This is an entry in the Pro-Abortion series.
This is about a list of 20 questions for pro-choice people (there are actually only 19, as far as I can tell). It was written for the Augustine Club, a group of vehement anti-abortion Christian students. To provide some background for these entries, the questions were written by Michael Pakaluk, a philosophy professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a fundamentalist Catholic organization, and also a known homophobe.
Unlike most anti-abortion rhetoric, the questions are articulate and detailed, with followups to the answers they expect pro-choice people to give. I think my pro-abortion position sidesteps many of these followups; besides, I find every pro-choice argument to be specious at best, so I’m definitely not going to defend those. I am as opposed to the pro-choice position as I am to the anti-abortion position. Either way, I am interested in going through these questions.
Incidentally, this list was my original inspiration for this series, so if you want to blame someone, blame him.
I assume that you think that we human beings have human rights. Your position, in fact, is that among the rights a human being has is the right to control one’s reproduction. Well, at what point do you think that a human being, with human rights, comes into existence? Is it at birth, or earlier?
As a pro-abortion person, I do not believe we have “the right to control one’s reproduction.” I don’t believe in “reproductive rights.” They are more pseudo-rights, legal fictions. The entry “The humbug of “reproductive rights”…” will be a logical refutation of “reproductive rights” and the proposal of an alternative rights framework for procreation.
That being said, fetuses start to be conscious at 28 to 30 weeks of gestation, and this is when people come into existence in a moral sense (for a longer discussion of this, see Better Never to Have Been, chapter 5).
Whatever answer you give– viability, brain waves, whatever–Why don’t you oppose abortion after this time?… “[W]hy do you do nothing to stop those human beings with human rights–as you have concede–from being killed”?
The number of abortions that take place after 28 weeks is insignificant, especially since abortions after 20 to 24 weeks become illegal pretty much everywhere, unless there is a strong medical reason to abort. There’s no point in me opposing such abortions, as they are already opposed by pretty much the entire Western world. So the question is actually moot. But I will continue answering anyway, because there is an important point behind this question, even if it is obscured by the clumzy wording.
We know for a fact that starting a new human life creates harm, and we have a duty not to create harm. Obviously this also includes not killing persons, but personhood is not an all-or-nothing proposition. The 28 to 30 weeks figure is the minimal point at which we can say that a consciousness exists, but personhood will continue to develop all the way through childhood.
Now, I have argued that we have a duty to abort unless proven otherwise. So this situation should not occur, as all fetuses should in principle be aborted as soon as their existence is known. ethically speaking (I know that most people are not pro-abortion and will not agree, which is why I state that I am talking about ethical facts). Then, what we have, if the abortion is not performed in time, is a dilemma between two forms of harm:
(1) The harm of killing the new person.
(2) The harm that will be created by continuing this new life into full personhood.
We can further subdivide each into two categories:
(1a) The harm of killing the new person, to the new person.
(1b) The harm of killing the new person, to the woman.
(2a) The harm that will be created by continuing this new life into full personhood, to the new person.
(2b) The harm that will be created by continuing this new life into full personhood, to the woman.
Both killing the potential person and starting its life are crimes and both are wrong. As for any other situation where two valid principles clash, we have to look at the consequences.
What is the consequence of killing the new person? For the fetus, absolutely nothing, as fetuses are incapable of subjectively experiencing pain. The harm (1a) is therefore zero. Some potential parents may experience distress, a great deal of which is consciously inflicted by anti-abortion advocates, while others experience relief. Interestingly, according to a Danish study done on 350,000 women (Induced First-Trimester Abortion and Risk of Mental Disorder, NEJM 2011), women who give birth are tremendously more at risk of psychiatric problems (72% rise in cases) than woman who get abortions (4% rise in cases). So one may argue that in fact the “harm” (1b) of killing the new person to the woman is much smaller than the harm (2b) to the woman entailed by childbirth.
The harm (2a) of continuing the new life, on the other hand, can be dramatic (death at birth from deformities, mental retardation, heart defects, progeria, spina bifida, child leukemia, child AIDS, muscular dystrophy, and so on all the way through old age), or it can be relatively mild (a “normal” healthy and “successful” life).
So which is better? Personally, if I compare both situations, I have to believe that the zero harm (1a) a fetus goes through when it gets murdered is always smaller than any amount of harm (2a) that a potential person will experience during eir life, and the small risk of harm (1b) the woman goes through compared to the tremendous risk of harm (2b) to women who give birth. Zero is smaller than a positive number, and a smaller number is smaller than a greater number; to me that seems like just simple logic.
Even if I assumed that (1a) is greater than zero, an assumption which is not backed by any scientific evidence, I would still definitely prefer the harm inflicted by abortion, which is short and inflicted on a being that can barely feel pain, to the wide variety of harms, many of which are horrible, inflicted on actual persons who feel pain fully. And I think that, comparing both sides, most people would also have the same preference, especially if you put it in a different context. Even a person living a privileged life in the Western world still goes through an amount of harm which I judge vastly greater than that of a fetus being aborted. So to me, abortion always wins out.
Note here that I am not making a utilitarian comparison. I am not literally comparing the amount of harm each goes through, because that’s logically impossible. All I am doing is saying which one I would prefer to see, taking into account all the factors of both cases. If anyone disagrees, I would seriously question whether they are telling the truth, insofar as most people are by far more distressed when a loved one suffers than by a loved one’s miscarriage (of course, there are always exceptions). It doesn’t really make psychological sense for anyone to want to see more actual persons suffer so fetuses may not suffer.
Again, I am not saying that the late abortion is not a murder. But given that in both cases one necessarily inflicts harm, which is criminal, we have to go to the side we judge preferable and that we judge inflicts less harm on the whole, and to me that’s clearly the pro-abortion side.
So my answer would be: I don’t actively try to stop these murders because 1. they are already being stopped and 2. the alternate crime, which is a necessary result of rejecting the murder, is consequentially worse than the murder.
Before I continue to question 2, I first want to evacuate the possible objection that, if murder must be balanced with the coming harm to the person, I must therefore be in favor of forced euthanasia even when the person is conscious and able to state a desire not to die.
I have two rejoinders to this. The first is that clearly consent is a key issue, as without consent an action or system cannot be justifiable. But such an objection has it completely backwards: in the case of a fetus, the criterion of consent is clearly on the side of abortion. Surely a fetus cannot consent to be born and bear the burden of the various harms that living beings go through. In the absence of the possibility of consent to these harms, the only justifiable decision is to abort. The absence of consent is not relevant to abortion, since abortion merely ensures that the non-existing person will remain non-existing. So far as the issue of consent goes, forced euthanasia is analogous to giving birth, not to third-trimester abortion.
My second point is the issue of responsibility. The pregnant woman is personally responsible for all the harm that may enter the life she wishes to start. She is therefore obliged to do the right thing and prevent that harm. In the euthanasia example, the harm of starting a life has already been done, the crime has already been perpetrated, and killing the person will not change that fact. Nothing can change the fact that an existing person exists; death brings an end to that existence, but it does not erase it. Because of that, abortion is justifiable but forced euthanasia isn’t, because the former is concerned with potential people while the latter is concerned with actual people.
Pro-choice people argue that the lack of consensus about when life begins implies that abortion should be legal until birth. By why only until birth? Why not after birth–that is, why do we not allow infanticide? My concern is: what keeps us from legalizing infanticide? Is it only because there happens to be a consensus that infants are human beings with human rights? But what if that consensus should change? And it is not naive to suppose it might change.
Especially in the follow up, Pakaluk tries to make this about consensus, by which he really means “popular opinion.” There’s nothing about consensus in his reasoning at all. And my argument has nothing to do with popularity. It’s about facts. Actions are not right or wrong because people agree, any more than propositions become true or false because people agree or disagree with you. Most people would disagree that there is no god, and yet there is no god. Most people would disagree that hierarchies are wrong, but hierarchies are wrong.
Popularity has nothing to do with truth, and everything to do with what beliefs institutions in our society, especially the power elite, rely upon in order to survive and retain people’s participation and support. Ultimately it is about indoctrination. The anti-abortion position has always had the indoctrination machine behind it, pushing the “wonders” of procreation, giving special status to married people and people with children, slandering women who get abortions, pushing procreation as the number one economic solution, and so on. That’s why the anti-abortion position has sustained itself despite the miserable failures of Christianity.
So because of that, I am not going to address his follow up, because it doesn’t apply to my arguments. That issue put aside, my answer to the main question here would be a continuation of my answer to question 1. Personhood develops throughout the months and years of one’s existence. Our vested interests in continuing to exist do not spring from whole cloth, and are also developed during a large period of time. The harm of continuing the life, however, remains constant. Obviously the equation balances out eventually, but there’s no clear reason why we should say that a fully grown fetus can be killed but not a baby.
Some may argue that the fetus depends on the mother’s body and the baby does not. The pro-choice people have no choice (pun intended) but to hammer on the concept of dependence as their way to escape the infanticide dilemma, as in this example:
It’s actually quite simple. You cannot have two entities with equal rights occupying one body. One will automatically have veto power over the other – and thus they don’t have equal rights. In the case of a pregnant woman, giving a “right to life” to the potential person in the womb automatically cancels out the mother’s right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
After birth, on the other hand, the potential person no longer occupies the same body as the mother, and thus, giving it full human rights causes no interference with another’s right to control her body.
The argument fails because there’s no meaningful difference between the two scenarios. The potential person only “cancels out” the woman’s rights insofar as its needs interfere with the woman’s needs; but the same thing is true after birth. Only by ignoring the great impact that having a child has on women’s lives could prompt someone to make the absurd claim that ey “causes no intereference” with the mother’s rights while the fetus did. The premise also seems questionable: to give another example of “two entities with equal rights occupying one body,” saying that conjoined twins are committing a crime against each other because they are “automatically cancel[ling] out” the other’s rights is counterintuitive.
The belief in dependence as a criteron is easily refuted by looking at the example of people in comas. Even though a person in a coma depends on machines to survive, this alone is not presented as a justification to allow killing em, and, I think, rightly so. Rather, we are only willing to “let go,” to disconnect them, when we know there is no personhood left in the body being sustained. This is the only fair standard. Without any person in the body, it is just a piece of meat, devoid of any ethical relevance.
I fully realize that there is an implicit argument from self-ownership in this pro-choice quote, through the narrative that the fetus and the woman are somehow locked in an “ownership” battle in which there can only be one victor; the body of the woman can be “owned” only by the fetus or by the woman. This narrative is used to try to draw a divide between the pre-birth and post-birth situations. I have already soundly refuted the concept of self-ownership many times on this blog, so I don’t need to examine this issue further except to say that it is irrational. At any rate, the whole issue of body ownership will be examined in detail in my entry “Body ownership: the fetus is a lousy tenant…”, where I conclusively refute this argument.
Continuing on the delightful topic of infanticide, Pakaluk dismissively mentions people who argue for the infanticide of Downs Syndrome children. Why mention it dismissively? Probably because Pakaluk knows that he can’t counter that example. Otherwise, why just bring it up without refuting it and putting that whole side argument to rest?
The elephant in the room is the fact that Pakaluk clearly expects us to be against infanticide, and by extension he clearly expects us to be against the example of infanticide of Downs Syndrome children. Yet he refuses to tell us why we should be adamantly against it in all cases. And if we suppose that the infanticide of Downs Syndrome children is justified by the harm spared (a position which I see no reason to reject out of hand), then we can make the exact same argument for all other forms of infanticide as well.
Just to make this clear, so no one jumps to conclusion, I am not arguing here that infanticide is necessarily justifed (although I do believe it can be, but that is beyond the scope of this entry). I am, however, saying that Pakaluk has failed to demonstrate that it isn’t; he merely assumes this, and his whole argument relies on that assumption. In the absence of further evidence, his argument fails.
But in general, why does any position, rather than any other, follow from a lack of consensus? 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?”
This question concerns popular opinion, so it is of no relevance to my position, which denies popular opinion as a valid epistemology. My answer is that nothing follows from a “lack of consensus.” To argue otherwise is a red herring, an attempt to divert the topic with irrelevant facts. The fact that people disagree about a topic does not prove that any position on that topic is correct.
Furthermore, the issue of “human life” is also irrelevant in itself, since all the parties to this debate agree that the fetus is a form of “human life,” in the same way that a cancer tumor is “human life” or that any cell in one’s body is “human life.” This is a useless path of argumentation.
You hold that women should be free to choose what they think is right regarding abortion: if a woman’s conscience tells her that abortion is in her case permissible, then she should be free to choose to have an abortion. This position has plausibility, because it seems to show respect for the woman’s conscience. But I wonder whether this is just an appearance. 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?
This is a complete philosophical confusion on Pakaluk’s part. He is arguing that people may commit actions which are contrary to their values. But this is logically impossible, as by definition our values are what we act upon. The real-life examples he gives do not make his point, as they demonstrate that the women in question do hold that the abortion process has value for them:
“The new baby would interfere with everything. We want to move to the West Coast, for example. We were convinced that the abortion was the best thing rather than the right thing.”
“I love my husband. I just think it would be better for him if I have the abortion. I’ll get over it.”
Palaluk may object to my analysis on the basis that a woman shouldn’t care what her husband wants. But this would be a strange position for a fanatic Christian conservative to take, to say the least.
And again, this is an argument from subjectivity, hardly what you expect to hear from a serious philosopher. What relevance does the woman’s opinion about abortion has to the issue of whether abortion is justified or not? Should we accept a person’s opinion that rape is justifiable and not condemn him for committing rape? Should we accept a parent’s testimony that he no longer regrets physically assaulting his child as proof that physical assault against children is justified? Should we accept hatred of, and discrimination against, certain “races” as proof that those “races” are inferior? People’s capacity for self-delusion about their own actions is endless.
Yes, people must follow their own conscience. And women who have abortions do so because of what their conscience dictates. But in no way should we make conscience trump over facts. For example, I may feel bad about ostracizing a sociopath, but my conscience does not trump the fact that ey is a sociopath. Some women may have remorse about having had an abortion, but that does not prove anything about abortion per se. More evidence is needed, and Pakaluk does not provide any.
Pro-choice people claim that the current law about abortion in our country–or perhaps we should say the absence of law–allows everyone to follow his or her own conscience: people who are pro-choice can procure abortions, if they wish; and people who are pro-life are free not to have an abortion, if they wish… But are pro-life people in fact allowed to act in accordance with their convictions? 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?
[I]t is false to say that, in our society, pro-life people are free to live in accordance with their conviction that unborn children are precious and have dignity. The reason for this is that, if I believe that another human being has dignity, then that belief implies that I help him and save him from harm. But people who believe that unborn children are precious and have dignity are forbidden to act this way on their behalf.
This is a bizarre argument to say the least, and is very much similar to the argument used against antinatalists that we’re trying to coerce people into antinatalism, whatever that means. The underlying argument here is that it is wrong for people to be unable to express their ideology into action, that this means that they are not free to live in accordance with their conviction.
My answer to this is: yes, an alien view has been imposed upon them, and thank Bob! We can no longer afford to live in a society where abortion is illegal, with all the misery and crime, and ultimately massive quantities of harm, that this brings about. Anyone who thinks we should return to such a world is delusional.
I no more want anti-abortion people to be able to express their convictions than I want pro-rape or pro-racism people to be able to express their convictions, because their convictions are criminal. That’s really all there is to say about it. People who wish to support the creation of harm are disgusting and twisted, and should be treated the same way we treat neo-nazis.
My upcoming entry “Defining tyranny within the abortion issue.” will deal with this issue in more detail.