Sunday, 22 December 2013

Should Men Shut Up About Abortion?

I recently came across an article where a pro-choice woman argued that men should never be able to speak on women’s issues like abortion because they can’t get pregnant.  She writes, “something about a man, a person who could never fully appreciate the terror upon seeing a positive pregnancy test, a person who could walk away from a pregnancy if he so chose, a person who will never DIE in childbirth, something about him telling a woman that she should be forced to keep a pregnancy sends me into a rage.

I hear similar sentiments coming from a lot of pro-choice people and on one level I can definitely understand where they are coming from.  I find it really annoying when people try and talk into my life and judge me when they haven’t walked in my shoes.  However, I think when you take a closer look at this argument it becomes clear that the position is flawed.   

Firstly, men aren’t the only ones who will never have to go through an unwanted pregnancy.  Many women never go through any kind of pregnancy and many pregnancies are planned.  Those women will be just as ignorant about the experiences women considering abortion have.  It seems strange to me that the mere possibility of getting pregnant would give someone the right to speak out on reproductive issues even though they haven’t walked in the shoes of someone experiencing an unplanned pregnancy when men would be barred from that right.  If there is a morally relevant point to be made for men not speaking about abortion it seems like it would have something to do with the fact that they can’t fully appreciate the trauma involved in an unplanned pregnancy.  So, if that matters it seems women who haven’t had an unplanned pregnancy should have to stay silent as well. 

Secondly, it sounds like they’re saying that if you can’t have first-hand knowledge of another person’s experience, then you can’t make moral judgments about what that person does. Yet, I can think of a lot of scenarios where even if someone doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of another person's experience they can still make moral judgments.

One example my pro-life friend Josh Brahm uses involves the following real-life scenario: Andrea Yates suffered from severe post-partum depression and tragically drowned her five children.  Now, I have never had a first-hand experience with post-partum depression and men very rarely experience it.  I can only try to imagine what it would be like to suffer enough to do something like that, but I will always fall short of a true understanding of Ms. Yates’s situation.  Most people would not be able to truly understand her situation, women and men included.  However, I think I and most other people including men can say that what Andrea Yates did was wrong.  Although she was obviously suffering greatly she should not have done what she did and her actions should continue to be illegal. 

Another example could be taking alcohol during pregnancy.  Drinking while pregnant can cause a child to be born with physical and mental abnormalities.  If men can't make moral judgments on what women do while pregnant, then they wouldn't be able to say that it would be wrong for a woman to drink while pregnant, or advocate drinking while pregnant to be made illegal.  However, I think men should be able to make those kinds of moral judgments. 

Another reason I don’t think men should shut up about abortion is because I don’t think anyone should shut up about abortion.  I want to be on the right side of history and I think the right side is the one with the best arguments.  The thing is, humans are terrible at taking a critical look at their own views.  So, a good way to find out whether the pro-choice position is actually better than the pro-life position is to talk to pro-life people and see if our arguments hold up against theirs.  But this kind of dialogue is impossible if we insist that half the population needs to shut up.



Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Responding to the Responsibility Objection: Part 1

The main reason I am doing this blog is to defend pro-choice bodily rights arguments with a focus on Judith Jarvis Thomson’s unconscious violinist thought experiment (hence the title “Restringing the Violinist”).  For the full break-down of that thought experiment see my last post.   

Pro-life philosophers have pointed out a number of differences that they believe to be morally relevant between the violinist story and pregnancy.  I think one of the most powerful objections I have encountered is the responsibility objection and I will attempt to respond to that objection in this this and one or two other posts, so this will just be part one. 

The objection goes something like this: in Thomson’s story you have not done a voluntary action that caused the violinist to need your kidneys to survive, but in pregnancy the pregnant woman has done a voluntary action that caused the fetus to need her to survive, namely, she had sex.  This seems to be a morally relevant difference.  Imagine you have poisoned the violinist by accident and that is why he now needs your kidney to survive, it seems plausible that you are now morally obligated to stay plugged into him.  However, I will demonstrate in a number of thought experiments that having done a voluntary action that causes someone to need you to survive does not mean you should be legally obligated to sacrifice your bodily autonomy for their benefit even if you are morally obligated. 

For example, suppose you and your wife are going on a romantic road-trip to a cabin in the mountains. You know there is a chance that you will get into an accident and injure someone, but you are a good driver and you follow all the rules of the road. You are in a residential area and a child is obliviously playing with a ball. He runs out from behind a parked car and you hit him. He is rushed to the hospital. He is okay except for his kidneys, they are severely damaged and he needs a transplant or he will die. Although you took precautions in order to avoid a situation like this, you have still caused someone to need you to survive so a government worker visits you at your home and informs you that if you do not donate your kidney to the child you may face jail time.  You don’t want to have a criminal record so you agree to donate.  You have to undergo surgery. You have to take a few months off work, so you are now in a terrible financial situation. Your wife leaves you and everyone around you looks down on you because you ran over a kid.

It seems extremely intrusive for people to be legally obligated to make such enormous sacrifices of their bodily autonomy.  Perhaps it is morally obligatory for you to donate a kidney to the child, but the added legal obligation seems extraordinarily intrusive to me.   

If we did force people to sacrifice their bodies for the dependents they create, not only would people who get into car accidents be required to sacrifice their bodily autonomy, but this may extend to other situations as well. Currently, you can sue people for all sorts of things and demand that they financially compensate you for the different ailments they have inflicted on you. Under the assumption that we can override people’s bodily autonomy when they have created a dependent we would now be able to demand that people submit their organs, blood, or bone marrow if they are found legally responsible for causing someone to need those things to survive. This seems like a huge injustice.

Suppose I run a small coffee shop and I fail to put up a “slippery when wet sign” and a customer trips, falls, and gets impaled on a straw.  It goes right through his kidney! He can survive for now, but he will eventually need a transplant. There is a very long waiting list for the next kidney and there is no chance that he will get one in time. Does he now get to sue me for my kidney?

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that that is a really outlandish analogy, but the point is that it seems extremely morally problematic to force employers to sacrifice their bodies against their will for their customers, or employees. This just seems like a terrible consequence of this line of reasoning. So, although I can appreciate the intuitive power of this objection I think it ultimately fails, because when you add a legal dimension (making it more closely parallel making abortion illegal) the objection leads to some very hard to swallow consequences. 



My Body My Choice! Explaining Bodily Rights to Pro-Life People

We hear the slogan “my body, my choice” a lot in conjunction with the pro-choice movement.  We see it on t-shirts and pins and signs and commercials, but I think the real meaning of those words often gets lost, especially to pro-life people.  Now, to be clear, someone can mean a number of things when they say/write this (which is probably why our meaning gets lost when we say it to pro-lifers), but  in this article I'm going to focus on how to present what I think is the most powerful argument that can be associated with this slogan.  

This argument was first articulated by Judith Jarvis Thomson in her paper “A Defense of Abortion” and it takes the form of the following thought experiment:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.  Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it?

Most pro-life arguments rest on the assumption that if the fetus has a right to life, then abortion must be violating its right to life and many people think this assumption is very reasonable.  Despite the intuitive plausibility of this assumption, generally people agree that unplugging from the violinist would not be violating his right to life.  The challenge for pro-choice people then, is how to defend this view that abortion does not violate the right to life of the fetus, even if it did have a right to life. 

Tips for defending the view that abortion doesn't violate the rights of the fetus:

First, you might not want to use the exact thought experiment Thomson uses, because I have found a lot of people are immediately turned off by its outlandishness.  Instead, I usually use a real life example.  In September of 2013 a 72 year old man onboard a cruise ship required a life-saving blood transfusion.  In order to save his life an urgent announcement was made asking crew members if they would be able to donate.  Over 40 crew members ended up responding to the announcement.  I'd then ask the pro-life person I'm talking to if they think what the crew members did was a supererogatory act (something good to do but not evil to refuse) or not.  Usually, they agree what the crew members did was supererogatory.  I then ask them to imagine a similar situation that is modified so that it is a little closer to what pregnancy is like. For example, suppose nobody volunteered their blood and in their desperation three of the mans family members kidnapped you.  While you were unconscious they attach you to a device that removes blood from your body and puts it into his.  When you regain consciousness a doctor tells you that in order to save this mans life you will need to come in and donate regularly for the next nine months.  

This situation is closer to an unplanned pregnancy because you are not volunteering to be connected to the other person and the burden is nine months long instead of the few minutes it takes to give blood.

You may also want to break down what things in the analogy you are comparing to pregnancy and which factors are irrelevant. 

Parallels to pregnancy:

1) One person requires another persons body to survive.
2) The person whose body is being used does not want to be used in this way.
3) We are assuming both people have a right to life.
4) If one person decides to discontinue care, the other will die. 

As you may have noticed, there are a number of potentially morally relevant differences between pregnancy and the thought experiments I have outlined, however, I think if you closely examine these differences you will find that they do not undermine the analogy.  I will attempt to address as many of these differences as I can in other posts.



Monday, 16 December 2013

Why defend the pro-choice position?

As a pro-choice person living in Canada, I find that it can be very easy to forget about the issue of abortion.  After all, we  already won right?  Abortion is legal and that fact doesn't seem to be changing any time soon.  So why bother making a case for legalized abortion? 

One reason is pragmatic.  I know it might seem like a lot of pro-lifers are idiots, but there are a lot of very intelligent pro-lifers who are working on making a persuasive defense of the pro-life position.  They are writing blogs in order to reach people, like this secular pro-life blog.  They are going to college campuses and defending their view in debates, as well as one on one discussions.  In other words, a lot of people are spending a lot of money and resources trying to change people's views on abortion and if pro-choice people don't have good arguments to back up their position, it is very possible that abortion could be made illegal again. 

Another reason is both an intellectual and moral one.  In general, I think people want to be on the right side of history.  Pro-life people believe that abortion is morally the same as murder.  Every day hundreds of abortions take place across Canada, thousands in the United States and millions world wide.  If abortion is morally the same as murder, there is an enormous injustice occurring every day in our own back yards.  If we want to know whether we are on the right side of history we need to have good reasons to back up our beliefs and have those reasons stand up against the reasoning the other side provides.   I think, as a proud liberal who cares about human rights, it is important for me to have good reasons why I think pro-life people are wrong about there being a holocaust taking place in my own country and around the world.  Unfortunately however, I think that many pro-choice advocates have been using weak arguments to back up their view.  The purpose of this blog then, is to expose weak pro-choice arguments and try and replace them with sound arguments that can be used win hearts and minds.