A Pro-Life Feminist Balance Sheet

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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 There were a number of reasons that abortion was originally made legal in the US.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– and to another commenter I wrote:

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

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

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

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

 

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

Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

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

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

“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

Bodily Rights and a Better Idea

Featured

 

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. In a moral framework, our bodies have a certain mystique. 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

Next Steps for the Pro-Life Feminist Movement

Secular Pro-Life has published an article co-authored by Kelsey Hazzard of SPL, and me.

 

Some further thoughts on the ideas of the article (these thoughts are mine and may or may not be thoughts of the co-author):

1.

We wrote: those who are not pregnant . . . will have to give up time, energy, and money to share the load of children . . .

What would be the economic mechanisms to ensure that sharing? The following is a comment I once posted under Sean Cahill’s “I am equal, not the same”:

 

Thanks, Sean Cahill, for providing a lot of clarity for me. I think some questions still remain, however:

“We are not liberated until both sexes are fully accepted as they are.”

As vehicles for the full acceptance of women as they are, in another guest post you listed the following things that Roe did NOT provide:

1. children born outside of marriage and their mothers are de-stigmatized

2. ensure women are able to earn a living wage

3. ensure proper maternity benefits

4. demand accommodations for parenting students and employees at colleges and workplaces

5. demand men act responsibly.

Can women as they are (i.e., without abortion) attain equality through these vehicles? The problem I see is this: Under capitalism as we know it, people win economic independence for themselves only when they get compensated for producing marketable goods or services. Child-carrying and child-rearing are not presently marketable goods or services, so if some of a woman’s time and energy goes into child-carrying and child-rearing, she will be hindered in winning economic independence unless child-carrying and child-rearing become marketable services. Handouts from those who ARE getting compensated for producing marketable goods or services do not have as much potential to add up to real money as do the direct compensations that go to the real (real in capitalistic terms) producers. And your points 2-4 above are, in a capitalistic framework, handouts.

So why not begin to treat child-carrying and child-rearing as marketable services? The answer revolves around demand. Under some neo-capitalistic system, they could indeed be marketable services, and under a socialistic system also, they could be services deserving of compensation. The level of the fee or the compensation would depend on the level of a given society’s demand for population, but in every society there is always a demand for at least some level of replacement of population. So your points 2-4 above would be upgraded from handouts to earned compensation.

Even if child-carrying and child-rearing were treated in this way, however, there would not be full equality of opportunity if these activities were to continue to be seen, as at present, as relatively menial occupations. The quip about “brood-mares of the state” would be quite appropriate. Considering the importance of upbringing in relation to whether a child grows up to be an asset to society or a liability, good child-rearing should rather be seen as a prized and highly-compensated set of skills (the most important skill being a hard one to learn — true motherly love).

But even with that “fix” in our framework, skilled mothers might not be as highly valued as top scientists, artists, entertainers and athletes. And still more importantly, pregnant women and mothers would not be equal in a society — either a capitalistic society or a socialistic society — where the demand for population was low.

All the above was probably clarified a long time ago by some feminist writer or other. Where I would differ from pro-choice feminists might be this: I don’t see any of these problems as quite adding up to justification for killing babies.

Both capitalism and socialism are materialistic. I think that pregnant women and mothers will win equality only when their contribution is recognized in a sense that is not materialistic, and when they are compensated, if not by economic independence and opportunity, then by some kind of clout in society that is as good or better. In order for this to happen, society has to recognize that the contribution made by pregnant women and mothers is at least as valuable as the contribution of top scientists, artists, entertainers and athletes. Pregnant women and mothers contribute even if their children are not needed by society in a utilitarian way. Yet their contribution will not always be recognized as long as the calculus is a materialistic one. Their contribution is to give life.

 

2.

We wrote:The full value of this uniquely female contribution cannot be understood as long as the calculus is a purely materialistic one. . . . Thus women’s true equality, including the equality of women with unplanned pregnancies, requires a deep sensitivity to the value of life and the damage done to us all when already-existing life is devalued . . .

Will this day ever come? Please see “What’s in It for the Born?”

 

3.

Here is a comment I recently posted under Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa’s “Can you imagine a world without abortion?”:

 

Recently someone said to me, in relation to pro-life feminist thinking, “Strange to see someone argue that giving people more sovereignty over their own bodies is [patriarchal].”

But “sovereignty” of course means a right to kill their offspring, and it turns out that when you give someone that right, whatever happens next is their own problem — they are on their own. If they decide against abortion and opt to carry the pregnancy to term, then to the father of the baby, and to society, it will seem that they brought the burdens of pregnancy on themselves. And if they decide to raise the child, then it is a much bigger problem yet that they “brought on themselves.” Whereas if they decide to abort, no one will suffer any negative physical or psychological consequences as much as they will (though they undeniable stand to gain something as well).

Can we at least agree on this — that, though it may be paradoxical, pregnant women who DON’T want to abort will be better off in a society where abortion is not a legal option — where they DON’T have legal “sovereignty over their own bodies” ?

So they will be better off, whereas women who do want to abort, assuming they win the small physical gamble they take when they get the legal abortion, would be better off in a society where abortion is legal — better off, that is, in terms of their materialistic situation and ambitions.

Assuming that “better off in terms of their materialistic situation and ambitions” is really better off, in net, for that group of women, then we see that a society where abortion is not a legal option will be better for one group of women and worse for another group of women, and whether it is better for women overall might just depend on how many there are in each group.

And IS “better off in terms of their materialistic situation and ambitions” in fact better off for women who want to abort? A very deep question.

An academic paper, by a woman named Sidney Callahan, on what is lost by women where abortion is legal, is “Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Pro-Life Feminism”. It concludes:

“Another and different round of feminist consciousness raising is needed in which all of women’s potential is accorded respect. This time, instead of humbly buying entrée by conforming to male lifestyles, women will demand that society accommodate itself to them.

“New feminist efforts to rethink the meaning of sexuality, femininity, and reproduction are all the more vital as new techniques for artificial reproduction, surrogate motherhood, and the like present a whole new set of dilemmas. In the long run, the very long run, the abortion debate may be merely the opening round in a series of far-reaching struggles over the role of human sexuality and the ethics of reproduction. Significant changes in the culture, both positive and negative in outcome, may begin as local storms of controversy. We may be at one of those vaguely realized thresholds when we had best come to full attention. What kind of people are we going to be? Prolife feminists pursue a vision for their sisters, daughters, and grand-daughters. Will their great-grand-daughters be grateful?”

 

Further thoughts” may be continued later.

 

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

Evolution, and the Humanizing and Uplifting Effect on Society of a Commitment to the Unborn

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

Only a Potential Person?

 

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

 

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

What Did Cecile Richards Apologize For?

Deborah Nucatola, a high-level Planned Parenthood official, was caught in an undercover video discussing how they crush unborn children in one way during a normal abortion, but crush them in a different way when they have to fill an order for certain organs — livers, hearts, lungs or intact heads. Meanwhile, she eats lunch and sips wine. After the abortion, Planned Parenthood ships the orders to research companies or the middlemen thereof, receiving compensation in order to break even or possibly “do a little better than break even.”

Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, quickly apologized for Nucatola’s tone. To the public, what had been upsetting about the tone was the lack of compassion for unborn children. But what exactly, according to Richards, was wrong with the tone?

Richards said:

Our top priority is the compassionate care that we provide. In the video . . . one of our staff members speaks in a way that does not reflect that compassion. This is unacceptable, and I personally apologize for the staff member’s tone and statements.

The strange thing about this is that Planned Parenthood’s compassionate care, even as advertising, means compassionate care for the woman only. Little of what Nucatola said (except implicitly, perhaps, what she said about altering abortion procedures for the sake of better specimens, which is not a question of tone) reflects lack of compassion for the woman. Americans were shocked by the lack of compassion for the child, not any lack of compassion for the woman, and Richards knew that.

Richards seems to have been trying to mollify that outrage about the child. And yet she could not say, “one of our staff members speaks in a way that does not reflect compassion for the child,” because that is not how they frame abortion. She may have considered saying “one of our staff members speaks in a way that does not reflect compassion for the clump of tissue,” but understood how that was problematic. So she said –

Our top priority is the compassionate care that we provide [to women]. In the video . . . one of our staff members speaks in a way that does not reflect . . . compassion [for the unborn child, she wants the public to understand, so that they will feel mollified -- but she leaves "child" unspoken so she can't be held to account for admitting that there is a child]. This is unacceptable . . .

– apparently hoping that the short attention span of her listeners would not allow them to notice the segue.

© 2015

 

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

Evolution, and the Humanizing and Uplifting Effect on Society of a Commitment to the Unborn

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

Abortion as Problem-Solving through Might Makes Right

 

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

 

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

Evolution, and the Humanizing and Uplifting Effect on Society of a Commitment to the Unborn

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

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

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

A Stopgap Response to Robin Marty’s Coverage of the March for Life

I may expand on this later.

Robin Marty, a pro-choice activist, has covered the recent March for Life here.

The article surprised pro-lifers with its relative fairness. Though not neglecting to make a couple of criticisms of it, Kelsey Hazzard of Secular Pro-Life wrote, “But on the whole it was a much fairer piece than we would have gotten from any other pro-choice writer.” I don’t doubt that this is true.

However, let’s look at an important theme of the article. At one point Marty quotes Jill Stanek as saying, “Well, of course we want to get into the mainstream,” and Stanek’s son-in-law Andy Moore as saying, “We’d be more than happy to keep separate.” But there’s something strange about this. For one thing, Marty doesn’t quote Moore as using the word “mainstream.” Is Marty sure that he was referring to the mainstream — and not meaning, for example, “We’d be more than happy to keep separate from pro-choicers”? There is a difference between a dislike of socializing with some people, and being out of the mainstream. Wouldn’t a reluctance to be in the mainstream mean that one does not even want one’s policy views to prevail?

And regarding what Stanek said, well, with most Americans favoring some abortion restrictions, aren’t pro-lifers in the mainstream, which would also place their leadership in the mainstream? I wonder if Stanek said “mainstream media” rather than “mainstream.”

Stanek has tweeted regarding this, “I don’t remember what I said or the exact context of the sentence that came b4.”

If I understand correctly, by “sentence that came b4″ Stanek is referring to Marty’s: “I had told [Stanek] that the part that stuck out to me most was this idea of an alternative culture that could stand as a complete counterpart to the world the rest of us interacted in, creating its own reality that anti-abortion and especially Christian conservative true believers could exist in, untouched.”

The main interpretive theme of the article, running alongside its fascinating factual coverage of the March, seems to be that pro-life activists are younger and more numerous and more well-intentioned, and even more joyous, than Marty expected, but that nevertheless they are out of touch with reality.

A willingness to take a fresh look is unusual in public discourse, and praiseworthy. But what about the concept that pro-life activists are out of the mainstream and that some of them don’t even want to be in it?

A serious minority party or movement is usually said to be “the opposition,” but not out of the mainstream. Activists for any cause are always in a minority, but if the cause itself is popular, do we say that the activists are out of the mainstream? Those who actually marched for civil rights in Washington in 1963 were in a small minority in the US, but were they in a “bubble”?

Marty tries to support her “bubble” idea by noting that “The ‘us versus the rest of the world’ theme was consistent through the panels I attended.” But surely that is a fairly common denominator of all struggles against oppression, and pro-lifers feel that their unborn sisters and brothers are oppressed.

So the best way to make sense of the idea that pro-life activists are out of the mainstream (and that some of them don’t even want to be in it) is to infer that to Marty, their being out of the mainstream does not reflect on their numbers or their seriousness about changing policy, but rather is synonymous with their “creating [their] own reality” where their ideas will not be threatened.

And what is the real reality that, to Marty, pro-life activists are out of touch with? It is that an unborn child is a “life,” whereas its mother is a “person”: I will never, ever believe that the rights of a life developing in the womb outweigh the rights of the person carrying it, or that she has an obligation once pregnant to provide society with a live, full-term infant regardless of her own emotional or medical needs. (Which also seems to echo the occasionally-heard conspiracy theory that pro-lifers are motivated by a desire to increase population.)

The “reality” that an unborn child is not a person is of course almost the main crux of the abortion issue and is normally admitted by both sides to be highly subjective. In another post, I looked at it this way:

In thinking of the unborn, some people tend to perceive a still picture, an organism frozen in time, while some tend to perceive a process. If you kill a small clump of cells lacking, perhaps, even a beating heart, is it correct to say that you are killing an organism whose life presently has little value, or to say that you are depriving it of the complete human life which has started as a process? In fact, both statements are correct. Obviously the perception of a process is a more complete perception. If one does perceive a process, then one will also intuit that the unborn is a full-fledged member of human society, and will call it a person. But there is no way to prove logically that the process model is more valid morally than the frozen-in-time model as a basis for deciding the fate of the organism. . . . I would call the “process” perception of the unborn holistic, and would call the frozen-in-time perception reductive or mechanistic; but scientifically, neither is incorrect . . .

For some comments by pro-lifers on Marty’s article, see Secular Pro-Life’s Facebook status of February 1 at 9:24pm.

By the way, here is the one photo that to me best captures the big array of feelings that drive the March for Life.

 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens could change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has!” (Margaret Mead)

 

© 2015

 

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

Evolution, and the Humanizing and Uplifting Effect on Society of a Commitment to the Unborn

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

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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Personhood

If we are to pinpoint the moment of beginning of personhood that has the best scientific grounding, out of all the moments that are candidates, that will certainly be the beginning of the single-cell stage. A minute before, there were two spatially-separated haploid cells, each with insufficient genetic information ever to become anything resembing a full-grown person; a minute after, there is a single definable organism with the exact genetic information that it will carry throughout life, at 1 month of gestation, at 4 years, at 60 years.

Here Dr. Maureen L. Condic writes:

Structures capable of new functions are formed throughout embryogenesis. For example, grasping becomes possible once hands have formed. But the fundamental process of development proceeds continuously, both prior to and after hand formation, and the onset of this function reflects an ongoing developmental process. Given the continuous nature of development, to argue that embryos and fetuses become humans once some anatomical or functional landmark such as “consciousness” has been achieved is to assert some kind of magical transformation; i.e., that at some ill-defined point, a non-human entity spontaneously transmogrifies into a human being, without any change whatsoever in its behavior, its molecular composition, or any other observable feature.

I reject this argument. For something actually to transform into a different kind of thing, a change must take place in its composition or in its pattern of biological activity. For example, sperm and egg are two specific human cell types that fuse to produce a distinct cell (the zygote) with unique molecular composition and with a pattern of organismal behavior that is distinct from the behavior of either sperm or egg. A clear, non-magical, scientifically observable transformation from one kind of entity (two human cells) to another kind of entity (a distinct human organism) has occurred. . . .

Building the complex architecture of the brain is a continuous process that is initiated at sperm-egg fusion and proceeds through orderly steps under the direction of a ‘builder,’ that is, a human organism that is present from the beginning. The presence of an agent capable of constructing the mature body, including the brain, is the only sustainable definition of a human being. This agency should not be misconstrued as some kind of mystical or spiritual element that is merely attributed to an embryo or fetus based on personal or religious belief. The fact that the embryo acts as an agent is entirely a matter of empirical observation; embryos construct themselves. . . .

. . . science does not dictate that citizens have a right to equal protection under the law, but. . . . science has clearly determined when human life commences, and this determination legitimately dictates that equal protection under the law must extend to human beings at embryonic and fetal stages of development.

For more scientific sources attesting to the personhood of the zygote, see Appendix 1.

Though the beginning of the single-cell stage has the best scientific grounding among all the moments that are candidates for the beginning of personhood, some will debate against defining “personhood” in this way. And “personhood” or “person” is not the only word that can be debated. While some will maintain that a zygote is “a human being, but not a person,” others, since they can’t deny that it belongs to the species Homo sapiens, will insist, with an equally straight face, that it is “human, but not a human being.”
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