Thursday, December 8, 2022

2022 Public Philosophy Op-Ed Contest

 2022 Public Philosophy Op-Ed Contest

The APA committee on public philosophy sponsors the Public Philosophy Op-Ed Contest for the best opinion-editorials published by philosophers. The goal is to honor up to five standout pieces that successfully blend philosophical argumentation with an op-ed writing style. Winning submissions will call public attention, either directly or indirectly, to the value of philosophical thinking. The pieces will be judged in terms of their success as examples of public philosophy, and should be accessible to the general public, focused on important topics of public concern, and characterized by sound reasoning.



Max Khan Hayward (The University of Sheffield), Eat, Drink, and Be Merry! No, Really.” (The Atlantic, 2021)

Milena Ivanova (The University of Cambridge), The Beautiful Experiment” (Aeon, 2021)

A. Minh Nguyen (Florida Gulf Coast University), When Your Daughter Is Told ‘Your Face Is Not American’” (The News-Press, 2021)

Nathan Nobis (Morehouse College) and Jonathan Dudley (Johns Hopkins), Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking” (Salon, 2021)

Lisa Forsberg (Oxford University) and Anthony Skelton (University of Western Ontario)3 reasons for making COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for children” (The Conversation, 2021)

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

"Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking"

Our [update: AWARD WINNING!] 2021 Salon article "Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking" generated some responses. 

Here are some of those responses and some of our (or my) responses to those responses! If you know of any other responses, please let me know:

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 
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!

              Contrary to some responses, our argument does not depend on thinking these various cases are "equivalent" or "exactly the same" or that there are no interesting differences among them: it does, however, depend on the idea of "brain birth" and being "brain alive," the lesser-known counterpart to brain death and being brain dead. For more on these concepts, see this 1990 LA Times article: "Is ‘brain birth’ the beginning of human life? Or conception? Science can’t draw the line, but only provide more evidence to ponder."

              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).
              Here is also some further discussion of whether embryos and beginning fetuses are or can be "innocent" (and non-innocent too!): 

              @nathan.nobis What is it to be "innocent"? What if something is neither innocent nor not? Inspired by @dankprolifememes #abortion #prochoice #prolife #innocence #guilt #criticalthinking #philosophy #ethics ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis
              @nathan.nobis What is it to be "innocent"? What if something is neither innocent nor not innocent? #abortion #ethics #philosophy #criticalthinking #bioethics #prochoice #prolife #innocent #innocence ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

              Saturday, November 26, 2022

              Kevin Drum's "Liberals really suck at defending abortion":

               From Kevin Drum's post "Liberals really suck at defending abortion":

               Conservatives talk endlessly about how abortion snuffs out a human life. That's the whole magilla. But if you read only among liberals, you might not even know this is an issue. We simply don't talk about it.

              Why? I don't know how it polls or what effect it has on most people, but it has to be addressed if we want to win the war for public opinion. There are just too many people who care about this and need to hear simple, convincing arguments that a fetus isn't a human life in any reasonable sense of the term. We're cowards if we aren't willing to take that on.

              Thursday, November 24, 2022

              Are embryos and beginning fetuses "innocent"?

              '. . calling fetuses "innocent" assumes that they are persons: "innocence" implies the potential for guilt, and that's only true of persons. Nobody would refer to human eggs or tissue as "innocent," because nobody thinks these things are persons.' [update: this is from our AWARD WINNING essay!] 

              Further discussion here on what kinds of things can be "innocent":

              @nathan.nobis What is it to be "innocent"? A dialogue inspired by @dankprolifememes #abortion #prochoice #prolife #ethics #philosophy #criticalthinking #innocent #innocence #bioethics #innocenthumanlife ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis
              @nathan.nobis What is it to be "innocent"? What if something is neither innocent nor not innocent? #abortion #ethics #philosophy #criticalthinking #bioethics #prochoice #prolife #innocent #innocence ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

              Wednesday, November 9, 2022

              "Fetuses are human, so abortion is wrong."

              Some quick notes on common arguments that result from what ordinary people say about these issues. 

              1.      Fetuses are human.

              2.      All humans are prima facie wrong to kill.

              3.      So, abortion – killing fetuses – is prima facie wrong.

              This argument disambiguates in at least two ways:


              4.      Fetuses are biologically human organisms. (True).

              5.      All biologically human organisms are prima facie wrong to kill. (Why think that?)

              6.      So, abortion – killing fetuses – is prima facie wrong.


              7.      Fetuses are human beings, i.e., feeling, perceiving, biologically human organisms. (False, if this means all fetuses, especially beginning ones).

              8.      All human beings, i.e., feeling, perceiving, biologically human organisms are prima facie wrong to kill. (True)

              9.      So, abortion – killing fetuses – is prima facie wrong.



              Two logically invalid arguments: the premises do not lead to the conclusion due to using ‘human’ in two different meanings, or an “equivocation” on ‘human’:


              10.  Fetuses are [merely] biologically human organisms. (True).

              11.  All human beings, i.e., feeling, perceiving, biologically human organisms are prima facie wrong to kill. (True).

              12.  So, abortion – killing fetuses – is prima facie wrong.


              13.  Fetuses are human beings, i.e., feeling, perceiving, biologically human organisms. (False, if this means all fetuses, especially beginning ones).

              14.  All [merely] biologically human organisms are prima facie wrong to kill. (Why think that?)

              15.  So, abortion – killing fetuses – is prima facie wrong. 

              On whether embryos and fetuses are "human," "humans, "human beings," "human organisms," whether each is "a human," a common anti-abortion concern:

              Tuesday, November 8, 2022

              Extremism, Abortion Extremism and Losing the Ability to Listen

              There are many problems associated with extremism. 

              One is that extremists generally lose the ability to listen to people who disagree with them: they become simply unable to know what other people think. 

              This is really obvious to people with a philosophical background since philosophy is all about definitions: it's all about how people use words in different ways, how they mean different things using the same words since they have different definitions in mind. That's why one of the most important philosophical questions is, "What do you mean?"

              This is especially relevant to ethical topics about abortion, where many of the key words are used in different ways by different people, resulting in different arguments: e.g, "life" and "alive" have multiple meanings, as do "human," "human being," and related words. 

              Here are some thoughts about why extremists are unwilling and unable to listen. 

              Listening to understand requires patience. Extremists have no patience for anyone who disagrees with them. 

              Listening to understand involves thinking that other people are somewhat rational and that other people's views make some sense, even they are mistaken. But extremists think everyone who disagrees with them is an irrational idiot. 

              Listening to understand seems to require thinking that you might learn something from other people. But extremists think they know it all, even though they rarely study the issues in fair and balanced ways. They deny the value of expertise and/or mistakenly assume they are experts, when they are not. 

              Extremists have no motive for listening: you might listen to seek a compromise, or a solution that will acknowledge all important concerns. But extremists have no interest in compromise. 

              Listening to understand involves recognizing that issues can be complicated, which is why there are different perspectives on them. Extremists deny this: they think the issues are simple and that they are obviously correct. 

              Extremism typically involves "grandstanding" or showing off in front of your "tribe", to show that you are a true believer to the righteous cause. But listening to people you disagree with is contrary to that: to be in a position to listen to someone -- and for that person to speak in an authentic way -- there has to be some kind of respectful, friendly relationship, even for the moment

              Extremism is bad. 

              What is extremist anyway? 

              Spencer Case argues that "a person is an extremist just in case an intense moral conviction blinds her to competing moral considerations, or else makes her unwilling to qualify her beliefs when she should." Since there are moral considerations to understanding views contrary to your own (like what?), the label "extremism" fits here, and extremism can be characterized by the above considerations (and many, many more!).

              What are other ways extremism is bad?

              What can be done about it?

              A related post: 

              @nathan.nobis extremism, abortion extremism and losing the ability to listen. #extremism #extremist #abortion #prochoice #prolife #polarization #polarizationisproblematic #ethics #philosophy #criticalthinking #listening #listeningskills ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis
              extremism, abortion extremism and losing the ability to listen. #extremism #extremist #abortion #prochoice #prolife #polarization #polarizationisproblematic #ethics #philosophy #criticalthinking #listening #listeningskills

              Wednesday, October 12, 2022

              Response to "Nathan Nobis' Summary of Pro-Choice Arguments" by Clinton Wilcox

              SATURDAY, APRIL 27, 2019

              Response to "Nathan Nobis' Summary of Pro-Choice Arguments"

              Note: this was originally posted here; I just realized it hadn't been reposted here.  

              Someone wrote a response to my 1000-Word Philosophy essay on abortion, entitled "Nathan Nobis' Summary of Pro-Choice Arguments." I wrote brief a reply and twice posted it on their blog, but it twice "disappeared" (. . but it might have returned, so I really don't know whether it's posted or not), so I post this reply here since I did take the time to write it up.

              Thank you for this thoughtful and detailed reply, which someone alerted me to. I appreciate your engaging this short essay.

              In quick reply, I'm not sure you have (yet) identified some "basic mistakes" with my article, since many of your replies seem to consist in stating contrary points of view on various issues, but not doing a whole lot to really support those contrary points of view: or at least not enough that would likely convince a disinterested observer. So, my reaction is that, basically, much more would need to be said to really support your responses. [Update: another part of the response perhaps is a disagreement about which arguments should be discussed, given the intended audience and what can be effectively presented in new words, as well as a disagreement about which arguments "out there" have been "plausibly" presented.]


              Concerning argument 5, you state that the "fetus plausibly does have a right to the use of the uterus, considering that the woman created the fetus and placed the fetus in a state of dependence upon her . , which grounds an obligation of care from the pregnant woman to her child." There are details here about what's being said, but a fair question is: why think this? Why exactly would she have this obligation? This appears to be mostly just an assertation, and there are a lot of details here that would really need to be engaged to support it. Actually, the principle proposed about 5 very much appears to be question-begging. Suppose I create a plant, or a culture of cells, that didn't exist before. Its existence is dependent on what I did. Do I have obligations toward the plant or blob of cells? No. So this type of thinking only seems to work when the "created" or dependent thing is already wrong to kill, which is what's at issue. If this isn't the case, some subtle thinking would be needed to show that.

              (I have a short article in the American Journal of Bioethics on this topic called "Abortion and Moral Arguments from Analogy": ).


              Concerning argument 4, the objection to response 2 misses the objection, which is based on a (metaphysical) view often called "unrestricted mereological composition." (Ted Sider has a book on four-dimensionalism that discusses this view). The objection is not that, considered in themselves, sperms or eggs have valuable futures. This view is basically that any collection of objects is itself an object: to put it another way, there are single objects with parts that don't touch. This view implies that there are *single* things such as an "egg-and-a-sperm-that-would-fertilize-it" and so those things would seem to have valuable futures also. (For discussion, see the cited paper by Norcross).

              A further, related concern about Marquis is that if we couldn't be merely physical objects (that is, physical objects with no, and having had no, psychological properties), then we couldn't have been early fetuses, and so an early fetus couldn't have a future like our's. (For an introduction that's relevant to that see "Origin Essentialism: What Could Have Been Different about You?" and the personal identity article by the same author: )


              Concerning argument 2, about persons, I will just observe that there was no "question begging" involved in what was said. One way of *reasoning towards* such a definition of what persons are (or what it is to be a person, or what makes something a person) is to reflect on what makes us persons and what (if anything) would end our personhood. We can then take those insights and apply them to harder cases, and so there is no question-begging. (For a description of these methods of developing a theory of personhood that explains cases, see this if interested: "Early and Later Abortions: Ethics and Law" )

              Concerning the other issue about argument 2, such as how to explain why racism, sexism, child and baby abuse, animal abuse and other wrong actions are indeed wrong, I suggest at least observing what arguments are actually given for why these are wrong. It appears there are far simpler explanations than what's suggested: e.g., that anyone conscious or sentient has basic rights or equal consideration of interests and so forth. If all major moral and social-political theories are in total error in trying to explain why various wrong actions are wrong, that should be pointed out.


              Finally, about argument 1, it appears to be only *asserted* that the right to life, or properties that entail the right to life are “essential” properties. (And it’s assumed that *we* exist at all times our bodies exist too). Now that might be true, and it might be that being rational or having a “rational nature” is an essential property, but it needs to be explained why that would be so: it’s easy to assert or insist that, but harder to articulate really good reasons why that is. That was noted in footnote 2:


              And here is some further discussion:


              OK, I hope these quick, incomplete replies are interesting and helpful. Again, they are quick, so I may have missed something, but, again, the basic response is that more often needs to be said, as is often the case with everything!

              Nathan Nobis


              Monday, October 3, 2022

              No, consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy

              There is this often made claim that "consent to sex is consent to pregnancy." This is intended to be an argument, in this case, a reason to believe that abortion is wrong. 

              Unfortunately, it's a poor argument. 

              Why's that? Well, you simply need to think about what the argument is. It's something like this:

              1. She consented to sex, and pregnancy is a possible outcome of sex (for some, sometimes).
              2. If someone consents to X, and Y is a possible outcome of X, then that someone consents to Y, in a manner such that it'd be wrong to do anything about "reversing" or "undoing" Y. 
              3. Therefore, she consents to being pregnant, and it'd be wrong to do anything about "reversing" or "undoing" Y – such as having an abortion – so abortion is wrong.  

              The problem is that assumption 2 is false:

              • someone might consent, or agree to, play a sport. They know they might get injured. If they are injured, however, they need not just accept that; they don't "consent" to staying injured: they can seek to restore their body to a pre-injured state; 
              • someone might consent, or agree to, a romantic relationship. They know their feelings might get hurt because of the relationship. If their feelings are hurt, however, they need not just accept that; they don't "consent" to staying emotionally in the dumps: they can seek to restore their feelings to a pre-injured state, or better;
              • someone might smoke, knowing that could lead to health problems. If such health problems emerge, however, they don't have to just accept that; they don't "consent" to accepting their poor health: they can seek to restore their health.
              Gobs of obvious examples show that a premise like 2 is false: since the argument depends on a premise like this, it's bad.


              Now, sometimes we do things that have results that are simply unavoidable: nothing can be done about those. That leads people to observe things like, "If you consent to  or knowingly agree to  jumping out a plane without a parachute, you consent to  or knowingly agree to  smashing into the ground!" Yes, indeed!

              Pregnancy is not one of those actions though: something can be done about it, to undo it or restore the woman back to her pre-pregnancy state: that's what abortions do. (Obviously, nothing "restores" anything to the exact same state: the past is never undone, about any of the example above).


              Also, we sometimes consent to doing things that have possible consequences that would be morally wrong to "back out of," so to speak. 

              But that can't merely be assumed in this case, or any other. And, if you've got great reasons to think it'd be wrong to stop a pregnancy, you don't have to appeal to anything about consent: you'd think that's wrong if there's consent and, typically, even if there is not.


              And pregnancy, of course, is not an inevitable, unavoidable consequence of sex; it cannot simply even be said to be a very likely consequence of sex. 

              What are the chances some intercourse will lead to pregnancy? That really depends on a lot of factors (see here also), so much so that there's really no general answer to be given here: sometimes the chances are high, and sometimes they are low.


              Now, people sometimes respond to all this by insisting that abortion is wrong and evil, and that any sex that leads to pregnancy leads to a fetus that would be wrong to abort

              That may be, but this argument above is supposed to show this, not merely assume it or "beg the question" which means "assume what you need to argue for or given reasons to support."

              And, again, if there were great reasons to believe that all abortions are wrong, there would be no need for this "consent" argument anyway: if abortions were just wrong (or, say, fetuses were persons with the right to life which includes a right to the woman's body), then whether anyone consented to anything or did not consent would be just irrelevant. However, again, this argument gives no good reason to believe that abortions are wrong. 


              So, what's going on here? Why do people appeal to this bad argument?

              Well, the most natural explanation is confirmation bias: people want to latch on to anything that seems to them to support their own point of view, even if it doesn't: people mistakenly think, "I accept this view, and so any argument in its favor must be a good one that I must accept!" This, of course, is a mistake and, again, this is a case where the argument does not support the intended conclusion. Other arguments might, but this one does not.

              *** Note: some claim that since whether a pregnancy occurs is a random event that's beyond anyone's direct control, nobody can consent to pregnancy: you can only consent to actions being done by other people, and becoming pregnant isn't that. 

              That's fine, but an advocate of a "consent argument" like above doesn't have to disagree: they claim that she consented to do something that might result in pregnancy, and so she must remain pregnant: if you want these folks to state their claim without using the not literally true phrase "consent to pregnancy" they could, but that won't make any important difference so what they are trying to argue. And it won't make any difference to the objection that, in general, it is false that if you consent to doing something that has a chance of Y happening, you just must accept Y, and you can't address Y's happening. 

              P.S. People interested in the "consent to sex is consent to pregnancy" "argument" would likely benefit from learning about Thomson's argument and how a common objection to it is question-begging or assumes what it can't. Here's the section from Thinking Critically About Abortion:

              5.2.3 The right to life & the right to someone else’s body

              Finally, suppose much of the above is mistaken and that fetuses indeed are persons with the right to life. Some think that this clearly makes abortion wrong. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson famously argued in 1971 that this isn’t so.[17] She observes that people often have a naive understanding of what the right to life is a right to. She makes her case with a number of clever examples, most famously, the “famous violinist”:

              You wake up in a hospital, “plugged in” to a famous violinist, who needs to use your kidneys to stay alive. You were kidnapped for this purpose. If you unplug, he will die. But it’s only for nine months.

              Does the violinist have a right to your kidneys? Do you violate his right to life if you unplug, and he dies? Most would say “no,” which suggests that the right to life is not a right to anyone else’s body, even if that body is necessary for your life to continue.

              This suggests that, even if fetuses were persons with the right to life, they would not have a right to the pregnant woman’s body: only the woman herself has that right. So until there is a way to remove fetuses and place them in other wombs, abortion would be permissible, given women’s rights to their own bodies and related rights to autonomy and self-determination, especially about matters concerning reproduction, among other relevant rights. This discussion also suggests another definition of abortion:

                     Definition 4: Abortion is the intentional withholding of what a fetus needs to live, to end a pregnancy.

              Thomson’s insights are not without controversy, however. Some respond the violinist case is somewhat like a pregnancy that results from rape, since there’s no consent involved, but claim that pregnancies that don’t result from rape do give fetuses the right to the woman’s body because, they argue, the woman has done something that she knows might result in someone existing who is dependent on her.

              Thomson, however, had other cases that partially address this type of concern: e.g., if someone falls in your house because you opened a window, they don’t have the right to be there, even though you did something that contributed to their being there; and, more imaginatively, if people sprouted from “people seeds” floating in the air, and you tried to keep them out of your house but one managed to get in and became dependent on your carpet for its gestation, that resulting person would not have a right to be there, despite your having done something that led to that person’s existence.

              We should also notice that the claim that doing something that results in the existence of something uniquely dependent on you grants that something rights to your assistance might be question-begging. Compare doing something that results in the existence of a new plant or dish or random cells that is dependent on you: you wouldn’t be obligated to provide for that plant or cells. To assume that things are different with fetuses is, well, to assume what can’t be merely assumed, especially if we don’t already believe that early fetuses are persons with the right to life. Thomson assumed fetal personhood for the sake of argument to illustrate her claims about the right to life, but the facts of the matter—that early fetuses arguably aren’t persons or have characteristics that make them have a right to life—is surely relevant to assessing this type of claim when applied to actual cases of pregnancy.

              It should be made clear though that even if the fetus doesn’t have a right to the pregnant woman’s body, there could be other rights or other obligations that could make abortion wrong nevertheless: e.g., if pregnancy were just 9 hours perhaps women would be obligated to be Good Samaritans towards them, even if fetuses didn’t have a right to the woman’s resources and assistance: ethics isn’t just about not violating rights. What’s important here is that rights to life and personhood are not the “slam dunk” against abortion, so to speak, that people often think they are: things are more complicated than that. 

              Here are some videos that make these points also:

              @nathan.nobis Again, consent to sex isn't consent to pregnancy. Compiling some of the good examples given on previous videos. I will make a blog post about this, since this bad argument is too common. #abortion #prochoice #prolife #criticalthinking #ethics #logic #bioethics #philosophy #consent ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis
              A follow-up:
              @nathan.nobis Replying to @biljmi87 the "consent to sex is consent to pregnancy" argument & begging the question or assuming what you need to argue for: a follow-up to the previous video. #abortion #prochoice #prolife #bioethics ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis
              @nathan.nobis Consent to sex isn't consent to pregnancy: here's why this is a bad argument. Not all actions' possible or potential consequences must be accepted and not "undone." #abortion #prochoice #prolife #consent #ethics #consenttosexisnotconsenttopregnancy ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis
              @nathan.nobis Replying to @nathan.nobis consent to sex isn't consent to pregnancy: here's why this is a bad argument, part 2: you can't just assume that someone *must* accept a pregnancy: that's an example of "begging the question." #abortion #prochoice #prolife #consent #ethics #criticalthinking #philosophy ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

              There's also a version of this "argument" that's based on the fact that if you gamble in a casino, you can't "back out" if you lose the game. Sure, fine, but nothing follows here about situations where you can "back out" of what happened:

              @nathan.nobis #duet with @equalrightsinstitute ♬ original sound - Equal Rights Institute
              @nathan.nobis #stitch with @equalrightsinstitute #abortion #prochoice #prolife ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis
              @nathan.nobis #stitch with @equalrightsinstitute #abortion #prochoice #prolife ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

              Wednesday, September 28, 2022

              "We were born with a brain. Why can’t we use it when debating abortion?"

               An article "We were born with a brain. Why can’t we use it when debating abortion?" that mentions and discusses an article by me.

              Interesting, however, the author overlooks or ignores some of the core points of my article, such as that there are far better reasons to believe that most abortions are not wrong and should be legal than that nearly all abortions are wrong and should be legal!

              How could that have been missed?  

              Tuesday, August 2, 2022

              Yes, All Bioethicists Should Engage Abortion Ethics, but Who Would Be Interested in What They Have to Say?

              Yes, all bioethicists should engage abortion ethics, but who would be interested in what they have to say?

              Open peer commentary for the American Journal of Bioethics on a set of articles about abortion. 

              Nathan Nobis (2022) Yes, All Bioethicists Should Engage Abortion Ethics, but Who Would Be Interested in What They Have to Say?, The American Journal of Bioethics, 22:8, 33-36, DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2022.2089274 [some number of free eprints here]

              1500 words.

              Katie Watson (2022) writes that “If the Supreme Court shifts the question of legality in whole or in part to state legislatures, the ethics of abortion will become an even more intense subject of debate in public, academic, and clinical realms. Therefore, this is the moment for all bioethicists to strengthen our teaching, thinking, and writing in abortion ethics” (emphasis added). 

              While writing this commentary, the Supreme Court opinion draft to overturn Roe was leaked, which suggests this “if” is very likely a “when.” So this is the moment

              Watson focuses on one way for bioethicists to engage abortion, as an issue affecting health disparities. 

              Another way ethicists can engage is by helping people better understand and answer fundamental questions such as: is abortion immoral, indeed murder, and should be illegal, as anti-abortion advocates argue? Or is generally it not wrong, and so banning abortion is unjust? 

              I am a bioethicist and for the past few years, I have been engaged in “public philosophy” about abortion ethics, presumably doing something that Professor Watson would encourage bioethicists to do. On the basis of my experience, I want to report this: few people, especially pro-choice people—including their leaders and organizations—seem to care about or have any interest in what ethicists have to say about abortion. 

              Is this a problem? 

              It’s hard to guess what, realistically, the best impact ethicists could have, and could have had, on political and legal debates about abortion. But a safe assessment is this: people, especially pro-choice people, not listening to ethicists and not seeking to better understand the ethical issues about abortion is not helping anyone. 

              Persuading broader audiences that ethicists might be able to help advance pro-choice causes is thereby essential to implementing Watson’s suggestion that bioethicists get more engaged. What good ethicists might do depends on others taking advantage of what they have to offer: that this would need to happen is my focus here.

              * * *

              To say a bit about my experience, I have been engaging the public using a co-authored (with Kristina Grob) freely available, open-access introductory book, Thinking Critically About Abortion (2019) (available at, reposted many other places, also a $5.38 paperback), blog posts on further questions and misunderstandings, articles in three ethics anthologies (2020), articles in publications like Salon (2021, 2022) and Areo (2019), videos on YouTube and TikTok, discussions on podcasts and in public forums, and more. 

              These materials are not “pro-choice cheerleading” or any form of partisan hackery. They support a pro-choice perspective, but they critique bad arguments and misunderstandings from both anti-abortion and pro-choice perspectives and acknowledge insights from both “sides”: abortion critics are correct in some of their claims, even if their overall position is not supported by good arguments. 

              My basic motivation for this ethics-educational outreach is this:

              • legal attempts to ban and restrict abortion are primarily motivated by the moral outlook that abortion is murder, a human-rights violation, and unjust; 

              • but, there are no good reasons to believe that, in general, abortion is wrong: the arguments that are given to think this, especially the simplistic arguments that most anti-abortion advocates actually appeal to, are demonstrably poor arguments; and good arguments can be given for a broadly pro-choice position;

              • so, more people knowing this and understanding why this is so this might do some good in helping to undercut legal efforts against abortion: some anti-abortion advocates might lose confidence in their views; pro-choice people would be better able to explain and justify their own views; there would be positive effects for the moderate middle majority.

              None of these educational efforts would, in themselves, “solve” the tangible legal and political challenges against abortion. But they could do some good and so are worth trying, especially since not doing this does not appear to be working out well, from pro-choice perspectives. 

              Since a root of anti-abortion legal efforts are the moral claims of murder and injustice, it makes sense to explain why these claims are not supported by strong arguments and why a broadly pro-choice view is supported by better arguments. At least 80% of trained philosophers (PhilPapers survey 2020) seem to agree with these judgments, but few ethicists—even those who are recognized experts on the topic—are engaged in public discussions of abortion: in contrast, there are many highly visible anti-abortion intellectuals who regularly engage the public on the issues. This might give a false impression that the anti-abortion case is stronger when, in fact, it is weaker: ethicists working to correct anyone’s mistaken impressions here might help.

              * * *

              To share the reactions to my ethics-educational activities, I have gotten many encouraging and appreciative responses from people from all around the world who report learning a lot from these educational materials. I have also gotten a lot of appreciation for my (usually!?) calm, fair, respectful, and friendly ways of engaging these issues since insults, anger, and hate seem to be common in discussions of abortion. 

              [Engaging abortion debates has steered my interests toward understanding the impact of various cognitive biases, like confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, tribalism, cults, groupthink, echo chambers, epistemic bubbles, the denial of expertise, and other social and personal influences that usually preclude and distort understanding and responsible inquiry. Abortion is a useful topic to study how we can better think about controversial issues in general, and help identify what our parts can be to enable and encourage better dialogue and discussion of all issues. (Note: I cut this paragraph from the final version)].

              I have, however, gotten a lot of negative reactions, including from pro-choice people, which leads me to my observation that most vocal pro-choice people do not care about engaging abortion ethics: they believe that abortion is obviously not wrong and that anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant, ill-motivated, or evil. Some pro-choicers argue it’s offensive to engage people who disagree, claiming that’s like arguing with slaveholders, but forgetting that arguments were given against slavery, which contributed to positive change.

              Abortion-advocacy organizations also appear to have zero interest in engaging in anything about ethics: indeed, they actively avoid the issues. Mary Ziegler (2020) reports in a The Atlantic article that, since the 1990s, pro-choice advocates have deliberately avoided engaging ethical questions about abortion; they have focused solely on the legal freedom to choose abortion. 

              We don’t know what would have happened if pro-choice organizations had attempted to duplicate the types of ethics-education efforts that anti-abortion advocates have engaged in for decades (e.g., trainings, books, “apologetics”): perhaps we’d be in the same place we are now. 

              If the “let’s avoid ethics” strategy was based on the assumption that the legal right to abortion could not be lost, that is turning out to be a mistaken assumption. Some pro-choice people appear to have this sort of outlook: “We don’t care about ethics, or your ethics; we have the legal right to have abortions and that’s all that matters!” This attitude can work, until that legal right is challenged and, perhaps, lost.

              In sum, enthusiastic pro-choice advocates tend to think it’s simply and obviously not wrong and should be legal, and so so have little interest in insights from ethicists on how to better understand, present and, perhaps, move their ethical message. But it does not appear that not attempting to undermine the, or a, root cause of the legal attacks—the belief that abortion is a great evil—has helped: the pro-choice cause is not better off for not engaging in ethics education. 

              * * *

              I will conclude with some observations of common misunderstandings of the issues, which might help ethicists better engage abortion in a variety of forums. 

              Of course, both sides often offer “bumper sticker” slogans in favor of their position that are just question-begging assumptions of their own views. Beyond that: 

              anti-abortion advocates:

              • tend to accept a naive “scientism” that contributes to their thinking that the scientific facts that fetuses are biologically alive, biologically human, and biologically human organisms simply entails that abortion is wrong; 

              • tend to not realize, and actively deny, that people sometimes mean different things by “human beings” and “when life begins”; 

              • tend to be ignorant of the fact that what makes anyone (or anything) have moral rights, or be otherwise wrong to kill, is a hard, theoretical question, and the best candidates for better explanations here do not include simply that the being is biologically human or even that the being is a biologically human organism

              • tend to not think about whether or how the right to life could be a right to someone else’s body, and related issues; and:

              pro-choice advocates:

              • often mistakenly assume that the case against abortion is merely religious: they do not know abortion foes often see abortion as a “human rights” violation, which is a misunderstanding that results, in part, from human rights advocates poorly stating their views;

              • too often deny that fetuses are “alive” or “life” and “human” and so appear ignorant since fetuses clearly are that in a biological sense;

              • often mistakenly assume that anyone’s lacking a (moral or legal) right to anyone else’s body simply settles the issue;

              • often assume that abortion restrictions are motivated by the goal of controlling women and not motivated by the belief that abortion is murder: even if this is true, the ethical task of undercutting their arguments and giving better arguments might do more good than not (Jolly 2022). 

              In sum, the basic questions are these: what do pro-choice efforts have to lose in engaging ethics, with ethicists? Nothing. What do they, we, have to gain? Potentially a lot, and so ethics demands engaging ethics, with ethicists.


              Grob, Kristina and Nobis, Nathan. “Defining ‘Abortion’ and Critiquing Common Arguments about Abortion.” In Fischer, Bob. College Ethics: A Reader on Moral Issues that Affect You, 2nd Ed. Oxford University Press. 2020.

              Jolly, K.S. “The Feminist Case for Debating Abortion Ethics.” May 5, 2022. 

              Nobis, Nathan and Grob, Kristina. Thinking Critically About Abortion: Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong and Why All Abortions Should be Legal. Open Philosophy Press. 2019. 

              Nobis, Nathan and Grob, Kristina. “Abortion and Soundbites: Why Pro-Choice Arguments Are Harder to Make.” Areo Magazine. July 23, 2019. 

              Nobis, Nathan and Dudley, Jonathan. “Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking.” Salon. April 11, 2021.  

              Nobis, Nathan. “I’m a philosophy professor. The argument for making abortion illegal is illogical.” Salon. December 4, 2021. 

              Nobis, Nathan. “When does ‘life’ begin? When it comes to abortion, it depends on what you mean by ‘life.’” Salon. April 2, 2022.   

              PhilPapers. “Survey Results: Abortion.” PhilPapers 2020 Survey. 

              Watson, Katie. “The Ethics of Access: Reframing the Need for Abortion Care as a Health Disparity.” American Journal of Bioethics. 2022. 

              Ziegler, Mary. “How Raphael Warnock Came to Be an Abortion-Rights Outlier.” The Atlantic. December 31, 2020.