, and on the homeowner alone, for their survival. Perhaps Thomson does this segue out of some consciousness of the fact that many of us would expect an adult to be a de facto guardian for a child. Perhaps she is trying to have the best of both worlds in the reader’s intuitions – both our intuitive antipathy towards burglars (which militates toward our rejecting the idea of any responsibility), and our intuitive recognition that (unlike with a burglar) there is good analogousness between the vulnerability of an unborn child and the vulnerability of a people-seed – and that a child deserves some Samaritanism.

Thomson’s conscious or unconscious sleight of hand in 3 revolves around this choice of words: “If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it . . .” This is misleading because the woman’s role in becoming pregnant is greater than just that of a homeowner who leaves a window open for a purpose other than that which eventuates. If we really want to compare a homeowner’s behavior in opening a window “in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars” with a woman’s behavior in full knowledge of how babies are made, the nearest analogy would be to say:

“A homeowner who leaves their door unlocked and is burgled is like a woman who falls asleep in an unlocked room and is impregnated in her sleep.”

The homeowner in Thomson’s story opened the window for air, not to let the burglar in; therefore that homeowner is like a woman who has not consciously consented to sex. The homeowner is not like a woman who has consented, though Thomson tries to suggest that the homeowner is. So only the above “falls asleep” analogy is a good analogy with burglary. In the “falls asleep” version, I would agree that the woman, in spite of having left her room unlocked, is not responsible. She has been raped. But Thomson’s analogy is not like that.

And what about element 4, “we must agree that (analogous to the reasonableness of leaving a window open) it would be unreasonable to expect abstinence from sex”?

Let us accept Thomson’s contention that one cannot live without sex. Still there is a flaw in her argument, and it can be demonstrated with another analogy: One cannot live without food, either, yet we expect to pay for food. Hardly anyone gets it without some quid pro quo.

For sex, the quid pro quo is that one accepts responsibility for the possible outcome of the slight risk that one runs.

But if we are to apply a legal-contractual analysis like this in what is really a psychological and moral context, the transactions involved would be more complicated than when someone buys a sandwich.

First, think of a slot machine from the point of view of the casino. If the casino’s luck is bad on the occasion of one particular wager, the casino will have to pay big. That obligatory big payoff was compensated for by the probability of receiving regular benefits (small wagers that it won). In a similar way, a woman (or a man) who obtains the benefit of sex will run a risk of incurring a moral responsibility to make a big payoff sooner or later.

But you may object that the payoff for sex is owed only to nature, the giver of the benefit, and that since it is not owed to any person, it is not really owed at all in the normal sense. You might say that sex should be free of cost, like enjoying the beauty of nature.

However, what if enjoying the beauty of nature free of cost sometimes involved killing somebody along the way? That would change the equation.

You have received benefits that would cause you to incur a debt. Then someone comes along who needs that payoff, who cannot live without that payoff. That new person comes along produced by a sex act that was, for you, one of a series of benefits.

I think that the moral intuitions of everyone who really considers that “someone” to be a person, will say that the debt gets transferred and that the someone, the unborn child, deserves the big payoff. The debt gets called in. But the moral intuitions of those, like Thomson, who only consider that someone to be a person for the sake of argument, may not say that.

Enjoying sex free of cost involves killing an unborn child if one happens to eventuate and if one feels it as a burden. But it is not free of cost: the debt gets transferred within the “moral universe” (a phrase liked by MLK). And if that alone does not create enough responsibility to require one – in the cases of many pregnancies, not all – to refrain from killing, remember that one is also in the position of a de facto guardian.

The father of an unborn child owes a payoff equal to that of the mother. For him the payoff will necessarily take the form of supporting the mother financially and emotionally, and shouldering many of the chores. Elaboration of his role, and also discussion of his possible avoidance, is in order, but would fall outside the framework of Thomson’s analysis and thus of this answer to her

“Social contract” thinking may tell us that it is socially functional for a person to pay for a sandwich. But such thinking cannot tell us that it is right or just for a person to pay for a sandwich. Only our moral intuitions can tell us that. The sex-woman-child obligations and transfer of obligations that I have described may not presently be recognized in legal-contractual thinking, but they may become recognized in the more sophisticated legal-contractual thinking of the future. For now, that transfer of obligations is, whether described in my words or in some other words, the moral intuition of many, many people. (Just as the rightness of paying for a sandwich rests, ultimately, only on the moral intuition of many, many people.)

A quite different kind of legal-contractual analysis might be applied if we remember that humanity is more than just the sum of its parts, that it is also a collectivity, and that we all depend on it as such. Everyone begins their life by using the body of one representative of that collectivity – they may even use a body that has already been used by other children three or four or n times and might have started feeling tired. So everyone should be prepared, if the necessity ever arises, to pay back to that same representative or another representative. How a pregnant woman can pay back is obvious. Others should be prepared to pay back in other ways.

Really these two kinds of legal-contractual analysis should both be applied simultaneously.

Finally, now, to the people-seeds version of 1, which I had said that we should not fully agree with. Here Thomson concedes that those who have not been careful about contraception should bear responsibility. This is good as far as it goes. But her contention that those who have been careful need not bear responsibility depends, as in the burglar argument, on the contention that sex is a necessity that should be cost-free; and that I have discussed above.

 

This has all been about responsibility. Regarding the obvious next question, whether abortion should automatically be legal even when there is no responsibility, I have written in an essay
“Dismantling the Bodily-Rights Argument without Using the Responsibility Argument.”

© 2016

 

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

“Pro-Lifers Don’t Really Believe That Zygotes Are Persons”

A New Yorker review, summarizing a key argument of Katha Pollitt’s 2014 Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, proclaimed that “No person actually imagines that a zygote is a person.” (Meaning that certainly the pro-lifers who say that it is don’t actually imagine that.) The recent Newsweek article “America’s Abortion Wars (and How to End Them)” came to the same conclusion. A 2007 article by a law professor focused on pro-lifers who make an exception for rape; the logic offered in the article leads to the conclusion that some such pro-lifers (though not all) “take the position that abortion kills an entity that is something less than a full person. The earlier in pregnancy an abortion occurs, the greater the appeal of this position for many.” Under a Huffington Post article, the commenter CourtDecisions once told me that according to his legal knowledge, “. . . the advocates of fetal personhood don’t really believe in fetal personhood.”

While there is another segment of pro-choicers who go to the opposite extreme and claim that pro-lifers are a religious cult who worship fetuses, the above voices represent probably the bigger and more serious group, and advance a sometimes thought-provoking case. They usually adduce two kinds of evidence for their claim:

1. They say that pro-lifers’ actual public-policy recommendations, and pro-lifers’ claims about personhood, are deeply inconsistent.

After “No person actually imagines that a zygote is a person,” the New Yorker review goes on:

If they did, they would actually equate murder and abortion, and their conduct – only the tiniest fringe is willing to advertise comparable penalties for both – shows that they know perfectly well that they aren’t the same. . . . One would have to oppose capital punishment. . . . One would find it difficult to support any war or military action at all.

Meanwhile, the law professor opens her reasoning with the observation that pro-lifers who would allow the abortion of an unborn child of rape, would not allow the infanticide of a born child of rape. She then proceeds to eliminate some of what might appear to be explanations for this distinction, and at the end we find that out of all the possibilities of explanation she has provided, the explanation in the case of some such pro-lifers must be the view that the unborn is less than a full person. CourtDecisions wrote that “even the advocates of fetal personhood believe that abortion should be legal for rape, incest and fetal abnormalities. Consequently, the advocates of fetal personhood don’t really believe in fetal personhood.”

(The New Yorker and the law professor then proceed to think up reasons why pro-lifers may actually oppose abortion: “religious dogma,” “misogyny,” “intercourse as a sin.”)

I would agree that pro-lifers who would allow abortion for incest or fetal abnormalities, unless they would also allow euthanasia or eugenic killing of born children, don’t really believe that the unborn are persons. But the argument against those pro-lifers fails against pro-lifers who do not support those exceptions, and some of the other arguments also fail against a particular group of those who don’t: they fail against the group of pro-lifers who support a consistent life ethic.

The argument about a rape exception, however, seems more challenging, at first sight, for those pro-lifers who happen to advocate that exception, and the “comparable penalties” argument is challenging for most pro-lifers.

At this point let me mention that I am only personally acquainted with a small number of active pro-lifers and not with hundreds or thousands, and I would not be surprised if there are some pro-lifers who genuinely do not perceive zygotes as equivalent in moral value to born persons. And I would not be surprised if out of those who do not, there are a few who claim that they do. But that is not the point. I don’t think that moral truth is always determined democratically. What I will aim to do here is to represent the views of very thoughtful pro-lifers, as I understand them.

I think that most such pro-lifers do not want to give twenty-year prison sentences to women who abort – if they would even award such sentences to all abortionists without exception. Let’s look now at that “inconsistency” in awarding penalties. I think there are four factors at work, any one of which explains that “inconsistency” better than does the idea that pro-lifers secretly devalue the unborn:

First, I think that many pro-lifers, particularly those who have arrived at their own pro-life thinking only through a process of study and reflection over a period of years, can understand that the humanity of the unborn may not be immediately obvious to all; moreover, they give due credit to the efficacious campaign of dehumanization of the unborn that has gone on, in the US and some other cultures, for the last fifty years. Author and abortion-rights advocate Naomi Wolf admitted 20 years ago that “Many pro-choice advocates developed a language to assert that the fetus isn’t a person, and this, over the years has developed into a lexicon of dehumanization. . . . service staffers referred to the fetus . . . as ‘material’ (as in ‘the amount of material that had to be removed…’)” Unmentioned by Wolf, but perhaps still more effective in dehumanizing or simply erasing the unborn, were cunning bits of verbal engineering that assured women that only one “body,” theirs, was involved in any abortion. I think that often pro-lifers feel that many pregnant women simply do not know, or have been misled not to know, what it is that they are aborting. Pro-lifers do not demand harsh treatment for that reason. (This obviousness-of-humanity factor is also discussed, along with some possible factors that I will not touch on here, by Christopher Kaczor in his article “Equal Rights, Unequal Wrongs,” and was the subject of a Secular Pro-Life blog post not long ago.)

Second, it may more often be hard to determine that an abortion was not medically necessary than to determine that the killing of a born person was not self-defense. Abortion cases may more often be foggy in an evidentiary way, resulting in a cautious approach toward the prosecution of all abortion cases in general.

Third, when a crime of any kind is very common, prosecuting all cases might overwhelm the courts. An alternative might be to make examples by prosecuting only the “big fish” – in this case the abortionists.

Fourth and perhaps most importantly, pro-lifers, like anyone else, respect the mental sense of body ownership that underlies the concept of bodily rights. The importance accorded to that sense rests on a kind of intuition, and hence the importance varies somewhat from person to person, but I don’t think there is a night-and-day difference in that regard between pro-lifers as a group and pro-choicers as a group. To put it simply, pro-lifers as well as pro-choicers believe in “bodily rights.” So pro-lifers feel that as a moral starting point, or as a default moral principle, everyone has a right to refuse to let their body be used unless they give permission. Certainly one’s body cannot be used for just any purpose under the sun. Where pro-lifers differ from pro-choicers is that pro-lifers are likely to feel that a woman does not have that right when her body is the only hope for survival of a new human being – a situation that they feel confers some degree of responsibility on her – and when her pregnancy is not expected to be unusually rough or dangerous. And the responsibility is all the greater if she became pregnant through consensual sex.

But the belief in a default principle of bodily rights has two important consequences:

a. Many pro-lifers, given that default belief, may feel that a woman does retain the right to refuse the use of her body if serious health consequences are expected for her – even though her situation is not life-threatening. Most pro-lifers might say that even in such a situation she should not abort, but many would feel that she has the right to do so. So many may be ready to permit abortion for the sake of the woman’s health, even at the cost of the baby’s life.

Does this mean that they deem the unborn to be less human than the woman? Not at all. Remember that the default principle is simply: anyone has a right to refuse to let their body be used. That one can lose that right under any circumstances at all (such as a pregnancy that is expected to be relatively smooth) testifies to the fact that the unborn is considered fully human. But even though the unborn is fully human, the woman’s bodily rights mean that she retains a right to refuse to let her body undergo truly dire kinds of suffering.

b. It is similar regarding the prosecution of abortion cases as something less than murder. Abortion is less than murder not because the victim is not fully human, but because everyone has bodily rights such that in many circumstances, one would have a right to kill in order to defend their body. We could almost say that by default, one does have a right to kill to prevent the unconsented use of one’s body. I have written elsewhere, and others also have written elsewhere, on why there should be no such right in the case of a normal pregnancy, but the point here is that there almost is such a right. Abortion is not extremely far removed from such self-defense. For a woman, the offense of abortion, once abortion is illegal, will be the offense of not letting her default right to kill be offset by other considerations present in a pregnancy. That offense may not even be defined as a crime; and if it is so defined, it will not be murder. Even what the abortionist himself does may or may not be murder, because the abortionist can be seen as simply assisting the woman in an excessive assertion of her bodily rights.

According to the moral intuitions of many pro-lifers, in the case of pregnancy the value of a human life (the child’s) does override what would normally be the woman’s bodily rights, and therefore abortion should be illegal. But if a pregnant woman violates the law and claims what would normally be her bodily rights, it is, though a defiance of the law, something considerably less than murder.

(And the more so if the pregnancy resulted from rape. The law professor I have quoted actually mooted bodily rights as a possible explanation for why a pro-lifer might make a rape exception in spite of considering the unborn as a person, but rejected that explanation – too hastily, I think.)

And if a woman is sorely tempted to ease the anxieties of her own brain with alcohol at a time when she happens to have a child inside her, that is not morally the same as plying her newborn with alcohol without any similar temptation – though the results for the child may be the same.

Few pro-lifers would say that the validity of the pro-life position is an open-and-shut case. I think most feel that it involves a balancing of different values in which the balance does not fall overwhelmingly on the pro-life side, though it falls clearly enough.

2. They claim that thought experiments reveal that pro-lifers do not highly value the early unborn.

The Newsweek article, which contained numerous bad arguments, also contained this thought experiment:

A building is on fire. On one floor, five healthy babies are in cribs. On another, 10,000 embryos are in petri dishes, being grown for 10,000 women who want them implanted (new scientific advances guarantee that all the embryos will survive until birth). Because of the rapidly advancing flames, you have time to evacuate only one floor: Either five babies will die or 10,000 future humans will be destroyed. Which do you choose?

Hopefully, the answer is obvious – anyone who decides to rescue globs of cells over living, breathing babies is a monster. But this hypothetical exposes the absurdity of the claim that women who choose abortion are “murdering” babies or that a human being pops into existence at conception, even though a zygote or embryo is no more sentient than a sperm.

The author clearly does “hope” that the answer is obvious, but also clearly understands that there may be those to whom it might not be obvious, and thinks he’d better ensure the obviousness. He proceeds to pull out the stops with pejoratives for the poor embryos, and hyperbolic insults for the poor reader who might see things differently than he does. Should all that fail, at the end he reminds us of the old sentience argument.

One reason the author is right to brace himself for disagreement is that his thought experiment has stacked the deck: despite the concession that all the embryos would survive until birth, he has selected a means of death that will be painful to the born babies and not to the embryos; and we are likely to imagine that some adults have already bonded with the born babies, unlike with the embryos.

But what if we leveled the playing field, so that the born babies as well as the embryos would die in some painless way, and so that none of the sadness that we might feel in either case comes from any personal bonds that have become strong over time?

First let me say that for myself, though I might conceivably save the five babies if I had no time to think, I would definitely save the embryos if I had time to think – and the number would not have to be 10,000. For me the ratio could be very close to 1:1. And the importance of the time factor to my behavior indicates an element that the thought experiment depends on for whatever degree of success it may have with different people: the element of emotion.

It seems that we are biologically programmed to see babies and small children as cute and to feel protective toward them, and to feel emotional when they are threatened. I would guess we are also biologically programmed to feel protective toward a woman who is obviously pregnant – to feel protective, that is, toward anyone who seems to need protection, but more so toward a pregnant woman. Maybe we do not automatically feel equally protective when a woman shows us the results of a very recent pregnancy test, but then how could we be programmed in such a way? Our biological programming took place on the savannahs of Africa at a time when we lacked pregnancy tests, microscopes, and ultrasounds. Such programming would require cues (such as the cuteness of a born baby or the obvious bump of a developed unborn baby), while for embryos and zygotes there simply would not in those days have been any cues. Moreover, nature may have seen less need for such programming than in the case of the born, because for the unborn, the mother’s body was present as the first line of defense – unlike for born babies whom the mother or father might not tend at every moment.

But as Javier Cuadros has written:

Science is a process of knowledge in which we penetrate ever deeper. . . . As the observations multiply . . . it is typical that the original appearances . . . are shown to be incorrect. The reality is different. . . . many scientists . . . are for applying the simple criterion of appearances. No, [embryos] are not men and women, they say, because they do not look like a person. Agreed, they do not look like a developed human being. But the earth looks like it is stationary . . .

The Newsweek author wrote that “anyone who decides to rescue [embryos] is a monster.” If he had written, before 1492, “anyone who decides to go east by sailing west is an idiot,” it would have struck a chord with the people of that time. But in a century of frequent flyers, not only does it seems to us truthful that we can do just that, it seems to us so in a way that is reflexive and completely natural.

Some of us pro-lifers have been thinking about embryos and embryology for a long time, and I suspect that the Newsweek author has not. Though it did not happen in my thinking overnight, to me a human life seems like one seamless process that has to start somewhere. I no longer feel surprised to think that it may have to start small. If we set aside the possibility of feeling pain or fear, and set aside the memories about a child that may have formed in the minds of others who have bonded with it, then from my perspective, anyone who can see a big difference between the death of a 4-year-old and the death of someone who will be a 4-year-old soon enough, simply hasn’t thought about it or otherwise lacks vision in the matter.

(With some effort, I can see how someone could develop the idea that if there has never been any sense of self, then nothing can be lost to any individual. But neuroscience tells us that the self is an illusion anyway. So what actually counts is a bundle of independent pains and pleasures, fears and hopes, that has an illusion of self seemingly tying it all together. What counts is whether such a bundle that would have existed is lost. Whether or not a particular illusion has occurred is not something that can count.)

Above I have responded to the two main arguments that I have seen for the claim “Pro-lifers don’t really believe . . .” But there is another argument as well that deserves to be looked at.

3. Some point out that pro-lifers are not doing all that they could do to save zygotes from natural death.

In a blog post called “No 5k for the biggest killer – so does anyone really believe it’s a killer?,” Fred Clark quotes from a book called Broken Words

. . . between 50 percent and 75 percent of embryos fail to implant in the uterus. . . . Surely, a moral response to a pandemic of this magnitude would be to rally the scientific community to devote the vast majority of its efforts to better understanding why this happens and trying to stop it. Yet the same pro-life leaders who declare that every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child have done nothing to advocate such research. … One could say that this massive loss of human life is natural, and therefore, humans are under no obligation to end it. But it is not clear why the same argument could not be used to justify complacency in the face of AIDS, cancer, heart disease, and other natural causes of human death

– and then comments:

That suggests one of two things. Either these pro-life advocates are complacent monsters every bit as callously unconcerned with saving unborn babies as those they oppose. Or else, just like those they oppose, these folks do not really believe that “every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child.” [Emphasis mine.]

I think that Clark has a point, and I think that consistent pro-lifers should be much more alarmed about those deaths than they presently are. But I think that again, bodily rights is at work, and the rest is a partially pardonable lack of awareness; and triage; and an understandable, if not completely pardonable, tendency to shrink from what could be a monumental sacrifice. I do not think that pro-lifers “do not really believe.”

Unlike with any kind of cure for AIDS, cancer, etc., saving those zygotes and embryos would require treating not the body of the victim, but the body of another person – the victim’s mother. When abortion is proposed, pro-lifers feel that the life of the embryo should normally override the bodily rights of the woman, and therefore that a justified infringement of her bodily rights is appropriate. But that infringement by society takes the form of preventing a pro-active act of violence on the part of the woman – it is not society pro-actively obliging a woman (a woman who plans no conscious and pro-active act) to ingest some (yet-to-be-developed) chemical or undergo some treatment that would trick her uterus into being more receptive to an embryo. Such an act by society would be a more intrusive infringement on her rights. And even before that infringement, society would have to pro-actively oblige her to submit to tests for the presence of an embryo whose presence would not otherwise be known – probably not even known to her.

I think that we should R&D some treatment that many women might wish to undergo voluntarily. But this lack, on society’s part, of a right to make sure, once the treatment is developed, that it would ever be used and would ever save lives, would be one reason that we do not passionately pursue its development.

I mentioned a “partially pardonable lack of awareness.” There must be many pro-lifers who do not know enough embryology to be aware of these deaths at all. But the pro-life leadership must certainly be aware, and does nothing to educate people. They must certainly be aware; but I feel it may all remain somewhat abstract even for thinking people, because the knowledge is purely statistical. When a sidewalk counselor sees a woman walking into an abortion clinic, that counselor sees a specific case of a life that (seemingly, at least) need not be lost; but we would not even know that the “between 50 percent and 75 percent figure” (assuming that is correct) is a reality, had not technologically-enabled investigations been made, followed by extrapolation from the findings.

“Triage”: I think that we should respond to those little one-celled or 800-celled sisters and brothers of ours exactly as we would respond to our born little sisters and brothers if they were under any threat. But we can expect most of those children whom we will save to be born sickly, and if a billion of our born little sisters and brothers each required the most costly, resource-intensive, and personnel-intensive kind of medical support during their lifetimes of whatever length, our moral obligation to save them by depriving everyone else would have some limit. The pro-choice argument about quality of life is not wrong; their mistake is to apply it discriminatorily, saying that it is particularly one group who must die to free up resources for others.

And finally, I mentioned “an understandable, if not completely pardonable, tendency to shrink from what could be a huge sacrifice” (a mild version of Clark’s “callously unconcerned”). Triage would only justify inaction about those deaths up to a certain point. I think that consistent pro-lifers should be ready to minimize their own expenditure and recreation to do something about those unborn children and everyone else in the world who is seriously suffering, and I don’t know if we’re all ready to do that yet.

I think that consistent pro-lifers should be much more alarmed about the natural deaths of zygotes than they presently are. But I think that if we look for the reasons they are not alarmed, a failure to “really believe” that they are persons is not among those reasons.

© 2016

 

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World