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April 09, 2006

Comments

hilzoy:
Another excellent post - par for the course, naturally - but I wonder if any explication against the sort of absolutist ban on abortions El Salvador [irregularly] enforces will ever have any influence on the minds of those (like Tacitus) who have long since made up their minds on the issue (and in Tac's case, formulated articulate intellectual frameworks for their opinions)
I think the fundamental problem is that the obsessive anti-abortion movement (at least in this country) has committed itself to a crusade against the idea of abortion; and like all such crusades, has been pushed to base their absolutist policies on a "moral" basis, so that the (often grisly) practicalities and realities of pregnancy/abortion issues (like those the NYTM illuminates) can be ignored or dismissed: and the blatant hollowness of "victories" in the legislative or legal arenas glossed over.
Good job, but I really wonder if this (or anything) will ever truly change anyone's opinion.

"Good job, but I wonder if this (or anything)
will ever truly change anyone's opinion."

No. Absolutism won't allow it. In El Salvador, a female fetus who grows up to require an abortion for medical reasons will be hunted down by death squads financed by abstinence funds funneled from HHS through Defense Department accounts.

In South Dakota, a female fetus who grows up to require an abortion for medical reasons will be denied pre-natal medical care through Medicaid because the budget is about to go kablooey. On purpose. Like a death squad, but it permits the absolutists to keep God, who aborts at will, in their confidence.

Yes, this is a good post. But just now, I wager, Hilzoy is being called a murderer across the galaxy of absolutist bloggers.

I recall two recent internet discussions on this topic, in which it was pointed out that if we assume the motivation of the anti-choicers is to prevent abortions, their other policies make no sense at all: they are generally consistently opposed to free/accessible provision of contraception, especially "morning-after" contraception; they are generally consistently in support of employers having the right to fire a woman for getting pregnant outside marriage; they are generally consistently against informative and thorough sex education, or women and children getting free healthcare, or free child care, or paid maternity leave, or any of the other economic supports that would make it less likely for a woman to need to terminate a pregnancy for economic reasons.

But if we assume that the anti-choicers are really against women having the freedom to have sex and get to make decisions about whether or not to bear children, then all their policies make consistent sense.

One of the discussions was on Slacktivist: a slightly later one, possibly inspired by Slacktivist or possibly coming out of the zeitgeist, was on Alas A Blog.

Discussions like this honestly make me despair... to have to re-argue and re-fight something we struggled through thirty-five years ago. It's as if none of it ever happened, and once again we're lesser persons than men.

This right-wing tide isn't about protecting life, it's about punishing sexuality and controlling women.

That NYT article just appalled me. Particularly the prosecutor who said that the longer the prison term they could sentence women to, the better.

The prosecutor who said that is a woman. Women who enthusiastically join in oppressing other women is no surprise - think foot-binding in pre-Revolutionary China, genital mutilation in African and Arab countries, and our own misogynistic harpies like Phyllis Schlafly & Friends.

Individuals in oppressive cultures who are themselves members of the groups singled out for particular cruelty can sometimes be the cruelest of all, in a frantic resolve to identify completely with the ones in control.

I think that kind of soul-death leaves a mark, though. The photo of that prosecutor shows a face as hard as any Soviet-era apparatchik's.

El Salvador's laws are, as the Times said, the logically consistent consequence of a forced-pregnancy philosophy. The forced-pregnancy advocates in this country are well aware of that, and well aware that such logical consistency would outrage and repulse all but their most extreme members.

Thus they insist that they don't intend to prosecute women, "just the doctors." But that's a lie, a politically expedient lie, and it will be revealed as a lie once they get their wish and Roe is overturned. North Dakota and Missouri passed very draconian forced-pregnancy laws - which might or might not be overturned in court. In Virginia a year or so ago, a state legislator introduced (or tried to introduce) a bill requiring women to report anything that might be a miscarriage to the police, to see if the "miscarriage" was an abortion. The legislator caught so much flak that the bill went nowhere - but once Roe is overturned, I expect to see a lot more bills like it.

The reason I expect more of that, and a shift from "prosecuting only doctors" to prosecuting women in general, is because the forced-pregnancy lobby is not "pro-life" in any meaningful sense. They make this clear every time they think it's safe to speak freely (RW blogs are very useful for finding out what they really think): they're anti-sex, anti-woman, and esp. anti-female sexuality.

The first to appear is the capacity to feel pain

Perhaps, but only in the absence of consciousness, i.e. in the same way that animals feel pain. If the presence of human genes and the potential for consciousness are to be ignored, then why should we respect the life of a newborn any more than we do the life of a cow or pig?

It seems as though mainstream journalists woke up about six months ago and realized that the anti-abortion movement was not only very serious but about to dismantle reproductive choice as we've known it. If I hadn't spent so much time online in the past few years, I might've been similarly blinded.

As long as the "pro-life" case was being made as an ethical plea, I was rather sympathetic to it, and particularly so when I was young, had rarely had sex, and had never known any poor or depressive people. But even after I'd come to understand the stakes better, what I saw as a minority moralist movement seemed an interesting factor for debate. Because I was convinced that the public health grounds for a permissive abortion policy could not seriously be debated.

Roe was already the precedent by the time I came into political consciousness. As the granddaughter of a nurse who had good reason to be vehemently pro-legalized-abortion, I'd never seriously considered the possibility that the moral ambiguities about potential life, arguments with which I had some sympathy, could be made into binding law.

The moral arguments are much more palatable in the moral sphere; they make for terrible law. The more I read and listen to anti-abortion writers, the less willing I have become to entertain their concerns.

"Principles won't do," wrote Conrad in A Heart of Darkness. Hilzoy here has done an excellent job in countering their nebulous first principle of "life" with a more scientifically helpful ethos of "sentience," but in the political world, I'm beginning to get much more worried about consequences.

Every anti-abortion politician should be asked about El Salvador's policy. They should be asked whether they would support such measures, if not, how would they justify falling short of such. Federal-level candidates should be asked their opinions about the rights of tribally sovereign lands to host abortion clinics, about a nation-wide abortion ban.

It's time to bring the abortion debate out of the shadows. I am one-hundred-percent fine with exhortating women not to have abortions or to use contraception, as long as that exhortation doesn't interfere with sensible public education or amount to harrassment of private individuals. Everything else, the chipping away tactics, the criminalization of often-necessary medical procedures, churches' buying out private hospitals to eliminate abortions, oh it goes on--that is starting to make me very very worried. Paranoid, even.

So just what is it you want, ye who are against abortion? And what consequences of your doughty first principles are you willing to oversee?

kenB: "The first to appear is the capacity to feel pain

Perhaps, but only in the absence of consciousness, i.e. in the same way that animals feel pain. If the presence of human genes and the potential for consciousness are to be ignored, then why should we respect the life of a newborn any more than we do the life of a cow or pig?"

-- Possibly I should have been clearer. The appearance of sentience is the earliest point for which I think a non-religious case for moral standing can be made. I don't eat meat myself, and I think there's also a very strong moral case against doing so, so I'm not particularly troubled by the last question you ask.

I really don't think the presence of human genes can count for anything. As I said, human cancer cells have them; intelligent members of non-human species don't. (Think of all the aliens in Star Trek: if membership in the human species is a necessary condition for its being wrong to kill someone, then we could dispatch any of them with a clean conscience.)

Potential is also a losing argument, I think. To see why, first note that if the potential being appealed to is 'the potential to develop into a human individual without a lot of help', then embryos don't qualify.

First question: are we required not just to refrain from killing them, but also to provide the help they need (in thiss case, the use of the woman's womb)? If not, then methods of abortion that merely remove the fetus without killing it are OK. (Vacuum aspiration for early abortions. The fetus dies as a result of being taken off its uterine life support, not as a result of the abortion procedure itself.) If so, does this principle cover just fetuses and embryos? That would be bizarre. So is it generally true that we cannot morally refrain from saving any life we can save by providing assistance? Then we are morally required to donate all the money we can spare without dying to Oxfam or some similar life-saving charity. Not to provide this assistance is just as wrong as removing a fetus from a uterus. In which case we are all mass murderers.

Moving on: suppose, for the sake of argument, that to kill any thing that has the potential to develop into a human child is wrong, even if that development requires a lot of assistance, and would not occur on its own. Now ask yourself: what counts as a "thing", for these purposes? Philosophers have a lot of trouble with that one. Should the set of objects consisting of a given sperm and a given egg (before they unite) be considered a "thing"? Why not? I mean, surely spatio-temporal contiguity isn't crucial for moral standing, is it? But if this counts, then every time a sperm or egg dies, not just one but infinitely many people die with it (since any sperm or egg could unite with any one of an infinite number of eggs or sperm, respectively.) In which case, again, we are all mass murderers. (Stop me before I ovulate again!)

Suppose you think this is hokey, and say: no, a human individual has to have, oh, two strands of DNA, not one. In this case, consider the fact that in all likelihood, any one of your cells will shortly be able to have its DNA extracted, placed in an unfertilized egg, and induced to start dividing like a normally fertilized egg. If implanted, it might well turn into a person. (Probably a deformed person, but a person for all that.) Don't say: well, it won't be a different person, it will have my DNA -- identical twins have identical DNA, being originally products of the same fertilized egg, but they are distinct human beings for all that, and killing one identical twin is not OK just because the other survives. -- Does the fact that any of your cells could develop into a baby mean that you commit murder by not allowing it to do so? Again, we're all mass murderers, or will be as soon as somatic cell nuclear transfer technology works on humans.

I could go on, but why?

Being in such agreement, it remains only to quibble. So: I just don't buy the whole "no pro-lifer can consistently allow exceptions for rape and incest" line. There's a plausibly consistent worldview wherein (1) the embryo is a human person with the moral rights that come with that status; but (2) a woman has a moral obligation to preserve its life only when she is in some sense responsible for its being dependent on her. With rape, she obviously isn't; and with incest, she isn't if you presume the absence of real consent. Now, I don't subscribe to this worldview, but I don't think it's inconsistent. Just wrong.

Christopher M: Actually, I think you're right so long as the method of abortion does not involve killing the fetus directly. (See previous comment: vacuum aspiration, used for early abortions. The later the abortion, the greater the chance that the vacuum will end up actually killing the fetus directly -- with a very small embryo/fetus, it might just get vacuumed out whole; with a larger one, it might get torn apart. As I understand it.) With such methods, one could say: I'm not killing the fetus, just declining to offer it assistance, which will result in its death.

I don't see how someone who thinks that killing a fetus at any stage is murder could consistently think that the fact that I'm not responsible for someone's existence makes it OK for me to kill that person. It would be different if I were just expelling the fetus. But D&C and D&E involve more than that.

hilzoy,

As an ethical vegetarian (somewhat lapsed) myself, I'm very sympathetic to the idea of drawing the line at sentience and extending it consistently to all sentient beings. However, I hardly need to point out that you (we) leave behind the vast majority of world by doing so. Do you think there's a consistent non-religious case to be made for the more typical stance of privileging the life of, say, an unwanted 9-month-old fetus over that of a farm animal?

Hilzoy: It's kind of an academic excercise, disputing the consistency of a position neither of us believes in, but but what the hell. I still think there's a consistent, extremely libertarian position, wherein (1) having to carry a baby around and give birth to it is an extremely heavy burden on autonomy, bodily and otherwise; (2) a woman who chooses to have sex assumes the risk of having to bear that burden; but (3) a woman who is raped has not assumed any such risk, and thus is justified in intentionally killing even an innocent person (the embryo/fetus) in order to avoid it.

(As an analogy--imagine that a woman has a gun trained on an innocent four-year-old child who is about to push a button that will activate a trap that will somehow imprison the woman for nine months: I don't think it's inconsistent to say the woman is justified in killing the child to avoid the nine-months' captivity. Probably wrong, but not inconsistent. On the other hand, if she negligently got herself into this situation, then maybe she isn't justified.)

[Anyway, since this is the internet I should make clear that the above is an exercise in hair-splitting (though a useful one, I think) and abortion is not morally comparable to killing an innocent four-year-old.]

"All the items I could list, however, require the possession of some sort of sentience or consciousness, or on the fact that the person in question has developed sentience or consciousness, but has temporarily lost it."

Think your argument is question-begging.


"For this reason, I think that there is no reason to object to abortions that take place before the earliest point at which these sorts of considerations kick in."

This sounds too much like "[early] abortion is like appendectomy" a la Atrios for my comfort.

As a WASP male I would usually be expected to be categorized as the "enemy". My own prejudice is that I expect the female of the species to be inherently capable of being a complete jerk also, including to her own sex.
Global Citizen is a medical researcher and leftie blogger/commenter with special professional interest in genetics. She can be found at http://bluegalinaredstate.blogspot.com/ if you like.

"saying a single woman who decides not to have a child because she would have to drop out of her medical residency in order to care for it adequately, thereby scuttling a career that she has worked towards for years, is having an "abortion of convenience" seems to me grotesque."

It's too bad that giving up a child for adoption is a sin against nature and a heinous crime in the eyes of the law.

rilkefan: point taken about the 'no reason to object'. I meant: no reason to think it's immoral, and will update accordingly. For what it's worth, I don;t think abortion is anything like appendectomy. Whether or not it's wrong, it's always a tragedy, and everyone I know who has had one regards it as such.

Some people do not want to give their children up for adoption, and some have predictable problems with pregnancy that would require them to drop out of a residency were they to carry a pregnancy to term. I don't think either of them can fairly be characterized as having an abortion for the sake of convenience either. I'm with you on not describing abortions as appendictomies; this seems to me to be the exact analog on the other side.

Opit: any particular reason you expect anyone to categorize you as the enemy? Or anyone to disagree that women, being human, are capable of being jerks?

hilzoy, I understand why we have to look at this from a consistency viewpoint, and why we talk of not later than the 2nd trimester, but all this discussion still misses the central point - the woman's body is HER body, and not subject to the demands of the fetus.

Would we say to the man who has two kidneys, one of which could save the life of his brother, that if you do not give a kidney to your brother and your brother dies, you have murdered him? No. We might be angry with him, but we have no legal or ethical basis to require him to save the life of his brother. Why then do we require women to save the life of a fetus, who is not even yet a person?

I think this - up until the fetus can be removed from the womb and remain alive, it is no more than parasitic tissue. At that time, if the state insists on ensuring the viability of the fetus, then the woman can have the fetus removed alive and turned over to the state. Of course, she still has the choice to take the fetus to term and deliver a baby, with all those attendant possibilities.

Anything less than what I have described is nor more nor less than the state dictating what a being may do with HER body.

We have at least one other law that goes to the same end - it is illegal to commit self-murder. Why is that? Because of the pain felt by those left behind. Neither the victim nor the perpetrator have feelings to be injured.

We are a strangers in a strange land, hilzoy. Logic and ethics need not apply here.

Jake

"Some people do not want to give their children up for adoption"

And we should therefore allow them to instead kill their children?


"some have predictable problems with pregnancy that would require them to drop out of a residency were they to carry a pregnancy to term."

I don't know how residencies work - if a woman has a problem pregnancy and has to stay in bed, does she permanently lose her place? If she gets hit by a car and is out of action for a month?

To be clear, I agree in principle, but I'm not feeling this example yet. And my sense is that clarifying it will weaken your point.

Jake: I agree that the woman's body is her body, but not that a fetus is just a form of parasitic tissue. That's why I stop to consider its rights and its moral standing: because pregnancy is unique in that a being who is, at the moment before birth, pretty clearly a person worthy of protection requires not just the use of another person's body, but to actually inhabit that body, in order to survive.

Because I don't think that a fetus has rights (or any other relevant sort of moral standing) before the development of sentience, I think that at that stage the woman's rights unquestionably come out ahead, and that while abortion is pretty much always a horrible and tragic event, it is not, at that point, wrong. But I think that to regard the fetus as 'parasitic tissue' misses what makes it horrible and tragic -- it's a parallel mistake to thinking of a decision to abort because of damage to one's life as 'convenience'.

rilkefan: I did try to explain why I don't think it's at all like 'killing one's children'. If I did, I'd think it was wrong. What I was objecting to was describing the case I mentioned as 'convenience', which I think just completely misses what carrying a child to term does to you. I think that whether or not the pregnancy is complicated: even under the best of circumstances, pregnancy involves massive physical changes, and massive changes to one's life.

Of course I don't think that this would be a good reason to kill, say, a four year old. Having a four year old is a lot of work, and it, too, changes your life a lot. But that doesn't mean that parents should be able to kill them at will when they get tired of having them around. It's only because of the earlier argument about why these two cases are not at all analogous that I say what I do.

That said, the idea that having an abortion during the first trimester because: (a) you don't want to carry a child for nine months, or (b) you wouldn't be able to give it up if you had it, and you do not wish to raise a child at this point without major changes in your life, count as 'abortions for the sake of convenience'. There are times when having a child can change your entire life. Wanting not to have one at such a time is not just about wanting to avoid a minor inconvenience.

As I said to Jake, I think that this is the flip side of thinking that a fetus is just unwanted tissue: both of these views needlessly trivialize one side of the problem.

"What I meant was that there is no reason to think that they are morally wrong."

Broken-recording, but:

Don't you mean, no reason based on the above framework to think they are morally wrong? That's what I meant with "question-begging" - you've almost stated a tautology: human life in state x isn't of value (note, kind of vague here), therefore abortion is moral. Setting aside my usual "so what about your axioms" objection, I've got serious sorites objections to your argument here. I think only an explicit weighing of the baby's rights vs the mother's can lead to a solid position.

rilkefan: I don't think it's question-begging, actually. I think there's a serious question about why it's wrong to kill a fetus or an embryo, and I do not see any reason to say that it is other than the sorts of considerations I adduced above. I did skip over the argument from potentiality, which I addressed in this comment, but that was mostly because I think it;s a complete non-starter. I didn't so much reject the supposition that all human life is worthy of protection as try to draw out its consequences.

Personally, I think that making everything turn on membership in the human species is also a non-starter. It excludes too much (intelligent non-humans); it includes too much (leaving embryos aside, the brain dead); and it doesn't identify anything that looks like a morally relevant consideration, as opposed to an arbitrary one. But the point of this piece was less to argue against it directly than to point out what, taken seriously, it would entail.

"anyone who believes that killing any human embryo is murder should oppose any form of IVF in which excess embryos are created"

It's not clear to me that this is correct. I.e., one might think
0) a fertilized egg is a human life
1) a fertilized egg is not the equivalent of a 4-year-old
2) the difference in 1) justifies the creation of some limited number of fertilized eggs to produce one four-year-old, even though the extras will be discarded

Hil, just thank you. Outraged and saddened since Sat. a.m. by NYT Magazine piece. Your clarity has really helped me take a breath and think as well as feel.

I'll skirt the medicine and biology and focus on women's reasons for choosing not to have a child (at all, or with a particular partner, or at a particular time).

Sometime in the 1980s I read an article in which the author (who must have had superhuman mind-reading skills) claimed it was obvious that the women he had watched walking into an abortion clinic were terminating their pregancies for "frivolous reasons" (no, I am not making that up, nor exaggerating) (no, can't cite source either).

My reaction was, and remains: It is never frivolous to decide to have a child; therefore it is never frivolous to decide not to.


Gratuitous mathesque way of looking at the above: a four-year-old has value aleph_1, an embryo has value aleph_0. You can't destroy an embryo except to lead directly to aleph_1 value or to directly avoid destroying aleph_1 value.

rilkefan: you're right to point out that I was presupposing that murder is not justified by the claim that it's necessary in order to produce a greater value. It may be justified when (for instance) the person killed is about to kill other people and this is the only way to stop him or her, but in that case one need not appeal to greater value. (One might, for instance, think that someone intent on killing others has waived his or her right not to be killed, which is clearly not the case with the IVF embryos.)

Of course, it's an assumption I think is eminently defensible, and do not wish to retract, but there we are.

Javelina: thanks. I started out feeling more than thinking, but based on the comments here, I think I may have overcompensated.

"therefore it is never frivolous to decide not to."

I can't argue what's frivolous or not, but google "cleft palate abortion".

rilkefan, you've made a very good point. However, the vast majority of abortions have nothing to do with this kind of thing - so I'll substitute "virtually never frivolous."

NB since we're getting close to the topic of the deliberate abortion of female fetuses in India, China, and other countries - I'll say that I personally believe that the practice is wrong, but that I don't think the women making that decision are doing so frivolously. They are making in it societies where the entire atmosphere, w/r/t women's value and rights, is morally askew.

And I still do not think that any abortions before a fetus is viable constitute murder.

And now I have opened a nasty can of worms and my 8-year-old has just announced his ear hurts A LOT and I must withdraw.

Hilzoy--thanks for the link! It's definitely an honor...

javelina, hope your son feels better.


Most abortions are not performed "for convenience" or "as a form of birth control".
How do we know this, and how well? My (extremely uninformed) impression is that NARAL et al. are entirely mum on the question of women having multiple abortions because of this issue. I'm esp. interested in an estimate of what "most" means because I think it's reasonable to set the law to balance the rights of women in the "most" category against the wrong from the "frivolous" category. That is, the moral line and the legal line probably shouldn't match, and the degree of difference depends on the convenience rate.

I don't have time to jump in too much, but a couple of comments stuck out to me. Hilzoy:

Whether or not it's wrong, it's always a tragedy, and everyone I know who has had one regards it as such.

I don't understand why it's a tragedy in that regard. If it's not wrong, and the fetus is not human in any meaningful way, what's tragic about it? Any more than any other medical procedure?
deliberate abortion of female fetuses in India, China, and other countries - I'll say that I personally believe that the practice is wrong, but that I don't think the women making that decision are doing so frivolously.

Again, I'm not sure I understand this particularly. Why is that practice wrong?

Hilzoy, I think that the article is a good one, though I think I may come from the opposite side of the fence. I consider myself pro-life, though a lot of Pro-lifers part ways with me on how one's convictions in this area should play out.

The stuff about El Salvador depresses the hell out of me; for years I've said that at this point in our culture, the only way to end abortion in a morally and ethically acceptable way is to first ramp up a serious, meaningful contraception and sex education infrastructure, as well as pouring support into programs to support mothers that would bear the burden of pregnancies that wouldn't have been carried to term.

I cringe as I write this, because I know the crowd here and I am almost always nodding my head along with the rest of the gang in comments, etc. Things like, 'Oh, I'm not THAT sort of pro-lifer' are unlikely to be much comfort to any reading. After all, that's what 'those sort' say, too.

Rilkefan, you appear to be the only anti-choice person commenting on this thread: are you willing to answer Jackmormon's question, or do you prefer to continue trashing women who choose to terminate their pregnancies?

Jackmormon asked: So just what is it you want, ye who are against abortion? And what consequences of your doughty first principles are you willing to oversee?

Jeff: The stuff about El Salvador depresses the hell out of me; for years I've said that at this point in our culture, the only way to end abortion in a morally and ethically acceptable way is to first ramp up a serious, meaningful contraception and sex education infrastructure, as well as pouring support into programs to support mothers that would bear the burden of pregnancies that wouldn't have been carried to term.

This is why I do think that we ought to refer to anti-choice and pro-choice. Because that's where the important division lies. I think (on the whole) you're on the same side of the fence as me, no matter than I think we have different moral views about abortion: the difference in the real world is not what moral view you take of abortion, but whether or not you are willing to assume that a woman is able to make decisions for herself and ought to be legally entitled to do so.

I shared an apartment for several years with a fundamentalist Christian, R, with whom I had not thing one in common, and we generally had a careful agreement not to push our disagreements to the point of actual quarrelling. Once, however, a Catholic friend was visiting me, and R said brightly "So, how do you and J deal with your different beliefs about abortion?" to which my friend responded, equally brightly, "We have the same belief about abortion: we both believe it's the woman who's pregnant who's got to make the decision, no one else."

The problem for China and India, aside from questions of morality, is in the aggregate, in that the ratio between boys and girls is such that the potential for serious social problems has emerged. Slarti is better read on this than I am, but this pdf provides the basic info. The abstract:

Using data from various sources, this paper reviews studies on child survival of female children in China and intervention activities by the Chinese government to improve this survival. Discrimination against girls has existed for a long time in China, and the abnormally high sex ratio at birth and excess female child mortality in the recent years reflect women’s low social status and a relatively deteriorating survival environment for girls. The discrimination against girls is both prenatal and postnatal and is manifest in sex-selective abortion of female fetuses leading to a high sex ratio at birth, and in neglect of and insufficient investment in girls resulting in excess female child mortality. The paper presents analyses of the levels, trends, and regional variations in the sex ratio at birth and excess girl child mortality, and discusses direct and indirect causes of the deteriorating survival environment for girls as well as its demographic and social implications.

A little less academic link is here.

It's ironic to me, because I believe that the over abundance of women in post war Japan forced Japanese women to compete more for men, and led to an over-emphasis on being good marriage material. However, it seems that the lack of women in China is leading to a similar entrenchment of male dominance.

To the topic at hand, I have simply never felt comfortable telling anyone how much pain they are supposed to accept, and I just think (especially after watching my wife's two pregnancies) that I have no standing to express my opinion on this. While I don't know if a lot of people are of a similar opinion as me, if this is the case, it explains why a possibly small proportion of pro-life activists can influence the debate so profoundly. I am certainly not going to be able to call on the moral certainty that is required to argue the other side, and, if there are more people of a similar opinion, the debate is always going to be between two far poles of the issue, with all of the concomitant ill will.

I don't understand why it's a tragedy in that regard. If it's not wrong, and the fetus is not human in any meaningful way, what's tragic about it? Any more than any other medical procedure?

It is tragic because of the potential that does not come true. Just like infertility is tragic, or as a better example: accidents causing infertility are tragic.

Broken record here too I guess: for me at the end of pregnancy there is a baby - even if it is not born yet. Just after conception is not a baby for me, but a blob-of-cells-with-potential. There is a proces in which the blob becomes the baby and there is no clear cut-off point.

It never is just about the baby though; it is also about the women who is pregnant. She is an entity with rights too, which means that in case of doubt (about the cut-off point for instance) here rights prevail. IMHO of course.

Jeff: Though I have no moral problems with most abortions, especially in first trimester (which is at least 90% of abortions in most countries where abortions are legal I think) I agree that minimizing them is a great good. Most pro-choice people agree with that AFAIK.

Rilkefan,

There is a little bit of information out there. http://www.plannedparenthood.org/pp2/portal/files/portal/webzine/askexperts/app-050103-abortion.xml>Planned Parenthood notes

Each year, two out of every 100 women aged 15-44 have an abortion [also a few under 15 -CMatt]. Of these, 47 percent have had at least one previous abortion.
That probably isn't the entirety of the information you'd be looking for. The finalized CDC Surveillance data is posted for three years prior (2005 release of 2002 data), generally in November. These are the http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5407a1.htm>2002 figures. The CDC data on legal abortions show 60% of all abortion procedures received by women who have had one or more children. There certainly are some women whose first abortion was when they were much younger, before having children. Specific data on timelines would probably be difficult to collect; in any case it doesn't appear in the CDC data.

Looking at trends from the CDC data, Safe, Legal, and Rare seems to have had success, with ~1.3 million abortions reported yearly for 1980-1993, declining to ~850k in 2000 (and steady through 2002).

One trend I noticed that might deserve a little scrutiny is in the Type of Procedure section of Table 1. "Other" seems to be increasing rapidly, particularly from 2000 to 2002. The yearly reports' (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5309a1.htm>2001, http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5212a1.htm>2000, or change the year in http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=%22Abortion+Surveillance+---+United+States%2C+2002%22+site%3Awww.cdc.gov>this search) Table 8 break this data down by state. The changes aren't uniform. For example, North Carolina went from 40ish in 1999 and 2000 to 475 in 2001 and 4400 in 2002. The fact that the change isn't uniform across states leads me to speculate that this is more likely to be related to social policy than medicine. I believe we have a North Carolina reader or two, perhaps they'll be willing to run this down?

One other note on the CDC totals. They include reporting from over 40 states, but California and Florida don't report.

Some people make it needlessly difficult. Tacitus, for instance, thinks that the crucial issue is the humanity of a fetus, and that humanity means what we share with stem cells -- that is, being biologically human (as opposed to lupine, bovine, feline, etc.) A "consistent ethic of life" developed on this basis would preclude the destruction of any living human cells, including, for instance, cancer cells. It would therefore entail that amputation, chemotherapy, appendectomy, pulling your hair out by its roots, and any other procedure in which living human cells were consigned to death is murder.

That's a straw man -- and a poor one at that -- and not the actual argument. The "consistent ethic of life" holds that where a cell or clump of cells is biologically human and will become a human life by the natural passage of time, it is human and should be treated as one.* Indeed, the objections to stem cell research are not objections to the use of stem cells, but rather an objection to the use of fetal stem cells that are harvested via the destruction of a human embryo.

Now -- though generally anti-abortion -- I am not a proponent of the so-called "consistent ethic of life." Nor am I in favor of an abortion regime anything remotely like that in El Salvador (neither, necessarily, would someone adhering to the consistent ethic of life.) But you need to get the other side's argument right if you're going to have a dialog. It's not so simplistic as you imagine.

*I'm grossly oversimplifying.

Von: But you need to get the other side's argument right if you're going to have a dialog. It's not so simplistic as you imagine.

But the other side's argument really is not connected with valuing human life: it's connected with devaluing women and arguing that women ought not to get to have legal control of reproduction. El Salvador is the logical outcome of the anti-choice argument, because you can only give a fetus human rights if you remove human rights from pregnant women: if you want to give a fetus legal rights independently of the pregnant woman, someone other than the pregnant woman is therefore given legal rights over the pregnant woman's body.

Whereas, if you are pro-choice, regardless of what moral value you set on a fetus, you are steering safely away from El Salvador: pregnant woman simply have the same human rights as women do when not pregnant, or any man, and get to make their own decisions about their own bodies.

Jackmormon is right, basically: attempting to give ethical arguments about when a fertilized blastocyte becomes human and can't be terminated simply makes lousy law.

I'm going to chime in with von here, but on a slightly different note. Although it is useful for "our" side -- and it is my side, too -- to talk about contraceptive failure,* rape and incest, I'm not sure how intellectually honest it really is. Sure, the existence of these 3 causes of pregnancy is adequate to defeat an outright-ban-based-solely-on-blame. But it's also perfectly fair for the folks on the other side to point out that relatively few abortions end pregnancies with these three causes.

I'm not saying that the majority of abortions are therefore "frivolous."** Just that the reality is a whole lot more complicated in most cases than a simple binary blame/blameless split.


* By which I mean technical failure. It is my unscientific belief that the vast majority of unwanted pregenancies are the result of human failure: gambles gone bad, made under various states of impairment and/or lack of understanding of actual odds.

** I think this word is pretty objectionable, unless someone can show me what I've never seen: that there are women who approach the decision lightheartedly.

Jes, I've known plenty of "pro-life" people, especially from having attended a Catholic law school. You do them, and yourself, no favor by refusing to acknowledge that a great many have objections to abortion that are life-based.

I agree with you that there are 'pro-life' people for whom the driving motivation is punishing women for sin, and/or controlling women -- this may even be the majority -- but it is certainly not everyone on the other side.

On the legal question, it is important, in US terms anyway, to distinguish between what a state may do, and what it must (not) do. My own inclinations are much like those of Jack (see her HOCB entry), but while I think a state may enact such a policy, and would vote for representatives that would do so, I can't say that a state must do so. Or lacks the power to do anything different.

Jes:

What Rilkefan appears to be from my point of view is someone who argues sensitively and in a (politically) non-absolutist way, even if his principles are absolutist about this subject, not that they are, for all I know.

For the record. I'm anti-abortion and pro-choice. Which means many, many things.

I am in favor of aborting all absolutist positions on everything --- because the world as it is can't tolerate absolute principles for too long without making things much worse.

CharleyCarp: Jes, I've known plenty of "pro-life" people, especially from having attended a Catholic law school. You do them, and yourself, no favor by refusing to acknowledge that a great many have objections to abortion that are life-based

I will do them the credit of believing their objections to abortion are life-based if they are pro-choice. If they're anti-choice, they are sailing towards El Salvador, and if they don't like the look of the landfall, it's up to them to steer away from it.

I agree with you that there are 'pro-life' people for whom the driving motivation is punishing women for sin, and/or controlling women -- this may even be the majority -- but it is certainly not everyone on the other side.

The "other side" is the anti-choicers, Charley. They are not "pro life": they want women to die rather than have the option of safe legal abortion.

John Thullen: What Rilkefan appears to be from my point of view is someone who argues sensitively...

You may have missed the thread where Rilke argued that women can't be allowed to decide for themselves to terminate an pregnancy because that could mean women deciding to have an abortion because they were getting too fat in the third trimester. That wasn't a "sensitive" argument: it displayed brutal contempt for women, and I've frankly never felt the same about Rilke since. (Nor was it a one-off OMG did I really say that, argument: Rilke actually defended it both on that thread and elsewhere.)

Hilzoy, I am having trouble with the second part of your argument against potentiality arguments above:

Now ask yourself: what counts as a "thing", for these purposes? Philosophers have a lot of trouble with that one. Should the set of objects consisting of a given sperm and a given egg (before they unite) be considered a "thing"? Why not? I mean, surely spatio-temporal contiguity isn't crucial for moral standing, is it?

I don't find myself having the latter intuition. It seems to me that in general we take spatiotemporal contiguity to be crucial in deciding what's a thing and what isn't, and you have to identify a thing before addressing the question of its moral standing. I just don't see it as plausible to regard any possible as-yet-unassembled set of components as already being, for the purpose of moral assessment, the thing they would be if they were assembled. But maybe I've misunderstood you.

I don't like potentiality arguments either, but my (vaguer, amateur) objection to them has always been this: that it isn't legitimate to project moral standing backwards from some possible later state of an entity to its present state. Just because X will (if all goes well) at some later point in time have the properties in virtue of which we ascribe a certain moral standing to it does not mean that now, while the actually existing X lacks those morally relevant properties, we have to ascribe it that same moral standing.

Analogy: if all goes well, my 3-year-old will someday have the legal right to vote, based on her future property of being a certain age (etc.). But we don't use that fact to ascribe the right to vote to her now, because now she lacks the relevant property.

It's just an analogy, of course, legal rights being purely conventional.

Jes, I have to say that I think this statement:

The "other side" is the anti-choicers, Charley. They are not "pro life": they want women to die rather than have the option of safe legal abortion.

...is insulting and untrue, no less so than someone who says, 'Pro-choicers want babies to be torn limb from limb so that women don't have to lose their figures.' It's ugly, it's untrue, and it serves no purpose beyond demonizing. The vast majority of abortions are not 'life or death emergencies,' nor are they 'brutal calculations of convenience.' Both 'sides' would do well to recognize that.

There are certainly a tiny sliver of the population for which one of those two statements is true, but I think it can easily be established by listening to any of the voices in THIS discussion that we are not dealing with either of those extremes.

I DO find the rhetoric of Pro-life activism tremendously ugly and disingenuous where it intersects with conservative opposition to contraception education and the creation of support systems for mothers. Around 30% of abortions are performed for women who are in a long-term relationship (Inclusive of marriage), and do NOT want children, but they and their partner are NOT using any contraceptives. Not 'incorrectly' or 'infrequently' but not at all.

But I digress.

Jeff: ...is insulting and untrue, .... It's ugly, it's untrue, and it serves no purpose beyond demonizing.

It forces anti-choicers to recognize the ugly reality that they attempt to smooth over by appealling pictures of photoshopped fetuses, floating detached in mid air without reference to any pregnant woman.

El Salvador is the anti-choice reality.

People who think abortions are morally wrong but who do not want women to die or be made sterile in illegal abortions need to recognize that they belong on the pro-choice side of the fence, not with the anti-choicers who prefer women dying to women having equal human rights.

So many comments.

Jeff: "I don't understand why it's a tragedy in that regard. If it's not wrong, and the fetus is not human in any meaningful way, what's tragic about it?"

Well, start by thinking of the many things that are tragic without being morally wrong. Serious breakups, for instance: when you are the one doing the breaking up, and it's not because e.g. you couldn't care less about the person in question and have decided to move on, but because (let's say) while you love her, or are as close to that state as possible while thinking you need to break up with her, she has some character trait (or something) that makes you think that it's really never going to work out.

That's tragic, and it's tragic not just because e.g. you are causing pain to someone else, but because there is a whole other life of yours out there, one that has a lot to be said for it, which you have decided to cut off because, when you really think hard about it, you can't see that it's going to work.

The decision to have an abortion is a decision not to have a child. It's tragic, mostly, in the same way, though of course, depending on the circumstances, it can be overlayed with different stuff. Aborting a child conceived in rape is a different tragedy from aborting the child of someone you love because you cannot see how the two of you can raise it. But to me, it's always tragic, and people who make this decision frivolously are missing something that matters. (Just as, to take another example involving the destruction of something that has value but no rights, someone who blithely destroyed a work of art would be missing something important.)

Also, for what it's worth, I think that while some anti-abortion people, including a lot of the most vocal ones, really are anti-choice, anti- woman, and/or anti-sex (or: anti-women-having-sex), there are people who can truly say "Oh, I'm not THAT sort of pro-lifer"; and as far as I can tell, you're among them. Obviously I don't know you, so I could be wrong, but I'm perfectly willing to take you at your word here, having no antecedent commitment to the nonexistence of people who are not THAT sort of pro-lifer. (As I always say, humanity is various, so I tend not to have antecedent commitments to the idea that any sort of person couldn't exist.)

von: "That's a straw man -- and a poor one at that -- and not the actual argument. ... But you need to get the other side's argument right if you're going to have a dialog. It's not so simplistic as you imagine."

I agree that it's a lousy argument. However, I didn't invent it. What Tac actually wrote was:

"Back them into a corner, of course, and most will agree, if only out of embarrassment, that it's not convenience, but humanity that is the core question. Is the fetus, embyro, blastula, et al., human? There are only three possible answers: provably not, provably so, or possibly. We can discard the first, since even pro-abortion, anti-life types implicitly concede the humanity of the fertilized egg and beyond by dint of their position on stem cells, the purported utility of which is premised entirely upon their humanity."

You tell me how it's possible to read that without concluding that 'humanity' means 'being a human, as opposed to e.g. a bovine, cell', or 'having human genetic material', or something similar such that both we and stem cells have 'humanity'. And stem cells will not "become a human life by the natural passage of time".

I put that part in because when I discuss this with students, a lot of them do in fact believe that something's being genetically human is what matters. They haven't thought about it, and back off immediately when pressed, but it is a view that many of them hold to begin with. For that reason it seemed important to get it out of the way.

I'd agree with you that I had attacked a straw man had I not proceeded to address its much more interesting relatives, who are not made of straw.

Jason: When the potentiality argument takes the form: this will one day be an X, so we should treat it as an X now, it's clearly wrong. (One day this acorn will be a mighty oak, but it isn't one now; one day my child will be able to support herself, but that doesn't mean that I can put her out of the house at the age of two and expect her to do so, etc.)

The better potentiality argument goes: when something will become an X, that fact may mean that it should be treated in a certain way, not because we somehow assume that it is an X now, which is false, but because potential Xs must be treated in a certain way. Here is where I ask: what makes something a potential X? Is it anything that could become an X, in the sense that any one of my cells could (given developments in somatic cell nuclear transfer) become a baby? If not, is the reason 'because we have to do all that work to make it happen; it doesn't happen independently'? If so, then it's worth pointing out that embryos don't develop into babies without an awful lot of help either -- help from the mother, whose body is essential to the whole proceeding. -- And what counts as a 'thing'? What's 'becoming'? What's 'the natural course of things'? Etc.

It forces anti-choicers to recognize the ugly reality that they attempt to smooth over by appealling pictures of photoshopped fetuses, floating detached in mid air without reference to any pregnant woman.
s/anti-choicers/anti-lifers s/photoshopped fetuses/self-actualized women s/pregnant women/shredded babies

It's fun, isn't it?

People who think abortions are morally wrong but who do not want women to die or be made sterile in illegal abortions need to recognize that they belong on the pro-choice side of the fence.
So, what you're saying is that it's either liberal abortion laws or dead women: no other options, no other choices. That's a false dilemma -- the same as saying, 'If you don't want unhealthy children strangled in their cribs and drowned in the river, you need to wake up and realize that you're pro-life.'

The phrases 'pro-choice' and 'pro-life' are brand names at this point, devoid of inherent meaning. Can I be pro-choice but favor strict parental notification laws? Can I be pro-life but favor the legalization of first-trimester abortions? Is anyone here pro-death? Or anti-choice? They're just rhetorical levers at this point.

Honestly, if you want to group me with El Salvador's grim spectacle I don't see much point in continuing a conversation with you. I have no desire to demonize people who support legal abortion. I have no desire to demonize you. I just ask that you exercise some basic, fundamental courtesy when talking to someone who disagrees with you about a very divisive and heated subject. Thanks.

Jes:

Yes, I either missed that thread or have forgotten it. I'll let Rilkefan argue that train of thought one way or the other today if he chooses. I will say that I reject the idea that there are many women who consider abortion for vanity reasons. But I reject the idea too that there are no women who might consider abortion for vanity reasons.

Which is one wrinkle in my very wrinkled anti-abortion, pro-choice stance.

I'm just pointing out my preference for debating this with Rilkefan over debating it with a species of argument on the other side, now in the ascendancy on that side, which in fact, as you point out, wants women to die rather than have access to safe, legal abortion.

To be clear, I agree too with CharleyCarp that many honest, good people who are against abortion do not "want" women to die.

And I agree with Jackmormon that how the subtlety or nonsubtlety of that argument plays out on the real-world ground of law and politics is highly problematic.

See, I know nothing for sure.

Moreover, someone who believes that abortion is wrong at any stage of fetal development, because it is wrong to kill any fetus, should take a dim view of our current practice of declaring people dead when their brains have died. I have no problem with this: as I said, I think that sentience and consciousness are crucial, and therefore I can accept both brain death and first- and second-trimester abortions, which you might think of as occurring before 'brain life'. Those who oppose killing fetuses who have not yet developed brains, however, cannot take this view. To be consistent, they should regard our current practice of declaring people to be dead when their hearts are still beating as completely wrong,

Not at all. I believe abortion of any embryo or fetus is morally wrong, unless his/her existence resulted from rape or its continuing to reside within the mother threatens her life. The fetus, if left alone and not killed, will awake to sentience. Not at birth, but some time after that -- it is generally believed that newborns do not have a sense of their own individuality. The fetus's brain is not dead, simply not fully developed; it is exactly where all of our brains were supposed to be at various stages of development.We all woke up.

By contrast, a "brain dead" person is never going to awaken again. If it were otherwise, if it could be assumed that a brain dead person would awake to consciousness in another few months, killing the brain dead person would be an abomination. It would be criminal to hold that it is ok to kill the brain dead person as long as we "beat the clock" and do it before they regain sentience.

But that's what these "brain dead" fetus arguments amount to. Just be sure to kill it before some arbitrary time when it is assumed there is enough neurological activity, and that is hunky dory.

For pragmatic reasons I don't support criminalizing early abortions. But the moral arguments against it seem quite persuasive.

hilzoy writes: Whether or not it's wrong, it's always a tragedy, and everyone I know who has had one regards it as such.

Why? Why do you and everyone regard aborting a fetus as a "tragedy"?

That's a straw man -- and a poor one at that -- and not the actual argument. The "consistent ethic of life" holds that where a cell or clump of cells is biologically human and will become a human life by the natural passage of time, it is human and should be treated as one.*

I'm not sure how you extract this from what was written. In the post, it states

The left at large is willing to fight for the certain humanity of the most base savage; but it can barely be stirred for the probable humanity of the innocent child. The right at large defends the unborn with admirable tenacity; but it happily slaughters those whom a judiciary (that it otherwise despises) deems unfit to live, and thereby implicitly subscribes to an ethic whereby humanity's value is a thing earned rather than inherent. (emphasis mine)

When one makes an elision like that, one can't really complain of straw figures. Furthermore, the consistent life ethic is supposedly strongly drawn from "the evolved practices, beliefs and customs of humanity over the course of history" is another elision if points like this and this are suggestive, as well as the notion of quickening.

On preview, I see hilzoy has dealt with this, but what I find interesting is that when you start to look at the arguments we see this sort of metonymy, and it functions to create the appearance of clear cut moral choices when they aren't there. What people need is a Solomon like judge who could look at each case and decide what should be done. Unfortunately, we only have a pale Solomon like judge in the form of our own personal compass, which sadly can go off kilter for any number of reasons.

Hilzoy, thanks for the clarification. At an abstract level, I can see what you're saying making about tragedy.

I have an easier time recognizing something as tragic when the desire of an individual is thwarted. For example, a miscarriage. When the decision aligns with the desires of the individual, it's less clear. In the case of your dating analogy: if two people deside amicably to part ways, because they have enjoyed being with each other and want to pursue other things, I see no tragedy. In that sense, I don't see 'the decision not to have a child' as a tragedy -- my wife and I have made that decision for now. We know that we're not in a position to raise a child the way we'd like to, and we're pretty newly married.

If you're saying that the majority of women do NOT make the decision to have an abortion happily, and would prefer NOT to, but see no other way to avoid ruinous consequences in their lives, then we have another situation entirely.

In my perfect-compromise world, first-trimester abortions would be legal, later ones would not, comprehensive sex and contraceptive education and distribution programs would be the norm across the country, and medical support, job training and assistance, and other aid for mothers would be agressively funded.

Also, for what it's worth, I think that while some anti-abortion people, including a lot of the most vocal ones, really are anti-choice, anti- woman, and/or anti-sex (or: anti-women-having-sex)
I think there's a much larger contingent that just doesn't realize that abortion is part of a much larger social, economic, and cultural structure and can't be trated as a free-standing bio-ethics or morality issue. They know that there are many problems for woman in bad dituations -- parents who'll kick them out, jobs who'll fire them, medical problems, boyfriends who'll ditch them, medical bills they have no way of paying -- but they see those as a class of problem that will somehow 'be taken care of.' That's depressingly naive, and I think the failure to honestly grapple with those problems, trating them as JUST as important as the issue of abortion itself, is a big part of the pro-life pro-choice conflict.

You tell me how it's possible to read that without concluding that 'humanity' means 'being a human, as opposed to e.g. a bovine, cell', or 'having human genetic material', or something similar such that both we and stem cells have 'humanity'. And stem cells will not "become a human life by the natural passage of time".

Way too thin. Tacitus is infering a tacit concession from pro-choice folks, and you're infering a tacit concession from his interference. That's one inference and at least one tacit concession too far.

Jeff: I think that there are a lot of things that people regard as tragic even though they are in some sense the agent of the tragedy, or one of its agents. Any time you can see that something would be in many ways good, but for some reason think that it would not be good now, or for you, or given everything else in the world, etc., you can have reason to give it up, while still thinking that it's a tragedy.

That was one of the points of the breakup example: it was meant to be a case in which you can absolutely see why this particular person is someone you love, or nearly love, and why making a life with her would be in a lot of ways a good thing, but nonetheless feel that given the two of you as you are (or: the two of you and the world, etc.), it won't actually work. Then you break it off, but not without an enormous sense of loss.

It's probably relevant that most of the women I know who have had abortions are people who love kids, and wanted to have kids. But for one reason or another, the prospect of a kid appeared at an impossible time, or with an impossible person, or something. That's still tragic, even though it's neither immoral nor a choice that they'd make differently if they had to do it over again.

von: he says that stem cells have 'humanity', and that it is this humanity that makes them useful therapeutically. He also says that whether or not something has 'humanity' is the crucial point in the abortion debate. I don't see that I'm inferring at all.

I do assume he would not actually maintain this position if questioned, but it is what he said.

"Why? Why do you and everyone regard aborting a fetus as a "tragedy"?" ...mona

"...someone who blithely destroyed a work of art would be missing something important"...hilzoy

I also haven't quite gotten this since last night, and I think you may be conceding too much in describing the abortion of a blastula or 1st trimester foetus as "tragic".

The proper comparison is not to a work of art but perhaps a block of fine marble in Michelangelo's or Rodin's studio. The marble has value in itself, and potential, but it is not a tragedy if it is destroyed. A foetus is not yet the "Pieta."

hilzoy writes: It's probably relevant that most of the women I know who have had abortions are people who love kids, and wanted to have kids. But for one reason or another, the prospect of a kid appeared at an impossible time, or with an impossible person, or something. That's still tragic,

But why? What is so tragic about having an abortion?

In addition, from common understanding, most people would consider a 1st trimester spontaneous abortion or miscarriage as sad but not quite "tragic."

I think the emotional distinction between early miscarriages/1st trimester abortions/infertility and later events or the death of children are critical to the understanding of the issue. The death of a child is "tragic". If we use the same word for those earlier events what words are we left with for the death of a 5-yr-old?

The death of a child is "tragic". If we use the same word for those earlier events what words are we left with for the death of a 5-yr-old?

"Really REALLY tragic," I guess.

A friend of mine had an early miscarriage some years ago, and it was still pretty devastating. Certainly it would've been much worse had she lost a child at, say, age three. But I'm not comfortable brushing aside the miscarriage because it might've been worse later.

If we use that word for a 5-year old child, though, what words are we left with for the death of a vibrant mother of two, or a devoted husband, or a brilliant writer?

"If we use that word for a 5-year old child, though, what words are we left with for the death of a vibrant mother of two, or a devoted husband, or a brilliant writer?"

All tragic. Do we really want to concede that word for an early miscarriage, and concede the implication? The Church has always considered it an important distinction, in terms of ritual for instance.
We do make a distinction, or at least used to, before our present age of excess, or competitive compassion and empathy.

I think the anti-choice movement is characterized by a lack of judgement and excess sentimantality, and the pro-choice movement should avoid that trap.

Just because I think it a tragedy if the Mavericks don't make the finals, and my feelings may be very real, doesn't mean you are required to validate those feelings with empathy.

Hilzoy:

Jason: When the potentiality argument takes the form: this will one day be an X, so we should treat it as an X now, it's clearly wrong. (One day this acorn will be a mighty oak, but it isn't one now; one day my child will be able to support herself, but that doesn't mean that I can put her out of the house at the age of two and expect her to do so, etc.)

Agreed.

The better potentiality argument goes: when something will become an X, that fact may mean that it should be treated in a certain way, not because we somehow assume that it is an X now, which is false, but because potential Xs must be treated in a certain way.

I have a hard time seeing an argument here at all. It doesn't answer the question: what is it about potential that requires such treatment? What's morally relevant about potential? The only answer I can think of to that question is that potential consists in the possible possession, in the future, of properties that confer a certain moral standing. But then this "better" argument just collapses into the first, clearly wrong version. So to avoid that collapse, potential must be morally significant for some other reason. But I can't see what that would be.
Sorry if I am being dense.

Also, in my original comment above at 1:35 I tried to address my puzzlement with your earlier objection to potentiality arguments based on metaphysical considerations about thinghood:

[Hilzoy:] Now ask yourself: what counts as a "thing", for these purposes? Philosophers have a lot of trouble with that one. Should the set of objects consisting of a given sperm and a given egg (before they unite) be considered a "thing"? Why not? I mean, surely spatio-temporal contiguity isn't crucial for moral standing, is it?

It seemed to me that this refutation depends on the opponent accepting a notion of thinghood according to which any un-united sperm and egg can be regarded as a thing, but I still don't see why anyone would have to accept that. My intuition is that spatiotemporal contiguity is a crucial factor in attributing thinghood, which attribution is prior to assessing that thing's moral standing. The exact signifigance of spatiotemporal continuity in deciding thinghood will depend on the individual case under consideration, but in the case of the sperm and egg it is precisely the lack of spatiotemporal contiguity that means that we ain't got a thing here yet. So it looks to me like this refutation of the potentiality argument doesn't work.

Again, sorry if I have misunderstood your arguments.

um, "significance."

jason: my "arguments" are more like a list of questions that someone who wants to make a potentiality argument should answer, combined with reasons why some of those answers might cause trouble. Myself, I don't think the potentiality argument works, and in fact don't really see how it's supposed to work; it often seems to rely on the idea that it's just obvious. (Not to me, it isn't.) So I'm open to the idea that there are better ways of answering these questions than I've provided.

Mona: the reason why I think the brain death analogy works is this. When someone undergoes brain death, one natural way to think of it is: the person has already died, even if her heart is still beating. She has gone, and will not return. If one thinks of it this way, then when we consider a fetus that has not yet developed a functioning brain, we should say: she does not yet exist, even though a rudimentary body does.

Someone who thinks that killing such an embryo is murder must, I think, believe that what matters is not 'brain life', or any of the things we might mean when we say, of someone who is brain dead, that "she" has already died. They must mean something like: there is a living organism, albeit one without a functioning brain. And killing such a being is murder.

But in that case I don't see why killing someone who is brain dead, but whose body is still in other ways alive -- heart beating, blood pumping, etc. -- is not murder as well, or why taking their organs for transplant is not carving up the living.

“I could go on and list more reasons for objecting to killing people. All the items I could list, however, require the possession of some sort of sentience or consciousness, or on the fact that the person in question has developed sentience or consciousness, but has temporarily lost it.”

This combined with:

“I really don't think the presence of human genes can count for anything. As I said, human cancer cells have them; intelligent members of non-human species don't. (Think of all the aliens in Star Trek: if membership in the human species is a necessary condition for its being wrong to kill someone, then we could dispatch any of them with a clean conscience.)”

proves too much. I hate to bring up the specter of infanticide since you certainly aren’t for it, but your argument has trouble with post-birth infants.

“Potential is also a losing argument, I think. To see why, first note that if the potential being appealed to is 'the potential to develop into a human individual without a lot of help', then embryos don't qualify. “

Also true of infants, though if you would allow a potentiality argument it would be easy to save the infant case.

“So is it generally true that we cannot morally refrain from saving any life we can save by providing assistance?”
I think this may be overstating the issue. Any human life anywhere in the world? Am I morally required to save someone’s life if I am present and can take immediate personal action at zero risk to myself (barring strong moral counterweights like being forced to kill some other innocent person)? Not to overdo the hoary train thought experiments but what the heck:

Two trains are headed toward each other on a track, each with 500 people on it. Trains being what they are, if they hit each other many people will be killed. By pushing a button I can switch one of them on to another track—a track where, unlike most thought experiments of this type, no one will be hurt if I do so. I am the only person present at the switching station but train switching is not my job. I can reach over and push the button with no risk to myself. Am I morally required to do so? Am I off the hook if I don’t?

What if I have to cross a wet and slippery floor, risking a small chance of a fall with possible bruising?

What if it is a small chance of a fall with a possible broken arm?

What if I have to navigate a chair and a desk precipitating a small but non-zero chance of tripping and breaking my neck?
What if I am guaranteed to break my arm?

What if I have to cross a room where there is a 0.4% chance of there being a wild and hungry cheetah which will have a 90% chance of eating me? If I can enter the room, ascertain whether or not there is a cheetah and escape safely if there is (but would have a 50% chance of getting eaten if I press on) am I morally not required to even check the room for the cheetah? Does the 0.4% chance of there being a cheetah and a 90% chance of dying only if I press on once I see it mean I don’t have to even enter the room where I could push the button that will save 1,000 people? However you value the 90% chance of being killed once you see the cheetah don’t most ideas of morality require that you at least check?

I’m not sure that I can formulate it with philosophic rigor, but I’m pretty sure there is a generally (though not universally) accepted moral principle of saving people around you (especially when it requires no or very little risk) that doesn’t extend to everyone in the world. Whatever the law in a particular jurisdiction may say, there is a high level of appropriate social ostracism in store for the person on the dock who won’t throw down the life preserver.

“Moving on: suppose, for the sake of argument, that to kill any thing that has the potential to develop into a human child is wrong, even if that development requires a lot of assistance, and would not occur on its own. Now ask yourself: what counts as a "thing", for these purposes? Philosophers have a lot of trouble with that one.”
I think this is the ‘pile’ or ‘baldness’ problem. The fact that philosophers have a lot of trouble with defining how many grains of sand make a heap or how few hairs on the head make me bald doesn’t really trouble me at all. It certainly won’t stop me from using the ideas of ‘heap’ and ‘baldness’.

“Should the set of objects consisting of a given sperm and a given egg (before they unite) be considered a "thing"? Why not? I mean, surely spatio-temporal contiguity isn't crucial for moral standing, is it?”

Maybe I’m not understanding this argument, but it seems to me that all of the arguments you think are ok involve a crucial spatio-temporal contiguity. For example you assume a locus between sentience (assuming we can get out of the heap vagueness in that word) and the physical body of the person not to be killed. Furthermore there is a sense of the natural progression of things that I realize philosophers are uncomfortable with, but which come in to play. This intersects with views of generally preferring life to death by resisting the natural order when it leads to death and trying to help it out when it leads to life. (Hence we have both in vitro fertilization and open-heart surgery). In the natural course of things not all sperm will unite with every egg to form a human life. Once they have united and implanted in a uterus the natural course will tend toward a human life. Now it is possible to argue that we should not actually value the natural progression as it pertains toward life over the natural progression as it pertains toward death—but that is a vastly different argument. We do in fact value that differently

I would also like to strenuously object to the idea that we know that very few—approaching no—women use abortions as a matter of convenience. For political reasons every attempt to look in to that has been stopped by pro-choice groups. But the troubling repeat abortion rate suggests otherwise.

Regarding the abortion as a morally acceptable tragedy discussion, I’m not really convinced that it makes sense in the context of your dismissal of the potentiality argument. If there is no moral interest in potentiality there should be no sense of ‘loss’ or ‘tragedy’ when you destroy that potentiality. If you dismiss potentiality, statements like “But for one reason or another, the prospect of a kid appeared at an impossible time, or with an impossible person, or something.” make no sense.

Jeff:

Having a few weeks ago given the eulogy at my beloved sister's memorial service after 20 years of progressive devastating illness, during the last weeks of which awful decisions had to be made by her (our)caregiver mother, who kepther going day-day all those years, I would say no words adequately suffice to describe any of the examples you provide.

Death sucks.

My personal problem is that the very decisions that my mother had to make, which are made every day around the world by good people, are increasingly (yes, still a small sliver of the argument) being called murder, as we saw in the Schiavo case.

Not by you, I emphasize. But the debate in its political incarnation is unfortunately and increasingly defining how we talk to each other.

I would not brush aside a miscarriage either. It's all unspeakable stuff. Life eats us and I hate every effing example of it.

I relate this personal experience merely to make the point that words are inadequate, so please hold the condolences. What happened, happened.

I must say though that the increasing political debate that has one small segment of extremists calling my sister's experience murder voting alongside another group of extremists in the same Party to defund Medicare and Medicaid (the taxpayer paid for much of the last 20 years of my sister's care including probably upwards of a million dollars for the last six weeks of her life),
is not a world I will abide.

I'll nuke that world.

Again, Jeff. I'm not ascribing these views to you. I'm now shouting into the political ether. Not about abortion, but in the same ballpark.

Sorry.

John Thullen: "I'll let Rilkefan argue that train of thought one way or the other today if he chooses."

The comment in question is probably here - that Jes has failed to understand the argument and its tenor despite repeated explanation of the simple concept has convinced me she's unable to think about this subject in a nonpartisan or even reasoned way (see more evidence above), so I've just given up discussing it with her.

Once again, for the record, I'm pro-choice, and support the Roe framework in the safe/legal/rare way. I also happen to think that argument on both sides of this issue tends to be unusually poor, even more so than is typical for moral and emotionally-fraught subjects.


CMatt, thanks for the data. I'm rather surprised at the rate of second abortions - would have thought it was much lower; but then it still surprises me that 20% of pregnancies end in abortions.

Someone who thinks that killing such an embryo is murder must, I think, believe that what matters is not 'brain life', or any of the things we might mean when we say, of someone who is brain dead, that "she" has already died. They must mean something like: there is a living organism, albeit one without a functioning brain. And killing such a being is murder. But in that case I don't see why killing someone who is brain dead, but whose body is still in other ways alive -- heart beating, blood pumping, etc. -- is not murder as well, or why taking their organs for transplant is not carving up the living.

This is where potentiality makes a lot of sense to me. By our current understanding of medicine the brain dead person has no further potential for sentience or consciousness—the things you suggest make killing wrong. The potential is gone. No amount of nurture will bring forth the potential into personhood again—and if medical technology advances enough to help with that, we won’t be declaring them dead at that point either. That is not true when you kill a developing embryo. There you cut off the potential, when normal nurturing would have brought forth the already existing potential for personhood.

The idea of potential also saves us from infanticide because infants are not sentient or able to take care of themselves, but if we nurture them they will be.

You also allude to it in another guise with “All the items I could list, however, require the possession of some sort of sentience or consciousness, or on the fact that the person in question has developed sentience or consciousness, but has temporarily lost it. (Thus, it is wrong to kill someone who is in a coma, since this person retains the right to determine what to do with her life, just as she retains, for instance, her property rights, or her marriage.” What is the difference from a mere coma and brain death? The potential to wake up. Coma victims do not typically exhibit present sentience, but they retain the potential for sentience. Brain death cuts the potential.

I think there's reason to distinguish between a new-born and a four-year-old - I think one opts to save the mother's life over the former, but not necessarily the latter. We certainly would look differently on the Greeks and Romans if they had had a tradition of exposing four-year-olds.

I thought there was a philosophical argument for the value of human life based on uniqueness. I think the example was cows - any two cows aren't very different, but any two people are. A newborn is in some regards a phenotype - a four-year-old is an individual combining a genome and a complex interaction with the world - so the difference between two four-year-olds is much more tangible.

"Coma victims do not typically exhibit present sentience, but they retain the potential for sentience. Brain death cuts the potential."

I would like to revise this slightly. Some coma victims retain the potential for sentience. Others don't. Some will wake up, others never will and perhaps cannot for reason we don't understand. We can't reliably distinguish between the two, so we treat them as if they all retain the potential.

"We certainly would look differently on the Greeks and Romans if they had had a tradition of exposing four-year-olds."

IIRC, Roman fathers did have the right to kill their children, up to a certain age. If you are distinguishing between newborns and 4-yr-olds, then perhaps we could further make a further distinction based on the research of Jean Piaget, and mark age 12 as the point at which full "sentience" is achieved. 12-16 as the point at which one becomes a human would grant some primitive validity to the Roman practice. OTOH, if a partial or limited or potential sentience is adequate, then the argument has a problem.

Regarding the abortion as a morally acceptable tragedy discussion, I’m not really convinced that it makes sense in the context of your dismissal of the potentiality argument. If there is no moral interest in potentiality there should be no sense of ‘loss’ or ‘tragedy’ when you destroy that potentiality.

I don't believe this follows. Hilzoy above made an analogy with a romantic relationship -- that a break-up, even one intentionally chosen as the best for both parties, gives rise to a feeling of loss and regret, due to the lost potential for a future relationship. That regret for the lost possibilities doesn't imply that the relationship had moral standing to resist dissolution, or however you would put it.

"That regret for the lost possibilities doesn't imply that the relationship had moral standing to resist dissolution"

The relationship does in conventional wisdom gain such moral standing as a function of time, a 2-week affair has less standing than a twenty year marriage. Although perhaps there is a bell curve, and a fifty year marriage loses some of the resistance to dissolution. Is the latter based on a loss of potential?

(Presuming no external moral considerations, such as children. Even without children, most people would think a long marriage has earned more maintenance than a recently initiated affair)

The moral argument in a nutshell:

Some people believe that protectable personhood begins at conception.

The fact that (a) this reduces personhood to a mechanistic assemblage of genetic material; and (b) neither nature nor the Bible attach much importance to conception does not shake people from this belief.

Also, the fact that people who hold this belief are unwilling to act, in the political sphere, consistently with this belief (see, eg, IVF, El Salvador) does not shake people from this belief.

(note: if El Salvador were truly serious about preventing all abortions, then fertile women [15-55?] would need to take pregnancy tests before leaving the country, and face prosecution if they leave pregnant and return not.)

Also, the fact that most women in this country actively choose the number of children that they will have, so the birth of an unwanted child prevents the subsequent birth of a wanted child (at least half of whose genome is identifiable in advance) does not shake people from this belief.

Also, the fact that this belief turns women into incubators, stripped of their ability to control their own bodies, does not shake people from this belief.

the consequentialist argument in a nutshell:

allowing people who hold the belief that protectable personhood begins at conception to have their way on this issue in the political sphere will have dire adverse consequences.

"Also, the fact that this belief turns women into incubators, stripped of their ability to control their own bodies, does not shake people from this belief."

All the comment very good, Francis. I have also said that since I think either now or soon in the future, the technology will exist to remove by surgery any blastula or foetus and implant it in another womb, thereby rendering every conception "viable" any pro choice arguments based on condition, status, or rights of the foetus are incoherent, illogical, and losers.

The choice argument explains itself, in the word. It is unconditioned.

Many people believe that protectable personhood does not begin until birth. Does the lack of biological grounding for that shake you Francis?

SH:

First, in the context of this debate, I think your comment is grossly overbroad absent some proof.

If the pro-life rhetoric were put aside for a moment, I think that many / most / virtually all people who are pro-choice recognize that infanticide is a crime and that the abortion of a normal healthy fetus 24 hours before delivery was expected should be charged as such. But absolutism on one side tends to engender absolutism on the other.

Second, protectable personhood is a legal concept, not a biological one. Deciding when to impose criminal penalties on women who have abortions is a legal and moral choice for a society to make.

For example, it is perfectly possible to conceive of a society in which "personhood" does not attach to an infant for 60 days after birth. In a nomadic society with only the most rudimentary health care, a law allowing the parents to commit infanticide up to 60 days after birth may be, on a consequential basis, the best law.

It is also possible to conceive of a society in which personhood never attaches to a human due the melanin content of her skin. (Eg, southern US prior to 1860.)

The point being, again, that biology should not be used to make law.

"Many people believe that protectable personhood does not begin until birth."

Yep. As I am unable to find convincing arguments that some sort of "personhood" does not begin at conception, and the consequentialist and libertarian arguments against legally protecting that personhood are compelling.

"...that the abortion of a normal healthy fetus 24 hours before delivery was expected should be charged as such."

Nope. Sorry. This slippery slope is real and demonstrated in El Salvador. The distinction is spatial, where the "person" resides. It is the critical distinction, and the only indisputable fact on which to base law.

Re ultra-late abortions, I think I can point to blog comments at e.g. Hullabaloo that are evidence in favor of SH's contention.

"The point being, again, that biology should not be used to make law."

I'm ok with using viability, a biological fact, to set the law. Ditto brain death in end-of-life matters. Of course it all comes down to picking one's axioms in the end.


"But absolutism on one side tends to engender absolutism on the other."

People on the other side say that too, of course.

"Second, protectable personhood is a legal concept, not a biological one."

"The point being, again, that biology should not be used to make law."

Are you the same person who scathingly wrote: "and (b) neither nature nor the Bible attach much importance to conception does not shake people from this belief."?

Or maybe you meant that it ought not shake people from this belief because nature should not be used to make law?

"If the pro-life rhetoric were put aside for a moment, I think that many / most / virtually all people who are pro-choice recognize that infanticide is a crime and that the abortion of a normal healthy fetus 24 hours before delivery was expected should be charged as such. But absolutism on one side tends to engender absolutism on the other."

I think the first sentence is wrong. If I may use hilzoy's trope, if most pro-choice people REALLY BELIEVED that abortion of a normal healthy fetus 24 hours before delivery was similar to infanticide we could make it illegal. Hell, we would be allowed to at least statistically investigate whether or not they were medically necessary.

The second sentence is just odd. The pro-lifers forced you to make something you think is just like infanticide legal? What in the world does that show? It suggests that you don't think infanticide is that big a deal, or it shows that you really don't think it is much like infanticide. In the interest of charitable discussion I presume the latter.

Certainly you wouldn't think I made sense if I said that capital punishment was indefensible and exactly like murder, but I refused to outlaw it because I feared that Amnesty International would next try to outlaw life sentences as cruel.

If infanticide is murder and killing a healthy pre-born baby just before it is born is just like infanticide you ought to figure out where you draw the line between not-like-infanticide abortion and like-infanticide abortion and try to draw it there. The fact that other people want to draw the line earlier or later doesn't change where you should want to draw the line. The political compromise comes from hashing that out and drawing the line. The fact that other people disagree with where to draw the line because they want to draw it earlier than you do shouldn't cause you to attempt to draw it later than you would normally want to. That would only work as some sort of meta-game which by apparent overreaction gets you to exactly the line you want it. That isn't how it actually has played out in abortion politics. (This is of course largely because the Supreme Court removed it from normal politics but that is a different argument).

Nope. Sorry. This slippery slope is real and demonstrated in El Salvador. The distinction is spatial, where the "person" resides. It is the critical distinction, and the only indisputable fact on which to base law.
The same slippery slope points us back towards the greeks and romans and their practice of exposing unwanted infants. I don't think anyone here is suggesting that -- or secretly wants to. Having a discussion in good faith requires trusting each participant when they explain what their legitimate beliefs and goals are. That's one of the reasons I have nothing but venom for those who want one thing (say, an enforced Judeo-Christian sexual ethic in all areas of life) but pretend they only want 'parental consent laws for sex ed' or something like that.

"I'm ok with using viability, a biological fact, to set the law."

What does IVF say about "viability"? That we don't care to, or bother with, or whatever protect early foetuses does not mean they are not viable. Give me resources, power, willing hosts, and luck, and every fertlized egg can become a child. That I have to cut it out of its original host or have difficulty implanting it or finding surrogate mothers does not speak to the "viability" of the foetus.

I don't understand.

"Nope. Sorry. This slippery slope is real and demonstrated in El Salvador. The distinction is spatial, where the "person" resides. It is the critical distinction, and the only indisputable fact on which to base law."

The slippery slope toward government-mandated abortions is real and demonstrated in China.

Except that it isn't--in either case.

Hilzoy: Thoughtful and well written as always – a lot to mentally digest.

Jeff:
The phrases 'pro-choice' and 'pro-life' are brand names at this point, devoid of inherent meaning. Can I be pro-choice but favor strict parental notification laws? Can I be pro-life but favor the legalization of first-trimester abortions? Is anyone here pro-death? Or anti-choice?

That sums up much of what would have taken me a half hour to write – thanks. Both sides of this debate need to become a lot less extreme before any meaningful headway will ever be made on the issue.

I do think it should be legal, safe, and rare – but only in the first trimester. I don’t think it should be used as an alternative to responsible birth control.

While I believe it should be (conditionally) legal and for the most part a personal choice, I will never agree with those that fight against all attempts at requiring parental or spousal notification.

And I find the song about it being entirely a women’s choice with the father having no input into the decision to be ridiculous. Who is to say which man is in the better position: the one who does not want the child with the incumbent life-long financial commitment; or the one who very badly wants the child but does not even have a right to be notified before an abortion is over and done with?

bob, I think any fertilized egg unclaimed for implantation by its parents should probably be given to someone who will bring it to term. But I do not view a blastocyst to be equivalent to a 24-week-old fetus [not wearing my nihilist hat].

I also think that "luck" above is important in thinking about these issues.

When medicine achieves artificial wombs or otherwise makes embryo transplant surgery safe, get back to me on my legal judgement.


Jeff, what about people who have a clear belief system which entails politically untenable consequences and thus push for an intermediate inconsistent result? There must have been practical abolitionists who thought all men are created equal but didn't argue that in order to achieve what was possible.

Who is to say which man is in the better position: the one who does not want the child with the incumbent life-long financial commitment; or the one who very badly wants the child but does not even have a right to be notified before an abortion is over and done with?
Honestly, I think that pregnancy is still one of the legitimate 'special cases' in areas of personal responsibility, autonomy, and so on. It is one of the very, very few areas where a person by definition must sacrifice the autonomy of their body for nine months. There is no way around that if one has a child -- period. A man who wants a child but does not get one has lost potentiality. A woman who wants control of her body but loses it, even by degree, has lost something tangible for almost a year of her life. In an imperfect world, it is also frequently compounded by other complicating issues. (Naturally)

It is a special consideration that is pretty much without peer, and while I am the sort of 'modified pro-lifer' that you seem to be (first trimester legal, agressive contraceptive programs, etc), I think that it's very very important to realize the fundamental 'specialness' of this aspect of the debate.

Jeff, what about people who have a clear belief system which entails politically untenable consequences and thus push for an intermediate inconsistent result? There must have been practical abolitionists who thought all men are created equal but didn't argue that in order to achieve what was possible.
You make a good point. There is a difference, though, between believing one thing but advocating a limited, achievable version of it and pretending that you only believe the limited, achievable version of it. The former is about compromise in a democratic society. The latter poisons the well of discourse, by destroying trust and fostering absolutism. Rather than breeding compromises, it breeds extremism, with everyone assuming the worst ('A Handmaiden's Tail vs. Infanticide') and staking out their absolutes lest the other gain any 'ground' in the fight.

Perhaps I'm an idealist.

I would also like to strenuously object to the idea that we know that very few—approaching no—women use abortions as a matter of convenience. For political reasons every attempt to look in to that has been stopped by pro-choice groups. But the troubling repeat abortion rate suggests otherwise.

I don't think it suggests any such thing, unless you're using some Martian definition of the word "convenience" which omits "I'll go on the pill" or "I'll start getting depro shots" but not "I'll just have a quick surgical procedure."

I think that it's very very important to realize the fundamental 'specialness' of this aspect of the debate.

Absolutely – and I would weight the argument in that direction in the case of a disagreement where the man wants the child and the woman does not. After all, the man has recourse (find another woman who wants a child). I would not go as far as requiring consent – but I do believe the man should have a right to know he is a father, even if he has no legal standing to do anything about that.

Reverse the case though and I have to side with the man. If the woman wants the child and a man does not, he has no rights there either. He is legally compelled to provide financial support. He may have to sacrifice his entire career plan at that point, not just 9 months of autonomy. Certainly he can’t compel an abortion – but he should have a legal out as well.

"Except that it isn't--in either case."

Well, it is. The "slippery slope" is the decision as to at what point of development we grant the rights of "personhood"...which are apparently different than the full rights of citizenship, which 15-yr-olds don't enjoy;whatever...and recognize a conflict between two sets of rights that the state can mediate. The Chinese mandated abortions is certainly not a libertarian counter-example.

I cannot with intellectual integrity find a compelling stage of development that works for me; others struggle, come up with something that strikes me as more practical or convenient than principled, but the struggle to arrive at that principled definition of "personhood" is the source of all difficulty. From my position(life at conception), it is not a rationally solvable dilemma, and the arbitrariness creates the slope. What is not arbitrary is the personhood of the woman.

But arbitrariness lies at the heart of children's rights and many other issues, and most people seem content with forever arguing.

"I don't think it suggests any such thing, unless you're using some Martian definition of the word "convenience" which omits "I'll go on the pill" or "I'll start getting depro shots" but not "I'll just have a quick surgical procedure."

People famously put immediate convenience (I'll exercise right after I watch this TV show, and finish that phone call, and eat this cake, well I'll do it tomorrow.) ahead of long term consequence. When that doesn't work out, the next step for immediate convenience often comes in the form of a quick fix for the bad consequences of the earlier decisions.

Your argument basically suggests that procrastination coupled with a put-out-the-fire response doesn't exist. I can personally assure you that it does.

:)

Your argument basically suggests that procrastination coupled with a put-out-the-fire response doesn't exist. I can personally assure you that it does.
Years ago, I was dating someone who put off dental checkups because she really, really disliked them and feared that they would be painful. I learned a few months ago that -- years after we parted ways -- she'd continued putting them off until they required several thousand dollars worth of difficult emergency surgery and a goodly chunk of recovery time.

Not sayin' it's like abortion, but assuming that people are always rational actors is a bad idea. Again, I cite the Alan Gutmacher Institute: 30% of all abortions are performed in cases where a couple was having sex regularly, didn't want children, but made no attempt to use contraception of any kind. Cue forehead-slapping.

bob, in my view the best approach is to perform a weighing calculation - the fetus doesn't get sudden full human rights at any point on its journey from 0 (a pair of gametes) to 100% (a something-year-old), but the slope changes at viability because there are more reasons to consider it human. The woman's right to decide what will happen with those cells depends on many varying factors (perhaps how she got pregnant, perhaps how the pregnancy affects her life), and at birth that changes again (most people would say to zero, though the right not to give up one's child might be considered). One set of rights may be judged stronger earlier, the other stronger later, without harming the dignity of either set of rights.

"30% of all abortions"

Seems impossibly high to me, unless this is mostly teenagers.

"30% of all abortions" Seems impossibly high to me, unless this is mostly teenagers.
I was pretty boggled when I pored over the numbers at the time. When I thought about it, though, it didn't seem so strange. Is it so hard to comprehend that 1/3 of unexpected pregnancies occur when people Just Don't Use Contraception?

It always made me sad, as eliminating that chunk of cases seemed like a VERY easy place for pro-choice and pro-life people to find common ground. But other factors most likely mean it will never happen.

With Jeff's and Sebastian's points in mind, I still think that vanity abortions in the third trimester are exceedingly rare. I'm sympathetic to Sebastian's point about the way that efforts to verify this have been stymied, but only to a point: the toxicity introduced into the subject from his side of the argument (not him, of course) is sufficient, I think, to prevent anyone with medical confidences to protect from feeling like cooperation is any easy choice to make.

I'd like to see stats collected by someone neutral -- that is, not a pro-lfe prosecutor -- to show what the true facts are.

I'll tell you what I suspect, based only of several decades of observing human nature: while a significant number of late abortions are undertaken out of health concerns for the mother, by far the majority are undertaken because of health issues on the part of the child. This is outside of the framework of the law, and such procedures can be made illegal. I have to say, though, that while some may feel competent to judge strangers who reluctantly conclude that they are not up to the burden of having a short-lived child,* I'm not. My scenario for dealing with this is that in states where the people feel strongly enough about this, such abortions can be banned, but the state needs to really step up with helping with the burdens.

* We're not talking about aborting a child because it has blue eyes, and not green.

rilkefan, I'm still trying to track down the detailed stats but I did find a 'facts in brief' document with more recent numbers from AGI. The 30% number I threw out may be inaccurate with the newer statistics (if so, I apologize) but the fact remains that a very large percentabe of abortions are due to either complete or sporadic neglect of contraception, particularly in the under-26 set. Some hilights include:

54% of women having abortions used a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant. 76% of pill users and 49% of condom users reported using the methods inconsistently, while 13% of pill users and 14% of condom users reported correct use.[11]

8% of women having abortions have never used a method of birth control; nonuse is greatest among those who are young, poor, black, Hispanic or poorly educated.[12]

49% of the 6.3 million pregnancies that occur each year are unplanned;[13] 47% of these occur among the 7% of women at risk of unintended pregnancy who do not practice contraception.[14]

Charley:

With Jeff's and Sebastian's points in mind, I still think that vanity abortions in the third trimester are exceedingly rare.
In that, I imagine that you are completely correct. The document I linked to above indicates that only 1.4% of all abortions occur after 21 weeks; reducing THAT to the number of hypothetical third trimester vanity abortions indicates that it is a moral issue to be sure, but probably just a rhetorical wedge when brought into the debate.

A quick comment while I'm digesting what people have written while I was off, you know, working:

sentience means: the ability to feel e.g. pleasure, pain, etc. It's not a higher form of consciousness. Thus newborn infants are sentient, as (so the best evidence seems to suggest) are third-trimester fetuses.

The point of bringing in sentience was to say: this is the earliest point at which I can conceive of a fetus as having anything like rights. Thinking that sentient beings have rights would of course entail rethinking eating meat (at least, factory farmed meat), but I'm OK with that.

But it's not true to say that my argument opens me up to infanticide. At least, not that I can see,

Can't a fetus be the heir (presumptive?) to a fortune? Say carried by a surrogate after the parents' deaths?

What about a 1st-trimester fetus carried by a woman in a PVS? Doesn't it have some sort of rights? To be allowed to be born if possible, if nothing else?

Note that 1.4% of a lot is still a lot, usually. And note that we're talking about human lives, maybe, so normal counting rules don't apply. This sort of argument works (or rather, doesn't work either) the other way - "it's a small number of cases, few people will be inconvenienced if we ban this".

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