An Inconsistency Within the Abortion Debate

I’ve been prepping up to teach abortion in my ethics class.  Teaching abortion is either really fun to teach, or really disastrous.  It’s one of those topics that can get into really heated discussions, which is the best in a philosophy class, but it can easily turn into bad arguments where no one is having a dialogue and they just want to aim for the jugular.

I’m going to start with something different this semester by providing flaws in the “typical” pro-life camp and the “typical” pro-choice camp.  What are these “typical” arguments?

First, let me show the flaws in the pro-life camp.  Usually, pro-lifers say that abortion is wrong except in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother’s health is in trouble.  I want to say that that’s an inconsistent philosophy.  This seems to suggest that abortion is wrong because it’s taking a life away.  But what I don’t understand is that in cases of RIM (rape, incest, and when the Mother’s health is in danger), then it’s ok to take that life.  Why is it ok to take a life in one instance but not in another?  The usual reply is: “Because in the first case, the mother is taking a risk of having sex.  She could’ve chosen to have sex or not.  In the second case, she didn’t have a choice.  She was forced to have sex.”  This doesn’t follow.  First of all, this seems to work only in cases of rape.  There have been documented cases where incest was with consent, what shall we say of those cases?  Secondly, I find it odd that if the argument turn’s into whether the mother had a choice of having sex or not, it seems that the focus is on the mother’s actions and not on the fetus itself.  What this means is that you’re blaming the mother for having sex, but you’re not blaming her for getting raped.  Nowhere in that whole argument is there a mention of the fetus, which is what the whole abortion debate comes down to.

Thus, I think that if one is going to be consistent, one must say that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape.  I mentioned in a previous post that Sarah Palin had this view, and I find her views consistent.

Ok, now what’s the “typical” pro-choice view, and what’s wrong with it?  I’ve gotten most of this argument from a philosophical forum.

Pro-choice is based upon the principle that the women should decide the outcome of their pregnancies. Basically, this means that each woman decides who and who is not, a person. When applied to other situations, this means that whoever is more powerful (or has the legal right) gets to decide who, and who is not, a person. Just as a mother has the right to decide that the fetus is not a person, so too would the master over his slave (where the slave lives in the master’s house) and the sovereign over the subject (where the subject lives in the sovereign’s state).  Now, I can imagine a pro-choicer reply, “But because it’s the mother’s body, she can choose if something within her body is valuable or not.  Since we all value different things, it makes sense that each individual can value something, and another individual won’t value it.  However, Doris Gordon, a libertarian pro-life advocate, has offered a thought experiment:

Doris Gordon, “Abortion and Rights: Applying Libertarian Principles Correctly”: Imagine two pregnant women debating prenatal personhood. One says that her fetus was a person at conception. The other says hers will not be a person until birth. Both fetuses were conceived the same day. As the women debate, a drunk driver hits them, killing both fetuses. What wrong has the driver committed? If it is a mother’s choice whether her fetus is a person, then to be consistent, we would have to say that the death of one fetus is a homicide but the death of the other is only, say, destruction of property. This is absurd, of course, for the two fetuses were, objectively, the same kind of being when alive.

This begets the question: what objective criterion is there to differentiate between “just a fetus” and “my child” beside purely subjective values? Is there objective criterion?  If one allows this distinction to be subjective, just as a master’s arbitrary control over his slave is subjective, then one is committed to an ethical subjectivism. If one does not see the distinction, then to speak of the same object with two senses is contradictory. This is the essence of the intellectual bankruptcy of pro-choice advocates.

Thus, it seems that pro-life, to be consistent, is asking way too much where it leads them that abortion is wrong no matter what.  Pro-choice seems to be asking too few where it leads them to the point of ethical relativism.  So what’s the solution.  I propose three solutions:

  1. To be consistent, we must say that abortion is morally wrong, no matter what.  There are philosophers out there who have this view.  John T. Noonan is one of them, and Sarah Palin is another example.  Now while this view is consistent, I think a lot of people wouldn’t want this view.  Now I’m not suggesting to abandon this view, but do recognize that it is off the periphery.
  2. To be consistent, we must say that abortion is morally permissible, no matter what.  Again, there are philosophers out there who have this view.  But again, this is also in the periphery.
  3. I think a middle approach would be to find some standard, and say that this standard–regardless if the situation came from rape or from accidental pregnancy–is the criteria.  For example, the Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade made the standard viability.  Thus, if the fetus is not viable–regardless if the situation came from rape or accidental pregnancy–then abortion is permissible.  If the fetus is viable, then abortion is wrong.  Other standards I’ve heard is when the fetus has a heartbeat. Thus, if the fetus does not have a heartbeat–regardless if the situation came about from rape or from accidental pregnancy–then abortion is permissible.  Otherwise, it’s not.  Other standards I’ve heard is having a brain, being able to feel pain, able to display emotionality, or the point where it has “human characteristics.”

The problem, however, is which standard should we take?  I think that the abortion debate should be focused on that.  If we start from that, we can gain some commonality (namely, that there should be some standard), and then we can continue to find out what that standard should be.  But if we are already disagreeing about the permissibility of abortion because of rape or accidental pregnancy, then we can’t start the dialogue.  Also, it’s because the “typcial” pro-choice and “typical” pro-life arguments are inconsistent.  I think the only way out is the middle ground, which would be the third solution.  Now, I’m not going to pretend to say which standard we should provide.  I’ll let doctors and philosophers who are experts in the abortion debate figure that out.

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About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
This entry was posted in Abortion, Ethics, Paper Topic, Rights, Values. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to An Inconsistency Within the Abortion Debate

  1. Nancy says:

    ok, first of all i think that you may be oversimplifying both positions.

    you say that the flaw in the majority of pro-life opinions is that they consider abortion to be morally wrong except in the cases of rape, incest, or the mother’s health being in danger. I don’t think that’s true- i think in all of those cases most pro-lifers would say that abortion is STILL morally wrong, but that there are other issues that outweigh that. they see the sacrifice of any fetus as murder, but see that murder as the result of a bad choice (unprotected sex) as being especially morally wrong.
    also, you say that there is consensual incest. certainly this is true, though rare, but i don’t believe that those cases are the ones in which abortion is considered. to my knowledge the incest cases in which abortion is considered are also incest cases in which the sex was either underage or rape or both.
    so perhaps incest is the least supportable of these exceptions, since the incests that would be aborted would most likely already be covered under rape.
    i do tend to agree with you that it is inconsistent for pro-lifers to make a rape exception- that’s saying that adult emotional suffering is more important than the life of a child. (though i have to also throw in that many pro-lifers are also pro-capital punishment, which i also find terribly inconsistent. but that’s beside the point).
    I think however that the health of the mother falls into a different category than rape or incest, and that it is a stickier problem. First of all, if the life of the mother is in danger, and you decide that she cannot have an abortion, what you are saying is that the life of an adult is less important than that of a (possibly not even viable) infant. I think pragmatically that makes no sense to a society. adults are more valuable to a society than children, and a woman can usually go on to have other children. also, there is no other situation in which we would ever mandate that an adult MUST give up their life for any other citizen. to make that a law opens up a whole lot of scary possibilities regarding the value of one citizen over another. and as to whether or not the fetus is “a person”, legally they are not. and even if they were, you’re still forcing one citizen to give their life for another.
    where it gets sticky though is the “health” part. what if the woman could have this baby, but the baby is likely to not survive too long and it would impair her ability to have more children?
    what if the woman suffers from a medical condition that carrying a child to full term would complicate in such a way that she would not recover? these are the places where it becomes very hard to have a coherent nuanced argument.

    as for the pro-choice issues, i again think that you’re over-simplifying. i don’t know of any liberal pro-choice person who would say that abortion is morally “good”. i don’t even know any who would say that it is morally neutral, though there may be some out there. most liberals i know would say that it is in fact very bad, and that we should avoid it at all costs, and work to make it unheard of except as a medical necessity.

    i think your comparisons of master-slave or sovereign-subject are faulty for the simple reason that in those examples there are two distinct individuals. this is not the case in pregnancy. early pregnancy is biologically indistinguishable from things we would otherwise classify as malignant. an early stage fetus is no different than a tumor- it multiplies quickly, it feeds off its host, it redirects the oxygen, blood, and nutrients of the host body to serve its own needs. would you suggest that removal of a cancerous tumor is murder? it is living human tissue.
    the difference, obviously, is what they will become. however, that difference only becomes important when one is capable of being distinguished as an individual and the other is not. where a tumor cannot live without a host, a fetus at some point can. before that point, before the point of ex-utero viability, i think that it is pointless to talk about fetuses as “people”. they are not. even if they have a heartbeat, even if they can feel pain, they are not yet individuals. my hand can feel pain, does that make it a person? no, of course not. it makes it part of a person, just as a fetus is part of its mother.
    the ambiguity comes because of the potential of the fetus. so, while i would not go so far as to call abortion murder, i think it is murder of potential, and therefore should be avoided as much as possible. ideally, abortion should only be used as a medical necessity.
    so, i would be in favor of banning late-term abortions with medical exceptions. if you can’t figure out in the first 12-18 weeks that A) you’re pregnant, and B) you don’t want to have a baby, then you should be stuck with carrying it to term.
    however, there MUST be a medical exception. and it can’t just be for a life endangerment of the mother. what about babies who are so malformed or damaged that they would either not survive birth or would only live for a short while? should we force a woman to carry a child like that to term and deliver it in order for it to die? no, i think that is cruel and medically traumatic. so not only should there be exceptions for the life and health of the mother, there should be exceptions for the health and life of the baby.

    finally, on a practical level, abortion is the second oldest profession. as has been proven time and time again, outlawing abortion does nothing but make it more dangerous. women will get abortions, but if we outlaw them, they will be scary and painful and unsafe. if we really want to get rid of them, and i think we all do, then we need to focus on making it so that there is no reason for them to ever occur instead of simply outlawing them and turning a blind eye to the consequences.

  2. shaunmiller says:

    Hello Nancy. It’s good to hear from you. Let me reply as much as I can.

    you say that the flaw in the majority of pro-life opinions is that they consider abortion to be morally wrong except in the cases of rape, incest, or the mother’s health being in danger. I don’t think that’s true- i think in all of those cases most pro-lifers would say that abortion is STILL morally wrong, but that there are other issues that outweigh that. they see the sacrifice of any fetus as murder, but see that murder as the result of a bad choice (unprotected sex) as being especially morally wrong.

    That’s true, there are many pro-lifers that still consider abortion morally wrong even in cases of rape and incest. And that they find accidental pregnancies the worse moral wrong. I find this odd because their focus is on the fetus, but when situation comes from rape or incest, all of the sudden, the answer is, “Well, it wasn’t her choice. It was forced upon her.” To me, this focuses on the woman’s autonomy rather than the fetus. This is where I find the fault: abortion is wrong because it’s taking away a life (which means the focus of this argument is one the fetus). But then they say abortion is “less tragic” if it came about through rape (which means this is now focused on the woman). This is the inconsistency that I wanted to point out. Believe it or not, I find Sarah Palin being epistemically virtuous when it comes the abortion debate. I also have a good friend, who used to be a student of mine, who considered abortion wrong, even in cases of rape, because it’s still taking a life away. I also find that consistent because the focus is on the life of the fetus no matter what.

    I think however that the health of the mother falls into a different category than rape or incest, and that it is a stickier problem. First of all, if the life of the mother is in danger, and you decide that she cannot have an abortion, what you are saying is that the life of an adult is less important than that of a (possibly not even viable) infant. I think pragmatically that makes no sense to a society.

    I agree with you that abortion should be permitted when the mother’s health is in danger. There are some philosophers that do consider this still morally impermissible. (There’s an argument for it, but I’ll let it slide.) I guess the inconsistency I wanted to focus on in the “typical” pro-life argument was the rape case. To me, it makes no sense.

    as for the pro-choice issues, i again think that you’re over-simplifying. i don’t know of any liberal pro-choice person who would say that abortion is morally “good”. i don’t even know any who would say that it is morally neutral, though there may be some out there. most liberals i know would say that it is in fact very bad, and that we should avoid it at all costs, and work to make it unheard of except as a medical necessity.

    Again, you’re right. Pro-choicers (at least most of them) do consider abortion a bad thing, but a woman’s autonomy trumps over the life of the fetus. My concern is that a “typical” pro-choice position states that it is the mother who can choose to get an abortion or not. Suppose there are two individuals, they are both pregnant. Person A decides to stay pregnant because she’s ready to have a family and so she values the growing fetus. Person B doesn’t want the pregnancy to continue and doesn’t see anything valuable of this growing, biological entity within her. Now with these two similar situations, Person A values what Person B doesn’t. What the individual mothers value is the only difference in this case. But this strikes me odd because this sounds like relativism. To give an analogy, suppose someone looked at 9/11 and saw this as a great and wonderful thing. Another person looks at this as a tragedy and hateful thing. Now who’s right? The relativist would say, “Well, it’s based on perspective. It’s relative to what each individual person would say.” But I have problems with relativism. I do want to say that the first person is wrong and that 9/11 was a tragedy. The only position that can say that values depend upon individuals is relativism. Thus, it seems that the “typical” pro-choice argument comes down to relativism.

    Now, you next suggest that a fetus is no different than a tumor, and you give various examples. That’s all find and good, but I think you were focusing on the metaphysics of what a person is, and I was focusing on the argument itself: namely, if it was consistent or not.

    As with the later stuff, I find that fascinating. I have known many people who consider abortion is morally wrong, but legally we should keep it permitted. Maybe for practical purposes, but there’s still something inconsistent with that argument. I can’t figure it out now, but I’ll have to think about it. Perhaps in another post.

    With the website that you provided, I do think that it’s inconsistent with saying that abortion is murder, but you don’t want the “murderers” to get punished for it.

    Whenever students say “abortion is murder,” I give them a scenario. Suppose your friend came to you, trembling, and obviously disheveled. Your friend confides to you because s/he wants to tell you a secret but is afraid of how you might react. Finally, your friend tells you the secret: “I murdered someone last week. I killed him and I buried him.” How does that make you feel? I think you’d be horrified and perhaps terrified that you could consider staying friends with this person.

    But now, suppose this happens: Suppose your friend came to you, trembling, and obviously disheveled. Your friend confides to you because s/he wants to tell you a secret but is afraid of how you might react. Finally, your friend tells you the secret: “I got an abortion last week.” How does that make you feel? Now you might be angry, upset, or even sympathetic, but it’s nowhere near to the capacity of the first example. Finally, I tell them, “doesn’t this somehow suggest that abortion isn’t equivalent to murder?”

    Now, to be precise, I don’t want to say that abortion is NOT murder at all. I haven’t thought about it, but maybe it’s murder-lite, or as you said Nancy, it’s murder of potential.

    I’ll definitely use that link in my class now.

  3. Nancy says:

    hey shaun-
    i guess i wasn’t so much disagreeing with the idea that the typical arguments are inconsistent ( i think you’re right, they generally are), but just to point out that i don’t think anyone considers them to be black and white issues, not really, and you were making it sound as though they do. so, a point of clarification rather than an outright disagreement, i suppose. 🙂

    as for what you were saying about moral relativism, “Person A decides to stay pregnant because she’s ready to have a family and so she values the growing fetus. Person B doesn’t want the pregnancy to continue and doesn’t see anything valuable of this growing, biological entity within her. Now with these two similar situations, Person A values what Person B doesn’t. What the individual mothers value is the only difference in this case. But this strikes me odd because this sounds like relativism.”

    i see what you’re saying, but i think that ultimately it’s not relativism. because abortion is a legal issue, not just a moral issue. it is a moral issue for individuals, but it is a legal one for societies. thus, it doesn’t matter at all what woman A thinks of her fetus, it matters what the law says about it. if the law says (as i think that it should) that a fetus only counts as a person after viability, when it can be distinguished as an entity separate from the woman, than it is immaterial what the woman thinks about it. thus, not relativism.

    as far as the typical pro-choice argument, i think a lot of pro-choicers have that at least somewhat figured out. whether or not they themselves would ever have an abortion, or even whether or not they think that it is right or wrong, they do think that a woman has a right to decide what to do with her own body (which again, if we consider the fetus to be a part of her body until viability, would include it). it’s like telling someone they can’t shave their head because you think women look better with long hair. until the point that the hair can survive on its own, it’s not murder, and you have no right to tell someone else what hairstyle to wear.

    i do think one thing that contributes to this argument is the fact that most of the people making the laws about abortion are rich white men, who not only have NO idea what it is to be pregnant, they have NO idea what it is like to be pregnant if you don’t want to be, or if you’re in a bad situation. this is really a difficult thing for many women to stomach.

    as for the video, i think it’s fascinating that most of the people had never even thought about it. we sentence women who practice infanticide to jail time, certainly, and how is that any different than abortion according to their claims? also, i think one response is to prosecute the doctors preforming the abortion, but clearly the woman is still complicit somehow.

    and, just for the record, it has always bugged me when pregnant women (and i have a LOT of pregnant friends right now- apparently i’m at that age, creepy!) talk about their 5 wk old growths as if they are already children. you don’t have a baby, honey, you have a zygote. maybe you’ll have a baby in a few months, but it ain’t there yet. don’t name it, don’t buy things for it, don’t tell people about it. you don’t even know if it’s going to stick around- something like 1/3 of all pregnancies miscarry in the first 6 wks. 50 yrs ago women wouldn’t even have been sure they were pregnant until they were past the point of most miscarriages, but because we’re so technologically advanced now, you can know and even see the little sea monkey before it even has a heartbeat.

    oh, one last story. my mom had a friend in college in the 60’s who had an abortion, and after they performed the procedure, she asked to see it (she was only a month or so along). apparently when she saw it, she was appalled, and said “THAT’S what all the fuss was about???”

  4. shaunmiller says:

    Hey Nancy,

    I didn’t think it was a full-blown disagreement. I’m glad for any clarification. I’m thinking of presenting this to my class so I want to make sure that these ideas hold before I present it.

    i see what you’re saying, but i think that ultimately it’s not relativism. because abortion is a legal issue, not just a moral issue. it is a moral issue for individuals, but it is a legal one for societies. thus, it doesn’t matter at all what woman A thinks of her fetus, it matters what the law says about it.

    Very true. I guess I was just concentrating on the moral aspects of abortion and leaving the legal aspects on the side. For this entry, I wanted to see what the moral consequences would be of the “typical” pro-choice position.

    Your stories at the end are interesting. Perhaps it’s part of our culture that makes us think that fetuses are children? I know you don’t like Wittgenstein, but I think he can apply here. As language-users, we call fetus “children” and so that aspect makes us really think that the fetus is a child. Of course, there are many counter-examples to this. I will definitely use that video for my class when it comes to “abortion is murder” belief.

  5. Killer J says:

    Well, I don’t know if you made it down to that Body World exhibit or not. If you did, you may change your tune on not understanding why people consider a fetus a child. At the very early stages of development, it looked like a guppy. After about nine weeks though, it was apparent that a dead human was in a jar before me.

  6. shaunmiller says:

    Yeah, I’ve seen it. Sure, I’ll consider it a dead human in a jar. I’ll even consider it a human as a guppy stage. However, when it comes to the abortion debate, the question isn’t is it human (because obviously, it is); the question is: is it a person, and that’s where the issues get sticky.

  7. thekillerj says:

    I read your post and Nancy’s post, but I wasn’t able to find any real criteria for what people are considering human or not. You made a point about your friend confiding murder to you vs. confiding abortion and the relative response you’d have towards that person.
    I agree the response would be different, but all this concludes is a difference in emotional response based on our ability to relate to the subject of the murder. No way does it justify anything.
    I would have a much different emotional response if you confessed murdering an adult I didn’t know vs. if you told me you took out my parents or Katchie or something. My emotional response is based off how I relate to those people, but in no way justifies you murdering any of them.
    Right?

  8. thekillerj says:

    As far as the viable entity argument, I could justify (by way of relativism) legally killing off children up to age eight. Most kids under age eight are unable to care for themselves without another entity’s assistance. They would die if left to their own devices. They are a lot like a fetus in this way, the only difference being they are not physically connected. I obviously see the flaw in this argument, but I don’t think the flaw is any different than for a “fetus.”

  9. Nancy says:

    as shaun said, it’s not a question as to whether it’s human or not. of course it is. so are my fingernail clippings. big deal.
    the question is when do you consider a fetus to be a “person”, ie an individual deserving of legal (and or moral, though i really think the legal argument is more important in general, since morality is subjective)rights and consideration?
    my position is that a fetus is not a “child” or an “infant” or a “person” until it is capable of existing biologically on its own. (to your wittgenstein point, shaun, wouldn’t he say that by calling a fetus a child, we are using language improperly? we are assigning it understood traits that it does not actually have.)
    granted, infants are dependent on their parents, but they are recognizable as distinct entities. they breathe on their own, they have their own bloodstream, etc. a fetus does not. and until it is capable of doing so (the age of viability, approx. 22-24 wks), i don’t think that there’s any reason to consider it as its own person.
    a potential person, sure. absolutely. we can’t ignore what it will become.
    but if we start basing laws on potentiality, then we’re in a world of trouble.

  10. shaunmiller says:

    To Killer J,

    Yes, I didn’t mean it to suggest that aborting a fetus is not the same thing as actually murdering someone. However, I do think those actions (or at least the response to those actions) are taken differently. As Nancy posted in a video in the second comment, if abortion is truly equivalent to murder, then the law (and perhaps morality) says that we should punish the women that abort their fetuses. Thus, they should get the life sentence or perhaps even the death penalty (because they did intend to kill the fetus. But this is absurd. I don’t think anyone will say that we should prosecute the woman in that extreme instance. I bet even if abortion was illegal, we still wouldn’t do that. Why not? Because I think killing a fetus is different than killing an adult. Now granted, I’m not suggesting that abortion is therefore ok. I’m saying that the way we treat these cases shows what we really think about the morality of abortion. Thus, one of the flaws in the “typical” pro-life position.

    Also, to your case about killing 8-year-olds by using relativism. Sure, relativism can pretty much justify anything. But that was my point. That’s the flaw in the “typical” pro-choice position.

    To Nancy:
    I’m not entirely sure what Wittgenstein would say about the using the word “fetus” when talking about a child. I was thinking in terms of what Wittgenstein said about how language gives us a “form of life.” And so when we say that the fetus is a child, the language-users really do see it as a child. If the language-call it a fetus, then they really do see it as a fetus. If it’s really a fetus or a child is irrelevant. At least, that’s how I interpret Wittgenstein.

    Ok, so I think what you’re saying, Nancy is that the standard should be viability. So anything before viability, abortion is permissible (regardless of how the woman became pregnant) and anything after viability is immoral? (Of course, there could be circumstances where abortion after viability is permitted, i.e., where the mother’s health is in danger.)

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