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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But as Javier Cuadros has written:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– and then comments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016

 

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

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

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

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

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

  1. I wish that she had interacted more with Schwarz on the murder-murderer issue, and gotten to see why there is that seeming divide. I also like the points mentioned by David Boonin, he comments in his book “A Defense of Abortion,” that prolifers who believe that the child has a right to life can consistently allow for a rape excpetion if they believe the Good Samaritan Objection, but also hold to the Tacit Consent Objection. (I hold to a parental obligations objection as well, so don’t think a rape exception is morally permissible.)

    I think that Katha Pollitt is a hack – not because she is prochoice (for example, Boonin is prochoice, but is not a hack) – she is just a sophist with an agenda to push, not a reasoning and meticulous defender of her position. She insults and misrepresents Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen’s view (the Substance View of Persons) as a DNA-as-person view, then later goes on to insult them as fanatics. Never does she address Beckwith, Lee, Kaczor, or Marquis. She likes qouting Dworkin a lot in the third chapter, to some subjective effect, no doubt, but behind the rhetoric one must ask, ‘So most people don’t think that abortion is murder, but that doesn’t that the act is not, nor that the zygote is not a person.

    Coincidentally, in that chapter (“What is a person”) she never really defines it well. Her criteria, her mains ones, consciousness and social space, are not given as necessary to possess, but merely sufficient to posses to be a person. Yet, somehow, the zygote fails for not possessing them? (Later on she does seem to think consciousness is very important, yet given her claim that a permanently vegatitave person would still be a person, she either refutes herself, or at least gives us reason to doubt the neccesity of actively being conscious or having the ability to be. I’ll qoute from my own review of part of her book:

    “In order to critique the prolife claim that the unborn are persons from conception, she first offers her definition of what it means to be a person to hold the embryo up to. Her view is patterned after philosopher Joel Feinberg’s description of a “common sense person.” She writes, “[A common sense person is] one who thinks, feels, communicates, has more-or-less human features, and so on.” Someone who is a common sense person, Pollitt writes, is “imbued with human rights.” (68)
    As she formulates it, a person could lack any given one of these attributes, and yet be a person. I’m in agreement with her that human form is irrelevant. I also agree that having a (presumability immediate) ability to be conscious, which she defines as “the capacity to think, feel, speak, perceive, respond, possess a personality” and “be self-aware,” is not necessary for one to be a person. She writers, “even if I am in a permanent vegetative state, most people would still regard me to be a person.” (68-69) (A rather remarkable statement for an abortion rights advocate.) But, if that is the case, why is the unborn child not a person? Pollitt offers a weak explanation to preclude the embryo. She says, “I still have a residual social place – I am a relative, a citizen, a patient in the hospital, I still owned when I was conscious, and (some might insist) may still have some faint mental activity going on.” The embryo, however, “has no character traits or relationships and it occupies no social space.” (69)
    A response is in order. First, according to her criteria, it is arguable that a preconscious fetus has a right to life after its brain has initial activity (around day 22-25). Second, her criteria as formulated on pages 68 and 69 do not render the embryo a non-person. She cannot assert that it must have the immediate capacity to engage in conscious acts, since she seems to grant the permanently vegetative a right to life, nor can she must say that the child must have social space. She writes, “[I]f I am lost on a desert island all alone and have no social place . . . [I am] still a person.” (69) As she has articulated them, both of this criteria are merely sufficient for one to have human rights, but neither are necessary. It is hard to see how she could escape by saying, “If you lack one, the other becomes necessary;” it just seems contrived. Given this, while the embryo fail to meet her criteria, it has not been shown to be a non-person.
    It is possible to read her in a more charitable light, to give her a more potent definition of personhood, which would preclude the embryo so, despite this initial failing, we will do so. She says, “By themselves, in fact, reason and science might seem to suggest the opposite of what [Paul] Ryan believes [namely, that life - as in personhood - begins at conception]: that an embryo, which cannot think or feel or have self-awareness, does not meet the definition of a person.” (79) It seems that, like a majority of pro-choice advocates, she holds to the consciousness criterion of personhood. She does not, however, explain why this criterion is value; and given her statement that most people would believe that even the permanently vegetative, who have lost their presently exercisable capacity to be conscious, it seems that she has at the very least given a definition that will not meet with what she thinks to be the majority of people! This criterion is susceptible to many prolife arguments, such as the example of the brain damaged, reversibly comatose patient mentioned before (if he has a right to life, even though he cannot currently think, why doesn’t the embryo, who has the same inherent capacity to develop to the point of being able to do so as he does, not?). She ignores arguments given by prolife philosophers to the effect that, in the morally relevant sense, the unborn, including embryos, do have a capacity of consciousness (a claim I will develop in future essays) and this is so because of what kind of entity they are, from which their human rights supervene; the work of Christopher Kaczor, Francis Beckwith and Patrick Lee is relevant in this regard (and will be the basis of those future essays). ”

    Also, when commenting on a certain passage on the bible which supposedly proves that abortion is permissible, she neglects to interact with the arguments given by prolifers (see Beckwith in “Politically Correct Death”, for example).

  2. For the most part I agreed with this post, which was a good one. Here are just some remarks I have.

    “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.”

    I would suggest that they don’t fully realize the neccesary implications of their beliefs, like the the abolishinist who didn’t want to give the right to vote to blacks. (You’re doing so good, why stop there?) I think that they do acknowledge that the unborn are persons, but are getting distracted by seemingly relevant issues, which are not actually relevant.

    In regards to the punishment issue, I reccomend the work of Schwarz and Horn. (Here is a link to a pdf of Trent Horn’s book “Persuasive Prolife.” It is written from a Catholic perspective, but msot of its arguments are not grounded in beliefs that are exclusive to Catholics. (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1STiOTVI2ibQmxJWVVsZ28zS0k/view)

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

    I think that it is a flawed perspective, but not all who hold to it do so for tacitcal concessions as Pollitt alleges. In my essay I wrote about her commnets:

    “Additionally, she writers, “[N]o pro-life leader, and no pro-life organization, supports permitting abortion for rape on principle, as opposed to a tactical concession.” Ignoring the distinction mentioned above (we will call all of those procedures abortions for simplicity’s sake), this is false on its face, and therefore, revealing of the depth of her research (or lack thereof). It is also irrelevant; at best it shows that some people who defend the permissibility of the rape exception do so for inconsistent reasons. What this doesn’t do is undermine the validity of their claim that the unborn as a person has a right to life. Still, despite her claim, there are some prolifers and prolife organizations which are for it for principled reasons, For example Secular Prolife, while officially neutral on the rape-exception, has leadership and blog contributors who fall on both sides of that issue.[3]

    In a chapter centered on Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous 1971 essay, David Boonin’s notes how a prolifer might affirm the right to life of the unborn, yet be moved by the Good Samaritan Argument into thinking that this right is not logically equivalent to a right to use the woman’s body, so in the absence of (tacit) consent – pregnancies that result from rape – the woman could permissibly have an abortion. (A Defense of Abortion, p. 151) I disagree with those prolifers, and find their thinking mistaken, and have written an essay on that topic, but contra Pollitt none of what these prolifers do is unprincipled.”

    “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.”

    I disagree with this point as stated, though, I see where it its comming from. The act itself must be viewed as murder and child abuse, the violation of one’s obligation to one’s offspring. Now, whether the people involved are fully culpable is another matter.

    Only if pregnancy (in typical cases) was comparable to an assault, as McDonagh alleges, would an unwanted pregnancy be an assualt, and thus abortion (In general) be self-defense. However, as Beckwith and Thomas, among others (such as Horn) have pointed out, there is a problem with viewing pregnancy as McDonagh does (See: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1STiOTVI2ibS1NaUGhqa2FRSXM/view).

    “But the pro-life leadership must certainly be aware, and does nothing to educate people [about fetal or zygotic death].”

    As an aside, the reason seems to be that addressing intentionally caused deaths is the chief concern, whereas these other deaths might be unpreventable (they certainly are now). However, if people recognize that the unborn are persons, interest in researching this problem would likely receive further attention.

    • Right after saying I was tied up, things got much worse — a hard disk crashed, and I’ve been very busy. But I will reply soon.

    • [This is a reply to Sean Michael Killackey's "It is important because rights . . ." post below.]

      “. . . rights . . . inhere to a person . . .”

      In a post on another website, you wrote:

      “Rights inhere to a person because of what kind of entity he is. Rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily autonomy, etc. are like this”

      A few posts later on that website, I quoted those sentences of yours and replied:

      I’m comfortable with the idea of objective moral principles, but objective moral principles have an “ought” in them. . . . The idea of objective rights I haven’t thought about much. . . . So let me look for an objective moral principle from which I can get to the idea of an objective bodily autonomy:

      “Society ought not to take anyone’s bone marrow capriciously” — okay.

      But “Society ought not to take a little of Shimp’s bone marrow” (without “capriciously”) — ? That doesn’t seem like an objective moral principle to me, so that is not something from which I can get to any idea of an objective bodily autonomy.

      If somebody told me, “Society ought not to take a little of Shimp’s bone marrow if McFall needs it,” I would immediately reply, “To me that is not enough in itself. Please tell me what harm it would do to Shimp. Only the modicum of harm involved in the operation and the loss of a small percentage of his bone marrow, no other kind of harm?”

      You replied:

      “given what I belief to be true about his body and his relationships between him and his cousins (or, more generally, between cousins) nothing tells me he has to donate any part of himself to him.”

      I replied:

      The issue is whether there is an objective right to a strong bodily autonomy. [Such an objective right] would weaken or defeat my thesis [in "Bodily Rights and a Better Idea"] about where the strong bodily autonomy recognized by our society comes from (I don’t dispute that there might be an objective right to a weak bodily autonomy).

      I mentioned earlier the reason I think there is no objective right to a strong bodily autonomy: “I think we should have Minimally Decent Samaritanism laws and De Facto Guardian laws (if you’ve read that essay).”

      After a reply by you, followed by a reply by me, you did not reply again about such laws; that line of discussion did not come to a conclusion. However, the next-deeper question that had led to the discussion of such laws was the question of how you arrive philosophically at “Rights inhere to a person because of what kind of entity he is.” And now I notice that my sentence “I don’t dispute that there might be an objective right to a weak bodily autonomy” was even more directly relevant to that question than are such laws. That sentence shows that I, like you, am somehow able to discern objective rights, the only possible disagreement being about “because of what kind of entity he is.”

      A few posts later I again expressed my openness to an objective right to a WEAK bodily autonomy, and you replied:

      “from what source does our objective bodily right supervene from? You seem to entertain the possibility that we might have such a right, though not as stringent as we think. From the way it is worded, this seem to be prior to any perception we might have. . . . But the question must be, do we actually have those rights? Is our perception of such rights valid?”

      I then wrote at this link:

      I wrote in the “Synopsis” of “Bodily Rights and a Better Idea” –

      “. . . the degree of that . . . harm when abortion is denied. . . . we have to [ascertain] the degree of that harm, and then rely on our moral intuitions [senses], 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 . . .”

      Later on in the essay, especially in the next-to-last section, I said more about moral intuitions [senses].

      I think that your two questions above about the validity of rights in relation to “a sense of having one’s rights violated” can only be answered by correct moral senses. We don’t really know where our moral senses come from. They come out of our unconsciouses in some way we cannot understand. But there is reason to think that our unconsciouses take into account all knowledge that is accessible to our conscious minds, and maybe more knowledge besides. Our conscious minds are aware of other people’s “sense of having one’s rights violated” (or as I have put it, the psychological harm done by offense to one’s sense of body ownership), so our unconsciouses presumably take that sense into account. But it is ultimately only correct moral senses, and not our conscious knowledge or possible unconscious knowledge of people’s “sense of having one’s rights violated,” that can identify the objective moral truth about the rights people should have.

      We could say that people’s “sense of having one’s rights violated”
      is likely key evidence that the moral sense uses in ruling on the rights people should have. But the moral sense could have ruled the other way. The “sense of having one’s rights violated” is not all in all.

      I suggested that, in forming moral intuitions, including moral intuitions about rights, “our unconsciouses take into account all knowledge that is accessible to our conscious minds, and maybe more knowledge besides.” Certainly our unconsciouses may take into account “the kind of entity [people] are.” In this way our thinking about the origins and grounding of right may be reconciled to a degree.

      I went on in that post:

      I just said that correct moral senses identify objective moral truths. And how can we, in turn, identify correct moral senses? I wrote to you earlier, first quoting from my “Moral Intuition” blog post, then from another blog post:

      I would say that the pre-logical and pre-verbal human revulsion at most killing of the innocent is an example of a correct moral intuition. I call it “correct” in that I think that deference to that intuition is necessary to the psychological health of human beings. I think that humans will sacrifice some of their psychological health (their conscience will trouble them, if you will, and they will carry around guilt, sometimes at a subconscious level) if they go against that intuition.

      . . .

      In a blog post at this link I developed my thinking about the grounding of moral values a little further. (Or went out further on a limb?) Search for “transcendent experience”. After using that phrase I said, “whether we speculate about that experience in the way that materialists do, as purely the functions of neurons, or in the way that spiritualists do, as a deepened apprehension of a non-material soul, or communion with a non-material higher power . . .” Grounding moral values in our hardwiring doesn’t necessarily exclude grounding them in a higher power. But if we are to get into purely theological territory, this page wouldn’t be the best place for it, and my blog wouldn’t either. On the About page of my blog there’s an email address. Let me invite you to talk by email.

      • I think that there are only two plausible explanations to ground moral values, some form of theism, or Athiestic Moral Platonism. I have a number of problems with the latter. In any event, let us assume that objective moral values and duties do exist; that way we can avoid a discussion of moral ontology.

        “I call it “correct” in that I think that deference to that intuition is necessary to the psychological health of human beings. I think that humans will sacrifice some of their psychological health (their conscience will trouble them, if you will, and they will carry around guilt, sometimes at a subconscious level) if they go against that intuition.”

        But that not listening to one’s moral perception (accurate or not) results in emotional distress doesn’t itself show that one ought to listen to it. There needs to be a mind-independent moral duty, such as ‘you must not rape.’ People often feel bad about doing things they have to do, or things that are morally neutral, but their feeling bad or as if they have done something bad doesn’t make what they did impermissible.

        “We don’t really know where our moral senses come from. They come out of our unconsciouses in some way we cannot understand.”

        If we don’t know where our moral sense comes from, how do you know it comes from our unconscious? Beside, clearly, we can change our moral view based on conscious reflection, so I’m puzzled that you place moral reasoning in some fuzzy place. It is true that moral principles are indemonstrable, that is not having, nor needing, proof to be believed, but when we think about it, so do other foundational beliefs, like our belief that the external world exists. But just because they can’t be proved does not mean that moral beliefs are not subject to rational considerations. Rational methods, such as Reflective Equalibrium, for example exist.

        ” the only possible disagreement being about “because of what kind of entity he is.””

        We recognize that humans are superior to animals. This is not to say that animals don’t have any dignity, or that it is alright to do whatever we want to them. But there is a difference between humans and animals, primarily in our orientation toward rationality and apprehension of the moral realm. Sex between humans is fine, sex between an animal and a human is wrong. Not merely because it hurts the animal – we can imagine that it might not – or that the animal does not consent – we can imagine that the animal tries to mate with a human who consented. No, it is not for those reasons, but it is because primarily it offends human dignity.

        I don’t think that you’ve done enough to show that a person has an obligation to give his marrow or kidney, etc. to another. Any moral irritation that we feel toward Shimp (or the other guy) can, I think, be explained by realizing that what he didn’t do is morally criticizable, even if it is not morally impermissible.

  3. To tell the truth, I haven’t read Pro, except for the first chapter, which is available online. In
    “‘Don’t Really Believe’” I just responded to the New Yorker’s representation of her: “No
    person actually imagines that a zygote is a person. If they did, they would actually equate murder and
    abortion . . .” I hope the New Yorker represented her accurately enough as far as those
    lines go.

    Besides the New Yorker review, I had also read another review supportive of Pollitt, on
    Slate, and two reviews that oppose Pollitt, title="Katha Pollitt's Intuition" target="_blank">one by Erika Bachiochi and title="Beware of Pity: Katha Pollitt" target="_blank">another by Susannah Black. Black recounts some things about some tension between Pollitt and Naomi Wolf.

    So I’m sorry I won’t be able to engage with you about all of Pollitt’s arguments, particularly about what
    I will call her direct arguments regarding the personhood of the unborn, for instance the “residual
    social place” argument that you have explained. “‘Don’t Really Believe’” only needs to address her
    claims about what pro-lifers really believe about the unborn. If I understand correctly, she
    uses those beliefs (or what she claims to be lack of beliefs) by pro-lifers, to argue about the (lack of)
    personhood of the unborn — in effect, “pro-lifers don’t really believe that the unborn are persons, and
    this shows that the unborn are not persons” — and I will call those indirect arguments
    regarding the personhood of the unborn. But I only need to address her claims about what pro-lifers
    really believe about the unborn, and not how she uses those claims, or her other arguments against
    unborn personhood.

    “she is just a sophist with an agenda to push, not a reasoning and meticulous defender of her position”

    Her own blog says she is a “polemicist.” I think that polemics have their place — but only when they’re used on the right side.

    Thanks for the link to Persuasive Pro-Life, which I just now downloaded. I’ve heard good things about
    it and will read it.

    I had written:

    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.

    I had said similar things on someone else’s website, and on that website you had replied along lines
    similar to this present reply of yours:

    “I disagree with this point as stated, though, I see where it its comming from. The act itself must be
    viewed as murder and child abuse, the violation of one’s obligation to one’s offspring. Now, whether
    the people involved are fully culpable is another matter.”

    You say, “The act itself must be viewed as murder and child abuse . . .” Well, on that other website I
    had replied:

    You’re probably familiar with images that can be seen either of two ways, depending on
    what you see as figure and what you see as ground. For instance, there’s one image in which you can
    see two faces as the figure and the rest as the background, or you can see a vase in the center as the
    figure and the rest as the background. Similarly, I think that when you think about abortion, you –

    see unjustified killing as the ground and see possible mitigations/extenuations/alleviations as
    the figure

    – whereas when I think about abortion, I –

    see the woman defending her body’s internal organs against their unwanted use (which in
    most situations would be considered justified) as the ground and see the counterbalancing value of
    the child’s life as the figure.

    When you now say, “I see where [this point] is comming from,” do you say that because you are able
    to see the situation in the latter way, as I tend to?

    Actually, since according to my figure-ground metaphor both views are somewhat legitimate, perhaps I shouldn’t state any preference for the latter view. Could we just put it this way? –

    The child has a right to life. The woman has her bodily rights. In debates we sometimes hear pro-
    choicers say, “Bodily rights trump the right to life,” and hear pro-lifers say, “Without the right to life all other rights are meaningless,” but I don’t find either of those absolutist statements convincing. For instance, bodily rights do trump the right to life in a case such as that of McFall v. Shimp (which I have discussed in “Bodily Rights and a Better Idea”), but does that mean they trump the right to life in all cases?

    When bodily rights conflict with the right to life in the case of a particular proposed abortion, I think
    that in the process of finding our moral intuitions about the most correct decision in that particular case
    – identifying the most correct decision in that particular case — some of the “mass” or “volume” of
    each right will be lost. The correct decision will be a function of diminished bodily rights, and a
    diminished right to life. So rather than say that an abortion in a particular case is “murder with reduced
    culpability” (as you would put it) or is (as I put it in the above blog post) “[the woman's] default right to
    kill [which should have been] offset by other considerations,” why not just say that it should be
    framed in the first place neither as “murder” nor as a “default right to kill”?

    On that other website you quoted Schwarz: “It is important to distinguish clearly between murder as
    applying to actions and as applying to persons, making them guilty or murderers. Thus, to say that
    abortion is murder is to classify the action of killing an innocent preborn child as murder; it does not
    make a judgement about the personal guilt on the part of the women, the doctor, and those who
    assisted.”

    So he insists on a two-step intellectual process: first frame it as murder, then proceed to qualify. Or a
    two-dimensional intellectual process: in the “action” dimension it is murder, in the “actor” dimension it
    is not. I can see how that distinction could be a useful tool, or maybe we should say crutch, either in
    our intellectual process or law. I can see it as an intellectual convenience. But I don’t think that
    distinction is sacrosanct as a way of viewing the situation. Given that there are two conflicting rights
    involved, we do not need to choose to frame abortion in the first place as either of them — as either
    murder or a clear exercise of bodily rights.

    By avoiding such framing, we can stop what might otherwise be an endless debate between seeing
    unjustified killing as the “ground,” and seeing the woman defending her body’s internal organs as the
    “ground.”

    “Only if pregnancy (in typical cases) was comparable to an assault, as McDonagh alleges, would an
    unwanted pregnancy be an assualt, and thus abortion (In general) be self-defense.”

    I don’t think that abortion is equivalent to self-defense against assault — I oppose the one
    but support the other. But “comparable”? What I said was that the self-defense model could be used
    as a conceptual starting point. In the above blog post I said it would be a better starting point than
    “murder.” But now I’m just saying “Given that there are two conflicting rights involved, we do not
    need to choose to frame abortion in the first place as either of them — as either murder or a clear
    exercise of bodily rights.”

    “However, as Beckwith and Thomas, among others (such as Horn) have pointed out, there is a
    problem with viewing pregnancy as McDonagh does (See:
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1STiOTVI2ibS1NaUGhqa2FRSXM/view).”

    I have just downloaded B & T, thanks. It may turn out that the problem they identify is the same
    reason that I don’t ultimately conclude that abortion is equivalent to self-defense against assault.
    Ideally I should have actually read what B & T say on this subject, and what Horn says, before finalizing
    this reply of mine, but it may be another couple of days before I can start reading them, and this reply
    of mine is already long delayed, so here it is now.

    • “I see where [this point] is coming from,” do you say that because you are able to see the situation in the latter way, as I tend to?”

      I understand why you say that, though, I disagree, at least when it comes to pregnancy as such. If we are talking about life threatening pregnancy, then you could view it as self-defense. The action still would not be to kill the child. Though, it might result in his death as an unintended, yet foreseen, effect.

      “The child has a right to life. The woman has her bodily rights. In debates we sometimes hear pro-choicers say, “Bodily rights trump the right to life,” and hear pro-lifers say, “Without the right to life all other rights are meaningless,” but I don’t find either of those absolutist statements convincing. For instance, bodily rights do trump the right to life in a case such as that of McFall v. Shimp (which I have discussed in “Bodily Rights and a Better Idea”), but does that mean they trump the right to life in all cases?”

      I’m not convinced that it was the right to life that was trumped here, but his desire to have part of his cousin’s body to save himself. But anyway, I don’t often appeal to the child’s right to life alone, but to the mother’s parental obligation which trumps, as it were, her right to bodily autonomy (in regard to the child, that is).

      “I think that in the process of finding our moral intuitions about the most correct decision in that particular case– identifying the most correct decision in that particular case — some of the “mass” or “volume” of each right will be lost.”

      Could you explain what this means? I kind of get it, but don’t want to respond until I am sure I know what you mean.

      “So he insists on a two-step intellectual process: first frame it as murder, then proceed to qualify.”

      Well murder is the unjustified killing of a person, so the act is murder. It is the culpability that is indeterminate. I think this holds in all cases. For example, if I panic and kill you if you come to my house, I have committed murder, but clearly, while I am partly culpable, I would not be as culpable if I had planned to kill you.

      “Given that there are two conflicting rights involved, we do not need to choose to frame abortion in the first place as either of them — as either murder or a clear exercise of bodily rights.”

      I guess that I agree. We can frame it as dichotomy between her obligation and her bodily autonomy, and argue from facts of parental obligations to born children to establish an obligation to unborn children as well (or from a de facto guardianship angle). Though, of course, the right to life approach is not invalid.

      • “I don’t often appeal to the child’s right to life alone, but to the mother’s parental obligation”

        Right, I had forgotten just how you had framed it.

      • “I think that in the process of finding our moral intuitions about the most correct decision in that particular case– identifying the most correct decision in that particular case — some of the “mass” or “volume” of each right will be lost.”

        “Could you explain what this means? I kind of get it, but don’t want to respond until I am sure I know what you mean.”

        It’s a metaphor in which the child’s right to life (it could also have been the child’s entitlement to the mother’s parental obligation) and the mother’s bodily rights are like physical objects that have mass and volume that can be diminished. It is a way that is vivid to me of saying that in an unwanted pregnancy the child never, from the start, has the same entitlement that it would have if it were already out and not burdening the mother’s internal organs; and the mother never, from the start, has the same bodily rights that she would have if she were in Shimp’s position.

        Why go through a two-step intellectual process of first 1) conceiving that the child and the mother each has the fuller version of its rights that it might have in some hypothetical other situation, and then 2) proceeding to diminish one or the other or both of those rights that, in an unwanted pregnancy situation, never really existed in the first place? To proceed in that way might be a useful intellectual tool for some, but doesn’t seem to me really necessary.

        • It is important because rights (the ones we are talking about, anyway) inhere to a person because of the kind of entity they are. Obligations derive from one’s relationships. We have to appeal to our intuitions and to thought experiments to determine the extent of both in a given case, keeping in mind that one cannot have a right to break an obligation.

          I also want to refine what I said earlier: I don’t DIRECTLY appeal to the child’s right to life WHEN his personhood is not the issue.

          • In order to make it more readable, I have posted my reply to you as a reply to your “For the most part I agreed with this post . . .” comment above.

  4. Also,
    “To tell the truth, I haven’t read Pro, except for the first chapter, which is available online.”

    I wouldn’t recommend reading it (read the three essays I wrote in response to its chapter on personhood and see why!).

    She is a polemicist, just a sophist as well. Its one thing to have a touch for rhetorical flare, but to have nothing of substance behind it (or to seem to not even try, as is the case with her – and SALON too, among others) is just awful. Frankly, she should be ashamed for that abject failure of a book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>