Relevant Differences

I think that if you want an example of how to confuse the issues, you might try this post about abortion (via: jamelle). Money shot (disclosure or covering my ass or whatever–I’m rather wholeheartedly pro-choice):

This is not about babies, it’s about bodily sovereignty. Grown men are fully formed humans with the right to life, liberty, etc — but an adult isn’t allowed to use a woman’s body against her wishes, either. So whether the fetus is a blob of cells or a child is irrelevant.

This thought actually strikes me as a similar to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist case (the full article is also available: A defense of abortion). A famous violinist has a terminal kidney ailment, but a society of music lovers discover that he can be saved if the two of you are attached by various tubes for nine months. Only your kidneys will serve to keep him alive, for obscure but indubitable medical reasons. One morning, you awake to find the operation performed. Detaching yourself will result in his death.

Incidentally, while many people responding to the paper take it that you are not obligated to stay in bed with the violinist, I find that conclusion absurd and appalling. In letting the violinist die, you’re prioritizing your next nine months over his life. Thomson asks what if it was nine years, or your entire life. I take it those alternatives show that his having a right to life cannot as such rule out your killing him, but they do not speak to your obligation in the case where it is only nine months (note that the appeal to your prioritizing references neither a ‘right to life’ nor a general utilitarian principle).

In any case, what is common to the cases, both Thomson and Daisy, of the internet, is that the both take an analogy past the realm where it makes any sense. The analogies only make sense to the extent that pregnancy is just randomly coming to be attached to another living human being, who might, for all relevant purposes be either a full grown adult or a fetus. If that were true, then the question to ask would be “how does the fetus’s supposed right to life bear on the question of what the mother should do?” But it is not the case that the relevant moral category is merely coming to be attached to another human being whose life depends on your forbearance. That it is not the same moral category is why I resist the inference from “you must keep the violinist alive” to “abortion is impermissible.” I should note that the same point about the moral categories involved applies strongly to many anti-abortion advocates. If I’m right, arguing for a right to life will not get us any insight into the moral situation involved.

If you want to substantiate the claim that viewing the matter as “x‘s autonomy and y’s right to life,” is impressively reductionistic, you could do worse than this post on adoption from bitch ph.d. I suspect she has managed to substantially change my thinking with a single blog post more often than anyone else.

(Side note: while I’m being cagey about what sort of category of moral thought applies to abortion, I’ll note that I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that the pregnancy results from consensual sex (in the cases where it does). So far as I get good intuitions about such things, which I don’t, a single sexed humanoid species that had asexual reproduction at unpredictable times involving a nine-month gestation would face a similar moral situation).

(Double side note: Thomson shows some evidence of feeling the limitations of “right to life” talk, but given that her paper is entitled “A Defense of Abortion,” we might worry that something has gone wrong–it is not clear what considerations she offers other than refuting the idea that the right to life rules out abortion.  But if the framework of the right to life is precisely what is mistaken, arguments within that framework will not matter all that much).


7 responses to “Relevant Differences

  1. Thanks for the ping. I read the essay you’re citing two years ago, and I remember thinking something roughly similar. The “right to life” question is far less important than the question of what obligations the woman has (if any) to the fetus.

  2. Hi there.

    I continue to think that current pro-choice rhetoric is defensive and insufficient. I’ve always been pro-choice, but I only really got it when I realized it’s not about babies, it’s about women’s bodies (which it is, right? does anyone disagree with me there? what the heck else could it be about?). The same thing happened for at least two good friends of mine. So I hold that the framing I suggested is useful.

    I appreciate your criticism, but I’d be infinitely more appreciative of some alternate arguments that you think would work better. Neither your nor Jamelle has done this yet, which makes me feel sort of frustrated, like you’re more interested in making criticisms than making progress. The purpose of my post was to try to start some conversation and either improve upon my framework or make a new, better one, so it sort of bums me out when all I’m hearing is that I’m way off, without any kind of, you know, suggestions for something that would be more on. But that’s just me — if you’re not interested in having that kind of conversation, then okay, but I have no idea why you’re talking at all.

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  4. It’s true that I’m not offering a new argument, but to give an argument of any kind, I have to try and get a good framework for thinking about the issues. A first step in doing that is often rejecting other frameworks, trying to show how they’re insufficient.

    The closest I can come to saying something positive is that to force a woman to have a child is a perversion of child-bearing–its proper form is one of either intentionally having a child or unintentionally having a child but wholeheartedly accepting that contingency.

    There’s a lot of Aristotelian lunacy lurking in the background there, but I’m thinking something along those lines (at least today!). Now that’s a train of thought that is not characteristically Liberal in the philosophical sense.

    In a broader sense, I think that there’s something appealing about autonomy in those cases, but I doubt that we can really get a good framework for political deliberation out of it. The downside of this is that we cannot rule out certain possibilities we object to without engaging in some careful thought about who we are and how we should live.

  5. Okay. I respect the rejecting-frameworks part of the process — that’s a lot of what I was doing, trying to reject a framework for reproductive justice that I find to be really inadequate, and then tossing up a new one, which is key for me, because saying “This is bad” without offering something better makes me despondent… As I said at Jamelle’s place, I want arguments for abortion rights that also work as arguments against forced sterilization and coerced abortion; progressives have been failing to address those issues for too long.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on my post that just pinged here.

  6. Daisy,

    My intention wasn’t to simply criticize for criticisms sake, but to talk about the strengths and inadequacies of particular frameworks for approaching these problems.

    You’re absolutely right; the big benefit for arguing from autonomy is that it does provide a way to argue for other reproductive rights. My concern is that by never affirming reproductive rights as a good in and of themselves, we (those of us who are pro-choice) leave ourselves wide open for the “societal values/limits of freedom” attack.

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