Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Abortive Virtues

Peter Thurley argues that circumstances of rape or incest are irrelevant to the (im)morality of abortion. Mostly everyone else in the world disagrees. Peter argues that the circumstances shouldn't register on the two extreme ideologies of "pro-life" and "pro-choice". But he neglects to note that most people have a more moderate view. Indeed, I think that the common-sense view is best reflected in theory by some form of virtue ethics.

It's certainly true that "pro-life" extremists who can't tell the difference between a zygote and a person must deny that such circumstances can be relevant. (We wouldn't allow an amnesiatic mother kill her ten-year old son after uncovering the suppressed memory that he was a product of rape. The child's genesis is not his fault, after all, so it would still be an instance of killing an innocent person.) But since no-one in their right mind would deny a rape victim the right to an abortion, this just goes to show that no-one in their right mind is a pro-life extremist.

At the other extreme, you have those who think that people can do what they like with their bodies, for even the most fickle of reasons, and so the extra reasons for abortion provided by rape or incest would be entirely superfluous. As a consequentialist who can tell the difference between zygotes and persons, I'm reasonably sympathetic to this view. No harm is done, even by fickle abortions, so there are no grounds for thinking it's fundamentally immoral. (Perhaps we can derive reasons from indirect utilitarian reasoning, however. It's plausible that we really ought to be virtue ethicists in our everyday lives, so I can potentially endorse the arguments that emerge below.)

But again, most people aren't consequentialists. (And just as well, I say.) Most people probably don't have any coherent theoretical views which systematize their various moral intuitions. But we might charitably see them as virtue ethicists of a sort. They want to be good people, and having abortions for no good reason isn't the sort of thing a virtuous person would do. Special circumstances - such as rape or incest - can obviously have an impact here, then.

The ever-insightful Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings puts the matter thusly:
I think that we have an obligation to treat any form of human life, from conception onwards, with a certain sort of respect. What respect requires changes as a blastocyst develops into an embryo, a fetus, and then an infant, but I think it's there from the start. (And this doesn't require that I think that an embryo is "really" a person: I also think we ought to treat corpses with respect.)
...
At this stage, what respect seems to me to require is just this: that whatever we do to a blastocyst, we should have good reasons for doing, reasons that are not just a matter of our own pleasure or entertainment. Just as I would think it wrong to carve up a corpse for fun, I would think it wrong to kill a blastocyst for one's own amusement or convenience. (This is why, though I am in favor of legalized abortion, I would think that someone who decided, on a lark, to try to have abortions in each of the fifty states, or who had an abortion just so that she could go to a really great party in her favorite dress (which, let's suppose, wouldn't fit if she were pregnant), was doing something abhorrent. I think you just shouldn't kill embryos for these sorts of reasons. I wouldn't be in favor of making such abortions illegal, but that's partly due to the same sorts of reasons that lead me not to favor a legal ban on being a complete insensitive jerk to one's significant other: doubts not about whether it's wrong, but about whether it would be a good idea to have the state policing our motives in the ways that would be required if it were criminalized.)

But while I think it's wrong to kill a blastocyst for no good reason, I don't think it's wrong to kill one period. I just think that respect requires that one recognize that one is doing something that should not be done lightly. I feel similarly about corpses: I do not think that carving them up for fun is OK, but I do think that a person who thinks her corpse should be treated with respect can appropriately leave her body to science, where it will be carved up for a non-frivolous purpose.

I suspect that what really upsets most people about abortion is the idea that it might be done frivolously. We may be more confident that rape victims are not being frivolous in this respect. Hence, on the common-sense (or virtue-ethical) view, rape can be relevant to the morality of abortion.

As it happens, I think people's concerns here are probably empirically misguided. The frivolous hypothetical abortions described by Hilzoy are clearly not everyday occurrences. Surely no-one could seriously believe that most women who seek abortions are so fickle about it. Abortion is a serious choice, and I have trouble believing that many women would fail to see it as such. Conservatives often whine about "abortions of convenience", but I find it incredible to dismiss as mere "inconvenience" the massive responsibility inherent in bringing a child into the world.

(Perhaps some people are reckless about getting pregnant in the first place, and hence blameworthy for that. But once pregnant, abortion will often be the best and most responsible option. While it would certainly be preferable if there were no unwanted pregnancies, and hence no need for abortion, as things stand I rather suspect that people don't have abortions enough. This is for the general reasons discussed in my post Badness Without Harm, and illustrated in Parfit's "14 year old mother" example. The world would be a better place if people only had children when they were most capable of raising and providing for them. There's nothing "frivolous" about such concerns, and so I think it is misguided to decry such "abortions of convenience". In saying this, I grant that it might have been wrong for someone to get into this position in the first place. So, by all means, do feel free to condemn "unsafe sex of convenience", and advocate better sex education, contraceptive provision, etc. But leave off the irresponsible anti-abortion diatribes already.)


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9 comments:

  1. Hmm, “no-one could seriously believe that most women who seek abortions are so fickle about it”. It is difficult to differentiate between fickleness and stupidity. If upwards of 40% of women in California

    http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005099.html

    have had abortions, I’m willing to bet fickleness and stupidity go hand in hand.

    Given that California also has one of the most liberal sex education policies and that contraception is available often for free, it is hard not to view at potion of the statistics as abortions of convenience (whatever that means).

    And as it is, with abortions freely available, people don’t have to take responsibility for recklessly getting pregnant, which strikes me as inherently immoral. All considerations of sex are externalized beyond the responsible parties. Nothing is done to address this other than more abortions and failed education. If we view someone who knowingly transmits a life-altering disease (pregnancy as viewed as a parasitic infection) as immoral and requiring legal restraint, why do we make an exception for pregnancy?

    While I am certainly not in favor of outlawing abortion, perhaps it is worth revisiting restricted abortion. As wards of the state and instances of child abuse have not decreased, it is fairly safe to assume that the current polices have failed.

    Not to mention the inequality of having one gender exclusively determine which genetic traits are passed on, or even a mention of men’s concerns with abortion, and the ramifications thereof.

    Irresponsible anti-abortion diatribes indeed.

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  2. "If we view someone who knowingly transmits a life-altering disease (pregnancy as viewed as a parasitic infection) as immoral and requiring legal restraint, why do we make an exception for pregnancy?"

    That's an argument (not much of one, mind!) for criminalizing males for unsafe sex, not the women who cure their "disease" through abortion. I suppose you also think we should restrict access to HIV medication. After all, we wouldn't want people to avoid "hav[ing] to take responsibility" now, would we! Needless suffering serves them right, don't you think? (And never mind the potentially adverse effects on others.)

    Seriously though, abortion can't be that much fun. Maybe there's an awful lot of stupidity out there, I don't know. In which case, the poor fools could better use your help than condemnation. (More charitably, we might wonder what role contraceptive failure and other sheer bad luck figures in those statistics. In any case, all of us make stupid mistakes from time to time. One mistake is surely forgivable. Repeated unwanted pregnancies (arising from unsafe sex) might leave one more open to criticism -- and not just moral; such behaviour seems downright imprudent too. Again, these misguided souls need help.)

    I find it difficult to express how thoroughly repugnant I find the common conservative idea that we should restrict abortion as a way of punishing women for getting pregnant. That's just so despicable.

    (The gender inequality stuff is a bit off-topic here, but you might like my post on Paternal Responsibility. As for your previous paragraph on "child abuse", etc., I'm not sure what any of that has to do with the claim that "the current polices have failed"?)

    P.S. You're welcome to comment here again, but I'd ask that you please choose a unique pseudonym or identifier. I don't like anonymous comments.

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  3. Currently, male unsafe sex (or failure of contraception) is criminalized through child support (de facto since men can not choose whether to become fathers except through abstinence or failure prone contraception). As it is morally questionable to force women to have abortions (although this has unfortunately been prescribed by law), it leaves nothing more than a series of bad and worse decisions to make. Not advocating for either side, simply pointing out the current arguments fail and do not take into consideration the full weight of the abortion question (which is interdependent with several other questions).

    I suppose you also think we should restrict access to HIV medication.

    Congratulations with putting words in my mouth and making an appeal to emotion. I simply stated that if we were to view pregnancy as a communicable disease, there are certain standards and responsibilities that apply, a part of which is legal restraint for those who knowingly infect others (and both parties would be culpable in my eyes) as is common with TB, Ebola, etc. Nothing you stated addresses this.

    As we consider sheer bad luck and contraceptive failure in those statistics, we might also want to consider why folks in California have worse luck and a higher rate of birth control failure than say those in Texas. Over 40%. I do not have a link but have read from a national newspaper that a good portion of those abortions are from the same 10% of the population (read: multiple abortions). How should this be addressed?

    California was specifically chosen because it is a model for sex education and freely accessible birth control. As education and birth control has failed these poor misguided souls, what other remedies do you suggest?


    I find it difficult to express how thoroughly repugnant I find the common conservative idea that we should restrict abortion as a way of punishing women for getting pregnant. That's just so despicable.

    Repeated unwanted pregnancies (arising from unsafe sex) might leave one more open to criticism -- and not just moral; such behaviour seems downright imprudent too.


    Inconsistency?

    I never stated that women should be punished for pregnancy. I stated current polices have failed to decrease the number of abortions or wards of the state. Education has failed. Free birth control has failed. The specter of fickleness raises its head.

    If you allow for unrestricted abortion, you allow for fickleness. Which is fine, but let’s accept the consequences of it instead of wishing it away.

    Or you consider the possibility of restricting abortion (say no more than 10 in your lifetime [both men and women]). Either/or, just quit pussyfooting around the issue.

    I prefer to be anonymous.

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  4. Well of course we "allow for fickleness", in the same way that we "allow" for people to act like insensitive jerks (to adopt Hilzoy's analogy). Trying to police motives is a dangerous a game to play. Mind you, I wouldn't necessarily oppose "abortion rationing" (like your "10 per lifetime" proposal) in theory. I'm more worried about the kinds of restrictions that would prevent first-timers from getting an abortion whenever the conservative Powers That Be disapproved.

    "Inconsistency?"

    Um, quite obviously not. I never said anything about withholding abortion as a way of punishing those individuals who are open to criticism. Indeed, I never said anything about punishing them at all. You, on the other hand, seemed to be implying (at least on a very natural interpretation) that we should restrict abortion in order to ensure that women "have to take responsibility for recklessly getting pregnant".

    "I prefer to be anonymous."

    I consider this a matter of basic courtesy. If you aren't willing to put a name to your words (it doesn't have to be your real name, just something to disambiguate you from everyone else who calls themselves "anonymous"), then I retract my earlier welcome. (I also reserve the right to delete any further anonymous comments.)

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  5. we might also want to consider why folks in California have worse luck and a higher rate of birth control failure than say those in Texas. Over 40% ....
    California was specifically chosen because it is a model for sex education and freely accessible birth control.


    On the off chance that this commenter is just dull witted as opposed to dishonest, I'll answer that one. California probably has a higher rate of abortions than Texas because things like abortions are more available there than in Texas. It would odd, wouldn't it, if the attitudes that led to better sex education and more freely available birth control didn't also involve a greater availability or ease of obtaining abortions?

    Also I'll note that California is also leads the nation in reducing its abortion rate, a fact generally credited to its sex education policies. ( here, for example.)

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  6. Regarding something Anon said in the first comment, "with abortions freely available, people don’t have to take responsibility for recklessly getting pregnant," isn't an abortion one way to take full responsibility for an accidental pregnancy?

    I addressed this issue a bit differently here. And, if you want to know what the process of abortion is like for us stupid, fickle women, you can read about that too here.

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  7. Hmm, so Richard might support abortion restrictions as long as it is not punitive (you might want to consider the hazards of policing motives of those on the other side of the abortion debate as well) and realizes that allowing for fickleness by necessity means fickle abortions will occur, negating any point you make about not wanting to police motives or even making any appeal that you doubt most abortions are done furiously (it would fail to matter). Am I understanding this?

    Dr Pretorius on the other hand, makes a claim of potential dishonesty, while citing a study done by Guttmacher Institute, as in Alan Guttermacher, former president of Planned Parenthood, as opposed to simply looking at the CDC rates of abortion, noting that California has had a 6% reduction of abortion as opposed to Colorado, which effective halved the rate of abortion by 11%.

    Yes, by all means California is leading and the source for your story is without question.

    Further, Dr Pretorius could have confirmed the types of restriction on abortion in Texas by simply going to the Guttmacher Institute website:

    The parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided.

    A woman must receive state-directed counseling that includes information designed to discourage her from having an abortion and then wait 24 hours before the procedure is provided.

    Public funding is available for abortion only in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest.

    None of which strike me as a delirious restriction on abortion (and I'd be more than willing to debate further except courtesy takes precedence over free speech), and really doesn’t clarify why a California has such a high rate over all.

    It would odd, wouldn't it, if the attitudes that led to better sex education and more freely available birth control didn't also involve less abortions? Dull witted or dishonest? I’d say both.

    Sage on the other hand makes an appeal to emotion, pointing out the emotional toll of abortion, while Pretorius would allow minors go through such a procedure without parental support (never mind that a minor can not consent to any other type of medical procedure, so why is abortion a special case).

    Logic surrenders.

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  8. I describe an emotional experience in one post, but not as a means to affect abortion legislation.

    In the post on abortion and rape/incest, I take leave of the theoretical, logical argument in which I maintain there should be no such loopholes, to recognize that in practice, we can empathize with those who want loopholes included.

    Does this mean that what's logical isn't always practical? I think so. It's logical to deny the abortion loopholes, but it makes more practical sense to include them. It seems a greater crime to force a young girl who's just been raped to continue the pregnancy for the sake of consistency, than to defend a logical bit of legislation.

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  9. Alternatively, one might argue that the context-insensitivity is not really all that "logical".

    Anonymous, you're lucky Sage already replied, else I would've simply deleted your comment as warned. And yes, you have misunderstood me: I said it's important for abortions not to be so restrictive as to block out first-timers. That's an objective criterion, it doesn't police conservative's motives. (Though I think their motives are relevant to their (your) moral shortcomings, of course. Just not the legal question.)

    The state comparisons are fairly irrelevant to my post, but I'll point out an obvious possibility that you don't seem to have considered: perhaps more Texans have unwanted pregnancies (the bad thing), but fewer terminate them. That's nothing to be proud of, on my view. Or perhaps there are confounding factors, such as differing social attitudes towards sex and such, which underlie the difference. In any case, the correlation you describe does not suffice to establish any strong conclusions. (And again, it's not relevant to my original post, so I'll leave it there.)

    Sage's post explains how unpleasant it is to undergo an abortion, and hence supports my claim that few women would choose to have one for frivolous reasons.

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