I considered titling this post a more academic “Rejoinders to a Utilitarian Framework for Evaluating the Morality of Abortion” but thought better when I realized how many lines that would take up.
First, I’d like to say thank you again to Erik for agreeing to guest-post my recent offerings on abortion to this excellent blog and allowing me to receive excellent feedback from its excellent commentariat. I’d like to thank him again for offering to guest-post these rejoinders. I’d also like to thank Jeremy Stangroom for setting up a forum to examine this and other difficult ethical dilemmas with some philosophical rigor and for engaging my argument and providing the kind of feedback that allowed me to refine it for publication. Now on to the rejoinders:
1. The first concern, raised by many many commenters, which I would like to address here is that the pro-life movement is generally dastardly and underhanded and engages in rhetorical bait-and-switch, moving of goalposts, demonizing their opponents, and all sorts of other trickery and tomfoolery.
This is true. Some of them do, and these elements usually command a disproportionate amount of media attention, just as some in the pro-choice camp debate dishonestly and are well-publicized for it. One of the many fundamental problems with the abortion issue in the United States is the way it is construed: one side hates life, the other side hates choice. This leads to one side arguing as if life is the only consideration when de facto it isn’t and one side arguing that choice is the only consideration when de facto it isn’t. I constructed my matrix under the assumption that both positions were valid (by virtue of being widely held) and that any thoughtful, democratic examination of the issue required weighing the concerns of each party against each other.
2. Another concern briefly expressed and related to the first concern is that the meanings of the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” need clarification.
This is also doubtlessly true. According to one interpretation, “pro-life” means a position which advocates no abortions at all and “pro-choice” represents a position which supports any abortion rights no matter how restricted (such as supporting only the morning-after pill). According to another interpretation, “pro-life” is the position which supports increased restrictions on the scale and scope of current abortion procedures, and “pro-choice” is the position which supports increased liberalization of current abortion rights. I think this latter interpretation is more conducive to productive debate, but common usage tends towards the former.
I generally tried to avoid using these terms except when they referred to abstract movements or factions and not concrete ideas or positions. I am against the usage of such charged terms. I prefer the conscious usage of connotatively neutral and precise phrasing such as “for increased access to abortion facilities” and “for restrictions on abortion rights in the second trimester”.
3. The titular objection: if I believe something is murder, then moral consistency obligates me to do everything in my power to stop it, including killing the murderer. Therefore, the pro-lifers who actually kill abortion doctors are the only ones who actually believe that abortion is murder.
There are several problems with this. The first that I raised in the comments is that I can believe killing civilians is murder without traveling to Afghanistan, picking up a grenade launcher for cheap on the black market, and taking down American drones. Granted the logistics of this are difficult, but so are the logistics of planning and carrying out a murder in the United States, especially considering the social and family responsibilities of the murderer. The second objection is that people generally are okay with allowing bad things to happen so long as they themselves do not cause those bad things. The Trolley Problem, on Philosophy Experiments, is an illustration of this.
The failure of pro-lifers to kill more abortion doctors does not reveal an inconsistency of logic or a moral cowardice so much as it reveals simple human nature to refrain from acts we consider evil. Gandhi believed in peaceful protest despite his people being murdered, as did Martin Luther King, and we don’t accuse them of inconsistency. Oskar Schindler didn’t kill Nazis, and we don’t accuse him of being irrational and soft or thinking that the Holocaust was not really murder.
4. There are also the necessary objections to utilitarianism. The first is that people who just believe zygotes or embryos or fetuses are people and killing people is wrong therefore abortion is wrong will be unable to identify with any utilitarian framework. The second is that all life is of the same or incomparable moral value: the death of a bacterium is a tragedy just as the death of an adult human is a tragedy.
For the first group, I can only really offer a plea: by not also offering a utilitarian argument, you’re taking yourself out of the public debate, since Roe v. Wade is a utilitarian framework and Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. You can try in vain to repeal Roe v. Wade, but due to the nature of our legal process it is not going to happen anytime soon, and meanwhile, you can work with people who support further restrictions on existing abortion rights to reduce the number of abortion procedures performed. Given this reality, the clear choice is to prefer utilitarianism in the public sphere.
To the second objection – raised by commenter John Howard Griffin – that all life is of equal and unquantifiable moral value, I have not much to counter with except the fundamental uselessness for formulating public policy of such a world-view. I will admit that is it more parsimonious than my utilitarian framework – which requires several conceptual leaps and arbitrary assignments of value – and the position that all life is of equal and unquantifiable moral value is fine for a personal belief system, but given the purpose of solving collective problems such as “When and how should we allow abortions?” or “Should we restrict the eating of certain types of meat?” this world-view has nothing to offer.
It is worth noting that this world-view when drawn out seems to produce some rather absurd conclusions. For example, if you believe a bacterium is of the same moral value as a human, how do you reconcile this with the fact that one human is composed of massive amounts of bacteria in symbiosis with the cells and compounds produced by our own genome? Equating the moral value of a single-cellular organism with the moral value of a multi-cellular organism would necessarily entail either defining both moral values as zero, defining both moral values as infinity, rejecting the existence of individual organisms (i.e. proposing that there is some as yet undetectable force connecting me intimately to a bacterium in South Africa), or rejecting math. Let me also add here that I personally sympathize with and see the value of a systems approach to conceptualizing life and plan on writing a long, in depth post about this topic on my own blog.
5. The idea of assumed risk was brought up by several commenters, specifically the idea that special exemptions for the victims of rape and incest meant that in these cases it either wasn’t about the moral value of the fetus or that restrictions on abortion were about punishing women for having sex.
I find this a rather cynical perspective. I avoided discussing the cases of rape and incest in the original post since I saw the right to self-determination as a constant, but several commenters argued convincingly that this is not the case. From commenter Boegiboe:
Varying the value of the right to choose is actually quite common among modern western pro-choice advocates. Very few will say that a woman has a clear right to an abortion a week before her due date, yet all pro-choice advocates will say the anti-implantation birth control technologies are just fine, even though they destroy an embryo. But, it’s not that they’re just choosing a bright line based on the state of the fetus. The potential mother has accepted a certain amount of responsibility for attempting to bear a child when she does nothing about the pregnancy for the first 8 and a half months, which is responsibility she hasn’t accepted to the same degree when she has sex and then swallows a pill to prevent embryo implantation.
How to reconcile a variable value of the right to choose with the notion that making exceptions for non-consensual sex amounts to punishing sex is another difficult puzzle, but one that can be solved I think by simply changing how we conceptualize the issue. For example, we could determine (via democratic process or legislative decree) that full abortion rights extend to twelve weeks. This would be the cut-off for those who did not voluntarily assume the risk of their actions, i.e. the victims of rape. We could assign a value equivalent to assumed risk that might take two weeks off the maximum time allowed to make a decision and thereby mandate that regular abortion procedures must be performed before ten weeks. To say that this amounts to punishing women for consensual sex is an extremely uncharitable reading.
6. A few commenters suggested that I should exclude the last row because no one believes that killing one’s own children should be legally permissible.
I agree that the squares marked G. and H. in the matrix are a bit silly given present-day norms, but I included this row for the sake of mathematical symmetry and to make the reader aware of all possibilities allowed by the framework. I also wanted to show that as the accrual of value becomes more pronounced on the right side of the matrix, the monstrous conclusions consistency demands disappear from consideration; that is to say that as we adopt stronger utilitarian frameworks, our conclusions remain logically consistent and fair while leaving more room for thought and nuance.
7. Commenter David Cheatham suggested that the state subsidize carrying a child to term.
For family values voters and social conservatives, this should sound like a wonderful policy, and it is a good starting place for the kind of healthy, productive debate one seldom sees regarding the abortion issue, the kind of healthy debate I was hoping to spark with the original article. Having a child in the United States is prohibitively expensive, and there is little doubt that the specter of massive hospital bills followed by having to financially support a child leads many women to choose abortion. And for those committed to reducing the numbers of abortions at the margins, what better or more appropriate way than for society to support its most marginalized?