Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for the ‘Abortion’ Category

Philosophers and bizarre thought experiments, No. 1

In Abortion, Philosophy, Thought Experiments on December 1, 2012 at 7:39 PM

I have an interest in bizarre thought experiments that philosophers invent in the ivory tower. This blog is named after such a thought experiment, one whereby people are not born with eyes but obtain them when they walk under an ocular tree.  Two favourites of mine of those of which I am aware were used by Judith Jarvis Thomson  in her seminal 1971 essay, “A Defense of Abortion.” One of them involved someone being kidnapped and a famous unconscious violinist being plugged into their body for the rest of their life. The other involves “people-seeds” that drift into someone’s house through an opened window, attach to the carpet and grow into a “person-plant.” While these thought experiments are created to provide a point, the sheer bizarreness of them makes one wonder what was going through the philosopher’s head at the time.

I have just come across some more thought experiments, these ones written by Jonathan Bennett and published in his book, The Act Itself, (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp.209-211. Bennett is discussing the distinction between the foreseeable and intended consequences of an act. Using a thought experiment relative to the debate on abortion, he says the following:

it does not stop us from thinking that the surgeon intends the child’s head to be crushed but does not intend it to die, for the crushing does not absolutely, conceptually entail the dying: there are worlds where God steps in and restores the ruined head to its former condition, and others where crushing a head is the first step in a helpful curative procedure.

So much for crushing heads, how about killing people by terror bombing?

I said that the [terror bombing] raid leader intended to kill civilians so as to lower enemy morale, but the truth is finer grained than that. Really, he intended only that the people’s bodies should be in a state that would cause a general belief that they were dead, this lasting long enough to shorten the war: nothing in that scheme requires that the dismaying condition of the bodies be permanent; so nothing in it requires that the people become downright dead rather than merely seemingly dead for a year or two.

Bennett is now is full absurdity mode:

…the arsonist who does not intend the building to be permanently destroyed, just that it be reduced to ashes long enough for the insurance company to pay up.

This, dear reader, is the sort of thing that is discussed in philosophy departments of some of the world’s leading universities.


On Killing Babies, II

In Abortion, From the Vaults on March 6, 2012 at 8:21 AM

This is a cross post by Michael Ezra. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on March 3rd 2012, 10:49 am

Following on from my previous post, Rory Connor from the comments section brought to my attention an exchange of views that occurred in the pages of Spectator in 1988. The exchange was sparked by a December 5, 1987 article by Paul Johnson entitled “When is a Foetus Disposable.”  Godwin had not invented his law in 1988, and it was designed for online debates, not exchanges in magazines. However, when the Hitler comparisons and analogies do start flying, it is often time to call a halt to the debate. I visited the vaults, located the exchange in question, and I copy below the relevant points:

“Letters,” The Spectator, January 2, 1988, p22.

Personal Rights

… when severe defects [in the foetus] have unfortunately not been diagnosed until the baby is actually born, why should we simply leave the baby to endure an intolerable life until natural death finally brings relief? In a sense, the euthanasia of a newborn baby can be regarded as a very late abortion – but at that stage the gravest reasons would be required to justify it: in fact, nothing but the baby’s being born with such severe handicaps that he or she could never have anything like a normal life.

It is not the same as the situation of an older child becoming severely disabled, perhaps through an accident. At birth, a baby has very limited awareness, has no idea of any future, and has no real stake in life, whereas an older child (a three-year-old, say) has become a real little person, with a sense of his own identity, with personal relationships, and with an idea of purposes and time – the very things that give human being full status and rights.

Barbara Smoker
President, National Secular Society

“Letters,” The Spectator, January 23, 1988, p20.

Being and Unbeing

[Barbara Smoker] adumbrated a proposition by which, as far as I could understand, it would have been all right to massacre a newborn baby if it were severely handicapped. There was a hint that it might even be all right until the child was “a three-year-old, say”, when it would have become a “real little person.” After which, I took it, it would not be all right.

…. [I] wonder whether Ms [Smoker] had never noticed that babies of two months, two days or even two minutes had distinct personalities; and…perhaps the thing which gives human beings full status and rights was to be alive….

I read your leader about Asian women aborting girl children, and your apt observation that this was equally as wrong as denying life to people on the grounds of handicap. It struck me for the first time that had I been conceived today, suffering as I do from muscular dystrophy, I would have been detected by modern scanning as unacceptable, and aborted (or, of course, bopped on the head at birth if Ms had had her way).

Now, while there may be those who think that that would have been no bad thing, I prefer to be alive. And I would like, after all, to make the point to Ms and the member of her society.

Quentin Crewe

….[A fertilised egg] contains the complete genetic constitution of an adult, including sex, ultimate dimensions, texture, temperament and intellectual capacity. No one knows whether this microscopic marvel will become a Shakespeare or a Michelangelo. But if, as is likely, it will become an ordinary man or woman, we should approach it with awe and love.

M. A. Lynch

“Letters,” The Spectator, February 20, 1988,  p24.

Perfection in the womb

Quentin Crewe…. substitutes for my list of qualities that give human beings their status and rights the one qualification of simply being alive. But that would prevent him from killing to eat, for even vegetables are alive.

He then says that, since he suffers from muscular dystrophy, (for which he has my true sympathy), he might have been aborted and this genetic condition been susceptible to foetal diagnosis before he was born. At the risk of seeming heard-hearted, I must ask: so what? The entity would have been aborted would have known nothing about it, and, of course, would not have been his present self, with his sense of identity, his stake in life, his aspirations, and his personal relationships. In fact, it would never have become a person at all. In that event, he would admittedly not exist now…. And if every woman carrier of muscular dystrophy were to abort all her female foetuses (which would otherwise develop into carriers) and keep only those male foetuses found to be free of the gene, this distressing disease would be eliminated (except for mutants) in a single generation. Similarly with other sex-linked genetic diseases….

[M.A. Lynch pursues] the same fallacious argument as Mr Crewe – treating potential as though it were actuality – and points out that an aborted foetus might have become a Shakespeare or a Michelangelo. (Equally, of course, it might have become a Hitler or a Michael Ryan. And to ensure the development of every potential Shakespeare or Michelangelo, there would have to be total ban on birth control.)….

Barbara Smoker
President, National Secular Society

“Letters,” The Spectator, March 5, 1988,  p20.

Acceptable Crime

Barbara Smoker… now says it would have all right to abort me because I would have known nothing about it. Since when has the victim’s knowing nothing of it made a crime acceptable? I could bump off Miss Smoker without her knowing anything about it, but I would hardly think it was right or even desirable, let alone that it should be made legal.

It is interesting that Miss Smoker should be the first to introduce Hitler into this discussion. It was his followers who wanted to perfect the human race by killing the weak and by genetic engineering. I begin to wonder about this society of which Miss Smoker is president.

Quentin Crewe

On Killing Babies

In Abortion, Rothbard on March 2, 2012 at 6:37 PM

This is a cross post by Michael Ezra. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on February 29th 2012, 4:15 pm

I am sure that many people  will be as shocked as I am by this report that has appeared in the Daily Telegraph:

Infanticide should be legal, Oxford experts say

A group of medical ethicists linked to Oxford University has argued that killing young babies is no different from abortion, and should be allowed even when there is nothing physically wrong with the child….

[Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, the authors of the report published in the Journal of Medical Ethics,] argued: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

Rather than being “actual persons”, newborns were “potential persons”.

They explained: “Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’.

“We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”

As such they argued it was “not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her from developing the potentiality to become a person in the morally relevant sense”.

The authors therefore concluded that “what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled”.

Utilising ethics and morals to justify the termination of the life of babies is not new. A key question becomes who owns the baby. In his book, The Ethics of Liberty, the libertarian Murray Rothbard argued that the mother “is the natural and rightful owner of the baby.” He adds, “even from birth, the parental ownership is not absolute but of a ‘trustee’ or guardianship kind. In short, every baby as soon as it is born and is therefore no longer contained within his mother’s body possesses the right of self-ownership by virtue of being a separate entity and a potential adult.” Rothbard is clear that it should be illegal to torture or murder a baby. But having said that, this does not make Rothbard the great defender of babies. Far from it. He believed that a parent can simply let a baby die by not feeding it:

[A] parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also … the parent should not have a legal obligationto feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive.

Rothbard would therefore allow a parent to starve a baby to death by not providing it any food.  A different, and earlier argument, for killing babies was made in 1895 by the American individual anarchist Benjamin Tucker. Unlike Rothbard, he believed that parents could torture and murder their children: “parental cruelty is not to be prohibited.” He made an explicit argument based on his opinion that parents owned their children, to conclude that they have the right to throw their child into the fire. Carl Watner explained in the pages of Libertarian Forum (March 1975):

Tucker’s opinion is grounded on the fact that he views the child as the property of the mother. Children, in Tucker’s estimation, belong in the category of things to be owned, rather than as being owners of themselves. However he does note that the “child differs from all other parts of that category (of things to be owned) in the fact that there is steadily developing within him the power of self-emancipation, which at a certain point enables him to become an owner instead of remaining part of the owned.”” Tucker saw ”. . . no clearer property title in the world than that of the mother to the fruit of her womb, unless she has otherwise disposed of it by contract. Certainly the mother’s title to the child while it remains in her womb will not be denied by any Anarchist. To deny this would be to deny the right of the mother to commit suicide during pregnancy, and I never knew an Anarchist to deny the right of suicide. If, then, the child is the mother’s while in the womb, by what consideration does title to it become vested in another than the mother on its emergence from the womb pending the day of its emancipation?”

Tucker clearly refused to invoke the self-ownership axiom towards children, at least until they had reached the age of being able to contract and provide for themselves. In the meantime, he recognized the right of the mother to throw her property into the fire.

I am sure that many people will look at these arguments for either killing a baby or allowing it to die and their prejudice against those with philosophy degrees will be reinforced.

Hat Tip: Paul Bogdanor

From the Vaults: New York Times, Feb 27, 1992

In Abortion on February 13, 2012 at 8:00 PM

This is a cross post by Michael Ezra. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on February 12th 2012, 2:15 pm

I enclose an extract from an article that appeared in the New York Times on February 27, 1992. Some may recall the story as the case was reported around the world:

Irish Court Says Girl Can Leave to Obtain Abortion in Britain


The New York Times, February 27, 1992. P1.

DUBLIN, Feb. 26 — The Irish Supreme Court ruled today that it was legal for a 14-year-old pregnant girl who says she was raped to travel to Britain for an abortion.

Overturning a lower-court ruling that had provoked wide controversy, the five-member court, in a one-line decision, allowed the girl to travel. Abortion is not permitted in Ireland unless a mother’s life is at stake.

It was the ban on travel, imposed by the Irish Attorney General’s office, that touched off much of the controversy. The ban seemed to run afoul of stipulations by the European Community, of which Ireland is a member, allowing its citizens the right to travel freely within the community.

The girl, whose identity has not been disclosed, says she was made pregnant in December in a rape by the father of a friend. The girl’s family told the Irish police that it planned to obtain an abortion in London, where the procedure is legal. It asked the police if they wanted forensic evidence from the operation to use in their investigation of the case. No charges have been brought.

But the nation’s Attorney General, Harry Whelehan, a vigorous opponent of any sanctioning of abortion, intervened, telling the family that it would be breaking Irish law if the operation was performed. The girl and her parents, who had gone to London in the meantime, returned to Ireland, and an uproar broke out here and abroad about the law, and about the rights of the girl and of the fetus.

Today’s decision freed the girl to leave Ireland to have the abortion, but did not overturn the abortion law, which is supported by Article 8 of the Constitution. A number of questions on the issue remain unanswered, and after the court announces the basis of its decision, the Government may face a decision on whether to try to revise the Constitution.

The case became known as the “X case” as the name of the girl in question was not revealed. We are now 20 years on but legislation has still not been passed in Ireland allowing girls and women access to abortion where their life is in danger. A group called Action on X has formed and requests that a petition is signed encouraging the Irish government to legislate on the matter. Without wishing to embroil myself in the wider abortion debate, the limited aim of the petition, to allow abortion where a woman’s “life is in danger,” seems far less controversial and not unreasonable to me.

Hat Tip: Julie Burchill