On Abortion & EthicsBY NATHAN NOBIS & LAUREN ENRIQUEZ
Updated 31 Dec '19
Started 15 Oct '19
BY NATHAN NOBIS
Created 15 Oct '19
It is good to correspond with you about abortion. I am looking forward to a fruitful conversation!
My interest in the topic of abortion is, in part, based on my being a philosophy professor who specializes in ethics. I have taught the topic of abortion (along with other topics in bioethics) in classes for around 20 years now. And I have published on abortion in the philosophical ethics literature. With a co-author, Kristina Grob, I have a recent freely-available, introductory book on abortion entitled Thinking Critically About Abortion.
Teaching these topics over many years, reading and reflecting on the best writings on the topics, and contributing to that research literature on the issues has developed and deepened my understanding of the issues.
My interest in the topic, however, has turned a corner, so to speak, with the recent legal challenges to abortion in the US. My broad position is that most abortions aren’t morally wrong and that the laws on the matter should stay roughly as they are.
Many would call my views “pro-choice,” although some have called me “moderately pro-life” (!?!) since I do argue that some (later-term) abortions could be morally wrong: apparently some “pro-choice” people want to deny that, for reasons that I think are ultimately quite poor.
But I think many pro-choice philosophers have taken the legal status of abortion for granted, so to speak, in their writing about the issues in ways that focus on very abstract and sometimes “clever” arguments about the topics. This is probably fine if the legal status of abortion isn’t in question, since then it’s “safe” to engage the issue in the extreme abstract (and potentially, the absurd) since nothing of practical importance hinges on the discussion. But things have changed, legally, and that changes the tone and seriousness of any debates and discussions about the issues.
Since abortion is now a “live” issue, legally, I think philosophers need to do a better job engaging it, for and with the public. So, for the last 6 months or so I have been trying to do what I can to create (freely available) materials so more people better understand the issues in ways that people with training to understand complex ethical and philosophical issues often understand them. People can gain some real skills and techniques to help them better think about controversial issues ‒ they often gain these in philosophy, ethics, logic, and critical thinking classes ‒ and I’ve been trying to share these with a broader audience. To put it another way, philosophers know a lot about this topic, they have a lot of expertise with it, but almost nobody knows about this or, worse, cares about developing expertise so they can think about the issues in rigorous and responsible ways.
So I’ve been trying to share philosophers’ insights and skills here because it seems to me that many people just lack these skills ‒ both pro-choice and pro-life people ‒ and so they do a poor job thinking about the issues. This is, I suppose, bad in itself (since it’s bad when people just accept bad arguments or bad reasoning), but much worse when this leads people to develop, propose and pass bad laws. In later letters, I suspect I will explain why I think these laws against abortion are bad laws, but the general motivation is these:
When people are doing something that’s not morally wrong, what they are doing should not be illegal or criminalized, and:
Even if people are doing something morally wrong, that does not automatically mean that what they are doing should be illegal or criminalized: it’s more complicated than that.
I suspect a lot of our discussion will focus on the ethics of abortion since people who think abortion should be illegal tend to think that abortion is always or nearly always wrong. I think there are not good reasons to believe that, and that there are better reasons to believe, at least, that early abortions are not wrong (and, most abortions are early abortions, and they should be).
I won’t do much more in this first letter to explain why I think this, but I will note that I think a lot of the skills involved in reaching these conclusions involve:
skills in defining terms and comparing definitions (say of ‘abortion’ and ‘person’ and more) for potential strengths and weaknesses;
skills at being able to identify the entire structure of someone’s reasoning, stating unstated assumptions or premises that are essential to the reasoning, and evaluating both the pattern of the reasoning and the “steps” of the argument: that is, being able to show why some premise, given to try to establish a conclusion, is true or false and why. This is especially important since so many common arguments about abortion are very bad;
skills at comparing different explanations of certain moral observations or facts: e.g., what explains why it is wrong to kill anyone reading these letters? (That is unless there are some special circumstances that would justify that killing, meaning why is it what’s called “prima facie” wrong to kill our readers?);
skills in identifying what factual or scientific information is and is not relevant to a moral issue, and how to identify reliable sources for that information: e.g., facts about fetal development, facts about when and why abortions occur. Abortion is very much an issue for which the facts matter and it’s easy to try to manipulate those facts, e.g., to present most abortions as akin to abortions far later in pregnancy, when most early abortions are quite different from those.
I expect to use some of these skills in discussing these issues. This might lead to some mind- and heart-changing, but it should definitely lead to increased understanding and, hopefully, overcoming any misunderstandings! I look forward to your reply!
BY LAUREN ENRIQUEZ
Created 17 Oct '19
Thank you so much for your thoughtful letter initiating what I know will be a fruitful conversation about abortion. I first want to tell you sincerely that I deeply respect the many years of hard work you have expended in the disciplined practice of philosophy. To be a philosopher is to be a lover of truth, and what a different world this would be if more of us dedicated ourselves to this pursuit of truth wholeheartedly.
I have had the opportunity to read a sampling of the body of work you have produced on the subject of abortion, and what is immediately evident in these writings is your intention to explore the subject in a reasoned and thoughtful way, open to feedback and dialogue. Your open-mindedness and logical integrity are traits I seek to emulate, and I hope to display these in my correspondence with you.
I don't remember the exact moment when I first learned what abortion is, but I know I was quite young, because I vividly remember engaging in debates on the subject of abortion with anyone who remotely alluded to the subject when I was elementary school age. I remember one peer in particular - a girl who lived across the street from me - whose teenage sister had recently undergone an abortion. I believe it was this experience that rendered my young friend (we were probably eight years old) an outspoken pro-choice advocate.
She and I engaged in debate on the subject somewhat regularly, oblivious to how bizarre this must have been to those around us at such a young age. My opponent-friend would say things like, "It's the woman's body; she can do whatever she wants with it. Her body, her choice!" To which I would respond along the lines of, "The baby is not her body!"
I remember one such childhood debate where my friend said something like the following: "Women need abortion because they can't raise the baby. What if they're too poor or too young to be a mom?" In response to this, I was sure I'd thought up the argument to clinch all pro-life arguments. I said to my friend, "If you were the baby, wouldn't you rather spend your whole life in an orphanage than to be killed before you even had the chance to live?"
While my understanding of abortion's complexity in the lives it touches has, mercifully, developed and matured since these fledgling attempts to defend the pro-life position more than two decades ago, my core sense about the injustice of abortion and the preborn child's right to life hasn't changed at all.
Abortion has always seemed to me to be a very clear and straightforward injustice. I conceptualized justice as a child when I learned about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. I remember the visceral reaction I had when I became aware that humans abused and killed each other out of discrimination throughout history. This horror was all the greater when I realized that the most innocent were being killed by the thousands in my own era. Broken down to its component parts, my rationale for the wrongness of abortion could be expressed as: "Killing an innocent human is wrong. Abortion kills an innocent human. Therefore, abortion is wrong."
Spurred by this conviction, I spent much time growing up thinking about abortion and finding ways to be involved in the pro-life movement. When the Internet made its way into our home, virtually all of my time online was spent learning about abortion. Some days after school I would log onto a website that had an abortion counter feature (very similar to the ones that can now be viewed at NumberOfAbortions.com), and I would watch the numbers climb minute after minute, not comprehending how it could be that abortion was not only legal, but occurring at unimaginable rates. And I would try to think of ways to persuade others that it was an injustice we should all work together to end.
I went on to participate in pro-life youth groups as a teen. I ran pro-life clubs on my college campus, prayed outside of abortion facilities, volunteered at pregnancy centers, took a semester off to recruit students at other colleges to start pro-life clubs on their campuses, participated in a college pro-life fellowship, and spent summers interning with the local right to life organization. After college, I spent more time thinking and writing about abortion and working with an array of pro-life organizations. Today, I'm grateful to work for the largest pro-life organization in the country. Along the way, I've met others like me.
Abortion access has been the status quo in our country since before I was born. It is not yet seen as a great aberration from what is normal or ethical in our culture. And it is because abortion is so plainly wrong from my vantage point that I appreciate the opportunity to dialogue with individuals like you, who can join me in going deeper than the emotional or "gut" response to abortion in order to discuss it in the context of a philosophical question.
We may not come to the same conclusion, but I already agree with you on the map to arriving at our conclusions. These, as you succinctly laid them out, are: 1. defining our terms; 2. identifying the structure of our reasoning; 3. comparing explanations of moral observations and facts; and 4. identifying the factual or scientific information relevant to our argument.
Arguments with my pro-choice friend growing up taught me that people can debate serious questions and come away with friendships intact. So here's to our conversation!
BY NATHAN NOBIS
Created 19 Oct '19
I appreciated learning more what has led you to where you are currently on these issues.
Children’s moral senses are often “spot-on,” not corrupted by many adults’ “rationalizations” of bad attitudes and behavior.
Although I’m not sure you are saying this, I doubt that any children’s senses about abortion are accurate, since it’s a very complex issue that most adults have a hard time effectively thinking about it! That is, they have a hard time unless they have real training that brings them to a level of expertise in thinking about complex moral issues.
Why is this a complex issue?
Engaging “real world” ethical issues require knowledge and understanding of the relevant scientific or empirical facts. And here the relevant facts about embryos and fetuses are “hidden” inside women. And it’s an understatement that embryos start out very small, which makes understanding what they are like more difficult. (This isn’t to say that size matters morally, since, in itself, it does not: e.g., the “Whos” from “Horton Hears a Who!” were smaller than specks, yet the idea of “person, with the right to life”‒‒that Horton was trying to protect‒‒still applies to them.).
Most of our moral thinking is about beings who are not tiny and we can see, at least. So thinking about abortion involves thinking about issues that are quite different from most moral issues we engage with, which might present some challenges.
About many really serious moral issues, “deep thinking” is not necessary to understand that what’s done is wrong: e.g., we do not need a deep explanation of why killing people is wrong to know that mass shootings are profoundly wrong; we don’t need to profoundly understand the extent of the right to life to know that people’s rights are violated when they are killed for frivolous and absurd “reasons.” Thinking about abortion, however, does require evaluating deep moral explanations, which most people just rarely do, since there’s no (perceived or real) need.
Finally there is at least the potential for a certain type of unavoidable conflicts of profound rights or interests with abortion that isn’t present in most other moral issues. Again, the issues are potentially more challenging than others.
So these are some reasons to think that simple arguments here aren’t likely to be adequate.
I admire your critiques of your friend’s “pro-choice” arguments that really were not good arguments, then or now! In my and Kristina Grob’s book, we conclude chapter 4, where we critique many “common” pro-life and pro-choice arguments, with this: “while we argue below that people who believe that abortion is generally not morally wrong and should be legal are correct, they sometimes don’t offer very good reasons to think this.”
On this, I know that you think pro-choice arguments are bad arguments (and some of them are!), but wonder if there are any common “pro-life” arguments that you think are bad arguments. Why and how are they bad? If you have offered any critiques of them, how have people responded?
Finally, I want to respond to the main argument against abortion you give above. I’ll number the premises to help keep things organized:
Killing an innocent human is wrong.
Abortion kills an innocent human.
Therefore, abortion is wrong.
About both premises, I want to note that I agree that fetuses are clearly “human” so there is a clear sense in which each is “a human.”
Some people insist that fetuses are not human, however, so apparently there disputes about this. When there are disagreements about definitions of words like these, we need to step back and ask, “What do you mean?”
One meaning of ‘human’ is ‘biologically human’: clearly, (human) fetuses are biologically human: they aren’t bovine or canine or any other species. So, setting aside some very important questions about the concept of being “innocent” (what do you mean?) premise 2 seems true: abortion kills something that is biologically human, especially if anything biologically human is “a human.”
However, on this definition‒which we must stick with to avoid the fallacy of equivocation‒ premise 1 is false: not everything biologically human is wrong to kill. E.g., a blob of random biologically human cells or tissues isn’t at all wrong to kill, or it doesn’t have to be. So on this definition of “human,” the argument is no good.
There’s another common rough definition of what it is to be “human” or to be “a human,” which is to have the characteristics that, say, the (biologically) human readers of these letters have: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, emotions, friends and so on. (Often these characteristics are described in terms of “personhood,” which I suspect we will discuss later).
On this definition, premise 1 is true: it’s generally wrong to kill anyone like this, especially if they are innocent. But then premise 2 is false: biologically human fetuses don’t have any of these “human” characteristics.
So this argument doesn’t succeed. However, perhaps it can be improved! Some react to these critiques above with, “That’s not what I meant!” It’s their turn to then say what they really meant to say, which might result in a better argument that survives scrutiny.
I will conclude by agreeing that there it certainly something very much correct about the premise that “Killing an innocent human is wrong.” However, there are many details here that we’d need to think through. Most importantly, we need to ask why this is the case: what makes humans like us wrong to kill? I suspect if we think this through carefully, many of us will come to see that, at least, early abortions are not wrong. So thinking through this argument might lead us to reject its currently conclusion. How this might work out, we will see in later letters!
BY NATHAN NOBIS
Created 22 Oct '19
I thought to make our discussion more efficient and direct, I would mention another meaning or definition of "human" to help us understand and evaluate claims about whether fetuses are "human," "humans," whether a fetus is "a human," and so on, with any human-related words.
1. Above I first observed that "human" can mean "biologically human." Fetuses (in biologically human women) definitely are biologically human. But not everything merely biologically human is wrong to kill: e.g., random biologically human cells or tissues, at least. So this specific argument is unsound.
2. A second meaning, or idea that some people have in mind when they discuss whether fetuses are "human" is whether they have what they consider "human" traits: e.g., being able to think, feel, reason, remember, have relationships and so on. When anyone says that fetuses aren't "human," if you ask why that is, they often say things like, "Because they can't think or feel or perceive, or do any of the things that 'humans' can." And at least early fetuses cannot do or "be" any of that, although it is true that it's generally wrong to kill and harm beings like that. So this argument is unsound also.
I will observe that I don't think "human" is the ideal word to describe the kinds of traits that these people focus on concerning fetuses. This is not an ideal way to put all this since some non-biologically-human animals do many of these things: they can think and feel and remember and have relationships. And if there are non-biologically-human extraterrestrials flying around in space ships right now, they can likely do and be all these things also.
It's a mistake to call these "human" traits: yes, they are traits that some human beings have (and some human beings don't have them either: they've never had them or they don't have them now or won't have them again), but some non-human beings either have them or could have them. It's like calling something a "man's" characteristic when both men and women have the trait: that's not accurate. So they are better-called something species-neutral, such as traits that make someone a person or a psychological being and all that does and can go with that.
3. A third meaning of "human," which I did not present earlier, is not merely biologically human, and not that of a psychological being, but as a human organism: something like a biological being that is organized and developing as a coherent, complete whole. Some respond to the observation that fetuses are indeed biologically human with an, "Yes, but they are more than that: they aren't just blogs of cells, or isolated organs (which might be parts of beings); they are beings themselves." And here "beings," as in human beings, seems to mean "organisms," or biologically human organisms.
From this, we have this argument:
1. All fetuses are biologically human organisms.
2. If something is a biologically human organism, then it is nearly always wrong to kill it.
3. Therefore, fetuses are nearly always wrong to kill.
4. Therefore, abortion is nearly always wrong.
Presenting this definition of "human" and the reasoning that results from it will probably be important to our conversation, so I thought I'd present it now. (I hope you haven't brought this up yet in your reply-in-progress! If not, that's OK, since repetition is useful!).
I think the real debate here is about whether premise (2) is really true or not (and the reasons that can be given for and against it) and whether the connection between (1) and (2) and (3) is as secure as some think it is, since there are complications to discuss about that connection: e.g., "bodily autonomy" arguments, which you have written about.
OK, I hope this addition here is helpful! I am looking forward to your responses. Thanks!
BY NATHAN NOBIS
Created 06 Dec '19
Unfortunately, due to time constraints and other responsibilities, this conversation is not going to happen.
If anyone else would like to have a conversation on this topic or any other, please let me know!
And if you are interested in these topics, please see Lauren Enriquez's writings on the topics and my and Kristina Grob's introductory, open-access book Thinking Critically About Abortion.
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