Monday, August 24, 2015

Some Quick Responses to A Few Common Objections from Abortion Advocates

I've had a number of arguments with abortion advocates. I am usually struck by how predictable and slogan-like their responses are. Here are a number of the more common ones I've heard, along with some quick and easy responses.

(1) You pro-life people are involved in a war on women.

Response: I'm not sure why you think is the case. The vast majority of pro-life people don't hate women. In fact, it's probably safe to say that the majority of active pro-life people are women. Why they would be involved in a war on themselves is hard to account for.

NB: For the following few questions, I am indebted for much of the information about the history of abortion in the United States to: 
Forsythe, Clarke. Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade. New York: Encounter Books, 2013.
(2) Abortion is "women's health." In seeking to eliminate it, you are attacking women's health.

Response: Actually, the evidence is mounting that it is abortion, and not childbirth, which is a danger to women's bodily health. While Roe v. Wade's prohibition on government regulation of the abortion industry has made it difficult to obtain statistics on the risks associated with abortion, a number of studies indicate significant future health risks to the mother, even when there are no immediate physical complications from the abortion. For example, see
Thorp, John, Katherine Hartmann, and Elizabeth Shadigan. "Long-Term Physical and Psychological Health Consequences of Induced Abortion: Review of the Evidence." Obstetrical and Gynecological Survey 58 (January 2003): 67.
Among the increased risks identified in the studies reviewed by Thorp et al., are increased risk of premature birth, increased risk of placenta previa, and increased risk of suicide and drug abuse. In addition, abortion advocates often dramatically overstate the health risks associated with pregnancy. 

(3) You want to go back to the days of the "back-alley abortion."

Response: The idea that prior to Roe v. Wade there were enormous numbers of "back-alley abortions" is a complete myth. The most common numbers which have been thrown out by abortion advocates are those of 200,000-1,200,000 illegal abortions performed annually, and the 5000 annual deaths from abortion. The former of these two figures derives from a 1955 Planned Parenthood conference, which was in turn partially based upon a 1936 book by Frederick Taussig, which estimated 681,000 illegal abortions per year. The estimate of 5000 deaths is contained in the same book.

It is worth noting that the official 1930's figures for death from abortion from the National Center for Health Statistics, estimated 1313 abortion-related deaths, most of them due to infection. It is important to note that this figure dates from before the widespread use of antibiotics in hospitals. The number of pregnancy-related deaths from all causes fell dramatically after antibiotics were readily available. National Center for Health Statistics data show that there were 7,466 pregnancy-related deaths in 1940. That number fell to 2,697 by 1950, to 1,328 by 1960, to 684 by 1970, and to 554 by 1972. (Cf. Forsythe, Abuse of Discretion, 412n89.)

Official statistics for abortion-related deaths also fell. There were 159 abortion-related deaths in 1966, and 41 in 1972. (Cf. Forsythe, Abuse of Discretion, 203.) Dr. Robert Nelson, medical director of Planned Parenthood in Washington, DC, stated that annual deaths from septic abortions in the District of Columbia between 1940 and 1943 were between zero and five. (As cited in Forsythe, Abuse of Discretion, 204.) Dr. Milton Helpern reported at the 1955 Planned Parenthood conference that in New York City (in which were performed the overwhelming majority of abortions done in the United States prior to the legalization of abortion by Roe v. Wade), the number of abortion-related deaths had fallen from 144 in 1921 to 15 in 1951. (Cf. Forsythe, Abuse of Discretion, 204.)

As for the number of illegal abortions performed annually, even leaders in Planned Parenthood acknowledged that 80-90 percent of all illegal abortions performed prior to Roe v. Wade were performed by physicians. (Cf. Forsythe, Abuse of Discretion, 201, citing Mary Calderone, medical director of Planned Parenthood, and Dr. Alan Guttmacher.) Given that only a small number of physicians were willing to perform illegal services of this type, this makes the high number of illegal abortions (i.e., 600,000 per year) impossible. 

In short, the idea of rampant back-alley abortions is a complete myth, concocted solely to persuade gullible people of the urgent need to support the legalization of abortion.

(4) Abortion is a matter of women's control over her own body.

Response: At first glance, this claim seems to be true. It is true, after all, that the infant does in fact reside within the woman's body. The problem with the claim, though, is that it claims that it is only the woman's body which is in question, when, of course, that is not true. The other body in question is that of the child.

This argument also seems to assume that the child somehow appeared inside the woman without any action on the woman's part having contributed to that. However, in all but a tiny percentage of cases (less than 0.4%, or 4 out of 1000 cases of abortion result from rape or incest), the presence of a child is a result of a decision on the part of a woman and her partner to engage in sexual activity for which pregnancy is a possible outcome. If a woman doesn't want to have the possibility to get pregnant, the woman ought not to engage in sexual intercourse. That is, a woman does have a right to control her body. But once she has made the decision to use her body in such a way that another human being has been created, it is too late to object that she has now lost the right to control her body. That is, it was her choice that put the child there, and once the child exists, it is no longer just the woman's body which is in question.

The so-called "right to choose" is one of the oldest slogans in the pro-abortion lexicon. But, when examined, the slogan makes no sense. It is true that we all have the right to choose our actions. But not all of our actions are moral or legal. Some

(5) It's just a "clump of tissue" which is being aborted.

If the term "clump of tissue" is to be used in this way, it can just as well be used of an adult human being. The fact is that a child developing in the womb of a woman is a full organism with his or her own DNA, and, left to itself, it will, under normal circumstances, develop into an adult human being. To call a whole organism with unique DNA a "clump of tissue" is just playing games with words to obscure what is really going on. What is growing in the womb of a pregnant woman is a whole organism with human DNA, that is, a human being.

(6) Even if it is a human life, it's not a person yet, so it's OK to abort.

This objection is based on the idea that there is a distinction between human life and "personhood." But to allow this distinction is to say that to be a human being does not, in and of itself, make you a person. That is, to allow a distinction between being a human being and being a person is to say that to be a person you must not only be a living human being: you must also add to that the possession of some other set of attributes. 

One of the problems with defining personhood in terms of a list of attributes supposedly required for personhood is that the list varies from person to person. Some people say that it is "consciousness" (which no one seems to be able to define precisely) which makes a person a person. But this definition would seem to say that temporarily comatose people are not persons. Others would say that to be a person you have to have been conscious at some point in the past. But this seems a little strange on its face. As Christopher Kaczor has asked (The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice, New York: Routledge, 2015, p. 67), "why would a being who achieved consciousness but has permanently lost it be more valuable than a being who is about to achieve consciousness, which will be enjoyed over the course of a long life?".

Others would say that the requirement for personhood is the ability to value one's own existence. People who hold this position argue that you can only harm someone who knows that they have been harmed. This sounds plausible, at first. The problem, though, is that, once again, this definition would exclude people who presently are comatose or under anesthesia. Moreover, as Christopher Kaczor (The Ethics of Abortion, p. 49) has pointed out, if someone steals a winning lottery ticket from you, you have been harmed, even if you didn't know that it was a winning lottery ticket. 

Recognizing these problems with saying that a person must be actually able to value their own existence, some have attempted to modify the definition to say that persons are those who are potentially capable of valuing their own existence. But, if this change is made, a human infant in utero then becomes a person, in that, given time, a human in embryo will grow into a human being who values their own existence.

Others have tried to create a definition of personhood in terms of the present possession of certain physical hardware (e.g., neural circuits in the brain) necessary to normal human consciousness, even if you are not presently conscious. But this definition is problematic in that it would exclude from personhood those who are brain-damaged in various ways. 

An even deeper objection to the idea of defining personhood in terms of the possession of particular attributes of adult human beings is that that form of definition assumes that it is adult humanhood which defines what it is to be human. But it could just as easily be said that a human being is defined by what he or she does in all the stages of his or her life, from conception through death. That is, a human being is one who does certain things when he or she has a gestational age of three months, other things when he or she is ten years old, and still other things when he or she is in the final decade of life. It is not immediately clear why it is a specific stage of adulthood which should be taken as defining what it is to be human. For example, it is well known that children are better at learning languages than adults are. Why should we not define personhood in terms of facility of learning language and treat three year olds as the highest embodiment of human personhood, so that three year olds have more rights than adults?

Perhaps more important than any of these specific responses to problematic definitions of personhood is the question of why any one of us should have the right to come up with our own list of attributes of what defines personhood. After all, if everyone is allowed to make up their own definition, why might not someone be able to make up a definition of personhood which, for example, excludes Jewish people, African Americans, or Causasian Americans? Nor can we somehow rest the right to make this decision about having a right to life an in a democratic majority, because this works directly against the understanding, embodied in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution that there are some rights which cannot be taken away from anyone by any majority, and that among such rights is the right to life.

In short, if the right to life is not guaranteed to every human being, then there is no longer an absolute right to life. In giving some group of people the right to define personhood, we have also given them the right to take the right to life away from some people merely by calling them non-persons.

The Christian view is the view that to be a human being and to be a person are one and the same thing, and that the value and dignity of a human being are consequences of the fact human beings bear God's image in their essence and at every stage of their development.

(7) Even if it is a developing human being, it does not come immediately into possession of full human rights. Rights are proportional to the degree of development.

Response: This is the view which is called gradualism. The idea is that personhood is not so much a discrete state as it is a continuum, so that a late-term infant in utero has greater rights than the rights to be granted to a one-day old embryo. At first this idea seems plausible. 

The central problem with this view is that, even though they are allowing for a continuum of development up to the point of "full human personhood," they are still defining "full human personhood" in terms of the possession of certain attributes. But, as was noted above, this is a shockingly arrogant thing to try to define. Who gave any person or group of persons to define what attributes it is that define humanity, regardless of whether those attributes are gradually acquired? If everyone is allowed to define these attributes for themselves, why cannot some define personhood in terms of intelligence, so that any who are mentally handicapped are not persons, or at least are "less persons"?

And, if someone who holds this point of view rejects the idea of "degrees of personhood," then we are back to defining some cutoff on the continuum between "non-personhood" and "personhood." Who is it that gets to define where this cutoff goes? Does everyone get to decide for themselves? And if it is to be by majority vote, this leads to the idea that rights to life are subject to majority vote.

In short, gradualism does not solve the problem with views of "personhood" which are based on possession of attributes instead of, as in the Christian view, the view that personhood is inherent in being a living member of the human race.

(8) It's OK to abort up until a certain time (quickening, sentience, viability, birth, ...), but not after that time. Or, no one knows when human life really begins, so no one should be able to make laws which enshrine a particular view of the matter.

Response: The basic question is whether the child is a human being with full human rights at any given point of time. The problem with defining cutoffs in the period of development in the womb is that such cutoffs are arbitrary. How do we know, as an objective matter, that a certain point is definitely when human personhood begins? And, if we don't know that any particular point is precisely the right point, then we might be killing a human being. The appeal to ignorance doesn't work. To abort because we don't know for sure that a developing infant is a human being is precisely the same as walking into a room blindfolded and with earplugs in your ears and firing a loaded gun in random directions when you don't know for sure that there are no people in there. The reason you should not do that is because your lack of knowledge should make you more careful, not less careful.

As for being able to make laws, we make laws which require us not to do careless things that might threaten the lives of others all the time.

(9) You pro-lifers are illegitimately objecting to "settled law." Roe v. Wade should never be questioned.

Response: Have you ever heard of the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision? In that decision, the Supreme Court held that black Americans, whether slave or free, could not be American citizens, and, as a consequence, lacked the standing to sue in federal courts. The Court also found in that decision that the federal government did not have the constitutional authority to regulate slavery. It is widely conceded that this Supreme Court decision was wrong. In fact, it is widely called the worst decision that the Supreme Court ever made.

If you think that Dred Scott was wrong, then you believe the Supreme Court can be wrong. And if the Supreme Court can be wrong, then it is important to fight the wrong, not just accept it.

(10) What about rape, incest, and the life of the mother?

Response: First, it is important to note that only 0.4% (or 4 out of 1000) abortions are done for these reasons.

Second, with regard to rape and incest, although the crime that led to the pregnancy is horrible, and although the woman made no choice to become pregnant, the thing that must be weighed in deciding what is the right thing to do is the rights of the child against the rights of the mother. If it is true that a child is a human being with all of the rights that pertain to humanity, including a right to life, from the point of conception, then what this weighs is the emotional pain of the mother against the life of the child. If the child is in fact a human being with full human rights then the right of the child to life outweighs the right of the mother.

Third, with regard to cases in which the life of the mother is genuinely at risk (such as with ectopic pregnancies), then it really is a case of weighing each situation on its own. In the case of ectopic pregnancies, if an abortion is not done, both mother and child will certainly die, whereas if an abortion is done, the mother will live. Accordingly, in that situation, the right thing is for the abortion to be done. Other situations must be analyzed in a similar manner. If there are cases in which it truly is one life weighed against another, the decision ought to belong to the mother in consultation with qualified doctors and family members.

(11) You have a right to your opinion, and I have a right to mine. You do not have the right to force your religious opinion on me.

Response: This objection confuses a number of things. First, it confuses my expression of the judgment that, since abortion is the morally unjustified taking of another human being's life, it ought to be outlawed, with the actual making of a law. If such a law were ever passed, it would not be me imposing my opinion on anyone, it would be society at large making a law. To say that society at large never has the right to do that is to say that no one has the right to pass laws. But that is absurd.

What this objection is really about is whether or not it would be morally right to make laws forbidding abortion. Whether or not it is right depends upon whether the infant in utero is a human being with a right to life. If the infant in utero is a human being with a right to life, then forbidding abortion is equivalent to forbidding murder.

So, when someone says that no one has the right to force their opinion on another about whether an infant in utero is a human being they are saying that this question (i.e., whether the infant in utero is a human being) is not a question of objective fact, but a question of subjective judgment. But to say that it is a matter of subjective judgment is to say that since no one knows whether a human life is present, each person should get to decide for themselves. But if it were truly the case that no one knew, the right response is actually to say that we should not kill, because we might be killing. As discussed above, if we as a society cannot make an objective determination that performing an abortion is not killing, then the moral act is to not do it, because we might be killing.

(12) If you don't have a uterus, then you have no right to legislate to women about abortion.

Response: This objection is absurd. It effectively claims that no one should get to make laws about any people other than people exactly like themselves. Indeed, since there is no one exactly like me, it really implies that we should do away with law altogether.

The relevant consideration when we make laws is not whether we are a member of the group, but whether the law is a just one. The justice of abortion has nothing to do with whether or not any particular legislator has a uterus. 

(13) Christians have no right to be pro-life because a lot of them don't do everything they can to seek the welfare of children after they are born.

Response: This is another irrelevant argument. Although it is true that a consistent pro-life ethic would lead people to support life after birth as much as prior to it. Nevertheless, if a person is not consistent in this, it doesn't imply that they are wrong if they think that abortion is murder. It just means they are a hypocrite.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Abortion Litmus Tests and the Presidential Primary Voter

There have been a number of occasions over the years when I have debated with friends the question of if there are times when Christians are morally obligated to be "single issue voters." More precisely, the question we have debated is the question of whether there are times when Christians ought to exclude certain candidates from consideration solely on the basis of certain "litmus tests."

Most of us don't usually apply such litmus tests, of course. For most issues we are quite comfortable with the idea of setting aside some areas of disagreement we might have with a certain candidate and voting for them anyway. 

We might do this for a variety of reasons. For example, we might think that the issues about which we disagree are less important than those concerning which we agree. Or, even if our areas of disagreement with the candidate are important ones, we might decide that the candidate wouldn't have power to make any changes relative to the issues concerning which we disagree with them. For example, we might decide to vote for a certain candidate for dog catcher because the candidate is good at catching dogs, despite the fact that we know that the candidate disagrees with us in favoring decreased federal defense spending. We would feel comfortable doing this since we know that dogcatchers have no influence over federal defense spending budgets.

In short, we make these trade-offs all the time, and it's often not very easy to explain to others, or even to ourselves, how we justify the trade-offs that we make.

So, in this post I'd like to focus on a narrower issue. In particular, I'd like to very briefly discuss the question of what trade-offs between the issue of abortion and other issues Christians can allow themselves to make when deciding whom to support for the office of President of the United States.

Most conservative Christians would agree that abortion is a grave moral evil, and that we are morally obligated to fight against its practice in any ethical way we can. Nevertheless, the question of abortion is also a controversial and closely contested one, and the battle lines between those for and against abortion have not moved a great deal since Roe v. Wade. A consequence of this apparent stalemate is that most of us don't expect any President to be able to make much difference with regard to the issue of abortion in the near term. Because of this, we tend to just assume that change on this issue is impossible, and to choose our Presidents based on which issues we think they can actually do something about.

The problem with taking this tack, though, is that it seems to foreclose the very possibility of change. It seems to foster a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, we assume that change is impossible, so we elect candidates who are guaranteed not to change anything.

Therefore, if we are ever to change the laws about abortion in this country, it is necessary that presidents be committed foes of abortion: men and women who will take every legal action open to them to limit the practice of abortion, and who will only nominate candidates to the Supreme Court who can be relied upon to overturn Roe v. Wade. Further, if we are to have a President of this type, it is necessary, in turn, Christian voters must have a very strong preference for pro-life presidents over non-pro-life presidents.

Given that every Christian is morally obligated to use every reasonable ethical means at their disposal to combat the practice of abortion, it follows that Christians ought to have a good ethical reason to justify their voting for any President who is not a committed pro-lifer. 

An example of such a reason might be that there was some other immediately obtainable moral good of a greater order than making progress toward saving the lives of over one million babies killed every year, and which could be obtained in no other way than through the election of a non-pro-life President. 

Another example of such a reason might be that a situation exists in which there is no electable candidate who is strongly pro-life, but there is one who is moderately pro-life, and who would make some progress toward protecting the life of the unborn, without foreclosing on the option of further progress in the future.

In any case, though, the point is that abortion, since it is an issue of life and death which affects over a million baby human beings per year, is so serious a moral issue that it cannot be considered just another ordinary issue to be weighed against everyday issues such as immigration and tax reform. 

To bring the issue even closer to home, those GOP voters in the 2016 Republican primary who are considering supporting Donald Trump should ask themselves (leaving aside the questions of whether Mr. Trump can in fact be counted upon to keep his word, and whether he is able to do the things he says he will) whether immigration reform of the sort that Donald Trump is proposing is so important that it justifies electing a President who has no intention of making any changes whatsoever relative to the practice of abortion. 

Some have argued, for example, in supporting such a view, that both legal and illegal immigrants generally become Democratic voters, and that Democratic voters are anti-life, so that if we want to maintain the political strength to fight anti-life Democrats, we need to reform immigration to keep the nation from becoming Democratic.

This sort of argument is weak, in that the issue of abortion is, properly speaking, not a partisan issue. That is, despite the fact that today, generally speaking, Republicans are pro-life and Democrats are not, the issue itself is not a political issue, but a moral one, and the task that faces is not first and foremost a political task, but a moral one - to persuade people of both parties of the evils of abortion and to muster majorities to roll it back. To use immigration as a tool in this way has the negative side effect of making abortion hostage to one political party. If our goal is to persuade people of the evils of abortion, we are better off helping people understand that there is nothing Democratic or Republican about wanting to save the lives of babies.

In short, I would argue that Christian voters ought not to think of themselves first and foremost as Republican or Democratic voters, but as Christian voters. And with regard to life this means participating in party politics without making our Christianity captive to it. And it means that whenever we vote for a candidate for the Presidency we must do our best to support candidates who will do what is right.

So what should a Christian do when there are no candidates on the ballot who support their point of view? Is choosing the "lesser of two evils" acceptable? Yes, I think so. If there truly are no other alternatives, then we have a constrained choice and we must use the gift of a vote of conscience to choose the lesser of two evils. But even here we must make sure that no politician or party ever makes the mistake of taking the "Christian" vote for granted because they are just a little better than the other party. Christians should continue to use whatever means they have to put forward Christian candidates who actually are real alternatives. They should force parties to take account of them in the making of party platforms. But above all, they should pray for God to open the eyes of their fellow-citizens and for Him to provide them with leaders who will do justly, and love mercy, and encourage people to walk humbly with their God.