August 18, 2007
Must reading of the day
By Kathy G.
Scott Lemieux's review of a new book on why "centrist" abortion regulations don't work. Here's the gist of it:
The particularly salient lesson to draw from Silverstein's book is that it's important to ask whether abortion regulations actually accomplish anything, even on their own terms. "Basing a policy that regulates the right to abortion on confidence that the law stands outside of politics and free of bureaucratic red tape," writes Silverstein, "is a mistake fraught with consequences for those whom the right ostensibly protects."
Support for these laws is often more about the assumption that compromise on abortion is inherently desirable rather than arguments about what benefits will come from the legislation. Is there any evidence, for example, that the lack of abortion regulation makes the decisions of Canadian women less responsible? Whatever their merits in the abstract, in practice "centrist" abortion regulations do little but put up obstacles in the path of the most vulnerable women while not accomplishing any useful objective. Parental involvement laws -- which are largely superfluous for young women in good family situations and potentially dangerous for young women in bad situations -- are a case in point, especially since the safeguards intended to protect the latter don't work. Silverstein makes a careful, meticulous, and ultimately powerful case that even those who support the ends of parental involvement laws should reject them in practice.
June 03, 2006
If Ramesh Wants a Passing Grade, He'll Have To Rewrite His Response Paper
Here's my old teacher Peter Berkowitz, in his review of Ramesh Ponnuru's Party of Death:
Invisible to the naked eye, lacking body or brain, feeling neither pleasure nor pain, radically dependent for life support, the early embryo, though surely part of the human family, is distant and different enough from a flesh-and-blood newborn that when the early embryo's life comes into conflict with other precious human goods or claims, the embryo's life may need to give way.
The beginning describes four differences between newborns and early embryos. The first one -- invisibility to the naked eye -- isn't especially relevant to the moral difference Berkowitz is trying to draw. If you suddenly shrank and became invisibly tiny, it would still be wrong to kill you. The next two, though, are genuinely important. Brains are necessary for humans to have minds, and as I've argued before, minds are necessary for any sort of moral status. We ought to prevent creatures from being in pain and promote their pleasure, so the inability of the fetus to feel these sensations is a big deal. I'm less certain about the life support issue, but maybe there's some way to use it in an argument.
When Ponnuru responds to Berkowitz' post, what does he do? He responds to the first point about the fetus being tiny, using it as the only "example" of a difference Berkowitz raises between newborns and embryos, and ignores everything else. (The reason I'm not quoting him is that it's hard to quote the absence of a response.)
As it turns out, we have pretty strong intuitions about the moral significance of minds (see the linked piece above), and about the significance of pleasure and displeasure. I happen to think that the goodness of pleasure and the badness of displeasure are revealed by a more reliable faculty than intuition, but we've got some intuitions here too. If you haven't responded to these issues, you haven't responded to Berkowitz. And maybe the reason Ponnuru refused to respond is just that no response is available, and Berkowitz is right.
Having won a fellowship for next year, I'm not going to be a TA, so I'll take my chance to say this to Ramesh: If you want a passing grade on this assignment, you'll have to rewrite it and actually respond to the main arguments.
May 13, 2006
In a historic 5-3 ruling, Colombia's Supreme Court legalized abortion under some circumstances -- specifically, in cases of rape, incest, to save the mother's life, and fatal fetal deformity. Previously, there was a total ban on abortion.
Colombia's religious right strongly opposed the decision, with bishops now threatening excommunications and civil disobedience. (At least one "Christian" news organization in this country is propagandizing against the measure, neglecting to mention the narrow set of cases in which abortion has been legalized.)
It's things like this that make me wish I knew more about Third World politics. On all sorts of issues (including poverty, but not limited to that) the problems in other countries are more severe than they are here. Against enemies this bad, it's really heartening to see the good guys win.
May 05, 2006
Kate Michelman on the Choice Movement
by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math
Kate Michelman, the former head of NARAL has a new book, which she spent Wednesday night promoting in Seattle. Since I'm not officially a journalist, I'm never clear if such events are "on the record", plus the Q&A sessions can lead to all kinds of impromptu statements that can be taken out of context. But here's her op-ed in the local paper; here's a recent interview; here's a write-up from the dean of Northwest local political blogging.
Michelman thinks the choice movement needs to sound the alarm on the true goals of the every-sperm-is-sacred crowd, which is to punish and demean women for unintended pregnancies, and force them into unsafe back-alley abortions. The evidence in her favor stems from the 1992 election cycle, when the spectre of overturning Roe helped create a pro-choice majority. But there's a key difference between the state of politics today and in 1992: the public percieved the right to choose as threatened. Remember, in 1980, Reagan ran on an explicit pledge to appoint anti-choice judges; today Bush mumbles stuff about a "culture of life" and only speaks openly about banning D&X procedures. And, for their part, Roe opponents have turned to a strategy of gutting Roe from the inside-out, rather than seeking outright bans. Raising the alarm about America turning into El Salvador without sounding shrill is going to be tough. In the meantime, waiting for a direct ruling on Roe to galvanize the public doesn't seem like a great idea.
Curiously, Michelman has also abandoned attempts to seek compromise by "uniting around a common goal of making abortion less necessary, through aggressive attention to family planning, access to birth control, sex education, improvement to health-care access, child-care policies," and instead wants to put a straight-up pro-choice majority in Congress through a campaign that, as they say, 'heightens the differences'. That's something she thinks can't be done with the modern Republican party. But it would also put Democratic Senate candidates in places like South Dakota at serious risk. Now, I'm all for having more pro-choice Senators, but if Democrats are going to win a few rural & exurban districts, it may require seeking "common ground" on issues of family life.
March 26, 2006
For Moral Status, You've Gotta Have a Mind
I've been arguing about abortion with some conservatives today, and it's time to do a little philosophy. (Finally! A chance to use my professional competence for the greater good!) I'll argue against two conservative views about what gives fetal life its value: (1) that the fetus is an instance of human life, and (2) that the fetus has the potential to be a unique intelligent being. These views would make the fetus worthy of protection from the moment of conception.
I'm one of those liberals who thinks that mental capacities of some sort are necessary before the fetus is a legitimate object of moral concern. There's plenty of disagreement about exactly what these mental capacities are, but I'd say that a capacity for pain is really what makes fetal life merit our moral concern. Since a first-trimester fetus is incapable of feeling pain -- the capacity for pain only kicks in somewhere around the end of the second trimester -- I don't see any moral problem with first-trimester abortion. It's not even a moral issue worth worrying about. I won't argue for my specific pain-oriented version of the view here (that's going to be a whole book someday) but I will defend the general view about the importance of a mind.
First, let's look at the view that the fetus is worth protecting because it's an instance of human life. If "human life" just means "something alive that has human DNA", there's tons of human life out there that we rightly don't have concern for. The life forms I'm talking about are our individual cells. Nobody crusades to ban liposuction because it slaughters millions of human cells in a weight-loss genocide. As all of us understand, being alive and human-DNA-containing isn't enough.
Furthermore, it seems to me that the fact that something is human doesn't really play any essential role in how we morally regard it. Think of Yoda or ET or Spock or Athena or Frodo. Killing any of them would be just as evil as killing a human being. Their moral status doesn't arise out of their being members of the human species, since they're not -- it arises out of something else. It seems pretty clear to me that we detect their moral status by seeing that they can think and reason and love and feel happy and care about others. (They're also benevolent creatures, on top of that, so we like them a lot.) All these things are aspects of their minds, and that's where our obligations towards them are grounded.
Don't be thrown off by the fact that all the examples I've cited are fictional. There probably are actual examples of friendly non-humans with minds somewhere in the far reaches of the universe, and if we ever meet them, I hope we don't do something stupid and kill them all. If you share this hope, you probably understand that being an object of moral concern isn't really about being human. Instead, it has something to do with having a mind. I'm guessing that your friendly attitudes towards fictional non-humans come out of the same deep understanding.
Now let's look at the claim that the fetus' moral status comes out of its having the potential to become a unique intelligent being. This is one of those claims that can seem fairly hard to argue either for or against, since it's hard to find other test cases for whether the potential to become a unique intelligent being makes something morally valuable. But as it turns out, such test cases have become available.
With the new technologies we're developing these days, most of the cellular nuclei in the world can be grown into unique intelligent beings. Just scoop out the nucleus of a fertilized egg, and plug a nucleus from some body cell in its place. Put the fertilized egg into the right part of a woman, and nine months later a child will be born. The child's genetic material will be derived entirely from the body cell nucleus that you stuck in. So we've basically got the potential for a unique intelligent being in every single body cell. If moral status comes out of potential to make a unique intelligent being, liposuction is a horrific evil, because it destroys millions of potential intelligent beings.
I've been describing the science behind reproductive cloning. If you think cloning is immoral, that doesn't make any difference to the argument -- the argument depends only the possibility of cloning, not its morality. And the fact that you have to put the nucleus into the right environment to develop its potential doesn't block the argument either -- fetuses themselves have to be put into the right environment for their potential to develop.
The objection that the resulting person (a clone) isn't sufficiently unique doesn't really work either. Plenty of our body cells have mutations in them that will result in slight genetic variation from the parent. So you'll get a slight bit of genetic variation. And that's before environmental differences do all their mighty work in making the clone into a truly unique person (really, this is probably the thing to look at the most). Another problem is that if you impose a strong requirement of genetic uniqueness before potential intelligent beings attain moral status, you end up having to say that identical twins can be aborted. At that point, the position just starts looking really weird.
What seems like the simple and obvious right answer to me is that we only have moral obligations to creatures with minds. This isn't to rule out the possibility that we have obligations to the higher animals -- for example, obligations not to beat up dogs and cats. After all, they have minds of some sort, with the capacity for pleasure, pain, beliefs, and desires. (Some philosophers deny the belief/desire stuff for animals because they think beliefs and desires are necessarily tied to language, but that has always seemed wrong to me.) So we have some obligations to them too. It's plausible that certain complex moral features of creatures -- perhaps a self-conception or a capacity for reason -- cause us to have more complex obligations towards them.
In any case, I think it's fairly obvious that when it comes to moral status, minds are what it's all about.
You Punish Doctors, You Punish Women
he argues that abortion bans which protect the mother from any legal consequences are designed to punish women, even though they are expressly designed to protect women from punishment.
This is only correct if prison is the only kind of punishment -- in other words, it's quite far from the truth. Another way to punish women for having sex is to make it impossible to avoid a nine-month pregnancy and childbirth, and then (if they don't make the gut-wrenching decision to give their offspring up for adoption) an incredibly time-consuming 18-year legal obligation that can wreck their educational, marital, and career plans, and subject them to significant social stigma. Giving jail terms to doctors who perform abortions and not to women who have them is a perfectly effective way of punishing women for having sex, since it dramatically increases the cost of an unwanted pregnancy. One could just as easily punish meateaters by banning the sale of cholesterol-lowering drugs, but not their use.
March 21, 2006
Banning Abortion: Not a Good Idea
This is a bit off today's topic, but I thought people would enjoy knowing that Mike Rounds, the South Dakota governor who signed the abortion ban, has seen his approval/disapproval numbers go from 72-23 in February to 58-38 in March. He doesn't have a challenger for 2006, though that could change soon. I was sort of guessing that this abortion ban would blow up in its proponents' faces -- pro-lifers outnumber pro-choicers in South Dakota only 49-47.
Let's hope that the birth-control-denying state legislators of Missouri are next.
September 25, 2005
Pangloss vs. Parental Notification
Jumping off of Neil’s post on parental consent laws below,
which I think is essentially correct. Briefly, a child needs her parents’ permission to get a tattoo, because
she doesn’t have a fundamental right to a tattoo. It’s a choice, if postponed, that isn’t going
to irreparably damage the child. And
before you go around giving some kid over the counter medications, you should
check with her parents first, for the child’s protection with respect to
adverse affects or any number of imaginable dangers. But mummy and daddy do not get to decide
whether or not their daughter should spend nine-months undergoing a pregnancy
and dealing with all of the awesome responsibilities that go with giving
birth. Just as the government does not
get to decide this for adults, mothers don’t get to decide it for their
daughters. We can wring our hands as
excessively as we want about it, but there’s really no better alternative.
But I think we focus too much on the word “consent,” in what are really parental notification laws. I, until very recently, was uniformly and absolutely opposed to parental notification laws because I felt it quite likely that it placed an undue burden on at least some girls’ right to exercise her right to autonomy over her own body. I’m not so sure anymore. I think that issue is still very much in play for a large number of young girls facing pregnancy. But I now think there may be other issues to consider as well when we allow children to get abortions without their parents knowledge, such as the case of the hypothetical 13 year old molested by the father of the children she baby-sits. How easy is it for this man, where that 13 year old can get an abortion without parental notice, to further manipulate the girl and cover his crimes?
I’m not sure how heavily to weigh this sort of issue in
terms of balancing the pros and cons of parental notification laws. How remote is the scenario first of all? I’m not a social scientist or anything, but I
have what you might call a hunch that there is quite likely something terribly
wrong happening when a girl under the age of 16 ends up pregnant. And my instinct tells me that alerting the
parents might help to illuminate this wrongdoing for the protection of the child. But we can also imagine some pretty stark
countervailing scenarios, involving crazy parents and unreasonable unproductive
Because of this, I think I still tend to lean against parental notification laws. While surely we can hypothesize a situation we’re such laws would be good for everyone. In most of the situations I can imagine, I don’t think we have a better option than placing some faith in the would be mother, most aware of all the circumstances, to make the decision that would be best for herself, which includes whether or not her parents need to know about it. And I’m not saying that that’s ideal either. But in the world we live in, it’s maybe the best of all possibilities. And while I don’t think anyone wants to imagine their daughter having an abortion alone without their knowledge and advice, all of the good loving parents out there should hopefully be able to trust that they’re raising good kids who will seek their help when they need it. But I know also how unfair and unreasonable it is to expect that of adolescent kids no matter how good their parents are.
For more, check out Jill from Feministe's, post on one actual consequence of such laws.
September 24, 2005
Abortions, Tattoos, and the Futures of Girls
Defenders of parental consent laws often compare abortion to tattooing, ear piercing, or any of the medical procedures for which many states require parental consent. They claim that if we require parental consent for a girl to get a tattoo, we should also require parental consent for an abortion. What I’m going to show here is that our reasons for requiring parental consent for tattoos are absent in the case of abortion. If you believe that an adult woman has a right to an abortion, you should believe that a teenage girl has that right as well, even if her parents say otherwise.
Tattoos are very difficult to undo. They also have the potential to make life harder for children when they become adults. So to make sure that children don’t burden themselves for life by tattooing song lyrics on their foreheads, we require them to get parental approval first. Given the occasional irrationality of children, we’re right to restrict actions that would deny them future opportunities. The whole point of parental consent laws is to make sure kids don't irrationally impose terrible constraints on their futures.
With abortion, the constraints work exactly the opposite way. Bearing a child is the choice that heavily constrains a girl’s future opportunities. Once she becomes a single mother, her prospects for education, employment, and marriage become much worse. But if she has an abortion, she can always choose to become a mother at some future time. All doors remain open to her.
If you see a girl as a piece of property owned by her parents, the comparison with tattoos seems to work in favor of parental consent laws. An abortion is widely regarded as a more significant change to one’s teenage human property than a tattoo. But when you regard the girl in the way you should – with attention focused on her well-being over the half-century or more that is her future – you can see how the comparison with tattoos actually supports allowing her to make her own choices regardless of what her parents say.
Of course, if some combination of philosophical confusion and scientific ignorance has convinced you that a first-trimester fetus has moral status approaching that of a human being, this argument won’t convince you. You’ll want to restrict abortion in whatever way you can. But polls show that a majority of people describe themselves as pro-choice, while a larger majority support parental consent laws. If you count yourself among both majorities, this argument is for you.
August 12, 2005
Spending More Time With the Family
Digby thinks the furor NARAL created with their ad was planned, that the pull was all part of the strategy. I'm not so sure. Particularly now that they've fired their ad director, a move that speaks of a campaign gone wrong, not right. Maybe NARAL can still spin this into a victory and use it for the long-term purposes Digby's identifying, a phoenix from the ad's ashes. But today, for now, it looks like they're doing some wailing and gnashing of teeth over at headquarters. (Via The Corner)