This episode is a recording of a talk I gave last week at the University of Canterbury on abortion.
As promised in the episode, here’s a summary of some questions and answers that followed.
Q: What would you say about cases like rape or incest, where the women is going to give birth to a reminder of what was done to her?
A: That’s the hardest type of scenario I think. There are a few kinds of answers I’d give. Firstly, one thing to bear in mind is that even if I said that I thought that rape was a good enough ground for an abortion, that still only allows a very small number of abortions. The proportion of all abortions in New Zealand where the pregnancy is alleged to have resulted from rape is very small.
Secondly, what would we say to a woman with a two year old son who was born because she was raped, if she said that she was going to kill her son because he reminded her of the rape? Although we might feel sorry for her and want to help her in some way, we wouldn’t think it was alright to kill the child. So it seems to me that the idea that it’s alright to kill the unborn child in these cases is trading on the fact that we have a tendency not to be as aware of the status of the unborn child, or the moral factors that I’ve discussed when I gave reasons for deeming abortion immoral. Because the unborn child is , so to speak “out of sight, out of mind,” on a psychological and emotional level we don’t form the same attachment to it, so it’s easy for us to see why killing the two year old is wrong but to at least partly overlook or not notice that wrongness in the case of abortion.
Sometimes when wrong things are done to a person (like rape), there’s no defensible way out of it, even when that involves suffering. That may sound a little harsh, but let me put it this way: Let’s not punish the son for the sins committed by the father. The fact that something terrible was done to you doesn’t give you right to do absolutely whatever it takes to get out of that situation, like by deflecting that harm so that someone else bears the brunt of it, which is what happens when we kill the unborn to alleviate the emotional pain inflicted on the woman.
Q: In your talk you refer to a fetus. Would you go further? Would your argument also apply to an embryo?
It would, yes. There’s no logical reason for it not to. I am numerically identical with an embryo that once lived. The only reason that I refer to a fetus in this talk is that most abortions in New Zealand take place from 8 to 12 weeks’ gestation, which just happens to be in the fetal stage.
Q:You say that abortion should be illegal. Do you think people who carry out abortion should be punished for murder, in the same way a murderer would be?
I don’t know. Saying that it should be illegal is not, of course, to say that it should be deemed murder. The law already treats, for example, infanticide as a distinct crime, not because we don’t think it’s wrong, but I guess it’s out of recognition of the psychological factors that might come into play. I think that’s really a technical legal question. There are epistemological questions involved of what the people involved could be expected to know and so forth. So I don’t make any firm claim there. For now I leave that to the lawyers.
ADDENDUM: Although to be clear, I want to say that I lean on the firm rather than lenient side of how serious the repercussions should be.
Q: Some have said that prior to legalisation there were a number of police officers who were willing to accept bribes to look the other way and ignore illegal abortion. So if we make abortion illegal it will increase corruption in the police force. What would you say to that?
A: I think that corruption in the police force is wrong in its own right and needs to be addressed in its own right. This is a consequentialist argument like the following one: If, in some Muslim countries women were not very restrictively required to wear the burqa, it might increase the risk of them being raped. Therefore they should all be required to wear it. I don’t buy that, and it seems morally similar. It really says “there’s this rampant injustice going on, but if we prevent it, then another injustice will rear its head.” My answer is that we then address the second injustice. We become very harsh on police who take bribes.
Q: I don’t know if it works to appeal to laws written in the past and then to apply them to the abortion issue now. When law is written it might be written for a certain purpose, but a lot of law is made by precedent, the way the courts interpret it.
A: Yes that’s true, the law does work that way. Take for example the US constitution, which guarantees all persons the kinds of protection I was talking about before. People now say that since the courts have decided that the unborn doesn’t count as a person in the sense the constitution used that word, they don’t have the same protections. The way I reply to that is by noting that I have actually argued that the unborn should be regarded as having a status making it wrong to kill, and that the factors that make depriving me of basic protection also make it wrong to do it to the unborn. In this way I am prepared to argue that the courts get it wrong when it comes to abortion.
Q: Some proponents of abortion would agree with your first argument about the prima facie duty. Yes, the baby is the same identity as the fetus, but over time the value changes.
A: Agreed. All I claim to have done with the first argument is to place the burden of proof onto the advocate for abortion rights. If it’s the same entity as a human person, then it is up to those people to provide reasons for seeing abortion as an exception to our normal duty. They offer things like rationality or self awareness, but then I think they allow far too much – more than most of them would be happy with, for example very late term abortion or the killing of young children after birth.
Q: The idea of numerical identity is confusing. What you really need is an argument about the continuity of the life or soul of the baby. I mean, there’s numerical identity between a human being and a piece of your hair.
A: No, there isn’t.
Q: Yes, they are numerically one. If you take that word in the normal mathematical sense, that has to be true.
A: No, that’s not numerical identity. If I have one of me, and then over there is a piece of my hair, how many things is that? That’s two things.
Q: But you said A = A
A: Yes. Let A = Glenn Peoples and H = a piece of my hair. Just because I think A = A doesn’t mean I think A = H.
Q: But numerically they are one. A human being and a fetus are both one. One and one, so they are identical. have you taken maths?
[I’ll stop recording this conversation here. It has prompted me to make my next “nuts and bolts” episode on the subject of “what is identity?”]
Q: You talk about taking away a future. But you can take away the future of a dog or a blade of grass. What’s the difference. You talk about taking away a “future like mine”? What does that mean? What’s the moral basis? This is just relativism.
What the argument does is it appeals to moral beliefs that I think my audience or opponent will recognise as true. Of course, I couldn’t appeal to any such truth if I thought that relativism were correct. So the argument’s not an instance of relativism. I’ve appealed to a belief that we take to be correct, which we couldn’t do if we were relativists.
Q (OK, not really a question, a comment): Well I think it really smacks of relativism. We need to get to the issue of the soul of the person. I think that demolishes your argument.
Q: We talk about protecting the unborn child. Good abortion law protects the child and the mother. I’ve seen plenty of women going into Lyndhurst [local abortion clinic]…. [This person later told me that he was talking about women being taken in by their male partners, who pressured them into the abortion.]
Yes, if abortion somehow harms women, perhaps it undermines their bodily or psychological integrity, then sure, that might count as a reason to regard abortion as wrong. I think the reasons I have given are more than sufficient, and I think they are the main reasons, but I don’t deny that there may be other reasons.