Every so often I manage to get myself embroiled in a long-drawn-out philosophical dispute on Facebook. Recently I engaged in one such argument that covered rather a lot of ground. The starting point for the debate was an article I posted which addressed the most recent smearing of Planned Parenthood by pro-life activists and set about correcting the latter’s misinformation about the donation of aborted foetal tissue for medical research. Of course any mention of anything to do with abortion is almost guaranteed to enflame the righteous anger of representatives from both sides of the debate; and this occasion was no exception – apart from, perhaps, in the range of ideas covered. Not only did I attempt to defend my position on abortion against the main respondent (who is a committed Catholic); I also managed to cover quite a lot of territory around sex, death, bodily autonomy and the possession (or otherwise) of certain rights. As often happens when I engage in online debate, the process did help me to clarify many of my own thoughts on particular ethical issues.
Here is how the main argument panned out (allowing for some time discrepancies in the order of comments and replies):
Respondent: Donating one’s own body/body parts is one thing. Donating those of another who has been mercilessly butchered completely another thing. Face it. No one person’s lifestyle is worth stealing the entire life of another person. Medical progress does not have carte blanche over common decency.
Me: The decision to have an abortion is rarely made solely on the basis of the mother’s ‘lifestyle’ – that claim is spuriously made by anti-choicers in their efforts to belittle the experience of women and claim that their needs are nothing more than frivolous desires. More often, it is a matter of the woman realising that she is not in a fit state, mentally, emotionally or in terms of support to undergo the ordeals of pregnancy and birth, or to raise a child with a tolerable level of well-being. Nor did I wish to imply, in some of my later comments, that a miscarriage is not often a devastating occurrence for the woman and those close to her – but that is relative to how much ::she:: wanted to have the child. The foetus itself, as I’ve already argued, has no interests of its own – the interests in the case are entirely those of the mother and any others who wish to care for the eventual child.
Me: It seems that every opponent of abortion resorts, sooner or later, to a version of the supposedly emotive query, “What if your mother had aborted you?” Well, what if, indeed? I would never have existed – but neither I, nor anyone who now knows me, would be any the wiser for it. A nonsentient foetus has no capacity to have interests. It ::makes no difference:: to that foetus whether it lives or dies. There is no ‘future self’ who will mourn the lost opportunity for life. It’s all very well to stand on rules about intentional actions and so on but the very same outcome occurs in a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage). None of it makes any difference to the experience of a foetus – it has no experience in any case. The distinction between a deliberate act that causes no suffering and an unintended occurrence with the same outcome that causes no suffering is academic at best.
I have a question for which no pro-lifer has yet seemed to offer an adequate response: since they are so fond of quoting the ‘millions’ of babies that have been murdered through abortion, what do they suppose would have been the consequences if all these millions of babies had actually been born? What would the quality of their lives have been like, especially if they were born into families living at or below the poverty line? What would be the consequences for the environment of all these extra human consumers? And, in the spirit of my previous point, what about all the other humans now existing who might never have been born had all those aborted foetuses been carried to term?
Finally, pro-life activists have no concept of common decency – they continually resort to bullying tactics and peddling misinformation and exaggeration, trying to scare women into keeping their pregnancies. It was not ::that:: long ago that dissecting dead bodies was considered more than a mere affront to common decency – it was a criminal offence. Controversial conceptions of the good (to use a phrase I found in a philosophy article recently) do not have carte blanche over demonstrable scientific and medical realities.
R: Embryonic and foetal human beings ::do:: have capacity for interests. They wouldn’t be alive otherwise. Their interests are merely more remote in time than for people at later stages of development. You have no right to stand in judgment of their stage of life, because that’s simply what it is: a ::stage:: of life. At least giving people the chance to live first is virtuous. Deliberately killing them because they ::may:: not have the life that ::you:: deem worthy of having most certainly isn’t. Besides, a society that believed in everyone having the right to life would likely be more genuinely concerned with improving the general quality of life of its citizens.
Me: As the priorities of the pro-life activists generally demonstrate, we ::don’t:: live in a society that values life. If we did, there would be more effort made to improve the quality of life of everyone. As it is, as far as most pro-lifers (especially the religious right in the US) seem to be concerned, it’s a case of, “Alright – we’ve made sure you got out – now you’re on your own!”
Beyond that, there is a fundamental difference in worldview that appears to prevent any useful dialogue between the pro-lifers and the pro-choicers. There is no such thing as an objective measure of human worth. All we have to go on is the capacity for the existing foetus, as a foetus, to have experience. Certainly, it has the potential to have experience – but that is not enough to provide a concrete reason in the here and now for keeping it alive. Potential is an unknown quantity; and an argument from potential can be used to prove far too much – as I’ve pointed out before, in the light of current science, ::every:: human cell has the potential to become an individual human life – and denying any cell that potential by refusing to take the necessary actions is functionally the same as taking action to induce an abortion – if one is a sin of commission, the other is a sin of ::omission::. Argumentum ad absurdum quickly ensues.
The only way to mount an effective argument against abortion is to appeal to the inherent worth of human life – and not everyone believes that humans ::have:: intrinsic worth. There is no objective means of differentiating all humans, at all stages, from any other living organism. A developing foetus might have the potential to have interests; but a young pig already ::has:: the capacity to have interests, in the here and now, which we violate whenever we slaughter a pig for pork or bacon. So in theory, if you’re prepared to eat bacon, you should be prepared to accept the abortion of a nonsentient foetus.
R: Except that the interests/potencies of human beings transcend those of animals. We wouldn’t be having these arguments if they didn’t. I don’t need to differentiate between the stages of life of different species. I already know that a human foetus, given time, will develop into a person essentially just like myself; that’s enough for me to draw the line. As a human being, I have a right to use animals for my benefit (within reason, of course, not abusing them); I don’t however have a right to treat another human being as a disposable possession.
Also, Catholic moral teaching doesn’t preclude research performed on stem cells, or any kind of cell, obtained from an already living person (eg: bone marrow, cord blood, etc) – anything that ::doesn’t:: involve the destruction of a human being. In the case of human cloning, it’s ridiculous to compare refusing to artificially create a human life with consenting to destroy a naturally-conceived human life. An individual cell, left to itself, won’t develop into anything. A foetus is already a naturally-developing living organism. In fact, the natural process of cell differentiation already denies each cell from fulfilling its potential to become anything other than what it becomes (eg: once it becomes a brain cell, it can’t become a heart cell, blood cell, etc.); so is nature guilty of ‘sins of omission’?
R: How can you exalt human scientific ingenuity while still insisting that we are no more special than any other life form?
Me: Why do human interests transcend those of other animals? In our own minds, perhaps. I don’t see other animals bowing down to worship us. We use our own standards to claim that we are better than other animals – convenient, no? We grant ourselves the right to use other animals, just because we can. Human exceptionalism amounts to nothing more than might=right. The arrogance of this is borne out by the reaction that occurs whenever another animal has the effrontery to attack a human – we respond by destroying that animal and as many others like it as we can.
Me: Nature is whatever it is. It is not a sentient being with intentions. Nature bears no blame for anything it brings about – except if you suppose there’s a human-like god presiding over it.
Me: And one more point – the developing human embryo is, technically speaking, not left to itself. It requires the support of the woman’s body to continue living and developing. The woman is within her right to bodily autonomy to refuse to nurture another being, especially if doing so would lead to negative outcomes for her, be they mental, physical or situational. Furthermore, the right to bodily autonomy dismisses out of hand any claim that a woman should consent to pregnancy whenever she consents to sex – the one is dependent upon the other but that does not run both ways. It certainly does not follow that they are therefore inseparable in actual practice. I find it not a little ironic that in this – which is one area in which humans ::do:: differ notably from most other animals (with the exception of some other great ape species, especially bonobos), in that sex is a means of social bonding and not just reproduction – the religious moralisers are hell-bent, so to speak, upon restricting us to having sex in the way the majority of animals do – ie: only when it is a suitable time to have offspring. It is neither reasonable nor realistic to suppose that every human sexual coupling should be carried out with the intent of producing another human.
R: The right to bodily autonomy is dependent upon the right to life, so the former cannot usurp the latter. Even if the pregnancy is ‘unwanted’ the fact remains that another life is now in the equation. Adoption is always an option. The perfection of the human sexual act (which requires responsible use of bodily autonomy at a more personal level) is called to be an intimate union of love and life, as God himself is. That’s the Catholic position.
Me: Life is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the exercise of personal autonomy (of which bodily autonomy is a part). Also required are sentience and – importantly – the intellectual ability to make at least some informed decisions. It would be odd to suggest that, for example, a 3-year-old has the right to personal autonomy in most circumstances. It seems equally odd to assume any right to sentience or intellectual ability exists. Organisms either have these things or they don’t. There may also be circumstances in which the right to personal autonomy trumps the right to life, such as in cases of voluntary euthanasia – or, given the topic at hand, abortion of a nonsentient foetus. It’s all very well to assume that any baby can be put up for adoption (when there are already so many children running the gauntlet of foster homes) but that discounts the entire experience of pregnancy and birth, which put tremendous strain on a woman’s body and mental condition. When the alternative is the ending of a life that has barely begun and knows not that it even is alive, that is in point of fact a much more tolerable outcome in terms of the total quantity of suffering in the world, than for a woman to be forced to undergo pregnancy and birth against her will.
Me: I will also point out that I think it is profoundly odd to suppose that anything humans do, sexually or otherwise, is perfectible in any absolute sense. To begin with, the standards are arbitrarily chosen – one person’s perfection is another person’s flaw. The Catholic position may have its own standards and even claim them as truth; but it doesn’t follow that these standards ::are:: truth. The Ancient Greeks, for example, thought that love – including sexual love – between men and boys was the perfect expression of the concept; procreative sex with women was generally assumed to be a necessary evil.
Me: I would also suggest that a right to life only exists for a being that is the subject of a life – one that has a real and present interest in remaining alive rather than being killed. A human foetus is not the subject of a life, even if it has the potential to become such in the future. To put it bluntly, it has no more sentience than a cabbage – and we don’t claim that a cabbage has any right to life.
Me: I just noticed an odd point in your argument – you seem to imply that the mere presence of life entails the existence of interests. I’m not sure that follows – trees, grass and vegetables are alive, yet they have no capacity to have interests, at least as far as we can discern.
R: How many times do I have to restate it? The foetus is already a life. It’s the faculties that are in potency and developing. A human foetus is not going to grow into a cabbage, it’s going to grow into someone just like you and me. Philosophically speaking any life form has at least the most basic forms of interests in growth and nutrition, even if they’re not interests as we might commonly think of them – ie: conscious interests. In this context, foetal human life has all the human interests mostly still in potency, but they are real by virtue of the nature of the life form.
R: I didn’t claim that life is the only thing required for autonomy, but all other rights naturally flow from the right to life, thus it is the principal right.
Me: I don’t dispute that the foetus is alive or that it is human – claims to the contrary from the pro-choice side are factually erroneous. However, I ::do:: dispute that the foetus, as a foetus, has any capacity to have interests. It ::cannot:: matter to a foetus whether it lives or dies, any more than it could matter to the aforementioned cabbage. The idea that a human foetus could possibly have any interests at all is based not upon biological facts but upon the belief that its life is valuable simply by virtue of being human – since it will, if not aborted, develop into a human with consciousness and (presumably) the ability to value its own life, we apply our own emotive responses and imagine, from our own perspective as conscious beings with interests, that it is a great tragedy to terminate the foetus.
I understand that argument from the perspective of valuing human life, qua human life (I used to share the same position). I don’t agree that it is a knock-down argument in the abortion debate, however. No actual suffering is entailed by the termination of a nonsentient life. At the end of the day, one’s position on abortion is dependent upon one’s understanding of the basis of ethical consideration. This is the point I was endeavouring to explain earlier, but perhaps not with any great success. As an Epicurean hedonist (though an imperfect one, as the title of my blog attests), the basis upon which any being is afforded moral consideration is its capacity to experience pleasure or suffering. By these lights, in any situation where a woman is considering terminating her pregnancy, the moral consideration belongs solely to her, as the being with the relevant capacities. The foetus, certainly prior to the third trimester, will not suffer – at all – from its termination. The decision in this case ::must:: belong to the woman and must be based upon her estimation of the probable consequences of continuing her pregnancy. The contrary position, that all women who become pregnant ::must:: bear a child (or at least allow their pregnancy to continue on its natural course, whatever that turns out to be) is virtually guaranteed to cause suffering in some (perhaps many) cases. To me, at least, from the basis of my understanding of ethics, it appears self-evident that the former is the more morally sound position to hold.
Me: Put simply, quality, rather than quantity, of life is paramount, under my understanding of ethics. Similar to the attributes I mentioned above – sentience and intelligence – life either is, or is not. We certainly have no say, nor indeed any capacity to have any say, in whether or not we are born. What makes our lives valuable to us is our subjective experience – something that often includes fear of death, or at least fear of the process of death. I have no fear whatsoever of death in and of itself; however, I do fear the possibility that my death may involve a long-drawn-out experience of pain and/or indignity (which is one reason I am in favour of voluntary euthanasia) – and I am, of course, aware of the potential suffering of those who love me and may mourn my loss. Apart from these things, however, I see no reason to be fearful of dying, of not existing. How could it possibly affect ‘me’?
Yes, of course life is necessary in order for there to be experience – but I’m not sure that entails a necessary right to ::the opportunity:: to live in the first place. When we consider how improbable it is for any given individual to exist at all – all of the factors that must come to bear upon any particular combination of genetic material occurring; and all the unimaginable billions of individual lives that will never happen – it’s quite difficult to argue for any absolute right to ::come into:: existence. It’s a different matter to maintain that one has a right to continue living once one has had the chance to actually experience life. However, the value of life itself is – if not, perhaps, entirely dependent – intricately bound to the quality of experience that obtains for any individual living organism. I would never advocate the wanton destruction of life just because it can be done, of course (and in the vast majority of cases, a woman’s decision to have an abortion is far from taken lightly) – but the absence of life is, in the long run, preferable to a life that consists predominantly of suffering.