March 23, 2006

20 Questions For Pro-Choice People

Some anti-choice ethicist put together a list of 'Questions for pro-choice people'. The list is more than just the questions -- each includes a couple paragraphs of exposition and a quick defence -- but I'm only going to quote the questions themselves.

1. At what point do you think that a human being, with human rights, comes into existence? Is it at birth, or earlier?
Personally, I believe this happens at birth, when a foetus becomes an infant. Some pro-choice people, such as David Boonin, argue that the foetus develops rights when it has a brain capable of having interests, or when it becomes viable, which are both around the 23rd week. But, more to the point, having human rights doesn't entitle the foetus to live as a parasite off the mother -- at least, not without further argument.

2. What keeps us from legalizing infanticide?
The answer to this question depends on the answer to the previous one. I would say that infanticide is impermissible and ought to remain illegal because the care for a (typical, healthy) infant is externalizable, while the care for a foetus is not -- the only person who can provide the foetus the life support it needs prior to viability is the pregnant woman, while anyone can care for an infant. Hence, the infant's right to life doesn't conflict with anyone's right to bodily integrity.

3. Suppose someone were to argue as follows: "There is a lack of consensus about when human life begins; therefore, abortion should be prohibited throughout pregnancy." Why is this argument any more, or less, reasonable than the argument that:"There is a lack of consensus about when human life begins; therefore, abortion should be allowed throughout pregnancy?"
I've used something like the latter argument as a call for tolerance, but I don't think anyone has put it forward as a serious argument that abortion is permissible that's supposed to stand on its own. If anyone does, I'm ready to say that's a bad argument.

4. What do you think about cases where the woman's conscience tells her that abortion is not a good thing--because she thinks she is killing her baby--but she wants an abortion anyway. Why should these abortions be allowed?
We should also ask why she wants the abortion anyway. If motivations are salient, then the motivation that's particularly salient is the motivation for following a course of action. If she wants the abortion simply for because she wants to destroy another living being, then that's probably impermissible. But I have problems with resting morality on motivations; for me, the important question is how to untangle the conflict of rights, especially when the question is one of law (as opposed to morality). This leads me to argue that her motivations don't matter: whatever her motivations are, she's entitled to deny the use of her body to another being.

5. Did Roe v. Wade merely open up a space for a view that had no standing before--the view that abortion is in some circumstances permissible--or did it completely replace one view, the pro-life view, with some other view opposed to it--so that pro-life people could complain, with justice, that some alien and unjustified view has been imposed upon them?
Abortion opponents are legally permitted to do almost anything short of harassment and physical obstruction to articulate their views. I would also say that acts of nonviolent civil disobedience are morally permissible, even though they are not legally permissible. What other courses of action ought to be considered morally permissible for abortion opponents, and other critics of the status quo? Threats of violence and verbal assault?

6. How should we regard a forced abortion of a pro-life woman's fetus?
As a violation of her right to bodily integrity, and hence on a par with a prohibition of abortion.

7. Why is it only the female parent's opinion which determines the status of the child?
Because the foetus is physiologically dependent on the use of her body, and only her body, for its survival until birth.
NB: Check out this patriarchal bullshit (my emphasis):

Yet surely to be a parent, a generator of the fetus, a procreator, is to have a closer relationship to the fetus than merely to contain the child physically. And we can raise the question, again, of whether in fact such a husband is allowed to live out his pro-life convictions in our society. It is not even clear that the husband is "free not to have an abortion", as the bumper sticker alleges, if his wife wants to have one. What if his wife is set on aborting every one of his children?

8. Suppose a woman who wanted an abortion were first to observe her unborn child through ultrasound technology. In such images, the hands and feet of the child are typically discernible, and even within the first trimester, it is common to see the unborn child sucking his or her thumb. I ask the pro-choice person: why aren't such images shown to woman, as part of informed consent preceding abortion?
If this proposal is motivated by informing the pregnant woman, then presumably these images convey some salient information. But it's hard to see what is salient about a superficial resemblance to humanity in regards to the issue of balancing competing rights claims.

9. If you think abortion should be allowed, can you consistently maintain that there any human rights at all?

10. [Draws an analogy between 'states rights' apologists for slavery and the bodily integrity position of the pro-choicer.]
There are numerous problems with this analogy. Perhaps the most blatant is drawing an analogy between, on the one hand, the rights claims made by women to bodily integrity, and on the other, the rights claims made by the slavery states to a certain amount of sovereignty. The latter is, essentially, a claim that the state has the authority to deny the personhood of certain human beings living within its boundaries. The former has several variations, such as the following: (a) the claim that the foetus, prior to developing a neocortex or becoming viable, does not have rights, as it does not have interests; and (b) the claim that, even if the foetus does have a right to life prior to the times in (a), the right to bodily integrity still trumps the right to life. One might challenge claim (a), arguing that it is too dependent on our current science, just as apologists for slavery turned to the science of their day to vindicate their racism. But (b) does not seem to have an analogous counterpart in the context of slavery.

11. Does anyone wish that his mother had chosen abortion for him? And, if not, then how can he consistently wish that any mother choose abortion for anyone else?
Boonin discusses this 'golden rule' argument in some detail. The version presented here is so vague that addressing it would require first developing it; in the interest of space, I direct the reader to Boonin's book.

12. Developing the analogy with slavery, we might wonder how abortion is at all compatible with the idea that all human beings are equal. After all, it is inconsistent with equality that one person have his fundamental rights conferred upon him by someone else.
Strawfeminist; does anyone argue that the foetus "has rights only if they are granted by the mother"?

13. Why isn't legal abortion outright discrimination? I think "discrimination" occurs in its clearest form when someone bases a decision about another person's rights, privileges, or position, on some arbitrary and irrelevant feature of that other person.
The 'irrelevant feature' here is "whether one is living inside or outside one's mother's womb". This is entirely salient to the question of whether its continued existence depends on the use of exactly one other person's body, which is the locus of the conflicting rights claims.

14. Isn't legal abortion be contrary to responsible principles of decision under uncertainty? If it were true that we "don't know when human life begins," it would follow, of course, that we don't know that the fetus is not a living human being; that is, we don't know that abortion is not morally equivalent to murder. But isn't that precisely what we ought to know, before allowing abortion?
The issue is one of conflicting rights claims, and I argue this clearly goes in the direction of the permissibility of abortion whatever the status of the foetus' right to life.

15. In every abortion the fetus is cut into pieces, ripped or torn apart, or poisoned. No one would want to treat a small kitten or puppy in that manner, nor does the law allow to do so, so why should we allow anyone to treat immature human beings in that way?
Because, if the foetus has a right to life, the unfortunate fact is that this right is in conflict with, and trumped by, the pregnant woman's right to bodily integrity. It is entirely consistent for defenders of abortion to argue that it is impermissible so long as the viable foetus can be safely delivered.

16. Why is an abortion traumatic, but an appendectomy is not? If the fetus really is just a clump of tissue, why should there be any fuss about abortion? Indeed, if an abortion were in reality just like an appendectomy, how would it be possible for pro-life people to get others agitated about it? The very fact that there is a dispute at all about abortion seems to show that the pro-life view is correct and that abortions should not be performed.
'I believe X is true' does not imply 'X is true'. This reasoning would easily be transformed into an argument that the pro-choice position is correct.

17. Why is it that doctors are allowed to do abortions? Even if abortions should be legal, shouldn't they be performed by some other sort of agent? Just as we do not allow doctors to administer injections for capital punishment, shouldn't we also bar doctors from doing abortions?
I simply don't understand this question.

18. Suppose a genetic marker for homosexuality is found, and a test is devised for this, and couples begin to abort fetuses with this marker. Should this practice be made illegal?
Clearly this practice is of questionable morality. But that does not mean it ought to be illegal. See my answer to question 4.

19. Suppose that, in decided [sic] some case, the Supreme Court decides to dispense with argument and legal reasoning and instead rolls dice to decide whether a laws is unconstitutional. Would its decision in that case have had any authority? But what if the Court doesn't role dice but also gives no constitutional reasons for its conclusion? In fact it gave no reasons in Roe v. Wade: the substance of the decision can be summed up in the bald assertions: the right to privacy contains the right to an abortion; the state has no legitimate interest in fetal life until viability.
The lawyers/law students here can probably explain things better, but my understanding is that the Roe decision draws heavily on the decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which does give an argument that the Constitution guarantees a right to privacy. Hence, Roe did not need to argue for a Constitutional right to privacy, merely reference Griswold. Furthermore, even if the legal reasoning in the Roe decision was suspect, that only means that there is not yet an accepted argument that abortion is legally permissible; it does not imply that no such argument can be found, much less that abortion is morally impermissible.

(Even though the title is '20 Questions', there are only nineteen in this document.)



MosBen said...

4. Allowing or disallowing abortions by the motivations of the mother fails on any number of legal theories. It is, to be blunt, simply stupid. Of course, individuals are certainly free to evaluate a person's actions taking their motivations into account. Perhaps the hypthetical mother is a hypocrite, but there's no reasonable way to disallow her abortion.

6. I'm not familiar with forced abortion in the US. Am I completely spacing on something?

8. I can't imagine any information that this could give, but it certainly seems like coersion. I suppose it's certainly ok as long as it's optional.

9. Yeah, this is dumb. The entire pro-choice theory is based on the idea that the fetus is not a legal human being. Actual human beings are entitled to rights that non-humans are not.

13. The 14th Amendment and other such laws only apply to legal human beings. You can't discriminate against non-humans. Well you can, it's just not legally forbade.

14. It's not that we "don't know" it's that we disagree. If we're going to avoid taking actions that we're uncertain about their moral character, supposedly determined by a deity, then we won't do anything at all.

16. Any issue that had passionate supporters would be held true by this argument. I can't believe anyone could write that question without immediately think of a dozen examples that make it absurd.

17. The question implies that doctors are violating the hypcratic oath by performing an abortion. Obviously there are several assumptions about the fetus built into the question that any pro-choice person rejects out of hand.

18. Abortions based on *any* specific genetic trait are morally questionable, but that really doesn't inform their legal character.

19. A Supreme Court opinion with no reasoning would be authoritative but would almost certainly be completely useless because it would give no means to apply the ruling to other cases. A circuit split in the appellate courts would reappear rather quickly and the problem would be right back in the S.C.'s lap. That's why they give reasoning in their decisions. Roe, and its decendents, gave plenty of direction to lower courts.

MosBen said...

Also, I noticed on the site with the questions that his email is there. You should let him know the answers to his questions.

Noumena said...

I would deny quite firmly that 'the entire pro-choice theory is based on the idea that the fetus is not a legal human being'. First, 'the' isn't accurate, at least not by itself; it's more like 'the most prominent' or 'one of the most common' or 'the pro-choice theory used in the Roe decision'. The point of the line I was taking throughout most of the post was that even if a foetus is a person with a right to life (which I and many other people do not believe), abortion is still morally permissible. So the pro-choice person can concede that a foetus has a right to life, and the anti-choicer is still ultimately wrong.

MosBen said...

Admittedly, on reflection, that was a bit of an overstatement.

Anonymous said...

well done.


Anonymous said...

5. Abortion is and has been permitted, with various restrictions and allowances, in numerous societies at various times in history. The Catholic Church allowed abortion until the "quickening" in the Medival period. The Bible (I think) declares personhood to start only after the fetus's head is out of the mother's body. It's not a new concept at all.

11. I'm also glad that my mother conceived me. Does that mean that I should never allow any oocyte to pass through my body without attempting to fertilize it, because, after all, I'm glad that the oocyte that became me was fertilized? Should I feel guilty about all the years I was abstinent because I'm glad my parents weren't abstinent the night I was conceived?

15. The most common form of surgical abortion is intact dilation and curratage. In D and C, the fetus (or, more often, embryo-the majority of abortions occur during the embryonic period) is removed in a single piece. No ripping, etc. needed or, sometimes, even possible without a microscope. Whatever that means to the morality of it all. Given that an embryo does not have the nervous system required to feel pain, I'm not sure what this matters anyway, except to demonstrate that frequently the pro-life movement doesn't entirely understand the biology of the entity they're trying to "save" or the procedures they're trying to ban.

16. It's not always. I know several women who have had abortions without any regret or trauma. No more than if they'd had an appendectomy. Research has shown that women are much more likely to feel regret or trauma after an abortion if those around her consistently judge her negatively for having the procedure. So to some extent, it's not the abortion but the pro-life movement that causes much of the trauma. Again, this pro-life philosopher doesn't seem to have much knowledge about the actual data surrounding abortion.

Anonymous said...

Nicely done! I have a different take on all this, and I've written up my own responses to these questions over on my blog.

Anonymous said...

Recently, in San Francisco, an unborn child was partially removed from the womb in order to have a renal tract obstruction repaired. After the surgery, the child was replaced in the womb to continue the pregnancy. Was this a person while out of the womb and then a non-person again when back inside? Or, since the procedure involves the removal of the lower half of the body from the womb, did the child achieve personhood for its buttocks but not for its brain?

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I'm a parasite off of my parents. And I'm in college. Can they abort me?

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