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

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