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May 02, 2007

Ultrasound And The Future Of Confused Wannabe Paternalists

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

My biggest problem with William Saletan's support for requiring women to view fetal ultrasounds before having an abortion (see Amanda, Scott, and Jessica for attacks from other angles) is that it gives women actively misleading information.  What are you going to learn from an ultrasound that you didn't know already?  Well, obviously you already knew you were pregnant, so all ultrasound adds is the visual experience of your fetus squirming inside you.  This visual experience is apparently of great moral significance to Saletan -- "Ultrasound has exposed the life in the womb to those of us who didn't want to see what abortion kills. The fetus is squirming, and so are we."

Of course, nothing is morally significant about squirming -- ours or the fetus'.  What is significant is whether the fetus has a mind like ours.  If it has no mind, or a mind of such a primitive level that it can't even feel pain, there's no reason to have attitudes of moral concern for it.  The neural hardware for pain perception only starts to show up around week 23, and isn't in place until week 30 of the pregnancy.  So having moral concern for a first-trimester fetus on the basis of the squirming you see in an ultrasound is a mistake. 

It's a mistake that lots of people will easily make, though.  People are quick to attribute mental qualities like beliefs, desires, and the ability to feel pain to things that don't have them.  I imagine that lots of anti-abortion activists will be happy enough to let ultrasounds drive home the thought that women are murdering a real person inside them when they have an abortion -- when it turns out that women are doing nothing of the sort.  (As Amanda points out, ultrasounds also cost money, and another part of the anti-abortion strategy is to reduce access to abortion simply by making it more expensive.) 

It's hard to see a plausible moral outlook on which ultrasound would be genuinely enlightening as to the morality of abortion.  It's not like an ultrasound is going to show you that the fetus has desires or a soul or a future capacity for having a mind like ours.  There are non-rational processes that all of us are subject to, however, that cause us to see minds in places where no minds exist.  By triggering these processes, ultrasounds promise to sow moral confusion, bad decisions, and unwarranted guilt. 

Feminist commentators on Saletan's piece have played up its paternalistic elements.  To quote Jessica:

He claims to “trust women” while simultaneously making the case that women don’t understand what they’re doing when they get abortions; that we’re incapable of making an informed decision without a helping hand from the state.

For my part, I think there's room in the world for paternalism, but if you're going to be a paternalist you need to be better-informed and more rational than the people you're trying to impose your paternalistic requirements on.  By letting his own squirming get the better of him and push him to support a useless and expensive procedure, Saletan fails this test.  Instead of requiring ultrasounds before abortions, perhaps we should require him to reread the medical research on fetal pain before he does any more punditry. 

May 2, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

I'm not opposed to paternalism any more than I'm opposed to maternalism but, of course, both are anathema to the libertarians out there who, rightly, demand that individual adults be treated as individual adults capable of making their own decisions *without* daddy or mommy. I'm not sure why you think there is some division between "good" paternalism that is "rational" and "bad paternalism" that is foolish and emotional. Daddies come in both kinds and the patriarchy (if we want to make a jump from paternalism to patriarchy) generally priviliges rationality when that disenfranchises women and minorities (always angry and emotional) and priviliges emotions when women, minorities, and children start to question the logic of submission to the state or the status quo.

At any rate I agree with your first points. My child thinks her doll and her stuffed kitty are fully sentient and would suffer greatly if she had to see them destuffed and thrown out. But that doesn't make them fully human and if it were a choice between my daughter's life and the apparent imaginary life of her stuffed cat marmalade I think my maternal instinct would be to sacrifice the stuffy for the child. Just as my maternal instinct would be to sacrifice the fetus for the adult woman.

aimai

Posted by: aimai | May 2, 2007 5:38:08 PM

nothing is morally significant about squirming


If anyone doubts this, have a look at this:

http://cyrusfarivar.com/blog/?p=1294

WARNING: video is very, very gross.

Posted by: Jason | May 2, 2007 5:43:34 PM

well, there's pain and there's pain.

I agree that the evidence from neural development shows that early-term fetuses cannot have extensive self-reflexive thoughts about their qualia. They can't have anxiety, ennui, or world-weariness.

But I guess I'm inclined to think there's another sense of 'pain' in which I, at least, am happy to attribute pain to a lot of fairly low-level organisms. If I saw some kids mutilating frogs, for instance, I would say that they were doing a number of things wrong, one of which was the gratuitous infliction of pain. Sure, the frog can't think about it. Sure, there are types of pain the frog cannot have. But I think there are some other things that it clearly can have, that clearly count as pain.

I'd even say the same thing for worms when you stick 'em on hooks. They don't like it. They try to get away. They aren't thinking anything, I'll grant you that, but they're in some sort of pain or another.

So what? So nothing. After we decide that an organism does or doesn't feel pain, it's still an entirely different question under what circumstances we are justified in inflicting pain on it. I'd say the kids who are tormenting frogs for kicks are not justified in what they are doing. But clearly I'm aware that the process of butchering animals involves some ineliminable pain, and I still eat meat.

My view is: in ordinary contexts, we don't take the infliction of just *any* pain as constituting a moral bar on the behavior. We look at lots of other issues to decide how the pain fits into the over-all permissibility of the action.

And that's what I'd say about abortion, too. (And yes, I have had one.)

But to claim that fetuses cannot feel pain in any sense, and to do so by ratcheting up the definition of "pain" until frogs, cows, and dogs can't feel it either, seems like a desperate move to make. Seems like you're going to invite disagreement at the very first step.

More plausible just to say: sure, in some sense of "pain", some fetuses can feel some pain. What follows from that for the permissibility of abortion is a whole different issue.

Posted by: just saying | May 2, 2007 5:46:21 PM

I'm not sure why you think there is some division between "good" paternalism that is "rational" and "bad paternalism" that is foolish and emotional.

Well, isn't one more objectionable than the other? I mean, even if you are absolutely opposed to any form of paternalism, surely you would prefer paternalism that at least actually benefited people. Take seat belt laws, which are commonly seen as paternalistic (I know there are other views on this matter, though). Even an anti-paternalist would have to acknowledge that it would be better for the state to require that people wear their seatbelts than it would be for the state to prohibit people from wearing their seatbelts.

Posted by: Jason | May 2, 2007 5:48:10 PM

oh, and nothing in the preceding should be construed as a denial that Saletan is an utter wanker.

Like Kaus, he specializes in saying "I'm a liberal and a feminist and it's only for the good of our cause that I spend all of my time trashing liberals and trashing women." He ought to write for TNR.

Posted by: just saying | May 2, 2007 5:48:17 PM

I'm pro-choice, but I don't agree with this at all. I mean, I do agree ultrasounds shouldn't be required for an abortion. But what's "misleading" about an ultrasound? Having a mind as the only criteron for moral concern is simply your judgement on the issue, not everyone's and not universally shared.

I'm glad you admit there's "room in the world" for paternalism. Applying your logic, perhaps ultrasounds should just be illegal for women considering an abortion because they "promise to sow moral confusion"? After all you certainly are better-informed and more rational than these women. Let's protect people from themselves, right?

Is having moral concern for a fetus on the basis of an ultrasound a "mistake"? Or is it merely a feeling, not more or less valid than any other feeling? As if you could reduce human morality to rationalism, when we know morality has itself evolved out of the amoral process of darwinian natural selection.

Posted by: Korha | May 2, 2007 5:49:31 PM

If I saw some kids mutilating frogs, for instance, I would say that they were doing a number of things wrong, one of which was the gratuitous infliction of pain.

I could be mistaken, but I would venture to guess that a frog's neural mechanisms are much more developed than those of a fetus.

Posted by: Jason | May 2, 2007 5:52:03 PM

yeah, I could be mistaken too. My neural mechanisms are only up to about hermit-crab level.

Neil? Want to weigh in on some points of fact?

Posted by: just saying | May 2, 2007 5:56:20 PM

Neil, why is pain the important point here? You also mention a mind like ours, something full-term babies are very far from having. The point of the ultrasounds isn't just squirming (something that isn't always present in ultrasounds). It's to show the fetus involved as an individual living thing, however similar to or different from us it may seem.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 2, 2007 6:10:52 PM

thing is, sanpete, "individual living thing" doesn't carry much moral clout.

I kill a couple million of those every time I use Purell to disinfect my hands.

I agree with Neil that it is far more to the point to ask "whether the fetus has a mind like ours." I also agree with him about the insignificance of squirming per se.

I just think that the very move he makes about squirming is also open to us as a move to make about pain. Sure there's some pain of some sort. But nothing morally significant follows from that, yet, without a whole lot more info about the kind of pain, how it is experienced, the kind of organism, etc.

Posted by: just saying | May 2, 2007 6:37:21 PM

i'm sure this is a far from original thought, but i believe bill saletan should be required to look at his semen under a microscope every time he wanks so that he can see the millions of squirming little consciousnesses he's wasting.

i'm not really sure how this would be enforced, however.

Posted by: r@d@r | May 2, 2007 6:42:57 PM

JS, I didn't say "individual living thing" has moral clout. The point is that the woman is faced with the entity to be killed, and will make her own judgment about what clout it has with her, moral, emotional, whatever.

Why is whether the fetus has a mind like ours more to the point? As I said, full-term babies don't have anything close to that. What's the point, then? And I still don't see why pain should be the point either. It may well be one relevant point among others, and it would make sense to explain that any seeming signs of pain probably aren't in any way conscious except in late-term abortions. But that wouldn't remove the point of showing the woman the fetus.

Too much is being made of the "squirming" quote from the article.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 2, 2007 7:06:00 PM

Neil, why is pain the important point here? You also mention a mind like ours, something full-term babies are very far from having.

Sanpete,

It's the same ol' game of "Let's-redefine-the-standards-so-we-get-what-we-want" technique. This is the same technique used to redefine "racism" so that blacks cannot be racist or the redefinition of marriage so homosexuals can be mainstreamed. Even "terroroism" has been redefined in the liberal circles to include the legitimate armed forces of the US.

In this instance, the definition of valued life has been redefined to only include those who feel pain. If it were discovered that all in the first trimester felt pain, they would move the bar higher demanding some other standard that they believe couldn't be met.

The real fact is, if not for the intervention of an abortionist, this living thing will most likely be a person in just a short time. It's not the feeling of pain, but the potential for a human that gives the fetus value.
If we followed the left's new definition, we would immediately elimiate all of the people in comas. They can't feel pain and don't have a mind like ours.

We don't.

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 2, 2007 7:13:52 PM

Neil-

The neural hardware for pain perception only starts to show up around week 23, and isn't in place until week 30 of the pregnancy.

I was born during the 29th week of my mother's pregnancy(in 1964).

But, I see your point about the connection between the 'perception of pain' and 'humanity'-- It's a lot easier to kill grandma for her money if you convince yourself she won't really feel it...

Posted by: fletch | May 2, 2007 7:17:12 PM

My bottom line for any medical procedure is informed consent by the patient, and only the patient (if they are mentally capable of decision making).

The SCOTUS decision recently seems to suggest that women are not capable of informed consent in the situation of abortion, which seems way past either the bounds of legislation or judicial ruling.

The question above about whether ultrasound as a prerequisite procedure to abortion seems to me to revolve around whether in any medical/moral sense it improves the degree of informed consent - or whether it is just a made-up barrier to the exercise of the patients control of their body. I haven't heard, yet, if there is any strong and generally agreed upon medical argument in favor of ultrasound as improving informed consent, so my inclination is to view this idea as just a barrier that would be erected to prevent abortion for some religious/moral/political reason not related to the patient's degree of informed consent, whether this is paternal or maternal is immaterial.

There seems to be no limit on the outrages that the religious right and other so-called moral philosophers will go in trying to control other's actions. Will they decree next that only missionary-position intercourse is legal, and require that all sex acts be video recorded so the moral police can review them?


Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 2, 2007 7:22:48 PM

"My bottom line for any medical procedure is informed consent by the patient, and only the patient (if they are mentally capable of decision making)."

Hear,hear.

"What is significant is whether the fetus has a mind like ours."

Not significant to me as a voter. Not significant to legislatures or Justices. As significant to the woman & her doctor as she likes or needs.

I don't care if the thingy recites the Declaration and sings "Strange Fruit" It ain't my body it is in.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 2, 2007 7:32:54 PM

The SCOTUS decision recently seems to suggest that women are not capable of informed consent in the situation of abortion, which seems way past either the bounds of legislation or judicial ruling.

The decision actually doesn't suggest that, though (unless parts are taken out of context).

I don't think ultra-sounds are intended as barriers, just as invitations to bond with the fetus so as to prevent some abortions that way. Neil sees that as perhaps not a good thing, in that people don't know how to interpret the images, but much the same is true with infants, who may seem to have a very different interior life than they actually have. I think it's hard to decide whether it's a good idea in isolation from other points about abortion. As bob illustrates in his own chilling way.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 2, 2007 7:41:01 PM

I don't think ultra-sounds are intended as barriers, just as invitations to bond with the fetus so as to prevent some abortions that way.

Which is seriously fucked up, because (a) the govt shouldn't be trying to prevent abortions and (b) a fetus isn't something you can bond with except in the imaginary, unilateral way you can bond with a teddy bear.

Posted by: Jason | May 2, 2007 7:48:18 PM

Ok, here's what we do. For one year, every woman who was planning to have an abortion (for any reason - inconvenience, too many kids already, birth defects, rape, whatever) should carry to term and deliver the babies.
Then all of the unwanted babies should be dropped off at the local police/fire station/hospital - most states have laws to allow this with no repercussions on the woman.
After a year, local taxpayers, including wingnut AmTaliban will run screaming to their legislators to fix this problem. Abortion would become a part of universal healthcare in the US.

No woman should be forced to raise unwanted children. That is the objective of the anti-choice forces. It's not about the babies, it's about controlling and punishing women for their choices.

Posted by: CParis | May 2, 2007 7:49:52 PM

STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT.

this whole trope about "the point is whether it has a mind like ours or not" is just so much bullshitting about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

it is a RED HERRING. it is like asking "when does life begin?"

IT DOES NOT BEGIN ANYWHERE, LIFE IS AN UNBROKEN FUCKING CHAIN.

also, THAT DOESNT MATTER A RUSTY GODDAMN.

the fetus could be able to dance a jig and take courses on theoretical motherfucking astrophysics while in the womb, for all i fucking care. it just DOES. NOT. MATTER.

what matters is whether the mother decides to carry it to term or not. it is her decision and hers alone.

before we had medical abortions, there were cultural practices (like the concept of "quickening") which gave mothers (and fathers) religio-cultural leeway to commit infanticide. they still do this in less developed countries. as long as there are unwanted pregnancies there will be abortions and infanticide, which is to say, always and forever.

all the nattering about when life begins, or how similar a developing fetus' brain is to an adult's is completely beside the point. treating these questions as though they are in any way germane to anything other than one's religious views is a legitimization of the anti-abortion crowd's rhetoric, and its goddamn annoying to hear it from someone otherwise so seemingly sensible, ezra.

Posted by: rigel | May 2, 2007 8:17:17 PM

sorry, i meant neil. missed the byline.

Posted by: rigel | May 2, 2007 8:19:51 PM

Rigel - you're right that these issues are ultimately irrelevant, as abortion rights should be guaranteed regardless.

There's nothing inherently wrong, however, with attacking more than one premise in an opponent's argument. If the anti-choicers argue A, B, C, therefore D, it makes sense to argue in response: not A, but even if A, not B, and even if B, not C.

I agree that it's possible to give a particular premise more attention than is prudent, though.

Also, this was Neil's post, not Ezra's.

Posted by: Jason | May 2, 2007 8:24:06 PM

Sorry, I had to dash off to an appointment as soon as I finished writing this.

aimai, 'paternalism' as I'm using it here doesn't have any father- or mother-related meanings. It just means that the government is putting restrictions on you for your own good.

I've looked at this stuff in the context of figuring out how much of a vegetarian to be, and scientists seem to differ on whether fish can have the subjective experience of pain (given their brain structure). So I'm guessing that hermit crabs and worms can't. Sure, lots of creatures can display the behavior that humans do when humans are in pain, but I don't take that as a sign that the creatures can actually feel pain. Neurobiology is really our best way of knowing here.

Sanpete, I use pain as an example because we have clear-cut neuroscientific data on it. It's also a very basic mental phenomenon, and pointing out that a fetus doesn't even have it is a good way of making the general point that its mental structure is so rudimentary that you probably shouldn't attribute any sort of rich mental life to it. I think the 'individual living thing' point doesn't do much work here, as just saying says.

Rigel, I'm willing to impose lots of sacrifices on people in order to advance the general good or to save innocent lives. That's why I support progressive taxation and some applications of eminent domain. If fetuses really had minds like adult humans, this would give me some really strange policy decisions to make. As Jason points out, I'm trying to show that we all have an easy way out of those decisions, since we don't have to worry so much about the fetus.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | May 2, 2007 8:49:18 PM

(ack, I mishandle Jason's point there, but this post is licensed for use in the manner he describes)

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | May 2, 2007 8:53:27 PM

What is significant is whether the fetus has a mind like ours. If it has no mind, or a mind of such a primitive level that it can't even feel pain, there's no reason to have attitudes of moral concern for it.

Well, that's your position but I don't see any more reason to accept it than the position that the fetus is human from the moment of conception.

Why should the capacity to feel pain be the demarcation between something we feel a moral obligation to and something we don't? I think it's a reasonable position, but given that it's inherently a moral question, it's a bit ridiculous to simply assert that it's the significant issue.

Posted by: TW Andrews | May 2, 2007 9:18:20 PM

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