Sunday, July 27, 2008

Abortion Vetoes

It's uncontroversial that women should not be forced to have abortions against their will. For one thing, this follows from a general right of veto against invasive medical procedures. But we may also think there is a second reason, namely that it would be a great harm to a prospective mother to kill her cherished "unborn child" (her "baby", as she thinks of it), and all her plans for their future together -- plans which may have taken on a central role in her life story and 'identity' as she conceives of it.

This second reason would also seem to apply to the prospective father, though perhaps in a slightly muted fashion. The father is not so intimately acquainted with his "unborn child" -- though if he has felt its kicks through its mothers belly, seen ultrasound images of its little fingers and toes, or even simply observed the growing bulge over the weeks and months of pregnancy, such experiences might conceivably nourish the initial blossoming of paternal love and attachment. I'm unsure how significant an effect this is likely to have, though. Perhaps the greater impact, for the father, is at the level of abstract knowledge: that there exists a particular little human organism that, if properly nourished and protected, will grow into his future son or daughter. It is easy to understand a prospective father investing a great deal of meaning and significance in this fact, and thus feeling harmed - even violated - if he is unable to protect his unborn child--if others terminate it against his will.

Does this then also justify granting a paternal right of veto against abortion? It is some reason in favour, at least, but it may be outweighed by considerations of the unhappy mother's bodily autonomy. What do you think?


  1. The same argument would justify a fraternal veto: an older sibling could have all the same interests in an unborn child as a father. Moreover, unrelated persons and the state could have similar interests in unborn children, but we would not wish to allow them to veto abortions, for familiar reasons.

  2. Ben's suggestion is interesting, because the status quo under Roe v. Wade in the U.S. does in fact treat the state as having such interests in unborn children: Roe established the choice by arguing not that the state had no interests in unborn children, but by insisting that it did and arguing that earlier in the pregnancy this interest was significantly overbalanced by the interests of the mother. The trimester system put forward in the decision was based on the idea that as the pregnancy went on the interests of the state became stronger and stronger; and most of the abortion dispute in the U.S. since can be seen as a struggle over this sliding scale of balancing interests, and where on it the tipping point is found. Richard's argument is in essence a similar proposal, namely, that the father has some real moral interest in the choice.

  3. Ben, it seems to me the considerations here would be much weaker in case of non-parents and (especially) unrelated persons. So they are much more easily trumped by countervailing reasons than the interests a parent has in the protection of their child.

    P.S. I must admit I'm not very "familiar" with this debate, so feel free to explicate any other weighty reasons - in addition to the woman's bodily autonomy - to oppose such veto rights.

  4. It seems, Richard, you write the text fearing feminist's reactions to it. Anyway, couldn't anyone argue that there is also a feto's bodily autonomy? For that matter, does it make a difference the stage in which the feto's body encounters itself in its development?

  5. Adriano, one purpose of my post is to make the case for a paternal veto more comprehensible to feminists, if that's what you mean.

    I assume that only fully-fledged persons have rights (including to bodily autonomy), and that fetuses are insufficiently developed to qualify as persons.

  6. Women own their bodies, and as such will do with it what they will. Any other transaction is a negotiation.

    If she wants the child out of her body, being the owner, she has the right to do so. The occupant has to find alternative means of shelter, if the father is against such a procedure.

  7. I don't think it is as simple as 'women own their bodies'. This reminds me of libertarian claims of self-ownership which Richard has put a lot of effort in to rebuking.

    Both parents have something to gain or lose - depending on how they feel (when they are in opposition) about the birth of the child. A male who doesn't want it is losing a portion of his earnings for eighteen years, while a mother who doesn't want it is losing a lot too (probably more).

    Tax evaders own their own bodies; but that doesn't mean the state has no right to incarcerate them - using force - if they don't want to give up earnings which they have spent what could be a significant portion of their lives acquiring.

  8. I think that even if the father has some legitimate moral interest in the fetus, it is obviously trumped by the mother's right to bodily autonomy. Having a foreign organism grow inside you, when you don't want it, is a gross violation of bodily integrity (and Aaron, I don't see how having to pay taxes is remotely in the same league).

    But I'd really like to get off the boat sooner than that. I'm wary of the premise that the father's feelings about the fetus give him rights where the fetus is concerned (if that is indeed the right reading of the premise). The government shouldn't be in the business of protecting people's feelings. Something isn't a violation of your rights simply in virtue of making you feel really really unhappy. Giving fathers the right to veto abortion seems analogous to giving special interest groups the right to suppress speech that they deem offensive. Sentiments of hurt don't produce rights. (Please correct me if I've unfairly caricatured your view here, Richard.)

  9. Aaron -- right, I argued in my old post on 'Paternal Responsibility' that it's unjust to force unwilling fathers to pay child support payments if they wanted to abort. The welfare system should pick up the bill in such cases. (A more reasonable solution than forced abortion, surely.)

    Wizard -- I agree that arbitrary/unreasonable sentiments (e.g. of offense) are no grounds for rights. My thought here is that it's entirely reasonable for parents to care about their future children, so the feelings in question are legitimate and deserving of our respect.

  10. Deserving of our respect is one thing, deserving of our legal protection is another. I don't see why it's the place of the law to protect anybody's sentiments, reasonable or otherwise. If you write a gratuitously nasty review of my (purely hypothetical) book that I've worked on for ages, I think it's reasonable for me to feel hurt. But it would be idiotic to pass a law against gratuitously nasty book reviews.

    Another example: suppose one of your friends is badly beaten by a remorseless jerk. It's perfectly reasonable to wish you could kill the jerk. Why should this reasonable sentiment have any legal implications? The jerk has a right to due process; how you feel about it isn't relevant.

  11. "it would be idiotic to pass a law against gratuitously nasty book reviews."

    Sure, here the cure is obviously far worse than the disease. That doesn't show there's no reason at all to favour such a law, but just that it is very obviously swamped by the opposing reasons. I don't think the balance of reasons is nearly as obvious in the case of abortion vetoes.

    Anyway, it's not so much the 'feelings' that matter, it's what I take them to indicate in this case, namely a legitimate moral interest. See my introductory paragraph. To kill a mother's unborn child against her will is to violate her interests in ways that clearly go beyond mere bodily integrity. It is far worse than subjecting her to a comparable medical procedure that leaves her baby intact. Parents have a legitimate interest in protecting their future children. The feelings serve to highlight what (I take it) we all already know.

  12. As you know, in cases where the couple has not discussed what to do in the case of pregnancy, where the woman decides to carry the pregnancy and the man wanted her to abort it, I think that the man's obligations are determined by the context of their sexual relations. I think that the context two people have sex in (often) sets a default position for what can be expected in the event of pregnancy: The most reasonable expectation in a one night stand is surely that a pregnancy will be aborted. The most reasonable expectation a marriage between two pro-lifers is surely that the pregnancy will be carried. In the second case, regardless of what the man decides he wants after his partner is pregnant, I think he's under an obligation to contribute equally to the raising of the child, as he implicitly committed himself to this by sleeping with her. In the first case, I think he's only under an obligation to make a contribution equivalent to half the burden of an abortion. (Not just financial burden. Total burden.)

    Of course, there will be lots of cases where the context doesn't give a clear default position. In such cases, I'd generally err on the side of granting the man more responsibility (maybe depending on how reasonable it was to assume that a pregnancy would be kept).

    Similarly in cases where the woman wants to abort and the man wants her to carry it, I think context is important. I feel no pull to the idea that if a pregnancy results from a one night stand, the man has any claim right to later insist that she carries it. He already implicitly consented to its being aborted. The reality of the pregnancy doesn't give him any information he didn't have access to in the first place.

    The case of the married couple seems different... I certainly think that the physical and psychological health of the woman trumps any claim that the man might have over the fetus. But apart from that, yes, I think the man has should have a say in whether it's carried. He entered the sexual relationship with the reasonable expectation that pregnancies would be carried, and has a legitimate interest in whether the thing is killed.

    That said, I don't think there should be laws enforcing this. What the sexual context makes appropriate will rarely be clear-cut, much context will boil down to what the couple says about the relationship after the fact (and there are likely to be hostile feelings if this became a legal matter), and women have so much more to lose. Any way of building this into the law would tend to harm women far more than it would benefit men. I just...think that women ought to take the man's desire into account in this case.

    (Ideally everyone would have a "what we'll do in the event of pregnancy" talk along with the "lets get tested for STDs" talk before having sex with a new partner. That would clarify men's obligations, and--assuming no psychological or physical trauma--set whether it was acceptable for the woman to abort it.)

  13. I think that the context two people have sex in (often) sets a default position for what can be expected in the event of pregnancy

    I'm not quite sure how this would work; it's not as if people having a one-night stand are very likely to trade views about whether they are both pro-life or not; and, as you say, the vast majority of interpretation will have to be after the fact. (It's more than just what people would say; how people will even remember the event, assuming that they remember it at all, will be colored by intervening events.) Marriage may be a contract, but sex (outside of prostitution) is not; and so any default expectation will have to arise from something other than the intentions of the people involved. But it would appear that the only thing that could serve this function is social convention, assuming there is one. But social conventions with regard to sex virtually always favor the man, and so we seem to be left with assigning responsibility on the basis of unjust default expectations.

  14. Culture / social convention will surely shape the default expectations in many such situations. It's not at all obvious to me that those expectations are "unjust", but if either partner thinks so then they should communicate their divergent expectations beforehand.

  15. I don't think the balance of reasons is nearly as obvious in the case of abortion vetoes.

    I'm not sure why not. Being pregnant when one doesn't want to be is physically invasive, and it makes one extremely vulnerable. I don't think we can ignore the fact that men who abuse women use pregnancy as a tool of domination and control. The majority of men are decent people (well, I'd argue that they are), but I certainly wouldn't trust a man who was willing to take advantage of a paternal veto law. In my (mercifully somewhat limited) experience, attempts to coerce one's partner into becoming and staying pregnant are highly correlated with being a scary abusive creep. I'd go so far as to say those attempts are partly constitutive of being a scary abusive creep. The last thing anyone needs is a legal right to engage in that kind of controlling behavior. Such a law would practically be designed to secure the maximum number of rights violations for the minimum benefit to society.

    To kill a mother's unborn child against her will is to violate her interests in ways that clearly go beyond mere bodily integrity.

    I'm not really sure what to say about this. I don't see the point of babies myself, and I don't have any experience with wanting one, so I feel some inclination to defer to people who actually understand what the whole baby-making game is about. I just conceptualize forced abortion as a particularly nasty and invasive sort of torture, which works fine in practice. But it's possible I'm just blind to a whole arena of human reasons. With religion and gender roles, I'm sure there's nothing of value there; with babies, I'm more inclined to be deferential.

    On the other hand, I do have experience with wanting not to be pregnant, and with having female friends whose boyfriends were abusive creeps. So I think I'm in a good position to say what makes interfering with somebody's reproductive freedom really really bad.

  16. Richard,

    «I assume that only fully-fledged persons have rights (including to bodily autonomy), and that fetuses are insufficiently developed to qualify as persons.»

    (1) If you "assume" something, does that mean you are right? I say that because it seems your argument resonates the idea that philosophy can be done by assuming a given set of propositions in a given "logic" and then just deducing the consequences... how can there be a discussion if people just say things like "I assume this and that and then..."? Isn't that something like "I have my opinion and you have yours"?

    (2) Further than that, what is the criteria to say that somebody is a "fully-fledged person"? The idea of "fully-fledged" or "fully-grown" can lead to all kinds of undesirable political systems. Suppose we say that just eighteen-year-old men and women are fully developed and have full autonomy... aren't they "people"? Don't they have rights as "persons"? How more arbitrary can one be?

    (3) And lastly: in a society in which a man is obliged to pay a pension to a woman with whom he had a child, how can that happen if the decision to give birth is in the woman hands? Why can a woman abort a feto without the father consentment, but the father have legal obligations to that same child? Isn't that just unfair?

  17. Adriano, my stance is that discussion threads tend to be most fruitful when their scope is clearly constrained (though not to the point of being empty/trivial, of course). So issues relating to personhood are better discussed in other threads, e.g. 'Soulless Materialism' and 'When Death Doesn't Harm You'.

    On your last point, see my response to Aaron, above.

  18. I see two things happening here, after reading these two posts. First, my reply was too ubiquituous. Second, you didn't understand my objection against the two premisses you stated (which is not your fault since I said too much).

    You said, (1) 'only fully-fledged persons have rights' and (2) 'fetuses are insufficiently developed to qualify as persons'.

    And you also say in your 'When Death Doesn't Harm You': «So for indirect utilitarian reasons we might want to posit "human rights" that protect all humans without exception -- even those that aren't really persons -- because we don't want to risk miscategorization.»

    Given that and just that, for economy of principles' sake, how can you harmonize the first two sentences with the latter?

  19. Only persons deserve or warrant rights (in principle), but maybe -- I leave this an open question -- we'd do better (in practice) at upholding these if we pretend there's a sharp moral line at birth, even if the developments that matter (i.e. the having of future-directed goals) don't happen until a bit later.

    But this is off-topic. The purpose of our current thread is, specifically, to discuss the weighing of parental interests against (the mother's) bodily autonomy.

  20. I accept and understand your veto. But I hope someday we have the opportunity to discuss the more serious question of abortion tout court.

    I personally take the hard position that we need to protect the rights of the unborn, just because there is a thick line in taking the concept of person accordingly to our desires (and who can tell exactly what mind is and when it arises?). Anyway, I'll shut myself up.


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