Thursday, June 24, 2021

Miscarriage & Abortion: Responding with Support, Responding with Philosophy, or Both?

When people have miscarriages, it's a major understatement to say that that they are typically upset: indeed, for them, it is often a life-changing tragedy.

Why is it a tragedy for them? Why are they grieving?

Asking these questions might seem tacky since answers might seem so obvious, but if you wish to be supportive of anyone who has had a miscarriage and is grieving, here's the answer: 

any answer is a great answer: any reasons people give for grieving a miscarriage are great reasons.

That is the basis of any supportive, caring person's responses. Caring people here are understanding and supportive of anything grieving people here have to say: they recognize that all their feelings about the miscarriage are "valid" and should be validated.

In contexts like these, however, some people sometimes want to be "philosophers," and, with the grieving person, critically evaluate what is said for why they are grieving: do they have a good argument in support of their grief?

Both pro-choice and anti-abortion people do this, sometimes. 

How often this happens, I suppose nobody really knows. But it's usually bad whenever anyone does it. 

For example, a person grieving a miscarriage might say that they are grieving because they are upset, for their child, about their child losing their life. 

Apparently, it is reported that some people want to "argue" with such a grieving person, arguing that the fetus isn't a "child" or that a fetus cannot really lose their life, for some abstract reasons (e.g., for something to be your life, you have to be aware of it, or aware of something). 

So they apparently try to convince the person that their grief can entirely be explained by factors other than the fetus itself, for its own sake: e.g., the loss of that expected future with that child. 

Again, I have no idea how often this happens, but my bet is that almost always such "philosophizing" is unwelcome: it doesn't make anyone feel any better or provide any kind of emotional comfort or support in a time of acute grief. 

And whether their arguments are good or not is irrelevant since now is just not the time or place for this type of philosophizing. (Similarly, a religious person telling someone with a loved one who died that they are now "in a better place"heavenis entirely unwelcome, inappropriate, and not comforting, even if that claim happens to be true [and perhaps it is not]). 

As another example, pro-choice people sometimes also have miscarriages, or a newborn baby dies, and they grieve their loss. 

Some people take this an opportunity to "philosophize" and argue that their grief makes no sense, given their pro-choice views, or that if they are grieving now, they should also think that abortion is wrong.   

Again, I have no idea how often this happens, but my bet is that almost always such "philosophizing" is unwelcome: it doesn't make anyone feel any better or provide any kind of emotional comfort or support in a time of acute grief. And whether their arguments are good or not (they are not) is irrelevant to this.

I suspect it is more common for pro-choice people to be on the receiving end of this type of callousness. Pro-choicers readily recognize reasons to grieve miscarriages, so they aren't surprised by any anti-abortion people grieving miscarriages. Anti-abortion people, however, think the pro-choicers are inconsistent or incoherent in their grieving, which makes it more likely they'd be the aggressors here. 

For a pro-choice person to respond badly to a grieving person who is anti-abortion, you'd either need the pro-choice person to raise the issue along the lines of "Ya know, if you are mourning here because of your beliefs about fetuses, those beliefs are mistaken" (which is unlikely, since it's just uncommon to "challenge" people when they are grieving, since it's just rude and obnoxious) or you'd need the anti-abortion person to, on their own accord, offer up their fetus-centric reasons for mourning and then the pro-choicer challenge them on that, which is again unlikely. So, again, I suspect it's more common for anti-abortion people to be callous on this issue, not pro-choice people but, again, I doubt there is any great evidence either way.

So, in general, when people are grieving anything, it's best to try to understand their feelings and validate them: don't try to argue people out of their grief or argue that they shouldn't feel how they feel.

However, things aren't so simple and this isn't an exceptionless rule. 

The reason for this is just that people can have negative emotional experiences because of false beliefs. Indeed, the major approach to psychotherapy and counselingknown as cognitive-behavioral therapyis based on this insight: people often feel negative emotions because they have false or irrational beliefs, so a goal of therapy is identifying these beliefs and correcting them, to improve emotional well-being. 

What this means is that if someone grieves a miscarriage because they believe that, say, beginning fetuses are people just like you or me, if that belief is likely false, then it might be good to address that, since that might be emotionally beneficial: improving belief should improve feeling. 

(Related, if people feel guilty for having an abortion, and they feel guilty because they think they have done something wrong—that's what guilt is a response to—then it is useful to explain to them that they didn't do anything wrong, if there are good reasons to believe that, and there are.) 

Likewise, if that belief were likely true, and there are really good reasons to believe that beginning fetuses are people just like you or me, then it could be appropriate to "confront" someone who is totally indifferent to a miscarriage (if there were such a person). While we don't often do this, it sometimes happens that we tell people, "Look, something big happened, and you seem to have no negative feelings about it, but you should!" This might not make them feel better, in the sense of having "positive" emotions, but their feelings might become more accurate to the reality of the situation, if that were the reality.

So when is it good to be a philosopher, and when is it good to be a supportive person? And when is the best emotional support to engage someone philosophically?

To answer this requires insight, wisdom, and good judgment (especially in impersonal online environments where it's unclear whether the goal is being supportive, philosophical, both, or neither!). And we all need more of that, about these issues and many others. 

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Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Star Trek: "Human rights. Why, the very name is racist."

There's a scene from the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where one of the Klingon characters states, "Human rights. Why, the very name is racist." 


She says this in response to the suggestion that people on planets throughout the universe have "human rights." 

Since she is a Klingon, and so is not biologically human, she is keenly aware that claiming that she has human rights is problematic: it's like men saying that basic rights are men's rights, or the rights of men, and then acknowledging that women have them too; or a race of people defining rights in terms of their own race ("white rights"?) but then using that same terminology to describe the rights of people of other races ("black and brown people have white rights too"? No, we all have [or should have] the same rights, described in a general, non-race-specific way). 

The concept of rights is not tied to any particular biology or species. So, yes, human beings have rights, but if there were Klingons or other non-human beings like them, they too would have those rights too. Since different species could have themthat's possible, or the concept allows itthat's part of the reason why it's unhelpful to think in terms of rights as human rights. That such beings (probably) don't exist is not relevant: suppose we called rights "less than 10-foot tall person-rights": the possibility that a greater than 10-foot tall person could exist is enough to show that this wouldn't be a good description for rights: we want a description that would apply to anything that, if it existed, would have rights.  

Describing rights as "human rights" is problematic because the basis of basic rights is not tied to any particular biology or species. Why do both the human beings on Star Trek and the Klingons both have rights? What makes them have rights? It's not their species, since they are different species. The most obvious answer is that they both have rights because both these human beings and these Klingons are conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative, and so on: they have minds of a certain type. In other words, they are persons. The human beings are human persons and the Klingons are non-human persons. (This is the basic reasoning given to think that many non-human animals have basic rights and are either persons or are person-like). 

To take this discussion back to abortion, while (human) zygotes, embryos and beginning fetuses are biologically human, they are not much like the human crew on Star Trek or the Klingon crew, and they don't have the rights these crew members have. Fetuses are of the same species as the human crew, but the basis for rights isn't biology. So even though beginning fetuses are biologically human, they don't have the rights that human beings who are persons typically have, and they wouldn't have the rights that Klingons would have, if they were to exist. The language of "human rights" suggests that anything that's human has basic rights, but if we reflect on why anyone (or anything) has rights, or what makes something (or someone) have rights, we see that's naive: it's not just being of a biological category that makes something have rights. 

People often assume (correctly) that human beings have rights. But they rarely think about why human beings have rights, or what makes them have rights. Fiction, and fictional persons who have rights, can help us understand why we have rights and help us understand why some biologically human organisms—like beginning fetusesseem to lack what gives anyone rights. Thinking about actual persons, as well as possible persons—beings who, if they existed, would be persons—can help us understand personhood, and the basis of rights, which is essential for productive thinking about abortion. 

P.S. An alternative view on personhood, which many critics of abortion claim to accept, is that persons aren't just beings that are conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative, and so on (and there are ways to explain why sleeping people and people in comas remain persons even though they can't currently think, feel, etc.); it's that any kind or type of being that is conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative and so on is a person. So, advocates of this view might say that although a fertilized human egg and a fertilized fish egg (or beginning fetus, if you don't like the egg example) seem very similar, a fertilized human egg is this type or kind of being and so is a person, whereas the fish egg is not. 

Some fair questions are this: why accept this proposal for what persons are? And why reject this proposal?

One quick reason to reject this proposal is that if being the kind of being that is conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative, and so on makes anything (like an embryo) an actual person, thensince those characteristics also make someone responsible, autonomous, praise and blame-worthyso on that would also seem to make that embryo actually responsible, autonomous, and praise and blame-worthy. But embryos are none of that, so being a "kind" of being doesn't mean you have the actual characteristics that result from actually being that being: e.g., being the kind of being that's a person, and the kind of being that's responsible and so is different from being a person and being responsible. Here's some on that; more will be posted later. 

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Monday, May 17, 2021

Thank you notes, again!

My philosopher friend Dan Lowe (at U Michigan) gives his students an assignment to write a thank you note to some author they read in his Intro to Ethics class who they appreciated in some way.

THIS IS A GREAT ASSIGNMENT and more instructors who run classes where they read and discuss living and email-accessible folks (like me and the philosophy friends here) should do it.

Here are 20 notes to me, in response to my "Early and Later Abortions: Ethics and Law" from Bob Fischer's Ethics: Left and Right anthology. (This paper led to the book Thinking Critically About Abortion and other writings with Kristina Grob, the Salon article with Jonathan Dudley, and a bunch of new e-friends and some reputation as being someone who can help people engage controversial issues in productive and "polite" ways.)

There are some nice themes to them!


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Response to Katie Yoder’s “Salon Piece Says ‘Pro-Choice Ethics’ Prove Abortion Isn’t Murder.”

We thank Katie Yoder for reading our Salon article “Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking” and responding to it in her “TownHall” article, “Salon Piece Says ‘Pro-Choice Ethics’ Prove Abortion Isn’t Murder.”

As we note in our piece, the central argument against abortion made by the Catholic Church and most evangelical denominations and pro-life groups is that abortion is wrong because it is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. This is also the argument made by Ms. Yoder: “the pro-life stance is a solid one: Life is precious, and abortion intentionally destroys the life of an innocent human being. 

We argue in our piece that this argument, if sound, means that widely accepted organ donation procedures are also wrong. (We also discuss the treatment of anencephalic infants, though because the argument here is less direct than the argument from organ donation, we’ll focus on the latter). 

Although Ms. Yoder identifies a number of disanalogies between these procedures and abortion (discussed below), they have no impact on our argument because these procedures both share the relevant similarity of intentionally killing an innocent human being. According to Ms. Yoder, and most pro-life organizations, that is what makes abortion wrong.  

We provide an alternative ethical framework that makes sense of the widespread belief that such organ donation procedures are not wrong: they affect human beings without brains that allow for consciousness or feeling or awareness. Yoder notes that such organ donors have given consent, but clearly this isn’t what makes the procedure permissible since few people would think it’s okay to remove all of the vital organs from (and thereby kill) a fully conscious person who has given consent (even if that person’s life was almost over anyway, another difference Ms. Yoder notes).

In a further search for disanalogies, Ms. Yoder says abortion is different from these organ donation procedures because “it’s wrong to commit an action with the sole purpose and intent to end the life of an innocent human being.”

But, clearly, the sole purpose of abortion is not to kill an innocent human being. If this was the case, then that purpose could be realized by killing any innocent human being, including an adult. The purpose of abortions to end pregnancies that, for a variety of reasons, women don’t want to continue. Killing a human being may be the sole means to that end, but it is also the sole means to the end of obtaining vital organs for transplant from permanently brain dead but still living human beings.

Finally, in attempting to rebut the relevance of consciousness for moral status, she suggests that babies aren't “consciously aware” until 12 to 15 months after birth. She suggests that our alternative ethical framework would imply babies have no moral value until that point. 

To support her suggestion that babies aren’t conscious, Yoder references a medical article that’s about a type of higher-order thought capacity (e.g., thinking about thinking, being aware that you are aware) that develops much later after infancy. But here she is simply confusing the basic concept of consciousness with a related, more complex concept, and this understanding of consciousness depends on that more basic form of consciousness that we focus on, which babies clearly have.

Rooting moral value in the possession of a brain capable of consciousness means that moral value begins when such a brain begins to exist (in the second half of pregnancy) and ends when such a brain ceases to exist. “Brain death” is a well-known and morally significant concept, but analogous concepts for the beginning of life“brain birth” or being “brain alive” are not well known, but should be. 

Yoder also claims that aborted fetuses don’t “consent” to what’s done to them, but “consent” doesn’t make sense here either: beginning fetuses cannot consent to anything—they can’t consent to abortion, they can’t consent to being born, they can’t consent to coming into existence. To demand consent here is to require what’s literally impossible and so can’t be a valid requirement. 

So, yes, there are some differences between abortion and these cases from medical ethics: the challenge though is to explain why these differences are important and to just explain why abortion, at least of beginning fetuses, would be wrong. 

While extremists on both sides insist that the truth about abortion is simple and obvious, the truth is these matters are complex—involving many hard questions such as ‘What makes us wrong to kill?’ ‘What are we, fundamentally, our minds or our bodies?” “When do our lives end, and when do our lives begin?’ and more—and arguments about it are challenging. 

We do hope that Yoder’s article encourages readers to learn more about these complex issues and work harder to really understand the claims and arguments they might disagree with. When people really understand those arguments, they often find they have merit, and when they engage people they disagree with, they come to understand that they have some good points and good intentions. And so we conclude on what was perhaps the most important line of our article:

[O]ur political culture needs genuinely fair and balanced, honest and respectful engagement of arguments and truth-seeking: more people practicing this with the complex topic of abortion would help set a better intellectual and moral tone that would enable us all to better engage the many other polarizing issues that confront our society. 

We encourage Yoder and any readers here to help make this be so. 

* * *

For further reading, see Nobis’s & Grob’s Thinking Critically About Abortion and Dudley’s Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics and “When the ‘Biblical View’ for Evangelicals was that life begins at birth.”

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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking

Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking


Many medical procedures are ethically similar to abortion — but without the outcry. Why?

By NATHAN NOBIS - JONATHAN DUDLEY

APRIL 11, 2021 


The article really is about more than what the title suggests. Here's an important paragraph:
Enabling more people to more productively engage the many ethical arguments about abortion won't, by itself, solve any social or political problems: no single strategy would. But ethics education is an essential part of any successful comprehensive strategy to ensure abortion rights and access, and so pro-choice advocates should engage in it. More generally, our political culture needs genuinely fair and balanced, honest and respectful engagement of arguments and truth-seeking: more people practicing this with the complex topic of abortion would help set a better intellectual and moral tone that would enable us all to better engage the many other polarizing issues that confront our society.
Some critical responses that we've see are here:

A quick response: 

Dear Ms. Yoder,
      Thanks for this response. I am curious though about your claim about babies: do you really think that babies aren't conscious or aware or feeling? Surely you have been around a baby, so why do you suggest they are not conscious? 
          Second, you write that "it’s wrong to commit an action with the sole purpose and intent to end the life of an innocent human being." But that's not the sole purpose and intent behind abortions: the main purpose is to end pregnancies, for a variety of reasons. 
          If you meant to say that "it’s wrong to commit an action with the purpose and intent to end the life of an innocent human being," the point of the article was to observe that if that's true, then killing human beings for organ donation is wrong, as is letting anencephalic die. But these aren't wrong, although they involve "intentionally destroy[ing] the life of an innocent human being"--and this is best explained by their lacking a functioning, consciousness-making brain, and so at least early abortion is wrong. Yes, there are differences here, but they don't seem to matter. For more on that, see Thinking Critically About Abortion at www.AbortionArguments.com
              Thank you!

              A longer response: Response to Katie Yoder’s “Salon Piece Says ‘Pro-Choice Ethics’ Prove Abortion Isn’t Murder.”

              What does anyone think of these responses? Please share any thoughts in the comments!

              Here is an explanation of the argument, or one interpretation of the argument:
              1. Organ donation procedures and the treatment of anencephalic newborns are morally permissible.
              2. If organ donation procedures and the treatment of anencephalic newborns are morally permissible, then it’s permissible to end the lives of biologically human organisms without functioning, consciousness-making brains.
              3. If it’s permissible to end the lives of biologically human organisms without functioning, consciousness-making brains, then early abortions, of fetuses without functioning, consciousness-making brains are morally permissible.
              4. Therefore, early abortions, of fetuses without functioning, consciousness-making brains are morally permissible.
              To respond, here’s what one could do, regarding each premise:
              1. Argue that organ donation procedures and the treatment of anencephalic newborns are not morally permissible, for whatever reason(s): e.g., these are human, these are human organisms, these are human beings; there is always some chance of recovery, etc.
              2. Argue that a different generalization, or none, at all, is suggested by the cases in (1). Explain why that's a better generalization to draw than what we propose. 
              3. Identify a relevant difference such that (3) is false and justify the relevance of that difference: e.g., clearly, fetuses and the organ donation and anencephalic newborn cases are different: fetuses typically have a type of “potential” that the other cases don’t; fetuses, if “left alone,” so to speak will continue living, etc., but how is that relevant? Why would that make killing them wrong? Real, developed answers are needed, and the answer that “because they are human organisms” isn’t going to cut it, at least not for those who accept (1).

              Two errors in "Thinking Critically About Abortion"

              No book is perfect and there are at least two errors in Thinking Critically About Abortion. Well, maybe they aren't full-on errors, but they are things that I wish we had put in more careful ways.

              First, when we argue that "all abortion should be legal," we do not mean to say that literally every possible abortion should be legal or that there should be no regulations at all about abortion. Rather, we meant to be saying that (US) law should stay roughly as it is and, at least, not keep some abortions legal (say those that involve pregnancies that result from rape, and when necessary to save the pregnant person's life, and others) and most other abortions illegal: they all should be legal. So I wish we had clarified that more.

              Second, there's this paragraph in the Preface:

              Furthermore, since the right to life is not the right to someone else’s body, fetuses might not have the right to the pregnant woman’s body—which she has the right to—and so she has the right to not allow the fetus use of her body. This further justifies abortion, at least until technology allows for the removal of fetuses to other wombs. Since morally permissible actions should be legal, abortions should be legal: it is an injustice to criminalize actions that are not wrong.

              The bolded line is about what's called ectogenesis and our remarks about it are too cavalier. 

              First, removing fetuses to other wombs will be an invasive medical procedure (unless we learn how to make teletransporters, like from Star Trek, and that's not gonna happen for a long time, if ever) and so at least forcing someone to endure such a procedure is, and would be, problematic. And there are challenges in thinking that anyone would be morally obligated to do that also. 

              Perhaps more importantly, however, a proposal like "Look, if you want an abortion, here's a better solution: ectogenesis" doesn't engage the full reality of having a child, or someone, "out there" who is genetically related to you. It's like this: suppose someone stole your egg(s) or sperm(s) (although you don't know that they did this) and used it (or them) to create a person, who is now born and "out there." Question: how do you feel about this? Is this a big deal to you or not? To most people, this is going to be a big deal, and so a "No big deal, we'll just move the fetus to an artificial womb and go from there" would also be a big deal: it's a big deal to have a child even if you didn't gestate or birth that child (as men know). Now what should and shouldn't be allowed here, and what would or wouldn't be wrong here, I'm not going to comment on here. I merely want to observe that the issues are much more complex and challenging than what our quick comments suggest.

              Reports of other errors are welcome! Thank you!

              Wednesday, March 31, 2021

              The Animal Rights, "Domination" and "Comatose Newborn Baby" Objections to an Argument for Abortion

              One type of argument in general defense of abortionan argument that abortion usually isn't wrongdepends on the fact that early fetuses are not conscious, aware, or feeling at all, since their brains and nervous systems aren't developed enough to support any type of mental life. 

              Combine these emprical claims with the moral observation that consciousness and awareness are what ultimately make our lives have value and fundamentally what gives us, say, the right to life, and we can conclude that at least abortions of pre-conscious fetuses are typically not wrong. Since most abortions are of fetuses like this, we can conclude that most abortions aren't wrong. 

              The argument involves a moral principle like this:

              • If a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being. 
              This type of principle relates to personhoodsince any being like this wouldn't be a personand harm: to harm someone is make someone worse off compared to how they were, and that can't happen to a being like this. 

              Really understanding the argument require thinking through a number of challenging issues: it's not a soundbite or bumper sticker argument. This type of argument is developed in Thinking Critically About Abortion and this earlier chapterThere are many objections to the argument though, and I will review three of them here.  

              1. Babies and Animals

              First, some seem to assume that the "consciousness" referred to in this argument is some kind of what I'll call "fancy consciousness"—thinking about calculus, baba ganoush and reflecting on how to live your best life—and so think this argument implies that babies don't have rights. 

              But the argument doesn't require any such higher-level, "fancy" thinking—all it requires is awareness, feelings, and a perspective: there's a way it is to be that being, for that being.

              Some then are concerned that if this type of consciousness is enough for a right to life, then that means that raising and killing animals to eat them would often be wrong. They then react that that's a good reason to reject the reasoning. 

              This is a curious response though. Almost anyone who gives that objection doesn't have to eat animals: they could eat plant-based foods. And, of course, raising and killing animals is very bad for those animals. 

              So, on initial appearances, the reaction—"this argument suggests it's wrong to kill animals and so it must be flawed"seems to be a selfish reaction: "This reasoning means that I need to change my views in ways I don't want and, more importantly, do something that I don't want to do, all for the benefit of someone else that I find to be not very much like me, namely animals." This is selfishness. 

              Now, what's interesting is that many critics of abortion claim that women who have abortions, and abortion advocates generally, are selfish, because they—critics claim—just want to live their own lives and do what they want to do, but without any concern for fetuses and by rejecting their obligations. "It's just selfishness," they sometimes really say. 

              Now, isn't this objection to this argument—in light of its implications for animals—just selfish also? 

              If it is, let's recognize that: most people who call themselves "pro-life" are selfish in that they are not concerned about the lives, and brutal deaths, of conscious, feeling, living beings who aren't human: at least, they are not concerned enough to do anything about it. Now, that's true of most pro-choice people too, and that should be recognized: an honest assessment of the situation is needed to begin making some progress in thinking and doing. 

              Now, if people, especially "pro-life" people, are not selfish in lacking any serious concern for sentient animal life, we need to hear why: let's see the strong moral reasoning to show that, in circumstances like our's, it's actually generally OK to raise animals to eat them. That's gonna be hard

              If someone shows that they lack the skills and attitudes to responsibly and productively engage ethics and animals issues, we might reasonably doubt that they lack the abilities to responsibly engage the issue of abortion and so doubt the reliability of their judgments on that topic: vice in thinking about one topic tends to spill over to vice in thinking about other topics, since it's the same thinker.  

              2. Domination

              A second objection to the argument above goes something like this: 

              If having moral rights ultimately depends on being conscious, or having been conscious, as many theories of rights propose, then beings that are more conscious have more or stronger rights than being that a less conscious. Alternatively, those who have a higher "degree" or level of consciousness have stronger rights than those with a lower level or degree, and so the "higher" are entitled to dominate those who are "lower" or at least have moral priority.

              This type of objection, however, is very weak, since there is just no reason to believe the suggested implication. 

              Advocates of the argument above propose that if a being is conscious at all, especially in a way that those conscious experiences are connected and inter-related, then that being has a right to life, or is otherwise typically wrong to kill, in a manner that's equal to anyone else who has that right. They don't claim or suggest anything along the lines of super-smart humans are entitled to dominate simple-minded humans.

              So their view is comparable to this: you can pass usually a class with a 70% overall grade, and you can also pass with any higher grade. But any passing grade is equally a passing grade: it's not like a 89% is "more" of a passing grade than a 71% or "A" grades have some claim over "C" students in terms of whether they've passed or not. So whether someone pass a class is determined by a variable characteristic (grades), but anyone who passes a class "equally" passes the class. So, something similar applies with a mind-based theory of rights: if you meet the minimal threshold, you are "in the club," so to speak, and fully and equally in the club.  

              Finally, the objection's claim that some individuals are "more" or "less" conscious than others is doubtful. A baby is not conscious of some things that we are conscious of, and babies are conscious of things that we are not conscious of (and the same is true of, e.g., dogs and other animals), but neither is "more conscious": we are both conscious and equally conscious, although conscious of different things. 

              Overall, this objection is not well developed and is just implausible on its face. If it were rigorously developed and defended, there'd be more to say about it.

              3. The "Comatose Newborn Baby" Objection

              Finally, there's an objection that is based on a case like this:

              A baby is born, in a coma. That baby has never been conscious. But that baby will become conscious . . eventually. 

              The argument then is that if the "if a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being" principle is true, then it's not wrong to end the life of this baby. But since, they say, it would be wrong to end the life of this baby, the "if a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being" principle is false and so the original argument just isn't a good argument in defense of abortion.

              I don't think this objection succeeds. 

              First, the case is basically a unique baby that, for all practical purposes, is just like a beginning fetuses in all its relevant features: the claim is basically, "Killing fetuses that have never had minds is wrong because killing a born baby that has never had a mind would be wrong also" and so the reasoning is close to circular. In that way, the argument is question-begging, or assumes that the principle it is trying to argue against is false in making a case that it's false, if the reasoning amounts to something like this:

              This "if a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being" principle is false because there could be this comotose "baby" and even though that baby is not conscious, and has never been conscious, that "baby" would be wrong to kill. 

              If this is the reaction, it basically amounts to just assuming the principle is false.  

              Next, the reactions to the case that it would be wrong to led this never-been-conscious baby die, or kill this baby, are, I think, emotion-driven: people picture in their minds a more normal babywho would be wrong to kill, since that baby is conscious, aware and has feelingsand those feelings transfer to this "baby," which is nothing like a normal baby, even though they really shouldn't transfer. And this emotional distortion can lead people to overlook these important questions:

              • Would anyone be harmed if the "baby" were killed? 
                • No, there is no conscious individual here who would be made worse off, compared to how they were, if this body were killed: this case is very different from killing a normal baby since, again, this baby is just like an early fetus, just bigger and born.  
              • Would any person be killed if the "baby" were killed? 
                • No, there is no conscious individual here who would be killed, although killing this body would prevent the emergence of a future person. 
              So, again, the case does not provide a good reason to reject this type of pro-choice argument: it seems to just assume that what it's arguing against is false, instead of giving a reason that the principle is false (and a reason which doesn't just assume it's false).   

              Next, the case is very different from abortion, so one could agree that it'd be wrong to let the "baby" die but deny that anything follows about abortion.  

              For one, the comatose newborn "baby" is no longer dependent on anyone in particular, and anyone's body in particular: anyone could take care of this baby. So, one could plausibly think that, all things considered, this matters and makes a difference: yes, someone, or someones, has to take care of this "baby," given the situation, but pregnant women are not obligated to "take care of" pre-conscious fetuses that are in their bodies and so only they can take care of them: that's too much of a burden which they don't have to take on if they don't want to. 

              It is a fair question, however, to ask about details about the case: in particular, how long would it take for the baby to become conscious? What if it's 50 years? 80 years? Does that matter? Inquiring minds would want to know. Maybe there'd be a point where people would concede that the time is too much and so the lack of harm here really does matter and so it'd also matter with a shorter time period too. 

              Next, I think it's important to observe that this "baby" is quite different from a beginning fetus in that it is, as the case is intended, very close to being conscious. And maybe that's an important difference. It's like this:

              Suppose I've been studying to get into law school, and I'm doing well, but this is very much because of your help in keeping me on track, encouraging me, quizzing me, and more: I literally couldn't do it without you. You've been helping me for years now, and I've almost made it, since the LSAT (test to get into law school) is in a month and I will do well if, but only if, you keep helping me. 

              Now, it's within your rights to stop helping me, even if I lose out on my dream of going to law school. But shouldn't you keep helping me, unless there's some real good reason why you shouldn't (like I become mean or ungrateful or ..)? I mean, we've come this far; let's finish this! If you had backed out on all this years ago, that'd be one thing, but we're almost to the end here! Let's finish this so I can make my dream come true!

              If this case has a moral or a point (and maybe it doesn't!) then it might transfer to the comatose baby—since that baby body is almost conscious and so maybe there is some obligation at this point to make that happen. That intuition, however, won't transfer to a beginning fetus. 

              So, all and all, the "comatose newborn baby" objection is not a good one, given the differences and the similarities between this "baby" and beginning fetuses and pregnant women. 

              4. Conclusion

              Here I've briefly presented a particular type of argument in defense of abortion and three objections focussed on that specific argument. These objections appear to be weak, so they don't provide good reason to reject the argument. If there are better objections, we'll want to find them. 

              Wednesday, March 24, 2021

              Abortion: Arguments, not Circumstances

              People sometimes begin discussing abortion by asking questions about abortion in particular circumstances: “What if it’s needed to save the mother’s life?” “What if the pregnancy is from rape?” “What if there are severe fetal abnormalities?” and so on. Or they begin by stating circumstances where they think abortion is wrong or not: “It’s wrong if used for ‘birth control’,” “It’s not wrong if the woman is too young to be an effective mother,” and so on.

              These starting points are fine, if – but only if – these statements are supported, or questions answered, with reasons. Our concern is arguments, the reasons given for and against specific conclusions about abortion, such as that:

              Abortion is:
                     (nearly) always morally wrong.
                     (nearly) always morally permissible, or not wrong.

                     wrong, except in these circumstances: ____.
                     permissible, except in these circumstances: ____.

                     sometimes morally obligatory, or wrong to not have, such as in these circumstances: ____.

              People sometimes offer moral claims about abortion “in general,” without being precise about which abortions they have in mind. But the details matter: depending on the stage of fetal development and the woman’s circumstances, different moral conclusions may be appropriate.

              Some people also want to focus on important, but comparatively rare, abortions: for example, of pregnancies from rape (perhaps 1% of abortions) or incest.[5] Our initial focus will be on more common circumstances where for a variety of other reasons, a woman is pregnant but does not want to have a child (or another child, now). After this we will discuss other important, but less common, circumstances.


              We can immediately set aside circumstances though where the woman would die if her pregnancy continues, and so the fetus will die also, or we must choose between the mother and fetus. Even people who generally oppose abortion typically argue that we should save one life instead of losing two lives and prioritize the mother, not the fetus. Their view then is not that abortion is always wrong, but that it is wrong in most circumstances, or prima facie wrong.


              Whether this specific conclusion, and any other, can be supported with good arguments is {or should be!] our concern. 

              Monday, March 1, 2021

              No, Being Pro-choice is Not Ablest: Abortion and Ableism

              I've recently seen some abortion critics call a certain type of argument in defense of abortionones that appeal to the total lack of minds or consciousness in zygotes, embryos, and at least beginning fetusesablest. Arguments that deny that fetuses are persons tend to be arguments like this, since they usually understand "persons" in terms of psychological characteristics or having a mind.

              The claim is that these arguments assume a type of unjustified, wrongful discrimination, ableism, and so people who give this type of argument for abortion are, well, advocating for wrongful discrimination, which is wrong. 

              This objection, however, is a bad objection. This type of argument in defense of abortion is not ableist, and I bet this charge is an offensive comparison to people who are genuinely affected by ableism.  

              To begin, here are a few definitions of ableism:

              • Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior;
              • Ableism . . is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and/or people who are perceived to be disabled. Ableism characterizes people who are defined by their disabilities as inferior to the non-disabled;
              • Ableism is discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.
              So ableism is discrimination against people, against individuals, who are judged negatively because of their abilities, or because they lack certain abilities. 

              Once we review the definitions of ableism, we readily see that embryos and early fetuses cannot be victims of it. This is not because of what abilities they have or lack, however; it's because they are completely without abilities: there is no individual or person there who has or lacks any abilities.

              Ableism involves seeing someone and thinking they are less valuable or worthy of respect because of their physical, cognitive or emotional abilities. But with embryos and early fetuses, there is no someone, no conscious individual, who has or lacks any abilities. Ableism requires that there be a someone who is judged negatively, but there is no "someone" when there is an embryo or beginning fetus, so the charge of ableism makes no sense. 

              To further make the point, imagine you ask me what my friends Mary and John are like. Suppose I respond with this: 

              "Mary is a is a good listener who enjoys ice-skating, watching old movies, crossword puzzles and rock climbing. And she's a person."

              "John likes ice cream, is often rather quiet, is really good at math, and likes to read. And he's a conscious, thinking and feeling being." 

              It's weird to add on "and she's a person" and "and she's a conscious, thinking, feeling being," because I've already said this by telling you what they are like in these other ways. Only persons and conscious beings have these interests and abilities so it's redundant to point out that these friends are persons and conscious beings: indeed, we were probably even told by that by the word "friend." 

              Similarly, only persons or conscious beings have and lack abilities, so when some kind of entity is not a person or conscious being, accusing someone of being ableistic towards that entity makes no sense: again, there's no individual or person to be ableistic towards or about. 

              So, arguing that abortion is not wrong because embryos and beginning fetuses are entirely without consciousness or minds is not ableist. The accusation just doesn't fit when there is no subject or person or conscious being: if there's no one like that, there isn't anyone who has or lacks abilities and so the charge of ableism doesn't make sense. 

              I suspect that many people who are genuinely affected by ableism would find the suggestion that their experience with ablemism is comparable to the "experience" of fetuses offensive. Here's some important discussion:

              Who is Affected by Ableism? Ableism can affect almost anyone whom society stereotypes as not being part of the mainstream. WHO? The hearing impaired; the visually impaired; those who use mobility equipment; those with congenital anomalies; those with speech or motor impairments; those with diabetes, depression, asthma, arthritis, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, migraines, epilepsy, AIDS, hemophilia, etc.

              Ableism affects the lived experience of these people: it affects their experienced world, for the worse; it diminishes their self-conception and sense of self-worth; it negatively affects their quality of life. 

              The suggestion that embryos and early fetuses are "like" these human beings, in that they both victims of ableism, is not just false, I'd say it's offensive. To compare the experience of someone affected by ableism to the non-experience of a being that's never been conscious or had any experiences is, well, disrespectful to people who are genuinely affected by and experience ableism. To say to someone who experiences ableism something like, for example, "Embryos used in embryo experimentation are discriminated against because of their lack of abilities and that is similar to how you are discriminated against because of your abilities" is not just a false comparison, it's an offensive comparison: it just fails to understand ableism and why it's wrong.

              In sum, the appeal to "ableism" in arguing against abortion, is similar to the appeals to "equality," "anti-discrimination" and "human rights" in arguing against abortion and attempts to make opposition to abortion sound like opposition to racism and sexism. These are all attempts to make opposition to abortion sound "progressive" and present concern for embryos and fetuses as part of the "expanding circle" of moral concern. But these "liberal" concerns simply don't apply to pre-conscious beings like embryos and early fetuses and so these attempts fail and mislead. The more people willing to take the time and energy to reflect, notice and understand this, the better. 


              All blog posts are here!

              Some especially relevant posts:

              Saturday, February 20, 2021

              When does human life begin? Would around 70% of people deny that "human life begins at conception"?

              It's common for people who oppose abortion to enthusiastically affirm that "life begins at conception." Speaking more precisely, they claim that "human life begins at conception."

              To support their claims, they observe that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are surely alive, biologically: they came from living eggs and sperm and so are "life." And they are surely biologically human: they have human DNA and are of the human species; these aren't feline or canine fetuses at issue. 

              So what they say seems obviously correct to them, and this sometimes leads them to mock people who deny that human life begins at conception, asking things like this:

              "How could these pro-choice people deny basic facts from biology and science, that fetuses are engaged in the processes of life and that fetuses are biologically human, that they are not some other species?!

              This rhetorical question (which is, unfortunately, usually left unanswered) sometimes leads to insults, name-calling, and worse. 

              Now, perhaps these types of responses are developed on the basis of interacting with people who claim that "human life does not begin at conception" but give uninformed, naive, or absurd reasons why they think that. Many people don't know much about biology, and so—if they say something to address what the abortion critic saysthey just might not know or understand the evidence that the abortion critic appeals to in arguing that what they are calling "human life" does begin at conception. About these people, if they need to learn more about biology, then they really should. (What these abortion critics need to learn, however, will be addressed below). 

              But another possibility though is that the person who says "human life does not begin at conception" just has a different idea of what "human life" is or are using a different meaning of that term. So what they aren't thinking about is whether a biologically human organism is engaged in the biological processes of life, but something else. 

              What could this something else be? To better understand what they might be thinking or have in mind, we can ask the related question, "When does human life end?" This question will help reveal what they mean by "human life" and what they are thinking when they use this phrase.

              I recently did a casual, informal Twitter survey (of random, unknown people) to ask about this. Here was the survey and the results (I ran the same survey on Facebook and got nearly identical results):



              This informal survey suggests that at least around 70% of people understand "human life" to be something different from merely biologically human life. A human body can be alive, yet that "human life" has ended. 

              So when does "human life" end? This survey suggests that many people might be willing to say this:

              "Human life" ends when consciousness permanently ends: when the ability to feel, be aware, think, and have any types of experiences ends, "human life" ends. And that can happen prior to the death of the body, or the death of "human life" in that sense. 

              This answer at least suggests a view on when "human life" begins

              Human life begins when consciousness begins: when the ability to feel, be aware, think, and have any types of experiences begins, "human life" begins. And that happens after the beginning of the body. 

              Whether this initial 70% would agree that their answers on when "human life" ends suggest these answers on when "human life" begins, I don't know. Whether the 30% would disagree with this, I don't know. Again I haven't done a rigorous study on these matters. 

              What matters here is that nearly everyone is familiar with the ambiguity in "human life," despite what any critics of abortion say about this: they tend to think it's just simple and obvious what "human life" is. Philosophers, ethicists, and medical professionals (especially those who engage "end of life" issues) are familiar with the ambiguity of "human life"—meaning, that that phrase can be used to mean different things, or refer to different things—but, really, everyone is aware of this ambiguity: to better notice it though they sometimes have to be asked about it in the right way. 

              When the issue is raised with an end of life question, it's clear that there's a distinction between "human life" in the sense of a living biologically human body and "human life" in the sense of someone who is conscious, feeling, aware, and so on. And at least 70% or so of people might affirm that "human life" in the sense that really matters when thinking about ethical issues is that latter sense. Many people are familiar with the concept of "brain death" and how brain death ends a "human life"—even if the body is still alive—but more people need to become familiar with the related concept of "brain birth" and its relevance to abortion.

              These people in the 70% group might also affirm that "human life" begins far later in pregnancy (when consciousness begins), or even at birth (if they happen to believe, probably implausibly, that is when consciousness starts), since by "human life" they mean someone who is conscious, feeling, aware, and so on

              Of course, there's been a living biologically human organism all along, but that's not what they mean by "human life," since, in their view, that's not what's ethically significant: that's not what they really care about. And, they are apt to think that just because something is biologically human, or even a (merely) biologically human organism, that doesn't make it wrong to let it die or even kill it, which obviously has implications for abortion, especially early abortions (and so most abortions). 

              Earlier I mentioned that some people need to learn more biology. But people who think that the scientific facts that embryos and fetuses are alive, biologically human and even biologically human organisms and that pretty much means that abortion is wrong "need" to learn some literal logic and ethics (specifically focussing on questions about what makes killing wrong, when it's wrong) to understand that, no, these scientific facts do not entail that abortion is wrong: there are controversial assumptions that are part of that argument that need to be articulated and defended. So their simple "scientific" argument is persuasive to some, but it is a very poor argument, in terms of providing reasons to accept the conclusion, and that fact will likely catch up to this argument's advocates eventually. If they don't care about the fact that they are trying to persuade people with bad arguments, then I guess they don't "need" to rethink this; but if they wish to offer genuinely sound or cogent arguments, rethinking this all is a need. 

              So, in conclusion, when people are hostile to folks who deny that human life begins at conception, what's probably going on is this: they simply haven't asked that person what they mean by "human life" and/or they haven't found someone who is knowledgable about these issues to explain what they mean. The insults and ill-will result from people failing to attempt to understand each other. It's a predictable result of not making the effort to find out what people are thinking when they seem to disagree. 

              It's also a result of, honestly, people not knowing as much about complex issues as they think they do (and so acting like a "know it all" when you're a "don't know much") and being part of a mob or cult about an issue, as opposed to being someone (and parts of groups) who is willing and able to try to think about issues in, honestly, more fair and balanced ways. About abortion, almost nobody takes classes on these topics; almost nobody reads broadly on these issues; honestly, why would the typical person really know much about the issues—from all sidesso they can explain things accurately? That type of understanding is simply discouraged by most groups and people who are enthusiastic about the issues. 

              These are all common problems, about many issues, and they are especially problematic here. What can be done? A lot, but as a start, a good practice is always asking this:

              What would people who disagree with me on this issue say about this? How would they explain what they think about this disagreement? Am I representing their views correctly?

              And here the goal is to find the best person who disagrees with you: the most informed, the most thoughtful, not someone who knows little but thinks they know a lot. Doing this—and not being a "drive-by critic" or someone, or part of a mob, that offers potshots from a distance, would do a lot of good for contributing to positive discussions, about this issue and many others. Daniel Dennett has other good suggestions for positive engagement. 

              How's this sound? And what are other good ideas to improve discussions of controversial issues?