Tag Archives: abortion

Planned Parenthood & Fetal Tissue I: Selling for Profit?

Thanks to undercover videos released by an anti-abortion group, Planned Parenthood is once again the focus of public and media attention. This situation has brought up many moral issues that are well worth considering.

One matter of concern is the claim that Planned Parenthood has engaged in selling aborted fetuses for profit. The edited videos certainly seem crafted to create the impression that Planned Parenthood was haggling over the payments it would receive for aborted fetuses to be used in research and also considering changing the methods of abortion to ensure higher quality “product.” Since clever editing can make almost anything seem rather bad, it is a good general rule of critical thinking to look beyond such video.

In this case the unedited video is also available, thus allowing people to get the context of the remarks. There is, however, still reasonable general concerns about what happened off camera as well as the impact of crafting and shaping the context of the recorded conversation. That said, even the unedited video does present what could reasonably regarded as moral awfulness. To be specific, there is certainly something horrible in casually discussing fees for human remains over wine (I will discuss the ethics of fetal tissue research later).

The defenders of Planned Parenthood have pointed out that while the organization does receive fees to cover the costs associated with the fetal tissue (or human remains, if one prefers) it does not make a profit from this and it does not sell the tissue. As such, the charge that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for a profit seems to be false. Interestingly, making a profit off something that is immoral strikes some as morally worse than doing something wrong that fails to make a profit (which is a reversal of the usual notion that making a profit is generally laudable).

It could be replied that this is a matter of mere semantics that misses the real point. The claim that the organization does not make a profit would seem to be a matter of saying that what it receives in income for fetal tissue does not exceed its claimed expenses for this process. What really matters, one might argue, is not whether it is rocking the free market with its tissue sales, but that it is engaged in selling what should not be sold. This leads to the second matter, which is whether or not Planned Parenthood is selling fetal tissue.

As with the matter of profit, it could be contended that the organization’s claim that it is receiving fees to cover expenses and is not selling fetal tissues is semantic trickery. To use an analogy, a drug dealer might claim that he is not selling drugs. Rather, he is receiving fees to cover his expenses for providing the drugs. To use another analogy, a slaver might claim that she is not selling human beings. Rather, she is receiving fees to cover her transportation and manacle expenses.

This argument has considerable appeal, but can be responded to. One plausible response is that there can be a real moral distinction between covering expenses and selling something. This is similar to the distinction between hiring a person and covering her expenses. To use an example, if I am being paid to move a person, then I have been hired to move her. But, if I help a friend move and she covers the cost of the gas I use in transporting her stuff, I have not been hired. There does seem to be a meaningful distinction here. If I agree to help a friend move and then give her a moving bill covering my expenses and my hourly pay for moving, then I seem to be doing something rather different than if I just asked her to cover the cost of gas.

To use a selling sort of example, if I pick up a pizza for the guys and they pay what the pizza cost me to get (minus my share), then I have not sold them a pizza. They have merely covered the cost of the pizza. If I charge them extra for the pizza (that is, beyond what it cost me), then I would seem to be doing something meaningfully different—I have sold them a pizza.

Returning to the Planned Parenthood situation, a similar argument can be advanced: the organization is not selling the fetal tissue, it is merely having its expenses covered. This does seem to matter morally. I suspect that one worry people have about tissue selling is that the selling would seem to provide an incentive to engage in morally problematic behavior to acquire more tissue to sell. To be specific, if the expense of providing the tissue for research is being covered, then there is no financial incentive to increase the amount of “product” via morally dubious means. After all, if one is merely “breaking even” there is no financial incentive to do more of that. But, if the tissue is being sold, then there would be a financial motive to get more “product” to sell—which would incentivize pushing abortions.

Going with the moving analogy, if I am selling moving services, then I want to sell as much as I can. I might even engage in dubious behavior to get more business.  If I am just getting my gas covered, I have no financial incentive to engage in more moves. In fact, the hassle of moving would give me a disincentive to seek more moving opportunities.

This, obviously enough, might be regarded by some as merely more semantic trickery. Whether it is mere semantics or not does rest on whether or not there is a meaningful distinction between selling something and having the expenses for something covered, which seems to come down to one’s intuitions about the matter. Naturally, intuitions tend to vary greatly based on the specific issue—those who dislike Planned Parenthood will tend to think that there is no distinction in this case. Those same people are quite likely to “see” the distinction as meaningful in cases in which the entity receiving fees is one they like. Obviously, a comparable bias of intuitions applies to supporters of Planned Parenthood.

Even if one agrees that there is a moral distinction between selling and having one’s expenses covered, there are still at least two moral issues remaining. One is whether or not it is morally acceptable to provide fetal tissues for research (whether one is selling them or merely having expenses covered). The second is whether or not it is morally acceptable to engage in fetal tissue research. These issues will be covered in the next essay.

 

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Are Animals People?

IsisWhile the ethical status of animals has been debated since at least the time of Pythagoras, the serious debate over whether or not animals are people has just recently begun to heat up. While it is easy to dismiss the claim that animals are people, it is actually a matter worth considering.

There are at least three type of personhood: legal personhood, metaphysical personhood and moral personhood. Legal personhood is the easiest of the three. While it would seem reasonable to expect some sort of rational foundation for claims of legal personhood, it is really just a matter of how the relevant laws define “personhood.” For example, in the United States corporations are people while animals and fetuses are not. There have been numerous attempts by opponents of abortion to give fetuses the status of legal persons. There have even been some attempts to make animals into legal persons.

Since corporations are legal persons, it hardly seems absurd to make animals into legal people. After all, higher animals are certainly closer to human persons than are corporate persons. These animals can think, feel and suffer—things that actual people do but corporate people cannot. So, if it is not absurd for Hobby Lobby to be a legal person, it is not absurd for my husky to be a legal person. Or perhaps I should just incorporate my husky and thus create a person.

It could be countered that although animals do have qualities that make them worthy of legal protection, there is no need to make them into legal persons. After all, this would create numerous problems. For example, if animals were legal people, they could no longer be owned, bought or sold. Because, with the inconsistent exception of corporate people, people cannot be legally bought, sold or owned.

Since I am a philosopher rather than a lawyer, my own view is that legal personhood should rest on moral or metaphysical personhood. I will leave the legal bickering to the lawyers, since that is what they are paid to do.

Metaphysical personhood is real personhood in the sense that it is what it is, objectively, to be a person. I use the term “metaphysical” here in the academic sense: the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality. I do not mean “metaphysical” in the pop sense of the term, which usually is taken to be supernatural or beyond the physical realm.

When it comes to metaphysical personhood, the basic question is “what is it to be a person?” Ideally, the answer is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions such that if a being has them, it is a person and if it does not, it is not. This matter is also tied closely to the question of personal identity. This involves two main concerns (other than what it is to be a person): what makes a person the person she is and what makes the person distinct from all other things (including other people).

Over the centuries, philosophers have endeavored to answer this question and have come up with a vast array of answers. While this oversimplifies things greatly, most definitions of person focus on the mental aspects of being a person. Put even more crudely, it often seems to come down to this: things that think and talk are people. Things that do not think and talk are not people.

John Locke presents a paradigm example of this sort of definition of “person.” According to Locke, a person “is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.”

Given Locke’s definition, animals that are close to humans in capabilities, such as the great apes and possibly whales, might qualify as persons. Locke does not, unlike Descartes, require that people be capable of using true language. Interestingly, given his definition, fetuses and brain-dead bodies would not seem to be people. Unless, of course, the mental activities are going on without any evidence of their occurrence.

Other people take a rather different approach and do not focus on mental qualities that could, in principle, be subject to empirical testing. Instead, the rest personhood on possessing a specific sort of metaphysical substance or property. Most commonly, this is the soul: things with souls are people, things without souls are not people. Those who accept this view often (but not always) claim that fetuses are people because they have souls and animals are not because they lack souls. The obvious problem is trying to establish the existence of the soul.

There are, obviously enough, hundreds or even thousands of metaphysical definitions of “person.” While I do not have my own developed definition, I do tend to follow Locke’s approach and take metaphysical personhood to be a matter of having certain qualities that can, at least in principle, be tested for (at least to some degree). As a practical matter, I go with the talking test—things that talk (by this I mean true use of language, not just making noises that sound like words) are most likely people. However, this does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood and it might not be sufficient. As such, I am certainly willing to consider that creatures such as apes and whales might be metaphysical people like me—and erring in favor of personhood seems to be a rational approach to those who want to avoid harming people.

Obviously enough, if a being is a metaphysical person, then it would seem to automatically have moral personhood. That is, it would have the moral status of a person. While people do horrible things to other people, having the moral status of a person is generally a good thing because non-evil people are generally reluctant to harm other people. So, for example, a non-evil person might hunt squirrels for food, but would certainly not (normally) hunt humans for food. If that non-evil person knew that squirrels were people, then he would certainly not hunt them for food.

Interestingly enough, beings that are not metaphysical persons (that is, are not really people) might have the status of moral personhood. This is because the moral status of personhood might correctly or reasonably apply to non-persons.

One example is that a brain-dead human might no longer be a person, yet because of the former status as a person still be justly treated as a person in terms of its moral status. As another example, a fetus might not be an actual person, but its potential to be a person might reasonably grant it the moral status of a person.

Of course, it could be countered that such non-people should not have the moral status of full people, though they should (perhaps) have some moral status. To use the obvious example, even those who regard the fetus as not being a person would tend to regard it as having some moral status. If, to use a horrific example, a pregnant woman were attacked and beaten so that she lost her fetus, that would not just be a wrong committed against the woman but also a wrong against the fetus itself. That said, there are those who do not grant a fetus any moral status at all.

In the case of animals, it might be argued that although they do not meet the requirements to be people for real, some of them are close enough to warrant being treated as having the moral status of people (perhaps with some limitations, such as those imposed in children in regards to rights and liberties). The obvious counter to this is that animals can be given moral statuses appropriate to them rather than treating them as people.

Immanuel Kant took an interesting approach to the status of animals. In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. People (rational beings), in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them.

Interestingly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do so).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards people. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a person doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

Given this approach, Kant could be seen as regarding animals as virtual or ersatz people. Or at least those that would be close enough to people to engage in activities that would create obligations if done by people.

In light of this discussion, there are three answers to the question raised by the title of this essay. Are animals legally people? The answer is a matter of law—what does the law say? Are animals really people? The answer depends on which metaphysical theory is correct. Do animals have the moral status of people? The answer depends on which, if any, moral theory is correct.

 

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Should there be a waiting period for abortion?

The Florida state legislature is considering bills that will require a woman seeking an abortion to wait 24 hours and make two face-to-face visits to her doctor before she can have the abortion. Opponents of this bill claim that is yet another attack on the rights of women. Proponents of the bill claim that the state mandated waiting period is reasonable and will permit women to be informed about the risks of abortion and the condition of the fetus. Twenty-six other states have waiting periods, some as long as 72 hours. While the legal aspects of these bills are of considerable interest, I will focus primarily on the moral aspects of the waiting period and the two-visit requirement.

One proponent of the bill, Julie Costas, said that she had an abortion thirty years ago and that she now regrets the decision. Her main argument for the bill is that, counterfactually, she might have changed her mind if she had received more information (thus supporting the two-visit requirement) and if she had to wait 24 hours (thus supporting the 24 hour requirement). This sort of argument can be made into a moral argument in favor of the bill. By the state imposing the two-visit requirement and the 24 hour waiting, there is a chance that some women might change their minds about having an abortion which they might later regret having. In terms of the moral aspect, the appeal is that the requirements might prevent a later harm (that inflicted by the regret) to a woman. Naturally, it can also be contended that increasing the chance that a woman might not get an abortion would be morally good since it would avoid the death of the fetus (which, for the sake of this argument, be considered wrong).

I certainly agree that a woman (or girl) should take time to consider whether or not to have an abortion. After all, an abortion is a morally significant action and is one that is clearly important enough to warrant due consideration. I suspect, but do not know, that most woman do put considerable thought into this decision. Obviously, there can be exceptions—there are, after all, people who consistently act without thinking through their actions. While I do think there is a moral obligation to think through morally significant actions, I am not sure that 24 hours is the right waiting time. After all, there would need to be evidence that an extra 24 hours of consideration is likely to result in a better decision.

In terms of the number of visits, that should depend on what the woman actually needs. After all, it is not clear that a second visit would consistently result in more information for the woman that one visit could not provide. There are also the rather practical concerns of cost and time. Would, for example, the state pick up the tab on the second visit that would be mandated? I suspect not.

I have, of course, not said anything yet about the most important consideration. While I think people should take time to properly consider significant decisions and perhaps two visits could be a good idea, there is the critical issue of whether or not this is a matter suitable for the coercive power of the state. After all, there is a multitude of things people should do that should not be compelled by the state. For example, I think that people should exercise, should be polite, should be kind and should eat healthy. However, I do not think that the state should compel these things. But, of course, there are many things that people should do and the state justly compels people to do them. These include such things as paying a fair share of the taxes and serving on juries.

While some people take the view that the state should compel based on what they like and dislike, I prefer to operate based on a consistent principle when it comes to the compulsive power of the state. The principle, which I obviously stole from Mill, is that the use of the compulsive force of the state is justified when it is employed to prevent one person from wrongly harming another. A case can also be made for compelling people in order to serve the general civil good—such as compelling people to serve on juries and pay a fair share of the taxes. However, compelling people to serve the good is generally rather more problematic than compelling people to not inflict wrongful harm.

The principle of harm could, obviously enough, be used to argue against allowing abortion on the grounds that it harms (kills) the fetus. Of course, this is not decisive, since the harms of not having an abortion must also be given due consideration. This principle would not, however, seem to justify the two-visit and 24-hour waiting period requirements. Then again, perhaps it could be argued that they would provide some slight possible protection for the fetus: the woman might change her mind. This sort of really weak protection does not seem to be a very convincing moral reason to have a law.

It could be argued that a different version of the principle of harm should be used. To be specific, that a law can be morally justified on the grounds that it would compel a person not to harm herself. This principle can, obviously enough, be justified on utilitarian grounds. Various laws, such as the infamous NYC ban on big sodas, have been passed that aim at protecting a person from self-inflicted harms.

In the case of this bill, the moral reasoning would be that because there is a chance that a woman might change her mind about an abortion she might later regret, it follows that the state has the right to compel her to have two visits and to wait twenty-four hours. A rather obvious problem with this justification is that it would set a very low bar for the state using its compulsive power: there must only be a chance that a person might change her mind about engaging in a legal procedure that she might later regret. This principle would obviously warrant the state engaging into a massive intrusion into the lives of citizens. Sticking with a medical example, people do sometimes regret having elective surgery. So, this principle would warrant the state imposing a waiting period and a two visit rule. But there would seem to be no reason to stick within the field of medicine. People can come to regret many significant decisions, such as buying a car, choosing a college major, accepting a job offer, or moving. Yet it would seem unreasonable to impose a waiting period for such decisions. Looked at in utilitarian terms, the harms inflicted by such laws (such as the cost of enforcement, the annoyance, and so on) would seem to outweigh their alleged benefits. Especially since a waiting period would not seem to increase the chances of a better decision being made.

What makes considerably more sense is having laws that protect people from decisions made while they are incapable of properly making decisions, such as when intoxicated. So, for example, it would be reasonable to have a law that prevents a person from getting married when she is intoxicated. It is also reasonable to have waiting periods that are based on actual need. For example, a waiting period that is needed to complete paperwork or verify a person’s legal identity would be justifiable on practical grounds (assuming the time requirements are legitimate).

In light of the above arguments, the proposed bill is not morally justified and would, if made into law, be an unwarranted intrusion of the state into the lives of citizens. Those who oppose big government and government intrusion should oppose this bill. Those who favor the “nanny state” should, obviously enough, support it.

 

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Facts & Sincerely Held Beliefs

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The Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court of the United States raised numerous issues including a rather interesting one regarding beliefs and facts. Oversimplifying things for the sake of brevity, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim to be opposed to abortion on religious grounds and they claim to believe that certain forms of birth control involve abortion. As such, they contended that providing insurance to their employees that covered what they regard as abortion would violate their religious beliefs and impose an unreasonable burden on them.

As I tell my students in my ethics class, a moral issue often involves three main components. The first consists of the relevant facts. Put very simply, a factual matter is such that the claim being made is true or false regardless of how we think or feel about its truth.  For example, the mass of an object is a factual matter. Factual matters can become rather complicated by the fact that one might need to sort out the key concepts before determining the truth of a factual claim. As such, it should be no surprise that the second consists of the relevant concepts. Sorting out this aspect of a moral dispute involves arguing in defense of the concepts—that is, presenting and defending definitions of the key terms. In the Hobby Lobby case, one of the key concepts is that of abortion. As noted above, the owners of Hobby Lobby claim that certain birth control methods are actually methods of abortion. This seems to be because the Hobby Lobby owners believe that life begins at conception and they seem to reject the notion that pregnancy begins at implantation.  This is, obviously enough, a rather important matter in regards to these methods being abortion or birth control.

If pregnancy begins at implantation (which is the scientific consensus), then the methods in question (specifically those which prevent implantation) do not involve abortion.  As such, the owners of Hobby Lobby would hold factual incorrect beliefs regarding these methods of birth control and this would undercut their moral position. After all, if those methods are not abortion and their moral opposition is based on a factual error, their moral opposition would thus be unfounded.

However, if pregnancy begins at conception (which is not the scientific consensus), then these methods do involve abortion. In this case, the owners of Hobby Lobby would be factually correct. This still leaves open the question of whether their moral claims are correct or not. After all, a person can be right about the facts but be wrong about the morality, which leads to the third component, that of morality.

Obviously enough, a moral issue has a moral component. In this case, the moral issue is whether or not abortion is morally wrong. The owners of Hobby Lobby claim to believe this—but belief does not entail that a claim is true. After all, people sincerely believe false claims quite often. Fortunately for the owners of Hobby Lobby, they did not have to even argue that their moral beliefs are correct or even plausible—all that was required was establishing that their religious beliefs are sincere—that is, they believe what they claim to believe. Given the context, this is not unreasonable—after all, the issue addressed by the court was not whether abortion is morally wrong or not.

The owners of Hobby Lobby did not even need to argue in defense of their factual claims and their concepts—that is, they did not need to make the case that pregnancy occurs at conception and that the methods in question cause abortions rather than serving as birth control (of the non-abortion sort).   Apparently, they merely needed to establish that they believe what they claim to believe. This raises an interesting general issue that goes beyond the specific Hobby Lobby case: should facts matter when considering cases involving value beliefs (such as religious or moral beliefs)?

On the one hand, it can be argued that the facts should not matter—at least in the sense of requiring that the beliefs in question be proven. This can be based on practicality: religious beliefs would be extremely difficult to prove and this would impose too great a burden on those bringing legal cases involving their values. Also, cases about belief are (as others have argued) not about the truth of the beliefs but about the right to hold said beliefs.

On the other hand, it can be argued that facts do matter—especially when the beliefs have an impact on other people. Returning to the case of Hobby Lobby, the idea is that the owners should not be required to follow the law because they are opposed to abortion and they believe that the birth control methods cause abortions. If it is claimed that it does not matter whether the owners are right or wrong about their factual claims, this establishes the general principle that the truth of the claims does not matter. This raises the question of how far this principle should extend.

In the Hobby Lobby case, to say that the facts are not relevant might not seem so serious. After all, the question of when life begins is one that is disputed and the Hobby Lobby owners could engage in a conceptual dispute over the definition of “abortion” in a plausible way. But, suppose that the principle that the facts do not matter, only the sincerity. This would entail that if the owners of Hobby Lobby claimed that paying women the same as men caused abortions, then all that would matter would be the sincerity of their beliefs. The fact that such a claim would be obviously false and absurd would not matter—after all, once the principle that truth is irrelevant is accepted, then truth is irrelevant. As long as the owners could show they sincerely believed that equal pay for women would cause abortions, then the actual facts would not matter. This certainly seems to set a problematic precedent.

 

 

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God, Rape & Mourdock

Getup Get God

Getup Get God (Photo credit: prettywar-stl)

In a recent debate, Republican Richard Mourdock was addressing the subject of abortion. After noting that he believes that abortion is acceptable only to save the life of the mother, he went on to say: “Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”

As might be imagined, Mourdock has come under attack for his remarks. These attacks have primarily focused on what his claim indicates about his view of women and the sort of legislation he is likely to support.

Rather than address these matters, I will instead focus on his claim that if a woman gets pregnant from rape, then God intended it to happen. While this matter deals specifically with rape, it is part of the general problem of evil. This is, of course, the problem of reconciling a certain conception of God (all good, all powerful and all knowing) with the existence of evil (in this case rape). It also falls under the general subject of God’s causal relation to the world.

While he might not be aware of it, Mourdock is presenting a view of God that has been argued for by theologians and philosophers. To be specific, this is the view that God is the cause of all that occurs and that nothing occurs contrary to God’s intention.  For example, Hume in his essay on the immortality of the soul, writes  “as every effect implies a cause, and that another, till we reach the first cause of all, which is the Deity; every thing that happens is ordained by him…”

As far as things happening against God’s intention, this would seem impossible given the usual conception of God. After all, things could only go against His intention if He lacked the power to do otherwise or the event in question took place without His knowledge. On the assumption that He is all knowing and all powerful, then events happening contrary to His intention could not occur. Thus, if someone becomes pregnant from rape, then God (if He exists) intended that to happen-just as Mourdock claimed.

One reply to this is that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention, such as pregnancy arising from rape. The obvious reply is, of course, that if allows it and could prevent it, then He does intend for it to occur. If He cannot prevent it, then this would entail that God is rather different than the stock conception of a perfect deity.

It might be replied that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention because of free will. While this might get Him off the hook in regards to allowing rape, it does not do so in the case of pregnancy. After all, God could allow rapists the freedom to rape and still prevent rape from causing pregnancy. He could, for example, give women that pregnancy shut down system that Akin infamously mentioned. Or, even better, he could allow people the free will to chose to rape but prevent them from ever acting on that choice. As such, it would seem that if God exists and matches the stock description, then God does intent for the pregnancies that arise from rape.

There is, of course, still the question of whether not women should be legally compelled to endure such God intended  pregnancies. It could be argued that since God intended the woman to get pregnant from rape, then abortions should not be allowed since God’s intent should not be violated.  The easy and obvious reply to this is that the same logic would entail that we should do nothing in response to anything other than to accept it rather than go against God’s intent.

It can also be argued that we can determine  God’s intent by allowing abortion in such cases. After all, if God intends for the pregnancy to go through, then God can make that happen. If the abortion succeeds, then either God intended for it to succeed (and thus the abortion should have been conducted) or God is lacking in some manner (or does not exist).

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Why can’t men shut up about abortion?

Why won’t men just shut up about political issues to do with women’s reproductive rights, particularly about the legality of abortion? After all, we (us blokes) are not directly affected by a ban on having an abortion, so why should we get a say in whether someone else gets to have an abortion or not? Furthermore, we are not epistemically qualified to have an opinion on the matter – how can I, as a man, imagine what a woman goes through when confronted by the prospect of becoming a mother against her will? How can I understand the responsibility, the anxiety, even the fear with which the woman – perhaps a confused and terrified teenage girl, or perhaps a traumatised rape victim – may be faced?

And if I can’t understand it, really, viscerally understand it, what gives me the right to open my big mouth about it?

So the arguments seem to go. This has become a popular meme: I’m confronted on a daily basis with claims, whether in the social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, or in the mainstream media, such as newspapers, with the claim that men should simply shut up about these issues and leave it to women to make the decisions. I don’t know how this would work, but I suppose we might imagine a world where men make no arguments one way or the other about the goodness, badness, rights and wrongs, or political tolerability of abortion. Perhaps laws would be enacted only by female legislators, with men abstaining from all votes in houses of parliament and the like.

As it happens, though, I don’t plan to shut up. One reason for that is that I am actually pro-abortion, so I don’t see why I should shut up unless all those anti-abortion men reach a deal with me to do likewise, and there’s not much prospect of that. In fact, any man who took the arguments seriously as to why men ought to shut up about abortion would probably be one who is already inclined to favour legal abortion, so the argument, if it persuaded anyone at all, would probably have a perverse effect, shushing exactly the wrong men – as seen from the likely viewpoint of the argument’s proponents.

I suppose the argument does accomplish one thing. It problematises whether or not men have the experience or imagination to understand why it is so important for women to have abortion rights; and that might, I suppose, make some anti-abortion men hesitate. While it is not likely to shut them up entirely, some of them might ask whether they are, in fact, imaginatively restricted, and whether they are, therefore, not properly weighing the interests at stake. Some might even attempt to stretch their imaginations to try to get a better concept of what it might be like to be confronted with the sorts of choices that women frequently encounter.

As it happens, men often do have pretty good imaginations (with rich experiences of anxiety, fear, inner turmoil, crushing responsibility, and so on, to draw upon), and I’m not at all convinced that we’re unable to imagine something of what it must be like, if we genuinely try. Indeed, some men may be better able to imagine it than many women who have never encountered the situation and perhaps are not sympathetic. If we are prompted to stretch our imaginations, I submit that that’s a good thing.

At the same time, the argument may (here is a second thing) serve the cause of feminist solidarity, encouraging resentment at unimaginative and unsympathetic men who pay little attention to the interests of women. While the argument cannot be taken literally, we might think, it plays a useful role in expressing resentments, attracting solidarity and participation, and rallying women to the political cause.

That’s all fine, but the fact remains that the argument can’t be taken literally. Anti-abortion men are likely to be driven by convictions that will keep them talking no matter how much we tell them to shut up. After all, some may believe that they are carrying out the will of God in opposing abortion. Now, if they’ve read some books about secularism (such as mine!) they just might be persuadable that this does not provide a proper basis for the state to act, but whether they’re persuadable will depend on their deeper theological views. Secularist arguments may appeal to many believers (I certainly hope so, and I think there is a fair bit of historical and sociological evidence that they can), but surely not to all. And even if Mr. Believer thinks that certain arguments should not support action by the state to prohibit, say, abortion, he might still think that they support social or moral condemnation of some kind. In that case, he can take a secularist approach to law-making, but it won’t shut him up about his moral convictions.

Furthermore, many opponents of abortion, irrespective of their sex, can imagine the highest level of anxiety, fear, difficulty, inner turmoil, and so on, for someone who is forced to become a mother against her will, but still oppose abortion. These opponents of abortion are likely to think that abortion is equivalent to murder, or at least something very like murder, in which case they will say that none of the interests of the woman can justify it. However bleak my future may be if I fail to murder someone, that does not usually give me the legal right to do so. There are exceptions for self-defence, but analogies between abortion and self-defence are notoriously tricky and contested.

As it happens, I don’t think that abortion is anything remotely like murder. The trouble is that I don’t see why someone who disagrees with me ought to shut up about it. If he or she holds a contrary position in good faith, and is prepared to back it with arguments, then s/he not only has the legal right to do so, but perhaps also has some legitimate claim on the rest of us to listen (at least if we haven’t heard and considered it all before). And if this (let’s say male) person is truly convinced that abortion somehow harms a fetus much as our deaths would harm us, surely it’s unreasonable for me to expect him to hold his tongue about it. It might be relevant to try to get him to imagine what is at stake for women who contemplate abortions, but even if he tries and succeeds it might not shake his conviction (even though he might, I suppose, come to feel a bit more sympathy and speak with more compassion).

In the upshot, the argument that men should go quiet about abortion may have a role to play if it is not taken literally. That is, if it is used as a challenge to men to use our imaginations or recognise our imaginative limits, and/or if it is used as a way to rally supporters and encourage feminist solidarity. If taken literally, however, it does not have much merit. Anti-abortion men can’t reasonably be expected to shut up, given their likely reasons for the positions that they take and the religious, moral, and/or metaphysical beliefs that their reasons draw upon.

I think there are other problems, too. I doubt that any serious thinker about contemporary politics can avoid taking positions that then entail views on the abortion debate. Keeping entirely silent may not be a practical possibility once you start thinking and talking about almost any other set of fraught political issues. In any event, I won’t go quiet about abortion any time soon. I am one man – obviously one among many – who will go on defending women’s reproductive rights, most certainly including robust abortion rights.

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Anti-Abortion as a “Cheap” Moral Position

, member of the United States House of Represe...

, member of the United States House of Representatives. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A moral position comes with a price, or more accurately, prices. After all, the cost of holding a position is one thing and the cost of actually acting upon that position can be quite another.  There is also the matter of the cost of professing a moral position—after all, one might hold a position that is kept secret or profess a position one does not actually hold.

This, of course, assumes that a person can hold a moral position while not acting upon it—something that seems not only intuitively plausible but actually likely in many cases. For example, a person might hold to the view that s/he should help others in need, yet drive past someone in need because it is, for example, raining a bit too hard. It might be objected that a person who does not act upon a moral position does not actually hold that position, but this seems analogous to laws: it is one thing to have a law on the books and quite another to actually enforce it.

The price of a moral position can also vary considerably from person to person depending on the specifics of their situation. For example, the cost of holding and acting on a moral position supporting free speech is very low in the United States and rather higher in China. While the general notion of costs could be discussed at great length, I must now turn to discussing the main concern, namely being anti-abortion as a “cheap” moral position, specifically in the United States.

Obviously enough, the cost of holding to and acting upon an anti-abortion moral position will vary from person to person. In some cases, the cost could be very high indeed. For example, imagine a young girl living in poverty who has been impregnated by rape and is also morally against abortion. For her, the cost of acting upon her position could be very high indeed. In other cases, the cost could be fairly low. For example, a wealthy man who has no children could almost certainly hold and act on the anti-abortion position with far less cost than the girl in the previous example. It is also worth noting that the cost of a moral position can also be a cost inflicted on others. For example, while the man in the second example might pay little personal cost for his position, if he were an influential politician and acted on his position to create laws, then the cost of his position might be high for others. For example, if he saw to it that abortion was outlawed in all cases, then the girls and women affected could pay very high prices indeed for his moral position.

In the United States, there is almost no difference between men and women in regards to their views on the issue of abortion (and most American favor the right to abortion). What is, however, rather interesting is that the politicians and pundits who most actively claim an anti-abortion position are men. For example, Paul Ryan and Todd Akin have gotten considerable attention for their professed views on abortion.  Naturally, it is worth noting that in the United States women are still in the minority when it comes to holding office or being a national pundit.

It is also interesting, but hardly surprising, that those who take the anti-abortion view tend to be social conservatives or religious (or both). For people in these categories, the cost of their position varies considerably.

For example, the Catholic Church takes a strong stance against abortion. However, the Catholic Church pays a price for this position in that Catholic charities provide aid and support to girls and women who seek help from them. As such, the church is clearly willing to bear at least some of the cost of holding and acting on the anti-abortion moral position. To be specific, they are unwilling to push the full cost of their moral position onto others by simply telling them “no abortions, but you and the child are on your own.” Rather they say “no abortions, but we will help you in your need.” Obviously enough, the Catholic Church can still be criticized for its position, but it would be wrong to fault them for their charity. Unfortunately, some people take the anti-abortion position but want to get it on the cheap.

As noted above, many of those who hold to the anti-abortion position are social conservatives. It is thus not surprising that they also tend to be fiscal conservatives and thus typically oppose social programs aimed at helping those in poverty or need. Republican VP pick Paul Ryan, for example, is well known for embracing Ayn Rand’s economic views regarding these sorts of altruistic (or “collectivist”) programs. He did, however, attempt to distance himself from Rand in some philosophical matters. After all, Rand was not known for her theism and was a clear supporter of abortion rights (which are consistent with her other views).

While many women are in the position to have children without undue hardship, there are also many women and girls who are not in such a position. For example, girls in the lower economic classes are generally ill able to bear the cost of pregnancy and raising a child. There is also the matter of the cost of an unwanted pregnancy in terms of a person’s life plans. For example, an unwanted pregnancy can put an end to hopes of an education or career. There is, of course, also the matter of pregnancy inflicted by rape and the potential costs to the victim.

As might be imagined, cutting or eliminating social programs in accord with the conservative ideology would mean that the women and girls in question would bear the costs of the anti-abortion position of those holding to the conservative position on abortion. As such, it would seem that the anti-abortion and anti-social support views of the conservatives would entail that the women and girls would bear the cost of these views rather than those holding to the views.

These views are, of course, generally cheap for the holders in question. After all, people like Ryan and Akin are unlikely to be in a situation in which someone close to them is experiencing an unwanted pregnancy and also lacking in financial support.  As such, they can hold to their view with little chance of having to pay a meaningful or significant price. It is, in effect, a free moral stance for them. However, for the women and girls who experience an unwanted pregnancy and lack adequate means of support, the cost would be rather high indeed if the anti-abortion and anti-social support views became the laws of the land.

One interesting (and ironic) way to characterize the approach of social and fiscal conservatives who are anti-abortion and anti-social support is as engaging in ethical parasitism. That is, they are holding to moral positions while expecting others to pay the cost of these views. A less harsh way to put it is that they are living on ethical subsidies: the costs of their moral views are subsidized by other people who would pay the actual cost, should those views be imposed upon the country. Since I am opposed to such free-loading, I am morally opposed to these moral welfare kings who are unwilling to pay for their own ethics.

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Contraception, Again…

viagra is a commercial produced medicine conta...

Image via Wikipedia

It seems a bit odd arguing about contraception in 2012. After all, the matter seemed to have been large resolved some time ago.  While it is tempting to say that Contraception 2012 is a manufactured conflict, there do seem to be some points worth addressing in this context.

One talking point that has been presented by some folks, such as mainstream American media personality Rush Limbaugh, is that insurance coverage of contraception is the same thing as paying someone to have sex.

In the case of people who are prescribed contraceptives because of medical conditions (such as ovarian cysts), this is obviously not the case. In cases in which the person is simply using the contraception as contraception, she is still not being paid to have sex any more than the coverage of Viagra and comparable medicine for men is paying men to have sex. At most, what is being paid for is the means to have sex (Viagra) and the means to avoid getting pregnant (contraception). True, these are connected to sex, but covering either is not the same thing as paying people to have sex.

Another common talking point is that the plan to cover contraception will be “using people’s money” to pay for something they do not approve of.

One obvious reply to this is that for most folks insurance coverage is either paid for by the individual or as part of a benefit package for a job. Either way, the person is earning her coverage. To use an analogy, my insurance covered my quadriceps tendon repair (mostly). This was not using some other people’s money since I pay for my insurance. Likewise, if a woman get contraception covered by her insurance, she is paying for that (either directly or by getting benefits as part of her compensation).

It might be countered that some women get coverage from the state, so tax dollars could go to pay for birth control. Since some folks are against contraception or do not want to pay for it, this should not be done.

The stock reply to this is that our tax dollars are routinely used to pay for things that we might not want to pay for or that we might even oppose. For example, I’d rather not have my tax dollars pay for subsidies to corporations and I certainly don’t want to be paying for other dudes’ Viagra.  This is the way democracy works-provided that the spending is set up through due process, by agreeing to the legitimacy of the state we also give our consent to the spending-even for things we would rather not contribute to.

Naturally, it can be argued that we should not be required to pay for anything we oppose and this has considerable appeal (see Thoreau’s arguments about civil disobedience for an interesting look at this matter). However, if we adopt this principle for contraception, it must also apply across the board. So, for example, folks who are against war can insist that war should not be paid for using tax dollars and so on. It seems likely that for every proposed spending there will be a person who opposes it-thus the state should not spend money on anything. While this would solve the deficit problem, it would seem a rather absurd solution.

A third talking point is that contraception should not be covered because it does not treat a condition. This is most often brought up when defending the coverage of Viagra (which restores a natural function).

The easy reply to this is that some forms of contraception are used to treat medical conditions (such as ovarian cysts). As such, this use should be covered. But, of course, this would not warrant the coverage of contraception as contraception.

One reply worth considering is that the framing of the debate begs the question against women. After all, the claim is that anything that is covered must treat or prevent a harmful condition and this would exclude contraception (except in cases in which a women would be medically harmed by being pregnant). However, this framing tends to be simply assumed rather than being argued for, which is rather unfair to women in this regard. After all, the matter of pregnancy seems to be unique (and limited to women) and hence it seems questionable to insist that it must automatically fall under the framing in question. It can, of course, be argued that it does-but an argument is wanted here to show that is the case.

While some might be tempted to cast pregnancy as the harmful medical  condition that is being prevented by contraception, the idea of casting pregnancy as a harmful medical condition has rather limited appeal. After all, while pregnancy puts considerable strain on the woman, it seems rather difficult to cast it as an illness that needs to be prevented or treated as if it were comparable to measles or cancer.

A more fruitful line of approach is to argue that contraception provides medical control over a woman’s quality of life. That is, it enables her to chose whether to be pregnant or not. Doing this clearly falls under the domain of medicine and women do seem to have a legitimate claim to this right. After all, much of medicine deals with maintaining a desired quality of life and women would seem to have as much right to that as men.

Naturally, it might be countered that I am treating pregnancy as a disease (which would be some major rhetorical points against me). But this is not the case. All I am claiming is that given that pregnancy can be rather challenging for a woman and, of course, a child is a major consumer of resources a women has a legitimate right to use medical means to maintain her desired quality of life-just as a man has a legitimate right to use Viagra and its ilk to maintain his desired quality of life. Just as Viaga is covered as a quality of life drug, so should contraception.

A fourth, somewhat uncommon,  talking point is that contraception is on par with abortion, so covering contraception is covering abortion.

One stock reply is the obvious fact that contraception lowers the number of unwanted pregnancies and this lowers the number of abortions. As such, folks who are worried about abortion would seem to have a good reason to favor covering contraception.

Of course, some folks contend that contraception is like abortion in that it prevents a possible person from becoming an actual person. While this does have some philosophical interest, it would seem to entail that every moment I am not out and about impregnating women, I am engaged in acts comparable to abortion. After all, by not impregnating as many women as possible, I am preventing some possible people from becoming actual people. Put a bit less absurdly, if I am practicing abstinence, then I am effectively engaged in abortion since all those possible people will never become actualized.

It could be countered that this only applies to cases in which I am actually having sex (and presumably that I should only be having sex with a woman I am married to). That is, every time I have sex, there should be a roll of the dice to see whether or not the woman gets pregnant. Presumably if either of use chooses to use any method that lowers the probability of pregnancy, then this would be on par with attempting an abortion.  As such, the only acceptable family planning would be to decide to have sex only when one plans on a pregnancy since intentionally preventing it would be unacceptable. I would be interested in seeing some arguments for this that do not involve an appeal to theology.

 

 

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Virginia’s Ultrasound Law

English: The state seal of Virginia. Српски / ...

Is that an ultrasound probe?

The Virginia state legislature is on track to pass a law requiring women to have a transvaginal ultrasound before being permitted to have an abortion. As might be imagined, there is considerable opposition to this law. Some critics have  even argued that forcing women to undergo an invasive procedure could actually be a sex crime under Virginia law. As might be imagined, this matter raises numerous moral concerns.

One point of concern is that, as presented in comedic fashion on the 2/21/2012 Daily Show, some of the folks supporting the bill seem to be directly violating their own professed principles regarding the appropriate role of the state. For example, the woman who put forth the bill previously argued against “Obamacare” on the grounds that the state should not make such an imposition on liberty. As another example, the governor of the state was critical of the TSA “pat downs” as being too invasive. He has, however, expressed his intent to sign the bill into law.

As might be imagined, forcing women to undergo such an invasive procedure seems to be rather inconsistent with the past arguments by these folks regarding individual liberty and the appropriate role of the state. After all, if it is unacceptable for the state to force people to buy health insurance because it violates their liberty, forcing a woman to undergo penetration against her will seems to be even more unacceptable.

Naturally, I am not claiming that these people are wrong now because their current view seems to be inconsistent with their past views. After all, doing this would be a fallacy (ad hominem tu quoque). However, it is fair to simply take the reasons they presented against forcing people to buy health insurance and apply them to their own view on the forced ultrasounds. As such, if they were right then, then they would seem to be rather wrong now. Naturally, people tend to not be very big on consistency-as Mill noted in his discussion of liberty, people generally take the view that the state should do what they want and do not base this on a consistent principle regarding what is fit and unfit for the state to do (or not do).

The most important point of concern is, obviously enough, whether or not it is right for the state to mandate such a procedure. While, as noted above, proponents of this bill seem to have railed against state imposition in other matters,I will accept that  there are cases in which the state can justly impose. The question then is whether or not this is such a case.

The most common basis for justifying state imposition is the prevention of harm. To use an obvious example, the state justly forbids people from stealing. In the case of the ultrasound, the assumption seems to be that this law will help reduce the number of abortions and this will, as some folks see it, combat a harm. However, the evidence seems to be that this will not be the case. Dr. Jen Gunter has a rather thoughtful analysis of this matter that addresses this point. As she notes, sex education,access to medical care and  contraception have the greatest impact on reducing abortion rates. These are, oddly enough, often opposed by the same folks who are vehemently opposed to abortion. As such, the law makes no sense as an abortion reducer even if it is assumed that the state has the right to make impositions with the goal of reducing abortions. In light of this, it would seem clear that the law is morally unjustified.

Even if the law would, contrary to fact, reduce the number of abortions, there is still the question of whether or not the state has the right to make such an imposition. After all, there are appealing arguments for individual liberty and keeping the government out of peoples’ business-often made by the very same people who back this particular intrusion into liberty (as noted above). My general principle is that the burden of proof rests on those who would make such impositions into law. That is, they have to provide a sufficient reason to warrant impinging on personal liberty and choice. As its stands, the proponents of this law have not made such a case. After all, it will not even achieve its apparent goal of reducing the number of abortions. There are also no legitimate medical reasons for making such an imposition and, as such, it seems to be an unwarranted and  needless attempt to legalize the violation of the rights and bodies of women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pro-Life, Pro-Environment

Human fetus, age unknown

Image via Wikipedia

Here in the States we are going through the seemingly endless warm up for our 2012 presidential election. President Obama is the candidate of the Democrats and the Republicans are trying to sort out who will be their person.  The Republican candidates for being the presidential candidate are doing their best to win the hearts and minds of the folks who will anoint one of them.

In order to do this, a candidate must win over the folks who are focused on economic matters (mainly pushing for low taxes and less regulation) and those who are focused on what they regard as moral issues (pushing against abortion, same sex marriage and so on). The need to appeal to these views has caused most of the candidates to adopt the pro-life (anti-abortion) stance as well as to express a commitment to eliminating regulation. Some of the candidates have gone so far as to claim they will eliminate the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) on the grounds that regulations hurt the job creators.

On the face of it, these seems to be no tension between being pro-life and against government regulation of the sort imposed via the EPA.  A person could argue that since abortion is wrong, it is acceptable for the government to deny women the freedom to have abortions. The same person could, quite consistently it seems, then argue that the state should take a pro-choice stance towards business in terms of regulation, especially environmental regulation. However, if one digs a bit deeper, it would seem that there is a potential tension here.

In the States, the stock pro-life argument is that the act of abortion is an act of murder: innocent people are being killed. There are, of course, variations on this line of reasoning. However, the usual moral arguments are based on the notion that harm is being done to an innocent being.  When people counter with an appeal to the rights or needs of the mother, the stock reply is that these are overridden in this situation. That is, avoiding harm to the fetus (or pre-fetus) is generally more important than avoiding harm to the mother. In some cases people take this to be an absolute in that they regard abortion as never allowable. Some do allow exceptions in the case of medical necessity, rape or incest.  There are, of course, also religious arguments-but those are best discussed in another context.

If this line of reasoning is taken seriously, and I think that it should, then a person who is pro-life on these grounds would seem to be committed to extending this moral concern for life beyond the womb. Unless, of course, there is a moral change that occurs after birth that create a relevant difference that removes the need for moral concern. This, however, would seem unlikely (at least in this direction, namely from being a entity worthy of moral concern to being an entity who does not matter).

It is at this point that the matter of environmental concerns can be brought into play. Shortly before writing this I was reading an article about the environmental dangers children are exposed to, primarily in schools. These hazards include the usual suspects: lead, mercury, pesticides, arsenic, air pollution, mold, asbestos, radon, BPA, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other such things.

Currently, children are regularly exposed to a witches brew of human made chemicals and substances that have been well established as being harmful to human beings and especially harmful to children. They are also exposed to naturally occurring substances by the actions of human beings. For example, burning coal and oil release naturally occurring mercury into the air. As another example, people use naturally occurring lead and asbestos in construction. As noted above, it is well established that these substances are harmful to humans and especially harmful to children.

If someone hold the pro-life position and believes that abortion should be regulated by the state because of the harm being done, then it would thus seem to follow that they would also need to be committed to the regulation of harmful chemicals and substances, even those produced and created by businesses. After all, if the principle that warrants regulating abortion is based on the harm being done to the fetus/pre-fetus, then the same line of reasoning would also extend to the harm being done to children and adults.

If someone were to counter by saying that they are only morally concerned with the fetus/pre-fetus, then the obvious reply is that these entities are even more impacted by exposure to such chemicals and substances. As such, they would also seem to committed to accepting regulation of the environment on the same grounds that they argue for regulation of the womb.

It might be countered that these substances generally do not kill the fetus/pre-fetus or children  but rather cause defects. As such, a person could be against killing (and hence anti-abortion) but also be against regulation on the grounds that they find birth defects, retarded development and so on to be acceptable. That is, killing is not acceptable but maiming and crippling are tolerable.

This would, interestingly enough, be a potentially viable position. However, it does seem somewhat problematic for a person to be morally outraged at abortion while being willing to tolerate maiming and crippling.

It might also be argued that businesses should be freed from regulation on the utilitarian grounds that the jobs and profits created will outweigh the environmental harms being done. That is, in return for X jobs and Y profits, we can morally tolerate Z levels of contamination, pollution, birth defects, illness and so on. This is, of course, a viable option.

However, if this approach is acceptable for regulating the environment, then it would seem to also be acceptable for regulating the womb. That is, if a utilitarian approach is taken to the environment, then the same would seem to also be suitable for abortion. It would seem that if we can morally tolerate the harms resulting from a lack of regulation of the environment, then we could also tolerate the harms resulting from abortion.

Thus it would seem that a person who is pro-life and favors regulating the womb the grounds that abortion harms the innocent, then that person should also be for regulating the environment on the grounds that pollution and contamination also harm the innocent.

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