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.”

All blog posts are here! Select posts:

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!