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Posted by on Feb 12, 2013 in Bioethics, Ethics, Philosophy | 22 comments

Whose body is it anyway?

Over on the Philosophy Experiments site, run by Jeremy Stangroom, you can do this exercise about your attitude to abortion and how consistent you are about it. As with all such exercises, there are possible flaws – basically because I think there are some nuanced or multi-tiered positions that it doesn’t entirely cover. My own answers came out as being consistent, so I’m not complaining about that. But, for example, I ended up saying that there is never a moral problem with abortion – which was the nearest answer to my actual position. In fact, however, I would find something a bit “wrong” with very late abortions in at least some circumstances that I don’t think are analogous to anything in the people-seeds example.

I.e., if a woman decided to have an abortion very late, after having earlier made a conscious decision to have the child, and assuming there was no health issue involved in her change of mind, I think that I and most pro-choice people would discern an issue of moral virtue. At least in standard cases (e.g. this is not a surrogacy arrangement), we’d probably think it virtuous or “good” for a woman to form an emotional bond with the fetus by very late in pregnancy. Society as a whole probably benefits from this, as do families. So we’d see a lack of such bonding as troubling even if we didn’t think anything was owed to the fetus (perhaps because it is not yet a person).

I doubt that very late non-medical abortions are an issue that really arises much – it is a libel against pregnant women to claim that they engage in capricious late-term abortions – and I certainly am not interested in laws against it. Nonetheless, there could be virtue ethics considerations that would at least make many of us raise our eyebrows if we saw such a thing happen. We’d at least wonder what had gone “wrong” if a woman had an abortion at, say, eight months with no medical reason involved. And I don’t think the exercise captures this aspect, for one. (I don’t think the people-seeds scenario is analogous, as there is no established and useful social practice of bonding with people-seeds, and it is not clear that it would be a good thing overall for such a practice to come into being if people-seeds actually existed. Bonding with a people-seed is not necessarily something that would or should be regarded as morally virtuous.)

All the same, it’s a useful exercise. Go ahead and try it – you might well get some insight, and you’ll also be contributing to a potentially useful data collection.

  • keddaw

    There is a major problem with the explanation at the end of this (given my responses), it says: “there is something slightly puzzling about your attitude towards spontaneous abortion (miscarriage). It is estimated there are around 1,000,000 miscarriages every year in the United States.”

    This is so very west-privileged. For the majority of the world’s population miscarriage is a serious medical problem, it leads to many deaths: In sub-Saharan Africa the lifetime risk of maternal death is 1 in 16, for developed nations only 1 in 2,800.

    So, when I rank the seriousness of various medical conditions, as per instructions, I do not limit myself to the developed world.

  • RussellBlackford

    Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t it ask you to confine yourself to their seriousness in the USA? (I”m too lazy to go and check the point, at least right this minute.)

  • Vic

    If the test is focused on the developped world, it’s terrible.

    I get drunk and wake up with my body connected to a soccer player? Whaaaa??

    Well okay, the soccer player in this scenario has no “rights” to my body.

    But the scenario is flawed when used as an analogy to pregnancy. It uses an example no normal person would expect to happen and compares it to a natural body function which happens to millions of women each year.

    I didn’t get drunk and just wake up like that. While in a drunken state I agreed to and assisted in an operation which connects a soccer player to my body. I used a scalpel and handled needle and thread myself, tumbling and swaying, but in accordance to the doctor of the soccer player.

    “I had sex and now I’m pregnant, I’m so surprised who’d have thought???”

    So, we have a natural ability to perform frankensteinian medical operations while in a drunken state. Was it something I wouldn’t do when sober? Okay, how about drinking responsibly then?

    The people-seeds scenario is even worse.

    “Sperm are just constantly drifting into my vagina, I can’t help it!”

    Yes, birth control fails sometimes. And of course, an abortion should be available then, in every case. But that the proper usage of birth control directly affects its effectiveness is not relevant? That an abortion, even an early abortion, can be a stressful medical procedure and everyone would prefer not needing that procedure in the first place is irrelevant?

    These contrived scenarios, who the hell wrote that ridiculous nonsense?
    It’s like the writter was hellbent on denying women any kind of common sense or agency.

    Yes, sex is fun. Everybody wants sex. Yay, sex for everybody. But sex has consequences. Sex has responsibilites. There are at least two adults involved. What are the odds all of them are irresponsible idiots? And then some of them may have to go through a possibly stressful medical procedure just for having some fun? Are these the acceptable “stakes”?

    That the test later differentiated between “rights” and “oughts” and has a focus on consistency rescues it from being total bollocks.

  • RussellBlackford

    Just on who wrote it – well, for better or worse these are the kinds of scenarios discussed in the literature, trying to refine exactly what it is that people must be thinking. The main line of this literature goes back to a seminal (as it were) article by Judith Jarvis Thomson. I don’t think these science fictional thought experiments, so beloved of philosophers, are as useless as you appear to, but I agree that they can be making wrong assumptions. E.g. they can be leaving out stuff that is assumed to be extraneous but actually has real moral work to do – as with my comments about the virtue ethics of certain issues (do we think it is morally virtuous for a woman to “bond” with her fetus by late in a pregnancy? if so, why? if she doesn’t, what do we say? etc.)

  • Colin Gavaghan

    ‘At least in standard cases (e.g. this is not a surrogacy arrangement), we’d probably think it virtuous or “good” for a woman to form an emotional bond with the fetus by very late in pregnancy. Society as a whole probably benefits from this, as do families. So we’d see a lack of such bonding as troubling even if we didn’t think anything was owed to the fetus (perhaps because it is not yet a person).’

    This is an interesting argument, but I’m not sure it’s wholly convincing. If, after reasoned reflection, we have decided that a fetus is not the sort of thing to which rights and interests can meaningfully be attributed, it seems a bit harsh to impugn the character of a woman who can actually apply that approach in her life, and deal with the emotional consequences thereof.

  • You are not wrong

  • Although there’s something in it, I think I need more convincing before I buy the virtue argument. However, I do think that there is a more substantive reason to be troubled by late term abortions. In late term abortions the foetus is likely to be a sentient being capable of feeling pain and suffering, and that, to my mind, provides us with a prima facie reason against aborting it.

  • Vic

    Even discussed in literature? Has ivory tower syndrome become so bad? I hope we’ll find a cure soon.

    This seems to be a theme recently: One could come up with the most aburd, highly specific scenarios to defend every position in some way, and it gets only worse when it is happening on merely the philosophical level. Playing mindgames while the world waits for a solution.

    Another failure of this test when trying to apply its hole-riddled approach to reality is the complete indifference towards the position of those who oppose abortion on moral grounds.
    It’s seen, as so often, as a bodily rights issue, when it is infact a discussion about legitimacy of murder. If somebody thinks that a fetus or embryo is just as much a person as, well, a person, the whole “let us choose! let us choose!” chanting falls face-first into the ground.

    I think the test was designed with a pro-choice attitude in mind. Seeing how they compare a soccer player getting attached to someone’s immune system being compared to an unwanted pregnancy is just beyond ridiculous.

    It all arrives at “thank goodness, my presumptions were right from the beginning. What a great human being I am today”.

    And not a single political decision was made that day.

    Maybe I’m overly negative. My critique:
    – biased test – ignorance of opposing positions/eeling around them

    – very philosophical apporach – no practical applications

    – small scope – it tries to defend “abortions” as a thing of itself, when the focus should be on betterment of the human condition which includes availability of abortion, but also includes sex-ed, also includes responsible behaviour, also includes avoidance of abortion since it’s not a medical procedure one goes through willy-nilly. It depends on the stage of the pregnancy, it has bodily long-term risks attached and it can be damn hard on the mind of those involved.

  • Fetuses are not persons. I was always consistent with this view.

  • I went with mushy humanism, i.e., “a fetus is a life and life has _some_ value… just not value equivalent to that of a real person.” My views were scored as consistent.

  • DrewHardies

    The soccer player (or violinist) argument is a response to the “fetuses are people, so abortion is murder” line of argument.

    The Violinist argument responds to this anti-abortion argument. The point is that, even if we grant personhood (soccer players/violinists are clearly people), a terminated medical connection != murder.

    These ‘silly’ hypotheticals are, in my opinion, great. The real-world is messy. The science-fiction stories cut things down to just a few elements, and let us see what facts are neccessary and which are extraneous.

    It’s fine to say that a hypothetical omitted a key component. But, this really helps refine thinking. Your post implies that ‘forseeability’ is morally-essential in the “is abortion murder?” question.

    This is a fairly common response to the violinist argument. It changes the debate to “Disconnecting a person is murder IF AND ONLY IF the connection was forseeable”. And, this is actually what the people-seeds thing is addressing. There, the author sets up a hypothetical where the formation of a proto-human was a forseeable consequence of someone’s action.

    It might seem weird to cut scenarios into individual moral components like this (“what if we had personhood, a necessary connection, but not forseeability?”). But it’s really helpful, in getting to the moral-principles behind a judgement. Otherwise, everything becomes an ad-hoc “Well, (sex/abortion/tennis) is not precisely like any other activity, so it’s good/bad/neutral, and people who refuse to understand these individual nuances are just trapped in an ivory tower”

  • DrewHardies

    The virtue argument (“we’d see a lack of such bonding as troubling even if we didn’t think anything was owed to the fetus”) seems like it’s more about signalling than morality.

    In this setup, society cares about the presence or absense of the bond. But an abortion doesn’t destroy an existing bond, it would just reveal that the bonding hadn’t happened.

    It’s akin to a psychological test revealing someone’s depression. We’d prefer a society where people aren’t depressed. So, we could say, “the condition that lead to the test-results was unfortunate,” but not, “it’s wrong to administer tests for depression”

  • It’s hard to do these surveys when you don’t believe in rights or moral laws. I mean I got through it with a bit of mental translation, but it would be nice if these things were made for people whose beliefs mesh with reality….

  • Nathan

    Thought experiments about attached soccer players and people spores are of limited use and interest. The more a hypothetical experiment diverges from real world experience, the harder it is to accept the premises as stated. It’s like the famous trolley experiment with the option of throwing the fat person on the tracks. You’re always thinking in the back of your mind “Would that really be enough to stop a train?”, even though you’re told that it is.

    A more interesting test, I think, would compare opinions on abortion with other real social issues to test for consistency. For example, if you think that abortion should be legal because people have the right to their own bodies, then you should also think that drug use, prostitution, gambling, suicide, and a host of other things should be legal. The fact that legal abortion has wide public support while legal cocaine has virtually none suggests a significant inconsistency in most people’s thought processes.

  • Corylus

    “I doubt that very late non-medical abortions are an issue that really arises much.”

    I agree, and when it does I would be very interested to look at the age of the woman concerned. It is much easier to simply not realize that you are pregnant until very late on if you are either:

    a) a real youngster in denial

    b) a much older women assuming that you are simply hitting menopause.

    Age itself is not a hard and fast rationale for a medical abortion, (it is more about capacity to take the pregnancy and birth) so these cases could account for a fair few of the ‘non medical’ abortions that actually do occur. So while maybe technically non-medical they are are also not about capriciously changing one’s mind. Nope. They are instead about being suddenly hit with a shocker.

  • Ingemar Oseth

    It was a waste of bit and bytes, not to mention my time, to take a survey so poorly designed.
    Jeremy Stangroom badly needs to learn more about the construction of survey questions.

  • Does it? I’d say it gives us a prima facie reason against causing it pain. But we kill sentient beings all the time, often for considerbly more trivial reasons.

  • We do, but it’s a mistake to move from ‘X is what we commonly do’ to the conclusion that ‘therefore X is right or permissible’.

  • Colin Gavaghan

    Fair point.

  • keddaw

    True, but I’m not one for reading instructions…

  • Vic

    I see. I think I understand what you mean with the foreseeability. But then that still supposes it’s a question of either “right” or “wrong”, which is also what this test tries to break it down into. And that’s just not the case. There are maybe leanings towards one answer, but a person’s attitude and morality is bigger than the sum of its parts, or rather the answers to a multiple choice test with author bias.

    It also comes down to how meta the testee is. If the intent of the test is known, it will have a bias on the answers.

    Worse still, the whole strikes me as a cheap “gotcha” moment.

    “Ha, you answered “no” here and “yes” here? Inconsistent!” No, if someone’s presumptions and the test’s author’s presumptions are different, it’s not. That’s not how people work.

    As far-fetched and specific one makes the scifi scenarios people won’t interpret them in the same way. And it a) does not change the way they think, because the original mindset was already different and b) any of the “clean” solutions and decisions are not applicable to the “messy” real world. There are never solutions which suit everyone, why try to come up with new ways to stroke the egos of your own side?

    It’s like a pupil who answers a math question: “What is 18² ? – 25. – No, that’s wrong, it’s 324. – No, it’s right, because I changed the question to: what is 5²? The original question is just too messy and complicated, so I changed the scenario to my liking to find a discrete and simple answer. I can also come up with several philosophical scenarios in which my behaviour is acceptable and consistent. Goodbye.”

    I guess mental circlejerks are just not my thing, at least in this case.

  • RussellBlackford

    Vic, you’re entitled to your opinion (no “safe space” here!), but talk of “mental circlejerks” makes you sound dogmatic and uninformed (and hostile in a somewhat kneejerk way). To someone who actually knows a fair bit of the literature and has taught this stuff, you sound a bit like a creationist asking “If people descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” Well, it doesn’t work that way, but it takes a bit of willingness on the part of the person asking the question to read some material with an open mind to see how it really works.

    In other words, it might be good for you to have a look at the original essay by Judith Jarvis Thomson about the plugged-in violin player to see how it works – and then read some of the to and fro as people criticise her or defend her. You’ll find that it’s more than a “circlejerk”, i.e. that these are pretty smart people who are aware that it can all get complicated, etc.

    Obviously, I think that (as you see also seem to be saying) there can be complexities that these thought experiments don’t capture. But if we’re going to analyse what those complexities are then let’s look at the thought experiments to see what they are capturing and what they are not capturing. If the thought experiments have been set up to look at situations without certain factors, that can be important in analysing the effect of the remaining factors, but it can also be important in testing whether some of the things that have been factored out might be important for reasons that were not obvious.

    This is abstract, of course, since we’re not sinking our teeth here into the actual literature. The way it is used in the “philosophy experiment” under discussion seems to have alienated you, and I guess I can sort of see why when you come to it cold. But you sound very quick to dismisss a whole field of discussion by some smart people before you’ve even broached any of it. Why so impatient?