Abortion, Infanticide, and Religious Dickwads

I’ve been meaning for a few days to say something about abortion. I’ve been reluctant because the issue combines an actually-quite-subtle problem with very strongly held political positions, and it’s hard to do justice to both.

This first post won’t offer a positive resolution of the debate, but merely some preparatory criticism and analysis of some of the positions. The next will try to be more constructive.

Part of what gives me pause about this issue is the resemblance that sometimes jumps out between opposition to abortion and many of my own beliefs, like opposition to meat-eating. In both cases most people think there’s nothing wrong at all, and the bit of flesh that they’re destroying is of no importance, and then a weirdo with a placard turns up calling them a murderer.

That said, this resemblance only goes so far. It evaporates as soon as the rhetoric about ‘irresponsible sluts’ comes out, explicitly or implicitly; it evaporates as soon as the placard-wavers start explaining that nobody should be using contraception either; it evaporates when we notice that by and large they’re not too concerned with guaranteeing healthcare or social support for babies and mothers and so forth.

So probably the first thing to get clear on is that the ‘pro-life’ movement is a heap of testicles. Alongisde whatever compelling and reasonable arguments and considerations there might be about the issue, there are two big motivations with absolutely no rational weight: religion, and the need to control sexuality and punish women who have sex while foresaking their appointed maternal role. The result – seeking to ban all abortions, starting from conception, while also fighting contraception and reducing sex education – is actually fairly monstrous.

EDIT: a good indication of this from the US (where abortion is a much bigger political issue than here in Britain) is reported by the Apostate here. When children’s rights groups rank legislators according to how much their votes benefit children, pro-life legislators come out a lot worse than pro-choice ones.

However. Going back to the analogy with animal rights, there are certainly people who, say, don’t eat meat for religious reasons, or who try to have meat banned for stupid reasons like ‘it’s unhealthy and will make you fat’. And there’s pretty much every PETA ad campaign ever. And I still ask people to look past the tomfoolery and consider the issue independently of that.

So let’s take for granted that the pro-life movement (most especially through th Catholic church) is a heap of testicles, and imagine in its place, perhaps, one of those pro-life atheist lefties that do occasionally exist. Now let’s also grant that they don’t take the really silly position of defending the rights of absolutely everything that’s been conceived. If it has no differentiated organs, for instance, we can ignore it.

Let’s also assume, of course, that we are against infanticide, and in fact against treating almost any group of people as inferior and of no importance; that we’re against justifying violence against the inferior (like a small baby) on the grounds of the convenience of some superior person (like an adult).

Now those two positions aren’t particularly in conflict, and I think they’re both pretty good positions. They also cover most of the practical situations, in that most abortions are quite early in pregnancy. The problem is that it’s very hard to link them up because between them, in the later stages of pregnancy, there is a gradual and continuous change. How do you map the change from ‘no rights’ to ‘full rights’ onto a gradual and continuous change? How do you identify a non-arbitrary ‘turning point’ at which the little pile of flesh suddenly transforms?

Now one response that this has led many people to is to locate that turning point at birth, on the grounds that prior to that, the mother’s right to bodily autonomy trumps any putative foetal rights. Now I think this emphasis on autonomy and privacy is very important and necessary as a response to the paternalistic and manipulative forms of sexism and illiberalism that are so common in pro-life movements. But considered on its own merits, I have to say, it doesn’t quite seem right.

That’s because – well, either the foetus, all the way up to 40 weeks, the day before being born, has some rights or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then there’s no need to make arguments about bodily autonomy, because aborting it is just like squeezing a zit (which I think is true of early-term abortions).

But if it does, then there’s a situation where two people’s rights are in conflict, and in such a situation, we usually find ourselves trying to ‘do justice to’ both, trying to reconcile their conflicting rights, and resist any tendency to say that one simply trumps the other, that because one party has a certain right, that removes any significance from the rights of the other. At least that seems like what ought to be done.

Upshot is, the bodily autonomy argument doesn’t do very much rational work. It does very good rhetorical work in countering religious womb-meddling, but there’s little rational work to do there because religious womb-meddling has no rational leg to stand on. And when it does have work to do, in defending abortion shortly-before-birth, a lot of its persuasiveness comes from surreptitiously assuming that the question of foetal rights has already been settled – which in turns means there’s nothing left for it to do.

So ultimately we are led back to ‘when does a foetus become a person?’ This shouldn’t be surprising: it’s pretty clear that this is the most important question (though not the only important question). This post is long enough, so I’ll end it here and write another shortly trying to address the question head-on.

8 Responses to “Abortion, Infanticide, and Religious Dickwads”

  1. Anon Says:

    “…well, either the foetus, all the way up to 40 weeks, the day before being born, has some rights or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then there’s no need to make arguments about bodily autonomy, because aborting it is just like squeezing a zit…”

    Bodily autonomy is still just fine because regardless of whether the fetus is a person or not, the woman has a right to say “no” and deny it use of her bodily system and organs. The day before being born, the easiest and safest means for removing the fetus is to simply remove it – induce labor.

    Bodily autonomy is ultimately the right foundation because the arguments apply even if we are talking about a fully grown adult human being who is somehow attached to the woman and dependent upon her organs for survival. She has a right to say “no” and remove this person, even if disconnection will lead to that person’s death.

    The state has absolutely no authority whatsoever to force anyone to donate or in any way provide access to others to any bodily systems or organs under any circumstances. You can’t be forced to donate blood. You can’t be forced to donate organs even after you’re dead! If yours were the only kidney on earth that would keep me alive, you couldn’t be forced to donate one. You couldn’t even be forced to come in and provide dialysis for a couple of hours a month.

    I certainly have a much more unambiguous and undisputed right to live than any fetus, but your right to bodily autonomy is so much more important that there is simply no contest – no “weighing” of the rights against each other.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Well I think this is precisely what I meant when I said how incongruous it seemed to have rights trumping other rights absolutely.

    “You can’t be forced to donate blood. You can’t be forced to donate organs even after you’re dead! If yours were the only kidney on earth that would keep me alive, you couldn’t be forced to donate one. You couldn’t even be forced to come in and provide dialysis for a couple of hours a month.”

    I strongly feel that a ban on involuntary post-mortem organ donation is unjustifiable. I also think we should at least recognise that there is a serious conflict going on if I have the only kidney on earth that could keep you alive. I think I would be acting wrongly to deny you that kidney, acting with great selfishness. Certainly if I refused even to provide dialysis. And while I want to avoid talking about state actions and laws (until my next post, when it may turn out we agree in practice), if an individual were to take some action that violated one person’s bodily autonomy to a mild degree, but saved someone else’s life (and if they had done everything possible to seek a consensual or alternative solution) I don’t think I could condemn them overall – and certainly not swiftly and with certainty.

    Maybe I’m wrong here. But I do think there’s still an oddness in having radical lefty feminists taking a position like this – which looks very much like right-wing libertarianism, with its absolute rights and its blithe rejection of any notion of conflicting rights or contests, its basic feeling that certain rules of conduct must be adhered to no matter how much pain or death is caused thereby. It doesn’t feel like the approach I would like to take to any other issue.

  3. Anon Says:

    “I think I would be acting wrongly to deny you that kidney, acting with great selfishness.”

    There’s a world of difference between saying “I think you are wrong and selfish for not donating that kidney” and saying “I think that the state should use force to remove and transfer that kidney.”

    If you don’t want to give the kidney and all the people you know don’t want to be your friend anymore, that’s fair. But if the state straps you to a table and cuts it out of you against your will, that’s not fair. If you don’t have the authority to decide what happens to your own organs while you’re alive, you can’t really be said to have any freedom or autonomy at all.

    And yes, there are certain lines we should draw and not cross, even if the consequences are bad. I wouldn’t torture an infant to save humanity from some disease, for example.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    As I said, I think we are largely in agreement politically, though I still feel things are not as neat as you make out.

    For instance: “If you don’t have the authority to decide what happens to your own organs while you’re alive, you can’t really be said to have any freedom or autonomy at all.”
    There’s some very tricky definitions involved here – what sorts of ‘happening’, for instance. I can’t decide that my foot will be in a certain place, if that place is, say, dangerous, or someone else’s private space. But a foot is an organ (in some sense). I don’t get to decide that someone else will have sex me with me they don’t want to, even if that’s something that happens to my organs. I am organs, so whenever me and someone else interact, there’s an issue of organs.

    Obviously these lines can be drawn in practice, but I don’t know if they can be drawn in a strict and unambiguous way in all cases, and on this occasion least of all. For instance, isn’t abortion the violation of the foetus’ bodily autonomy? Perhaps, perhaps not. But if bodily autonomy is so absolute, then it’s problematic that these two absolutes might be in conflict.

    “I wouldn’t torture an infant to save humanity from some disease, for example.”
    In almost any practical situation I’d agree, for various reasons, but…I feel that something is left out if we just say that in no exceptional circumstances can we cross those lines. I worry whether we can even draw them clearly. And I ask myself why so many people have believed that we could.

  5. links for 2009-05-22 « Rumblegumption Says:

    […] Abortion, Infanticide, and Religious Dickwads « Directionless Bones […]

  6. apostate Says:

    Hmm. I find these discussions of people’s discomfort with denying a near-full-term fetus the right to live, rather besides the point.

    Here’s the thing: VERY few abortions take place in the third trimester, and then mostly for health reasons. Here’s another thing: the more we delay abortion, the more dangerous is gets for the woman.

    Talking about the possible personhood and rights of a late term fetus is really a red-herring – of course it seems wrong to up and callously kill something that, given a few more days or another two weeks, will most likely be born a human being with full rights. On the other hand, is that even really what we’re asking for when we advocate for abortion rights?

    When a woman wants an abortion, she typically wants to avoid going through a pregnancy. Few women (if any, honestly) wait seven or eight months after implantation to seek a regular, I just-don’t-feel-like-going-through-with-this type of abortion. If someone does want this, it’s easy enough to perform a c-section and save the viable fetus, both sparing the woman from carrying it if she doesn’t want to for whatever reason, and letting the fetus live.I can see why this might be done, say, in the case of a mentally ill/suicidal woman.

    But the bottom line is, most if not all late term abortions are performed to save the life of the woman, and it’s usually a wanted pregnancy. To start talking about the rights of a fetus muddies the waters, because what if it comes down to saving the life of the woman by killing the fetus she’s carrying, or treating them both as equally important, meaning we let nature take its course? That’s what abortion-advocates want to avoid, because our chief concern is with women’s well-being and we don’t want to see a situation where grown women are being sacrificed so that fetuses can live. There is a judgment call here, and I personally value a full-grown human over one who hasn’t yet started its independent life, if I am forced to choose.

    Your discussion is disrespectful to women because it implies we act on a whim when it comes to dealing with dangerous living growths within our bodies.

    I’m about as radically pro-abortion as you can get, and yet I’ve never had an abortion, hope to never have one, and am frankly terrified at the idea of having even a first trimester abortion. This is not something women take lightly; I would hope any discussion of the issue would take into full consideration the fact that women are not flibbertigibbets, randomly killing viable fetuses unless the state steps in to inform them there’s serious ethical issues at stake.

  7. apostate Says:

    Another thing: in countries that treat reproductive rights sensibly, where contraception is easily available and encouraged, where sex education is thorough, and where abortion is legal and easily available, there are far fewer abortions overall, and most abortions are in the first few weeks of pregnancy.

    Women themselves, for their own sakes, will ensure no late term abortions happen, if full reproductive rights are granted.

    As a purely metaphysical question (another way of saying theological), of course you are welcome to go on discussing fetus rights. But in practical reality, it’s rather irrelevant to the political question of reproductive rights, and misleading to boot, implying as it does that late term abortions are a real problem if abortion is legalized.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    You’re right of course that very few abortions take place in the third trimester, this was why I wrote that if we are anti-infanticide and pro-early-term-abortions, these two positions “cover most of the practical situations, in that most abortions are quite early in pregnancy.” I also made a point of prefacing the discussion by pointing out how distant most of the political argument is from any substantive question. I also categorised the post as ‘philosophy’, not ‘politics’.

    So if the question I’m adressing, which you castigate as theological, is so removed from political practice, why ask it? Well, for one thing, I think it relates to broader questions surrounding the concept of personhood, which will have bearings on, say, treatment of people in persistent vegetative states, non-humans animals, etc.

    But also, I think clarity about all sides of an issue is useful. You said that in defending medically necessary abortions, you had to make ‘a judgement call’. That will be persuasive to some people, but perhaps not to others. Others may appreciate the force of your point, but feel unable to agree entirely because some conflicting point also seems important to them. I think if one side of an issue is left unclear, or a tension is swept aside, it will give greater scope for people to be misled by misplaced or irrational arguments. If pro-choicers simply say “no reflective ethical discussion on this issue is possible, we should set aside any abstract approach and support total reproductive freedom for political reasons”, it’s easy for opponents to present that “don’t think about it too much, just stick to the party line”, and I think that may undermine how persuasive pro-choicism looks to someone who’s undecided.

    I suppose it’s true that in trying to set up the difficult knot at the centre of the issue as clearly as possible, I may have suggested that capricious or whimsical late-term abortions are much more common than they are. I’m sorry since that would be disrespectful, but my goal was simply to consider the most-challenging-case-scenario.


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