Friday, January 1, 2021

Response to replies to review of van der Breggen's 'Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments'

I thank Professor van der Breggen for his response to my brief review of his book, which is itself partially a response to our book. So this response here is a response to a response which is a response. 

This all results in the potential for any response being very tedious and hard for any reader to follow if they haven't carefully waded through everything said so far.  

Given that, my response will be brief and, I hope, helpful for anyone interested in debates about abortion in general and interested in evaluating van der Breggen's Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments or our open-access Thinking Critically About Abortion


The "point" of Judith Thomson's violinist example is not to serve as an "analogy" to fetuses: the proposal isn't that fetuses are "like" violinists (although they are in some ways, and are not in other ways: for a discussion of the nature and function of analogies in reasoning, see Richard Feldman's Reason and Argument). 

Its point is to motivate and justify the insight that the right to life is not a right to everything you need for your life to continue if that requires using someone else's body: your right to life is not a right to someone else's body, even if you need that body to live. 

She has another example to support that insight also: 
you are sick, about to die, but you will be healed if your favorite celebrity touches your fevered brow. 
Do you have a right to that touch? Would the celebrity violate your right to life if he or she doesn't touch you? Many people say "no." (And the suggestion here is not that fetuses are analogous to the sick person here [although in some ways they are and in other ways they are not]: again, the case motivates the principle that the right to life does not extend as far as some assume it does). 

Since people often assume that if fetuses are persons with the right to life, then all or nearly all abortions are wrong and it's as simple as that, Thomson's insights show that things are more complicated, since even if fetuses have the right to life, that doesn't mean they have a right to the woman's body. 

Does that mean abortion must be not wrong? Some people think it does, but it doesn't, since one complication is that the woman could be morally obligated to provide for the fetus, even though the fetus does not have a right to that assistance: not all obligations are due to rights. That's an issue that needs to be considered.


So do fetuses have a right to the woman's body and assistance or is she otherwise morally obligated to provide that assistance?

van der Breggen thinks they do. In his response, he writes:

pregnancy (in non-rape cases) is like freely giving your kidney (which you can live without) to another person (a vulnerable, dependent person whom you’ve created) so the other person can live, whereas abortion is like tearing out from that person the kidney you’ve donated to him/her—and thereby kills that other person—because you’ve changed your mind about your previously-freely-made decision to donate it.

So persons indeed do have a moral right to what was someone else's kidney, if they need that kidney to live AND if one has already, in a fully-informed manner, engaged in freely giving/ donating one’s kidney to the person in question (and the donation isn’t a physical threat to the life of the donor). Ditto for fetuses—which we and Thomson concede are persons—and the biological systems gifted/donated to them also freely and in a fully-informed manner.

I'm just going to say that, in important ways, pregnancy and abortion don't seem to be much "like" either of the kidney cases he mentions. "Repossessing" a donated kidney from someone who then dies because of that repossession is very different from abortion. I will leave it to any readers to make lists of similarities and differences here to further evaluate whether van der Breggen indeed makes a strong case that if women voluntarily engage in sex when there is a chance of pregnancy that indeed results in the fetus having the right to their bodies or woman are otherwise prima facie obligated to provide for the fetus


I want to offer a bit of clarification about "undoing" the consequences of something. Sometimes things happen because of other things and we can "undo" those consequences, whereas other times we cannotvan der Breggen writes this: 
one cannot “undo” or “reverse” the fact of reproduction or pregnancy. That is, one cannot return to the previous state in which reproduction and pregnancy did not occur
In saying what I said, I didn't suggest that abortion is like a time machine or anything like that. But, a woman can make it such that she is no longer pregnant and so return to that state of not being pregnant (even though if that state is now, unlike before, is the state of no longer pregnant but was previously pregnant). So this would be relevant to assessing van der Breggen proposed principle:

If you consent to something, then you consent to accepting that something's not likely causal consequences, especially if you know what those consequences may be and choose to go ahead anyway, and so you must accept them because you can no longer address those consequences, meaning you can no longer do something to make it such that those consequences hadn't occurred.

It might be worthwhile to observe here that the last few lines apply to many things, maybe everything: if something happens, you generally can't make it such that it did not happen.


It's curious that van der Breggen doesn't outright argue that abortions of pregnancies that result from rape are wrong. He says "perhaps it’s a justification of abortion. But, as I point out, perhaps not." From his point of view and everything said, what could the "perhaps" side be? I wonder if this article "If you’re pro-life, you might already be pro-choice" would be relevant to whatever would be said. 


About the theory that everything that's a rational substance is a person or everything with a rational human nature is a person (which is an alternative to the view that personhood is determined by having psychological characteristics), van der Breggen appeals to Francis Beckwith and Robert George, and he could also appeal to Christopher Tollefsen. I have reviews of their work on these issues which can help assess their broad proposal for what persons are; for another accessible brief critique of their general argument see here

So I agree with van der Breggen that "To dismiss them and their views as unreasonable would be false as well as foolish." However, to confidently appeal to their authority without rigorously investigating critiques of these sorts of views would display the same vices. Nobody should do that. 


I will note that I agree with the sentiment to err on the side of caution, which is why I argue that abortions at or near when fetuses become conscious or sentient could be wrong. Some pro-choice people want to argue or insist that no abortion could ever be wrong, but that's not my view: some could be wrong, and so we should be cautious. 


I will clarify that "arguments from potential" ("If something is a potential X, then that something has the rights of an actual X," etc. ) are distinct from arguments from "kinds" or "essences." We discussed these in our book in different places and van der Breggen knows these are distinct. 


We argue that the fact that (early) fetuses are not conscious and have never been conscious is highly relevant to the ethics of abortion. 

In response, van der Breggen writes:
the state of being of the fetus is more like a non-permanent coma or non-permanent vegetative state: the fetus will awaken/ gain consciousness—if we don’t kill him/ her. 
But a non-permanent coma involves someone who was conscious: that's not present with most abortions. So I invite readers to investigate here more thoroughly. 


Finally, I re-read much of van der Breggen's text and am not finding an as clear discussion of the options between thinking that we begin to exist at conception versus we begin to exist when consciousness begins as he says he provides, and explicit arguments for the latter and against the former. So I will leave it to readers to see what they find on that. 


I say van der Breggen's book would have been overall better had he also critiqued bad pro-life arguments also since, just as there are many bad pro-choice arguments, there are also many bad pro-life arguments. He says he didn't want to do that. That's fine, but it still might be true that doing that would have made for a better book. It's fair for someone to say of an author "I wish they had discussed this ..." if discussing this would have made a positive contribution, and observing that all "sides" here have many bad arguments would help advance understanding and discussion. 

In conclusion, again I have not addressed every topic of van der Breggen's reply. If, however, anyone reads this (and the previous materials leading up to this) and has any questions or comments, please share them here or contact me and I will engage this more. 

In the meantime, I can only hope that this response serves to inspire more serious and thoughtful engagement on these issues. Happy new year!

1 comment:

  1. A series of responses is here: