June 28, 2010

Abort A Fetus For Jesus! (Why Abortion Should Be Safe, Legal And Extremely Common)

[Moved up to the front because of the Philosopher's Carnival mention.]

Let's think, for a second, about the logical structure of moral disagreements. ("Wait," I hear you saying. "You want to talk about *logic*? I thought this was about *Jesus.* Don't worry, gentle reader. The Jesus part, much like Jesus himself, is coming soon.)

When two people are disagreeing about an ethical issue, the source of the disagreement might have to do with the general moral principles being invoked by one side or another, or it might have to do with extra empirical premises that tell us about whether those principles apply in a given situation. For example, if I you want to bring Chthulu back to earth after his long slumber beneath the sea, and I think that that's wrong, that's mostly because I think that both:

(1) Cthulu will kill us all, and
(2) That would be bad.

Since you disagree, presumably you either think Cthulu is misunderstood, and that he would not in fact kill us all, or, if you accept (1), you might just think that we have it coming.

With this in mind, let's start to think about the abortion debate. One way to frame this is to think about The Least Convincing Pro-Life Argument Ever, which is:

Premise One: Abortion is murder.
Premise Two: Murder is wrong.
Conclusion: Abortion is wrong.

The problem, of course, is that no one who didn't start out by accepting the conclusion would ever accept Premise One, pretty much by definition, since the word "murder" has the notion of wrongness built into it. One could try to re-phrase to:

Premise One: Abortion is killing.
Premise Two: Killing is wrong.
Conclusion: Abortion is wrong.

Now, the problem is that Premise Two is implausibly strong--killing, after all, seems to be justified under at least some circumstances. What about killing people in self-defense, or on the battlefield in time of war? Killing animals for food? Even vegetarian pacifists are OK with killing and eating plants, chopping down trees for wood and so on. We might want to re-phrase the basic pro-life argument to:

Premise One: Abortion is the killing of an innocent human person.
Premise Two: Anything that involves killing an innocent human person is wrong.
Conclusion: Abortion is wrong.

(more after the jump)

Now, we've gotten pretty close to the heart of the matter. Most pro-choicers accept Premise Two, but for obvious reasons, they think Premise One is ridiculous. Consciousness, even consciousness of a fairly minimal kind--ability to feel pain and pleasure, etc.--seems to require a level of brain activity fetuses aren't capable of for most of a pregnancy. (Over 90% of abortions take place in the first twelve weeks, and brain waves don't show up on an EEG until 20-24 weeks into pregnancy.) A fetus is something that, if all goes well, will one day become a human person, but the cost of sharpening up Premise Two to include the destruction not just of persons but of things that could become persons is that not only is abortion murder, but so is wearing a condom. Or, say, masturbation.

OK, you might say, so making Premise Two any stronger than it is is going to hilariously over-shoot the target, and the empirical evidence seems to make Premise One pretty fucking dubious. But, after all, given the complexities of the literature on fetal brain development, we might not be completely sure what the cut-off point is, and at any rate, whatever one thinks about the complicated mess of scientific and philosophical claims swirling around any argument about the exact beginnings of human personhood, we can at least agree that *if* Premise One turns out to be true, or at least true of any specific abortion or category of abortion (abortions after such-and-such many weeks, or whatever), then the conclusion follows. Premise Two is, after all, undoubtedly correct.

Well....no. In a 1971 article by Judith Jarvis Thompson--one of them most re-printed applied ethics articles in contemporary philosophy--she calls Premise Two into question in a pretty devestatingly effective way. In A Defense Of Abortion, Thompson introduces the following thought experiment:

"You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, 'Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.' Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. 'Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.' I imagine you would regard this as outrageous..."

Here, there's no difficult empirical or conceptual question about the applicability of the moral principle from Premise Two. The adult violinist is clearly a human person, and an innocent one. (Keep in mind that he's unconscious. He didn't know that the Society of Music Lovers kidnapped you for him, and we can even postulate that he wouldn't have approved of their actions if he had known.) And, pretty clearly, unplugging yourself would kill him. Still, it seems radically counter-intuitive to say that you have a moral obligation to stay plugged to him for as long as it takes--it would be, as Thompson said, very nice of you, but in an "above and beyond the call of duty" sort of way. By analogy, when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, it seems ridiculous to say that, even if Premise One *is* correct (which, given our best current science, seems implausible, especially during the relatively early part of pregnancies when most abortions take place), you have a moral obligation to continue to share your body with the fetus against your wishes.

"OK," a certain sort of pro-lifer might say, "that's fine for rape, which really is like being kidnapped and plugged up to the violinist, but surely this argument doesn't show that it's OK to have an abortion if the pregnancy is a result of consensual sex."

So the idea here is that anyone who's ever had consensual sex is volunteering for pregnancy. Other than rape, there's just no such thing as an unwanted pregnancy. In the violinist analogy, they might as well be sauntering into the hospital, humming a jaunty tune, begging every doctor they see to find them a violinist and hook 'em up.

An obvious problem here is that quite a bit of consensual sex is accompanied by fairly extreme pregnancy-avoidance measures that seem to show that, not only is not every sexually active heterosexual couple volunteering for pregnancy, but a lot of them seem to be going right the hell out of their way to avoid it. A lot of these methods are pretty fucking effective most of the time--the effectiveness rate of condoms (even without birth control, or other contraceptive techniques) is over 98% when they're properly and consistently used. Combined with other techniques, it gets way, way higher than that.

So, if you think that, in cases of freak accidents even by couples being careful, unwanted pregnancies are conceptually impossible given consensual sex, the principle that you must be applying is something like this:

Principle P: If you voluntarily engage in a behavior that makes outcome O even slightly more likely, then you are volunteering for Outcome O.

This might sound implausibly strong, but it's what the anti-abortionist pretty much has to appeal to at this point. Let's think about this. Even a woman who is, so far as these matters are under her control, completely abstinent, does not have a 0% chance of pregnancy. There's always rape. So if you want to say that, going from no-consensual-sex to regular-consensual-sex-with-her-boyfriend-using-a-condom, that whore is volunteering for pregnancy since she's going from .0001% chance or whatever to something well over a whole one percent, Principle P pretty much has to be in the background here somewhere. But wait. If a nun lives in a convent, where's she's cloistered, and decides one day to leave the convent to go to college, but, still being a devout Catholic, she has zero consensual sex while in college, the greatly increased chances of rape on campus vs. in a convent mean that, while she probably won't be raped, and while even if she is raped, she probably won't become pregnant, the increase in the chances of these things is at least on par with the increase in the going-from-abstinence-to-regular-consensual-sex-using-protection case. So Principle P tells us that that little convent-leaving slut can't claim that any rape-caused pregnancy that may occur counts as "unwanted." Her going to campus was *exactly* like sending a letter to the Society of Music-Lovers asking for them to hook her up to any sick violinists they had lying around.

To put this in the very gentlest possible applicable language, Principle P is an absolutely batshit crazy, retarded claim. Let's say you leave a neighborhood where very few people, really almost no one, is ever kidnapped by the Society of Music-Lovers and hooked up to a violinist, and move to a neighborhood that has other advantages--it has a coffee shop you like, you can get a better job there than you could in your old neighborhood, the property values are better--but where the Society of Music-Lovers is more active and there's a greatly increased chance that you'll be kidnapped and hooked up to a sick violinist. You install an expensive home security system wired to call the police immediately if anyone tries to break in. You buy a tough-as-nails guard dog, a over-sized mutant mix between a rottweiler, a pitt bull and a velociraptor, which you name Satan. You hire a security guard to patrol the grounds while you sleep. These measures are pretty effective, but every once in a while they still might fail. The Society of Music-Lovers, if they're really desperate and they really need your specific blood type, might launch some kind of commando raid and getcha anyway.

Or, hey, let's say you don't do anything nearly that extreme. You don't buy a security system, or a dog, or a guard. You lock the doors and close the windows and that's about it. Except sometimes you stumble home drunk from the neighborhood tavern and you forget to close your door. It's left hanging open, a passing music lover sees it, saunters in and grabs you. Well, you weren't very smart about the door thing, and you should have been, but that really really doesn't mean you were volunteering to be hooked up to the violinist. You still have every right to unhook yourself. By analogy, most reasonable people think that, if you use protection and accidents happen anyway, you definitely aren't volunteering for pregnancy, and even if you don't, that doesn't necessarily mean that you were. The person who's in the best position to know whether the pregnant woman had intended to become pregnant is, um, the pregnant woman herself. Hence Roe v. Wade.

But, I think, when it really comes to the main motivation of most pro-lifers, everything I've said so far is beside the point. Sure, "science" and "ethics" and other puny, fallible mechanisms of mere human reason all seem to overwhelmingly indicate that there's nothing morally objectionable about abortion, but that doesn't matter. See, when you're confronted with a tricky ethical issue like this, you shouldn't "think about it" using "logic," you should look deep within your heart and check to see what Jesus thinks. Like this guy always does:

...and, on this question, those most in touch with Jesus and His Inscrutable Wishes have overwhelmingly confirmed that the Prince of Peace fucking hates abortion. If we can't figure out why, well, it's not for us to know Jesus and his mysterious ways. What matters is this:

In the early 70s, when human courts invoked the blasphemous and evil so-called "right to privacy" to give women control over "their own" bodies (bodies that in fact are the property of Jesus), the most holy evangelical preachers in the land looked deep within their hearts and got marching orders to...

Oh, wait.


As it turns out, the historical record shows that in 1973, when the Supreme Court handed down the Roe decision, most evangelical commentators barely took any notice of it one way or the other, and most of the ones who did bother to comment actually, uh, supported the decision.

"Although various Roman Catholic groups denounced the ruling, and Christianity Today complained that the Roe decision 'runs counter to the moral teachings of Christianity through the ages but also to the moral sense of the American people,' the vast majority of evangelical leaders said virtually nothing about it; many of those who did comment actually applauded the decision. W. Barry Garrett of Baptist Press wrote, 'Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.' Indeed, even before the Roe decision, the messengers (delegates) to the 1971 Southern Baptist Convention gathering in St. Louis, Missouri, adopted a resolution that stated, 'we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.' W.A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, expressed his satisfaction with the Roe v. Wade ruling. 'I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,' the redoubtable fundamentalist declared, 'and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.'"


So I guess, when they originally looked deep within their hearts to check with the Big Guy on the issue of reproductive choice, it seemed like he was OK with it, then sometime over the course of the 1970s, when abortion started to replace divorce as The Big Moral Wedge Issue the evangelicals could use to whip their flock into a frenzy, Jesus changed his mind.

Well, I want to suggest that, given that the signals that Jesus beams into the hearts of evangelicals seem a bit mixed and confusing on this issue, they might want to apply a bit of actual reasoning to the WWJD question here. From Jesus' perspective, is abortion good or bad? Well, Ryan Lake argues pretty convincingly in a classic issue of his comic Chaospet that Jesus is actually a big supporter of abortion. Not just as an option that women should have, but as something they should do as frequently as possible.

So never mind that the empirical evidence seems to strongly suggest that fetal brain activity isn't sufficient for consciousness until well after the time most abortions take place, and even much later in the pregnancy, it's hard to tell. Forget Judith Jarvis Thompson, and the fact that using the arrogant human procedure of "thinking" seems to indicate that even if fetuses do count as full human persons relatively early on, that's irrelevant to whether women have a moral right to decide what happens in their own bodies. Put all that shit to one side. Abortion should not be, as in the slogan of the Godless feminists, safe, legal and rare, but actually safe, legal and extremely common....

....for Jesus.


Gustavo GutiƩrrez, O.P. said...

Well. Thank the lord for Vatican Two. Before that, they went off to Limbo.


Ratzinger said...


Anonymous said...

I made pretty much the same point here: