March 14, 2009

The morality of Abortion, part 1: Opening statements

I've put this off longer than I originally intended (life's like that); but, as almost always, better late than never. A couple weeks ago I briefly summarized the debate between Andrew Sneddon and Stephanie Gray that took place at the University of Ottawa. Here I intend to go over the debate in more detail and in four parts, starting with the two 20-minute opening statements.

Opening statement: Andrew Sneddon

Dr. Sneddon won the pre-debate coin toss, and spoke first. Here is a summary of his opening statement:

The title of the presentation was, "Why I am Pro-Choice and Why I Should Thank My Mother." Sneddon began his argument with a "change in topic": suppose that he needs a kidney, and the only compatible donor in the world was his mother. Does he have a right to it? Pregnancy and abortion are tricky issues, but not absolutely unique: they are relevant and similar issues [similar to the kidney-donation problem, I assume he meant.]

The question to be resolved is: Is elective abortion a wrong act (i.e. is it morally impermissible)? There are two positions: first, that the fetus has no moral standing, in which case abortion is permissible. This, Sneddon said, is closer to the truth, but he was not going to defend it since it was hard and he is lazy. Second is the position that the fetus does have full moral standing, and therefore the right to life. Nonetheless, in the latter case, abortion is still widely permissible.

To return to the kidney case: clearly he has no right to his mother's kidney. It is her right to give it away, but before that he has no right to it. By parity of reasoning, a kidney donation is analogous because:

  • it concerns the relationship between mother and child
  • both mother and child are full members of the human community
  • both cases require use of the mother's body to survive
  • his right to life and need for her body do not grant him a right to use that body to save his life against her will

There are three potential disanalogies. The first is location: the fetus is within his mother's body, while the kidney patient is outside it. This is not a relevant disanalogy. The second is the intentional participation of the mother; obviously in the vast majority of cases she conceives intentionally. This is not relevant either: intentional participation is not transferable; for example, if he opens his door to let fresh air into the house, that does not give a trespasser the right to enter. The third is the difference between "killing" and "letting die." Not donating a kidney is not killing, but letting die, whereas abortion is killing. This is an important distinction. However, it is not necessarily a moral difference, and there is a lot of philosophical literature on it, for example discussing passive vs. active euthanasia. Killing and letting die need to be evaluated on the same grounds; the cases of a needed kidney and pregnancy shouldn't be considered differently. However, even if killing is unjustified, that doesn't mean that the anti-abortion case is vindicated: the fetus still has no right to use his mother's body.

Is it justifiable for a mother to disconnect herself from the fetus and let it die? Yes, on the grounds of the mother's bodily autonomy, widely recognized as a right in philosophy and democratic society. There are two domains where this must be considered: the wide world, where claims must be evaluated against other claims; and within oneself, where one has a different standing with respect to himself and with others. A person is not merely a bundle of resources; his right to autonomy is absolute within the confines of his person.

Therefore, abortion is permissible, and nothing further needs to be addressed.

Opening statement: Stephanie Gray

Ms. Gray began by asking: Is denying someone use of a uterus analogous to denying someone use of a kidney? Only if, in the latter case, you also decapitate and disembowel him.

She began with a story about a little girl named "Gabi," who was born with no ability to feel pain, and whose parents must take great pains to protect her from self-harm as a result. Because she lacks this fundamental ability, is Gabi therefore not a person? Of course not. The question is, what is she? If she is a human being, Gabi's parents have a special responsibility to meet her basic needs that they do not have for other members of society. Similarly, if the unborn are human, then the mother also has that responsibility to provide for them.

To consider another case, take that of Penny Boudreau, the woman in Nova Scotia who strangled her 12-year-old daughter Karissa in early 2008. We all agree that the murder of a daughter by her own mother is a highly immoral act, because of the special relationship that should exist between them.

Consider some of the "hard cases" of rape, poverty, or birth defects: we would not kill a born child for the crimes of his father, nor do we kill born people as a solution to poverty, nor do we kill disabled people. And if we can establish the humanity of the unborn, then we cannot justify killing them because of rape, poverty, or disability either.

In the case of a 20-year old, he may have been born 20 years earlier, but he was conceived 9 months before that - and that was the time when his biological identity is established. At fertilization, the unborn are alive, and unlike a sperm or an egg, we are now dealing with a whole being. The unborn is human, because the laws of biology dictate that like beget like. Fertilization produces unique members of the human species.

There are differences between the born and the unborn, but they are not relevant: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. These differences also change between birth and 20 years of age, but we wouldn't permit killing someone because of them; there are certain obligations that parents have toward their children. From fertilization onward, the changes that occur in a person are not a change in nature, but a change in appearance and ability. It is not where we are that makes it wrong to kill us, but what we are.

[At this point Ms. Gray showed a short video of an abortion in progress, citing the need to see what it is that the debate is over. She prefaced the video with an appropriate "content advisory" as well as a quotation from pro-choice feminist Naomi Wolf: "How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted by them, then we are making the judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view of women is unworthy of feminism."]

Murder is wrong: not because the victims are well-educated or feel pain, but because they are human. When did they become human? After that point, it is wrong to kill them.

I'll comment on Stephanie's argument first, since I obviously take her side. There was nothing in it that I disagreed with, specifically. My feeling now is that it may have lacked somewhat in cohesiveness, but I'll concede that might just be me trying to make sense of my hastily written notes two weeks after the fact. One place where we would definitely do things differently would be the number of anecdotes: she uses two, whereas I would probably use only one, reserving the rest of the time to give my opponent more arguments to deal with.  However, that's a question of style, not so much substance.

These two opening statements felt an awful lot like I was watching two different debates, because they differed so much in approach. It's to their credit that when Stephanie and Dr. Sneddon interacted, they did so directly nonetheless.

If you're reasonably familiar with the major arguments surrounding the abortion issue, you may have recognized Dr. Sneddon's opening statement as a variation of philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous "violinist" argument, first published in 1971. Suppose you were to wake up and discover yourself sharing a bed with, and your kidneys hooked up to, a famous violinist. He has been in an accident and needs to share your kidneys for nine months to survive. Are you obliged to give him the use of your body until he recovers? No, argues Thomson, and similarly a woman cannot be compelled against her will to provide the use of her body to a gestating fetus.

This is actually one of the more sophisticated pro-abortion-rights arguments. One thing it does is to grant the full humanity of the unborn - as did Dr. Sneddon, making this the first abortion debate I have attended where this was assumed by both sides. So Thomson and Sneddon have both spiked the pro-lifers' biggest gun and shifted the focus of the debate onto different territory - such as the right to bodily autonomy.

But there is where the argument starts to fall apart. The right to bodily autonomy was simply asserted, but never proven: a woman has the right to abort a fetus because it is inside her body and making use of it. But suppose that instead of getting pregnant, she stole a priceless diamond ring by swallowing it. Does the fact that the ring is inside her body give her any rights over the ring, to do with it as she pleases? Of course not. And if she has no rights to dispose of a thing, how can she have such rights over a person? Ah, someone might counter, she doesn't own the ring. Well, I would take it as axiomatic that you can't own a human being. Otherwise, the argument against slavery starts to fall apart as well. Bodily autonomy obviously ends where someone else's body begins. The fetus is not her body. As Stephanie argues, the unborn are living, genetically distinct, whole human beings with the intrinsic capacity to develop into functioning, mature, born persons. It comes down to the identity of the unborn after all: what it is determines what you can do with it.

Of Sneddon's three possible disanalogies, I concede that the first, location, is not relevant. Where you are does not determine what you are. In the second, however, there is a relevant disanalogy. Granted, opening your door doesn't mean you consent to a trespasser entering your home. Thomson also uses this analogy, in an attempt to argue that consent to sex doesn't imply consent to pregnancy. But this is bizarre. Women (apart, I assume, from the occasional hotel heiress) do not sit around with their legs open so that random male passers-by can impregnate them - or for sperm ("people seeds," as Thomson calls them) to waft along in search of a uterus to take root in. Men weren't fish, the last I checked. Sex takes a certain amount of co-operation to achieve. The majority of sex is consensual, and the natural consequence of sex is pregnancy. It is, and hence most people come about as the natural consequence of a consensual act. It's absurd to think you can divorce acts from consequence. Sneddon tries, too hard, and fails. At best, you can use this argument in favour of elective abortion because of rape. But to borrow from Sneddon's trespasser analogy: suppose you open your door and invite a stranger into your home for dinner, after which he refuses to leave until you threaten him, and he puts his foot through your television on the way out? Obviously you bear at least some responsibility for the damage because of your naïveté.

Sneddon then tries to minimize the difference between "killing" and "letting die." At one point he referred to abortion as disconnecting the fetus from the mother and letting it die. I can make the distinction easily enough. When a sick or injured person cannot survive in his natural environment without artificial help, and that help is not taken, that is letting die. When a  person with no life-threatening sickness or injury is forcibly removed from an environment that sustains him, that is killing. For example:

  • Refusing treatment for terminal cancer is letting die.
  • Being dragged out of your stateroom and thrown overboard in the middle of the ocean is killing.
  • Succumbing to a fatal illness because a compatible kidney donor could not be found is letting die.
  • Poisoning to death or dismembering a fetus in the uterus, then extracting the corpse with surgical instruments, is killing.

When I was in school, I came only a few credits short of a minor in philosophy, so I have to admit I was surprised at Dr. Sneddon's rather pronounced lack of rigor when drawing some of these important distinctions.

Next came the cross-examination period, and I hope to continue with this analysis shortly.