Re: Abortion, again.
25 Aug 1992
Okay, I've waited the one day moratorium Pete imposed on me :-)
I too am pro-choice but I do not think it a position that follows from
first principles but instead a balance of issues. For instance, I think
it is less obvious that abortion should be legal than it is that
drugs should be legal.
I see three reasons that argue in favor of pro-choice:
1) The fetus is not a person.
2) The mother's right to her body is greater than
any right the fetus might conceivably have.
3) Parents have such wide latitude in making decisions for their
children that aborting a possibly alive fetus because of 'quality
of life' is acceptable.
I think all three of these have some merit, but problems too.
As for (1), even though there are no white lines, there are useful
distinctions to be drawn. For instance, there is some clear lower
bound before which no neural activity occurs (3-4 weeks maybe?).
I cannot see any meaningful definition of life that prohibits
abortion under this limit. Religous definitions are, of course,
not meaningful. For me, the hallmark of being human is consciouness.
I think this is more or less what Pete was getting at with:
> [ some combination of intelligence, curiosity, & creativity
> constitute being human. ]
I cannot believe that a fetus being deprived of essentially all
external stimulus can be conscious. This is obviously controversial
and I'm not 100% certain myself. If consciousness could be
determined, I would defend that as the ultimate dividing line. It
cannot be; so, we are left with indirect tests. The difficulty here
is that a newborn passes the no stimulus test too. I am not willing
to push this philosophy so far as to permit infanticide (however, I do
not regard it to be as serious as 1st degree homicide).
As for (2), Paul presented the classic defense of this point. Pete is
giving up his Libertarian credentials when he says:
> [ If the choice is between infringing on the mother's rights by mere
> discomfort versus killing the fetus, we should surely choose the former. ]
It is not more acceptable for just the reason Paul gave, you have no
right to my property (including my body), no matter how little my
sacrifice nor how great your need. Just because a mugger needs $20
more than this rich victim, the crime is not justified.
Having said that, let me point what is wrong with Paul's argument.
The mother-to-be did not have the fetus foisted upon her. But rather,
with full knowledge of the possible consequences, she entered into an
agreement to have sex. Therefore, she
has given up part of her right to her body (and the man involved
part of the right to his money). I am not saying point (2)
is therefore completely invalid, I'm only saying that there are
mitigating circumstances. Paul tried to wave this away by saying:
> [ we don't want to use the choose-to-conceive criterion because
> we would have to put women seeking abortions on trial to decide
> if they had been raped. ]
If we accept that the mother-to-be gave up some of her rights to her
body and that the fetus has some rights, the mere inconvenience of
appearing before a judge is not sufficient reason to avoid doing the
'right thing' (juries generally are not used in these kinds of cases,
so there is no trial) .
> [ Viability matters. My right to life extends only so far I can
> maintain my own existence. ]
I don't think viability is relevant here. If the mother's right to
her body is supreme, it doesn't matter what the state of the fetus is.
I think this brings us to the other problem with point (2) which is
that, as Pete says, there are no white lines: if a mother can abort
a fetus because it is her body why cannot she refuse to feed a newborn
because it is too inconvenient for her to take the time or too difficult
to give up something else financially to buy the milk (or whatever)?
That newborn is not by itself viable either. The broad question this
begs is what responsibility do we force parents to have toward their
children? I think this is a hard question. If you believe
that a fetus is a living person, it strikes me as difficult to defend
the white line that a mother-to-be has no responsibility before birth
but then does after, even though the responsibility is of a different
sort. I mean by that, just as surely as I don't owe anyone one of my kidney's,
I don't owe them my time (other than, possibly, some fraction of my taxes).
It seems to me that Paul is trying to make this sort of white line
I want to attack the viability argument some more. Let's presume that
in 20 years technology is so good that a womb is not needed but that it
costs $1 billion for a 'test tube' pregnancy. Now, what has become of
this notion of viability? Seems to me like lots more bogus white lines
will be needed. For that matter, what does viability mean in the first
place? Let's suppose that a fetus at 7 months is completely a baby
except for, oh pick something trivial like, the ability to urinate.
Under Paul's doctrine, the necessity of the mother-to-be supporting
that function makes a philosophical difference. I cannot see it.
As for point (3), Kef made the usual defense of that. I want to extend
the argument a little. Children have ultimately the same inherit liberties
as adults. Some of those liberties are given to their parents for
proper handling and some to the children. That line keeps moving
as the children grow up. The cases of Christian Scientists being
tried for neglect where they let their children die because they
wanted to use prayer instead of effective medical techniques are just
on the line of how far we are willing to push this doctrine. There
seems a largely unspoken consensus among pro-choice people that
this right extends far enough parents can make life or
intentional death decisions for fetuses but not newborns. I.e.,
it is permissible to think the child-to-be would have such a miserable
life that suicide would be better and that the parents-to-be can
act as a proxy to make that decision. This seems particuarly reasonable
where the child-to-be is truly unwanted or in danger of being seriously
handicapped. Still, this is another white line
without any clear foundation that leads to arguing for the acceptability
If one accepts point (3), you also have to worry about fetal tissue
research. If you accpet (1) or (2), it doesn't matter, but if
you accept (3) suddently parents are no longer operating in the
interest of the fetus but have their own contrary interest, e.g.
profit from selling the tissue.
In summary, I think all three points have some merit and some problems.
I cannot see any basis to restrict abortion before meaningful nerve
activity. In the case of rape, I agree with Paul's point, the mother-
to-be made no agreement and control of her body is the supreme issue.
Where the mother's life is in danger, again, there is no contest.
After that, I think all three points *in the balance* are
sufficient for abortion to be legal, but it is not such an
> [ If you really believe in personhood starting at conception, then
> terrorist acts to stop the millions of murders/abortions follow as a
> reasonable conclusion. Few agree as obvious as this is. ]
Nor will you get me to agree. It depends on whether or not you put your
own beliefs above the law, no matter how repugnant. Contrary to what
some of you think, I do believe in the rule of law, in the abstract
philosophical sense. Just because you do not like it, no matter how
hideous, that is not sufficient to let you set up your own system of
justice and proceed to act upon it (e.g. killing an adult to save three
fetuses is a positive trade-off for OR people).
I agree with Pete only to the extent that for people who truly accept
the OR position, bombings are not hypocritical.
Look at in another way, it's likely the Serbians are committing genocide
is Bosnia. That is utterly reprehensible but not sufficient to cause
the U.S. to intervene because we believe in letting other countries
handle their own problems instead of imposing our own view, no matter
how clear it seems. There are limits to this, but they are extreme.
There is room for argument here, because I do believe that civil
disobediance in the form of expanding one's own rights is approrpriate
within certain limits, e.g. Black protests of the 60's where they
sat in the 'wrong' seats. Also, as you know, I don't think that respect
for the law should be so firm as to not use drugs just because they
are illegal. But, again, the distinction is that this applies just
to the person in question. I do not think it acceptable to do property
damange in the interest of legalizing drugs.