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Posted by on Mar 20, 2014 in Featured, Politics, Secularism | 35 comments

The debate on secular arguments for abortion

abortion_pollMy colleague Notung has already said most of what I want to say on the background issues related to a current debate in the atheist/skeptic blogosphere – in summary, that we should be very wary of ruling things as out of order in terms of debate. As he does, I’d concur with Mill in saying that hearing opposing views to ours is typically a good thing, either because we can be exposed as wrong, or because we can take the opportunity to learn more about why we are right.

Two brief notes are in order, though. Before I get to those, I shall note, to avoid misinterpretation, that no non-affected person should ever get to say what another person does with his/her body, and even once another person is affected, they don’t get to dictate what others do with their bodies. Then, non-persons (like foetuses) have no rights claims whatsoever. This does not mean that abortion is necessarily always right – it simply means that nobody but the pregnant woman has a right to insist on that abortion. This is simply a sketch of a position, rather than an argument for it – I realise that there’s much to be explicated there.

In short, women have all the rights to choose, should certainly have more rights in this regard, and I’d even say that there are further rights that parents, more generally, should have in this area.

Those two notes, before I forget:

First, allowing for debate does not need to (and shouldn’t) mean tolerating endless rehashing of naive, discredited, or scientifically illiterate arguments. We’re not obliged to listen to anyone, or anything – and if your secular argument for abortion relies on twelve-week old foetus feeling pain, or having a soul, you’re not equally deserving of a place at the table. Saying that debate is permissible has nothing to do with the judgements we make as to the opinions and arguments we hear – one can (should) allow for debate, yet also not be shy of saying “you’re adding nothing to the conversation – go away and read a book”.

Second, having the final say (or the right to make the decision) in the matter of abortion is a completely different matter to whether you might (or might not) have useful thoughts to offer on the situation. Anyone can have a view, even if they are not the pregnant woman in question. Whether their view is informed, or useful, is a separate matter.

Assuming that someone who has the property of “not being a woman” cannot have useful thoughts to offer on the question is absurd. In the relevant sense of “not being able to gestate an infant for 9 months”, most 50 year-old women don’t qualify either – and might never even have had children – yet they are never told that they can’t even express a view on this topic (as men entering these debates occasionally are told).

They (the men) certainly don’t get to insist, no – but they do get to speak. As does anyone – and once they speak, feel free to tell them they’re talking nonsense. But pre-judging their speech as nonsense before it’s uttered is sexist nonsense.

  • Shadow of a Doubt

    Well said, I’m glad to see that among those who are willing to discuss the matter, there is an intelligent discussion to be had. I wish more people would get that discussing an opposing argument isn’t endorsing it and I think both yours and Notung’s posts on the matter accentuate why the discussion should happen and that this is no way means that those having the discussion want to force our view on pregnant women.

  • Sorry, but you lost me on the second paragraph. It was somewhere along the point where you baldly asserted that a human fetus is a “non-person”.

    When, where, and how was this determined? Is it because they can’t speak for themselves at that stage?

    I’d like this explained before continuing to read further.

    Oh, right! I should probably share my stance on abortion, so you can better determine whether to engage or ignore: Abortion is killing, but killing is sometimes/oftentimes necessary for the greater good. So with that in mind, I am pro-Death. (That’s not an attempt at humor.)

    Morality is subjective. So I’m fine with people defining for themselves/their own group what is morally correct for them to do, and what isn’t. However, weasel-words and convenient re-definitions leave a bad taste in my mouth. Things like “pro-choice”, “non-person”, and so on, seem like terms created by cowards wishing to justify behavior that they themselves find repulsive, by simply giving them euphemisms, so it doesn’t weigh on their conscience as much. And if that’s really all it is, then they (the individuals and the terms) have earned by contempt.

    Anyways, I await your response. Hopefully this isn’t one of those things that isn’t #UpForDebate. 🙂

    • I seem to have lost you enough that you didn’t even finish reading the paragraph you mention. It ends with “This is simply a sketch of a position, rather than an argument for it – I realise that there’s much to be explicated there.”

      In other words, I’m not looking to have an argument on abortion. The post is about something else.

      • As stated in my comment, I ceased reading then.

        And that’s fine. If this isn’t a belief that you personally hold, then I can’t expect you to argue for it, or even break it down for me. (Anyone that actually holds that belief is welcome to weigh in, though.)

        Carry on.

        • No, it is a belief I hold. And if I ever write a post defending it, I’d be very happy to entertain debate on that position.

          • I look forward to it. It seems awfully counterintuitive to claim that something just about to be granted legal status as a human being has no rights whatsoever worth weighing in one’s moral calculus.

          • Just to avoid the obvious confusion that could arise here – just because a life-form has no rights as a person does not logically entail that we are unconstrained in our treatment of it. There might be moral duties to non-persons too.

          • I agree that we may have moral duties to non-persons, but you say that non-persons have no rights claims whatsoever. I’m having trouble reconciling those two propositions.

          • It’s common cause in moral philosophy that rights correlate with duties (critics of this view, like David Lyons, are the exception). It’s not common cause that duties always correlate with rights. A moral obligation can be generated (in various ways, but quite easily for a contractarian or a utilitarian) to not do x, because of its consequences, because we prefer a world in which x isn’t done, etc.

            Those obligations would not flow from a rights claim, but could still be described as a duty. That’s how I’d reconcile the two propositions.

          • Ann

            Absolutely correct.

            Wanton torture of an embryo at any gestational age would be disgusting even if it could be proved that its brain was incapable of registering pain.

            The same would go for the wanton torture of a lower animal too, such as an insect or a snail.

          • Ann

            The conceptus at any age certainly already has some rights (it can inherit from its parents equally with its siblings who are already born, for example, or become the King of England before it is born), and it may be entitled to many more.

            But one right it does not have is to commandeer my body against my will so that it can stay alive. It has no right whatsoever to forcibly attach itself to my metabolism and my circulatory system — even if that is the only way it can stay alive.

            NO ONE — of any age — before or after birth — has any such right over the body of another.

          • Forcibly as opposed to consensually?

          • Ann

            An astute reproach.
            That’s what I get for trying to use a loaded word.

            I mean “against my will.” Naturally I can consent if I want to, but I certainly don’t have to consent.

            And if I don’t consent, it cannot be forced on me against my will.
            That’s not what my body is for.

            And that goes DOUBLE if it’s not what YOUR body is for.

          • I tend to take a selfish gene perspective on the teleology of living things. When I say “what my body is for” I have to at least try to factor in the unbroken chain of genetic reproduction from the dawn of life unto today. Naturally, I have my own purposes as well.

          • Ann

            I think that is an astute comment.
            Let me answer it this way:

            Most certainly our genetics is against abortion.
            Most certainly our genes don’t give a single damn if we like being pregnant or not.

            In fact, inducing an abortion is not even POSSIBLE in a state of nature, and pregnant females can even go ahead and die like flies for all that their genetics would stop them.

            But surely that is not terms of the debate?

            “What my body is for” is a non-biological claim.
            Surely you are not saying that because the body of a female grizzly bear is “for” reproduction (which it is), that this somehow imposes some kind of moral imperative on human women to be “for” reproduction willy-nilly?
            (I know, I know … you don’t want me to call you Shirley.)

            Does the wholesale trashing of males in ever so many species justify our throwing human men out of the hive once one of them has died mating? Or for that matter — the “sink or swim” attitude of most species to their offspring’s survival?

            And almost all species treat each other the way the Eloi treated Weena. Does that mean that we should adopt the same behavior?
            I’m not even sure that you can show that huge numbers of abortions would be harmful to the species.

          • Just wanted to be clear that we were speaking in terms of our own subjective purposes rather than some sort of overarching teleology here. It seems we are pretty much on the same page.

            “I’m not even sure that you can show that huge numbers of abortions would be harmful to the species.”

            Quite the opposite, I’m relatively confident that a massively successful species barely past the exponential growth stage is not about to suffer from a relatively small degree of self-selection out of the gene pool.

          • Ann

            You made a sophisticated point that gave me no little trouble to reply to.
            Your posts elevate the level of discourse more than somewhat.

            And I agree with you that we are pretty much on the same page here.

            I just wish I thought we were “past” the exponential growth stage. Are we? Or was that just a manner of speech?
            (sigh) I hope we are.

          • Thanks! I think we’re in linear growth now, hopefully we shall level off soon.

          • Ann


            We will level off soon — or die trying.
            (gurgle of despairing laughter)

          • Oh.

            Strange. I guess I missed the comments policy that states the conversation following the post must remain within the post’s own narrow range.

            Oh well…

          • You’re welcome to comment as you see fit. I’m simply telling you why I’m not currently engaging on that topic.

    • Ann

      @ Jack

      It is my position that the “human” status of the conceptus at any stage is not a material consideration.

      Even an adult, whose personhood and citizenship are unquestioned, cannot compel me to turn my body over to his so he can stay alive.

      Under what theory or principle of law or justice or even logic can you say that there are circumstances under which someone can forcibly attach themselves to my jugular veins in order to maintain their life?

      If in order to stay alive you need to crawl inside my body against my will and hook yourself up to my metabolism and to my circulatory system, then you are going to die.

      If I love you personally enough to allow it, or if I allow such things in principle — then fine. But there is no case where in justice I can be forced to maintain the life of another person by using my body or its parts by force against my will.

      I have a suggestion, however, that will provide perfect satisfaction for everyone.

      I would like to hear you agree that as soon as it becomes technologically feasible, you consent to having someone else’s unwanted fetus implanted inside your body. Then at the end of a humiliating and dangerous pregnancy, and after an excruciating childbirth, you (besides being physically deformed for life), you agree that you will be emotionally, socially, morally, legally, and financially responsible for this unwanted child for the rest of your life.

      • Unlike Mr. Rousseau, who acted as if what I brought up was totally unrelated to his stance (later to reveal that it totally is his stance, but that he just doesn’t feel like he needs to answer for it, since it is “off-topic” even though it’s right in the blog post), I am not “pro-life”, nor am I arguing for it.

        I very clearly laid out my position on abortion. I am arguing for reality. I am pro-death. This redefining of what is and what isn’t a “person” or even, as you just now put it, a “human” is weaselly, cowardly behavior. And that is what I’m arguing against.

        If you feel the person/non-person (or, where you took it, human/non-human) status of a fetus is immaterial, when that was specifically what I stated I wanted spelled out for me, then you wasted your time and mine.

        • Ann

          Yes, you’re quite right.

          I let my post get away from me, and even though I recognized the fault before I posted it, I thought I would let it stand as a challenge to anyone who read it (no longer thinking of it as specifically a response to you.)

          I apologize.

  • SubMan USN

    The logical consequences of this statement : “that no non-affected person should ever get to say what another person
    does with his/her body, and even once another person is affected, they
    don’t get to dictate what others do with their bodies.” are numerous.

    You must necessarily be: pro sex work, pro full legalization of drugs, anti suicide, bulimia and anorexia intervention, and anti obesity intervention, to name just a few off the top of my head.

    Such an absolute statement is surprising from a skeptic.

    • Nope, those are not logical consequences of my statement. Ultimate authority to determine one’s fate (which is all I’m referring to) is a separate matter from what might be advisable or not, and the extent to which one might try (and be encouraged to, even) dissuade or persaude people from doing x or y.

  • Ann

    I think that in the same way that some worn-out ignorant arguments are simply invited to leave — in the same way there is a case to be made that men’s opinions also be invited to leave.

    Some people say that they are not affected in the consequences of any decision — or at least only trivially at best, compared to what it must mean to the woman — so their input is no more than some kind of “hobbyhorse” for them to operate as butt-in-skis and kibitzers.

    Would you say that white people’s opinions can insist that they must necessarily be given a place at the table during a discussion by African-Americans seeking solutions to their plight?

    If you wouldn’t say that, then you must perceive a difference between the two circumstances that I would like to hear if you had a chance.
    According to my mother, during the Women’s Lib struggles of the 60s and 70s, men’s opinions, solidarity, and offers of help were ignored in principle, on the grounds that none of the problem pertained to men, nor did any of the solutions — and that getting themselves free was the task of the women.

    My dilemma is this:
    1) I recoil against the idea that “ideas” are unwelcome or should be left unheard — especially “challenges” to cherished ideas.

    2) Yet on the other hand, I am impressed with the force of the argument that says “Those who cannot ever be affected — even in principle — can have no meaningful contribution. It’s all just their vanity — or even worse, a persistence of men’s desire to control reproduction and women’s sexual behavior.”
    Is the task of solving the issues around abortion another case of “women’s tasks”?

    I’d love to hear the views on either side drawn out — not just assertions of one side or the other.

    • “Would you say that white people’s opinions can insist that they must necessarily be given a place at the table during a discussion by African-Americans seeking solutions to their plight?”

      That’s putting it rather strongly. My case is more that whether you’re excluded from a conversation should be more to do with the quality of your argument, than your race/gender/sex/whatever. It’s arguably the case that nobody can ever insist on a place at any table, isn’t it? Some may be more qualified than others, so we (rightly) prioritise their input – but that’s still a (good) generalisation rather than a rule.

      To answer you more directly, yes, I don think that white people should be able to express a view on black politics/history/etc. (I’ve written a column on exactly that, albeit in a South African context). That doesn’t mean that it’s more likely that they’ll get it wrong, and are sometimes best advised to stay out of it. But the randomly selected white person is not necessarily less qualified to speak on these issues than a randomly selected black person. In fact, a randomly selected black person might hold entirely different views to another randomly selected black person, and share the same views as a randomly selected white person.

      So on your point 2, I’m stressing the difference between “can have no meaningful contribution” versus “is less or more likely to have a meaningful contribution” – if the latter, it’s a political – not an epistemological – decision to rule certain interventions out of order. (And note, that if we do so, we should not also rule male comment in support of women’s rights out of order?)

      I’ve written a fair bit about this over the years, so if you want a fuller version of my views, these two columns might be of interest:

      • Ann

        Well, of course ” male comment in support of women’s rights” actually IS ruled out of order under this theory.

        Women don’t need men’s support.
        They do very well with their OWN support.

        • What people need or don’t need is a separate issue to whether the comments can possibly be informed or useful.

          • Ann

            Not necessarily.

            The actual PROCESS may be as important (or even more important) than the mere generation of a list of “comments” — especially when the “comments” have been deemed in advance to be irrelevant.

            People instinctively understand this when Congress debates a new law, excluding participants from the governments of Japan and Finland.

      • ThePrussian

        “To answer you more directly, yes, I don think that white people should be able to express a view on black politics/history/etc”

        Seriously? Should blacks then ‘be able’ to express a view on ‘white’ history/politics etc.? Or about ‘yellow’ history/politics/etc.? Or Indian?
        And why stop there? Why not no Zulus can express an opinion about Basotho politics? No Amhara get to talk about the Oromo? No Northern europeans criticising the politics of the southern europeans? No Westerners discussing slavic history? No Japenese can talk about Chinese history? No Chinese discussing Mongol history?

        This is just the ad hominem fallacy write large; a valid argument is a valid argument no matter who makes it.

        • I would have thought that the words in this blog post, as well as my comments here, would have made it fairly clear that that must have been a typo (don should have been do). It was. Thanks for pointing it out. It’s been corrected.

          • ThePrussian

            Ah! Sorry about that; misread it.

            Thanks for the update 🙂

        • Ann

          Good point, and a rebuttal I deserved for not stressing that
          1) the hypothetical debate concerned issues that can affect ONLY people of color

          2) No one is able to object to discussions by white people with one another all about their take on African-Americans.
          The point of my post was to question the right of white people to demand a seat at the conference table where African-Americans are talking to each other about the issues that (by the nature of things) can concern only themselves.

          It’s not about “Should white people be “allowed” to have, discuss, and publish their opinions?”

          It is: “When African-Americans are debating the issues, must they consider the opinions of those to whom the issues can never apply?”