Friday, September 15, 2017

Request for Info on Pro-Choice Arguments

I wanted to ask my readership for some help on arguments related to abortion rights. I am pro-choice, but I haven't delved particularly deeply into the nuances of the arguments for/against abortion and I was wondering how one would respond to the kinds of arguments used by Ben Shapiro, detailed here.

The short version is to say that even if one holds that consciousness is what gives a human being their value, not just "being human" genetically speaking, then anti-abortion folks will argue that if it is OK to kill a non-conscious fetus, it should be OK to kill a person who is in a coma where it is reasonable to believe they will wake from given time.

Typically I do hold that a person's consciousness is what gives them their value, but I do wish to affirm the idea that potential consciousness is enough to establish that a human still has value.

So if one wishes to argue for the right to an abortion is it just wrong to go down the path to say that since a young fetus/embryo is not conscious it therefore has no value and doesn't need to be preserved?

Does the argument as a whole just move towards the primary of bodily autonomy of the mother, which can grant the intrinsic value of the fetus - and that is where the bulk of the modern argument takes place?

I'd appreciate some responses from those more familiar with the arguments on this topic.


  1. Personally I think Shapiro is essentially right here in that it is difficult to pick a non-arbitrary point in time when a fetus goes from being a non-person to a person with moral value. Luckily I don't think the pro-abortion position hinges on the worthlessness of fetuses.
    For the sake of argument, let's assume that at the moment of conception a fetus is the moral equivalent of a fully grown human (to be clear, a point I don't actually agree with). The real question is whether or not we are obligated to use our bodies to save other people, or whether our right to bodily autonomy supercedes that. For example, even though I think that people should donate blood in order to save others, I would stand against a law making blood donation mandatory. Blood donation is clearly less of a burden and less risky than a pregnancy (basically no one dies from giving blood).
    So we can debate about what gives a human moral value, and how we handle the edge cases where things get a bit fuzzy, but we don't have to depend on that to support the right to have an abortion.

    1. Thanks for the reply! It seems as if you are endorsing the latter option I mentioned - value of human beings isn't the ground to argue on it's bodily autonomy.

    2. I agree with Shapiro. He makes an important observation that many pro choicers overlook, namely that pro choice criteria for moral status are arbitrary and cannot account for our moral status when we undergo some temporary change (like being in a coma). There clearly is no morally relevant difference between having a blocked capacity and developing the ability to manifest a capacity.

      David Boonin, a pro choice philosopher, has written that: “Any appeal to what a brain can do at various stages of development would seem to have to appeal to what the brain can already do. Or to what the brain has the potential to do in the future.” Either option leads to problems for a defender of the abortion who does not also want to endorse infanticide. This is because “by any plausible measure dogs, and cats, cows and pigs, chickens and ducks are more intellectually developed than a new born infant.”
      Bodily rights arguments are grossly overrated. Barring rape cases, there is a powerful Responsibility Objection (RO) which applies to the vast majority of pregnancies. RO is based on the idea that the mother's voluntary act unleases a sequence of events which places the unborn child in position of neediness and dependancy, and this creates an obligation to provide assistance. This is a crucial point which renders the blood donation analogy flawed. A more analogous situation would be to imagine a new mother with her recently birthed child trapped in a cabin in a blizzard. Do you agree that a mother who has no other way to provide food to her infant but who can breastfeed has a moral obligation to do so, which would thus not be something she has a bodily autonomy right to fail to do? If so, why is it different with gestation? Because the child is within his mother? Why does this make a difference?

    3. CA: Yes, just wanted to flesh out that argument a little bit since your mention of it was somewhat brief.

      Anon: Regarding the argument that due to get actions (presumably having sex) that the potential mother becomes responsible for bringing the fetus to term, first of, there are a lot of things you could do that make it very unlikely that you would get pregnant (like using multiple forms of birth control) that would in my opinion be reasonable precautions that would make the pregnancy unforeseeable. But for the sake of argument again, let's assume that the pregnancy was definitely foreseeable and you could say it is "her fault". I have an addition to my previous analogy, now instead of general blood donation, let's say I'm driving and am distracted by texting on my phone. Then I got a pedestrian who needs a blood transfusion to stay alive, and I'm the only match for them. Certainly it is moral for me to donate blood for them, but should it be required of me? I mean I am certainly responsible, it takes very little effort and risk from me, and I'll be directly saving that life. But I think no, we should not make it legally required to donate blood in that situation. Do you disagree?
      Regarding the cabin on a blizzard, the difference I see between gestation and breastfeeding is that breast milk is produced and must be removed from the body one way or the other, which puts it more in the category of hair or waste, and I think people have less strong of a right to by products like that than they do to their internal organs and fluids.
      One other important difference is that during a pregnancy, there is no way to pass that task onto someone else, but after birth you can give the child to someone else if you don't want that responsibility. So if that mother didn't want to feed the baby, she should have given it away.

    4. I don't see how contraception changes the fact that sex is naturally ordered towards pregnancy. Imagine a ball is sitting at the top of a hill and a guy named Jim is standing behind it. If Jim nudges the ball he's going to unleash a sequence of events that will end up where the ball is at the bottom of the hill. Suppose there is a small child sitting at the bottom of the hill where the ball would hit and the child cannot move. It's an infant, let's say. Further suppose that Jim builds up various barricades (contraception) that may stop the ball from rolling down to the bottom of the hill. It's clear that the barricades may fail. Jim nudges the ball and it bashes through the barricades and harms the child. It seems to me that Jim has some obligation to that child.

      I have a completely different reaction to the car negligence case. I think you are both morally and legally obligated. Switching the roles of the driver and pedestrian will make things more clear. Imagine you're the pedestrian who gets hit and placed in a position of neediness. Surely it would be unjust for the negligent driver to not only not compensate you but also for the law to not compel the driver provide to remedy for your situation. Otherwise we should abolish all child support laws and allow fathers for instance to refuse to pay any child support. Is this dis-analogous to direct use of one's body? Not in a relevant sense. Your money is a product of your labour which requires use of your body. Same principle applies. Many pro choice philosophers like Elizabeth Brake have advocated this concept of "financial abortion". I think that's a huge bullet to bite, on what grounds can we condemn deadbeat dads? Evidently some obligations do not depend on consent.

      I don't see how the relevance of the distinction you decide to make between gestation and breastfeeding. Breastfeeding (regardless of whether you want to classify the product of lactation as wastage or not) involves direct contact with and usage of the woman's body, like gestation. Comparative burdens just plain don't matter here. Acceptance of the bodily autonomy argument logically entails a rejection of the moral relevance of the comparative burdens or whether an organ secretes a "waste product". This seems ad hoc.

      Re: passing the task of taking care of a child onto someone else: firstly, it depends on whether the baby can be given up for adoption—if no one is ready to adopt the child (and no other way exists to avoid parenthood once the child is born), then, of course, there would be no difference between abortion and infanticide in this regard. And this is quite possible as my thought experiment points out. David Hershenov gives a good extension to the example I gave: "Imagine a woman giving birth in an isolated community where there is not any digestible formula, breast pumps to fill up bottles, available wet nurses, or other substitutes for her nursing. Thus, the mother must breastfeed around the clock. Assume this is painful as well as exhausting, and limits her social, educational, and professional opportunities more than it limits the father’s opportunities. Nevertheless, the mother surely cannot kill or let die the nursing child despite these considerable burdens being unequally distributed."

      RO remains intact and there are so many other examples where we clearly have an obligation to those that we place in a needy and dependant state.

    5. Anon,

      You're biting the bullet when it comes to the car analogy, but the majority of us and our legal system does not entail that the driver must violate their bodily autonomy to donate parts of their body to save the person hit.

      The analogy works even better if we consider that the person hit by the car was the one at fault in the situation - they ran out into the street to fetch a ball and the driver accidentally hit them. The person hit needs a kidney to survive and the driver is a match. Given that the driver consented to driving, where there is the potential to run over another person, they've consented at least as much as a woman engaging in sex.

      Thing is, the driver is not legally or morally obligated to donate their kidney, even though if they hadn't gone driving that day they wouldn't have run over the other person.

      You're also incorrect when it comes to comparative burdens. There is a relevant difference between carrying a child and giving birth to it vs. breast feeding. Similarly there's a difference between a driver who caused an accident being financially liable to the victim but at the same time not being forced to violate their bodily autonomy to give the victim blood or a kidney, or whatever else. Morally and legally we do make that distinction and it would hold in the case of abortion - which would defeat the RO.

    6. Since our intuitions clash re: the car case, here's another example: consider a case in which I create a cocktail to spike someone's drink. Imagine that this causes the person to need a transfusion of specifically my own blood. According to your reasoning then, it's within my rights to deny that transfusion even after I poison them with that cocktail. No one can legally compel me to provide the life-saving care to this person which I caused them to need. This seems morally absurd and cruel. I clearly engaged in an act which placed that person in a position of neediness. This idea that bodily autonomy is absolute is not defensible and presupposes a controversial philosophical anthropology which isn't obvious at all; it needs an argument.

      Even if we grant the conclusion of your modified car case, this isn't at all analogous to pregnancy at all and hence it fails to defeat RO. There is a single fatal flaw which underlies it: it involves an outside agent in an attempt to invalidate the idea of responsibility.

      We need to draw a distinction between (1) voluntarily bringing about a state of affairs and (2) voluntarily doing an action foreseeing that may lead to a particular state of affairs. This is important for when accounting for whether somebody implicitly consents to, for example, being a victim of a crime however, it's hard to divorce the naturalistic certainty that engaging in sex may eventually lead to fertilization between healthy partners. Now in your example, the unfortunate state of affairs for the driver only happened as the result of somebody else's actions, so the burden cannot fall entirely upon them. This is what makes the distinction between (1) and (2) relevant. Given that the driver consented to driving, where there is the potential to run over another person, they've consented at least as much as a woman engaging in sex."

      Not necessarily. In light of what I have argued, this analysis is far too simplistic and doesn't take into account crucial elements concerning the relationship between sex and pregnancy. The problem with intercourse is that it intrinsically ordered towards intiating an automatic process that will lead to the creation of a developing human, with almost rigid certainty, disregarding infertility, birth control, etc. Due to their nature, zygotes/embryos/fetuses lack any sort of free agency (*unlike the negligent pedestrian*), and they are bound to the mother until they are born--their creation and its subsequent creation of a state of affairs is not the result of the zygote/embryo/fetus's conscious actions. Likewise, it's not like a fetus made a conscious decision to take away somebody's rights to their body or any decision at all, especially when that person has partial responsibility to the fetus's creation in the first place. This is why your analogy doesn't apply to pregnancy.

      Not consenting to the consequences doesn't seem to necessarily absolve responsibility if the consequences are deterministic in nature. Even with protection, there are always going to be uncertainties that we cannot individually know that may lead to a unfavorable state of affairs, whether a condom had microtears from a bad batch or if random hormonal factors disrupted a birth control pill from working properly. However, there always exists a way to avoid responsibility with certainty--refraining from actions that may cause a pregnancy to happen.

    7. First of all, sex doesn't lead to pregnancy with the strong deterministic nature you imply, even absent infertility and birth control.

      First a woman must be ovulating within a 2-3 day window of copulation, and even then with the best sperm and the best eggs, you have at best a 33% chance of a pregnancy happening.

      Suffice it to say, the vast majority of sex that occurs, even without contraception, doesn't result in a pregnancy. It generally takes repeated attempts over an extended period of time to start a pregnancy. Sure some people can "highroll" and get there faster, but that's luck, not a hard deterministic event.

      As far as you saying the actions of a 3rd party in my example take away from the analogy, we can easily reformulate it such that the child or person in this scenario went into the street as a result of some accident, slipping on ice or a slick puddle, or a freak piano falling out of a window that caused a commotion which bumped them into the road, etc.

      In these cases the autonomy argument would still hold up.

    8. None of the scenarios you are conjuring up are analogous to pregnancy in a morally relevant way. The fact that the RO might not hold in some situations is not enough to show that it doesn't apply in the case of voluntary sexual intercourse. You need to point out the relevant parallels.

      Here's an accident case where the "autonomy argument" does not hold:

      Imagine a tornado throws a newborn and an unrelated adult onto the roof of an extremely damaged building. The newborn is on that adult’s lap and wiggling. Her wiggling will cause the roof to collapse and both the adult and newborn to fall. If the newborn had remained still, both would have been fine. Given the adult’s current position, he will hit the ground first and will thus cushion the infant who will emerge unscathed. The position the adult is in when he hits the ground will make the impact as painful as an actual delivery that ends a pregnancy. In addition, it will cause him nine months of back pain, abdominal swelling, nausea, frequent urination and bodily discomfort comparable to that endured in a pregnancy. If he rotates before the roof gives way, then he will cause the child to hit the ground first and the impact will fatally crush his skull but the adult will be able to land on his feet and walk away unharmed.

      Is the adult morally permitted to rotate and kill the infant to avoid nine months of physical pain? It would seem not. And that is true even though the newborn has no right to be on the adult’s body and his wiggling will be the cause of his burdens. Why then would the mother’s right to control her body justify killing a fetus, especially when she bears some responsibility for bringing it into being in a position of neediness?

      I think that (1) direct and functional use of one’s body can be (when no other options are available) something that parents are legitimately demanded to permit to discharge their obligation to provide for their child. (2) even if providing for one’s child is a substantial burden, parents can still be obligated to provide for their child. Together I think these shows that gestation falls under what I’ll call normal parental care, which parents, ought to provide if possible (which means, mothers, since men can’t gestate, but this of course implies men ought not be deadbeats).

      I never denied there are probabilities involved. I specifically acknowledged that "there are always going to be uncertainties". What I was trying to get across was the fact that sex by its very nature is oriented towards pregnancy; pregnancy is the natural end of sex and what happens when our sexual faculties are functioning as they should. It is not an accidental or coincidental outcome.

      Imagine a baby-making machine with a button that when pushed, gives you a pleasurable experience, but occasionally a baby comes out a chute at the bottom, that arguably you now have to take care of because you engaged in the act that you knew might result in the creation of an inherently needy child that you now owe compensation. But imagine if the baby-making machine had a bunch of buttons on it, correlating to different types of birth control and how effective they are. So you could have a "pull-out" button that barely reduces the pleasure, but doesn't reduce the likelihood of pregnancy very much, as opposed to a "condom" button which reduces the pleasure the most, but only leaves a 1% chance of getting pregnant, and everything in between. It seems clear that even if you push a button that reduces pleasure with the objective of minimizing the risk of a baby being make, IF the baby still comes out, you're still on the hook. You still engaged in an act that you knew might result in the creation of an inherently needy baby, and are thus still responsible for either caring for it or transferring that care to somebody else. Clearly you can't walk away, indirectly killing it, or directly kill it (we can even imagine this process required directed breastfeeding by the user of the machine).

    9. Anonymous,
      your argument that conception places the zygote/embryo/fetus into a condition of neediness and dependancy forgets that before conception, it was in a condition of non-existence, as it were. IOW, it only improved its situation; conception did not hijack it from some safe place. It is difficult to see how this improvement could create a duty of the pregnant women (especially when she hasn't consented to pregnancy).

    10. HRG,

      The basic problem with your reply to the RO is that it wrongly denies that the child’s neediness was unavoidable. It was unavoidable *once the child came into being*, but the parents could have avoided bringing the child into being, namely, by not having had sex or otherwise acted to conceive him or her. As Jeff McMahan observes, “in order for one to be responsible for an individual’s being in a certain state, it does not have to have been possible for the individual to exist without being in that state. All that is necessary is that one could have ensured that the individual would not be in that state”—which one could have done in the present case by not having brought the individual in question into being, for which the mother and father together bear responsibility." And so the reply fails; RO stands.

      Moreover, you approach the issue from completely the wrong angle. You seem to be asking "Will the act that caused the fetus to come into existence have been better for it, worse for it, or neither, if the woman does not continue to supply aid to it?". BUT as Gerald Lang (2008) notes, this is not the right question to ask. "The question should, rather, be this: Does the voluntary nature of the act that caused the fetus to exist in a state of extreme need, and also caused it to be dependent on the woman's continued aid, generate a special obligation for the woman to continue to supply aid to it? What we should be asking, in other words, is not whether the woman's earlier act can turn out to have been worse for the fetus, when that act is compared against the brute non-existence of the fetus, but whether the existence of the woman's earlier voluntary act, which brings into existence, not just the fetus, but the fetus's state of dependency and need, generates any special obligations for the woman now, whilst she is pregnant and therefore whilst the fetus is dependent on her continued aid. The Responsibility Objection says that it does". It seems false that having prior states of existence is a necessary condition for this.

  2. I've responded to 20 anti-abortion arguments here:

  3. You really need to install Disqus on your blog. It makes commenting really easy and more encouraging, and it gives you lots of controls. It's free and you get to keep your old comments: