Friday, October 03, 2008

Abortion Migrations

Volokh conspirator Todd Zywicki has an interesting post up asking about people's development on the issue of abortion. Specifically, how and why they might have changed their mind on the issue. He says that he knows plenty of people who used to be pro-choice, but became pro-life -- but few who made the opposite journey. And for those who have, he's curious as to what prompted the change in mindset.

My abortion journey, like the hobbit's, was a case of there and back again. I started off pro-choice in my youth, primarily as an off-shoot of growing up in a generally liberal household that made my default views on most issues liberal. Then I switched over to being pro-life, albeit uncomfortably. I say uncomfortably because all the reasons for being pro-choice made no less sense to me: it still seemed critical for the equality of women, and it still seemed like not allowing it was a tremendous state imposition on female bodies. But even those tremendous costs, large as they were, could not logically seem to override my thought that you're still killing a person, which I took to be a moral bright-line.

My discovery of pragmatism aided in me switching back to the pro-choice side. I decided that, regardless of when and whether a fetus qualified as a biological member of the species, that doesn't answer the question of when it becomes infused with moral personhood. That is a question that has no bright-line answer, and thus ought to be answered pragmatically. At the point, the massive costs the "life(/moral personhood) begins at conception" standard imposes on women becomes a good reason to reject it as a standard. Alternative measures seem far more effective at balancing whatever moral interest we have in protecting fetal life with insuring the equal participation of women in society (not to mention allowing women ownership over their own bodies). Judith Jarvis Thompson's "violinist" story also was helpful in my transition by raising the point that moral personhood might, in fact, not be relevant at all (though I'm not 100% sure I buy it).

The major point is, however, that once I lost my faith in the existence of crystalline, pre-social categories of moral truth, the pro-life position became untenable, because it constructed a moral framework that was hideously oppressive to women on the basis of a groundless presupposition that we could just as easily avoid. Given the choice, I choose to draw the rules so as to promote equality.

But I'm interested in your stories, if any of y'all have undergone similar shifts on the issue (in any direction). Leave them for me in the comments.


Stentor said...

Interesting -- I made sort of the opposite journey but ended up at the same destination. When I started actually thinking about politics (which wasn't until college -- I knew my parents were Republicans, but I had absolutely no idea what that meant ideology-wise), I was determined to avoid having an opinion on abortion. I felt like it was the least productive political debate out there, and so I figured that not having an opinion would keep me from ever getting sucked into it. Insofar as I thought about the issue at all, I was vaguely pro-life, because I figured I'd err on the side of caution if I wasn't sure when moral personhood began.

Later I realized that between the ethical theories I had committed to for other purposes (sentience-centrism) and scientific information I'd picked up about the development of the fetus, there was no consistent way for me to maintain that I couldn't take sides on abortion.

I sometimes feel like I'm the only pro-choice person who finds Thompson's violinist argument terribly unconvincing. I'm strongly skeptical of that kind of direct appeal to intuition anyway, and my intuitions about the violinist situation are extremely murky at best.

Stentor said...

Oops, I left and came back and forgot to say in my second paragraph that the theories and information in question committed me to resolve the fetal personhood issue in a pro-choice fashion -- that being the opposite of how you became pro-choice by dismissing the fetal personhood issue.

Anonymous said...

I’m still somewhat undecided on this issue, mainly because I think most people are asking the wroing questions when they attempt to answer the issue. But the book MindScan by Robert Sawyer, an intriguing if sometimes anti-climatic author, suggested an interesting new argument on this for me.

As part of the story's background (no real spoiler here), a character is asked about Littler v. Carvey, a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 2028, which is suggested as the case that will overturn Roe v. Wade. The case turned on the issue of when an embryo becomes a person.

One position, held by hard-line right-to-lifers, she states, is that a new person, with all the rights of personhood, is created at the moment of conception. The opposite extreme says that a new person doesn’t exist until the moment of birth. Conception and birth are, of course, exact moments in time. The character relates in some intriguing details, including a previous case from 2016, which influenced the Court’s decision.

Eventually, the Court decides that personhood begins with individualization occurs. She notes that – and I leave it to other to assess the accuracy – for up to 14 days after conception, a fertilized egg can divide into two or more identical twins. Since the embryo still has the potential to become multiple individuals, no specific single personhood could be ascribed to it, nor could whatever rights one would associate with personhood. The legal point was that it was neither conception nor birth that entitled you to the rights of personhood, but rather only when you become one, and only one, individual.

PG said...

I hew to the legally clear, technologically murky bright line that one has legal person-hood at the point that one no longer would have to force a single individual, who may be unwilling, to sustain one's life -- i.e., viability. Viability now seems to be possible only when the fetus has developed airs sacs to be able to take in oxygen and process it into the blood instead of having oxygenated blood delivered through the placenta, but if we figure out a way to maintain the fetus's life outside the womb earlier than that, I'm OK with pushing the line to that earlier time. Abortion is a right to be free of pregnancy, not a right to be free of having a kid out there in the world, so I agree with the prohibition of post-viability abortions except when pregnancy or delivery would threaten the mother's life or health.

However, I didn't come to that position until college. I wasn't aware that abortion existed until I was in middle school. (I was the kind of blissfully incurious kid who knew that babies came from married women and didn't think about it any further until 4th grade basic sex ed, and even after knowing abstractly that ovum had to meet sperm, until I was in 6th grade still didn't connect that with having to touch a boy.)

Once I knew there was such a thing as abortion, I started out pro-life (babies! who doesn't like babies?); went through an Ayn Rand phase as a high school sophomore and became pro-choice with absolutely no restrictions; had the Baptists get a hold of me and swing me back to pro-life; and then became pro-choice again in college while studying bioethics, and haven't gone back since.

For me being pro-life was both an emotional appeal and an obliviousness to real life. I was a total sucker for the fetus = adorable baby idea. And I was too young and out of touch with the real world to think about all of the people who weren't like me: people who were having sex when they were too young to raise kids; women for whom pregnancy and child rearing would end the possibility of going to college; people who couldn't afford to raise a child; women who knew they would not be able to give up a child for adoption once they had borne it.

I was conservative when I was 11, libertarian at 14/15, liberal at 17. The move toward liberalism for me was very much driven by an increasing awareness of other people's situations in life. Republican policies mostly fit neatly with my place in life (nuclear family, traditional upbringing, well-off and well-educated parents, etc.). I didn't become liberal in my political views until I grasped that the rules that worked to my advantage -- everything from high stakes standardized testing, to tax-free transfers to one's children -- didn't do that for everyone, and that was wrong and unfair.

Jack said...

I have to say, your argument from pragmatism strikes me as sort of bizarre. Certainly the question of when a fetus qualifies for moral personhood might be separate from the question of when it qualifies as a member of the biological species. But that doesn't mean you can just pick a standard for moral personhood based on reasons totally unrelated to the fetus.

First, I'm not sure why a slave-holder, circa 1860, could not have made an argument with the exact same form.

But the real problem I see is that you seem to think the absence of an absolute bright-line and the recognition that (moral- I won't agree to all) truth can't be pre-social means you can just pick what you want to be true for whatever reasons. The fact that you have loftier reasons then some guy who just doesn't want to have to pay child-support doesn't make your opinion on abortion methodologically more valid. Intersubjective truths aren't determined by God or nature, but the aren't determined by single individuals either.

The right way to do it is to recognize that the notion of moral personhood is tangled up, and to some extent supervenes upon, features of a given thing. The proper pragmatist path is to examine which features appear to grant moral personhood and then see if fetuses have these things. Some of these things might be: consciousness, sentience, linguistic capacity, linguistic ability, finger nails etc. The question of whether or not these features confer moral personhood is based in social reality not a metaphysical one, and they could always change. But the question of whether or not a fetus possesses these traits (once elucidated) doesn't have a complete, epistemologically certain answer but could have an answer that is about as close as we ever get in moral philosophy. If you learned tomorrow that fetuses talk to themselves and think about where they are wouldn't that change you view?

Does anyone know if Rorty ever took a position on abortion publicly? One would assume pro-choice but his notion of ever-expanding solidarity seems to suggest he might hold a different view.

LOG ME IN said...

Unlike you, my commitment to principles -- particularly the principles of individual liberty -- has made me more consistently pro-choice than ever before: I hold that abortion ought to be legal for any reason whatsoever until birth, as that's when the embryo/fetus becomes an biologically-independent human being.

For the details see an issue paper published by the Coalition for Secular Government: "Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters That a Fertilized Egg Is Not a Person" by Ari Armstrong and myself. It's available at:

Its particular target is Colorado's proposed Amendment 48, which would give fertilized eggs all the legal rights of persons. However, the section on "personhood and the right to abortion" discusses the philosophic issues.

Diana Hsieh
Founder, Coalition for Secular Government