Sunday, September 5, 2021

What if it Really is About "The Babies"? On Anti-Abortion Motivations

"It was never about 'the babies.' It's about controlling women." 

Pro-choice advocates sometimes say things like this to try to explain what motivates anti-abortion activism, including now successful efforts to make even early abortions illegal and criminalized

Their suggestion is that anti-abortion advocates are not really concerned about stopping embryos and fetuses (what they often, mistakenly, call "babies") from being killed via abortion: that's not their real motive or goal. Rather, their real goal is controlling women: men controlling women.

These suggestions, however, are, unfortunately, absurd. The sooner this is all recognized as absurd, the closer anyone fixated on this theory of the motivations of anti-abortion people will be to doing something potentially more productive for defending abortion. 

Why is this absurd?

Consider the suggestion that abortion bans are all about "controlling women." If you wanted to "control women," would you seek an abortion ban? Probably not. You'd probably attempt other things that would affect more women. You'd probably attempt things that are easier too. (I'm not going to make a list of examples lest I give anyone bad ideas!).

Why would you focus on an abortion ban unless you thought there was something especially important about abortion, like that abortion is a great evil and so a top priority in need of being "controlled"?

You wouldn't. So, ultimately, it is about "the babies," abortion itself, and their belief that abortion a great evil that, like many great evils, should be "controlled." Even if it's not all about "the babies," and some is about control, still much of it is about "the babies" themselves. 

Here's what John Seago, the legislative director of Texas Right to Life says:

There is an unethical procedure at the heart of this debate. Elective abortion is the epitome of an injustice. It is a larger, stronger group using violent force to take the life of a smaller, weaker party. You don’t have to have a religious background or be motivated by faith to realize that’s not the kind of society we want to live in. I’ll look forward to the day when our laws reflect that we have moral obligations to the most vulnerable populations around us.
So he says their motivations are all about "the babies," or the ethics of abortion. And there are many women who agree with him: it's not like only men, or mostly men, agree with this ethical judgment about abortion. "Don't erase 'pro-life' women!" these women say. 

The argument might be that if abortion critics really believed abortion is wrong, they would do all sorts of other thingssupport pregnant women, advocate for readily accessible contraception and universal health care, and moreyet they don't. "Hypocrites!" they say.

While we might wish that anti-abortion advocates were like thismore like the Good Samaritan from the Bibleit might be that they don't really "have to": their position doesn't require it: they aren't somehow inconsistent by not advocating for any of this. Their view is just that it's wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings or people, including fetuses. 

Must they also think that they must help anyone out? I think they can honestly say that that's not their focus, even a "no comment": their focus is on (in their view) these very wrong intentional killings of fetuses. They can say that their focus is on preventing harm to fetuses, not producing benefits for anyone else. (Whether this distinction ultimately makes sense is unclear though).  

Pro-choicers object: "But then they should then also be concerned about IVF, which involves at least the deaths of embryos! They should be concerned about learning how to prevent miscarriages!!" 

Maybe, but maybe not: neither of these involve intentional killing. And they might argue that abortion is worse than these, since it can be, in rare, far-later abortions of fetuses that might feel things. They might also have no clear idea how to respond to these other issues: they might sometimes not even really know about them, and they might even be genuinely hypocritical or irrational or even dumb. 

But that doesn't seem to be a great objection to their claim that it's wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings or people, including fetuses. None of this shows that they don't really believe that and that isn't their motivation. 

Now, what's important is that they are incorrect about their various core claims and moral claims:

  • calling embryos and beginning fetuses "babies" is highly controversial: there are many reasons to think they should not be called "babies" and little defense is provided to think that using that term is literally accurate: if a pregnant woman or her family wish to say or think she has a baby, however, that is harmless; if laws are made on this belief, that's problematic;
  • anti-abortion advocates are fixated on "heartbeats" [update: that some pro-choice advocates falsely claim {?} aren't really even real heartbeats anyway: see here for illustrations suggesting a 2mm heart], but whether something has or doesn't have a heartbeat is morally irrelevant: most vividly, there is nothing inherently wrong with stopping a heart: what's around the heart is what matters, not the heart or heartbeat itself or lack thereof;
  • anti-abortion advocates often suggest that the mere fact that embryos and fetuses are biologically alive is of great moral significance, yet it isn't: plants and microorganisms are alive, yet they aren't wrong to kill or destroy;
  • anti-abortion advocates often suggest that the mere fact that embryos and fetuses are biologically human is of great moral significance, yet it isn't: human skin cells and tissues, say, are alive, yet they aren't wrong to kill.
  • anti-abortion advocates mean to say something like fetuses are biologically human organisms and are the kind of beings that are rational moral agents and that's why they have rights: explaining this argument and really defending it is a complex affair, and they usually don't do that: should they?  

Beyond these simple arguments, there's a whole more sophisticated discussion about what makes human beings have rights (such as the right to life) and whether fetuses have those characteristics, what the right to life really involves (is it a right to assistance, such as a right to the type of benefits a woman or girl provides to a fetus?), what we are, in our essenceare we our minds, or our bodies, or both?and more. Abortion is a complex moral issue, but most enthusiastic anti-abortion advocates are not much interested in this complexity. 

But addressing, first, the common and simple but demonstrably bad arguments against abortion and, next, the more complex arguments about abortion is part of the key to defending abortion: slogans, groupthink, and "virtue signaling" (saying what sounds good to people who agree with you) are not. Pro-choicers denying that anti-abortion advocates are motivated by ethical concerns and not engaging and critiquing those ethical claims and arguments certainly is decidedly not contributing to progress on this issue. Pro-choicers recognizing that, ultimately, the abortion debate is very much about the ethical status of fetuses and responding accordingly might do some good: it's definitely worth trying

So, to return to the quote above, here's what we should say:

There is an unethical procedure at the heart of this debate. [No, it's at least usually not unethical and here's why . . ] Elective abortion is the epitome of an injustice. [No, it's at least usually not unjust and here's why . . ] It is a larger, stronger group using violent force to take the life of a smaller, weaker party. [No, this is misleading: this type of language would fit only if beginning fetuses were much different from what they are actually like, e.g., the were conscious and sentient.] You don’t have to have a religious background or be motivated by faith to realize that’s not the kind of society we want to live in. I’ll look forward to the day when our laws reflect that we have moral obligations to the most vulnerable populations around us [No, this too is misleading: this type of language would fit only if beginning fetuses were much different from what they are actually like, e.g., the were conscious and sentient.

Since what is said here is false and unreasonable, more pro-choice advocates understanding and explaining why that is so, to wide and diverse audiences, might do some good. Responding "You just want to control people!" and other speculations about motives and intentions do not engage, much less refute, what is said above. We might say that motive-questioning responses like these have been proven unsuccessful, so we can and should try something new and better, like giving arguments for our views and critiquing the arguments of those whose views we think are mistaken and harmful. What have we got to lose?

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9 comments:

  1. Really great post and people do need to steer away from shutting down the argument by using the phrase “you just want to control women's bodies.”

    I don't disagree with much of what you say. However, I do want to add to this conversation a bit because we need to understand and acknowledge that abortion bans themselves, are specifically chosen for their bodily control feature. And thus, that feature is absolutely a goal of theirs.

    The reason so many of them get upset and offended when you say something along the lines of them wanting to control the bodies of women, is because they feel that their intent is to save the embryos. That they aren't doing it out of intent to control.

    But regardless of that factor, it also wasn't without some ulterior motive or goal that women's bodies were controlled in other manners of religious subjugation in centuries past. Purity culture and controlling women's sexual prowess, for example, were done with the intent to keep her body pure so as not to violate the rights of her future husband to have a pure, virgin body with exclusive sexual claims. When feminists in the past have spoken up about this, it has been framed as the control over women's bodies - intentions and ultimate desired outcomes do not absolve them of the reality of that process.

    While many anti-abortion activists do, in fact feel it is unjust to the embryo, both sides are making a differentiation of the intents vs the process in which they use to achieve this.

    The *goal* of abortion bans is to prevent the death of an unborn human. However, the *process* of doing so is by controlling women. And I reiterate, they are very much choosing the route that is direct control over her body as opposed to, say, addressing root causes that lead to abortions to begin with, such as social support structure inadequacies or lack of birth control access or abusive partners.

    Ultimately, it is literally the point of abortion bans - to stop an abortion by legal control over their ability to have an abortion on their body.

    All that being said, I am unsure if that really changes our stance on how we engage with them. Writing them off as “just wanting to control women” does shut down conversation because it falls into that catchy slogan, virtue signaling realm for ourselves.

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    1. Thank you for your insights here!

      About - "The *goal* of abortion bans is to prevent the death of an unborn human. However, the *process* of doing so is by controlling women" - it sounds like you are suggesting that other things could be done to prevent or lessen the #'s of abortions, that don't involve abortion bans, there are alternative processes that could be taken? Are those going to be as effective, from their point of view? And, from an anti-abortion perspective, do they "need" to seek those other processes?

      This might be relevant:

      https://www.abortionarguments.com/2021/09/why-pro-life-is-inaccurate-and.html

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    2. Interestingly, the linked blog actually makes me feel *more* strongly about the process of controlling women's bodies being a main feature.

      There are pro-life groups that focus on the group of people who have abortions who just lacked certain social structures (although, do these groups also not focus on bans?)

      so if someone seeks an abortion because they can't take time off work, souldn't the focus here be to increase minimum wage and bring in paid medical leave?

      If that could stop an abortion, why choose bans?

      I think they feel they are somehow punished by choosing the first option rather than bans. Increasing wages and bringing in paid leave will mean they have to pull more weight; it's right there in how they oppose, for example, immigrants from coming in and how they fight against their fellow American's better interest. They've been told by corporations that their neighbor is actually the problem. And "hand outs" will come out of *their* paycheck (and a burger flipper's work couldn't possibly be worth more than their current pay.)

      so they are punished for the wrong actions of others. And why do they think it's a wrong action? Because they don't believe a woman's uterus is fully hers. They think someone else is entitled to it - the embryo. That's its function after all. That's why the Catholic "ordinary vs extraordinary care" argument exists. And with past precedent of women's vaginas belonging to that of her husband, her uterus meant to bring him children, it's an easy conclusion to come to when the narrative switches to the "murder of unborn children."

      Additionally, in not seeking abortion bans, a whole group of people is missed: those who have abortions regardless of laws and social support structures.

      With bans, they may not be able to stop these people, but at least these people can be brought to justice.

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  2. I would also like to comment on John Seago's statement of: "It is a larger, stronger group using violent force to take the life of a smaller, weaker party."

    This is factually incorrect. An embryo, in fact, has great power over the pregnant person. While it has no defenses against a medical or surgical abortion, she likewise has no defenses against the chemical and physical control it exerts over her body. It quite literally secretes hormones to suppress her immune system and avoid detection. She cannot willfully either start or stop a pregnancy (hence the difficulties in getting pregnant and the need for abortion.) She cannot abort without the use of tools and technology. Her body is unable to stop the harm that is done to her body in the process and has very little control over how her body experiences pregnancy and what it does to her body. And, upon labor and delivery, it will violently exit. Which she likewise cannot avoid, nor control, nor stop. It has to be removed and harm in some form will occur.

    There is often subtext in what anti-abortion advocates say, and I suspect his is more along the lines of the fact that he feels an embryo is innocent and precious and on auto pilot as opposed to willfully making a choice, which has its own subtext as well, which I won't go into.

    To his second statement of: "You don’t have to have a religious background or be motivated by faith to realize that’s not the kind of society we want to live in. "

    And yet it is out of religion that abortion bans were born and most of those that perpetuate it's beliefs are either religiously motivated or were previously religious and still harbor that belief.

    Lastly, to your comment about IVF, IVF does involve intentional killing.

    Many people use it specifically with the goal of discarding embryos that have chromosomal defects that will lead to developing a hereditary disorder. These embryos will be intentionally discarded.

    Additionally, unused healthy embryos will often be discarded as well. Some of them are stored for later use by the couple or donated to couples in need. But it's costly to store embryos year after year and without payment from somewhere, they won't keep the embryos frozen indefinitely.

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    1. Thanks for your observations here. The first paragraph is really powerful.

      I think with IVF they would (plausibly) say that they are just going to let these embryos die, not kill them. Whether that distinction makes sense is unclear, of course.

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    2. I've gotten the impression from pro-lifers I've argued with online that they do have an issue with ivf. (But with a lack of focus from pro-life organizations and their more main concern over abortions, I suspect it doesn't get talked about enough.)

      But I don't think that organizations and individual citizens views and goals necessarily align.

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  3. Thought provoking post! I've written a response here:
    https://defendingfeminism.com/2021/09/28/are-abortion-restrictions-about-controlling-women-a-response-to-nobis/

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    1. A podcast I was listening to today on the topic of Abortion mentioned the Bible verse you quote in your blog.

      At the beginning of his podcast, he states that he used to be a right-winger. And wrote a book about his thinking prior to his exodus.

      https://youtu.be/72NQO5GpLvo?t=2277 (would listen from this point till the end ~8min)

      This is relevant to both yours' and Nobis' blog entry. (Commenting this both here and on your blog.)

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