April 17, 2005

Bitch Ph.D: Do You Trust Women Revisited

I was going to put this in the comments to Dan's post, but it got long enough that I thought I'd put it on the front page. I don't mean to steal the discussion from Dan's post, I just thought this way we could encourage discussion from some of the lurkers that never comment. After slogging through a good deal of the comments after the article I just had some thoughts I wanted to put down. If you haven't read the original Dr. Bitch article, here it is.

I don't know that it's that people don't trust women in this case, it's that they don't trust *anyone* to make certain decisions relating to abortion and it's merely the fact of biology that limits the distrust to women. Were men capable of pregnancy, I think there might be some difference in thinking, but I think the people whose beliefs on the issue are grounded in religious dogmas are going to distrust men as much as women.

I also have a problem with the way Dr. Bitch characterizes the issue as moot merely because the fetus is inside the uterus. I don't exactly know when we should call a life a human, with all the attendant rights that requires, but it really bothers me that she simply disregards it as unworthy of any real consideration.

On of the posters really hit on an important, and equally ignored in the subsequent discussion, point; fetus' are quasi-human. No one thinks of them as a lump of coal in the uterus which suddenly because a legal person upon passing through the mother's genitals. As Dr. Bitch herself admits, the decision to have an abortion is a serious one which demands serious thought and reflection. On the other side, no one argues that babies deserve formal due process proceedings or some other such thing that a legal person would be entitled to. Fetus' are unique entities and I think it's consistent with this that the morality surrounding them is more complex than with simple matter or human beings. At the beginning of the pregnancy I think it's easy to characterize the "thing" in the womb as akin to a parasite and I think it's fair to characterize a birthed newborn as a person, but between those points I think it's unfair to dismiss the moral ambiguity so easily.

It's precisely this unique moral quandary that makes this not exclusively a woman's issue, as many of the posters tried to characterize it, to the point that some questioned men's right to even participate in the debate. This isn't a women's issue in the way that breast cancer is or that prostate cancer is for men. I'm not argueing, however, that men should have a say in the ifs and whens of a particular abortion, just questioning the statement that men have no place in the discussion.

I had more thoughts banging around in my head, but they're gone now so maybe I'll do another post if I feel the need. Hopefully, however, the lurkers that end up here (I know there are at least a few of you) will put down thoughts of your own and I'll just be able to post in the comments. Unlike Dr. Bitch, we're open to other opinions here and won't get all caustic if you dare to think differently.

Edit: After all that I think it's important to say that I'm sort of thinking outloud here, so don't take anything I'm saying as a settled belief, merely an argument that I want to think about and debate.

13 comments:

Noumena said...

I think that it's precisely the unique moral status of the foetus that gives the pregnant woman the sole right and responsibility for deciding when it is a person, and what rights it has as a consequence. A woman can certainly go to men to ask their thoughts and opinions, eg, is her boyfriend ready for a child, what does her OBGYN say about its process of development, does her father think she's mature enough to handle motherhood, etc. But including them, or anyone else, in the process is up to her; and they can't make the decision for her, ultimately it's still her choice. (I'll admit I kind of skimmed the comments on this point over in the thread on Dr. B's blog, so this may or may not be the POV expressed there.)

MosBen said...

If a woman is deciding when a baby is a human isn't that a standard with no definition? Aren't they just choosing what is or isn't a human based on what is convenient for their beliefs? How can that be the method for designating a status as a member of our species? Does it make sense that some women treat a second trimester baby as an "end in themseves" while some third trimester babies are a "means to an end"?

A baby may be *in* a woman's body, but I'd hardly call it a *part* of their body, and as a foreign object I can't understand how the vessel is the sole arbiter of what is contained in the vessel.

Now really, I think it's a complex issue and I wouldn't suggest that now we should be giving men legal say in particular abortions, but I'm merely saying that it's a complex issue and that I'm not sure there *is* a clear solution. At some point it travels from being a thing to a person and men are just as qualified to lay that arbitrary demarcation as women are. It's not like there's some point in the pregnancy when the baby taps out a message in morse code to announce to the mother that it has become human and should no longer morally be aborted.

It really and truly does suck that only women have to carry the baby, but that fact doesn't equip them any better to answer the question of whether we should apply the Categorical Imperitive to it.

Noumena said...

Actually, traditionally quickening -- when the prenate starts to move and kick -- was when mothers recognized their pregnancies as the beginning of new life. Up to that point, pregnancy was often seen as a disruption in the menstrual cycle. Note that not only is this not a fixed amount of time from conception, but it's essentially a subjective definition for the beginning of life, 'when the mother can feel her child moving inside her'. On this view, yeah, the baby does kind of tap out a message to the mother, though not in morse code.

I think it makes perfect sense for a pregnant woman to be the only one to decide when this thing her body's making, which is both part of her and yet distinctly different from her, is a new person. Reading testimonials of women who underwent late-term abortions, many seem to recognize it as somewhere in between: special and worth mourning, yet an abortion was still the right thing to do in that situation.

I don't believe men can decide when a foetus or prenate is a person. But I don't believe women as a whole can make that decision either. Only the pregnant woman herself can decide that; the rest of us, even women who have been pregnant themselves, have only a distant, abstract understanding of the particular situation.

This line of thought brushes up against some of the most profound postmodern or existentialist critiques of Enlightenment (read: Kantian) ethics, challenging the notion of universal moral laws founded in common standards and definitions, asking whether or not an ethics grounded in the particularity of our lives would not be better. It should be obvious that I am sympathetic to both the Kantian view and the postmodern critique, and I am optimistic about the possibility of a synthesis of the two.

Archgarth said...

I don't think I'm alone when I call up the quote that abortions should be "safe, legal and rare."

While I am perfectly aware of extenuating circumstances that cause women to become pregnant (i.e. rape, incest, etc.), there are women who do not practice safe sex, for whatever reason, and then are faced with the choice to either carry the baby to term, or to have an abortion.

While I fully believe that the issue of choice is necessary and important enough to never be taken away, when does the responsibility of the woman carrying the baby come into consideration?

Take partial-birth abortion, for example. I feel confident that most people would consider the methods employed in this type of abortion to be a step above barbaric. If these methods were used to end the life of anything other than a fetus, people would be up in arms against it. Now, I feel that partial-birth abortion, while not used very often, is necessary for times when it is in the interest of the safety and health of the mother to end the pregnancy in the last trimester. But I feel that a partial-birth abortion should not be used to terminate pregnancies just because "I didn't feel like ending it earlier." While I don't have actual data to show how many times this has occured, we can all accept that it probably has, and this scenario understandably ruffles some people's feathers, because it smacks of shirking personal responsibility.

MosBen said...

A miner isn't uniquely qualified to define what a rock is. This is a question for humanity to decide, not merely women, and pregnant women at that. The question of when the species starts is a question for the species, not for some reletively small minority of the species. This is especially true when the minority making the decisions is hardly impartial.

As to Brandon's post, I really hate the name partial birth abortion. It was created by wingnuts as a way of demonizing it, as if they needed anything other than facts to make the procedure unsavory, in the same way that they renamed the estate tax the "death tax". Late or third term abortions, please.

And this brings up something people were talking about on Dr. Bitch's site: it's not just a question of imposing "my feelings" on a pregnant woman, it's that because there's a moral uncertainty here that we answer the question together and lay an arbitrary line. Keep in mind that inside the womb and outside is just as arbitrary a line as any. If we decide as a society that the line should be after two trimesters of pregnancy, well then that's what it should be.

Noumena said...

The question of when the species starts is a question for the species, not for some reletively small minority of the species. This is especially true when the minority making the decisions is hardly impartial.

I assume this is addressed to my view that only the woman who actually has the prenate forming within and by her body has the right and responsibility of deciding whether or not (or how much) it is a person, and what privileges and protections it has thereby.

If my assumption is accurate, then this attitud -- that a pregnant woman is incapable of making such a determination on her own -- is precisely what had Dr. B and myself so pissed off in that thread.

ArchGarth, have you ever read the testimonials of women who undergo a dilation and extraction (the medical name for the most common form of 'partial-birth' abortion)? I've read a few, and in every single case it was a long and hard decision, not undertaken lightly. Yes, sometimes it happens because the woman did not really reflect on things earlier they way she probably should have under better circumstances; but would you tell a sixteen-year-old with a healthy pregnancy, in denial about it until six and a half months in, that she had to bring it to term because the safest way for her to end it now is icky?

MosBen said...

I'm just not convinced about that assumption. I don't know how what constitutes human can be a personal decision. And if the contention that "within and by" her body is the key, then wouldn't viability be a shifting point? If the creature no longer needs the host body in order to survive then isn't the question of its humanity, and therefore the rights due to it, settled?

I don't know, the question of whether or not to end a human life, even one within your body, seems patently different than any other "personal" decisions like what to do with your hair.

MosBen said...

I'm not certain he's saying that it's icky, I think he's saying that at that point the baby is a human and deserves all the rights we give to humans. It's not that it's gross, it's that you're killing a person at that point.

Again, I'm not taking these positions as my own, just thinking through the arguments.

Noumena said...

Viability did come up over on the thread on Bitch Ph.D. Dr B pointed out that any 'extraction' of the foetus is going to be a medical intervention (to use what I decided was the most neutral term) in a woman's body: you can't just teleport it out. Even a Cesarean is an involved surgical procedure, with necessary hospitalization afterwards and medical repercussions (future children will also have to be taken out surgically). I can't buy an absolute definition of life which includes a condition of surgery done to a distinct, particular person, eg, 'this being is alive because it could be surgically removed from its mother and survive'.

Archgarth's criticism of d+e is:
I feel confident that most people would consider the methods employed in this type of abortion to be a step above barbaric. If these methods were used to end the life of anything other than a fetus, people would be up in arms against it.
Working backwards, first, let me just note that both of you are meat-eaters. Next, the peculiar status of the foetus means it requires special consideration and treatment: the responsibilities to it cannot be determined in analogy with other cases. Then, third, 'barbaric' is left unexplained here. I choose to read it as a synonym for 'disgusting' or 'unpleasant', that is, 'icky'. He's welcome to correct me if I've misread him; but on MosBen's reading, this argument is circular ('the prenate at this point is a person because, at this point, the prenate is a person').

MosBen said...

So a baby born two months pre-mature who has to be kept alive in the hospital in all sorts of equipment is *more human* than a healthy unborn one day before delivery? Again, this sort of "inside/outside the womb" distinction seems like an arbitrary line to draw. Certainly it's no less arbitrary than "viability" or "after the first trimester". So you've got three (more really) perspectives that each think they've got the definition of when the thing becomes a human, isn't that exactly where political compromise between viewpoints occurs?

Since babies are patently different than, say chickens (insert some very tasteless < ha! > baby canibalism joke here), I don't see where the meat analogy comes from. I don't think there's anything inconsistent with thinking that killing an animal for food is fine while also thinking that killing an unborn child is not ok.

Ok, I just re-read that exerpt you quoted and I might have misread Brandon's post. I was going to delete the above paragraph, but then I would have lost a canibalism pun within a canibalism joke and I just couldn't allow that.

Moving on, how is "A baby isn't a person because the mother decided it wasn't a person" less circular than "A baby is a person because society said it was a person?"

Drew said...

As I read this debate, I'm inching closer and closer to the position that there is no non-arbitrary, rational, philosophically consistent position on abortion. I'm perfectly comfortable telling a 16-year-old girl in the third trimester that she's stuck and has to have the baby, regardless of her wishes at that moment. I'm not insensitive to the problems of that position, so I respond by supporting measures like making family planning both widely available and completely government-funded, and also anonymous (even from parents, if necessary). It's not a perfect solution, and as a policy position it's not without arbitrariness and inconsistency.

But then, what is?

Does that mean I don't trust women? Maybe. But I support safety locks on guns. I support mandatory inspections of motor vehicles. I support government quality control of produce. Does that mean I don't trust gun owners, drivers, and farmers? Maybe. What difference does it make?

Noumena said...

I don't normally like to do this, but I'm feeling lazy, so I'm going to do a Q-and-A format here.

So a baby born two months pre-mature who has to be kept alive in the hospital in all sorts of equipment is *more human* than a healthy unborn one day before delivery?
Once outside the womb, yes, the baby is unequivocally human. Inside the womb, and therefore still physically dependent on the mother (even if potentially viable), its status is up to the mother. Nothing here seems arbitrary; when it can no longer be considered part of the mother by any reckoning, when surgery is no longer required to separate it from the mother, then it is unequivocally fully human. Before that, it's up to the woman who is pregnant to decide its status, as she is the only being who is definitely human and directly involved in the pregnancy.

So you've got three (more really) perspectives that each think they've got the definition of when the thing becomes a human, isn't that exactly where political compromise between viewpoints occurs?
Your political compromise means the sixteen year old in my not-entirely-hypothetical example is forced to go through a further 2 1/2 months of pregnancy and risk her life (it's a small risk, but it's real, particularly for a woman of that age) in childbirth. I find forcing that on her to be absolutely reprehensible.

Moving on, how is "A baby isn't a person because the mother decided it wasn't a person" less circular than "A baby is a person because society said it was a person?"
Because society isn't pregnant. It's not society's body that is creating this thing. The only body involved here is hers; hence, the only one who has any right or basis to decide is her, up until the moment it is physically no longer dependent on her and her alone for its existence.

Archgarth said...

I finally just got back to check on the comments, and I would go into more detail, if I didn't have to move today.

But as to my use of the term, "a step above barbaric" to describe Dilation & Extraction, let me clairify.

Because Sozialismus appreciates definitions:
Barbaric: Of, relating to, or characteristic of barbarians.
Marked by crudeness or lack of restraint in taste, style, or manner.

Here's an explantion of D&E abortion: The woman's cervix is dilated, and the fetus is partially removed from the womb, feet first. The surgeon inserts a sharp object into the back of the fetus' head, removes it, and inserts a vacuum tube through which the brains are extracted. The head of the fetus contracts at this point and allows the fetus to be more easily removed from the womb.

Now, if we were talking about this process being practiced on any living, breathing human, even animals, would we not consider this practice barbaric?

Does D&X have it's place, yes, most definitely, if the health of the mother is in question, the fetus is dead, or a host of other reasons. But should this method of abortion be practiced when a simpler abortion could have been performed any time during the first two trimesters, if the sole reason for having the abortion is to not have a baby.