March 17, 2014

#Abortion: A Gordian knot for many liberals

This is a note to fellow liberals, even left liberals who struggle for moral, political, and philosophical framing and congruence on abortion, per Massimo Pigliucci's most recent blog post, about American Atheists head David Silverman? I have to go with the blunt honest of Ted Rall:
Abortion is murder. In my view women have — and ought to continue to have — the right to murder their unborn babies. Each abortion is a tragedy, some necessary and others not, and all of them are murder.
Contra the best intentions of a Don Marquis, Rall recognizes that for a critical minded liberal, this is a Gordian knot that cannot be untied by logic, only cut in a way that, however and wherever the cutting is done, involves some brutality. (Marquis' argument philosophically fails otherwise; he stacks the decks by excluding utilitarian/consequentialist theories of ethics from the beginning.)

And, I'm not alone in this. One progressive blogger quoted from my previous blog post on this issue, where I had quoted the Rall quote above. More of Rall's thoughts here. You can also go to his website.

That said, this is also a Gordian knot for conservatives in some ways, too. I tackle that issue below.

Every abortion that is at least post-implantation affects a potentially human life. And, while not traumatic in the way or degree that Religious Righters claim, isn't without psychological pain (and physical, too, even with somewhat early abortions).

Viability? It's where I cut the Gordian knot myself, even while recognizing that the PZ Myers-es of the world would, if followed to their logical conclusion, could use "viability" as a justification for early childhood euthanasia.

Beyond this? I want to make abortion safe, legal and rare.

And less necessary. That includes these things, among others.

Public school sex education that doesn't fixate on abstinence only;
Adequate wages;
Better prenatal health;
Easier access to various methods of contraception.

Most of those are standard liberal tropes.

I also want to encourage better social responsibility. A baby isn't a puppy. If "scared straight" programs need to be part of the work of making teens, white and minority, rich, middle class or poor, worried about child raising, fine.

If these "scared straight" programs would work better with a "terrible twos" doll than a baby doll, fine.

I generally deny being a utilitarian, but, dammit, sometimes I guess I am, at least to some degree.

My background on this issue is that, before I became a nontheist and politically liberal to left liberal, I actually marched in a few pro-life rallies.

Since then, although I realize the strong value of reproductive freedom, I ultimately feel like Rall. I could never march in a pro-choice rally. I've marched in gay rights rallies, but I could never march in a pro-choice one.

And, if this commenter on a recent blog post by Massimo is being straightforward when she says:
The vast majority of abortions are performed while the pregnancy is a collection of barely differentiated cells. What are the significant ethical consequences of that? How are they more significant than say, my right to fly to Europe in nine months ...
That's why I wouldn't be marching in a pro-choice rally.

As for another claim in that vein?

The idea that men have "no right" to comment on abortion is ridiculous.

I have a right to oppose capital punishment, even if no relative or close friend has ever been murdered, for example. And, trying to shut down pro-life claims, or anti-capital punishment claims, on such tribalist grounds just doesn't fly with me. Nor does insult mongering. Pro-lifers aren't "looney tunes" overall, though a fair amount may be.

Nor, also per the piece by Massimo, from a commenter whom I generally respect a lot, is the pro-life movement an "intellectual fraud."

 If you said the pro-life political movement, I'd agree. But, as a lot of Republicans who are selective about pope-quoting know or should know, folks like the Catholic Church, with a stance of both pro-life and anti-capital punishment, and with at least some emphasis on social justice issues, and with concerns about the effects of capitalism, are not intellectual frauds.

I understand the political sociology behind the pro-choice movement, and how strong of an issue that is for most pro-choice women and many pro-choice men.

This isn't a "symmetrical" issue politically, though, either. I wouldn't support a pro-choice politician just because he or she is pro-choice. But, I'm likely to not support a pro-lifer unless he or she has a LOT of other political stances with which I am in agreement.

Another asymmetry is that pro-choicers don't use violence to support their claims. A noticeable minority of pro-life folks, though, do push their goals violently. They're still a minority, though.

At the same time, I know this is part of why (although there's a number of other reasons) I never really jumped on the Wendy Davis for governor bandwagon here in Texas. Her campaign was kickstarted by her filibustering an abortion restrictions bill. It didn't help that, two-three months after launching her campaign, she then clumsily backed away from that, and that she did not, at the start, present a broad-based campaign announcement with pizzazz.

That said, the "Gordian knot" of course applies to pro-lifers, too. Their arguments usually start from ignorance of the basic evolutionary biology fact that from one-quarter to one-third of human conceptions are spontaneously aborted. And, that sim ple biological fact shows that abortion (and per various exemptions that some pro-lifers will allow), and even abortion post-implantation, is not some human-devised intervention and nothing else.

If you accept that "nature" causes abortions, primarily because of genetic abnormalities, but perhaps even due to reasons we don't yet recognize, like epigenetic reasons or simply high maternal stress, then you've got a big can of worms on your side of the issue, too.

Meanwhile, Massimo has had a follow-up post, in response to P.Z. Myers and Greta Christina (with Stephanie Zvan, to whom he graciously did not link) flaming him, mainly through all sorts of misinterpretations. And, result? Some of the Social Justice Warrior types are running hot and heavy in comment threads there.

And, if any pro-lifer reading this thread says "original sin," you get deleted and blocked.


Bernadene Zennie said...

"The idea that men have "no right" to comment on abortion is ridiculous. I have a right to oppose capital punishment, even if no relative or close friend has ever been murdered, for example. And, trying to shut down pro-life claims, or anti-capital punishment claims, on such tribalist grounds just doesn't fly with me."
Specious argument. No equivalency at all. The reaL FEAR YOU DO NOT ADDRESS is that of giving women the control of the genetic pool.

Gadfly said...

First, you assume that fear is what motivates me on this issue, without any evidence to that at all. That false assumption, made by many people besides you, is another reason I don't identify as a pro-choicer.

Second, even if fear were involved, you have no proof that "genetic pool control" is the fear I have.

Specious arguments? Go look in the mirror, Ms. Zennie.

Gadfly said...

Also, if you think "Chinese herbal consultation" and "acupuncture" is actual medicine, you ought to turn in your RN certification. It's called "teh Google," and I looked you up.

Simon said...

Being neither PC or PL - I find both sides inconsistent- I still find the spontaneous abortion argument weak. Pl's can regret that human existence entails death through natural causes at any stage of life.

Then there is the matter of triage similar to terminally ill patients, do you throw limited resources to give them a few days extra life or use it on live that can be saved more easily? I know where I would put my money.

Gadfly said...

The triage argument is very interesting. I personally couldn't accept it by itself, but within a framework of viability, or semi-viability, and other issues, yes.

And, I'm with you otherwise, Simon. This is one issue where I avoid labels.

Simon said...

LOL I get heat from both sides and take a hybrid approach where you still get basic bodily autonomy rights.

But anytime anyone causes another full moral being to require the use of your body to survive, you owe them bodily compensation. Something David Boonin originally put forward.

OFC one can argue a fetus isn't a full moral worth being but as the Post Birth Abortion paper -among others- its hard for PC to ground moral values for babies as well.

BTW I actually have a lot of time for a Future like ours and think it can be expanded upon.

Gadfly said...

Further good points. That's pretty much where I'm at. Bodily autonomy, but within a larger balancing test on this issue.

TooManyJens said...

Thank you for this. I wish more people, self-identified pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike, were willing to acknowledge that it's reasonable to view the question of abortion as a difficult one that involves legitimate rights and interests of two human beings. I feel more kinship with someone who sees it that way, even if we end up disagreeing, than with someone on "my" side who thinks it's easy and has contempt for anyone who deviates from the One Right Answer.

Simon said...

I'd like to take this up with more detail its so hard to find middle of the road people

Gadfly said...

I'd love to hear more detail from you, Simon.

To a lesser degree, I have an issue or two as an anti-death penalty person. I don't like the death penalty for various reasons, but in today's US, is it really more cruel and unusual than life without parole in a federal Supermax prison?

Simon said...

I can start with the death penalty as it is something I think many PL are inconsistent on.

From my stance placing a high value on human life means you wish that at the very least it continues into the future, and do what is minimally 'reasonable' to do to have that happen. By supporting capital punishment in a system that is far from perfect -with innocent people being convicted- they are in effect placing vengeance above the value of a human life.

To your point about the sub standard conditions in federal Supermax prisons, that speaks more to this archaic vengeance culture in the US than seeing capital punishment in a better light. punishment.

Simon said...

Ok Basically my hybrid position is:

Creating entities of full more value creates moral obligations for those who created it.
If a fetus has full moral value this also applies to it; being mindful of the shortcomings of the personhood account and ground full moral value.

Using corrective justice principles one can argue that a fetus is owed bodily compensation. Anytime moral agents cause another full moral being to be existentially dependent on their body they owe compensation.

But we as a society have strong moral objections to using a full moral agent as a commodity, so while it can be argued the compensation is owed many would be reluctant to enforce it.

So we would resort to precedents in other failed payment of compensation cases, and allow the payment option or a custodial sentence in line with child destruction laws.

I don't see a good argument why parents who are responsible for the existential dependency should have the option of ending the life of their offspring yet a stranger will be punished for the same thing.

One can argue for bodily autonomy rights but not using it to arbitrary end the life of offspring.

This also means there is a rape exception due to lack of moral responsibility. But if the rape victim decides to have the child but not keep it she will be paid compensation for her 'work'.

Leaning to the left I'm sex positive, sex education, for certain types of contraception, full support of policies that promote basic positive rights eg universal health care and financial support for the poor and single mothers. So the financial justification for most abortions is taken off the table.

Also as thing stand now if women get to opt out of parental responsibilities so should men so the state should pay child support assistance.

Gadfly said...

Per the "if" in your first paragraph, I could pretty much buy this, if for me, the "if" began at the point of viability.

Simon said...

Well 'if' does go to a foundational problem of how we do ground full moral value and from arguments presented in the Post Birth Abortion paper -& others- I fail to see what viability or birth has anything to add to the argument.

If full moral worth is based on personhood then a viable fetus still lacks it; not forgetting if one puts so much value in bodily autonomy this is doubly so.

Apart from the point the moral value is contingent on the available health care.

Simon said...

As I posted earlier I think the act of creating beings with full moral value, does create strong duty of care obligations and this is neglected due to the special nature of pregnancy.

I did put an analogy to Massimo Pigliucci that if a couple were on an island with a stem cell making machine that they used for a therapy for the wife. But if left through a full cycle this machine creates a baby clone.

Even if the couple took precautions and had no intent to be parents - arguments used by Massimo- if by starting the machine and those precautions failed, I still think there would be strong grounds that they have duty of care obligations. Something that Massimo sidestepped.

You might argue well the baby is viable so it has greater moral value and this obligates care.

But should viability really matter?

While not creating a full moral value entity we can modify Thompson's Violinist.

If we had 2 women in the violinist analogy who caused the 2 violinists to be attached to them. One violinist is 'viable' and could be detached in now , the other will be 'viable' in 6 months.

Would you say viability should be the deciding factor?

If you think they were persons with existing personhood value substitute 2 orphan babies.

Gadfly said...

Simon, on viability, I had already pre-answered you in the body of the post:

"That said, the "Gordian knot" of course applies to pro-lifers, too. Their arguments usually start from ignorance of the basic evolutionary biology fact that from one-quarter to one-third of human conceptions are spontaneously aborted. And, that sim ple biological fact shows that abortion (and per various exemptions that some pro-lifers will allow), and even abortion post-implantation, is not some human-devised intervention and nothing else."

So, "nature" itself aborts plenty of fetuses pre-viability. Yes, one could quote back Hume on is not ought. However, to flip that, natural abortion is not a moral issue, and therefore Hume's phrase is not of the same relevance as the fact that humans have been murdering each other since australopithecene days.

Beyond that, there are dividing lines for about everything in life. Why is 18 the age of adulthood/consent in most places, but 21 the age to buy alcohol? What constitutes premeditation in distinguishing murder from manslaughter?

Per my use of Rall's quote, no dividing line is perfect. But also, per Francisco Ayala and others noting that as many as 1/3 of conceptions are spontaneously aborted, "viability" is the best reasonable dividing line I can find. And, given that 1/3 of conceptions are spontaneously aborted, and given that in many religious scriptures, even, in terms of value (it's moral value, even if the value is stated utilitarian terms, if it's part of a scriptural pronouncement) a fetus isn't considered to have the same worth.

So, viability is the best line for me, and, even if you're not a "pro-lifer," I won't be moving to your position. I appreciate your philosophical insight, but here is where we disagree, hopefully amicably.

Simon said...

Oh I've no problem with your stance, just trying to get my head around or underlying it. You are intelligent and knowledgeable enough to have the conversation without taking things personally:)

The main thing I'm trying to understand is -sorry if I've missed it in the above- is what grounds full moral value that makes the life matter once it reaches viability?

I don't think it suddenly becomes a human life at viability or put another way viability makes it human.

It isn't a person.

You could grant a fetus has full moral value but has no right to use her body and like Overall state that the woman has a right to remove it but not kill it directly. Then yes viability becomes relevant regarding removal instead of the more destructive means.

Simon said...

continued ....

Ok many humans die from spontaneous abortions before the chance of even being born but that, like death through disease after birth, is part of human life.

& sure there are arbitrary dividing lines, but when one decides to designate a life and death line that excludes some beings that aren't persons, but also include others that aren't persons. Just saying oh well we need to draw a line somewhere seems a bit blase.

LOL helps that you are on the right side of that line. Rawls ;)

I would have liked to see if you have bitten the bullet on the modified violinist.

Or have dealt with bodily compensation aspect. David Boonin originally raised that argument.

I was especially disappointed in Massimo when he sidestepped the stem cell machine analogy, since being philosophically charitable is a big thing for him.

It just so hard being in neither camp to find people from either side who will address these points. I just tend to be flamed or ignored from both sides.


Gadfly said...

Briefly, on the violinist ... if/as/when I get or make more time, I'll try to give more of a look at that. If I write something, I think it would be as a separate blog post. (I've been writing, on and on, something longish on aesthetics issues.)


On viability, full moral value, etc., per the other end of the scale, there are dividing lines, too. I accept euthanasia, providing there's informed consent, obviously. (There's a long sidebar issue about whether "advance consent" is acceptable from someone who winds up with Alzheimer's, before the Alzheimer's sets in, but that's the subject for another piece.)

I didn't mean to make the issue of choosing dividing lines, or "demarcations" if I can sound like Massimo, sound blase! Talking about euthanasia, rather than age of legal consent, surely makes things less blase.

(That said, Texas' age of legal consent is 17, not 18, further illustrating that demarcations on issues of a bit less seriousness, though of plenty of importance still, aren't the same everywhere. And we haven't even talked about non-Western countries.

Also, re abortion, I think the full moral value operates within a constellation of other issues. This is not to imply that I think you see it in a vacuum, but I probably see other issues having more weight, relative to it, than you do.

Simon said...

Violinist: Np look forward to it. Maybe you would consider some points I'd like to expand on before you do. Or I will just raise them when you do it.

Oh BTW I have the same view on euthanasia. One of the reasons -combined with the rape exception- why I'm not PL.

Also minor rights, informed consent and 'mature' cognitive capacities esp regarding legal culpability is also something I'm interested in. I do think informed consent is problematic in many ways regardless. Throw in religious indoctrination as maybe child abuse and it is a topic in itself.

Lastly I didn't think you implied I see it in a vacuum, I was just looking to understand your stance more. It did -superficially at least- come across as just saying well heaps of humans die in pregnancy anyway and we have to draw the line somewhere. You have more to it than that but have been economic in your replies so far.

Maybe we can tease that out in your violinist post. I'll also track down your other posts on the subject.

Bernadene Zennie said...

I didn't say YOU have that fear. I think other men do...a huge existential fear of women...that translates into oppression [imposing legal lack of control of self] and hatred. What is the overall moral argument? that you care about murder of a human life? Oh please there are so many more issues to concern yourself with if you really care about human life than allowing legal interference of the personal rights of one individual woman.

Gadfly said...

First, Bernadene, I fear that ardent pro-choicers like you like to view this issue as simplisticly as the pro-lifers you profess to fear. That's why on Massimo's old blog, among other things, I pointed out Nat Hentoff as a generally liberal, very atheist, pro-lifer.

For some pro-lifers, and certainly for centrists like Simon and I who refuse to be labeled, and ditto, I'll presume, for Ted Rall, the issue simply isn't that simplistic.

I can't speak for sure for Simon, and certainly not for Ted Rall, but I can say for myself that attempts to make this a simplistic black-and-white issue will leave this centrist unpersuaded.

This is about more than "oppression" and such.