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January 04, 2005

Alive and Kicking

Lynn Sanders: January 4, 2005

Left-liberal defenders of abortion rights should let "choice" go.

We should be talking instead about the contest between the life and bodily integrity of the mother on the one hand, and, on the other, the life and body that requires her pregnancy for its own life. We should revisit the argument that abortion is sometimes a form of self-defense.

One of the best things, I think, about a political debate about abortion as self-defense is that it might puncture the disingenuity that now characterizes the right as well as the left on this issue. The problem with the left is all too well known: today defenders of abortion rights treat abortion as if it didn't involve blood and gore. (That's part of the reason why simply referring to the facts of procedures like D & X have been so politically successful for the right.) "Choice" of course lays emphasis in a way that assists this denial.

Yet it is also true, but so much less remarked upon, that pregnancy too involves blood, gore and indeed something like a parasitical relationship. Embryos, fetuses and babies do not neutrally reside in their mothers' bodies, but actively draw from them. Pregnancy is much less dangerous than it used to be, but it is still corporally inconsequential only if it ends early (if even then). Maybe modern medicine lets all of us treat our bodies too lightly: so many of us seem to think that any damage we do may be fixed somewhere down the road by some drug or some surgeon. But it seems to me that we treat mothers' bodies especially lightly, as if pregnancy did not suck anyone's blood.

Today, "choice" is almost always the path a left-liberal takes to defend abortion rights, while liberalism's priority on "life" has been almost entirely appropriated by those who oppose abortion. Contemporary discussions thus repress what pregnancy demands of a woman's body. They obscure the fact that when a liberal state denies or too severely restricts abortion rights, then it is conscripting some bodies into service for others. Far more than it is now, abortion should be debated in terms of whether this conscription is justifiable in liberal, ethical terms.

In the current ideological climate, we try to play up "choice" more than ever: around Roe's 30th anniversary two years ago, NARAL, aka the National Abortion Rights Action League, appended "pro-choice America" to its name, thus distracting from that yucky word "abortion" and of course insisting on our (liberal) right to choose above all else. "Choice" let loose the concern - now voiced from left and right both - that women, in cahoots with evil "abortionists," light-mindedly ignore bodies and destroy babies.

What explains the propensity to forget or ignore how very much a pro-life position demands of a citizen-mother? I think it's an old misogynistic habit to treat women's bodies as less worthy of state protection than other people's bodies (though of course women's aren't the only lesser bodies: just think of our concerns about our cavalier treatment of our "volunteer" armed forces). But I think that contemporary political rhetoric hasn't helped matters.

Following the work of the political scientist Eileen McDonagh, who extends the pre-Roe arguments of Judith Jarvis Thompson, I've become convinced that embracing "choice" was maybe the worst wrong turn in abortion rights politics. Acknowledging that there are two bodies involved in pregnancy would force the left to admit that abortion always means killing a living thing. But, even more necessary today, it would also force the right to admit that all pregnancy involves a significant impingement upon, and not infrequently a real threat to, the mother's body.

The right needs to acknowledge that a pregnancy requires some citizens to put their bodies in harm's way: if the state compels pregnancy, then perhaps it should compensate mothers for the use of their bodies.

If Roe's framework has submerged the implication in pro-life arguments that the state might be indifferent to the conscription of one body for another's purpose, then this is another reason to let Roe go. And as Roe comes under further attack, then it becomes even more important to inject political arguments about abortion with a renewed appreciation that abortion rights protect physical bodies as well as mental choices.

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Comments

Posted by: Theodore Hasse

Changing the way in which the left presents the issue of abortion will not change any minds. One who believes that abortion is murder is not going to be converted by the argument presented here by Lynn Sanders. Abortion rights opponents will not agree with you, and proponents don't need further arguments to be convinced.

It will be more productive for the left -- especially those in the Democratic Party -- to find a way to coexist with those who are Pro-Life. If a Pro-Lifer feels that she is a political pariah for her stance on abortion, then you can not expect her to support you or your candidates in any election or on any other political issue.

Posted by: Theodore Hasse | Jan 4, 2005 5:40:38 PM


Posted by: slarrow

As a fervent pro-lifer, I wish you luck with this argument. I've long considered the appropriation of the term "choice" to be disingenuous, and I think a lot of the rancor on this issue centers on the cynical use of that term as a polemic. I would submit to you that those of us on the Right do know the toll pregnancy can take on a woman's body. Oh, and to say that our position has the state "compel pregnancy"...well, that's inartfully put. I certainly don't know anyone who thinks any government should make a woman get pregnant; we just think that if a woman is pregnant, that which is inside her ought to be considered a person instead of just some tissue. I appreciate your steps in coming closer to that admission.

Now where to go from here? Darned if I know....

Posted by: slarrow | Jan 4, 2005 5:54:59 PM


Posted by: MQ

I think putting forward an argument that calls the fetus a parasite and likens pregnancy to an assault is a crazy thing to do rhetorically and politically. This is the world of the "Alien" movies, not the way most people want to think about pregnancy. Do you really want politicians to spend half their time kissing babies and the other half calling fetuses bloodsucking parasites? Just because Thompson could cause an academic stir by arguing this doesn't mean it makes any political sense.

The core point to me is that there is no non-religious justification for considering the fetus a human being before it develops a brain and other relevant organs. As a secularist I am utterly baffled by the contention that a blastoma is a human being.

Posted by: MQ | Jan 4, 2005 6:06:42 PM


Posted by: Matthew

Are we to forever be filtered by the King James bible or some other form of religious scripture? When will logic and reason rule the day?

Isn't abortion really whether or not a woman (hopefully in the agreement with the man) wants her DNA to carry on? Isn't that what it really comes down to?

For those who are against that, aren't you really just creating more competition for your own propogated DNA?

Let's bring that one step further - if abortion had not been legalized, do you think those in the Red states would have the numbers edge they are flaunting today?

And why would we want to take "Choice" away from America? Wouldn't that be like take "free" from the last stanza of our National Anthem? Wouldn't that be choosing to disregard the efforts put forth by those who have volunteered to fight for that (albeit within the country)?

Posted by: Matthew | Jan 4, 2005 6:07:17 PM


Posted by: AlanC9

I don't think this argument will get anywhere, except maybe to get an exception for rape and incest. Sure, the embryo is parasitic. But the response is going to be that the woman consented to this possibility when she decided to have sex.

Posted by: AlanC9 | Jan 4, 2005 6:17:41 PM


Posted by: No Labels Please

There are many instances in which our society believes that taking or ending innocent lives prematurely for the greater common good is acceptable:
--forcing our own soldiers into combat
--killing enemy civilians [Hiroshima]
--early ending of terminally ill lives
--statistical certainty of deaths from societal activities [pollution, car accidents] that could theoretically be legislated out of existence [zero pollution tolerance, no cars allowed]

It seems to me that the argument for aborting a fetus is essentially along these lines. IE you are terminating a life before it might naturally terminate for the greater good of the mother or possibly society. There is nothing new about this argument, except the extremely early termination point of the life, as we seem to have accepted it in other contexts.


Posted by: No Labels Please | Jan 4, 2005 6:18:47 PM


Posted by: Acton

Kudos to Lynn Sanders for bringing up this issue. However, I'm not sure the following passage was thought all the way through.

Lynn Sanders writes:

"The right needs to acknowledge that a pregnancy requires some citizens to put their bodies in harm's way: if the state compels pregnancy, then perhaps it should compensate mothers for the use of their bodies."

This statement suggests to me that Lynn Sanders should simply accept a modified version of the Pro-Life position. If women's bodies can be treated, a la eminent domain, as spaces that can be used to harbor fetuses for enough compensation, I think the well-funded pro-life forces would be more than willing to ante up. Given the new emphasis on government funding of faith-based initiatives, I'll bet GWB would be willing to allocate a few million in that direction. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure the Pro-Choice crowd would not be interested in a system in which the state compels pregnancy, regardless of the compensation.

As to the more practical matter of changing minds, I agree with Theodore Hasse. Good effort, though.

Posted by: Acton | Jan 4, 2005 6:21:55 PM


Posted by: jb

Lynn - in the case of rape, certainly the woman isn't a willing participant in the actions that caused the pregnancy, and in that light, your argument is reasonable - no woman should be forced to endure the physical hardship of a pregnancy caused by involuntary insemination.

In the case of voluntary insemination, your argument is less strong, and I doubt it will change anyone's mind.


Posted by: jb | Jan 4, 2005 6:24:14 PM


Posted by: Paul Deignan

At the point when the argument is to make baby Boy and baby Girl into full grown Jeffrey Dahlmers, the case is long past lost. Far better to concentrate on alternatives to abortion and preventative measures if one is truly concerned about bodily integrity. Maybe, just maybe, one should actually focus on the reason as a reason and not as a useful pretext.

My experience is that people are not as stupid as they may look.

Posted by: Paul Deignan | Jan 4, 2005 6:41:41 PM


Posted by: Dennis Whitcomb

Re MQ:

I guess we could view fetuses as 'bloodsucking parasites' if we liked. But nothing in Lynn's suggestion, or in Thompson's influential arguments, requires that we think of them that way. In fact, we can think of them as *persons*. Persons who are parasitic on their carriers, no doubt, but persons nonetheless. Once we think of fetuses that way, we can start to address general issues about whether it is ever permissible to detach oneself from a human parasite in such a way that the disattachment will probably cause the parasite to die. This is just the dialogue that Judy and Lynn are trying to push, no?

The issue of what the right way to think about fetuses is - be it as 'bloodsucking parasites', 'persons', or whatever - is really quite interesting. I've often thought that if we view fetuses as persons, then if we buy into moral theory advocated in L2R contributor Elizabeth Anderson's book, then we're going to land ourselves with some unexpectedly conservative positions on abortion. But I guess that is an issue for another day.....

Posted by: Dennis Whitcomb | Jan 4, 2005 6:45:52 PM


Posted by: No Labels Please

Here's a dictionary definition of abortion:

"the medical procedure of inducing expulsion of a human fetus to terminate a pregnancy"

OK - so if we are going to allow this admittedly gruesome sounding procedure we must believe 2 things:

--the mother [or society, possibly] is better off performing the procedure than allowing the pregnancy to come to term
--that this benefit that accrues to the mother [or society] trumps any individual rights that may potentially be assigned to the fetus.

As I've argued above, society has already claimed the right to prematurely end innocent lives for it's own larger benefit. It's not as clear if the benefit only accrues to the mother if an current analogy exists.

Posted by: No Labels Please | Jan 4, 2005 7:26:32 PM


Posted by: noah

My position (for whatever its worth):

1) I support Roe v Wade as I understand it originally...that is, when a woman is pregnant and is not "showing"...then whether or not to have an abortion is up to her and her doctor (no coercion on either party); beyond that it should either be outlawed with some exceptions or it should be left up to the states.

2) The children of this nation represent the future and a tremendous capital investment by the parents...there should be a tremendous expansion of child tax credits etc.

3) We must solve the education crisis.

Posted by: noah | Jan 4, 2005 7:27:41 PM


Posted by: Josh Jasper

Irrespective of arguments about "choice", the right wing in the USA has never taken the initiative in educating women about birth control, and has less moral force in the abortion debate because of it. In fact, many core elements of the right wing have derailed themselves by *misinforming* men and women about the utility and use of birth control.

Quite frankly, getting lectured by someone who makes common cause with the Catholic Church (LIARS!) on birth control is a bit like getting lectured about age-of-consent issued by a pedarest.

Of course, the left ought to disentangle it's self from groups like International ANSWER for the same reasons.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | Jan 4, 2005 7:28:36 PM


Posted by: Mona

Lynn, I find your arguments unpersuasive and grossly flawed. I state that as a female who has thrice given birth, who spent some time in the early 80s very activly involved in the pro-life movement, and who has come to believe that for pragmatic reasons abortion should be legal in the first 8-10 weeks.

The pro-life movement is overwhelmingly female, and that includes at the leadership level. They do know, Lynn, the toll pregnancy takes in our bodies. Myself, I puked up a lung for the first four months each time, was miserably tired, and simply hated the condition of being pregnant. So, after the third, I had myself sterilized.

No one put a gun to my head to make me pregnant. I knew pregnancy was a possible consequence of volitional sex, and two of my three pregnancies were "mistakes." But I did not make my unborn child pay for my gamble with his life. That is called acting as a responsible moral agent.

Neither did I, when I first felt any of them within me, announce: "Honey! The invading parasite is kicking!"

Killing any of those three boys would not have been an act of self-defense. They were not killing me or permanently disabling me, and they were dependent on my body because of my own free choices.

Posted by: Mona | Jan 4, 2005 7:41:22 PM


Posted by: KCM

Maybe this is irrelevant to an academic discussion, but have none of you been pregnant before? When I became pregnant, I was surprised that I did feel a bit invaded as if by an alien body who was dependent on me and was not above changing my sleeping and eating habits to suit itself. I didn't feel oppressed; I was just surprised at how early I felt that this was an "other" person, weeks before I could feel the baby/fetus moving independently.

About the word "choice": all of the women I've spoken with who had an abortion felt that the abortion was the end of a life separate from their own, and that rather than being a choice, the abortion was the result of their having NO other choices at that time.

Posted by: KCM | Jan 4, 2005 7:55:53 PM


Posted by: Steven J. Kelso Sr.

"...abortion is sometimes a form of self-defense." "...something like a parasitical relationship."

Ick! I am a student of history and am always amazed and disgusted at the things that were said to defend slavery. I have that same feeling in the pit of my stomach right now.

More and more pro-abortion types are no longer even faking the choice argument. I see plenty of right-out-in-the-open "yea, it's murder, so what!" defenses of abortion.

I fear for the future of my country.

Posted by: Steven J. Kelso Sr. | Jan 4, 2005 8:10:50 PM


Posted by: David

Although I think there is some merit to JJ Thomson's argument regarding the positive rights of an embryo/fetus and the mother's privilege of self-defense, I think that the primary issue is whether the embryo/fetus has any kind of right to its life (or, more precisely, a right not to be killed). My own view is that it does not, and I think that this argument can be made persuasively from a philosophical perspective. (Indeed it would be a joy to hear one of this site's contributors, Jeff McMahan, address this issue; His book The Ethics of Killing is a wonderful look at the morality of killing--though I have some disagreements with his views.)

I think our discussions about the morality of abortion need to confront the "sanctity of life" position that influences so much of our moral thinking. Because I think that there is nothing intrinsically valuable about life itself, I'm inclined to reject the "sanctity of life" view. To be sure, life is a precondition of valuable experience, but life itself is not valuable. Value is mind-dependent, that is, minds (and nothing else) evaluate experience as good or bad. So, the value of a life is found in the mental contents of that life. As a result, we should rethink the moral reasons for protecting life.

Indeed, we seem to have no problem with killing many things like bacteria, houseplants, roaches, ants and many other things. On the other hand, I'll be the first to say that there is something wrong with killing me, here and now. So we have to clarify under what conditions killing is wrong; that is, we need to determine what necessary (and jointly sufficient) conditions need to obtain before killing can be considered wrong. I don't think that an organism's life deserves moral protection simply by virtue of its membership to the human species (which is a notion often heard in many pro-life arguments when it is assumed that by showing the fetus to be a "human" we have reached the conclusion that killing it is wrong.). Species membership itself seems to me no less arbitrary from a moral point of view than other biological characterics, like hair color, skin color, etc.

Without making an entire argument here (for lack of time), I would contend that the right to life doesn't kick in until the organism is able to see itself extisting over time as a "person." (and I'm not using "person" here in a species-restricted way). A rule that permits the killing of beings that have never been self-conscious would not cause any negative "experience" in the organism itself. To reiterate a previous point, death itself (when caused painlessly) causes neither bad experience or good experience; it causes no experience. Thus, a rule against killing does not follow in all cases from a no-harm principle or a respect-for-autonomy principle.

On the other hand, the prospect of death can cause great anxiety, frustration, etc. So,self-conscious beings who take an interest in their future would benefit from a rule against killing (a piece of mind) and so would reasonably choose such a rule if they had some imput regarding the rules of morality. But, a fetus (while a fetus) would not benefit from such a rule because it could never be in a mental position to disfavor its death. (assuming feti are never self-conscious)

One might respond that killing robs the fetus of potential and it would benefit from the rule through the facilitation of potential experience. But, because I don't think there is any intrinsic value in continued living, I don't think that morality is moved simply to guarantee potential experience.

To explain this more fully, I would have go more deeply into what a theory of moral of justification requires. Because my primary interest is metaethics, I am happy to do this, but I will refrain for now. But, my view has a certain affinity for Rawls's contractualism. Basically, if I imagine a rational agent behind a "veil of ignorance," who does not know anything about his or her identity in the world, and who is interested in designing rules of cooperation, then I don't see why this agent would have any reason to protect the life of a fetus--given what i've said about the value of life itself. The rational agent is only concerned with furnishing certain features of experience, not experience itself. In fact, there is no reason for the rational contractor to insist that he be incarnated at all.

Anyway--I ask you fans of potential--would you insist that I am wrong if I wear a condom and cut short the potential of a sperm? Indeed, if facilitating potential is a moral reason to act, I might be obligated to plant a lot of seed (I can already hear the nonfeasance v. malfeasance argument on the way)

Posted by: David | Jan 4, 2005 8:34:57 PM


Posted by: Aaron S.

So, suppose there is this brand new surgical procedure developed called transpregnation. What happens is a fetus anywhere between four and nine months of development can be safely transferred from one woman's womb to the next. How many pro-life women would be willing to sign up to undergo this procedure with pregnant women who would otherwise get an abortion (in a clinic or in an alley)?

Posted by: Aaron S. | Jan 4, 2005 8:38:57 PM


Posted by: KCM

Aaron S. - Except that the transfer takes place after the birth of the baby, this does not sound radically different from the adoption process. I've always understood that there is a long list of families and couples waiting to adopt.

Posted by: KCM | Jan 4, 2005 8:59:36 PM


Posted by: Aaron S.

My point is that if the line is short for pro-life women who are willing to undergo the procedure then I believe the bulk of the pro-life movement have motivations and reasons different from the protection of human life. But perhaps your parallel is correct and there would be plenty of women flocking to relieve these other women of unwanted pregnancies.

Posted by: Aaron S. | Jan 4, 2005 9:03:09 PM


Posted by: CLH

I think a lot of people immediately reject Eileen McDonagh's arguments because of the cold language. I support abortion rights, but words like "parasitical" make me think of bugs, of those gross worms on the X-Files, and it's an uncomfortable thought. Abortion already challenges our traditional view of motherhood, that women should welcome the opportunity to give up their bodies/careers/whatever for the sake of their children. When we call the fetus an invasion, and abortion "self-defense" we have the additional challenge to our traditional view of human life.

However, I think that "consent" is a good word. Most women have sex without intending to become pregnant, and it shouldn't be too controversial to argue that consensual sex is not necessarily consent to pregnancy. For example, the Catholic Church technically opposes birth control, but most Catholic women in the U.S. use it without much thought. Pretty much everyone has recreational sex. Some people might argue, "If you don't use birth control, you are consenting to the possibility" -- but what if the birth control fails? What if your church-sanctioned rhythm method fails? I doubt that the legal debate will ever deal with attempts at birth control, because anyone could just claim that she used a condom. So the idea of "consent" could be persuasive to women.

Lynn Sanders is correct that the pro-lifers will never stop thinking of the fetus as a human life, from the moment of conception, no matter what we say. Arguing that unborn babies aren't really alive will never be convincing to pro-lifers, and this argument actually gets harder as technology advances -- we can now see clear photos of human features in the first trimester, and the point of viability is getting earlier and earlier. Some people even argue that with the success of ectogenesis, the point of viability could actually become conception.

I don't really imagine that McDonagh's view will become popular any time soon -- very few of my friends are convinced, even the feminists -- but it doesn't hurt to consider a new approach, considering that we are not getting anywhere with our current one. If this approach is going to work, though, it may require some careful new language, that we repeat over and over. (If the Republicans can do it...)

Posted by: CLH | Jan 4, 2005 9:11:29 PM


Posted by: CDC

My wife and I are host organisms. One of our little parasites just finished reading "Gone With The Wind". She's ten. The other parasite is starting multi-variable algebra applications. He's eight.
I'm looking forward to bouncing the next generation of this infestation on my knee.

Posted by: CDC | Jan 4, 2005 9:16:26 PM


Posted by: Mona

Aaron S writes: My point is that if the line is short for pro-life women who are willing to undergo the procedure then I believe the bulk of the pro-life movement have motivations and reasons different from the protection of human life.

And so we should not prosecute those who decline to feed and shelter their 7 yr-olds since they have other uses for their money? Not if those who object to such behavior declined a priori to assume the financial burden themselves?

I've done my pregnancy time, Aaron. I did not make my children forfeit their lives after I engaged in activity that I full-well knew could result in their coming to exist dependent on my body, and I expect other women to be equally as responsible.

As to Josh Jasper's point: if the right-wing is succeeding in keeping contraceptive knowledge from the populace this is news to me. For god's sake, condom ads are on TV these days (and no, I do not object). Who with an IQ above 90 does not know that vaginal intercourse makes babies, and that there are ways (with varying efficacy) of preventing that? Do you think most Americans live in 1850?

Abortion is right or wrong independent of what nefarious activities, or failures to act as proxy, its defenders might might cook up to throw at its opponents.

Posted by: Mona | Jan 4, 2005 9:26:33 PM


Posted by: Aaron S.

Thank you, Mona. For very explicitly illustrating my point.

Posted by: Aaron S. | Jan 4, 2005 9:30:47 PM


Posted by: Dan Simon

The problem with the "fetus as parasite" argument for abortion is that it applies roughly equally well (minus the gruesome imagery) to children. If we decide that a small, helpless human being who forces his or her parent to endure all kinds of discomforts and sacrifices can justifiably be offed to save the parent from misery, then a lot of the legal and social infrastructure we have in place to protect children pretty much goes down the drain.

The legalization of abortion has already persuaded millions of angry, bitter unmarried fathers that the law is grossly unfair for holding them responsible for their child's welfare, given that the mother made a free and independent decision not to abort. Imagine, then, what would happen if society explicitly embraced the notion that abortion was no different from infanticide, yet still justifiable if the mother felt it justified for her own protection....

Posted by: Dan Simon | Jan 4, 2005 9:36:56 PM


Posted by: Mona

But, a fetus (while a fetus) would not benefit from such a rule because it could never be in a mental position to disfavor its death. (assuming feti are never self-conscious)

Neither would a 3-week-old neonate, or a two yr old toddler, who have no notion of death. Or a moderately-profoundly retarded adult. I prefer to live in a culture that does not permit killing infants, toddlers and/or adults with intellectual deficits.

Yes, we kill roaches with little moral compunction. The society that felt about fetuses, newborns, and retarded adults as it does about inects and vermin is not one we should hope for. Does not basic intution tell you you are off course here?

Posted by: Mona | Jan 4, 2005 9:48:29 PM


Posted by: Mona

Aaron S writes: Thank you, Mona. For very explicitly illustrating my point.

You are welcome. I took responsibility for my actions, and so should others; I would not be a surrogate mother for their children that **they** conceived by **their** chosen sexual activity. If you think that is an indictment, well, how sad. Not everyone takes a jaundiced view of personal responsibility.

But you know, that I would not so volunteer, is irrelvant even to your point. Many would leap at the chance. Just recently a woman murdered another woman who was 8 mos pregnant in order to cut out the baby from the pregant woman's body and kidnap the baby girl. Lines would be long if unwanted pregnancies could be transplanted into other women's wombs.

Posted by: Mona | Jan 4, 2005 9:58:54 PM


Posted by: David

Mona,

I agree that my post is consistent with the position that newborns may not have a right to life. But, simply because that view is unpopular or contradicts deeply held moral convictions does not make it wrong. (See David Copp in Morality, Reason, and Truth for an argument that moral convictions have no credibility ab initio). However, there may be other reasons for prohibiting the killing of neonates, at least healthy ones. I might go into this later, but I'm finished with this site for now. I've been writing here too much tonight, keeping me from my real work.

One last note: All I'm asking is that we examine the morality of killing more closely. I want to know why it is so (morally) easy to kill cows and pigs when their psychological life is in most cases far more sophisticated than a neonate, which is morally difficult to kill. I want to know why there is nothing wrong with wearing a condom but it's morally suspect to kill a fetus. And I want to know why euthanasia (voluntary and involuntary) is so morally problematic--at least where it is clear that the person is certain to experience only great suffering for the rest of his or her life. Again, my main contention is that there is nothing intrinsically valuable about continued living, and that we should consider the experiental existence of the subject with greater emphasis when thinking about the ethics of killing.

Posted by: David | Jan 4, 2005 10:04:16 PM


Posted by: JeffS

If we’re honest about what is at stake, eg. experience, “sentience,” etc,. then how can anyone take a strong view of the matter? Suppose, as David (above) suggests, the morality of abortion turns on whether and when a being develops experience, assuming we agree that being robbed of experience is intrinsically bad, even apart from the experience OF this prospect.

Well, the greatest thinkers in biology, cognitive science and philosophy have still not solved this puzzle – the riddle of determining exactly what about a physical organism indicates that it has experience. Ronald Dworkin, the NYU legal philosopher, has come up with a view of when, exactly, a fetus acquires “sentience”, but it seems difficult (for me, at least) to know this, and I’m quite sure other philosophers – even at NYU, too – disagree that this is knowable. Morevoer, we’re fairly sure that newborns have it. And that one-month-old fetuses don’t. But exactly when the switch occurs, as in the animal kingdom, is a deep mystery.

In short, we do not know precisely when a fetus acquires the attributes that make us think it’s wrong to kill people or some animals. So, without solving this puzzle, how can we ever be confident about our abortion position? This question should be especially troubling to opponents of the death penalty and animal experimentation. How can we be cavalier about the fetus issue, when the question of ‘experience’ remains so puzzling??

Posted by: JeffS | Jan 4, 2005 10:49:30 PM


Posted by: Mona

David writes: I want to know why there is nothing wrong with wearing a condom but it's morally suspect to kill a fetus.

Dear David, one hardly knows where to begin with such an inquiry. You are clearly bright, and so know that your sperm cells are of your own body and are not in the least individuated. They are slough from YOU.

Now let us consider a fetus at, say, 12 weeks. S/he is individuated. S/he has a gender, a blood type different sometimes from mommy or daddy, a beating heart, and a body growing along a continuum we all have traversed. I was never a sperm gamete; neither were you. We both, however, once were a fetus dependent on our mothers' bodies.

You raise the issue of killing animals. David, I have buried both a teenaged child, and a beloved cat. So, with regard to your inquiry about the status of cows and other non-human animals, I can only tell you the death of my son was world-changing in a way the loss of the cherished feline was not; this understates. Something about this rather universal attitude should suggest that you are too much off in the books, and not enough in touch with humanity as it is felt and lived.

Posted by: Mona | Jan 4, 2005 10:52:34 PM


Posted by: sierra

If we're looking for reasons why so many Americans think liberals are from Neptune, I can sure think of one. A post that argues that a fetus is analogous to a parasite and can be killed as a form of self-defense comes just after another one titled "tone deaf to dignity." Too much.

Posted by: sierra | Jan 4, 2005 10:55:29 PM


Posted by: Steven J. Kelso Sr.

While surfing elsewhere, I discovered a recent case of a teen girl ASKING her boyfriend to hit her in the stomach with a baseball bat to "terminate her pregnancy." Our society is de-evolving.

David can't see the difference between killing a cow and killing a child? What kind of mindset produces these quandries? The anti-abortion movement is vindicated more and more every day.

Posted by: Steven J. Kelso Sr. | Jan 4, 2005 10:59:46 PM


Posted by: frankly0

The notion that, in the vast majority of cases, a pregancy nowadays presents a mortal danger to the mother is so easily contradicted by medical evidence that it's a laugher right out of the chute.

Who's going to buy that crazy premise? And if they don't buy it, what's left of the argument? The only thing that really justifies abortion in many people's minds are legitimate, compelling reasons -- not manufactured, made up reasons, and certainly not some weird, almost inhuman, sentiment that the fetus is some alien, artificial burden on every mother.

Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 4, 2005 11:17:25 PM


Posted by: CLH

frankly0 -- Nobody is saying that most pregnancies are likely to cause death. For this argument, the pregnancy doesn't have to threaten the woman's life at all. Sanders is just saying that every pregnancy drastically affects a woman's health and freedom. Pregnancy doesn't have to kill you to seriously alter your body and your life, and women should not be legally obligated to donate their bodies to the survival of another life for nine months.

Posted by: CLH | Jan 4, 2005 11:28:22 PM


Posted by: frankly0

CLH,

Even the weaker claim that pregnancy today is likely in most cases to do real harm to the mother, rather than, say, temporary discomfort, is simply false. And what's the terrible long term damage of the vast majority of pregnancy? Stretch marks?

I repeat my original point: if you want to make an argument for abortion rights that most people can agree with, you have to present the sort of compelling reasons that seem plausible and common. Obviously, rape, incest, and authentic danger to the mother's life work as a reason. Likewise, believing that the conditions would be very poor for the baby to be raised in works.

But these reasons should NOT seem narcissistic or absurd, which calling abortion "self-defense", for Christ's sake, certainly does. The mother's defending herself against what? Morning sickness? Putting on weight? Stretch marks? Yeah, that's really going to fly.

Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 4, 2005 11:43:32 PM


Posted by: CLH

frankly0 -- It is certainly true that some people will only support abortion in the case of rape, incest, and possible death of the mother. But some of us support the right to have an abortion when one simply does not want to be pregnant, and I believe Sanders is expressing one argument for that position. You can argue that abortion should only be allowed in special circumstances, but for those of us who believe otherwise, we want an argument that would convince people to allow abortion in all cases. This may not be that argument -- people seem to be reacting negatively -- but it's a valid position, though you may disagree.

Pregnancy permanently alters a woman's body, not to mention the sickness and loss of freedom that occurs during those nine months. You may think that women should just put up with it, but some women disagree. It's like -- if someone's survival depended on you devoting your body and your life to him/her for nine months, you might choose to agree, and it might make you a really generous person. But you shouldn't have to agree. This is why McDonagh describes women with unwanted pregnancies as "captive samaritans" -- they are forced to undergo significant physical transformations, emotional stress, limits on their mobility, et cet, for the sake of another being. If a woman welcomes the pregnancy, that's great. But she should not be forced to sacrifice these things for another life.

Posted by: CLH | Jan 4, 2005 11:58:38 PM


Posted by: David Andersen

"The right needs to acknowledge that a pregnancy requires some citizens to put their bodies in harm's way."

I sincerely doubt that most people who are against abortion do not understand this. I certainly do; however, it is a relatively small number of citizens who are truly in harm's way, especially compared to the volume of abortions in America.

Furthermore, perhaps the left should acknowledge that many - if not most - women who become unintentionally pregnant either choose (along with their male partner) to run the risk despite birth control measures (which are not 100% perfect) or are simply careless. If you have sex, the risk of becoming pregnant exists in all the cases where an abortion results. One would think, therefore, that adults aware of this risk would accept the responsibility of a pregnancy or otherwise abstain.

"If the state compels pregnancy, then perhaps it should compensate mothers for the use of their bodies."

You're blaming the state for a pregnancy coming to term? Is that anything like blaming the state for compelling you to not murder your 12-year old? Furthermore, the "state" did not make you pregnant. The "state" is not the beneficiary of your baby - though perhaps from the collectivist point of view it is.

Posted by: David Andersen | Jan 5, 2005 12:10:51 AM


Posted by: Mona

CLH argues: This is why McDonagh describes women with unwanted pregnancies as "captive samaritans" -- they are forced to undergo significant physical transformations, emotional stress, limits on their mobility, et cet, for the sake of another being. If a woman welcomes the pregnancy, that's great. But she should not be forced to sacrifice these things for another life.

Evolution dictated that my sex becomes pregnant. We females know the risk of sex, no matter what precautions are taken,is a baby/child/life.

Who should pay if a life results because she gambled?

Posted by: Mona | Jan 5, 2005 12:27:17 AM


Posted by: David Andersen

"Pregnancy doesn't have to kill you to seriously alter your body and your life, and women should not be legally obligated to donate their bodies to the survival of another life for nine months."

Why not? They made the choice to take a risk that resulted in a pregnancy. If you don't want the responsibility, don't take the risk. Should you be legally obligated to "donate" your time and money to raise another life for 18 years if you choose to have a child?

One of the hypocrisies of the pro-abortion crowd (which is pretty much contained in the political left) is how in one breath they can complain about being "legally obligated" to carry a baby to term and in another wax rhapsodic about how we're all globally connected, responsible for each other, and that individualism is selfish. I guess right up to the point where they want that abortion anyway.

Posted by: David Andersen | Jan 5, 2005 12:40:00 AM


Posted by: David Andersen

CLH -

Does your argument [you should not have to be forced to sacrifice your freedom for another life] extend to a child? A disabled spouse or parent who needs assistance to live? A pet? Just trying to understand where you draw the line. Do you have any idea how heartless your argument sounds?

Posted by: David Andersen | Jan 5, 2005 12:56:07 AM


Posted by: CLH

Mona - Well, the argument is that a woman can consent to sex without consenting to pregnancy, because sex does not always lead to pregnancy. Eileen McDonagh would say that the fertilized ovum (a person, we conceed) actually causes the pregnancy when it implants itself in the woman's uterus. Therefore, it is the ovum that caused the woman to be pregnant, not her having sex, and the woman can defend herself against this "person" the same way that she would defend herself against any external person who decided to attach himself to her for survival.

I have found that this convinces almost no one. I think this is largely because most women (myself included) view heterosexual intercourse as a risk. I might get pregnant because of my actions. It's impossible to consciously prevent pregnancy through birth control or abstinence or whatever, without thinking of yourself as somehow responsible one way or another. At the least, "It's my fault if I have to get an abortion." -- that's just how we think about it.

But in my view, the gamble does not obligate a woman to carry the fetus to term. Life is full of gambles -- every day I drive too fast. If I walk around in occupied Iraq, I might get attacked, but the gamble does not mean I'm consenting for it to happen.... but yeah, I don't really expect this to be convincing to anyone who disagrees.

Posted by: CLH | Jan 5, 2005 1:04:33 AM


Posted by: CLH

David -- It extends in that nobody can be FORCED to care for another person. You can give your child up for adoption. You can choose to abandon your disabled parents. Of course it's heartless -- almost nobody would abandon her disabled parents, but the point is that the government cannot force you to care for them.

As for a ten year old child, we have neglect laws (I'm not an expert) because when you give birth and begin to raise a child, you become the legal guardian. You can give him/her up for adoption, foster care if you decide you don't want to be a parent anymore. This, too, would be heartless.

Is there a difference between deciding to have an abortion (legal) and deciding to stop feeding your child (illegal)? (I'm honestly asking, this is something I haven't really worked out.) I mean, it seems obviously different, but I'm not sure how to argue it.

Posted by: CLH | Jan 5, 2005 1:16:31 AM


Posted by: David Andersen

CLH -

"But in my view, the gamble does not obligate a woman to carry the fetus to term. Life is full of gambles -- every day I drive too fast."

And when we take gambles, we are responsible for assuming the risks - especially when the results derive from our own actions. If you drive too fast and as a result hurt someone or damage property are you not responsible? Consent is irrelevant. If you bet $100 and lose, is it your fault? Is the casino obligated to give you your money back? You probably didn't consent to losing, did you?

Posted by: David Andersen | Jan 5, 2005 1:26:16 AM


Posted by: David Andersen

"Is there a difference between deciding to have an abortion (legal) and deciding to stop feeding your child (illegal)?

I don't think so.

Posted by: David Andersen | Jan 5, 2005 1:28:27 AM


Posted by: jude

I agree that Lynn Sanders' over-analytical view will not help advance the debate in the larger population.

The only defensible position I can see for the pro-choice movement is the commitment to keeping abortion "safe, legal, and rare." "Rare" is the key point. People on all sides of the debate can agree that abortion should never be treated as birth control, particularly at a time when so many other options are available. If we all work together to make birth control methods affordable, accessible, and continually seek improvements, abortion need only be resorted to in the most extreme cases.

I note most of the posts refer here to adults choosing to give birth, but in the part of the country where I grew up, it was girls--far from adulthood--who were resorting to "back-room abortions". It was in the hope of preventing death and mutilation from such procedures that the pro-choice movement was first born.

Abortion should remain safe and legal for those who are truly desperate. But we should do everything in our power to make alternatives so accessible as to render the procedure antiquated and extremely rare.

Posted by: jude | Jan 5, 2005 1:33:29 AM


Posted by: No Labels Please

Guess What?

A Sterile [self chosen or otherwise] Philosopher Has Not The Power Of Persuasion Of Those What Which Had A Baby, Which Style Comfort Or Christmas Stocking Wise - Eventually Is One Of Us.

Posted by: No Labels Please | Jan 5, 2005 1:37:05 AM


Posted by: jude

I agree that Lynn Sanders' over-analytical view will not help advance the debate in the larger population.

The only defensible position I can see for the pro-choice movement is the commitment to keeping abortion "safe, legal, and rare." "Rare" is the key point. People on all sides of the debate can agree that abortion should never be treated as birth control, particularly at a time when so many other options are available. If we all work together to make birth control methods affordable, accessible, and continually seek improvements, abortion need only be resorted to in the most extreme cases.

I note most of the posts refer here to adults choosing to give birth, but in the part of the country where I grew up, it was girls--far from adulthood--who were resorting to "back-room abortions". It was in the hope of preventing death and mutilation from such procedures that the pro-choice movement was first born.

Abortion should remain safe and legal for those who are truly desperate. But we should do everything in our power to make alternatives so accessible as to render the procedure antiquated and extremely rare.

Posted by: jude | Jan 5, 2005 1:38:24 AM


Posted by: Theodore Hasse

In promoting a Pro-Choice agenda it would be most advantagous in the current political climate to seek the path of least resistence and make progress in those areas that could potentially succeed.

First of all, abortion is legal today and the status quo is acceptable from a Pro-Choice point of view. There are no undecideds on the issue to win over and the opponents are firm in their opposition; usually their views on the issue are based on their core moral beliefs and any reframing of the issue would be futile.

So look to the areas where most people seem more flexible and the opponents appear more extreme, like RU-486 (abortion pill) or morning after "emergency contraception." In making these options more widely available the Pro-Choice proponents could decrease the number of medical procedures performed in terminating unplanned, unwanted pregnancies while advocating a position that is less objectionable to those that may fall between the two extremes.

Posted by: Theodore Hasse | Jan 5, 2005 3:57:51 AM


Posted by: chainlink

"They obscure the fact that when a liberal state denies or too severely restricts abortion rights, then it is conscripting some bodies into service for others. Far more than it is now, abortion should be debated in terms of whether this conscription is justifiable in liberal, ethical terms."

I thought the Left was opposed to the death penalty. Maybe it ought to consider a penalty of life imprisonment without possibility of parole for the fetus' conscription-infraction.

Posted by: chainlink | Jan 5, 2005 4:05:38 AM


Posted by: CA Gilbert

Lynn,

I´ve heard this argument elsewhere from a friend of mine and I continue to disagree. The problem with removing choice from the equation is that there are a host of people, myself among them, who are anti-abortion but also are pro-choice.

Unfortunately, I do believe that informed consent for vaginal sexual intercourse equals or should equal informed consent for pregnancy. Just because pregnancy does not occur on every occasion of vaginal sexual intercourse is not sufficient for an evasion of responsibility. Every woman should be aware that no matter what birth control she uses, one of the consequences of her actions can be a pregnancy and she should not do it if she is not prepared to take the responsibility for those consequences. Additionally, it means that she should be using every possible precaution to ensure that pregnancy does not occur. There are a whole range of precautions available-- alternative sexual acts, the possibility of double protection, or even abstinance. Your argument assumes that we accept that consent for sex does not equal consent for pregnancy and I do not agree with that assumption.

I think that everyone not arguing from a purely fundamentalist standpoint will agree that at the beginning of a pregnancy the fetus is not sentient and not a child. Conversely, I think that there are very few people who will deny sentience to the newborn. The problem that we have is that we do not know when that magic line is crossed. As long as there is doubt, I do not feel that I have the right to judge another woman for the choices that she makes about where to draw the line. It is difficult to really grade consent in a society that still has as many power imbalances as ours. I also believe that abortion should be legal for pragmatic reasons (prevention of illegal abortions).

The trouble that moderates have in this debate is that we trust nobody. The shrill anti-choice people are often arguing a position about the sexual rights of women as much as they are arguing about the rights of a fetus. I mistrust them because it seems to me that if they really wanted to end abortion they would be focusing on access to birth control, subsidized day care, and comprehensive sexual education.

On the other hand, I also mistrust arguments like yours. It seems to me that we are doing ourselves as women a fundamental disrespect to decouple sex from its potential consequences. In my view, calling the fetus a "parasite" is an extreme example of this disrespect. While it may be strictly biologically accurate, it is also fundamentally misleading. It brings to mind for me the comparisons between abortion doctors and serial killers that the other side often uses.

I argue that most/many people share my ambivalence (if not my exact position) in this matter. I fail to see how polarizing the debate still further is going to help the dialogue.

Posted by: CA Gilbert | Jan 5, 2005 5:42:40 AM


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