Friday, December 18, 2009

Vocab Malone on abortion and personhood, part 4

Vocab Malone has posted the fourth part of his essay on abortion and personhood, addressing the arguments from viability and wantedness. These are two more arguments that I don't place a whole lot of stock in, though perhaps some commenters will want to say more about.

The viability criterion is significant in that it's the basis of current federal case law on abortion since Roe v. Wade, but Vocab correctly notes that viability changes with the availability of technology, and that doesn't seem like a feature that should be relevant to whether one is a person. On the other hand, it is relevant to the notion of dependence--pre-viability is a time where, if you do grant that a fetus is a person, it's a person that is dependent for its existence upon another person. This raises questions of when it is morally permissible for a person upon whom another is dependent for their life to sever that dependence. Judith Jarvis Thomson's argument on abortion, which I referred to earlier in my response to part 1 of Vocab's essay, presents the following scenario:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him."
My intuition is that in this scenario, it is morally supererogatory to remain connected to the violinist--it is not a moral requirement. The problem with this scenario is that it isn't quite analogous to pregnancy except in case of rape. If one gave voluntary consent to be connected to the violinist to save his life, it seems that one would have a moral duty to see it through. That raises the question of what constitutes "voluntary consent" with respect to pregnancy, which may occur accidentally or unintentionally despite use of contraception, for example. And note again that this scenario only applies in the case where personhood is taken as given, which I've been arguing is definitely not the case in early stages of a pregnancy.

The argument from wantedness, like the argument from viability, doesn't appear to be offer a criterion of personhood, but it is of course relevant to the overall abortion debate. Bringing into being persons who are not wanted and aren't going to be cared for is something that should be avoided, since the odds are not good for children in such circumstances. A controversial argument in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's book Freakonomics is that there's a correlation between abortion rates and declining crime rates--i.e., the authors argued that a consequence of the unavailability of abortion is more unwanted children who become criminals. If that argument is correct (and I personally wouldn't bet on it), that's a form of evidence in favor of the availability of legal abortion, though I don't think it trumps a personhood argument. [NOTE (added Nov. 24, 2012): Levitt and Dubner's argument is thoroughly debunked in chapter 3 of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (pp. 119-121).  Freakonomics in general is found to be filled with errors in a review in the American Scientist by Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung.]

Vocab quotes from a book by abortion doctor Suzanne Poppema about her own abortion, in which she says to her embryo, "I’m very sorry that this is happening to you but there’s just no way that you can come into existence right now." He identifies this as "confused logic," since clearly the embryo already exists. I agree with Vocab that she has written this statement in an apparently confused way, but it could be made coherent if she had written of the embryo developing into a person or of a person coming into existence, which is probably what she meant to imply.

Continue to part five.

14 comments:

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Jim wrote -

"A controversial argument in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's book Freakonomics is that there's a correlation between abortion rates and declining crime rates--i.e., the authors argued that a consequence of the unavailability of abortion is more unwanted children who become criminals. If that argument is correct (and I personally wouldn't bet on it), that's a form of evidence in favor of the availability of legal abortion, though I don't think it trumps a personhood argument."

First, this argument assumes abortion is not a crime - that of homicide. If it is, then homicide rates have went way up.

Secondly, this argument is a nasty form of utilitarian pragmatism. A higher code of ethics says the ends don't justify the means.

Thirdly, it is prima facie racist. It directly links the crime rates to blacks and then says since abortion kills so many of them, crime rates went down. Bill Bennett got into trouble for talking about this in a clumsy manner and rightfully so.

vM!

Jim Lippard said...

1. Legal abortion isn't a crime, and isn't homicide. You may think that it should be, but the fact of the matter today is that it isn't, in the United States or virtually any other developed nation. (BTW, abortion rates are often lower in countries with fewer restrictions on it, being much lower in the U.S. and Western Europe than in Latin America, for example--and rates of death of the mother due to abortion are much higher in the countries with greater restrictions.)

2. That's why I said I don't think it trumps a personhood argument. It's not a nasty argument with respect to nonpersons.

3. I don't recall Levitt and Dubner making a racial argument--I think it may have involved socio-economic status, however. In any case, an empirical correlation isn't racist even if it can be used to argue for racist conclusions.

Alan said...

I believe the wantedness argument has value not addressed by Jim or Vocab so far in this discussion.

With the assumption that it is necessary to assume the full rights of personhood at the point where abortion is no longer permitted (e.g., after viability of a healthy fetus when the mother's health is not in jeopardy), then I believe that being wanted by the mother, even prior to this point is sufficient for the fetus to have the full rights of personhood.

This distinction provides a moral basis for legal abortions (as not being the murder of a person) concurrent with the killing of a fetus (say, as the result of an assault on a pregnant woman) being a murder of a person.

-- Alan

Jim Lippard said...

Alan:

So your suggestion is that necessary and sufficient conditions are either being wanted by the mother (at any stage) or being post-viability (and also sentient or self-aware?)? So there are no individually necessary conditions of personhood except when indexed to times of pre- or post-viability?

That's certainly a construction that could be used for legal reasons, but it doesn't seem to intuitively capture what we mean by personhood. The pre-viability portion would be subject to potentially changing views of the mother. It also doesn't seem right to me that two instances of murder of a pregnant woman in exactly the same circumstances would be treated legally differently if in one case the woman had made an abortion appointment. And in such a case, no doubt the woman's survivors would argue that she had changed her mind, in order to argue for a more severe penalty--though note that it's not necessary to argue for personhood of the fetus to argue for a more severe penalty, only to argue that it's another case of murder. One can consistently hold that there's greater harm that's been done, even without arguing for personhood or murder, and that seems to fit better with my intuitions.

Alan said...

So your suggestion is that necessary and sufficient conditions are either being wanted by the mother (at any stage) or being post-viability (and also sentient or self-aware?)? So there are no individually necessary conditions of personhood except when indexed to times of pre- or post-viability?

No. I am stating that conditions such as healthy fetus and mother and post viability are necessary for legal personhood. That is the current law. Independently of that, I as suggesting that the law should consider a fetus being wanted as sufficient for determining the fetus a person. A subtle distinction that does not tie them together; the viability element is not relevant to the wanted element.

I am not arguing the deeper morality at the core of the discussion between you and vocab, but only wanted to point out that the wantedness argument is not as empty as it might appear from your discussion.

[...] The pre-viability portion would be subject to potentially changing views of the mother. [...]

I agree with the dilemma of determining the state of the pregnant woman, but I would expect a legal presumption of wantedness if the mother had not already gotten an abortion.

[...] note that it's not necessary to argue for personhood of the fetus to argue for a more severe penalty, only to argue that it's another case of murder. One can consistently hold that there's greater harm that's been done, even without arguing for personhood or murder, and that seems to fit better with my intuitions.

I guess this exposes my desire to see fewer, better laws that can be broadly understood and justly applied with solid principles, rather than highly detailed laws to cover all known exceptions. I see killing a fetus as murder, and aborting a fetus as acceptable. We should not need a separate law for fetal murder.

-- Alan

rushmc said...

>>That raises the question of what constitutes "voluntary consent" with respect to pregnancy, which may occur accidentally or unintentionally despite use of contraception, for example.

More than consent, I think it might be useful to consider the larger issue of intent, which is already a large (if confused) part of law (think of the distinction between murder and manslaughter).

If I intend to drive my car to travel from point A to point B, but in the process unexpectedly hit and kill a pedestrian, it is (correctly) considered an accident. If I use my car to run someone down, it is viewed and punished quite differently.

If I have sex with no intention to procreate, even knowing that there is a risk that it will happen contrary to my intent and desire (just as I know that any time I drive my car there is a risk I will hit and kill someone), am I really subject to the same moral obligation as someone who had sex intending to make a child?

Society's answer tends to be yes, but how do the two cases really differ? Perhaps in that in one case a life is ended and in the other one is begun, and therefore there is a new person to be affected by whether or not one takes or declines responsibility for it, but I'm not sure that this really impacts the moral dimension of the question...

Jim Lippard said...

Law professor Tom W. Bell has a paper on the gradations of consent and its relevance...

nolandda said...

s/superogatory/supererogatory

Jim Lippard said...

Thanks, Dan. Fixed.

Brad said...

How about 'the capacity to enjoy life and be aware of ones own life plus the ability to reflect on ones life' as criteria?


At birth a child emotionally reacts to the tramatic change from its uneventful incubation. The awareness of the birth event probably approximates real reflection.

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

These comments make it clear that abortion advocates can not agree amongst themselves on proper criteria!

Part of their problem is the pro-abortion position has no legit ultimate grounding.

I am not trying to mock a serious discussion but does not this convo demonstrate that fundamental shakiness of the root presuppositions?

vM!

Jim Lippard said...

Vocab: "These comments make it clear that abortion advocates can not agree amongst themselves on proper criteria!

Part of their problem is the pro-abortion position has no legit ultimate grounding.

I am not trying to mock a serious discussion but does not this convo demonstrate that fundamental shakiness of the root presuppositions?"

Not necessarily, it could simply be evidence of the complexity of the question, or actually questions. We're only just beginning to get a good understanding of the physical and neurological basis of the human mind. If you break it into component pieces, I think you'll find much more agreement on some particulars.

What do you mean by "legit ultimate grounding" or "root presuppositions"? Are you an advocate of presuppositionalism, a view that all knowledge is built up by individuals from a foundation of certain, basic, indubitable axioms that are presuppositions of a worldview, along the lines of Van Til or Bahnsen? I don't find that view very plausible, especially when they make claims like belief in Christianity is a necessary presupposition for the use of logic.

I don't think it's necessary to have agreement on "ultimate grounding" or "root presuppositions" to have agreement on particulars, either. Most proffered "ultimate" systems make metaphysical claims that are themselves highly disputed even amongst people who otherwise have significant agreement about everyday knowledge--I think that the fact that we agree about a lot of everyday matters while disagreeing about the ultimate foundations is evidence that our knowledge of the everyday isn't based upon those claimed foundations.

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Jim, do you deny that when you reason you do so from certain axioms?

Jim Lippard said...

Unfortunately, your question is ambiguous--"certain" could mean "particular" or mean "known with certainty." In the former case, I would answer yes, in the latter case, I'd be more hesitant. People have proposed systems of logic that dispense with bivalence and non-contradiction, one of my former logic professors (Vann McGee) wrote a paper with a putative counterexample to modus ponens, and so forth.

Though I would still probably conclude that some of our logical axioms are as certain as we can get, I would definitely not agree that human knowledge is a foundational pyramid of results, as opposed to a web (as argued for in, e.g., W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian, _The Web of Belief_). I think that's true both of individual knowledge and social knowledge.