Is It Possible To Be Pro-CHOICE and Feminist?

 

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

 

Some further thoughts on the SPL blog post

From the post: In relation to issue 3 above, pro-lifers often point out that legal abortion is called “pro-choice,” and then proceed to object (as at 15:43 in the video) “It’s not pro-choice when we feel like we have no choice.” This quip does make a good point about social conditions, but it is framed as if it demolishes either the term “pro-choice” or the pro-choice policy; and does it really succeed in doing either? I think that all this argument really does is to play on two different meanings of the word “choice.” There is no real inconsistency here in pro-choicers’ position.

The fact that for many teenaged girls, especially, under present social conditions, it would be disastrous to have a baby (that is, having a baby is not a palatable “choice,” since it means financial ruin or rejection by one’s family or beatings from one’s boyfriend) hardly proves that allowing abortion (known as the “pro-choice” social policy) is a flawed position. If anything, the fact that for many girls there is no palatable alternative bolsters, in itself, the case for allowing abortion.

Then from the pro-choice side we regularly hear a guilt-by-association argument that could be called the “pro-birth argument.” The argument goes, in effect, “Because many who identify as pro-life on abortion hold obnoxious positions and harm women’s interests on other issues, the pro-life position on abortion must also be obnoxious and harmful to women’s interests.” On the panel, this was the argument on which Pamela Merritt mainly relied (though she did refer, more briefly, to some other arguments).

Merritt certainly argued convincingly and memorably that many pro-life politicians are destructive in many ways to the well-being of the female gender (and everyone else). But what does that really prove in terms of whether abortion is moral, whether abortion should be legal, or whether a feminist should be pro-choice or pro-life? As an argument against the pro-life positions even of the Missouri politicians she focused on, hers was an ad hominem, and against the pro-life positions of three of her fellow panelists, it was a strawman as well.

In order to defeat the pro-life position, one has to defeat the most ideal version of it. If pro-choicers were able to defeat the most ideal version – namely, the consistent pro-life position – they would certainly do so. If they try to defeat a tarnished version of the pro-life position, it is simply an admission that they are unable to defeat the ideal one. It should be possible to make pro-choicers see that and hence to abandon that argument.

And when she said that, things came to a head. Aimee Murphy suggested that the word “person” could be dispensed with, since “if we’re talking human rights” what we want to know is who is a human. “At the moment of fertilization you have two human gametes; they fuse; it’s a member of the same species.” Merritt tried to dismiss that with “We’ve got science on one side, we’ve got science on the other side,” but Murphy shot back, “Do you have an embryology textbook that can back that up?” Merritt replied, “For every textbook that you have, there has been a textbook produced on the other side.” The two were not in a situation where they could immediately produce their documentation, so that discussion ended there. But I think that anyone who does delve into the documentation will decide that Murphy won that debate.

Personally I think we could even avoid debates about present humanity by asking simply, “At what point in development will we, if we kill it, deprive an individual organism – whatever name we may give to that organism – of the conscious human life it would likely have had in the future?”

Under The highlights, for me, in the blog post, I provided a quote from Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa. Another good one at 78:08: “In gaining our liberation, I believe we have taken that same oppression and passed it down to the unborn being. . . . We should be the ones speaking up and saying we will never view any member of the human family as property, especially the weakest and most vulnerable among us.”

Klein-Hattori and Merritt found their stereotypes of pro-lifers exploded. Merritt said at 90:20 “What you’re describing is not pro-life that I experience and that millions of people experience . . . [it] is really blowing my mind.” Klein-Hattori said at 67:40 “One of the things that has me most excited is to hear the way that the pro-life women up here are talking.”

She went on, “To say that we do need to remove all of these things, to dismantle and rebuild a world . . . that’s fantastic . . . whether abortion rights have to stay central, I believe that they do. . . . the way that people talk about abortion is socially constructed. . . . all of this is socially constructed.” But this would mean that her view that abortion should be normalized is also socially constructed; so how can we decide to normalize it? While I agree that we need to dismantle patriarchy and white supremacy, how can she be sure that we do not need to dismantle Planned Parenthood supremacy? This must be a common type of question, so no doubt postmodernist philosophy has some answer.

 

A topic for another time is the stigmatization of abortion, criticized by Merritt at 72:42. If abortion is barbaric but most of the women involved are victims, is there a way to be honest about the barbarity without doing further damage to countless women?

 

If “the winning future for the pro-life movement is . . . young, feminist, and disproportionately people of color,” as Prof. Charles Camosy has written, that event may have had an importance that is hard to estimate.

The event merited at least a PhD thesis, but space did not allow.

Other articles on the event:

Both sides on abortion debate ponder if pro-lifers can also be feminists

How abortion divides the feminist movement

Feminists and pro-lifers can join forces – and why they should

 

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 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 [complete human genetic information] . . .

 
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.

 

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.

 

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

 

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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

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 intuitions of nearly everyone seem to 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 intuitions of many, many people (though I won’t say of everyone or nearly everyone) do NOT seem to 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.

Continue reading

The Psychological Morass of the Abortion Issue

 

This essay was first published, with illustrations, in Life Matters Journal Volume 4 Issue 3 — February 2016.

 

morass: 2. a complicated or confused situation

 

Think of all the array of views related to abortion that you have ever encountered. It’s a lot, isn’t it? And now let’s try to imagine all the array of contradictory views related to abortion as they have inhabited all the minds of all people through all of history. That array must be staggering. How could such a plethora of mutually exclusive ideas have originated? I think it is largely explained by the psychological morass on moral issues in general, and this issue in particular, that the human race somehow goes on living with. Recognizing and trying to escape this psychological morass can allow us to find the truth about the morality of abortion.

 

 

In making this assertion, I am assuming that there are indeed moral truths to be found about abortion and other moral questions. Certain answers to the question of whether abortion is right or wrong, just or unjust, can be identified as truer or better than others. Further, I would argue that the answers to moral questions—the moral truths—must ultimately be found through our intuition rather than through intricate arguments or philosophies (although these are certainly a useful part of the process).

 

 

Psychology professor Paul Bloom, author of the recent Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, has offered some justification for an intuitive basis of morality.  In an interview, he commented that while some moral values “are the product of culture and society” and “not in the genes,” “there also exist hardwired moral universals – moral principles that we all possess. And even those aspects of morality . . . that vary across cultures are ultimately grounded in these moral foundations.”[i] With this kind of psychological understanding as a basis, I will make one further assumption to start with: that not only are there indeed moral truths to be found, but that identical truths are to be found deep within all of us. (I discussed this in “Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate.”[ii]) In a similar vein, the journalist Christopher Hitchens described his understanding of human moral intuition in his work God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:

 

Like murder and theft, this [incest] is usually found to be abhorrent to humans without any further explanation. . . . [the Golden Rule is] a sober and rational precept, which one can teach to any child with its innate sense of fairness . . . . [The Rule] is gradually learned, as part of the painfully slow evolution of the species, and once grasped is never forgotten. Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it. . . . [C]onscience is innate. . . . Everybody but the psychopath has this feeling to a greater or lesser extent. . . .[iii]

 

 

Despite this conscience, or intuitive moral sense, that humans possess, an array of psychological factors obstruct our intuitive grasp of moral truths. This is a vast topic, but in this article I have selected twelve psychological factors that might work against our finding moral truth on any issue, as well as three factors that are specific to the abortion issue. I think of this article as sketching the broad outlines of how psychological factors interfere with moral intuition. My aim is to provide a basic framework to be filled out by further research. 

 

 

The psychological factors are as follows:

 

 

1. The mental longing for simplicity. No elaboration is needed here. (I can keep it simple!)

 

2. Upbringing. In the long-standing nature-nurture debate, I would take the following position: we are born with intuitions of certain moral truths already within us in latent form, but various actions or inactions by parents and teachers can undermine the development of those moral intuitions, or create an overlay of false values, or both. Even a casual look is enough to show us the importance, in the development of our attitudes, of background and upbringing.

 

3. Tribalism.Even someone who switches, for example, from pro-choice to pro-life or vice-versa may immediately start demonizing the side they had just been on.

 

4. Projection.We expect others to view some things and value some things just as we do.

 

5.  Neurotic emotional needs. Such needs can affect one’s moral and political views in a number of ways. One way – certainly not the only way – is when the needs result in commitments, sometimes fanatic commitments, to groups or ideologies.

 

6. Denial. We see only what we want to see. Or sometimes we see something, but compartmentalize it away from the part of our mind that would reject it.

 

7. Lack of introspection.If it is true that intuitions of moral truths exist within us and that they began to form in us before we were capable of rational analysis, then it should be clear that to find them we must look within and that this search within will not be a process of thinking up new ideas, but of rummaging through what is already there. We may need to make such efforts frequently, and with patience, over a period of time.

 

8. An excessive faith in the efficacy of logical argumentation to resolve moral issues. This faith seems to be borne out of a psychological need for an orderly understanding of our environment, perhaps borne in turn out of an illusion that such conceptual order gives us some kind of control over our environment.

 

(This is certainly not to say that there is no place in moral investigations for logic. I think that all the thought experiments and probing for inconsistency and arguments that go on are indispensable, but they are indispensable because they nudge us toward more accurate moral intuitions, which are not essentially based on logic.[iv])

 

9. The manufacture of perceptions.  As just one example, if you hear “My body, my choice” enough times, and are not presented with alternative views, after a while you will come to really believe that there is only one body involved in an abortion.

 

10. Doctrinal baggage that comes along with the valuable elements of a religion.  Atheism advocate Sam Harris has described a transcendent experience that he once underwent sitting by the Sea of Galilee. He writes:

 

If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. . . .  If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman. . . . If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the “dharmakaya of emptiness.” [v]

 

The meditative and devotional techniques of various religions can bring about in us these transcendent states, arguably the most wonderful states we have ever experienced. Although Harris and others strive for totally non-religious forms of meditation, it must be admitted that religions are, today, still ahead of conventional science in the knowledge of such techniques. As a result, when someone experiments with such “religious” practices and discovers that they constitute a certain specialized wisdom that science seems to be lacking and that most directly leads to happiness, they are likely not only to adopt that valuable meditative practice, but also to buy the whole religious package, including whatever that religion teaches about astronomy and evolutionand the ensoulment of a newly-conceived baby. If the religion teaches that ensoulment does not take place for the first three months, for example, and that abortion before that point is permissible, then even if that teaching happens not to be correct, they will believe it.

 

This psychological factor is different from factor 5 above, in that I think it can occur even in a psychologically very healthy person.

 

11. Limited human intelligence.

 

12. Unlimited human ego. A big percentage of discussions about moral issues comes down to a garden-variety contest of egos. Discussions become more about winning, belittling, and mocking than about trying to understand clearly. People write on any topic partly because they want attention. It has been said, “More people write poetry than read it.” Similarly, it may be that more people talk than listen.

 

Most of the 12 factors listed above can contribute to different forms of cognitive dissonance: we sense a contradiction or incompatibility between the beliefs psychological factors move us toward and the beliefs our moral intuitions move us toward. We cope with cognitive dissonance by adopting ideas that violate our natural intuitions, and then shoring those ideas up with techniques such as confirmation bias.

 

Among the psychological factors that work against intuitively finding the moral truths within, there are also some differences of perception that do not come into play in relation to most moral issues, but do come into play in relation to the abortion issue:

 

13. Incorrect intuitions about the unborn.Some people see the unborn, especially the early unborn, as a snapshot, and some see it as part of a process. If a small embryo were to remain just as it is, frozen in time (a snapshot) we would have to say quite fairly that its life would not have much value.

 

Both ways of looking at the unborn are scientifically useful for different purposes. It is not science, but only pre-logical intuition, that identifies the unborn as an organism with little moral value or an organism with great moral value. If there are indeed moral truths to be found, however, one of these two intuitions must be less correct than the other.

 

14. Incorrect intuitions about the importance of bodily rights. One important source of variations in intuitions about the importance of bodily rights is different cultural senses of the relative weights to be given to the individual and to the collective. Almost the greatest relinquishing of bodily right imaginable is when a person submits to being conscripted into an army, where he or she will risk all his body organs being blown to bits. Different cultures vary greatly in their acceptance of military conscription. Yet if there are indeed moral truths to be found, one particular moral truth about bodily rights must be correctnot all of the diverse intuitions about bodily rights can reflect that truth. (I have written elsewhere about bodily rights.[vi])

 

15. Incorrect intuitions about what’s wrong with killing.Among all who get involved in discussions about moral issues, killing and violence seem to have, in general, a bad name. One would think that that would give us some common ground. But it turns out that although killing is universally disreputable, it’s disreputable in a nebulous way. We disagree on exactly what is wrong with killing.

 

My moral intuition is that what is most wrong with killing is that it deprives an organism of its future life. But in discussions about abortion, I have often encountered expressions such as this one: “I can’t imagine caring one way or the other being aborted if I didn’t possess a fully functional nervous system.” Here any harm to be done by killing seems to depend on the organism’s caring, at the time of the killing, about its future life (this view does not, after all, contest the fact that a currently unconscious embryo will have a fully functional nervous system soon and will eventually care about its future life). This view seems to exclude the possibility that any harm can be caused by depriving an organism of its future life, whether the organism deprived of life cares about it at this moment or not. Thus the only real harm that this view is willing to consider is the harm of frustrating a desire, on the part of the organism, to live.[vii]

 

This is one example of how there are different intuitions about what is wrong with killing. Yet if there are real moral truths to be found, then not all the intuitions can be correct.

 

By identifying 15 different psychological factors that interfere with moral intuition, I have tried to develop a kind of checklist. I think that if anyone can go through the checklist and neutralize in themselves each of the above-mentioned psychological factors, their thinking will become clear. Their minds will become cleared of endless clutter. And when other people encounter a clear mind like that, they in turn become forced to clear their own minds.

 

This clarification process (along with scientific progress) will decide the abortion issue. The grip of all the psychological factors enumerated above will be loosened. Arguments, thought experiments, and other philosophical approaches will play a part in breaking their grip; I think that the part that they will play will be a significant one, but not, alone, a decisive one.

 

Personally I expect that the truth that we will find through moral intuition will be mostly a pro-life truth. I expect that the issue will be decided to an important extent by the fuller recognition of the humanity of a previously dehumanized group. (The importance of psychological factor 13 above cannot be overestimated.) Do I expect all this due to some psychological blinders of my own? Time will tell.



[i] Sam Harris, “The Roots of Good and Evil: An Interview with Paul Bloom,” Sam Harris (blog), November 12, 2013, http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-roots-of-good-and-evil

[ii] Life Matters Journal 4 Issue 1 (June 2015): 24-29, also available at http://www.NoTerminationWithoutRepresentation.org/moral-intuition-logic-and-the-abortion-debate/

[iii] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2008), 53, 213-214, 256.

[iv] “Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate” in Life Matters Journal, Volume 4 Issue 1 (June 2015): 24-29, and http://www.NoTerminationWithoutRepresentation.org/moral-intuition-logic-and-the-abortion-debate/

[v] Sam Harris, Waking Up (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 81-82.

[vi] “Dismantling the Bodily-Rights Argument without Using the Responsibility Argument,” July 8, 2014, http://www.NoTerminationWithoutRepresentation.org/dismantling-the-bodily-rights-argument-without-using-the-responsibility-argument/

[vii] For a discussion of this issue, see Kelsey Hazzard and Acyutananda, “What Babies Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Them, Right?,” Secular ProLife (blog), January 4, 2016, http://blog.secularprolife.org/2016/01/what-babies-dont-know-cant-hurt-them.html.

 

Further thoughts on the above LMJ essay:

1. Psychological factor 4 above is “Neurotic emotional needs. Such needs can affect one’s felt or at least expressed moral and political views in a number of ways. One way – certainly not the only way – is when the needs result in commitments, sometimes fanatic commitments, to groups or ideologies.”

I think it would be safe to say that in the context of the abortion issue, the groups or ideologies most concerned in this way are the Catholic Church and evangelical churches on the pro-life side, and the pro-choice feminist movement on the pro-choice side. My point here is not to take issue with any Christian teachings as such, or with pro-choice feminism as such; and certainly not to say that commitment to either can stem only from neurosis. My point concerns unquestioning belief. I think that it is human nature always to question, but that those Christians who happen to be fanatic about their religion due to some psychological need, will be prone to believe that abortion is wrong without further examination, just because their religion says that that is God’s command. And I think that those pro-choice feminists who happen to be fanatic about their ideology due to some psychological need, will be prone to believe that protection of the unborn is wrong without further examination, just because their ideology teaches that it is somehow part of a system of oppression of women. (By the way, pro-life feminists have offered at least some clues as to how that belief became the majority belief within the feminist movement, which, apart from the embrace of abortion rights by its majority, must be the most inspiring revolutionary movement the world has ever seen. See Serrin Foster’s speech “The Feminist Case against Abortion.”

Again, to say that people who have neurotic emotional needs (more so than the fairly neurotic average in society) – angry people for instance – gravitate toward a particular movement does not necessarily reflect at all on the movement itself. Many of the most psychologically healthy, or even radiantly healthy, people I have met are to be found among the ranks of Catholics and evangelicals; and it’s likely that some of the finest people may be found in the ranks of pro-choice feminists also. The position of the latter on abortion rights may be based not on moral blindness, but simply on blindness about the reality of the unborn. And regarding Catholics and evangelicals, I am awed by what they have done in holding the line against abortion, as much as it could be held, for all these years.

2. Above I said, “I will make one further assumption to start with: that not only are there indeed moral truths to be found, but that identical truths are to be found deep within all of us.”

Slavery in the US was never proved to be morally wrong. If after all the years of harsh exploitation of the slaves and bitter strife among the whites, a formal paper in some philosophy journal had finally convinced everybody that slavery was wrong, that document and its philosophical proof would now be more famous than the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Thirteenth Amendment. But there was no such paper; rather, undoubtedly there was a multiplicity of contradictory papers, all of which together played only a modest role in the process. The collective moral sense simply evolved. Uncle Tom’s Cabin probably played a bigger role than any formal proof.

The politics – not least war, that “continuation of politics by other means” – and economics involved in the end of slavery were very complex. But moral evolution must have played its part. The chains of people’s psychological complexes faded over time so that the chains of slavery could more readily be broken. People who were incorrigible vessels of outmoded thinking died off.

And I said above:

“A similar process (along with scientific progress) will decide the abortion issue. The grip of all the psychological foibles enumerated above will be loosened. Logical syllogisms, thought experiments, and other philosophical approaches, within or without formal papers, will play a part in breaking their grip; I think that the part that they will play will be a significant one, but not, alone, a decisive one.

“Personally I expect that the truth that we will find will be mostly a pro-life truth. I expect that, as in the case of slavery, the issue will be decided to an important extent by the fuller recognition of the humanity of a previously-dehumanized group. (The importance of 13 above cannot be overestimated.) . . .”

What’s Wrong with Killing?

Among all who get involved in discussions about moral issues, killing and violence seem to have, in general, a bad name. How many times have you heard the remark, in refutation of some view, “By that logic, it would be okay to kill someone” – ? Killing is the default that we turn to when we need some example of doing wrong.

One would think that in the abortion debate, agreement on the wrong of killing would give us some common ground. But it turns out that although killing is universally disreputable, it’s disreputable in a nebulous way. When we say “Killing is wrong,” we don’t all mean the same thing. We disagree on exactly what is wrong with it.

1. To my moral intuitions, it is clear that what is most wrong with killing is that it deprives an organism of its future conscious life (which in the case of human beings usually includes a chance to improve morally). If I don’t deem it to have much of a future life or don’t deem that its future life will be very conscious, as I don’t in the case of a mosquito, then killing it is less wrong. I think it’s permissible to kill a mosquito for a provocation or even a threat that would not justify my killing a human being.

2. But many people think that what is most wrong about killing relates to the species of the victim without regard to its future conscious life. They say that the lives of all human beings are exactly equal in value and that human lives are special. Thus the worst wrong is to kill any innocent human being. (Well, there are some who say only, “The lives of all born human beings are exactly equal in value;” but the fundamental assumption is the same – those who say that simply don’t apply the assumption to the unborn.) Thus the life of a person in an irreversible coma (even granting the assumption that we really know beyond doubt that the coma is complete and irreversible) is as valuable as your life or mine.

Many Christians think in this way because of a belief that any human being, yet only a human being, is an imago dei.

I disagree with vesting all belief in what is wrong with killing in the simple humanity of the victim, because my moral intuitions tell me that in a triage situation – for instance if that person in a coma were in a hospital where there was not sufficient life-support equipment for two patients, and there was another patient in need of the equipment who was conscious or expected to regain consciousness – I would clearly prioritize the second person, though that person is not more human.

I think I would even preserve the life of a dog who could expect to have years of conscious life ahead of it (I believe dogs to be among the animals with highest consciousness), rather than that of a human who was sure never to come out of a coma.

The life of any human being is very important to me. We should not take anyone off life support if we can help it (unless they wrote an advance directive). But I wonder if some of my concern for even a human being in an irreversible coma, stems from my knowledge that humans in general are highly conscious.

3. Some think that what’s wrong with killing is that it frustrates a desire, on the part of the organism, to live.

I was lucky enough not to have to try to analyze this particular view on my own. An analysis of it co-authored by Kelsey Hazzard of Secular Pro-Life, and me, appears as a post on the SPL blog. Here I will just add a couple of further comments:

In the blog post, we remarked about that view, What is being said here is that an organism’s caring about its future life is important, but the future life itself that the organism cares about is not important. One more way to put “what is being said” would be: “Beings’ future lives don’t matter, but if they cherish a desire to live based on the illusion that their lives really do matter, then that foolish desire matters.”

We have implied in the post that an equation between caring about living (wanting to live) and caring about one’s future life; but can there really be much debate about that equation? For myself, I think that people who don’t want to live are invariably people who don’t want to go through the future life that they expect; and people who do want to live have at least a little hope for a little future happiness.

Also, in using expressions such as “the only harm that we can see in the frustration of a desire for one’s future life” in relation to the topic of the wrong of the killing, we have suggested that wrong involves harm. If there is any moral wrong unrelated to harming somebody, it seems to me that it would be a very abstract wrong compared to the wrong of harm.

And, it might be worth identifying a possible difference between the frustrates-a-desire-to-live view that we mainly discuss, and Peter Singer’s view, which we also mention. Singer focuses on the importance of a capacity to care (to hold preferences, as he puts it), but I’m not sure whether he ever singles out the importance of caring about life. Thus his thesis may not undermine itself as much as does the other, which inadvertently implies the importance of future life. Yet he equally ignores the relevance of future life when we consider killing someone.

(And lastly, in that article we said, “. . . okay, it’s true, embryos haven’t yet started to care about their future, and probably won’t for some years.” But were we 100% correct in saying that? The fact that they are biologically programmed to do everything possible to live, and that that biological longing is designed to ensure that the later conscious longing will have its day, means something to my personal moral intuitions. But let’s leave that aside for now.)

I think of the above as the three main competing views as to what is wrong with killing. In addition, there are some views as to what may at least add to the wrong of killing:

4. Killing may involve inflicting pain. On the wrong of inflicting avoidable pain, there is almost complete common ground in society. Even hunters who kill for fun do not find as much fun in it if they inflict significantly more pain than usual. Even pro-choicers who do not see anything wrong with killing the unborn in itself would like it to be done as painlessly as possible. Even if there really exist proponents of the “sovereign zone” bodily-rights argument who say that a pregnant woman should have a legal right to torture her unborn (because she is doing what she wants with her body and its contents), they would probably say that it would be morally wrong for her to do so.

5. Killing will often involve emotional distress for people other than the victim. It will particularly cause distress if the victim had in their life developed positive relationships. This has some small relevance in the abortion debate, because a born person, unlike an unborn, may have developed such relationships. Killing the unborn may be less wrong in that particular way.

6. Killing will often involve a loss of a utilitarian kind. And again, it is only born people who may be confirmed to be making a positive utilitarian contribution to society.

If we are to consider people’s utilitarian value in assessing their worthiness to live, we have to note that the utilitarian value of some born people will be greater than that of others, and that the contributions of certain born persons have been confirmed to be negative. Still, if carrying a pregnancy to term might negatively impact a woman’s ability to take care of her born children, that would assign a certain negative utilitarian value to her unborn child, and if there is no one who can help with the born children, that would be a factor to some degree, for the permissibility of abortion in that particular case.

 

In relation to the “frustrating a desire” belief about the wrong of killing, I wrote, “Ultimately we can’t argue logically with moral intuitions.” Logical arguments can be very important in helping people find better intuitions in themselves, but ultimately we can’t reject, on logical grounds, any of the above intuitions about the wrong of killing. I have written elsewhere regarding how I think differences in moral intuition ultimately resolve.

And I have said a number of things here indicating that I don’t give equal value to all human lives. Philosophically I don’t and probably many people don’t, but it would not be wise for society to try to implement, in practice, some objective calculation of value. Because if it were known that everybody was being rated in terms of their expendability, that would cause tremendous tension in society. We have to maintain the existing social convention “everyone’s life is of equal value,” and continue to codify that convention in terms of equal legal rights. (Except in a triage situation where the rubber meets the road and we have to make some differentiations.) I also think that the existing social convention should be upgraded so that “everyone” includes the unborn. I think that mainly because the unborn, also, have a future conscious life.

© 2015

Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate

 

Courtesy of Life Matters Journal. This essay was published, with illustrations, in Volume 4 Issue 1 — June 2015.

 

I would like to thank Jake Earl, who created the “John” thought experiment. The probing questions of various people, but most definitively of Earl, helped me to better think things through.

 

Moral principles must be based on pre-logical moral intuitions and laws should be based on those moral principles. (Of course to say that “laws should be based on those moral principles” is not to say that every moral principle should automatically be enacted into a law.)

Though everyone I have talked to agrees that moral principles must be based on pre-logical moral intuitions, I have heard an intelligent person or two contend that the correctness of such moral intuitions can still be logically proved or disproved (by which I mean, proved by a process of discursive argumentation, if not by formal academic logic) — as if moral inquiries were a hard science like math. More importantly, many people who would not explicitly make this contention nevertheless present their arguments about moral issues as if this were the case. So while some philosopher probably demonstrated centuries ago the impossibility of logically proving the correctness of moral intuitions, the relationship of logic and intuition still deserves to be examined. And I think the insights gained in the process of examining it can lead us toward methods of self-exploration and of discourse that will help reveal moral truths, including moral truths about abortion.

First of all, for moral principles to be based on moral intuitions really means that moral principles are the verbalized form of moral intuitions. Therefore correct moral principles will follow from correct moral intuitions. And if the correctness of a moral intuition could be logically proved, then it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone, with no recourse to intuition — since the process of constructing would be the same as the process of proving.

To say that it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone, but at the same time to agree that moral intuitions (of which moral principles are the verbalized forms) are pre-logical — as everyone seems to agree — would be contradictory. Nevertheless, as mentioned, some people do present their arguments about moral issues as if the correctness of a moral intuition could be logically proved (that is, as if it would be possible to construct a correct moral principle through logic alone). So let’s continue to address that contention.

“The correctness of a moral intuition can be logically proved” and “a correct moral principle can be constructed through logic alone” seem to me like two different formulations of the same thing. But in case there’s any doubt, as I continue I’ll address the one I’ve actually heard, the former.

Is there such a thing as a correct moral intuition, and if so, can its correctness be logically proved or disproved? Though I am arguing no to the second question, I will argue yes to the first.

Moral Intuitions and Moral Principles

As an example of a moral principle — a generalized moral principle, but basically a sound one, I feel — let’s use “Thou shalt not kill.” I would say that that principle did not come from God, but rather is based on a pre-logical and pre-verbal human revulsion at most killing of the innocent. A pre-logical and pre-verbal sense of right or wrong is how I would define a moral intuition. Psychology professor Paul Bloom, author of the recent book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, said in an interview that while some moral ideals “are the product of culture and society” and “not in the genes,” “there also exist hardwired moral universals – moral principles that we all possess. And even those aspects of morality . . . that vary across cultures are ultimately grounded in these moral foundations.” Even if Bloom overestimates the role of the genes in the “hardwired” moral senses, and underestimates the role of culture in those moral senses, and overestimates how universal those moral senses are across cultures, it would be safe to say that most of us do have senses of right or wrong that come out of our unconscious in ways we cannot understand. I am calling those senses moral intuitions. (For alternatives to the term “moral intuition,” and for an explanation of “pre-logical” and “pre-verbal,” see the Appendix.)
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Dismantling the Bodily-Rights Argument without Using the Responsibility Argument

 

Clinton Wilcox of Life Training Institute was kind enough to read the semi-final draft of this post and provide a brief but insightful critique. This does not mean that he necessarily endorses any of the final contents. However, I wish to take this opportunity to thank him.

 

The strongest argument for abortion rights is usually considered to be the bodily-rights argument. Perhaps the most effective variation of it that I have seen appeared in a (negative) comment under Kristine Kruszelnicki’s March 11, 2014 guest post on the Friendly Atheist blog:

They [both mother and unborn child] are entitled to their own bodily rights. So exactly how does a fetus have the right to co-opt another person’s body without consent?

Let’s say for example medical science has progressed to the point of being able to transplant a fetus into another human being. In an accident a pregnant woman is injured to the point of immanent [sic] death, does that fetus have the *right* to be implanted into the next viable candidate without consent?

The commenter was arguing, in other words, “A woman who is a candidate to be made pregnant in that futuristic way would have a right to refuse to let her body be so used – everyone would agree. Therefore, why should a woman who has become pregnant in a more usual way not also have a right to refuse to continue the pregnancy?”

In the context of the abortion debate (and, significantly, in hardly any other context), the term “bodily rights” comes up often. Synonyms still more commonly used are “bodily integrity” and “bodily autonomy,” but I will say “rights” because it is rights that have practical consequences. If anything can help determine the practical outcome “Woman goes through with abortion,” it is a right, not an abstract “integrity” or “autonomy.”

The above fetus-implantation version or any version of the bodily-rights argument could be rebutted by pointing out that most pregnant women voluntarily engaged in a sex act that caused the pregnancy in the first place, and therefore have a responsibility for the child (the “responsibility argument”); but this rebuttal does not work in cases of rape, and is not convincing to some people in any situation – for reasons which I need not discuss here but will refer to in an appendix. Thus the argument remains logically strong. But is it logic alone that makes an argument strong or weak? I would like to approach this from the perspective that an argument is an instrument for changing some of another person’s brain circuitry, and the ideas that correlate with that circuitry, to resemble part of one’s own circuitry and ideas, and that some value-related circuitry and ideas are better for us as individuals and as a species than others. I will contend that though logical demonstrations (such as the above thought experiment) and their rebuttals have an important place in the debate about bodily rights, there is no clear logical resolution to the debate one way or the other; that in seemingly logical demonstrations there are psychological factors at play apart from factors which are purely logical, and that those factors sway us from our normal intuitions; and that those factors can be neutralized by understanding them and by other techniques.

I would like to see people question where their convictions come from, because I think that the more they examine where they come from, the more they will move toward better convictions.

I would like to proceed according to the following outline:

1. Morality and moral principles, including our moral principles about when morality should be backed by legislation and when it should not, derive ultimately from intuition.

2. The intuitions of many people, particularly of most pro-lifers, say that the unborn children of pregnant women should be legally protected against abortion in some (not all) situations.

3. The intuitions of most pro-choicers differ from ours in the first place and say that the unborn children of pregnant women should not be afforded any legal protection.

4. There are some people who are, in terms of moral intuitions, “on the fence,” undecided.

5. Some people’s moral intuitions are better than those of others; in this particular area of moral investigation, the intuitions of pro-lifers are better. (Keep reading!)

I think that just as “there is no clear logical resolution to the (overall) debate one way or the other,” the correctness or incorrectness of any moral intuition cannot be logically proved, but that logic can nudge us toward correct moral intuitions, that is, help us find the correct moral intuitions within us. Under this point 5 below I will include a long section analyzing logically the concept of bodily rights. It is designed to nudge us toward more correct moral intuitions about the importance of bodily rights.

6. Though the intuitions of most pro-lifers say that unborn children should in many cases be legally protected against abortion, the intuitions of many pro-lifers also agree with pro-choicers (as do the intuitions of many undecideds) that a woman who is not pregnant (as in the above thought experiment) should not be legally subject to the forcible implantation in her of a child she did not conceive, even to save the child’s life. (And our intuitions also usually say that a violinist to whom we are hooked up should not be given legal protection from unhooking; and our intuitions also agree with various other pro-choice thought experiments designed to reject, in certain situations, legislative enforcement of a broad right to life.)

7. Human logical powers are limited, and therefore a particular situation, situation A, may seem parallel to another situation, situation B, in all the important morally-relevant ways that the human mind can think of, without the two situations necessarily being morally equivalent.

8a. The situation depicted by a thought experiment always includes some imagery of greater or lesser vividness, and some emotional content. If to our logical minds (momentarily or over a longer term) some outrageous situation, A, depicted by a pro-choice thought experiment, does seem parallel to situation B – a legal prohibition on abortion in a normal pregnancy – then the imagery and emotions of situation A get temporarily transferred to situation B. Let’s call this a process of “outrage transfer.” (Below I will touch on the search for an understanding of how events such as outrage transfer might actually work neurologically.)

b. Moreover, if we are subject to an over-fascination with logic, which many people are, then our consciences/intuitions will work with wrong information (the belief that logic can completely prove or disprove the moral equivalence of two situations) and may tell us that if there seem to be strong parallels between the situation of a pro-choice thought experiment that militates against legal protection of some living being, and the situation of pregnancy, then we should discard legal protection of the unborn in pregnancy – in spite of our earlier intuition supporting such legal protection.

8a and 8b are what I had earlier called “psychological factors at play apart from factors which are purely logical.” I had said that those psychological factors “sway us from our normal intuitions” and I had gone on to say, “those factors can be neutralized by understanding them and by other techniques.”

9a. The effects of outrage transfer will fade over time. Moreover, the outrage transfer of a pro-choice thought experiment can be offset or more than offset by pro-life thought experiments such as those involving the separation of conjoined twins, or the “Cabin in the Blizzard” thought experiment of Stephen Wagner et. al. (It can be “more than offset” if only because our minds are impressionable and are always most strongly affected by the imagery and emotional triggers that stimulated them most recently.)

b. Though human logical powers are not sufficient to tell us conclusively about the moral equivalence or otherwise of two situations (as mentioned in 7 above), they are sufficient to convince us of said insufficiency, and thereby to free us from an over-fascination with logic and restore our original trust in our intuition that the unborn deserve legal protection.

 

Someone will say that I am discarding logic and that moreover I am saying that a pro-life position can only be defended by discarding logic. But that is not what I am doing. We should always apply logic to the fullest extent possible, and there are good logical rebuttals to the forcible-implantation and other pro-choice thought experiments, and I will discuss them in brief; but we should not think that logic, even on a base of intuition, can give us final answers to all moral questions, specifically the question of whether a right to life overrides bodily rights in the case of pregnancy.

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