induction leading to abortion qualms

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Freddie

Freddie deBoer used to blog at lhote.blogspot.com, and may again someday. Now he blogs here.

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36 Responses

  1. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Well. That is certainly one of the most difficult paradoxes of the abortion debate. I suppose I could play devil’s advocate for a moment and ask, what is more sane or pragmatic about the moment of birth over the moment of conception? This only because there is no chance of the fetus ever becoming anything other than a human – even if they aren’t, in this definition or assumption, “human” or “persons” yet. There is no biological likelihood, no chance at all, that the fetus ends up as anything other than human.

    So to me the debate is more about where we stand as a culture, and what the most humane thing to do as a culture would be, and right now I don’t think we’re at a place where we can confidently say that if abortion was made illegal, it wouldn’t end up just moving to the black market, dangerous and horrible for women too poor to afford the high class black market abortions. Abortion would still be available if it were prohibited, it would just be more deadly. So I’m torn. There are just no good options as far as I can see.

    But back to the question – why is this definition of the beginning of personhood, logically, better than the other?Report

  2. Avatar Dave Hunter says:

    Ah, those “quiet moments”: staring deeply into a lit fireplace, idly turning a snifter of brandy you can’t bear to drink. Of course, I don’t have those. I’m one of those “horrific” supporters of abortion rights who doesn’t deny that fetuses are scientifically human. My mind, as you have perceived, is full of blood-drinking bats that shriek all through the night.Report

  3. Avatar James Williams says:

    Your point about “human” vs. “person” is spot-on. It is worth pointing out, in such discussions, that if humanness (in the mere biological sense) is sufficient for rights, then every single cell in a human body has such rights — including malignant cancer cells. Humanness does not make one a locus of rights; personhood does.

    Regarding the main point of the post, I would note that it bears something of a resemblance to another disquieting induction: the so-called “pessimistic induction” in the philosophy of science. Since pretty much all scientific theories before this time have been revealed as false, and turned over by later developments, we should infer, inductively, that most all of current science is false. It is typically offered as an argument against scientific realism, but one might also take it to be a reason for an attitude about current science similar to the one you’ve expressed here about abortion rights. And so one might wonder whether we can learn anything from how to handle your case, from how we might handle the scientific case. In particular, I think it’s clear that we should not take the pessimistic induction as a reason to council despair or an unproductive skepticism about today’s science, but rather to motivate our maintaining a vigilant openness to novel evidence, and an openness to revision. Which indeed sounds rather like the attitude that you’ve adopted here.

    I do think E.D. is right about the starting-at-birth thing; I would note that it is not at all a standard part of the pro-choice position to think that the fetus only has status at that late point in development.Report

  4. Avatar bme says:

    The problem with conception as the baseline for personhood (and the rights granted to people) is that many fertilized eggs, rapidly dividing and growing, fail to attach to the uterine wall and are ejected in the monthly wash, as it were. I don’t hear anyone complaining that said embryos are people, worthy of rights–and how could you ever grant such [beings] rights?

    So perhaps the moment of attachment is the moment when an embryo is granted rights. But what rights are fair and reasonable? If that embryo/fetus has a right to exist, or at least try to exist (given its chance to be miscarried), regardless of the will of the woman carrying it, what obligation does the woman have to provide it optimal opportunity for continued growth and eventual birth? Would it not be reasonable, or justifiable, to argue that pregnant women who engage in risky behaviors (eating fish [mercury], driving or being driven in a car [given the likelihood of an accident], or a thousand other things) are violating the rights of the “people” taking up temporary residence in their bodies?

    I freely acknowledge that such a position is absurd, but no more so than granting the rights and status of personhood to a group of cells that *could* become a person but stands no chance of doing so outside the body of a woman who may or may not have a choice in allowing it to remain growing inside her uterus.

    So what is a good point for personhood? I’m with Freddie in saying birth, whenever in the course of embryonic development it happens. Fetuses that cannot survive (even with medical assistance) outside the womb are not people. [Of course, when science (fiction) enables children to be grown from start to finish in a chemical solution, assumptions and understandings of personhood may be challenged further.]Report

  5. Avatar Freddie says:

    I’m one of those “horrific” supporters of abortion rights who doesn’t deny that fetuses are scientifically human.

    I am not interested in who is scientifically human; I’m interested in who has gained human rights. Of course, I’m begging the question there; hence my dilemma. None of this makes my support for abortion rights less zealous or complete. It does mean that I struggle sometimes.

    This only because there is no chance of the fetus ever becoming anything other than a human – even if they aren’t, in this definition or assumption, “human” or “persons” yet. There is no biological likelihood, no chance at all, that the fetus ends up as anything other than human.

    Oh, but it can end up as something other than human. It can be aborted. If the fetus has never become human at all, we can terminate it without qualms. The minute that the fetus becomes human, it has gained human rights, and its termination is murder.

    I get this a lot, people saying that my assumption that abortion can only be justified if we deny the personhood of the fetus is weird. I don’t think people have actually thought this position through, though. Does something that has full access to human rights, the same human rights which we believe empower the mother to abort the fetus in the first place, really not have the right to maintain its human existence, because of the preferences of the mother? That seems to me to open up a whole can of worms, morally.Report

  6. Interesting discussion..

    At some point I think ‘personhood’ is obviously going to have to be more clearly defined by the government. There is already a real contradiction in the law when you consider that the murder of a pregnant mother results in two counts, not one. It seems a bit hypocritical that Scott Peterson was convicted of murdering a fetus that an abortion provider could have legally killed the day before.

    For me personally, being pro-life, I will acknowledge that scientifically defining ‘personhood’ is near-impossible. I am quite certain that ‘personhood’ occurs before birth but when I cannot say. In that lack of certainty I choose to err on the side of caution. What if we arbitrarily said personhood started at the beginning of the third trimester? Then 10 years later through some miracle of science we determine it was really the start of the 2nd trimester. That’s why I prefer to take the more cautious approach.Report

  7. Avatar paul h. says:

    It’s always very important to note WHEN and WHY the pro-choice position became so popular—the 60s and 70s, when there was a bohemian (or, selfish quasi-bohemian) denial of nature, responsibility, morality, etc. Only later are there philosophical justifications for abortion-on-demand; it began with wanting sex without consequences. (And yes, I know that this doesn’t apply to cases of rape/incest, which is a whole other, more complex issue; I’m referring to 90% of abortions.)Report

  8. I’m responsible for the trackback above, but if you’re not interested in clicking through, I’d like to address what James Hunter says above:
    “It is worth pointing out, in such discussions, that if humanness (in the mere biological sense) is sufficient for rights, then every single cell in a human body has such rights — including malignant cancer cells.”
    This isn’t true. It should be clear that something different is meant when you call a person “human” and when you call a human skin cell “human” even without delving into the unpleasant details about the set properties of the predicate. You can say of a newly fertilized egg, for instance, that it has a particular mother and father and a particular predisposition to develop Alzheimer’s. In short, it is *a* human, a member of the human species. While skin cells are “human” in some sense, they are not in any sense members of the human species. Being a human being does not necessarily mean you get human rights, of course — perhaps you can be a human being but not a person, which is what pro-choicers generally say about embryos and fetuses — but any particular human cell is not *a* human, as an embryo is.Report

  9. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Part of the problem is that if you come out and say that you think that abortion is wrong (or a violation of the Tao or whatever language you want to use to get the idea across) that the immediate response comes that you therefore think that something ought to be done by The Authorities to make things right again.

    One time I said that I thought that abortion was wrong but that that didn’t mean that I thought it should be illegal and was then mocked by people to my left about that. I was asked if I was hedging my bets in case I needed to argue my way out of Hell or something.

    All that to say: Pro-lifers do not have a monopoly on the creepiness to be found within the abortion debate.Report

  10. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Freddie:

    Oh, but it can end up as something other than human. It can be aborted.

    That isn’t an answer. I can end up a corpse. I mean, in the end, we all end up corpses or aborted, but does that actually mean we are any less human?

    Everything is a process, and we judge things not only by what they are but by what they can become. In doing so we are forced to look at all the possible outcomes. With a malignant skin cell, we know that it will either become cancer or will die. It won’t become its own person. With a fetus we know it will become a person or it will die.

    In any case, I’m not sure that’s what this debate should come down to. I, for one, cannot imagine supporting abortion rights in the third trimester, or at any time following that moment when a baby could live outside its mother’s womb. So considering the fetus at 27 weeks to still be “not human” even though if it were taken out and put in a NICU it could survive, seems beyond reason. This is why so many people who do support choice support it with limits…Report

  11. Avatar john henry says:

    The problem with conception as the baseline for personhood (and the rights granted to people) is that many fertilized eggs, rapidly dividing and growing, fail to attach to the uterine wall and are ejected in the monthly wash, as it were. I don’t hear anyone complaining that said embryos are people, worthy of rights–and how could you ever grant such [beings] rights?

    I think this is somewhat of a specious argument. Death by natural causes is not a distinctive characteristic of embryos. The question is at what point in human development, and under what circumstances, deliberate action can be taken to bring about the death of a human organism. Freddie argues that birth is a good dividing line, others argue for viability. I understand that pragmatically, and law is often pragmatic, but I think it’s incoherent from the perspective of the fetus – the fetus past say the first ten weeks is clearly a human organism which basically differs from an infant only in size and location. These may be important differences, but are they sufficient to create a moral difference between life or death?Report

  12. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The topic jumps around all the time, though.

    Let’s say that I think that partial-birth abortions are particularly grotesque. “But what about entropic pregnancies?” would not be a decent follow-up question, one would think.

    I have been asked about entropic pregnancies in response to my use of partial-birth abortion as an example of a particularly grotesque form of abortion.

    It strikes me as a psychological defense on the part of the person making the argument… the belief is that there is either all or nothing when it comes to this topic and there are so many exceptions to the hardline “NO ABORTIONS EVER!” position that, in response to a legit “this is not the way the world ought to be” example, the response is to argue as if the person is saying that there ought be no abortions at all… and, to be fair, there are people who argue as such. There wasn’t one in that particular conversation.

    Another problem I see is that both sides tend to use a style of argument generally associated with “the opposite side”. The pro-lifers are assumed to be right-wingers and they’re using the types of arguments that PETA types (assumed to be left-wingers) tend to use. “Life deserves to not be breaded and deep-fried!”

    On the other side, the pro-choicers (assumed to be left-wingers) are using a private-property argument reminiscent of those used by slave owners (assumed to be right-wingers). “It’s not a person. It’s property better compared to a parasite than a human. Get your gummint out of my property.”

    When the topic changes, the principles behind each argument seem to be abandoned by huge chunks of the right/left (respectively). It leads me to the conclusion that both sides aren’t really arguing in service to the principles they puport to have but are arguing for a particular end.

    Which is probably uncharitable on my part… but that little doubt still gnaws.Report

  13. Avatar Freddie says:

    So considering the fetus at 27 weeks to still be “not human” even though if it were taken out and put in a NICU it could survive, seems beyond reason.

    Is it then beyond reason that we don’t name 27-week old miscarriages? That we don’t give them funerals? What if the fetus ends up unviable and dies in the NICU? Does that mean that it never had human standing? There are many consequences of considering viability to be the beginning of life that are beyond reason, not least of which is the fact that viability is never perfectly knowable.

    As long as you permit that there are times when an embryo or fetus has human rights and a time when that being gains those rights, I don’t see that there is anything approaching a bright line rule for when the right to not be destroyed attaches.Report

  14. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “Is it then beyond reason that we don’t name 27-week old miscarriages? That we don’t give them funerals?”

    There are those who do.Report

  15. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    What if the fetus ends up unviable and dies in the NICU? Does that mean that it never had human standing?

    But we’re talking about potentiality, not outcome. That the outcome turns out one way or another does not change the initial potentiality for survival.

    But I agree, there is no “bright line” in this debate. Those who attempt to make bright lines inevitably fail, because we as a culture have not rendered them unnecessary. That’s the goal, or should be, for both sides of the camp. To render abortion culturally irrelevant, and to negate the law in this manner. The only abortions remaining would be those that were out of necessity for the life of the mother, or because of rape and incest.Report

  16. Avatar Consumatopia says:

    Quick points:

    1. There’s whole gradient of possibility between “person at birth” and “person at sperm/ovum fusion”, and, consistent with your ever extending consensus of personhood, most people are stuck somewhere between these two extremes.

    2. Just because it’s a matter of life and death doesn’t mean a liberal has the right to force you to do it. Being forced to carry a baby isn’t like being forced to pay taxes–it would be more like forced organ donation or military conscription.

    3. I know you mentioned animals, but it’s worth mentioning again–it’s absolute madness to think that a fully grown chimp is a non-person while a frozen day-old zygote is one. Unless you’re a Jainist, persons have to have brains. Or nervous systems, at least.

    4. I’d like to use E.D. Kain’s words against him here:

    That isn’t an answer. I can end up a corpse. I mean, in the end, we all end up corpses or aborted, but does that actually mean we are any less human?

    Exactly. We all end up as corpses, so a moral calculus based entirely on what we become rather than what we are is completely broken. People do not judge things by what they will become rather than what they are. This definitely includes pro-lifers–otherwise, the elderly or the dying would have far fewer rights than the young and healthy.

    Put in the right environment, not only could an uncountably many permutations of sperm and ovum become persons, but it seems likely that any cell of the body could (even if we haven’t yet found that environment). Just like sperm, ovum, and normal cells, fertilized eggs aren’t going anywhere unless they’re put in the right environment. If you really want to morally distinguish between embryos and things like potential sperm/ovum pairs and skin cells, it becomes difficult to do so without reference to the environment they happen to be sitting in at the time. Which makes implantation a better dividing line than conception, unless you just want to embrace Parfit’s repugnant conclusion head-on.Report

  17. Avatar Freddie says:

    To me, here is the crux of the matter: while we will have endless complex religious, philosophical and moral debates, and many of us will come to the same conclusion that there are no bright line answers, to have a law and a functioning civil society, we have to have bright line rules. This is impossible with a doctrine of human-at-viability, and difficult, I would say, with a doctrine of human-at-conception. (And pragmatically, that would have a whole host of consequences for things like in vitro fertilization.)

    Defining the beginning of human-ness at birth, meanwhile, gives us the best bright-line rule to enact as a functioning society. And it eliminates the vast angst that forcing every pregnancy to be carried to term causes. That may not be a satisfactory philosophical stance for many, but I think that it’s by far the most pragmatically workable system.Report

  18. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Exactly. We all end up as corpses, so a moral calculus based entirely on what we become rather than what we are is completely broken. People do not judge things by what they will become rather than what they are

    Uhm, but people do judge things (and people) by how they get to what they become, or get others to that place. For instance, how I end up a corpse matters a lot. If I die in my sleep of natural causes, that’s one thing. If someone kills me that’s entirely different. So it’s not simply what we become but how we become it that matters, once we’ve established our potentiality. Which, in the case of a fetus, is to become human or die trying.

    Regarding the potentiality question of “old people” who have less of a chance of “becoming” more – well – uhm, once you’re already a human you sort of get all those human rights don’t you? So once you are actually human that question becomes a moot point, doesn’t it? Then again, if you get extra special rights by becoming say a 35 year old (like becoming President) than there are other questions that continually come up, but not ever, ever the right to remain alive. Unless, of course, you are condemned with the death sentence. But that’s another bag of bats altogether.

    I also think that there is a huge gaping pit between the potentiality of a fetus becoming a human and the possible, theoretical with the help of science potentiality of a skin cell becoming a human. I fail to see how on any but the most abstract terms the two can be morally equated at all.

    And by the way, I do support a woman’s right to choose up to a point, and for the time being. Suffice to say I think it is the only morally grounded thing to do in this current state of affairs. But that doesn’t mean I like it or agree with the concept of abortion.Report

  19. A limited point re: funerals for 27-week fetuses and pre-implantation embryos that don’t make it. One can consistently believe embryos to be persons without being committed to investigating miscarriages as manslaughter or holding funerals for early miscarriages. What we owe to individual persons can change depending on circumstance. Furthermore, “we” is different from the state. Though it isn’t my view, I can understand the view that there might be some persons within its borders to whom the state does not owe protection against violence.Report

  20. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Freddie, quick question:

    This is impossible with a doctrine of human-at-viability, and difficult, I would say, with a doctrine of human-at-conception. (And pragmatically, that would have a whole host of consequences for things like in vitro fertilization.)

    You don’t think that a broad consensus on viability could be reached? I think there already is a pretty well-grounded scientific acceptance of I believe somewhere around 23 weeks. If that changes with advances in technology, it could be moved up. Is this really so pragmatically difficult?Report

  21. Avatar Freddie says:

    Number one, no, I don’t think a broad consensus on viability is likely. Secondly, don’t you think it’s a little odd to have a rubric where the definition of where life begins changes with time and technology? I’m particularly interested in the question in regards to communities or countries where advanced life-support facilities for premature babies are unavailable.Report

  22. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “Secondly, don’t you think it’s a little odd to have a rubric where the definition of where life begins changes with time and technology?”

    Once upon a time, life began at “quickening”. Basically, when you felt the baby move, that was when God ensouled the child.

    Things change.

    Get used to it.Report

  23. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Things do change. And in Islamic culture I think life begins at somewhere like 42 days into the pregnancy…I can’t recall exactly. So they vary from culture to culture. Judaism has a much different prescription than Christianity does for abortion. So yes, I think there is room for gray in this debate, and even necessity for it because the goal, in my mind, is eliminating abortion – and if we can do that through cultural as well as technological changes and advancements and can avoid the horror of an abortion black market, then that’s my hope…Report

  24. Avatar soddog says:

    Until we stop searching for a definitive beginning to life and/or to personhood, and start focusing on the obvious, which is how do we avoid the dilemma of unwanted pregnancies, in their current number, we simply get nowhere. There will never be a consensus on when to bestow rights, and when the rights of some trump the rights of others. It is wrong to assume that abortion becomes morally acceptable just because birth is the only clear line that no-one can deny (not that you are arguing this – but taken to its furthest conclusion you sort of are). It is wrong to assume that advocating for full reproductive rights for all women means that we automatically become comfortable with the idea of a late term abortion. In fact, arguing that life and thus the right to life begins at birth, whilst still admitting to a level of disquiet about it is the most compelling thing of all. When it comes to abortion and euthanasia etc, it is unlikely that the vast majority of us are interested in discussing rights at all. How we feel about terminating life is so much more complex than whether or not we are able to logically argue that that fetus has rights, because at the end of the day, for those of us who are motivated by more than our ability to argue coherently for something or another, our inclinations are a result of factors we can’t put words to, don’t understand, and this is precisely why you still worry, despite your certainty that life begins at birth. I doubt there are many people who have no moral qualms whatsoever about abortion; who don’t bat an eye at the thought of an increase in 36 week terminations. If it is a necessary evil, then the discussion has to go beyond when it is okay to stop feeling bad about it, toward how do we as a culture change the direction we are going.Report

  25. Avatar Consumatopia says:

    Secondly, don’t you think it’s a little odd to have a rubric where the definition of where life begins changes with time and technology?

    But wouldn’t it be right in line with the arc of humanity/liberalism that you above spoke of?Report

  26. Avatar Freddie says:

    But wouldn’t it be right in line with the arc of humanity/liberalism that you above spoke of?

    True.Report

  27. Avatar BP says:

    Of course there are ethical problems with killing foetuses.Report

  28. Avatar Kyle says:

    I am not interested in who is scientifically human; I’m interested in who has gained human rights.

    You’re right that the latter question is the more interesting one but the incongruity between the two is, still, a remarkably chilling thought. Namely, that not everyone who is included in the category of scientifically human, qualifies for the dignities and benefits we consider to be human rights.

    Thanks for the honest, provocative thoughts and giving me something challenging to write and think about.Report

  29. Avatar Dave Hunter says:

    “I am not interested in who is scientifically human; I’m interested in who has gained human rights.”

    Oh, excuse me. Perhaps you might clarify who the people are that you describe as “horrific”. You believe that fetuses are not “persons”. You define “persons”, correct me, as people who have human rights. So then, the horrific view is that fetuses have the same human rights as people, but that we should take them away anyway?

    Who, precisely, is expressing this view?Report

  30. Avatar Steve Sailer says:

    Dear Freddie:

    Well said.

    The unborn are the unseen Other, so they can be treated as not human.

    I do have to ask, though: is this an unusual insight among liberals? I used an argument very much like Freddie's post in an anti-abortion speech I gave in 9th grade a couple of months after Roe v. Wade. This line of though seems like the kind of thing that would occur to anybody. So, does abortion arouse such irrational passions that this never occurs to most abortion rights defenders? Or does it occur to them but they never mention it in public? Report