Abortion vs Suicide
August 25, 2009
Liberals believe individuals have a right to abortion and euthanasia, while conservatives believe the state has a right to execute prisoners and wage war. It seems everyone agrees in killing, we just differ over who and how.
In a previous attempt to consider the tricky question of abortion, I tried to strike a balance between the two key camps on this issue, and suggested that since we all agree that we want to minimise the number of abortions, this should be our focus rather than attempting to outlaw abortion (which will in no way prevent abortions, but merely make them more horrific). However, there is another tack that might prove fruitful: to step back from viewing abortion in isolation, and widen our view to consider the ending of human life collectively from the perspective of relative ethics i.e. from the acceptance of difference in moral beliefs.
The centre of my case here is the claim that if one believes in a right to suicide, abortion is generally unproblematic, and that conversely opponents of abortion are also in the main against suicide. Certainly one can see that if ending one's own life is acceptable in all cases, then abortion no longer presents a moral barrier – suicide would end the life of the mother and the foetus. Under an ethical system that permitted this, abortion could be the ethical choice: if it is despair over the pregnancy which motivates the mother to kill herself, terminating just the foetus will seem like a morally acceptable outcome.
Because the majority of abortion opponents are operating within some form of Christian ethics, the converse usually holds – both suicide and abortion are abominated, because human life is afforded a sacrosanct status. However, for some reason the majority of conservative Christians in the United States do not extend this status to the condemned. Liberals object to the death penalty not because they are against killing (they generally support at least two forms of killing – abortion and euthanasia) but because of the number of innocents that are executed by the state. But conservative Christians are more likely to view justice as ratified by God (and thus not prone to the human error that in fact riddles every legal system). That the majority of those executed are both poor and black also somehow makes it of lesser import to many on the political right – even though it is nearly impossible to imagine Jesus condoning execution. In fact, this is the entire thrust of the Gospel of John, chapter 8, where Jesus says “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.
However, in the context of both abortion and euthanasia, the position dictated by conventional Christian morality is consistent, and furthermore I would contend it is a valuable counterweight to the liberal stances on these issues, which are just as prone to inflexible moralising as their opponents. While it is not hard for most people to accept the position of the women's rights movement that access to abortion is essential to the dignity of women, nor the position of the right to die movement that access to euthanasia is essential to the dignity of humanity (after all, we allow a terminal animal to die humanely) these ethical conclusions need to be understood from a wider perspective, and balanced against a reckless disregard for life.
By defending abortion in all cases, the “pro-choice” camp risks claiming that termination of a foetus is trivial – something that denies the distressing nature of this procedure, and which is understandably upsetting to their opponents who possess an idealised image of children born solely in wedlock. There is nothing wrong with this ideal of marriage – except when it is effectively enforced on others without their consent. Christians in this regard should bear in mind that pre-marital sex is not a new phenomena, and was always already happening. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has noted, prior to the industrial revolution villagers tolerated (while still castigating) the young generations sexual exploits since knowing that a coupling could produce children was important at that time, as infant mortality was incredibly high and a barren marriage was a considerable blow to the community. The change in infant mortality rates can be seen as a justification for contraception in this regard – and Christians who oppose contraception because it “encourages pre-marital sex” are perhaps kidding themselves as to the potency of sexual desire.
In a similar vein, Christian opponents to euthanasia raise quite practical concerns as to the slippery slope implied. When the Swiss assisted suicide group Dignitas were helping the terminally ill to die, many people were in full support of what they are doing. But a fifth of those assisted in ending their life at Dignitas have no terminal condition, and this has raised wider concerns about their activities. A key anti-euthanasia argument worth considering is the idea that the financial pressure of caring for the elderly will encourage families to psychologically pressure their older relatives to die rather than becoming a burden. But at the same time, it must be acknowledged that euthanasia is already widely practised in hospitals the world over under the auspices of “pain management”, and pretending that we are not already assisting people to die is tantamount to denial.
In all of these cases of abortion and suicide the fact of the matter is that we have always already possessed the means to terminate a pregnancy (herbs were regularly used to induce abortions in ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece and China) or end one's own life (of which the possible methods are innumerable). This knowledge is neither new, nor repressible. Trying to manipulate the law to create a blanket prohibition of abortion or suicide denies the right of the individual to determine their own ethics – a freedom which no Christian can deny without going against the God-given free will which is axiomatic to almost all modern theologies. Even if the law rendered these acts illegal, they would still happen, and they would be far more undignified and horrific than if they were permitted.
Legal need not mean encouraged. Christians who wish to act as a moral counterweight against abortion and suicide must be willing to do more than campaign for laws which do nothing but brush these problems under the carpet. In the case of abortion, they must be prepared to help fund and support adoption and charitable child support – if involuntary parenthood or adoption are the desired outcomes, the supporters of these actions must be prepared to both financially and practically assist in the necessary arrangements. They will find little opposition to this course of action. In the case of euthanasia and suicide, they must be equally willing to lend support to those they wish to persuade against ending their lives. Jesus' “eleventh commandment” – that we love one another – is not met by substituting lawmaking for the duty of care.
And for the non-Christians who in stubborn opposition to their most draconian moral opponents become as blinkered and partisan as those they despise, a similar caution must be extended: one cannot claim the moral high ground by ignoring the situations of the real people caught up in these crises of life and instead focussing solely upon the battle for the law. If we are ever to move beyond the cultural impasses of abortion and suicide, it may take a willingness to abandon our faith in absolutes ratified by law, and instead to respond hospitably to the needs of those others – whether at the end of their life, a troubled midpoint, or at the mere possibility of beginning – who need our openness to a compassionate understanding of the complexity of their individual circumstances far more than they need our angry dogma.
The opening image is Where I End by vhm-alex, which I found on a desktop wallpaper site. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.
there is a case to be made, from the christian point of view, that 'involuntary parenthood' is not really a significant factor outside of cases of rape.
the logic being that if you don't want kids, don't have sex. which i personally think is pretty good logic.
none of which changes the fact that there are some very good points in here. not all of which quite sit right with me, of course, but still.
as for the whole justice/execution thing, there's a pretty large amount of, in my experience [which is admitedly limited] sentiment to the effect of 'well, yeah, execution would be good in some situations... if we could actually be sure the person in question was guilty'. lack of faith in the justice system there. the race issue doesn't apply in quite the same manner outside of the USA. [which isn't to say it doesn't apply at all, mind you.]
also, the 'cast the first stone' thing is a bit more complex than you present it as. there's a whole big bit in the bible where Jesus is repeatedly slamming the Pharisees for ... basically being a corrupt legal system. then there's the whole 'written torah'/'oral torah' thing...
... i'm not terribly good at explaining stuff, unfortunately. appart from systems. i can do systems.
anyways. yeah. you make some good points. but there's a Lot more to Christianity than the loonies one keeps seeing on what American tv programs get here, or the catholic church, ya know?
i wish people [including myself!] understood stuff better. nothing is more damaging to a position than ignorant fools attempting to argue in it's favour. except possibly being completely wrong, of course :D
hopefully there's a useful and coherent point in the above somewhere :S
Posted by: Chargone | August 25, 2009 at 11:12 AM
Chargone: of course, I do agree that there is a lot more to modern Christianity than the vocal factions in the US and the Catholic Church - but on the issue of abortion, those factions collectively represent a key camp. I certainly don't want to seem to be reducing Christianity to just those positions, though.
"the logic being that if you don't want kids, don't have sex. which i personally think is pretty good logic."
Teenagers in the grip of their hormones are so far from rational thinking, that proposing logic as an intermediary is far from the wisest course of action! :)
"also, the 'cast the first stone' thing is a bit more complex than you present it as."
Well can you imagine, in any context whatsoever, Jesus being publicly in favour of execution? The only point that he even comes close to this is Mark 9:42 ("And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck.") but it's clear here that he is talking about God's punishment - not man's.
If Christians acknowledge the redemptive power of Jesus (and if they do not, what kind of Christians are they?) then I question what role execution can have in any legitimate Christian theology.
Do you have a counterpoint?
Thanks for wading in on this one!
Posted by: Chris | August 25, 2009 at 11:39 AM
only Jesus's big bit on not changing the law, and the law calling for execution as the punishment for certain crimes. [a lot of them, actually]. specifically the Written law, mind, which is what we have in our 'old testament' ... there's a whole other layer of silly involved when you get into the pharisaic 'oral Torah' [which has since been written down, mind you.]
though there is provision at some point for people who truly repent of their crimes [or were framed sufficiently well, i suppose] to flee to certain cities and stay there [functional under a loose sort of 'house' arrest] until the high priest died. when you add that to "Jesus is our high priest" and the fact that he Already died... actually, I'm not quite sure how to apply that in a practical way in a modern context.
yeah, I'm not sure where I'm going with this, it's just thoughts and notes that came to mind in passing.
"Teenagers in the grip of their hormones are so far from rational thinking, that proposing logic as an intermediary is far from the wisest course of action! :)" <<< as for this, my point there was actually that it's not 'involuntary' ... possibly a less than wise decision, but it is the natural result of a conscious [however clouded that consciousness may be] choice. i actually think you're right about the need to actually do something useful rather than just jump up and down about law change. [sorry, i can't find exactly where you aid what now, for some reason :S ]. i also think that, a lot of the time, teenagers probably could reign themselves in if given an environment that actually encouraged them to do so. not all the time, admittedly, and some more than others, but i think this particular issue is more pronounced than it needs to be. [rule one is responsibility for actions, really. you do something. these are the results. now you get to deal with it. something that the western world seems to be trying to avoid.]
as for Jesus and execution... he doesn't actually say much one way or the other, though he does say a Lot about unjust convictions and hypocritical judges in various contexts and forms. personally, I'd tend towards finding other solutions if possible, simply because execution is so final if you get it wrong, and our courts Do get it wrong...
you're quite right about so called Christians dismissing the redemptive power of Jesus... but I'd actually also put in that same group the people who claim that we should accept every action carried out by an individual... there are a number of branches of liberal Christianity who go that way and say that things that are expressly forbidden are fine and acceptable. this is no good either. ugh... that particular set of thoughts could add up to a pretty long piece on it's own, if i could ever get them organized.
something so many people find hard to deal with is the concept of accepting and loving People... while at the same time refusing to accept certain actions. I'm going to stop that one there though, I'm already heading off topic.
hope that's useful. :)
Posted by: Chargone | August 25, 2009 at 03:43 PM
"By defending abortion in all cases, the “pro-choice” camp risks claiming that termination of a foetus is trivial – something that denies the distressing nature of this procedure..."
I think you'll find very few people who claim this; though you might find that the anti-choice camp believe this of the pro-choice camp. Remember that pro-choice also means opposition to forced abortions as well. All of the pro-choice areas I have entered I have found people who recognise that abortion is the mother's moral choice to make, and that a traumatic time does not need to be made worse by her being called a murderer if she does not conform to others' morals. Pro-choice groups want more access to abortion services, they do not want more abortions regardless.
"the logic being that if you don't want kids, don't have sex. which i personally think is pretty good logic." Ugh. Good logic perhaps if you are of the belief that you can have a meaningful and complete romantic relationship with another person without having sex. The fact is, very few people believe this these days, and contraceptives are almost completely effective at preventing pregnancy. However most of the anti-choice people are opposed to contraceptives as well, mostly because of misconceptions about how they work.
What about those who already have children? Are they not allowed to have sex, because they have decided they don't want any more children?
What about those women whose partner would not stick around to help raise the child? Why should only the woman be punished for having sex? Why should a child be a punishment anyway?
Don't forget the anti-choicers tactics. An abortion is rarely something that is identifiable as "a baby". Frequently these days, an abortion is a blood clot, the size of your thumbnail. But they call it baby killing. I can understand their discomfort over abortions done later on, but as time goes on it is harder to get an abortion. The cut off point for when you can get an abortion a) if you want one, b) if the child is not perfectly healthy, and c) if the mother's life is in danger varies from country to country, but the order is the same.
Also remember: it is 9 times more dangerous to give birth than to have a legal abortion, and that's just in the developed world.
It is also much more traumatic and depressing to adopt out than to abort (anecdotal evidence alert). A large meta-analysis of all the studies done prior to 2009 have shown NO link between abortion and long term mental health issues (i.e. depression) - I'll return later with the link to the study. Adoption might be preferred by various religious groups, but why do they care more for a small cluster of cells than the woman they are in?
Chris, I agree with you entirely on your point that opposers of abortion should (instead of harassing pregnant women contemplating or having an abortion) assist with the adoption process, and give the needed support during pregnancy; or if supporting forced birth, they should assist with raising the child as well. I'd be much more likely to not choose abortion if this comprehensive support network was in place.
Posted by: Katherine | August 26, 2009 at 02:24 AM
please note that i said absolutely nothing about punishment in conjunction with pregnancy. i also was referring specifically to unmarried teenagers.
and while it may not have been terribly clear [in that i don't think i actually said it] part of the 'take responsibility' bit is that the father SHOULD be sticking around to help look after the kid.
just if that's what you were objecting to.
and i fail to see what is wrong with the logic of 'if you don't want the effect, don't enact the cause'. i really don't.
that said, i also have nothing against contraception, specifically. i think it's actually a good idea. i just think it would be a Better idea for those who are not married, especially teenagers, to not even go there in the first place.
Posted by: Chargone | August 26, 2009 at 05:24 AM
Chargone, Katherine: before commenting further I want to point out the obvious, namely that the two of you are coming at this from very different camps, and have your own difference of perspective. I personally believe you both have useful things to bring to the table - but it's all too easy to pre-empt the debate by jumping to conclusions about what the other side is saying.
It's important to appreciate that the kind of moderate Christian positions that Chargone represents hold to an ideal of relationships which does not necessarily rule out pre-marital sex, but does rule out "empty sex". I think non-Christians are too quick to condemn the view that we should encourage the young generation to be more prudent about their sexual relations, while Christians are often too quick to dismiss contraception on the grounds that it "encourages" empty sex. There is a wide range of different positions in this regard, and it's too easy (as Chargone chastises in his first comment) to make assumptions about what the different camps represent, who represents which camp, and to what extent.
Okay, that said, some specific thoughts.
Chargone: "rule one is responsibility for actions, really. you do something. these are the results. now you get to deal with it. something that the western world seems to be trying to avoid."
I think this nicely summarises the position of moderate Christians in this regard. I don't think the non-Christians are against this kind of argument, despite disagreements as to the specifics.
"There are a number of branches of liberal Christianity who go that way and say that things that are expressly forbidden are fine and acceptable."
You say "expressly forbidden", but this is not so easy for any Christian to establish most of the time... In particular, the decision as to whether the "eleventh commandment" supplements or replaces the original covenant creates a significant schism in Christian beliefs about what is permissible. Personally, I'm a "new covenant" kind of guy, so the Old Testament is reduced to mere prologue for me.
"and while it may not have been terribly clear [in that i don't think i actually said it] part of the 'take responsibility' bit is that the father SHOULD be sticking around to help look after the kid."
One of the interesting developments in the United States in recent years that has come from within black Christian communities has been this greater emphasis on the father taking responsibility. Absentee fathers has become a major issue, and it's interesting to see this being addressed in certain cultural corners.
As ever, I appreciate your willingness to get involved - Christians can be a bit skittish about taking part in multi-party discussions like this, since they are often made to be either the scapegoat or blamed for the excesses of their religion's most dogmatic representatives. It can be tough, and I'm glad that you feel comfortable enough to share your thoughts here.
Katherine: "I think you'll find very few people who claim this; though you might find that the anti-choice camp believe this of the pro-choice camp."
By choosing to designate your opponents as "anti-choice" you tacitly accept their right to brand you "anti-life". Are you willing to accept this? Otherwise I strongly advise you either to accept their own chosen identity or to use terms that are less hostile - I quite like "pro-foetus" and "pro-mother", but these have proved to be more inflammatory than I'd have liked! :)
Neither "anti-choice" nor "anti-life" are fair designations for either polar camp. Those who are pro-life believe in choices, they just abominate abortion. Opposition to one choice does not make one anti-choice - or is all humanity anti-choice for disallowing pre-meditated murder as an option?
"...if you are of the belief that you can have a meaningful and complete romantic relationship with another person without having sex. The fact is, very few people believe this these days, and contraceptives are almost completely effective at preventing pregnancy."
I think you are in error here - Christianity is 33% of the world, Islam 21% of the world; now I don't know what proportion of Christians and Muslims believe the claim you made here, but it strikes me as quite unlikely that "very few people" is an accurate claim when weighed against some part of 54% of the world's population that traditionally uphold a "marriage before sex" position.
"However most of the anti-choice people are opposed to contraceptives as well, mostly because of misconceptions about how they work."
I've no idea how true this claim is, and neither do you I suspect. The vocal pro-life movements certainly oppose contraceptives, but largely on the grounds that they believe it encourages teens to have sex - a misconception I mention briefly in this piece.
But I'm not at all sure it's true that opposition to abortion and opposition to contraception go hand in hand outside of the polar positions. Certainly true for orthodox Catholics, but it's not even clear what proportion of Catholics are orthodox in their beliefs... More on this below.
"What about those who already have children? Are they not allowed to have sex, because they have decided they don't want any more children?"
This is an interesting point... and contraception in marriage is not often discussed as a point in its own right. The orthodox Catholic position is to practice the rhythm method, which of course is only about 80-90% effective, but pragmatically the larger the family gets the harder and harder it gets to have sex, which acts as a natural contraceptive. :)
I would like to see a camp within moderate Christianity take a different position on contraception in order to counter the impression that "all Christians hate contraception", as this conception is (I believe) wholly misconceived.
Ignoring the Protestants for a moment, an organisation called "Catholics for a Free Choice" claims that 96% of Catholic women *had* used contraceptives at some point in their life, and 72% of Catholics believed that one could be a good Catholic without obeying the Vatican's teaching on birth control. Similarly, a Harris poll claims 90% of Catholics in the United States supported the use of birth control and contraceptives. Yet a great many of these people would be opposed to abortion. So you and I cannot fairly claim that views on contraception and abortion go hand-in-hand outside of the vocal polar positions on these issues.
"An abortion is rarely something that is identifiable as 'a baby'."
While I take this point, this isn't relevant to the discussion - to the pro-life camp the foetus *will become* a baby, and that is their point of objection.
"A large meta-analysis of all the studies done prior to 2009 have shown NO link between abortion and long term mental health issues (i.e. depression)"
Sure, I can believe that. But are you willing to accept the obvious counterpoint on this which shows the proportion of women who regret having an abortion? I believe the number is about 30%. So that's 13.8 million women who regret having an abortion every year. They may not be depressed about it, but they still regret it.
Ultimately I believe this kind of stance is counter-productive - showing that the majority of women can have an abortion and not be troubled by it is not going to sway or affect the pro-life camp in any positive way - if you look at this data through their eyes, it only makes the situation even more horrifying.
The problem that both camps suffer from is looking at the issue through their own lens and presenting solely the evidence that supports their own beliefs. This issue isn't going to be resolved by propping up partisan positions, it's going to take some kind of compromise on both side to move on, if indeed this is even a possibility.
"Adoption might be preferred by various religious groups, but why do they care more for a small cluster of cells than the woman they are in?"
I agree that the pro-life camp do represent themselves as "pro-foetus" rather than "pro-mother", but if you talk to advocates of that position they will claim to be in support of both. It doesn't seem that way to you, because you're looking it through the lens that permits termination of pregnancy and thus the foetus is just "a small cluster of cells". To your opponents, that "small cluster of cells" is a future child. If you can't understand why termination is so upsetting to them, it's small wonder that they can't understand why not allowing that choice is so upsetting to you. Neither camp can see through the other's eyes, and that's what helps feed the partisan split here and block a possible (however unlikely) reconciliation.
I think it's fairly clear that there are ways that the pro-life camp can alter their approach to the benefit of all, both in ways I've suggested here and in my previous piece on abortion. But the pro-choice camp is going to have to make concessions too if this issue is to move towards any kind of resolution.
And what will the pro-choice camp be willing to concede? A narrower window for permitting termination (such that it is only "the cluster of cells" that is aborted and never the "identifiable baby")? The right of individual territories (States, nations) to self-determine if abortion is permissible within their territory?
When the pro-choice camp demands access to abortion as a global right, they force their moral position on others, regardless of the beliefs of those others. In this respect, I do not believe they can claim the moral high ground over their opponents who make the same kind of global application of a moral absolute but from the opposite stance. Are the pro-choice camp sufficiently pro-choice as to permit States and nations to choose not to offer abortions? Or is there a limit to how far the support of "choice" will extend?
(Note, however, I am not advocating any specific position in this regard - I'm not at all sure what the "right" solution to this problem is, but I am doubtful that the global imposition of any particular moral absolute is wise, while remaining quite convinced that outlawing abortion is thoroughly counter productive).
Both camps must be willing to make concessions of some kind if any progress is to be made on this issue... while the activities of both sides is focussed on demonising their enemies and failing to see the issues through their eyes this stalemate will persist.
I appreciate you coming to put forward the pro-choice position; this is an inflammatory topic and I hope that by allowing discussion "on neutral ground" we might find ways to move forward.
Posted by: Chris | August 26, 2009 at 12:34 PM
yeah... I actually am a bit skittish about this sort of thing myself, mostly because i know my limitations when it comes to explaining stuff and I'd rather not do more harm than good. I've seen bad explanations and support from the wrong directions do more to derail many good causes than the actual opposition to them does more often than I'd like, and i try not to contribute to that problem.
of course, like all things, trying doesn't automatically equate to succeeding.
just a heads up, i think you switched 'pro choice' and 'pro life' a few times in the middle of that last comment.
Posted by: Chargone | August 26, 2009 at 06:12 PM
Chargone: Did I? Whoops. Let me go back and check... Oh yes, so I did. Thanks for pointing this out. I think I've corrected this now.
I think one of the thing that exasperates me about this debate is the way that moderate Christians (such as yourself) get attacked for believing in a respectful, loving relationship between two people as a pre-requisite for sex. Obviously I'm against this viewpoint being *forced* on other people, but I've seen liberal firebrands leap on Christians on the internet and tear out their virtual eyes for suggesting (for example) that a morning after pill might further encourage men to disrespect women by giving easy ways to wipe clean the consequences of their reckless actions. Now this isn't feminist rhetoric, of course, but it's hardly an attack on women to hold onto an ideal of a relationship that is deeper than mere disposable sex, and crucially the person in question did not say he wanted to disallow access to such emergency contraception, he merely expressed his personal concerns as to its social consequences. It did not warrant the verbal assualt that came, and I since have unsubscribed from the liberal blog that launched that attack.
It annoys me that a lot of "radical feminists" cannot understand the moderate Christian counterpoint on these kind of issues, because while I have no issue with people choosing to have safe casual sex, I certainly don't think its wrong for people to have an ideal of respect between the genders.
As is so often the case, there are two different but not irreconcilable perspectives at work here - the polar extremes may be incompatible, but an agreement between the moderates on both sides of the divide could sever the support of the extremists and bring some kind of resolution.
Or perhaps I'm being overly idealistic! :)
Anyway, I look forward to hearing Katherine's further thoughts when she has a chance to respond.
Posted by: Chris | August 27, 2009 at 11:05 AM
Whew, you do make some good points Chris. I'll definitely try to return and reply more thoroughly when I get a chance later.
One thing I'd like to say with regard to the "a foetus will become a baby" point, how do you know, after just a few weeks, that that particular pregnancy is viable? I think (and I'm sure you'll have some more accurate figures on hand) that the chance to miscarry is something like 1/4. And that doesn't include defects that aren't going to affect the unborn child, but will either cause stillbirth or a very short life for the baby, or will result in a life of extreme disability and/or several major surgeries just to keep the baby alive once born.
Another point I wanted to touch on briefly, you mentioned that 30% of women that have an abortion regret having one. I'd like a little more definition around the word "regret", though there's not a lot we can do if the study didn't define it more than that. I posit that regret could mean either or both of the following: "I wish I'd had the baby no matter what" to "I wish I hadn't been in the situation where abortion was the best option for me". I certainly don't believe in people being forced into abortions, and if a family planning clinic type place can't discuss all the options, perhaps it needs an overhaul. I will say that the person I personally know who adopted out her child regretted that decision for at least the first 20 years after the birth, so I'd like to see a similar survey of women who regret the adoption option. Perhaps more open adoption options would be a better option for some?
I'd also like to note that you didn't touch on the personal bodily autonomy angle; that is that many pro-choice people believe that no-one should have the right to use another person's body without their consent, even if that person needs the use of another to survive. I see it as equivalent to forced kidney donation. Sure, you don't need the extra kidney, but should you be forced to give it up for someone else who needs it? I argue this point with myself in my mind, and I don't always say no.
"By choosing to designate your opponents as "anti-choice" you tacitly accept their right to brand you "anti-life". Are you willing to accept this?" Touché. I'll cut it out for now, as you are requesting a discussion between moderates, not extremes.
Posted by: Katherine | August 28, 2009 at 01:53 AM
You seem to have already conceded the intellectual high ground to conservatives by painting abortion as killing. The crux of the debate is that a liberal does not see an abortion as killing, or murder in any case: no more so than clipping a fingernail or killing a tapeworm. The question is to what extent a fetus presents a real human life worth protecting, or the mere suggestion and potential of one.
(to that extent, I find the belief that the fetus will eventually be a person, and therefore it is worth protecting, baffling. If we viewed potential humans as in any way worth protecting, we would be under a moral obligation to procreate as much as humanly possible, for the benefit of those potential lives snuffed out by our inaction. A fetus is simply further along than a phantom. The conservatives who rest their arguments upon a fetus as a person [typically relying upon a belief in the inherent nature of a thing determining its ontology, as opposed to the qualities it possesses], are on much more solid ground).
The fact of the matter is that there is no middle ground here. Either a fetus is a person or it isn't. If it is, that's the ballgame- suffering from a pregnancy inflicted by rape may be bad, but it doesn't justify murder. The only one you could possibly justify in such a view is one to save the life of the mother, reasoning that it is sometimes acceptable to take a life to save one. If a fetus is not a person, then there is nothing objectionable about the procedure (and further, there are a host of goods to fall out of the procedure- not the least of which is preserving the bodily autonomy of women and saving them the profound indignity of having their body shanghaied as involuntary life support for 9 months.)
I do have to say, however, that hormones clouding logic in no way excuses teenagers from taking responsibility for their actions. However young they are, however horny they are, everyone has a choice.
That said, this reasoning only applies in this case if we view abortion as morally unacceptable. In my view, denying them an abortion to make them take responsbility for their actions makes about as much sense and will be about as productive as denying a football player a cast for their broken leg, because it was their decision to play football.
"I think you are in error here - Christianity is 33% of the world, Islam 21% of the world; now I don't know what proportion of Christians and Muslims believe the claim you made here, but it strikes me as quite unlikely that "very few people" is an accurate claim when weighed against some part of 54% of the world's population that traditionally uphold a "marriage before sex" position."
Due respect, Chris, I think you're doing precisely what you castigated by assuming a conservative sexual ethic is the only honest way to interpret such religions. America is a society that remains predominantly Christian (85%, by the most recent census?) and also to varying degrees either tolerates or encourages premaritial sexual relations.
It's a point worth remembering in the context of the gay debate as well. The majority of people in favor of gay rights in America are Christian, because the majority of people in America are Christian. If you'll pardon the inflammatory rhetoric, Christianity does not belong to the sexual reactionaries.
You're correct, however, that if we take a more global view instead of focusing on America/Western Europe, the matter is far from settled.
"When the pro-choice camp demands access to abortion as a global right, they force their moral position on others, regardless of the beliefs of those others. In this respect, I do not believe they can claim the moral high ground over their opponents who make the same kind of global application of a moral absolute but from the opposite stance. Are the pro-choice camp sufficiently pro-choice as to permit States and nations to choose not to offer abortions? Or is there a limit to how far the support of "choice" will extend?"
I had the misfortune to hear a fellow libertarian suggest that promoting women's rights overseas was inimical to libertarian values, since we should allow the nations the freedom and autonomy to make their own decisions about the matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. States are and nations are not people. Ontology, and consequently rights, necessarily apply only to individuals, and not to states. And therefore to contend that states have the right ( a thing which by their very nature they cannot have) to collectively oppress and destroy individual rights is absurd.
To wit, it's the height of sophistry to contend that belief in individual choice must necessitate belief in a collective choice to remove individual choice. Or to come at it from a slightly different analogy, a general doctrine of tolerance does not require permissiveness for intolerance.
Posted by: James | August 28, 2009 at 06:13 AM
I've done extensive research into what I think about stuff, and these are the results.
On James's points - "either a foetus is a person or it isn't" - is wrong, as far as I can see. A foetus does at some point turn into a person, and I don't think there's any neat cut off point - one minute a foetus, the next a person. The boundary is unclear. This is not the case with conception - either there is a foetus or there isn't.
This does not mean we must accord full legal rights to foetuses. Which is why I disagree that the only possible pro-abortion position is that abortion is as ethically negligible as cutting your hair. There is the lesser of two evils argument, which seems to be Chris's position - and a reasonable one, it seems to me.
But the lesser of two evils position has consequences that James's doesn't. From this position, it is desirable to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies as far as possible. I think a good support network for mothers, wed or unwed, ought to be provided anyway. We don't value mothers or children nearly enough. But reducing unwanted pregnancies means good and consistent sex education in school; it means access to contraception and the knowledge of how to use them effectively; it means giving up our prudishness. The Netherlands has done this, resulting in a big reduction in teenage pregnancies, as well as leading a lot of teenagers to start having sex later, when they're ready for it.
This should be no surprise. You don't encourage responsible behaviour by keeping people ignorant.
Posted by: Theo | August 28, 2009 at 08:21 AM
Chris also mention euthanasia, which noone has discussed. An anecdote by way of making a point - in his memoir Murder in Samarkand, Craig Murray says he was on the point of suicide after getting sacked by the foreign office. His doctor told him he thought suicide should be illegal because of the appalling effect it had on the families of people who kill themselves. He says this saved his life.
Someone dying of a degenerative disease is a special case, but outside that circumstance euthanasia is not equivalent to an individual deciding to dispose of a piece of property. We're not atomic monads but links in a net.
(And I'm not advocating criminalising suicide, but I think that doctor made a good point.)
Posted by: Theo | August 28, 2009 at 08:32 AM
Katherine: Thanks for returning to continue our conversation - I do enjoy reading your thoughts.
"...how do you know, after just a few weeks, that that particular pregnancy is viable?"
I raised this point in the original Rights of the Unborn post, but on reflection I find that this doesn't really bear on the issue as much as it might. From the pro-life camp's perspective, that a quarter of abortions are merely "pre-emptive" doesn't change how they feel about the remaining three quarters...
"...so I'd like to see a similar survey of women who regret the adoption option."
It's fair at this point to make this point. However, I was only trying to counterpoint the "not depressed" line of argument. I think the bottom line here is that unplanned pregnancy can be highly upsetting *whatever the final outcome*. Since abstinence *as a sole option* is ineffective, birth control presents itself as a reasonable approach to the abortion issue, but this is a tough sell to the polar extreme of the pro-life camp.
"I'd also like to note that you didn't touch on the personal bodily autonomy angle"
I didn't feel the need to go here in this piece; while these kinds of arguments are reasonable, they don't cut through the sense of abomination that abortion opponents feel so they are of limited use in practice. It's the kind of argument that props-up one's own position without tackling the opposing position, and as such I doubt the value of Judith Thomson's "violinist thought experiment" to persuade, while still admiring its elegance as a philosophical exercise. (Mind you, Phillipa Foot's counter argument is also quite compelling... perhaps a topic for a future occasion!)
James: "You seem to have already conceded the intellectual high ground to conservatives by painting abortion as killing."
Anti-bacterial soap is also killing, so I don't see this as much as a concession really. The question is not whether or not it qualifies as killing, but whether it is a form of killing we consider morally permissible and/or whether what is killed is a person or merely a precursor to a person.
"The fact of the matter is that there is no middle ground here. Either a fetus is a person or it isn't."
There is only an absence of middle ground if you define your case in such absolute terms; in fact, there is no case of whether a foetus is a person or is not in absolute terms since the resolution of this issue depends upon one's metaphysics and cannot be resolved as a matter of fact.
"Due respect, Chris, I think you're doing precisely what you castigated"
Quite possibly, although hopefully not to the same degree! :p I will cheerfully withdraw this argument anyway since it has nothing to contribute to my overall case. :) Thank you for calling me on this.
"I had the misfortune to hear a fellow libertarian suggest that promoting women's rights overseas was inimical to libertarian values, since we should allow the nations the freedom and autonomy to make their own decisions about the matter."
I agree with your friend. Either the State is the collective representative of the people or it is not. If it is not, then it is illegitimate and this particular issue is irelevant. If it is the collective representative of the people then it, and not you or anyone else, should decide how its people are governed.
"And therefore to contend that states have the right to collectively oppress and destroy individual rights is absurd."
You seem to be under the impression that rights have some absolute status. They do not, outside of certain specific metaphysical beliefs. Rights are the product of agreements to provide rights, and not every nation signed up to the "Universal" declaration of human rights. If one attempts to force rights upon people who have not (by their collective representation) agreed to those rights, one has severely overstepped the bounds of reasonable conduct. The enforcement of rights not agreed to is potentially as oppressive as their denial.
"To wit, it's the height of sophistry to contend that belief in individual choice must necessitate belief in a collective choice to remove individual choice."
A belief in individual choice will always run up against a limiting factor of some kind, most commonly the law. Your decision to (implicitly) couch denial of access to abortion as a "removal of individual choice" has no bearing here. Nobody living in any nation has unlimited choices, and the law (as the ratified representation for the "will of the people") specifies which choices are permitted and which are not. There is no absolute standard to appeal to here.
"...a general doctrine of tolerance does not require permissiveness for intolerance."
Are you sure? Freedom of speech, which is a general doctrine of tolerance specific to the act of speaking, requires permissivenses towards intolerent speech. I'm not swayed by your argument here.
I appreciate you joining the discussion, however, even if I disagree with most of your points! :) And nice use of "to wit". :D
Theo: "...reducing unwanted pregnancies means good and consistent sex education in school; it means access to contraception and the knowledge of how to use them effectively; it means giving up our prudishness."
I quite agree!
And thanks for touching on the euthenasia side of the debate - I admit to a certain disappointment (but not suprise) that all the discussion centred upon abortion.
"Someone dying of a degenerative disease is a special case, but outside that circumstance euthanasia is not equivalent to an individual deciding to dispose of a piece of property. We're not atomic monads but links in a net."
Again, I agree - this is one instance where the political opponent of a particular thing's "slippery slope" argument has manifested itself in practice, and it gives me considerable pause.
Thanks for getting involved in the discussions!
Posted by: Chris | September 01, 2009 at 05:07 PM
Ok, I'll add to the euthenasia/suicide discussion. I'd like to suggest that all individuals that wish to end their lives who are not dying of a degenerative disease (i.e. in a fairly advanced or painful stage of the disease) are probably mentally ill (at least at that point). Now we don't usually let people elect to have a medical procedure done on them unless they can show that they are completely rational in their decision making process - in other words not mentally ill (unless the procedure will make them mentally well again).
But we usually accept that someone who doesn't have much time left, and who is suffering without much relief might want to just end their lives there (though of course if you know them personally this might be harder for you to accept). We put down beloved family pets when they are old and suffering, or sometimes when we can't afford to pay for the treatment they need any longer (whether medical or simply feeding them and loving them). There is a huge pet overpopulation problem in many places, so many pets are put down simply because they are unwanted. Why is it seen as better to keep a person alive when they are suffering, or even past the point where they have lost what made them a person, but it's considered humane to put down a pet? Surely it is much more humane to have an abortion also? Unwanted children tend to suffer whether they are adopted or not (though I suspect to be unwanted by the parents 'raising' you is much worse). The people I know in these various situations confirm my thoughts but of course they aren't a representative sample. Anyway I sometimes think of abortion as euthanasia of the unwanted, though I know some people wil find this thought horrific.
I agree with Theo also that we need much more support of parents and pregnant women than we have now, and I know that would lower the abortion rate some, as many websites where women tell their abortion stories show a lot of women doing it because they want to have children when they have a stable career and are able to provide for them. However there are still a lot of women for whom contraception just does not seem to work. So I think a lot of work is still needed in this area as well.
Posted by: Katherine | September 02, 2009 at 04:34 AM
Katherine: I like your point that someone who was suicidal is essentially by definition mentally ill. :)
"Why is it seen as better to keep a person alive when they are suffering, or even past the point where they have lost what made them a person, but it's considered humane to put down a pet?"
Well it depends where you are in the world, of course, but here in the UK the general populace have come out broadly in support of euthanasia for the terminally ill, and especially in the case of degenerative diseases.
But here we go on the slippery slope, since Dignitas (as I mention in this piece) has euthanised people with non-degenerative, non-life threatening conditions (such as a person with a crippling injury), and also euthanised the spouses of terminally ill patients who were perfectly healthy.
In fact, as I also mention in this piece we regularly euthanise people with terminal and degenerative conditions under the guise of pain management. What's not happening is any acknowledgement of this, which as a result means that it is not often available in all the cases where it might be appropriate.
I take your point of abortion as euthanasia of the unwanted, and sympathise with this view, but as you observe yourself this isn't going to have much traction with people in the opposite camp.
One thing is certain: these issues aren't going to go away any time soon.
Posted by: Chris | September 02, 2009 at 11:11 AM
"There is only an absence of middle ground if you define your case in such absolute terms; in fact, there is no case of whether a foetus is a person or is not in absolute terms since the resolution of this issue depends upon one's metaphysics and cannot be resolved as a matter of fact."
Epistemology for metaphysics may be a good deal thornier than in other areas of inquiry, but I don't think that precludes one metaphysics from being correct and another incorrect. Are you saying that metaphysics is relative, or that there is no objectively true metaphysics? What exactly is the point of this conversation, then? What method can we use to convince each other of the other's metaphysics?
"I agree with your friend. Either the State is the collective representative of the people or it is not. If it is not, then it is illegitimate and this particular issue is irrelevant. If it is the collective representative of the people then it, and not you or anyone else, should decide how its people are governed."
You imply that this collectivizing of opinion has no bearing on the legitimacy of the actions it takes. I can't disagree more strenuously. A government gets its power from the people, but not all people are going to agree with the actions it takes. To the extent that we are interested in promoting freedom by minimizing the amount of coercion a person undergoes everyday and minimizing the number of decisions that are closed off to them owing to that coercion, the state needs a considerably better rationale than simply "51% of our duly elected officials believe such a restriction is a good thing," to justify it. This is why things like constitutions are valuable; clearly delineating the powers of government and ensuring it does not overstep its bounds are paramount. If a collective was truly no different than an individual, and had absolute autonomy over its constituent parts; if, in short, John Stuart Mill's "self-regarding behavior" defense applied to states and individuals equally, there would be nothing objectionable about 51% of a state deciding that it wished to kill the other 49% and take their stuff. If you grant the collective absolute autonomy, there is no tyranny you cannot justify. This is why it was so startling to hear this argument coming from a self-professed libertarian working in the public policy field!
To put it more succinctly, I reject the right of my own government and my own society to stone me for my homosexuality, and therefore I reject the right of other governments and other societies to do so.
"Are you sure? Freedom of speech, which is a general doctrine of tolerance specific to the act of speaking, requires permissiveness towards intolerant speech. I'm not swayed by your argument here."
Speech is of a different category, owing to its distinction from action and its bearing on epistemology; I'll point you to John Stuart Mill's On Liberty for more arguments about this. Nevertheless, tolerance is a self-defeating ideology if we allow intolerant individuals to roll back the gains from the past 200 years of social progress. Tolerance does not require timidity in the defense of tolerance. If we are to protect the fruits of a society that allows many different methods of flourishing, we cannot tolerate those who are willing to prevent someone from pursuing their own method of flourishing in a peaceful manner. In the very same way, as you pointed out later, that we cannot allow untrammeled individual choice to undermine the choices of others; laws are imposed to maximize our freedom, so my own sphere of choice is not limited by someone's ability to murder me.
@Katharine, I find such views troubling, because they lead to the idea that, objectively, there are lives worth leading and lives that are not worth leading. It's not difficult to spot the ableism here, that someone who has no prospect of being able to walk again is perfectly rational in his or her assessment that life is no longer worth living, but someone physically able must be insane to want such a thing. We must view all such lives as worth living.
It is also entirely inimical to the dignity of humanity to claim that a person's faculty of choice has been so compromised that they cannot make the most fundamental decision of their lives.
No matter how many bonds you forge, no matter how many nodes in a net you're connected to, your life is your own, it belongs to no one else, and it is your right as a sovereign, autonomous, individual to dispose of it as you see fit. That said, because I view all lives as worth living, I'd do my damnedest to persuade either a hospital euthanasia candidate or a suicide contemplate to stay on this mortal coil for a little while longer.
I don't have to agree with such a choice to advocate for the ability to make it.
Posted by: James | September 02, 2009 at 09:25 PM
James: thanks for returning to continue our conversation!
"Epistemology for metaphysics may be a good deal thornier than in other areas of inquiry, but I don't think that precludes one metaphysics from being correct and another incorrect."
No, it just precludes proving that one metaphysics is correct and another incorrect. In the absence of this ability to resolve a metaphysical issue with any finality, I posit the polite and reasonable way to proceed is to attempt agnosticism on the issue, at least to the extent of pre-empting other people's beliefs.
"Are you saying that metaphysics is relative, or that there is no objectively true metaphysics?"
I am saying there is no way to attain with confidence or certainty an objectively true metaphysics - this does not preclude there being an objectively true metaphysical system, it only precludes us from knowing it. The break is in the epistemology, as you suggest.
"What exactly is the point of this conversation, then? What method can we use to convince each other of the other's metaphysics?"
We can have a discussion, and that discussion might shift our various metaphysics around, although admittedly it's not enormously likely to do so. Popper and others have suggested that the conversation is still worth having, though, and I agree!
"You imply that this collectivizing of opinion has no bearing on the legitimacy of the actions it takes."
This is not my intent; rather, it is to suggest that the legitimacy of the actions a collective body takes is to be judged by the people it represents.
"If you grant the collective absolute autonomy, there is no tyranny you cannot justify."
Here we are in agreement, but this was not my point. (I suppose I could cross-refer to my serial on civil disobedience for context, but it would be a tangent).
"To put it more succinctly, I reject the right of my own government and my own society to stone me for my homosexuality, and therefore I reject the right of other governments and other societies to do so."
That's all well and good, but what are you going to do about it? Invade other countries and impose your moral order? Then you advocate a form of tyranny. If you want to persuade other nations to accord to your moral values, that's great, but if you want to use force of arms to attain that goal then short of a consequentialists ends-means justification (which I have argued against) you're on very shaky ground.
I'm a member of Amnesty International, and thus believe in international influence between nations - but I don't believe in forcing moral values on other nations. If you want to have influence in other nations, you need to find the people in those nations that share your views and support them. Your absolute moral certainty does not grant you the right to enforce your morals upon other nations and for this we should be thankful because there are no shortage of people with absolute moral certainty whose values you would abominate!
"Tolerance does not require timidity in the defense of tolerance. If we are to protect the fruits of a society that allows many different methods of flourishing, we cannot tolerate those who are willing to prevent someone from pursuing their own method of flourishing in a peaceful manner."
This is a great sentence, but it is also rather suspicious. Who are "we" in this sentence, and which "society" is it that you speak of? If "we" and "society" refer to your own nation, then great - go ahead and get politically involved! But if "society" is intended to imply some global notion of "society" in which all nations are implicated then I worry that your conception of libertarianism is facism disguised as Millsian utilitarianism.
I believe I understand your position, but I'm not sure you understand mine in this respect. I can recommend the above-linked piece on Future Ethics) and also the piece on Westphalian sovereignty for giving you more of a grounding of my position - although I suspect, as a fan of Mills, you're not going to like much of what I say! :)
Thanks for commenting!
Posted by: Chris | September 03, 2009 at 01:02 PM
I'd like to briefly revisit this statement: "When the pro-choice camp demands access to abortion as a global right, they force their moral position on others, regardless of the beliefs of those others."
Would you sacrifice your life (or quality of life) for the beliefs of others? The very reason we demand access to abortion is because of the horrible consequences when it is not available. For some, abortion is a life-saving procedure (I don't think I need to go into detail here). The more abortion is restricted and the more controversial it is, even if it is legally allowed in a life-or-death situation, fewer doctors know how to perform the procedure(s) and fewer medical students are willing to learn. At the moment (in the US) many women have to travel out of state to obtain an abortion. What about those who cannot afford to travel? Should they die or suffer a severe blow to the quality of their lives? You can't only make policy on ideals, you also have to consider the effects that policy will have (no politician gets this).
Chargonne, I wish you'd come back; I didn't mean to scare you off. One comment from you was that you included the father in your statement about taking responsibility. The problem is that it is very difficult to force a man to actually parent his offspring, and yet women who abandon their child(ren) are held fully accountable by the law. So it really is a punishment to only women to tell them they MUST give birth if they get pregnant. Unless the man wants to be a father, it is very hard to force him to stick around. Ideally (in my mind), if a child was abandoned or neglected, both parents would be held accountable.
And of course you are a bad mother if you don't work (staying at home to look after your child), a bad mother if you work (and put your child in care all day), a bad mother if the father is not around, a bad mother if you bring another man into your life, and so on and so forth. I guess what I'm saying is that I agree with Chris, and that rather than blaming people for getting pregnant when they can't cope with a child, we should be working together to increase the support available for parents everywhere.
Well I guess that was less brief than intended :D
Posted by: Katherine | September 08, 2009 at 11:10 PM
I appreciate your impassioned plea for access to abortion procedures, and I'm not blind to the considerations that matter to this pole of the debate. However, I feel this misses the point I was making.
You seem to be treating a termination procedure as something as simple as pressing a button. It is not. It takes medical personnel to conduct the procedure - and the rights of the doctors and nurses don't seem to me to be reflected in the rhetoric of "abortion access for all".
"At the moment (in the US) many women have to travel out of state to obtain an abortion."
...in order to find medical staff willing and able to carry out the procedure. Will you support a law that forces a doctor or nurse to take part in a medical procedure about which they have severe moral qualms? I hope not. Anyone who would consider enforcing their morals in this way has a lot of nerve calling themselves "pro-choice".
Now of course, it's not as simple as that - but neither is it as simple as your presentation that considers only the mother. This issue is never as simple as either pole spins it.
(As for Chargone, it's quite likely he's just wandered off, but also I want to say that it is very difficult for moderate Christians operating inside this debate as they tend to get verbally attacked and rarely get their opinions considered fairly.)
Posted by: Chris | September 10, 2009 at 10:37 AM
Hi, Im from Australia.
Please check out this remarkable essay on the ethics of killing--it also contains a segment on abortion.
Posted by: Sue | September 10, 2009 at 12:03 PM
Sue: thanks for the link; I'm not familiar with Adidam and I'm always interested in learning about new spiritual paths and religious movements.
Posted by: Chris | September 10, 2009 at 12:16 PM
Wait, Chargone was a man?
I certainly wasn't trying to advocate for forcing doctors to perform medical procedures they are morally opposed to. But frequently doctors choose not to learn how to perform abortion procedures, even if they would only use it in cases where the mother's life is at stake because the controversy (that I believe shouldn't exist) surrounding abortion is such that the doctors know they would be subjected to harassment, death threats, and even actual attacks. So-called "late-term abortions" are rarely morally ambiguous, and yet it's usually doctors that solely perform this class of abortion that are subject to the worst attacks from pro-life proponents, who don't seem to realise that "late-term abortions" are more often life-saving than life taking (assuming you believe the fetus counts as life - personally once it hits 24 weeks if it doesn't have a deadly defect that's alive enough for me).
I would actually prefer legislation stay away from medicine almost entirely, especially (but not only) in situations where the government does not fund healthcare.
But if you think I'm missing the point, I guess I'll stop posting in this topic. I'm sorry if I derailed the discussion.
Posted by: Katherine | September 11, 2009 at 03:39 AM