Monday, March 27, 2006

"every abortion is a loss..."

I just read this excellent op-ed piece in today's Christian Science Monitor. Written by someone who is pro-choice, and who has worked in abortion clinics, it reminds us that every abortion is a loss, not just a medical procedure. Such acknowledgement can help most of us find some common ground on the polarizing issue of abortion.

As many of you well know, I have wrestled with the issue of abortion, arguing that while most abortions may seem morally indefensible, abortion itself is a complicated moral issue, and should remain a legal option for women with troubling pregnancies. [note: see the sidebar on Theology in/of the Culture War for the fruits of my wrestling]

This op-ed piece reminds me that in many cases those of us who are pro-choice and those of us who are pro-life share at least one hope: that at some point in the future abortions will be unnecessary.

I am pro-choice, but that is not because of some great fondness for abortion. When I read that op-ed piece, I found someone who wrote what I wish I could have written on the subject. Please read it if you have any interest in the subject.


Brian Cubbage said...

Good piece, and I have to say that I am in a similar position with both you and Sollisch. But one thing that I find striking is that all three of us-- you, me, and Sollisch-- are men. Don't get me wrong-- I'm not of the belief that men can have nothing to say about abortion just in virtue of their being men, nor that men can have nothing true to say about abortion because of that fact. But the maleness of the voices in the room (or the virtual online equivalent of a room) seems to matter somehow. I'm just not sure how.

I can relate one experience I have had in my ethics teaching that strikes me as noteworthy because it's become too frequent to ignore. I have taught many courses in applied ethics-- Sandman, you of course took one of those courses-- and I tend to focus on issues in bioethics, abortion included. Sometimes I assign term papers, and whenever I do, I give students the freedom to select their own topics from a menu of options, and the morality of abortion is always on the list.

Here's what always happens:

(1) Roughly half of the class, give or take, writes a term paper on abortion.

(2) The ratio of women to men in that group usually roughly tracks the proportion of men to women in the class; in other words, I don't have an especially large proportion of women or men relative to their class representation select the topic.

(3) The vast majority of those papers rehash stock arguments against abortion; most of those who venture into legal territory conclude that Roe v. Wade was badly decided and that no law permitting abortion could possibly be justifiable. In an average class of 40 people, I usually have two or three pro-choice papers, almost always written by women.

(4) A large proportion of the anti-abortion papers attempt to dispose of the underlying ethical questions with breathtaking speed (say, in a short paragraph). The remainder of the papers are devoted to a discussion of individual case histories of numinous origin, to alternatives to abortion (e.g. adoption), or both.

(5) Virtually all of those papers also spend a significant amount of time taking women who choose to obtain abortions to task for their perceived moral deficiencies. Usually this comes in the form of a tirade (as opposed to, say, a careful reflection on moral agency). The tirade is usually as long as, if not longer than, the paragraph or so devoted to the underlying moral issues. I don't have hard data from my courses to present, but my memory is that there is no significant difference in the numbers of men vs. the number of women who do this. The women stick out in my mind more clearly, but I can also call to mind plenty of papers written by men that do the same thing.

Now, there are two different ways of interpreting these facts. One would be that the students who write these papers have such strong anti-abortion intuitions (sanctity of life, etc.) that they (a) can't imagine what it would be like to need an argument for them, and (b) can't help but see the world through the lenses of those strong intuitions. That's the charitable interpretation, and it's the interpretation Sollisch would seem to favor.

But sometimes the sheer vehemence of these tirades against women, especially the ones written BY women, suggests another interpretation. I suspect that much of the moral outrage against abortion is really a stalking-horse for outrage at, and unease about, female sexuality. I mean, I get tirades against loose women in these papers at least as often as I get evocative appeals on behalf of the unborn, and when I get both in the same paper, it's easy to tell where the author's passions really lie, and it's not with the unborn so much as it's against certain pregnant women.

Which reading should we prefer here? The longer I teach, the more I'm ready to go with what's behind door number 2, but if I do, then I think it would demand recasting the way we think about the whole debate by casting into doubt the supposed purity of abortion foes' moral intuitions.

Sandalstraps said...

Well put, Brian! I started writing a longer response, but at a certain point it stopped making any sense. Anyway, you covered the subject thoroughly. I might get back to you later, when I don't sound like a rambling idiot!

Liam said...

I would like to think both sides could come together, but it's very difficult--the battle lines were drawn a long time ago and there's a lot of seige mentality out there.

Perhaps a start would be acknowledging the position of the decent people on both sides. Pro-choice supporters do not gleefully support baby massacres, they just are just horrified at the idea of the cold hand of the state on a woman's body, a loss of control of their physical integrity; and they have real concerns about the brutality of illegal abortions. Pro-life supporters are not to a man (gender specific term intended) a group dedicated to keeping women barefoot and pregnant against their wills, they are as genuinely horrified at abortion as pro-choice supportys would be at abandoning babies on hillsides. A beginning would be an acknowledgement of good faith.

I have no idea how possible that is, and the rhetoric on both sides gives me little hope.

Tyler Simons said...

Wow, Brian. I hope you give the students that write those papers C-'s at best.

You might want to give any student who writes a term paper on abortion some version of that comment as a warning. Tell them a paper that fails to take into consideration your discussion of form will not pass.

Then again, it might not work. On some level, I think you're totally right about the perverse fear of women's sexuality. That may well lead your anti-choice students to simply conclude that you're complicit in the baby-killing and write you off totally. Grr.

I'm genuinely horrified at abortion, too. However, while this may indicate my inability to transcend the rhetoric of my position, I can't see the attempt to make abortion illegal as anything other than totally corrupt. Do people really think that abortion will stop if it is against the law? How can we possibly eliminate abortion unless we actively promote safe sex? It seems to me that "End abortion" and "Make abortion illegal" are two entirely different demands, with two entirely different effective methods.

The Scrivener said...

Sorry to barge in (I’m a new reader here), but perhaps you’ll allow me to voice some dissent. First, for the sake of truth in advertising, let me be honest and say that I am firmly anti-abortion: I think it should be illegal. But I’m always glad to read something thoughtful from the other side of the aisle.

In this case, however, I was disappointed. I found the CS Monitor op-ed entirely unsatisfying. Yes, there are people hurting on both sides of the issue. But honesty on this point does not an argument make. And Sollisch deludes himself if he thinks that the anti-abortion side of the debate will ever see in fetal ultrasounds and abortion counselling an acceptable final compromise. There is no final solution, from the anti-abortion side, without a ban on legal abortions. For those who “just honestly believe that an abortion takes a life” Roe will never be “settled law” no matter what the Supreme Court decides on the South Dakota case.

Yes, there is real loss on both sides of the issue. But all losses are not equal. On the one hand (as anti-abortion folks see it) there is the loss of a human life; on the other (as both sides would agree) there is a loss of personal freedom or a specific vision for one’s future. But even if one pleads ‘agnostic’ on the issue of when, exactly, a “fetus” becomes a person, it’s better to risk forcing a man and a woman to live with the consequences of their actions than to run the risk of the state-sanctioned killing of children.

Is it unfair that this would require the imposition of the “hands” of the state on a woman’s body, by disallowing a legal avenue for “terminating” her pregnancy? In the sense that it requires more of the woman than the man (who cannot carry the pregnancy himself), yes, it is unfair. But biological reality puts the lie to the fiction of gender equivalence in cases like this.

Is it unfair that the man could more easily evade the responsibilities of parenthood or fail to support his partner during her pregnancy? Yes, it is unfair and redress is called for. That is a separate issue.

Is it a scandal that women who have undergone abortions are judged by some in the Christian community or society at large and made to feel like social and spiritual outcasts? Yes, it is a scandal. This also is a separate issue. But don’t get me wrong: Those who have suffered through abortions of their own deserve no condemnation from me or from anyone. They deserve nothing other than love and prayer and all the assistance we can muster to help them on the road to healing. They deserve that each of us own up to the fact that horrible things like this occur in the world because *I* am a sinner.

Finally, in response to Tyler’s question: “Do people really think that abortion will stop if it is against the law?” No, of course not. There will always be abortion in some form. That is not the issue at all. The issue is whether we as a nation will bless it. Comparisons are always dubious, but once you’ve accepted that abortion is the killing of a person then there is precious little to differentiate legalized abortion from the idea of legalizing murder in any form. Murder (or rape, etc.) will always be committed; should it therefore be legalized and blessed by the state?

Liam said...

I believe Douglas is right about the difficulty of compromise here. The South Dakota law shows how uncompromising the antiabortion movement can be on the question. It is true that if you see abortion as taking a life (imagine infanticide here), it must be difficult to compromise at all.

My problem is that saying abortion "takes a life" does not seem to me to be overly precise. Is a fetus a life or a potential life? Is it a life at every stage of its development? Can a fetus that could not under any circumstance survive outside of the womb be said to be "a life" in a biological sense?

It is probably easier, from a legal point of view, to use the word "person" instead of "life." Does "personhood" begin at conception? I think that the only thing that could make a fertilized egg an actual person and not just a person in potentia is the concept of ensoulment, which I think can only be postulated on a theological/philosophical level, not on a legal level. I believe the idea of ensoulment is what is implied by the official view of my own denomination (Roman Catholic) when they say that life begins at conception -- although that has not exclusively been the case in the tradition (St Thomas Aquinas, for example, did not believe in ensoulment at conception).

I have only recently come back to my faith after a long period of atheism, and I still have a lot of thinking to do about my own view of the morality of abortion. I do think that if it can only be clearly defined as the taking of a life from a religious point of view, it should not be made illegal. As Christians, we have to make an effort to reduce the situations in which someone may require an abortion. My own church, so concerned with abortion, should rethink its attitude towards birth control, for example.

The Scrivener said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Liam.

You wrote: ‘Is a fetus a life or a potential life? Is it a life at every stage of its development? Can a fetus that could not under any circumstance survive outside of the womb be said to be "a life" in a biological sense?’

If you don’t mind hearing my replies to these questions (which, perhaps, you posed rhetorically), I would say –first off- that there’s so such thing as “potential life” or personhood “in potentia.” There is life, or not. There is personhood, or not. Or, if there is such a thing, the “potentia” lies in the act of procreation itself, the uniting of two persons, or in the mutual love of man and woman. Regarding development: human beings pass through all manner of developmental stages from the moment of conception to the moment of death. At no point are we not human or not alive (until we cease to live, biologically, in death). The fact that some of these stages occur behind the veil of the womb simply makes it easier for us to not recognize the continuity. Finally, viability outside the womb offers a poor measuring stick because there are plenty of people outside the womb who lack just this sort of self-sufficient viability, but whom you would be loth to deny personhood: infants and toddlers, for example, need even more assistance and care in order to survive outside the womb than they did in utero. By the same lights, we’d have to deny personhood to the extremely aged or infirm, the sick or the retarded.

Admittedly, these are unargued-for statements and they basically toe the line with your typical anti-abortion rhetoric. It’s nothing new. Some simply disagree. Setting aside the legal definition of personhood, however, I think there are three questions that need to be publicly and legally addressed in regard to the fetus: 1) is it alive? 2) is it human?; and 3) is it distinct from the parent? Even if we limit ourselves to data admissable in a court of law, the answers to each of these questions must be yes. The fetus is demonstrably alive; it is demonstrably human; and it is demonstrably distinct -though biologically dependent on- the parent. Case law and precedent admits of this much when a pregnant woman is killed and her fetus dies and the criminal is convicted of double-murder.

For me, as a Christian (Eastern Orthodox), the question about when “personhood” begins is answered not so much by philosophical (or philological) argument, nor by appeal to scientific evidence, nor by allusions to Jeremiah, but by the Church’s understanding of the Incarnation. In the Orthodox understanding, God became Man within the womb of Mary and not merely upon His exit of her womb. Adoptionism, after all, is a heresy. But the divine hypostasis (Person) of the Son was fully present in the womb of the Mother of God from the moment of conception, the moment of uniting her flesh to Himself. If this is the beginning of God’s humanity, it is the beginning of our humanity as well.

In keeping with an Orthodox view of personhood, I would suggest that there is no such thing as ‘ensoulment.’ The soul is not something created new (though apparently in a fallen state?) by God and then implanted into the fetus at, say, week 10. But though God’s creative act is the ultimate source of all things, one’s soul is immediately derived from one’s parents no less than one’s body – organically, if you will. To be human and alive just is to be a union of spirit and flesh. If the body is alive, then soul is present. Death is the only dissolution of that union, but we don’t begin life dead (as if that were possible); we begin it alive.

Princess Pinky said...

My problem with this argument (other than the lack of estrogen) is that it focuses entirly too much on the fetus.
The women I know who have faced this issue have not gotten into discussions about ensoulment or personhood.
First, there is the question of health. Two instances I have been privy to have involved: 1) a girl that was nine years old who's doctor recomended the abortion for both her physical and mental well being. She was not promicuous, but was in an abusive situation. She had not even had a period before her pregnancy was discovered. 2) A dear friend who's reproductive health was not good and the result of continuing the pregnancy would have been death.
I realize both of these situations are rare. However, that leads me to a not so rare situation. A friend of mine found herself pregnant just as she was about to start a major internship that would lead to a very lucritive career. She had to choose what to do about the pregnancy. On one hand she felt selfish for wanting to choose a path based on her future earnings. On the other, she had been raised by poor parents with who didn't have a choice.
She had a choice to make about her future. She didn't need to go in front of a fifty something male judge to defend her choice. She didn't have to have a medical reason. Her choice was her's to make, and she thanks God everyday for the abliity to make it on her own. She was not a promiscuous person using abortion a a method of birth control (she was married with one child already). She was a women with a very personal decision to make. I do not agree with the choice that she made. Perhaps she could have done the internship at a later time. BUT that is not for me to say.
One must remember when arguing this subject that people, regardless of the legality of something, will make choices based on what is best for them.
This issue is all about people. It is a very grey topic, is it impossible to break it down into black and white/ right and wrong, because every situation is different.

crystal said...

I'm a new reader also, so I hope it's ok to barge in. I'm a catholic convert, and pro-choice before conversion. I'm giving some more thought to the issue now, but I remain pro-choice as far as the legalities .. I don't think abortion should be outlawed.

Wisemantown United Methodist Church said...

Allow me to explain my situation. I'm a theology/BIble student. My wife is a Women's Health NP--we have interesting discussions on these topics to say the least. I've come to judge that the first mistake one makes with this discussion is by going into the it with a pro-life" or "pro-choice" label. For instance, saying "I'm pro=choice" or "I'm pro-life."This is not relativism and discussing abortion is not like discussing the Trinity. Going in with the ironclad label will eventually have you arguning for something absurd--trust me. Choice is good. Life is good. The question is how do we work these out on the ground. False dichotomy perhaps.

To say that abortion, birth control, morning after pill, etc. are complicated is a understatment. On the ground, away from the "theologian's armchair," (nothing wrong with the TA--I'm one myself) matters are life and death--real situations!

What makes this even harder is that no matter how hard the Bible student wants to do it, the Bible will not give an explicit answer. We can make inferences, but that's all they are. So what are we left with--sympathy, empathy, love and mother with a life and death choice to make. God bless and good luck.

Sandalstraps said...

Wow! I take a day off, and all of a sudden we have a conversation.

First a note to all new readers:

If you haven't checked it out already, the sidebar Theology in/of the Culture War contains two pieces on abortion which deal much more with the moral issues than this post.

Boldly Going Where No Man Ought to Go deals specifically with arguments about the moral value of abortion. Jeremiah and Abortion: Morality in a Plural Society deals with a couple of issues related to if and how the Bible speaks to abortion, and whether or not that should impact the laws of a plural society.

To Douglas Ian: Again, welcome. Your contribution is valued, and I'm glad to see that you came back. I hope that you continue to contribute to our discussions.

The point of the op-ed piece, as you perhaps know, was not that all people will be brought into agreement on abortion, but that moderate pro-lifers and moderate pro-choicers can be reconciled to each other by the recognition that they have more in common than they think they do. Sollisch hopes (and I share this hope) that some good can come from laws like the one passed in South Dakota, by forcing moderates to agree that laws like that are reckless and have no hope of doing any good.

Sollisch and I (and at least a few others) share at least these two common traits:

1. We identify ourselves as pro-choice.

2. We think that fetal ultra-sounds and counselling are good ideas for people who are considering having an abortion.

This is because we feel that anyone making such a serious decision needs to be well informed about the consequences of that decision. This is also because we hope that such moves will help facilitate the inevitable grieving process that comes with the loss of life with an abortion.

We, of course, may well be wrong. Those may be horrible compromises which cause women to experience life-long guilt and remorse for their actions in some emotionally crippling way. We (as men) are unable to really empathize with the woman in that situation, and so should be cautious when making suggestions which require predicting an emotional response.

We may also be wrong in assuming that many or most people who identify themselves as pro-choice are pro-choice in the same way that we are. It could be that our definition of a moderate pro-choicer is really much closer to pro-life than the middle of the pack pro-choice.

If either of these turn out to be the case, then this piece is helpful only insofar as it fascilitates the discussion which causes us to realize our errors.

To your comparison between abortion and murder, I strongly urge you to read Boldly Going Where No Man Ought to Go, as it specifically speaks to that comparison. The main argument in it rests on this definition of murder: the unjustified killing of a person. For abortion to be murder, then, two things have to be established:

1. The killing must not be justified.

2. That which is killed must be granted "personhood."

If either or these fails to be established, then abortion cannot be reasonably considered to be "murder." This point is argued thoroughly in that piece, so please (if you have the time and inclination) read it and see whether or not the arguments in question work.

Finally, in your first comment, you confuse that which is legal with that which has the state's blessing. For a behavior to be legal means simply that the state has insufficient interest to forbid the behavior, not that it condones the behavior. This is particularly the case when the state is a plural state - that it, is is made up of many different groups with many different moral codes. That state cannot, if it is plural, pass a uniform moral code without imposing the morality of one group within that plurality on the entire plurality.

The law, then, is not entirely like a moral code. It is more of a contract which sometimes mediates between competeing moral codes. That a behavior is permitted in this contract does not mean that it is endorsed, much less blessed, by that contract.

(Having now read your second comment, in response to Liam, I see that the bit on plurality may be more useful to you than arguments about personhood, since you are unconcerned with personhood. Unless the Orthodox understanding of the issue is held by all or nearly all, then it cannot be the sole moral foundation for a plural state's laws, since other voices must be allowed to participate in the conversation if we wish to have peace.)

Crystal, welcome to you as well. That you for sharing your position on the issue with us, as well as for acknowledging that you are revisiting the issue. Perhaps fleshing out why you believe what you believe about abortion will help you more thoroughly explore your own beliefs as you think through this issue again.

More specifically (pardon me for asking such a personal question, and you are well within your rights to tell me to mind my own damn business):

Why were you pro-choice before your conversion, and how does your conversion to Catholicism influence your position? Do you make a distinction between what is moral and what should be legal, and if so does that best explain your statement, "I don't think abortion should be outlawed,"?

I ask you these questions not because you have to give some accounting of yourself to me, or to anyone else, but because I've always found that explaining what I believe and why I believe it helps me to better understand my beliefs.

Sandalstraps said...

James B. Pendelton,

We were evidently typing at the same time. Welcome to you as well.

You may be right about labels, but wither you misunderstand me or I misunderstand you, or most likely both.

This is, in fact, relativism, in the sense that very few are either absolutely pro-choice or pro-life. Many of the most staunchly pro-life activists, for instance, make some exceptions, such as when the life of the mother is in danger. Many of the most staunchly pro-choice activists would, for instance, still consider having a late-term abortion because the mother wanted to fly to Europe to be morally repugnant and the worst sort of abuse of one's freedom.

When we identify ourselves as pro-choice or pro-life, however, we are still not saying something trivial, even if our position is not absolute. We are speaking to our position in usual circumstances.

I am pro-choice not because I believe that abortion is in all cases permissible, but because I believe that in general it should be a legal option for pregnant women. Someone who is pro-life identifies themselves in that way not because they necessarily believe that abortion is in all cases impermissible, but because they think that under must circumstances it should not be a legal option for pregnant women.

Of course, even this does not apply to all cases. I once went to church with a woman whose position on abortion was very much like my own, but she identified herself as pro-life. While she did not think that abortion should be outlawed (she remembered too vividly the days of coathanger abortions) her emotional allegiance was with those who fought actively againt abortion.

That may be a confused position, but it is a very real one, which demonstrates the relativity of labels.

Finally, if our theology does not speak to concrete situations, then it is useless, and should remain silent. If our theology is not informed by concrete situations, then it is ignorant, and will cause only trouble.

Sandalstraps said...

Typo alert: "wither" = "either."

crystal said...

Why were you pro-choice before your conversion, and how does your conversion to Catholicism influence your position? Do you make a distinction between what is moral and what should be legal, and if so does that best explain your statement, "I don't think abortion should be outlawed,"?

I was pro-choice before conversion because ... I didn't believe that a fetus was a person (at least not in the early stages) ... because I worried about the consequences to the mental and physical health of women if abortion was outlawed.

The differnece now that I'm a catholic is that I'm considering the possibility that a fetus is a person from conception. I don't like to kill anything, even spiders :-), so the idea of killing a fetus has never been a comfortable one for me, and now it seems even more uncomfortable. But I still don't know for sure that a clump of cells is a person and I still worry about the down side of making abortion illegal.

So, I'm conflicted.

The Scrivener said...

I can relate to the conflicted feelings. No one wants to turn women in desperate circumstances into criminals just for the hell of it.

Not as if it gives me some kind of street-cred, but here’s some background on me: I did my time as a card-carrying liberal in college and for several years after, in the heart of all west-coast liberaldom, Seattle. I was VERY pro-choice for many years. I was surrounded by people who felt the same way. I dated women with heavy feminist convictions. One of my former girlfriends, in fact, had been through an abortion with a high-school boyfriend. She was proud of it because she felt it demonstrated her strength of character to decide what was right for her own life. She wanted to be a rock star and go to law school (and she accomplished both). She did not want to be a teenage mother.

I can’t point to a single moment when I suddenly changed my mind on this issue, but by about 7 years ago the process was well under way. Like Crystal, perhaps, my opinion began to shift about the same time I began taking the idea of the Church more seriously. Not to open a totally different can of worms, but when you come to accept the idea of an authoritative, divinely-instituted Church, to see the Church as Christ’s very Body, “the pillar and ground of Truth,” “the fullness of Him who fills all Things” (per St Paul), it forces you to reconsider your personal opinions on issues where you have differed from the Church up to that point. However, when you submit yourself to a magisterial Church (the Roman Catholic Church in Crystal’s case, the Orthodox Church in mine), you don’t check your brain at the door, either. You strive to know the Church’s mind on an issue, to understand it, to fully enter into the witness of the Church through the ages. The fruits of that labor, for me, are suggested in my previous comment.

Regarding Princess Pinky’s comments:

“Fetus,” in the context of this debate, is not a term that describes something other than a human being. It describes a human being at a certain life stage. It fits within the category of terms that includes: “infant,” “adolescent,” “elderly person,” etc., not within the category of terms that includes: “human,” “cow,” “tree,” “rock.”

You’re right to say that “this issue is all about people.” And yes, compassion is called for all around. But jargon like this gets us precisely nowhere, because the unborn are people too and while one side of the debate sees one object of compassion (the woman), the other sees two (the woman and the child).

Certainly, this is a complex issue. We should all beware of offering overly simplistic answers to complex questions. On the other side of the coin, however, we should be equally cautious of complicating simple issues unnecessarily or for the sake of other motives. Throwing up our hands and walking away from the issue of abortion altogether (and preserving a status quo which costs the lives of nearly 1 million a year in the US alone) simply because of the complexities and real-life challenges involved, would simply be shameful.


I did read your side-bar pieces. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and the subtlety of your position on this question. Your discussion of the legal aspects of the terminology involved was especially interesting. That said, I guess I can relate to one of your commentors on that prior thread who felt that the terminological difficulties here are more of a side show. Some issues just don’t resolve to mere conflicts of language.

Brian Cubbage said...

I'm still reading through the lengthy posts on this thread, so I haven't digested everything that everyone has to say. But I do want to pose a question to Douglas Ian that stems from his contributions to the discussion.

Douglas, you say, and I quote, "But even if one pleads ‘agnostic’ on the issue of when, exactly, a “fetus” becomes a person, it’s better to risk forcing a man and a woman to live with the consequences of their actions than to run the risk of the state-sanctioned killing of children." In a subsequent response to Liam, you state the following: "I would say... that there’s so such thing as “potential life” or personhood “in potentia.” There is life, or not. There is personhood, or not."

I have difficulty squaring these two statements, and here's why. If you're prepared to say, as you are, that there is life/personhood or not, it seems to me that there's no question of "risk" here, at least about whether fetuses actually have the relevant property or properties; you're just stating that abortion IS the state-sanctioned killing of children.

Now, I take it that what you're ultimately after with your discussion of weighing risks is to say that even if one doesn't accept your assertion that fetuses are human persons, one should err on the side of assuming they are, since the debate over their moral standing hasn't been settled to everyone's satisfaction. But this kind of argument could cut in either direction, not just the one you prefer. If fetuses have the high moral standing you say that they do, I take you to be saying that they have that standing independently of your saying that they do, or independently of anyone saying that they do. (In other words, I take you to be a moral realist; is that the case?) If this talk of agnosticism and weighing risks is seriously meant and not just a canard, you're trying to say that you might, after all, be wrong about this, and that independently of anyone's assertion fetuses really have a lower moral standing than that of persons (such as pregnant women).

One could argue, then, that a pregnant woman who wants to obtain an abortion but doesn't because she is convinced that the fetus is a person has miscalculated the risks involved and is thus making a moral mistake. Why should a woman contemplating obtaining an abortion act in a way that can significantly affect her morally legitimate interests (assuming, as I do, that a moral realist would hold that she does really have morally legitimate interests) based on a belief that could, after all, just be wrong? Should she do so just because you think the issue of the fetus's moral standing isn't decisively settled to everyone's satisfaction?

I'm not trying to say that I think the issue of the fetus's moral standing is decisively settled either way. I am saying, though, that I fail to see why this failure to settle the issue has anything to do at all with what a pregnant woman's moral obligations really are for someone like you who appears, at least, to be a moral realist. Wouldn't we want our account of the woman's moral obligations to track the moral facts of the matter, whatever they might be? If so, the risk argument is at best irrelevant, and at worst a subtle way of trying to send the signal that, in the end, the process of moral inquiry will justify your view of the fetus's moral standing. And that's neither here nor there; it's like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker "It is useless to resist." Well, of course Vader would say that.

I'm eager to hear what you have to say about this. I know that John T. Noonan once made an argument similar to yours that seemed to have the same problem. (I like yours better, though.)

crystal said...

Just one thing about following the Church's teaching ... I appreciate the idea of the "primacy of conscience" ... that one may at times follow one's conscience, even if it contradicts Church teaching.

The Scrivener said...


Just for the record, I’m really not trying to offer some kind of systematic argument for my position. Rather, I’m simply sharing my thoughts. I’m glad to clarify, however.

Though I’ve never tried on the label for size in a proper fitting room, I suppose I may be a moral realist in the sense you’ve described, i.e. I do believe that the life of the unborn child has intrinsic value regardless of our ability or inclination to recognize such. Now if this label or “moral realist” comes with philosophical baggage I’d rather not claim, I may have to disown it at a later date.

I offer the risk-scenario for those who may disagree with me on intrinsic value of the “fetus.” From that angle, the risk of keeping the child is that the parent will have a more limited scope of life opportunities for what may have been an initially needless cause (though upon birth I suppose we all agree that the child has, in fact, that moral standing). On the other hand, the risk in having an abortion is that one may have killed a human being with intrinsic value. I realize that my construal of the risk-scenario may not be very persuasive, but it seems to me that “life, period” trumps “scope of life opportunities” under analysis.

Needless to say, but, rather than weighing the relative moral weight of different risks, I would prefer that everyone simply acknowledged the intrinsic moral value of the life of the unborn child as part of the equation.

I hope that addresses your question.

Sandalstraps said...


I took the comment by Douglas Ian which concerns you to be something like this:

Even if I am wrong, it is best to assume that I am right, since the worst case scenarios work out least bad if you operate under the assumtion that I am right when I am really wrong, and most bad if you opertae under the assumption that I am wrong when I really am right.

Or, to put it another way: the harm done by having an abortion which turns out to actually be the unjustified killing of a person is greater than that of not having an abortion because you mistakenly believe that abortion constitutes the unjustified killing of a person.

It is an argument which is easier to make if you already believe that abortion is the unjustified killing of a person. But that, in and of itself, does not make it a bad argument.

The problem I have with it is that it does not help us understand whether or not the abortion in question really is the unjustified killing of a person. It seems a little like Pascal's wager in that sense. All of the proof (assuming a concept of heaven which includes something like the progressive understanding in I Corinthians 13:12 - "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.") comes long after all moral decisions have been made.

But I suppose that reads very much like your criticism of it.

Douglas Ian,

Respectfully, I don't think that the terminological differences are a side show at all.

When we're dealing with ethics we have two very important tools at our disposal:

1. Our moral intuition.

2. Our ability to reflect (and to use language in our reflection) on both our moral intuitions and our actions.

If all moral intuitions were in agreement, then reflection (with this messy parsing of terminology) would not be necessary. We could be confident that our intuition will never lead us astray. But, of course, all moral intuitions are not in agreement. We do not all share a single set of moral intuitions. And even (if I am at least a little bit typical of humans) individually we may have some competeing intuitions.

I recognize that for many people abortion is intuitively wrong. I share much of that intuition. But not all people share it. So when mediating between competeing intuitions we must be able to draw on something other than mere moral intuition.

This is easy when the people whose intuitions conflict share a common authority which speaks to the issue in question. This is one of the many, many reasons why scripture and church traditions are so useful when dealing with issues within a particular religious group which holds the same scripture and tradition in common.

But when we're dealing with abortion scripture is silent (unless it is read within a particular tradition which has, for instance, given Jeremiah a new voice to speak to the issue) so we're left with tradition. And tradition, by itself, is a tricky authority. This is the difficulty with which Crystal finds herself. Her intuition runs counter to the dominant voice of her tradition.

The other tricky thing with tradition is that it does not speak with a single voice. Our tradition as a universal church includes the competeing traditions of the various denominations within the body of Christ. Recognizing this problem many denominations attempt to demonstrate that they really are the entirity of the body of Christ. But those attempts always fall flat.

Even within a single denomination tradition does not have a single voice. There are many competeing voices both within the present and the past of that denomination (and the universal church) trying to be heard on any issue. Even when a decision is made (as in the case of an ecumenical council or papal decree) that decision does not represent the only voice in the discussion.

But enough of that. I could go on forever about all of the theological voices within the church, but it still wouldn't shed any light on the problem at hand.

I can see why people become frustrated when people like me seem to be saying, with Wittgenstein, that all of these major dillemas are really only language games. Abortion is a serious moral issue, not just a chance to parse the meanings of terms and phrases as an intellectual exercise. But parsing those meanings, and using logic as a tool for evaluating our moral intuitions, is my way of taking the moral problem here very seriously. I take it so seriously that I wish to use every tool possible to arrive at the best answer.

I won't ask anyone to abandon their moral intuition. But I do ask everyone to critically examine their moral intuition before they try to impose the conclusions they draw from that intuition onto a plural society which does not share all of their assumptions.

Sorry if that seems like some sort of a language game.

Sandalstraps said...

Douglas Ian and I were evidently typing at the same time, but having read his clarification of his position I don't see any need to adjust my argument. I think that I accurately represented his views, and I hope he thinks that, too. I haven't seen any evidence that I'm wrong about the sort of wager he proposed, though I will grant that said wager is not important to his broader argument.

I will add, however, that one need not say that an unborn child (legally subject to abortion) has no intrinsic moral value to hold either of these positions:

1. Abortion is not in all cases morally impermissible.

2. Abortion out to remain a legal option for most pregnant women in the United States.

But more later. My mother-in-law just showed up at my house. Please pray for me, as I am in for a trial by ordeal! (And don't tell her I said that as it would only make things worse!)

The Scrivener said...


Your point is well taken. My "side show" comment was perhaps too strong.

Good luck with the mother in law.

Brian Cubbage said...

Douglas Ian: Thanks for your clarification. It sounds to me that your response basically concedes my main point. I would just add that to someone who disagreed with your position on the intrinsic value of the fetus, your construal of the risk-scenario would not only be "not very persuasive"-- it would just be unpersuasive, period.

So I think Liam's concern several posts ago is the right one. For the kind of argument you are making, there is just no way around giving reasons why those who do not agree that fetuses are persons should share your view on the basic facts of the case.

On the "moral realism" label: I wouldn't worry too much about whatever baggage might come with it. I wasn't trying to set a trap for you by characterizing your argument as morally realistic. Moral realism is actually a rather thin commitment; just because one believes that there are moral facts of the matter does not specify what those facts are (or how they come to be the case), nor how we come to know them. It's simply a general theory of moral truth. Contrary to popular caricature, even moral relativists are committed to realism. Relativists do not deny that there is moral truth; they simply have account(s) of the facts in virtue of which moral beliefs are true that is unsatisfying.

All theories of moral truth come with baggage-- it's more honest just to admit that. The trick isn't to leave the baggage behind, but to figure out which baggage is worth carrying.

Sandalstraps: I had been thinking, too, that Douglas Ian's risk argument bore similarities to Pascal's Wager. Both are arguments that attempt to help us settle belief (and, by implication, action) in cases where we concede-- at least by hypothesis-- that the objective probability that either of a pair of claims is true is exactly 1/2. Pascal's Wager, though, suggests that we settle such cases by appealing solely to self-interest. The risk argument against abortion implies (at least to my ears) that we take into account the putative moral injury done to someone-- the unborn person-- other than the one trying to fix her belief.

The only way I see to bring the risk argument into line with "wager-type" reasoning is to claim that it is in persons' self-interest to minimize the risk of inflicting grave and irreversible moral injury on others. But arguing this way would demand that we (a) demonstrate that this is an accurate picture of persons' self-interest, and (b) demonstrate that this self-interest is so compelling as to override other considerations of self-interest that would speak in favor of a woman's obtaining an abortion in all, or even most, cases. Plus, it would reintroduce the problem I described in my earlier post: Wouldn't we construe this self-interest to mean that persons had an interest in minimizing actual harms and maximizing actual self-interest? If (again, by hypothesis) the objective probability of the fetus's being a person is exactly 1/2, it seems to me that for risk-assessment purposes it's just a wash.

All of this is moot, I think, if one is prepared to assert and defend the claim that the fetus just is an unborn person-- in other words, that the probability of that claim's being true is greater than 1/2 (perhaps exactly 1).

I swear that I will drop the issue now. Like you, Sandalstraps, I tend to think that settling the personhood of the fetus doesn't settle the entire moral issue of abortion.

Brian Cubbage said...

I just reread your response to me, Sandalstraps, and you basically said what I just wrote, only more clearly. Jeez. I need to learn how to read.