"The world would not be a darker or poorer place without me."
August 15, 2012 9:22 AM   Subscribe

"I make even my most ardent pro-choice friends and colleagues very uncomfortable when I explain why my mother should have aborted me."
posted by John Cohen (182 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
The author rightly points out that when pro-lifers frame the argument as "I (or these people) wouldn't be alive if abortion had been legal at such a time", it's emotional blackmail. But then she uses the same framing to say she wishes her mother had aborted her? Seems ... odd.

To see why the argument is invalid, try applying it to other things that conceivably might be legal and can lead to procreation. "When my mother was born, rape of 14 year old girls wasn't illegal. My mother was born as a result of underage rape. Thus it shouldn't be illegal". I guess most people wouldn't agree with that.
posted by iotic at 9:31 AM on August 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


I never understood the argument anti-choice folks have when they assume all people believe they would be worse off if they hadn't been born.

I'm glad she wrote this article. The comments really bring the reality of children born into terrible situations.
posted by discopolo at 9:32 AM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


iotic: " But then she uses the same framing to say she wishes her mother had aborted her?"

Huh? I didn't get that impression at all.
posted by schmod at 9:33 AM on August 15, 2012 [9 favorites]


However, Dalbey claims to have recovered a memory of being "delivered" from the abortion because as a fetus he cried out to God.

Aaah barfing everywhere
posted by theodolite at 9:35 AM on August 15, 2012 [120 favorites]


Interesting article. My birth probably kept my mother in an abusive marriage for a few years longer, and my father certainly didn't want me to be born. I can't say that keeping the pregnancy was the right choice for my mother.

Even if it were the right choice, it should be absolutely a choice. Forcing someone to carry an unwanted pregnancy is morally abhorrent.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:35 AM on August 15, 2012 [22 favorites]


"Remember, I didn't exactly ask to be born..."

^^^ me to my mother, every time she gives me a hard time about what I'm doing with my life.
posted by hermitosis at 9:36 AM on August 15, 2012 [14 favorites]


That is just incredibly sad.
posted by gagglezoomer at 9:37 AM on August 15, 2012


I salute the author's willingness to make argue a controversial position based upon difficult life experience. In the odd, highly-charged realm of abortion discussions, I think it's important and challenging to listen with open hearts and minds to what others have to say--people like to retreat to platitudes and political slogans.

While I am pro-choice, I take what is considered by many who also self-define as such as a controversial position myself, against doctors advocating eugenic abortion. While I believe in bodily autonomy and the right to make one's own choices, the amount of medical attention and funding focused on detecting "birth defects" like my own intersexuality, and then "preventing" them via scheduling an abortion for the otherwise happily pregnant mother feels deeply wrong to me. Of course, the mother does not need to keep the appointment, but this practice puts the weight of medical authority behind the idea that there are classes of people who would be better off never being born to loving parents.

May we all listen respectfully.
posted by DrMew at 9:39 AM on August 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


Ah, proofreading fail, forgive the extraneous "make."
posted by DrMew at 9:40 AM on August 15, 2012


i mostly just want to hug this woman.

i could have easily have been an abortion but i think the small town my mother was living in just didn't have that option available to her. if i would have been her friend, i may have suggested she get one. she was with an awful abusive man and ended up having to give me away to my grandparents because she feared for my safety. and my grandmother was an awful woman who at least didn't beat me, but wasn't that was a monster in her own way.

but i am completely pro-choice. my mother should have every right to make that choice (she did technically, it was 1978) but i mean that it SHOULD be a choice. i don't wish she had, but i understand why she would have. and i would rather that if she had, it was a clean, safe place.

that this woman can write so eloquently about this is amazing. it's hard to come to terms with a terrifying childhood and i'm guessing she's had to go through a lot to be able to be as self-reflective as she is.
posted by sio42 at 9:40 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


She is right, and hella brave for saying so. That's fucking tough.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:42 AM on August 15, 2012 [16 favorites]


Um, I'm pretty sure people aren't scheduling abortions for birth defects unless the patient requests them. So not exactly "happily pregnant".
posted by tavella at 9:44 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


And Brendan O'Neill of Spiked takes exception, as would be expected.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:44 AM on August 15, 2012


If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence? or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood.

- Schopenhauer
posted by edguardo at 9:45 AM on August 15, 2012 [23 favorites]


The world would not be a darker or poorer place without me. Actually, in terms of contributions to the world, I am a net loss. Everything that I have done – including parenting, teaching, researching, and being a loving partner – could have been done as well, if not better by other people.

I don't doubt her sincerity, but I'm guessing her children and husband would disagree with the above.
posted by BurntHombre at 9:46 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't know Brendan from Spiked, but that is a terribly stupid response that willfully misrepresents the original piece. Gross.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:47 AM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


Any positive contributions that I have made are completely offset by what it has cost society to help me overcome the disadvantages and injuries of my childhood to become a functional and contributing member of society.

I'm extremely pro-choice, but I really don't like this. I don't like the fact that this seems to insinuate that anyone who overcomes extreme poverty is, at the very most, only "balancing" society out, socioeconomically.

In a way, this strikes me as classist.
posted by lobbyist at 9:48 AM on August 15, 2012 [18 favorites]


I love this essay.

(I have related feelings about my own parents, who had five children in 10 years, my mom had babies and toddlers and pre-schoolers for 14-15 years straight.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:50 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


"as a fetus he cried out to God"

Best line in the piece, and also explains why, for so many anti-choice supporters, this simply is not an argument that can be had on rational grounds.

But it's really hard to be rational about babies, even if you don't have religious inclinations. It's equally difficult to understand why not being born isn't actually a problem that any alive person has to worry about, since we haven't invented time machines yet.

Because rationally, if you can dispense with all the emotional and spiritual baggage there really are many instances where abortion is the better choice. For everyone. Doesn't make it any less emotionally difficult. But the choice should be there, and there should be competent doctors available to help with that choice.

this practice puts the weight of medical authority behind the idea that there are classes of people who would be better off never being born to loving parents.

...or maybe it promotes the idea that there is a right time and a wrong time to have children, and people (especially women) should know and understand that they have the right to choose that for themselves?

Also, I'm not comfortable with defect-driven abortions either, but it simply is none of our business. Having been involved with a potential defect-birth, I can also confirm that our OB/GYN merely informed us of the option, but never recommended abortion. It was always my wife's choice to make.

I'm also not comfortable with binge drinking but I don't think we should ban the sale of alcohol.

If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence? or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood.

Sure, that's a fine quote, but it's a bit of a red herring, eh? Humans are not pure reasoning machines, we'll pretty much never be in danger of this happening. So...you weren't actually trying to say that abortion discussions should not be based on reason, right?
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:50 AM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Having an abortion or not is a road-not-travelled decision for a woman. It takes your life in so much of a different direction, it is almost meaningless to say "my mom should have had an abortion."

I mean, yeah, she could have done all those things. But she might not have.

You can't really rationalize decisions like this based on what could have happened. You can fast-forward or rewind a life. A decision is a decision and we will never know the true cost of any of them.

A woman should have the rights to make a decision about what goes on in her uterus regardless of any imaginary life she or her unborn child might have had.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:50 AM on August 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


s/can fast-forward a life/can't fast-forward a life/
posted by clvrmnky at 9:51 AM on August 15, 2012


Aaah barfing everywhere

Indeed. As though every other aborted fetus is at fault for their own 'death' for failing to cry out to god.

Regarding the article: Part of the problem is that anti-choice people often seem to be extreme natalists. That is, they seem to believe that being born is such an incredible inherent good that it outweighs every possible bad effect that the conception, pregnancy, and birth, and life have on both the mother and the child. Under that view, forcing a women to carry a pregnancy to term is a net moral good.

Unfortunately, such anti-choice people don't seem to consider that under that view impregnating a woman by rape would also be a net moral good. Whatever makes more precious babies, right?

Disclosure: I am an anti-natalist.
posted by jedicus at 9:54 AM on August 15, 2012 [18 favorites]


And Brendan O'Neill of Spiked takes exception, as would be expected.
The guy has been little better than a troll for some years now. Best to ignore him unless you're interested in what a "professional contrarian" thinks.
posted by Jehan at 9:58 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


But no one should have to make such a Herculean struggle for simple normalcy.

This, a thousand times. While I was lucky enough to be born in to a family that was stable, well-prepared for life, and loving, I get what the author is saying. No one should have to struggle so hard, so diligently to get to the level playing field. By forcing her mother to have a child, not only was the child severely disadvantaged but the mother was reduced as well. Two lives were made more difficult, more traumatic, and much, much more likely to suffer all because someone else decided what this young woman could do with her body.

At some point, as a civilization, we need to acknowledge that parenthood and bringing a child into the world is not always a positive thing. For every success story that pulls herself out of soul-crushing poverty and abuse, there are thousands that do not. Giving all women the opportunity and education to fully control their reproductive health will not completely break the endless cycle of poverty, but it could go a long way to slowing it down.
posted by teleri025 at 9:59 AM on August 15, 2012 [27 favorites]


Dr.Mew, have you heard of bilataral renal agensis?

I prefer not to judge people making a difficult decision and when, really, in situations when no decision is going to be a good one, we just have to settle for people making the best one they can for themselves.
posted by zizzle at 10:00 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


To me thinking about how I would feel if my mother aborted me is kind of like thinking about how I would feel if my mother had never had sex with my father in the first place, had married someone else or become a nun or just decided not to have kids. I guess I would regret it since I wouldn't exist, but in no case would it be a situation where she 'killed' me -- I didn't exist as a person yet in any of those configurations. The fetus-'me' wasn't a person, wasn't really me as I think about me today.
posted by zipadee at 10:00 AM on August 15, 2012 [14 favorites]


On her website Kiessling says that every time we say abortion should be allowed, at least in the case of rape or incest, we are saying to her: "If I had my way, you'd be dead right now."

This has got to be the most ridiculously narcissistic anti-choice argument I have ever heard. It comes from a bizarro world where the US is divided between pro-lifers and Rebecca Kiessling haters.
posted by snofoam at 10:00 AM on August 15, 2012 [21 favorites]


"When my mother was born, rape of 14 year old girls wasn't illegal. My mother was born as a result of underage rape. Thus it shouldn't be illegal".

You're missing at least one (of an odd number of) Boolean inversion operators there.
posted by smcdow at 10:04 AM on August 15, 2012


This has got to be the most ridiculously narcissistic anti-choice argument I have ever heard. It comes from a bizarro world where the US is divided between pro-lifers and Rebecca Kiessling haters.

Agreed. Which is why I -- and hopefully lots of others will do the same -- emailed her the Guardian article.

People shouldn't be allowed to be this fucking ignorant.
posted by lobbyist at 10:04 AM on August 15, 2012


Aye, she's not saying she as she is now wishes she was dead. She's saying had she (it?) been aborted prior to birth her mothers life would likely have been much less of a struggle. That said arguing about possible futures based on changes in past events is just scifi. What if Hitler had been aborted? What if Nigel The Terrible, Tormentor of All hadn't been aborted in a in 1971. The anti choice gang never mention the hugh swaths of potential criminals, paedophiles, incorrect denomination Christians, Muslims and indeed abortion doctors who have been aborted. Abortion is Gods way of culling the non-believers.
posted by Damienmce at 10:07 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I know someone who spent most of his childhood getting the message "you ruined my life" from his mother. I was around when his mother got pregnant (at 19) and her mother related to me, in horror, that the OB/GYN had raised the option of an abortion, in a country where abortion is not legal but is available to those with more resources.

Growing up believing you ruined your mother's life is a terrible burden to bear. The scars are deep.
posted by ambrosia at 10:07 AM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


"[the availability of abortion to terminate pregnancies with birth defects] puts the weight of medical authority behind the idea that there are classes of people who would be better off never being born to loving parents."

I do believe that there are classes of people who would be better off never being born to loving parents. Anencephalic babies are the most extreme class I can think of.

Having lost an infant, myself, I have intimate experience with the torment and lasting trauma of that experience, at least as I experienced it. I believe that anyone gestating a fetus that has no chance of long-term survival should be given that knowledge and the opportunity act on it.

I'd go farther than that and say that expectant parents should be given all the knowledge available to make their own decisions about whether to carry a fetus to term. The decision about whether to go through a potentially life-crushing experience should be the parents' alone.
posted by gurple at 10:08 AM on August 15, 2012 [15 favorites]


Hoo boy. I'll go on the record and say I've felt this way about my mother and abortion for at least 20 years. Her life would have been much better without me, and my life with her certainly sucked.

So much of this problem has to do with education in general, sex education specifically, parenting support to help prevent assaults on children, systems that constructively help new mothers without constantly bullhorning that they need to get better at bootstrapping their way out of unstable and dangerous situations. A whole bunch of other liberal things that keep showing up as observably good for society but that rift wing but jobs scream about as taking away personal liberty.

And also better access to safe abortions. Knowing its out there is one thing. Wanting an abortion (ahem, choosing) is all well and good until the only clinic in two states away and hamstrung by laws that require waiting periods.
posted by tulip-socks at 10:09 AM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


To me thinking about how I would feel if my mother aborted me is kind of like thinking about how I would feel if my mother had never had sex with my father in the first place, had married someone else or become a nun or just decided not to have kids. I guess I would regret it since I wouldn't exist, but in no case would it be a situation where she 'killed' me -- I didn't exist as a person yet in any of those configurations. The fetus-'me' wasn't a person, wasn't really me as I think about me today.
That's the thing. My mother is against abortion for herself (she would never have one, but respects other folk's right to choose), but had an IUD fitted before I was conceived. My parents had too many kids, too little money, and she was finding childbearing increasingly hard. I guess I'm lucky to be among the x% which gets through, but it doesn't take away from the fact that she made absolutely the right choice for her at the time. I don't quite get why abortion, moreso in the early months, is any different from preventing conception in the first place.
posted by Jehan at 10:09 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Would people find it as uncomfortable if the mother had knowingly conceived, and the author had written, "My mother never should have decided to have a child."? That strikes me as less problematic.

Many arguments against abortion also imply that celibacy is wrong; the reasoning applies here too.

Very interesting article.
posted by painquale at 10:11 AM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


It seems to me that the children of the poor, mentally ill/disabled, and disadvantaged tend to have the worst or most difficult childhoods.

So the accusation that this is a classist article is one I think we should take seriously, because what this might amount to is an argument that only healthy and wealthy people should have children.

It's one thing to say "birth is a tragedy" and make an anti-natalist argument against all reproduction, but quite another thing to say "being born into certain families is a tragedy".

I think this falls into the latter category, and that smells to me suspiciously of Malthus and social Darwinism.

As such, I don't think the pro-choice argument should be leaning too heavily on this kind of conditional anti-natalism. I don't think the goal of the pro-choice movement is to promote abortion among the disadvantaged while encouraging reproduction among the privileged, but I think making the argument based on material conditions and family environment has exactly that effect.
posted by edguardo at 10:11 AM on August 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


"The world would not be a darker or poorer place without me."

Yes it would.
posted by resurrexit at 10:12 AM on August 15, 2012


Good for her.
Everything that I have done – including parenting, teaching, researching, and being a loving partner – could have been done as well, if not better by other people.
Maybe the thing that makes people uncomfortable is knowing that, ultimately, each of us, beyond our small circle, is insignificant. There's nothing wrong with being insignificant in the grand scheme (not that there is a scheme in the first place).
posted by klanawa at 10:15 AM on August 15, 2012 [9 favorites]


"The world would not be a darker or poorer place without me."

Yes it would.


The problem with universalizing this sentiment is that it implies that you're making the world a darker and poorer place every moment that you aren't actively trying to reproduce.
posted by painquale at 10:16 AM on August 15, 2012 [23 favorites]


Interesting.
posted by agregoli at 10:18 AM on August 15, 2012


It's one thing to say "birth is a tragedy" and make an anti-natalist argument against all reproduction, but quite another thing to say "being born into certain families is a tragedy".

I think this author fairly carefully doesn't do that. I think this author fairly clearly says "I believe my birth to my mother, in my mother's situation, was a tragedy."

The author isn't arguing that her mother should have been forced or coerced to have an abortion. She's expressing the opinion that she should have, and that she should have had abortion available to her as a realistic and acceptable option.
posted by gurple at 10:18 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yes it would.

I think you're misunderstanding the argument. This world would be impoverished by her death, certainly, but it is at least reasonable to argue that another possible world in which she had not been born would likely be a happier one. I'm think the case is rather overstated here, because counterfactual history seems to me like a bit of a mug's game, but certainly the contention that the possible world with her in is necessarily better than the one without her is hard to justify, and in this case probably hard to justify than her own claim.
posted by howfar at 10:20 AM on August 15, 2012


I don't quite get why abortion, moreso in the early months, is any different from preventing conception in the first place.

Beware, blunt (but hopefully not offensive) language ahead.

People like to draw lines.

For some the line is conception, for some it's a heartbeat, for some it's brain activity, for some it's ejection from the womb, for some it's a baseline of brain power AND ejection from the womb.

Flip your confusion around and think about death. Do you still hold the same views about end of life as you view start of life? Is someone dead when they're not breathing or if their heart stops? Maybe some or all of the brain activity has to be stopped? Maybe hair / fingernails should be used as an indicator?

Maybe there's a viability factor that eventually turns abortion from acceptable into murder, certainly one couldn't terminate their six year old child and call it abortion. Or maybe they could if the six year old was mentally handicapped to the point of a no-return coma?

Please don't think I'm calling anyone's viewpoint out as wrong, I'm just saying that if you want to defend a logical viewpoint on one end of the spectrum of life then you really should be prepared to think about the other end of the spectrum as well. Consistency is key. Some people tend to err on the bright line in the sand aspect of things and label conception as the line where life begins (and thus the termination of that life is deemed murder).

/devil's advocate

Anyway, ss that view/stance overly simplistic and hazardous? Certainly. Unexpected or hard to understand? Not to me.

Just so everyone knows, I'm firmly pro-choice and wanted to tell jedicus thanks for teaching me about the vocabulary word that helps describe my view a bit.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:22 AM on August 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


I am ardently pro-choice, and this article only made me uncomfortable in the "this sounds like an 'enlightened' college student still in their Ayn-Rand-let's-shock-people-with-my-out-there-statements" way.

Of course there are millions of women for whom their children could say her life would have objectively been easier without raising them. This can be voiced without the "I'm not so important in the world" dreck, which kind of invites pro-lifers to say "see, they don't care about the POTENTIAL of the innocent babies, but we do!"
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:23 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's one thing to say "birth is a tragedy" and make an anti-natalist argument against all reproduction, but quite another thing to say "being born into certain families is a tragedy".

I think this author fairly carefully doesn't do that. I think this author fairly clearly says "I believe my birth to my mother, in my mother's situation, was a tragedy."

The author isn't arguing that her mother should have been forced or coerced to have an abortion. She's expressing the opinion that she should have, and that she should have had abortion available to her as a realistic and acceptable option.


I think you're right. But I can also see how the essay would allow for the easy creation of the type of strawman that edguardo describes.
posted by asnider at 10:24 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


However, Dalbey claims to have recovered a memory of being "delivered" from the abortion because as a fetus he cried out to God.

GET IT, GET IT, I SAID 'DELIVERED' DO YOU GET IT
posted by shakespeherian at 10:28 AM on August 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


You just made me spit coffee all over my keyboard.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:29 AM on August 15, 2012


the amount of medical attention and funding focused on detecting "birth defects" like my own intersexuality, and then "preventing" them via scheduling an abortion for the otherwise happily pregnant mother feels deeply wrong to me.

It's unclear whether you are condemning abortion for intersexuality or prenatal genetic testing for birth defects in general. I was unable to find statistics on elective abortion for intersexuality genes, so can't comment on that, but there are birth defects that do condemn the carrier to a life that is brutish and short, or sometimes long and painful. Parents at risk for such births should absolutely be encouraged to have testing done.

A dear colleague of mine and his wife, long before genetic testing could be done, had three children all of whom ended up institutionalized for their lives, living in one case for fifty years, without the ability to comprehend their surroundings much less move around and communicate with others. This was agonizing for their parents (and probably for them) in a way I am unable to even comprehend.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:29 AM on August 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


It's one thing to say "birth is a tragedy" and make an anti-natalist argument against all reproduction, but quite another thing to say "being born into certain families is a tragedy".


Sadly though, being born into certain families is a tragedy. It isn't limited to poor families or any specific group, but some families do have a history of dysfunction at such a basic level that it is excessively difficult to break the cycle. And I think it's unfair to insist that someone continue to perpetuate such a cycle if they choose not to. I also think that the key here is not abortion, but rather education. Education of young people that having children is a complex and profound thing, how one actually gets pregnant, how to reliably prevent pregnancy, how to evaluate one's situation and determine what options are truly available.

I can think of a family that I grew up with that was incredibly wealthy and, on paper, seemed well-adjusted. However, every generation was abused at such a basic level by their parents that they honestly and completely did not see the abuse. The daughter, who was my age, began to see that one didn't really have to live this way and she sought opportunities to leave her family behind. If she had gotten pregnant as a young woman, before she went to college and established herself as an independent adult, she would have been forced to raise the child in that horrible but wealthy environment. As it was, she was fortunate enough to see the abuse and not replicate it in her life. She's content and has a lovely daughter now that she adores and is doing everything in her power to keep the horrible cycle of family violence at bay. But she was only able to because she had the opportunity to control when and where she had her child.
posted by teleri025 at 10:31 AM on August 15, 2012 [16 favorites]


I personally think it's best that women have the right to choose an abortion or not for whatever reason they wish, full stop. Just so that's clear.

So what makes me uncomfortable about this, and perhaps I'm reading too much into it, is the idea that her mother's really bad situation somehow morally obligated her to have an abortion ("she should have aborted me") and by not having an abortion, she committed some kind of moral wrong.

I don't think I'm just imagining that into the article, but please do rein me in if I am.
posted by edguardo at 10:33 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


A couple of years ago, during a visit home, my mother handed me the letter from my birthmother that she's had for thirty years and forgotten about completely. I've never been all that sentimental about the circumstances of my adoption nor have I ever had the desire to find my birthmother, but it was surreal to read this carefully-handwritten note by a teenager to the baby she'd never know, explaining, with blunt honesty, her decision not to abort and also not to keep it.

So yeah, I know explicitly that I am one of those babies who might very well have been aborted. I also respect that it was a choice, a carefully considered one, and I don't have any problem with the idea that it might have gone the other way.

I am also sort of pleased to know that I come by my bullheaded stubbornness the very old-fashioned way.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:35 AM on August 15, 2012 [10 favorites]


On her website Kiessling says that every time we say abortion should be allowed, at least in the case of rape or incest, we are saying to her: "If I had my way, you'd be dead right now."

This has got to be the most ridiculously narcissistic anti-choice argument I have ever heard.


Yes. It drives me crazy to hear someone who was, say, adopted, saying that because their mother could have aborted them and didn't that there shouldn't be adoption. Sure, I'm glad you're here, but the fact that you feel relieved to exist doesn't mean that every woman should be forced to make the same choice your mother did. Get over yourself.
posted by orange swan at 10:35 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


"shouldn't be abortion", that is.
posted by orange swan at 10:36 AM on August 15, 2012


...because counterfactual history seems to me like a bit of a mug's game...

But it's all the radical anti-abortion people have!
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:41 AM on August 15, 2012


I was expecting the pro-choice argument from Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons that he drew from Buddhism.

To summarize his position: Identity of all persons is dependent on their conditions. Following that, identity of future persons is dependent on future conditions. Ok. Therefore, any change of future conditions have no effect on future persons, instead different future persons exist instead. Hm. If you were born three years later, that would not be you. The conditions which generate your identity would be different, and therefore not identical to you as you would be three years earlier. Being born three years early is not contingent but instead a necessary aspect to your identity. If anything is contingent it is your very existence. Now let us get to the meat. Whatever you subtract from the future, the future never had to begin with. What future persons have or do not have (such as their very birth, or a planet with a breathable atmosphere) will be what they always had or did not have. Again, as conditions have changed, those identities have also changed. The future persons which would "have" are entirely different than the future persons which "have not." Concluding from this you cannot harm the future, you can only change the conditions but neither for better or worse. Those persons that would have been benefited or harmed no longer exist because the conditions in which they would have existed are no longer the same, and following that, the persons have changed. Tying it back, abortion neither injures nor benefits anyone, as those who could have been helped or harmed will never have existed. Those persons which will now never exist would not have ever existed, and as the number of non-existing people number in the infinite the matter is meaningless. In conclusion: neither child nor society can be helped or harmed by any birth or abortion. So go fuckin hog wild! woooooo

And that is why Parfit spent the rest of his career philosophically back pedaling.
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:42 AM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's none of her business. A woman's right to chose is a woman's right to chose.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:43 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that the children of the poor, mentally ill/disabled, and disadvantaged tend to have the worst or most difficult childhoods.

It also seems to me that poor, mentally ill/disabled, and disadvantaged women have the least access to safe, legal abortion (as well as birth control and sex education) and, therefore, have significantly less choice and reproductive freedom.

It is dumb to play the "what if" game, but what I do know is that when my mother, who had some or all of those obstacles facing her, plus a hopelessly alcoholic husband, plus two teen/preteen children, discovered at age 38 in 1961 that she was (definitely unintentionally) pregnant with me, she should have had the freedom to quietly eliminate the problem if that's what she chose to do.

It really has nothing at all to do with the kind of mother she turned out to be or the kind of lives I and my family have had. It just has to do with not being trapped by circumstances.
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:45 AM on August 15, 2012 [14 favorites]


So what makes me uncomfortable about this, and perhaps I'm reading too much into it, is the idea that her mother's really bad situation somehow morally obligated her to have an abortion ("she should have aborted me") and by not having an abortion, she committed some kind of moral wrong.

I don't think you're reading too much into it. I think that's exactly the uncomfortable situation the author wants her readers to experience. She's making a moral case for abortion in her specific case based on the harm it caused both her and her mother. She makes it clear that she loves her mother very much, but that her mother made a decision that incurred a great deal of suffering, for the mother and the daughter.

If the piece went on to say "all expectant mothers in this situation should feel obligated to have an abortion", it'd be a very different piece. It doesn't do that. The piece passes moral judgment on a single act, as an aggrieved party, something we all do many times throughout our lives. It makes the case that abortion can be the moral choice, which is, I think, a very important statement to make. Slippery slope is only as slippery as you make it.
posted by gurple at 10:46 AM on August 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


quite another thing to say "being born into certain families is a tragedy".

As someone who comes from a (somewhat) well-off background I can say that yes, from some points of view it is an absolute tragedy that I was born. I am quite happy with my life most days, but I have been suffering the effects of trauma and neglect for as long as I can remember being alive. I have physical problems that will never go away because of it and I am deathly afraid that I will continue the cycle with my own child. I think that's a fucking tragic thing, to take an innocent human being and immerse them in suffering from a very young age. That's what the author of the article is saying, not that she was poor or didn't have the nicest things.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:47 AM on August 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


The problem with universalizing this sentiment is that it implies that you're making the world a darker and poorer place every moment that you aren't actively trying to reproduce.

I see what you're saying, it implies that human life is inherently a good thing, and that, if we should always be striving to achieve good ends, then we should always be striving to reproduce.

But that's quite an immoderate position--there are many goods we don't pursue in such a manner--and so I don't "fear" it in the same way an ideologically pro-choice person does.
posted by resurrexit at 10:47 AM on August 15, 2012


How difficult to think that one's birth wrecked one's mother's life. Sadly, her Mom would likely have gotten pregnant again, even if she'd had an abortion. My Mom told me I was a. unplanned, and b. unwanted to the extent that only her Catholic faith kept her from having an abortion. Know what? I didn't need to hear that. Didn't ruin my life, but didn't make me feel very good, didn't help my relationship with Mom, but did explain why she wasn't a very engaged Mom.

Abortion should be safe and legal, and the writer's Mom should have gotten mental health care. One more reason health care reform is critical; people need care, and without it, the consequences are crummy, and then some.
posted by theora55 at 10:48 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


To me, pro-choice is based on the rights of the woman, so the future life of a hypothetical baby doesn't really factor into it for me. Arguments about the would-be baby's life don't seem relevant to me either way, or at the least they are very much secondary to the woman's rights. Maybe I am conveniently ignoring the "other side" of this equation, but it doesn't seem like much of a side to me and these arguments are largely theoretical.
posted by snofoam at 10:48 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


On the class issue, there's a subtle but exceedingly important line between "having kids, as a poor person, can be a huge burden,, therefore there we (as a people) should try to arrange it so poor people have fewer babies" and "having kids, as a poor person, can be a huge burden, so it makes sense to try to give poor women as much control as possible, including the choice to both have and not have children." The former is classist and borderline eugenicist. The latter is not.
posted by feckless at 10:50 AM on August 15, 2012 [25 favorites]


As a side note, that whole "fetus crying out to God" bit is yet another example of how the Good Men Project has turned into a hilarious parody of itself.
posted by asnider at 10:53 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


So what makes me uncomfortable about this, and perhaps I'm reading too much into it, is the idea that her mother's really bad situation somehow morally obligated her to have an abortion ("she should have aborted me") and by not having an abortion, she committed some kind of moral wrong.

I don't think I'm just imagining that into the article, but please do rein me in if I am.


I don't read it as her saying that the choice was between a moral right (abortion) and a moral wrong (keeping the child and becoming an unfit parent). I read it as her saying that it was a choice between a wiser path and an unwise one. Someone can show poor judgement without beiing in any way morally wrong.
posted by Azara at 11:01 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


In my view, this is a brave and thought-provoking article. Personally, I can relate to a lot of what is there. If abortion had been legal in 1938, my mother had never been born, and neither had I. But I wouldn't have noticed, would I? As a consequence, my mother is a broken and helplessly depressed alchoholic. My siblings and I are absolutely love-children, my mother's continuous and wrong attempts to create what she never had. Our childhood was a catastrophe of fighting, violence, changing stepfathers and base poverty. Luckily, each of us had outside mentors, saving us from our lives. But for each of us, there are ten who end up in prison, or if lucky, on welfare.
posted by mumimor at 11:04 AM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


The author rightly points out that when pro-lifers frame the argument as "I (or these people) wouldn't be alive if abortion had been legal at such a time", it's emotional blackmail.

Abortion involves the termination of some form of human life. You might still be pro-choice because there's really more than one important value at work in this topic: we accept death and risk of death for any number of reasons, perhaps reproductive and sexual freedom are among worthy ones (or even if you don't accept that they are, you might argue that the state is not the best arbiter here).

But making this concrete and recognizing that this means people -- people who either are or probably could have been as real as you are -- is not emotional blackmail, it's willingness to actually confront the topic.
posted by weston at 11:08 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


theodolite: "However, Dalbey claims to have recovered a memory of being "delivered" from the abortion because as a fetus he cried out to God.

Aaah barfing everywhere
"

Yes - I do believe that's what a fetus "crying out to god" would sound like...
posted by symbioid at 11:09 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


And Brendan O'Neill of Spiked takes exception, as would be expected.

Brendan O'Neill has never met a hard right position he cannot bravely stand behind.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:11 AM on August 15, 2012


Abortion involves the termination of some form of human life.

I don't think you can make that statement and try to apply it to other people's views/moral stances. Not unless you consider cutting your hair or masturbating as the termination of some form of human life as well.

Women's rights are a complicated issue. Society's oppression of the poor is a complicated issue. Heck for some birth control is a complicated issue. It should go without saying that abortion is a complicated issue.... including the definition of 'life'.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:11 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


"The world would not be a darker or poorer place without me."

Okay, I'm going to make this personal. For ME.

Yes, I've lived most of my life performing way below my potential, have accomplished about 2.5% of what I intended with my life (and based on heart-health assessments of the last 10 years am already outliving expectations, so not expecting much more) and objectively, my intentions weren't all that great for society at large (but honestly, I could've been a better late night host than Conan O'Brien... well, maybe Jimmy Kimmel). So I don't think I'd have been missed much (NOT intended to trigger 'but we love you, foopster' comments, because it probably wouldn't).

I was a difficult pregnancy for my mother, delivered Caesarian two weeks premature (which was a bigger deal in 1955), and my parents never had any more children, but they never made a big deal about it - at least where I could ever hear it. So a few less heroic efforts in the direction of making me possible and my mother might have had a greater influence on more children as a full-time teacher in the years she played full-time mother. No class issues, my parents were solid middle-to-upper-middle-class until my mother died and my father misinvested and ultimately outlived his retirement nest egg, leaving his last few years totally dependent on Social Security (Which leads to my opinion on the Social Safety Net, which is totally another thread).

Before I fully embraced atheism, my last unprovable belief was that human beings have a soul separate from our bodies, that did not join with its physical place until the vessel is ready for it, maybe some time before birth, maybe even after, but certainly NOT at the point of anything defined as 'inception'. This would've allowed me to assure the original author that, if she had never been born to that mother, she probably would've been born elsewhere, possibly under better circumstances (or not). This also left open for me a soft belief in reincarnation, (leading to a rather desensitizing belief that all those who 'died too soon' could always get another chance) and holding open the possibility that I myself could do better next time... But without any knowledge of my previous life(s), there was no telling if this was my 137th try, and like so many people who get 'past life regressions' and are told they had been Julius Caesar (yeah, sure), I could've been much more important in a previous life. Being born the same day James Dean died ultimately ruled out that belief, because I am NO rebel, with or without a cause.

So we live, we die, and some of us get to bother others of us with pretentious postings on MetaFilter, which is one reason I'm rather pleased that I happened to exist in this era.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:11 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Abortion involves the termination of some form of human life

No it doesn't.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:11 AM on August 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


Abortion involves the termination of some form of human life.
Nope
posted by Isadorady at 11:13 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I will never understand the narcissistic belief that one's life is so important and valuable, that it's "sad" to think the world would have moved on just fine without them, had a pregnancy with them been terminated. Women have immense value on their own - outside of being pregnant, and outside of being a mother.

I am (for the most part) happy with my life, and don't hate being alive. But I wish my mom had aborted her pregnancy with me.

Her stage 3 malignant melanoma was found in the delivery room. Pregnancy places an immense strain on a woman's body. It's entirely possible that her cancer progressed and worsened, because her body had been under the stress of pregnancy. Not that her pregnancy with me was unusually stressful, but pregnancy takes a major permanent toll on a woman.

Had she somehow found the cancer earlier or terminated the pregnancy and nurtured her own health, perhaps she wouldn't have gotten sick and subsequently died. Then she could have stayed around to help take care of the 3 children she already had, and been around to spend many more great years with her other loved ones.

During that time, my mother was a hell of a lot more important that I. I find it unconscionable to think that a any fetus (including my own time as a fetus) is more valuable than any woman.
posted by raztaj at 11:13 AM on August 15, 2012 [18 favorites]


So what makes me uncomfortable about this, and perhaps I'm reading too much into it, is the idea that her mother's really bad situation somehow morally obligated her to have an abortion ("she should have aborted me") and by not having an abortion, she committed some kind of moral wrong.

I don't think I'm just imagining that into the article, but please do rein me in if I am.
You are. What the author is actually doing is rationally looking at why it was better that her mother had undergone an abortion, looking at what happened to her and herself. She's not saying that her mother should've been forced to abort, rather that all things considered, it would've been better for her and perhaps for her daughter as well.

Which is different from the anti-abortion story, where abortion is being equalised with the murder of an actually existing person supposedly the "target" of abortion before their birth.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:18 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


One of the most disingenuous arguments of the anti-choice movement is "my mother would have aborted me, but I'm glad that I'm alive." A lot of women have abortions because they'd like to have children someday, but they're not ready yet. And since most American families have 3 kids or fewer, it's safe to say that once a woman reaches her "limit", she's not going to have more. So, if your mother only wanted 2 children and had an abortion before your or your sibling were born, then shouldn't you be glad she had that abortion? I'd imagine a lot of people -- including anti-choicers -- would be in this boat.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:18 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's none of her business.

I think it absolutely is her business to have an opinion about her own life. That can include having an opinion about other people who affected (or led to) her life. You wouldn't say it's none of her business to evaluate how well a certain teacher taught her, even if the teacher was tenured and thus had a legal right to teach the class.

Remember, she's not just talking about her mother's decision not to have an abortion. She's also saying her mother brutally abused her, "beating [her] viciously and often." It's all well and good to support a legal right to have an abortion, but that doesn't mean that parents have a right to engage in child abuse. Now, whether banning abortion would increase the amount of child abuse (and other kinds of suffering) in the world is a very controversial and sensitive question, but I think it should be OK to at least consider the question when discussing abortion.

I notice that several of the comments have said some variation on "I adamantly support a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, but I'm very uncomfortable with this article." Well, of course the article makes people uncomfortable. She specifically said she realizes that her position makes even her staunchly pro-choice friends "uncomfortable." I posted the link not because I wanted to help people feel contented, but because I found it worth reading and mulling over the author's reasoned argument about an important issue drawing on her life experiences. I totally respect those who take issue with parts of the article. But the fact that many people find the article disturbing might be a feature, not a bug.
posted by John Cohen at 11:22 AM on August 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


Abortion involves the termination of some form of human life

No it doesn't.

Abortion involves the termination of some form of human life.
Nope


I'm very much pro-choice, and I honestly think that is one of the more, to but it perhaps too bluntly, cowardly, philosophical cul de sacs that exist within the pro-choice camp.
posted by Snyder at 11:24 AM on August 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


Somehow they confuse the well-considered and rational: "The best choice for both my mother and me would have been abortion" with the infamous expression of depression and angst: "I wish I had never been born." The two are really very different things, and we must draw that distinction clearly.

Yes, excellent.

The world would not be a darker or poorer place without me. Actually, in terms of contributions to the world, I am a net loss. Everything that I have done – including parenting, teaching, researching, and being a loving partner – could have been done as well, if not better by other people. Any positive contributions that I have made are completely offset by what it has cost society to help me overcome the disadvantages and injuries of my childhood to become a functional and contributing member of society.

Not so much. I won't tl;dr, but I disagree. Biodiversity is an inherent positive.

I make even my most ardent pro-choice friends and colleagues very uncomfortable when I explain why my mother should have aborted me.

The reason people get upset is because while: "my mother should have aborted me" does not equal "I wish I'd never been born," there is a strong correlation there. The only person I've ever met who espoused the former ended up killing himself.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:25 AM on August 15, 2012


The problem with universalizing this sentiment is that it implies that you're making the world a darker and poorer place every moment that you aren't actively trying to reproduce.

I like this outlook because now I can be an antihero just by sleeping in on the weekend or eating a sandwich. What sort of villain could callously turn their back on mankind by reading about very large numbers on Wikipedia for fifteen minutes instead of frantically visiting dating websites? Who would dare watch a movie by themselves on a Tuesday night? Playing free cell on your phone? Have you no shred of decency?

It's rare to get the edgy, "making the world a darker and poorer place" effect for so little effort or investment.
posted by Copronymus at 11:30 AM on August 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


Considering that my father came from a quite wealthy family (his mother is still ridiculously wealthy) and my mother had the makings of a successful career before 4 kids, my dad's crappy behavior, and addictions for them both plunged us into poverty....I don't believe I'm making an argument that only the births of babies to poor women can be tragic. Sure, she was born poor, but had studied hard and gotten a solid degree in nursing. Bootstraps, etc. But she was not equipped to adequately care for children.

The number one risk factor for enduring poverty? Being a woman. Childbearing significantly increases the odds, no matter where you start.
posted by tulip-socks at 11:31 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't think you can make that statement and try to apply it to other people's views/moral stances. Not unless you consider cutting your hair or masturbating as the termination of some form of human life as well.

There's a lot of worthwhile discussion to be had around the subtlety introduced from the continuum pregnancy presents. Less so with an objection based on the idea that it's difficult to draw a distinction between a fertilized egg and single gamete or even a piece of hair.
posted by weston at 11:32 AM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


This is intellectually correct but she deftly explains why this sort of argument is a straight-up rhetorical loser and then concretely demonstrates it. "My existence made someone else's existence objectively worse and I am a net loss for the world" will never do anything but make people feel bad and make them want to protest because the value of an individual's theoretical nonexistance is like next-level koan metaphysics where as the value of a non-theoretical individual's actual existence is as concrete as it gets and the friendly liberal such as myself has a knee-jerk compulsion to defend it.

I do appreciate the author making me aware that the Good Men Project, a thing I had no particular opinion of up to now, is making editorial decisions that put it well beyond ridicule and firmly into shunning territory.
posted by nanojath at 11:32 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm very much pro-choice, and I honestly think that is one of the more, to but it perhaps too bluntly, cowardly, philosophical cul de sacs that exist within the pro-choice camp.

Yep. A fetus at 20 weeks looks an awful lot like a human, and to be honest, might be viable outside the womb. (Is a viable fetus in the womb a human?)

I had a (famous) human sexuality teacher who started with a baby and went backwards through gestation (40 week fetus, 30 week fetus, etc.) and asked the class to raise their hands each time

Somewhere around 5-6 weeks he swapped the pictures with mice fetuses, fully embarrassing all the religious folks who said they were all human, of course.

I also think there is a fair among of delusion and deception around the "a fetus is not a baby" defense.

There's a lot of worthwhile discussion to be had around the subtlety introduced from the continuum pregnancy presents. Less so with an objection based on the idea that it's difficult to draw a distinction between a fertilized egg and single gamete or even a piece of hair.

Exactly.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:33 AM on August 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


... raise their hands each time the picture was of a "human."
posted by mrgrimm at 11:34 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thank you, Afroblanco, for using the term "anti-choice" instead of "pro-life." I hate that artificial divide that's been created, that whole perspective that: "If you're pro-choice you're anti-life." Turning it on it's head, saying, "If you're not pro-life, you're anti-choice," is something that needs to happen more often in these debates.
posted by asnider at 11:34 AM on August 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


because as a fetus he cried out to God.

"Hello, God? It's me, Fetus."
posted by octobersurprise at 11:36 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Less so with an objection based on the idea that it's difficult to draw a distinction between a fertilized egg and single gamete or even a piece of hair.

Of course, but the thing is the pro-choice side of things faces these exact arguements and I'm of the mindset that dealing with them is pretty important. I guess I'm just with Snyder insofar as I see people saying "My view is that it does/doesn't involve life" without taking the belief of the person sitting across the table (no matter how illogical their view is) as missing the chance to make/clarify the talking points and perhaps head off a very frustrating/dead end discussion.

Honestly I wasn't saying that the hair/sperm/ovum thing is logical, just that it's out there and the pro-choice side has to deal with people who don't rationalize their thinking much beyond "Life GOOD! Abortion MURDER!"
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:38 AM on August 15, 2012


I mean, I guess.... the dude 'spoke' to God in the womb... so maybe trying to discuss logic is a losing battle but damnit I still have some hope for people to be logical/non-hypocritical. *sigh*
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:41 AM on August 15, 2012


I'm very much pro-choice, and I honestly think that is one of the more, to but it perhaps too bluntly, cowardly, philosophical cul de sacs that exist within the pro-choice camp.

I don't think it's cowardly to take a firm moral stance against fetal/embryonic personhood. In many contexts, it's pretty damn brave.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:42 AM on August 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yep. A fetus at 20 weeks looks an awful lot like a human, and to be honest, might be viable outside the womb.

I've met several 24-weekers. Have you? Do you have a good idea of what it takes to keep a 24-weeker alive until it can leave the NICU? If you even can?

This term, "viable"... it means something different than it did 10, or 20, or 50 years ago. In the case of my surviving 32-weeker, it meant something on the order of $1 million in the best medical facility for 3 states around.
posted by gurple at 11:43 AM on August 15, 2012 [12 favorites]


There's a lot of worthwhile discussion to be had around the subtlety introduced from the continuum pregnancy presents. Less so with an objection based on the idea that it's difficult to draw a distinction between a fertilized egg and single gamete or even a piece of hair.

I actually think there may be some value it drawing an analogy between the individual who's mother might have chosen abortion had she had greater access to it to the individual who is the product of an unplanned pregnancy that might not have occurred had the parents had greater access to contraception and family planning resources. Although it skirts the rhetorically dangerous territory of equating abortion to contraception, it helps demonstrate the absurdity of equating preventing a potential human's existence to not valuing an actual human's existence, which is what the proponents of the "your pro-choice stance is equivalent to wishing I was never born" argument are really doing. It also reiterates the reality that religious opposition to abortion exists on the same continuum of religious opposition to contraception: they all come down to restricting access, primarily and particularly for women, to reproductive choice.
posted by nanojath at 11:46 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I tell people all the time that 'we make the best decisions we can, with the information we have.

The author's mother was very young, no money for an abortion, and I presume was otherwise lacking access to information. Being in an abusive family often means having an extra difficult time getting medical attention, even if you are brave. But the author says her mother did not have the courage to have an abortion. Why? Because having an abortion can be scary, and is presented by many as evil, even when you don't have to explain that you've been raped. Even when your family is kind and supportive. Even when you have resources and education.

As medical professionals will tell you, informed consent is critical. If we allow misinformation about the outcomes of abortion AND of births to continue, informed choice is impossible.

Making this authors essay about about morality is tough and I didn't read that intention in it. Of course we can play a dictionary game and define terms all over the map, but here's what I get when I type "definition should" into google:
should  
/SHo͝od/
Verb
Used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone's actions: "he should have been careful".
Indicating a desirable or expected state: "by now students should be able to read".
Synonyms
shall - must - ought
While some obligations and duties are moral, not all are. The second definition feels more like this article: a desirable state.
posted by tulip-socks at 11:47 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm very much pro-choice, and I honestly think that is one of the more, to but it perhaps too bluntly, cowardly, philosophical cul de sacs that exist within the pro-choice camp.

How is it cowardly? I am confused.
posted by Isadorady at 11:49 AM on August 15, 2012


Having read the thread, and re-read the article, I may have put my finger on what was bothering me.

I think I just have a problem with treating abortion as something that needs any sort of moral justification either way.

So when the author says "my mother should have aborted me" and then gives all these reasons and carefully explains why it would have been a good idea, I cringe a little, inwardly.

I just don't think abortion is a moral issue, and I think justifying particular instances of abortion is not as good of an approach as explaining why it is not a moral issue, as other authors have attempted to do.

I personally prefer to frame it in terms of a woman's right to decide what happens with her body. No hypotheticals or counterfactuals required.
posted by edguardo at 11:50 AM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


Before the age of 14, I had never been to a sleepover, been allowed to talk to a friend on the phone, eaten in a restaurant, watched a television show, listened to the radio, read a non-Christian book, or even worn a pair of jeans.

With the exception of "read a non-Christian book", this describes the life experience of not a small percentage of the planet's population. I bet she at least had access to a toilet, which about half the planet does not. "I did not wear jeans or have a sleepover party before age 14, therefore, my childhood was brutish". First world problems.

I personally prefer to frame it in terms of a woman's right to decide what happens with her body.

Your personal preference is not a logical argument.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:52 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think denying a fetus is potential human life is not the way to go. But a fetus is not more important than the woman carrying it. No one on the anti-choice side can seem to articulate why a fetus is supposedly worth more, except for OMG BABY. I saw one "argument" one time that said the mother has already "experienced life" and so she should defer to the fetus. Ick.
posted by agregoli at 11:53 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


the pro-choice side has to deal with people who don't rationalize their thinking much beyond "Life GOOD! Abortion MURDER!"

Absolutely. Which is why the "a fetus is not a baby" argument is completely useless to those people.

I think acknowledging that an abortion IS a loss of a life of whatever limited sort is necessary for the pro-choice platform, imo. The argument that "oh it's not a baby or even a human yet" simply does not work (unless someone is willing to take that rather remarkable statement as true on faith.)

This term, "viable"... it means something different than it did 10, or 20, or 50 years ago. In the case of my surviving 32-weeker, it meant something on the order of $1 million in the best medical facility for 3 states around.

Absolutely. A couple I know had a 28-week-old child (while on vacation in FloridaBut let's say it wasn't expensive and unsustainable, i.e. most hospitals could do it.

(Also, I don't think the cost of medical treatment should affect our decisions about human rights.)

How is it cowardly? I am confused.

Because it sidesteps the issue of when a fetus becomes human by declaring that a human is not human until after birth. It's a simplistic answer to a difficult question.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:53 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


No one on the anti-choice side can seem to articulate why a fetus is supposedly worth more, except for OMG BABY.

No they cannot, and I think that's definitely the strongest argument for the pro-choice platform. Unfortunately, women don't get much respect or fair treatment under the law. If men gave birth, etc etc.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:54 AM on August 15, 2012


How is it cowardly? I am confused.

My interpretation is that it's the same thing as a pro-life person saying "Abortion is murder" as their reasoning for why it's bad. It's overly simplistic.

On preview, what mrgrimm said.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:54 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I like to make my pro-choice friends (I am pro-choice too) uncomfortable by announcing: "Hey, at least I'm consistent. I'm in favor of legalized abortion AND legalized infanticide."
posted by mrgrimm at 11:55 AM on August 15, 2012


I don't know if someone has made this point above, but the logical conclusion made to the argument that existing people would not exist had they been aborted is that it is morally reprehensble for anyone to not be having babies all the time. This is ridiculous, therefore context must be considered.

Her wishing she had never been born is a consideration of context. So, it's fine. All she's doing is recognizing that the children her mother may have had in the future (which don't exist) would have been had in a context better for everyone. I don't see the problem with this.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:56 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


How is it cowardly? I am confused.

I don't know if I'd call it cowardly, but stating flatly that abortion does not involve the termination of some human life seems to me to be as unsupportable as stating flatly that abortion does involve the termination of some human life.

There are many forms of abortion and the definition of "human life" is a a hard one and certainly has no agreed upon answer. This definitional issue is only going to get harder -- our ability to keep extremely premature babies alive keeps increasing, and there may in the long run be no practical limit.

To me acknowledging this complexity increases my commitment to being pro-choice. The more complex the issue, the more it should be in the hands of the person or people most involved and affected.
posted by feckless at 11:58 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


edguardo, I read the essay as suggesting that the mother got put into a situation that wasn't a choice but was instead the path of least resistance.

I freely admit that the following is projecting my past into the writer's description of her mom's situation: after so much crappy crap, you learn that resisting makes things worse. Revealing that you have a less than ideal home life puts your home life in danger. Asking for help invites scrutiny. Struggling against your rapist makes him violent.

See also: sliding vs deciding

Choosing to have a baby is not always the same as not getting an abortion. They might overlap, but see the literature on denial and or magical thinking among teen girls who are pregnant.
posted by tulip-socks at 11:58 AM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


mrgrimm: I'm in favor of legalized abortion AND legalized infanticide.

That's the kind of consistency of logic I'm talking about, kudos. I feel like the squick factor a lot of people, equally so for pro-choice individuals, feel for that sort of phrasing shows that they place some sort of weight on *something* that happens along the way and I hope that being exposed to it will help them come to terms and think deeply about what they believe and why. Again, not saying their stance is wrong or hypocritical, just that introspection is almost always a good thing for furthering one's ability to stand behind a point.

I'll come out and say that I'm probably on nearly the same page as you with regards to fetuses and newborns. Memail for any discussion you may want to have as I don't want to derail here.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:04 PM on August 15, 2012


I like to make my pro-choice friends (I am pro-choice too) uncomfortable by announcing: "Hey, at least I'm consistent. I'm in favor of legalized abortion AND legalized infanticide."

To discomfit my friends, I like to announce that I am not pro-choice, but pro-abortion. Unless you can prove you will be a fit parent, off to the abortion mill with you!
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:04 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Your personal preference is not a logical argument.

Eh.
posted by edguardo at 12:05 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Somewhere around 5-6 weeks he swapped the pictures with mice fetuses, fully embarrassing all the religious folks who said they were all human, of course.

I think this is a really helpful idea for thinking about the difference between abortion and infanticide, actually. I do not, personally, believe that abortion is okay for any reason, at any time, up until birth. I do not see much of a meaningful distinction between a third trimester abortion and infanticide (which would also make many a mother's life easier, but is not supported by really anyone at all on those grounds.)

On the other hand, I cannot take seriously the idea that a blastocyst has human rights.

So I really struggle with where to draw the line. And when I have said that before, I think the wisest answers have been along the lines of "There isn't a line. There's a continuum." But still "have an abortion or don't have an abortion" is a binary choice... You can't have a bigger or smaller abortion depending on the development of the fetus.

So thinking about this lately, I was thinking about kittens, and the old practice of drowning them. If you don't want to be responsible for a bunch of kittens (definitely not human, but conscious, sort of) are you within your rights to drown them? To abandon them? To take them to a shelter, and have them humanely and medically put down? (Is that really morally any different from drowning them?) I think there is probably a stage of development for the fetus at which abortion is the moral equivalent, not of murder, but of drowning a kitten. There is probably an earlier stage where it is the moral equivalent of killing a mouse. An an earlier stage yet where it is the moral equivalent of smushing a spider. All forms of killing, but to me, at least, it takes much more serious circumstances to justify drowning the kitten than smushing the spider.

I think that is how I feel about abortion too. The earlier it is, the less serious your reasons for doing it have to be, morally. But it may be impossible for the law to reflect that kind of subtlety...

Also it leaves me a somewhat uncomfortable because of the existence of severely disabled people; I don't want to draw moral equivalencies between humans and annimals based on their mental abilities if it implies a moral equivalence between a severely disabled person who can't talk, and any kind of animal. So I still have to think about it some more. But I think analogies to animals are a helpful way of understanding what are moral obligations to beings who are alive, but who aren't "people," might be.
posted by OnceUponATime at 12:07 PM on August 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


(Not supported by anyone except RolandOfEld and mrgrimm, I guess. And some ancient Romans, etc. But I think most people, including most pro-choice people, are as horrified by the idea of infanticide as I am.)
posted by OnceUponATime at 12:10 PM on August 15, 2012


(Also, I don't think the cost of medical treatment should affect our decisions about human rights.)

Can you expand on that? Is that position an expression of some argument based on deeper values, or is "cost shouldn't affect decisions about human rights", itself, a value for you?

I consider myself firmly on the side of reproductive choice, meaning that expectant parents should have the knowledge and the freedom to choose what they think is best.

Or do I? I'm not so sure. What about those parents who decide to carry an anencephalic baby to term, and then to force a hospital to keep it alive for a matter of weeks until it can't be sustained any more? Should the economic cost of that decision be considered? What should "can't be sustained any more" mean -- how drastically should the hospital be forced to intervene in order to keep that organism "alive"?

If the health care system had unlimited resources, then the perceived emotional benefit to the parents of keeping their "child" alive would be the only concern. But if it costs $250,000 to keep that organism alive for a few weeks, that's $250,000 that wasn't spent saving who knows how many lives, real lives.

I realize that this argument is a slippery slope. I realize that it raises questions about less stark circumstances. And I'm not necessary advocating for an extreme stance toward these situations; I just think society should have those discussions openly and talk through the grey areas, rather than sweeping them under the rug with black-and-white declarations of "LIFE!!"
posted by gurple at 12:11 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


"I did not wear jeans or have a sleepover party before age 14, therefore, my childhood was brutish". First world problems.

Seriously, just going to skip the part where she lived in poverty with a mentally ill mother who severely physically abused her and suffered further abuses at the hands of her mother's other relationships with men? The fact that a lot of people don't have access to a toilet doesn't make an abusive upbringing in poverty okay. Doesn't have any relevance to the subject whatsoever, actually.
posted by nanojath at 12:14 PM on August 15, 2012 [18 favorites]


With the exception of "read a non-Christian book", this describes the life experience of not a small percentage of the planet's population. I bet she at least had access to a toilet, which about half the planet does not. "I did not wear jeans or have a sleepover party before age 14, therefore, my childhood was brutish". First world problems.

I know I am not the first person here to say as much, but, the "first world problems" meme has gone from one that attempted to force people to become aware of their privilege to being a means of instantly, snarkily, and undeservingly dismissing the arguments of others in a way that does not relate directly to the argument at hand.

That she was not able to talk to her friends on the phone is not just her whining about her life lacking a technology. It is more than likely a sign that she was cut off from potential social circles in a number of ways that, regardless of one's socio-economic place in the world, would certainly be considered neglectful abuse. To dismiss the article with such an argument strikes me as absurd on the level being lampooned in this Colbert clip.
posted by sendai sleep master at 12:15 PM on August 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


OnceUponATime: I'll be glad to take this talk to memail because I really don't want to derail things here, nor do I feel like I'm up to the task of vocalizing my thoughts cogently enough, but I assure you that what I would support as OK with regards to infanticide are firmly grounded in care/compassion/concern for the child in question. In brief, I believe in euthanasia when the pain/suffering/quality of life deems it necessary and/or desired, so why would I deny the same mercy/release to a child born with a permanently debilitating brain/health condition? Like I said, memail for more on this, but I didn't even mean to type this much...
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:18 PM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


RolandOfEld: Actually, I think that your smalltext there was a pretty good explanation that clarified what you meant. I agree that issues of life and death and suffering and euthanasia and aren't black and white after a child is born, either, or for adults.
posted by OnceUponATime at 12:24 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


> raise their hands each time the picture was of a "human."

If you repeated this experiment using Sus scrofa, at what point would it stop being a pig?
posted by jfuller at 12:28 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's cowardly to take a firm moral stance against fetal/embryonic personhood. In many contexts, it's pretty damn brave.

Hm. The original statement by weston was "Abortion involves the termination of some form of human life." I think one can believe that's a true statement, but also be pro-choice and not believe that a fetus is a person.

That's how I took the original statement (and his reference to potential people) and also Snyder's followup. Though, I'm not in their heads, obviously, so it could be that they grant personhood to fetuses and I completely misread it.
posted by ODiV at 12:38 PM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think acknowledging that an abortion IS a loss of a life of whatever limited sort is necessary for the pro-choice platform, imo.

I don't speak for all pro-choicers by any means, but I absolutely disagree. I think the Overton window gets shifter further towards making abortion illegal every day and that those of us who are personally affected by abortion policy in the US are almost literally battling for our basic human rights. Philosophical nuance is not important to me, especially considering the extremely rare occasion of post-viability abortions.

I support free abortion, available to everyone, no questions asked.

My interpretation is that it's the same thing as a pro-life person saying "Abortion is murder" as their reasoning for why it's bad. It's overly simplistic.

More complex is not necessarily better. More nuanced is not necessarily better. Compromising between two extremes is not necessarily good. FWIW I think "Abortion is murder" is pretty great reasoning for being anti-abortion. I disagree with it, but there's nothing wrong with it as far as reasoning goes. If you think something is murder, then you probably should be against it.

I don't know if I'd call it cowardly, but stating flatly that abortion does not involve the termination of some human life seems to me to be as unsupportable as stating flatly that abortion does involve the termination of some human life.

There are many forms of abortion and the definition of "human life" is a a hard one and certainly has no agreed upon answer.


It doesn't have an agreed-upon answer, but again, I'm not sure why you think "somewhere in the middle" is inherently more supportable than either extreme. It's not.

That's the kind of consistency of logic I'm talking about, kudos.

No matter what, there's going to be an arbitrary cutoff. Placing it at some moment after birth is not any more logically consistent than placing that cutoff at birth itself.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:38 PM on August 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


I also tend to project my own thoughts onto comments I read, sometimes. So that could definitely be happening. I think a fetus probably counts as "life" and "human", but not as a person.
posted by ODiV at 12:40 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Placing it at some moment after birth is not any more logically consistent than placing that cutoff at birth itself.

So you agree with me? Because I agree with you, at least I think I do. Maybe you didn't read my follow up comments because I'm 100% with you that being logically consistent is priority number one AND that placing that cutoff after birth is not necessarily logically inconsistent by any means. Maybe that comment of mine saying 'kudos' looked like satire. I assure you it wasn't. I was congratulating mrgrimm on having a viewpoint that, while potentially unpopular even within the pro-choice community, showed signs of being logically consistent.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:43 PM on August 15, 2012


Also it leaves me a somewhat uncomfortable because of the existence of severely disabled people; I don't want to draw moral equivalencies between humans and annimals based on their mental abilities if it implies a moral equivalence between a severely disabled person who can't talk, and any kind of animal.

Even though they are equivalent in many regards, and where they are equivalent, they should have the same rights?

If you are not familiar yet, let me introduce you to Peter Singer and the Equal Consideration of Interests.

FWIW I think "Abortion is murder" is pretty great reasoning for being anti-abortion. I disagree with it, but there's nothing wrong with it as far as reasoning goes.

Well, the obvious flaw I see in the reasoning is that murder requires a human (killing an animal is not murder for most people) and a blastocyst looks nothing like a human.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:43 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, the obvious flaw I see in the reasoning is that murder requires a human (killing an animal is not murder for most people) and a blastocyst looks nothing like a human.

I'm not going to argue a pro-life argument here, so suffice to say that I think that you disagree with them on the definition of many of your key terms, and that disagreement does not make their argument inherently poor.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:46 PM on August 15, 2012


I just think society should have those discussions openly and talk through the grey areas, rather than sweeping them under the rug with black-and-white declarations of "LIFE!!"

In America at least, it has nothing to do with life. It has to do with partisanship. The pro-life camp is willing to push for laws to protect embryos and fetuses, regardless of the monetary costs to society, but as soon as the baby is born, he or she is on their own. I'm sure you would see many more cases of adoption if the pro-life camp were willing to pass laws to guarantee food, shelter, security, and the promise of an education regardless of monetary costs. But self-righteousness is more dear to them than righteousness, and they aren't willing to help children if there's a possibility that they can be accused of being socialists.

Their position isn't about helping children, it's about self-identifying with their political party.
posted by deanklear at 12:54 PM on August 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


In Genesis 2:7, Adam is ensouled when God breathes life into his body:
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Consequently, some theologians say the soul enters the body at birth.

According to the 14th Amendment, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States...are citizens of the United States..." People or not, fetuses aren't American citizens.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:59 PM on August 15, 2012


a blastocyst looks nothing like a human.

It's odd to see you invoking Singer and the notion of a specially privileged human status in the the same post. Singer's Animal Liberation is the probably the key foundational text of anti-speciesism. The idea of personhood is surely preferable when discussing whether a being has interests. An anencephalic infant looks a lot like a human, and I think probably has to be considered a human, but almost certainly not a person. Conversely, some higher primates and other cognitively advanced animals are almost certainly people, despite not being human.
posted by howfar at 12:59 PM on August 15, 2012


edguardo: Having read the thread, and re-read the article, I may have put my finger on what was bothering me.

I think I just have a problem with treating abortion as something that needs any sort of moral justification either way.


The article's not really about abortion needing moral justification.

Do you think that there are moral considerations involved in deciding whether to intentionally conceive and have kids in the first place? I do; deciding whether to have children is a massive ethical undertaking and is likely the most important ethical decision many people will make in their lives.

The author of the article isn't really writing about abortion. He's taking it as a given that abortions are permissible and a mother has a right to abort. Abortion is a morally neutral tool that affords a woman the ability to determine her future. The moral claim is distinct: he's claiming that his mother made a mistake opting to bring a child into existence. It doesn't matter that she made the decision after conception.
posted by painquale at 1:03 PM on August 15, 2012


the young rope-rider - I don't think it's cowardly to take a firm moral stance against fetal/embryonic personhood. In many contexts, it's pretty damn brave.

ODiV - Hm. Tie original statement by weston was "Abortion involves the termination of some form of human life." I think one can believe that's a true statement, but also be pro-choice and not believe that a fetus is a person.

Yes, that was the root of my confusion about that bit of the conversation. A foetus is alive by all but the most restrictive definitions of life and, going by the definitions of "human" that I'm used to dealing with, is most definitely human.

But I'd argue vociferously that simply being human doesn't make it a person, with perception and self-awareness, which is what I care about. (OnceUponATime expressed this better than I have previously managed).

mrgrimm - Well, the obvious flaw I see in the reasoning is that murder requires a human (killing an animal is not murder for most people) and a blastocyst looks nothing like a human.

Well, that's where the fun starts, isn't it? Some believe that every possible encounter of sperm with eggs has the potential to create a life, and so contraception is going against God's plan. Others say that the soul enters the new human at the moment where sperm meets eggs, so the blastocyst definitely is a person, at least in their God's eyes. Others think that life is some sort of magical, mysterious or sacred property that must be protected. Others think that the unique potential possessed by a given fertilised egg to form a new, exciting human makes it as valuable as if they were discussing the resulting person.

The idea that we only need to protect consciousness (as opposed to "life") and that consciousness can only exist given a sufficient amount and complexity of neural tissue requires a mechanistic worldview and level of science education that a great many people simply do not have. And, indeed, will actively fight against exploring because it conflicts with their pre-existing ideology.

Like most apparrantly intractable political arguments, I strongly believe that the abortion debate would be moved a decade or two closer to resolution if everyone involved could get together, agree on a set of terms (deinfe: "life", "person", etc) then pick up the arguments from where they left off. Sure there's a big ideological gulf, but most of the ire and accusations of deceit or bad logic that I see could be avoided by the people involved simply working from the same dictionary. It's a communication problem.
posted by metaBugs at 1:09 PM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Actually, in terms of contributions to the world, I am a net loss.

It's impossible to make a statement like this without implying that the same is true of other people. That there are people who are a net loss to the world.

Nothing good has ever come of thinking that way.
posted by straight at 1:13 PM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


she should have been put up for adoption.

I'm pro-choice, but not pro-abortion, more like abortion-neutral on the rational side, but it still makes me sad that abortions have to happen.

How about we all (whatever your ideological slant) spend more time trying to figure out what to do with the ones that are born, and work harder preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place with a vehicle like say, Planned Parenthood?

(realizes how futile that is, hangs head in shame at the reality of our times)
posted by roboton666 at 1:27 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


"The abuse I endured was compounded by deprivation. Before the age of 14, I had never been to a sleepover, been allowed to talk to a friend on the phone, eaten in a restaurant, watched a television show, listened to the radio, read a non-Christian book, or even worn a pair of jeans.

If this were an anti-choice story, this is the part where I would tell you how I overcame great odds and my life now has special meaning. I would ask you to affirm that, of course, you are happy I was born, and that the world would be a darker, poorer place without me.

It is true that in the past 12 years, I have been able to rise above the circumstances of my birth and build a life that I truly love. But no one should have to make such a Herculean struggle for simple normalcy. Even given the happiness and success I now enjoy, if I could go back in time and make the choice for my mother, it would be abortion."


An argument that depends on a time travel premise ain't a real argument. This is like arguing whether or not the '93 Cowboys could have beaten the '78 Steelers.
posted by bukvich at 1:30 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


In Genesis 2:7, Adam is ensouled when God breathes life into his body:

In Islam, a fetus is given a soul at 120 days. Scholars differ on what circumstances allow abortion to be performed, but abortion is certainly lawful and can at least be given consideration before then (and later, if conditions are more dire).

However, it's clear that any talk about abortion and personhood and "soul" and "god" in the United States only concerns the Christian god, because everyone knows that separation of church and state only pertains to non-Christian beliefs
posted by raztaj at 1:31 PM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's impossible to make a statement like this without implying that the same is true of other people. That there are people who are a net loss to the world.

Nothing good has ever come of thinking that way.


There is no reason to believe that our moral duties to a person are connected to his or her overall utilitarian impact or moral probity. This is why the Golden Rule of "Do to others as you would have them do to you" differs from the Leaden Rule of "Do to others as they do to you". No good comes from thinking "There are some people who are a net loss, and their autonomy and interests can be ignored" but the first statement does not imply the second. That many bad people have thought and do think that such an implication exists is not an argument against the truth of the first statement.
posted by howfar at 1:37 PM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


This isn't an argument that can actually be made. Having a child takes life in such a radically different direction that you can't really compare it after the fact. Her mom might have been better off without her, but is that hypothetical non-mom the same person?

It would be like wishing I had won the lottery 10 years ago; that hypothetical me would be better off that I am now in most objective measurements, but that person wouldn't be me, so really I would not benefit. Winning the lottery yesterday, however, would be different: August 15th is not central to who I am.
posted by spaltavian at 1:53 PM on August 15, 2012


A fetus at 20 weeks looks an awful lot like a human

So does a statue. This isn't a rational metric. Mere membership in Homo sapiens isn't very impressive. The rational line is sapience*, with possibly a "cautionary" period dating back to birth. This isn't an arbitrary line, because that's the point where a fully sapient person is no longer bodily burdened.

*apes, cetaceans, possibly elephants meet this metric.
posted by spaltavian at 2:06 PM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


On her website Kiessling says that every time we say abortion should be allowed, at least in the case of rape or incest, we are saying to her: "If I had my way, you'd be dead right now."

If I had my way, she'd be smacked in the head right now. (metaphorically speaking, of course)
posted by ShutterBun at 2:19 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's hard to take seriously an article that argues for a hypothetical X when the non-occurrence of X is a prerequisite for making the argument in the first place. "It would be much easier to buy shoes if only I didn't have feet."
posted by deo rei at 2:25 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm very much pro-choice, and I honestly think that is one of the more, to but it perhaps too bluntly, cowardly, philosophical cul de sacs that exist within the pro-choice camp.

Not really. Pretending a fetus is human is buying into the anti-abortion activists' propaganda: a fetus isn't, is something that could turn into a human being, but doesn't have to. Yes, of course there's a point at which a fetus turns into a baby even in the womb, but that's why every country in which abortion is legal has legal limits up to which abortion is allowed, limits which very much err on the side of caution.

People who insist that they're pro-choice but that "we have to admit this is about killing babies (or variations therefore) usually turn out not to be.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:27 PM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


FWIW I think "Abortion is murder" is pretty great reasoning for being anti-abortion. I disagree with it, but there's nothing wrong with it as far as reasoning goes.

Now go and ask any anti-abortionist whether they believe abortion is murder and whether this means the women who choose abortion should therefore be prosecuted for murder.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:31 PM on August 15, 2012


If abortion somehow became outlawed across the US, then I have a feeling what you describe wouldn't be too far behind. You're not hearing a lot of support for that view because it's currently seen as morally repugnant and anti-choice advocates are trying to make their views at least somewhat palatable to the mainstream (see also: abortion in the case of incest or rape).

I have no doubt there are plenty of people who are anti-choice in order to control the bodies of women. I wouldn't even be surprised if this were the majority, especially among the leadership. That doesn't preclude there being quite a few "true believers" out there.

Also, again, I think you're conflating "human life" for "person" in your previous comment. If a fetus isn't considered "human life", then I am very confused (which is totally possible, I'm not a biologist). It's not a person though.
posted by ODiV at 2:41 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


If a fetus isn't considered "human life", then I am very confused (which is totally possible, I'm not a biologist). It's not a person though.

A fetus (particularly early term) has human DNA, but it is not a being. And merely having human DNA does not make something a person. I am not a biologist either, but if something cannot survive or even exist at its most basic level without subsisting on a human being, then calling it "a life" is suspect to me. It may maybe possibly have individual survivability eventually, but no person should be forced to have anything subsist on them without their consent.
posted by raztaj at 3:00 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


merely having human DNA does not make something a person

This is exactly what ODiV is saying. Humanity is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for personhood. There are non-human people (higher primates being the most obvious) and human non-people. The terminology in this area of ethics is solidly established, those who distinguish persons from humans are doing so because they don't attach any special moral significance to being human.
posted by howfar at 3:12 PM on August 15, 2012


if something cannot survive or even exist at its most basic level without subsisting on a human being, then calling it "a life" is suspect to me

Sorry to double post, but I think you're going up an ethical blind-alley here. It's quite obvious that survivability isn't an appropriate criterion to use in assessing whether we should have moral concern for a being's interests. A conjoined twin dependent up his or her stronger sibling is obviously alive and obviously has interests that should be taken into account. One doesn't need to deny humanity or life to a foetus in order to believe that it lacks personhood and interests.
posted by howfar at 3:17 PM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


Or that there are interests of a person or persons that override the interests of a human fetus. A human fetus is human, it contains human DNA, it consits of human tissue. That does not mean it has full personhood, and even if it does have some personhood, it does not mean anything one way or another in regards to abortion. We kill humans with full personhood all the time, because we determine that the rights and interests of one human overrulle those of another. Why must fetuses be made special, that they are somehow foregin things with no human aspect? I think it might be either a misplaced righteousness, an attempt to deny that any aspect of an ideology might lead to the death or non-existance of something human, or an attempt to take a rhetorical extreme, and cede no ground to anti-abortion opponnents. In either case, it's still incorrect.

MartinWisse's offensive determination that since I believe that a human fetus is human, I am secretly anti-choice, is such an amazing example of old-fashioned political correctness, (in the original sense,) that I wonder if I'm going to be criticised for counter-revolutionary thought next.
posted by Snyder at 3:39 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Pretending a fetus is human is buying into the anti-abortion activists' propaganda

That's as may be, but that doesn't mean it can't be true or should not be a consideration. It could be argued that it derives its propaganda value from the fact that it captures some truth.
posted by deo rei at 3:39 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


A fetus (particularly early term) has human DNA, but it is not a being.

Humanity is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for personhood.

Yeah, the confusion seems to be coming from the fact that some people are using "human" to mean "person", while others are interpreting it as just referring to species (i.e. containing human DNA) and having nothing to do with personhood. Tricky. Like most discussions of complex topics, it's really important to establish a shared vocabulary before diving into emotive subjects. The chance and risk of misinterpretation leading to weird derails and/or offence is too great.

if something cannot survive or even exist at its most basic level without subsisting on a human being, then calling it "a life" is suspect to me

I am a biologist, and have no better idea how to define "life" than anyone else. There are several competing definitions, a couple of which seem pretty convincing to me, but there's enough granularity along the spectrum "obviously not alive" -> "obviously alive" and enough weird edge cases that choosing a formal definition -- which you need to do to decide cases like an early foetus, which can be likened to an obligate parasite if you're in a funny mood -- is more a question of semantics and philosophy than of science. Again, it's an argument that can only be settled by everyone reading the same dictionary before opening our mouths.
posted by metaBugs at 3:53 PM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's impossible to make a statement like this without implying that the same is true of other people. That there are people who are a net loss to the world.

Nothing good has ever come of thinking that way.


People who are a net loss to the world should get the support they need to live a good life, so that they don't become a catastrophic loss to the world. It's damage control, as health care often is.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:04 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not coherent to say that "I would be better off if I were dead" unless you assume that there is an "I" that would be capable of being better off despite being dead. Lots of people do believe this, of course, but it's a religious argument and not really amenable to proof.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:47 PM on August 15, 2012


The abortion debate is a great opportunity to turn conservative pro-life folks into social liberals. Do you want to decrease abortions due to Down's syndrome and other congenital disorders? Vote for universal healthcare so that those babies are guaranteed full support. Do you want to decrease abortions for sex selection? Fight for women's rights until a daughter is as great an economic asset as a son.

In general, see Luke 11:46. Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them."
posted by TreeRooster at 6:52 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually, in terms of contributions to the world, I am a net loss.

Unfortunately I think the author has contradicted herself in writing this great essay.
posted by polymodus at 6:57 PM on August 15, 2012


"My mother would have been better off if she'd taken birth control and not had me"

"My mother would have been better off if she'd not had sex and thus not had me"

Both of those statements are equivalent to what the author is saying here. The abortion angle is just shock value.

Plus, we don't really know if that's true. Her childhood might have been rough on her mother, but if she is a good daughter she can enrich her life now. Also, she can keep her company and take care of her when her mother is elderly. Unless she doesn't even like her mother, in which case why should she care if her life would be better without her?

While obviously I don't know this woman's mother, my guess is she would not sign off on this thesis.
posted by delmoi at 7:01 PM on August 15, 2012


It's hard to take seriously an article that argues for a hypothetical X when the non-occurrence of X is a prerequisite for making the argument in the first place.

Would you take me seriously if I argued that World War II should have never happened? Well, I wouldn't exist if not for the war. My mother's parents met while serving in the war.

OK, if you think that's too clever: would you say no one can object to having received medical treatment that extends their life?
posted by John Cohen at 8:55 PM on August 15, 2012


Both of those statements are equivalent to what the author is saying here. The abortion angle is just shock value.

I don't know if you've noticed, but abortion is kind of a big political issue! In contrast, almost no one makes an issue out of people deciding to use birth control or practice celibacy. So the difference isn't "shock value"; the difference is political salience.
posted by John Cohen at 9:29 PM on August 15, 2012


she should have been put up for adoption.

I'm pro-choice, but not pro-abortion, more like abortion-neutral on the rational side, but it still makes me sad that abortions have to happen.


I simply don't understand why anyone could say someone "should" be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term to appease others ideas on when life begins.
Obviously in the minority here...
posted by Isadorady at 9:30 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Isadorady: I don't think many people oppose abortion in order to "appease others ideas on when life begins." That's a straw man. The opponents of abortion generally seem to hold this position because of their own belief that life has actually begun at that stage, and to end it is murder. I think it's a more logically coherent position than saying that a fetus of x weeks has acquired humanity, but I find myself in the pro-choice camp for public policy reasons anyway.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:33 PM on August 15, 2012


MartinWisse's offensive determination that since I believe that a human fetus is human, I am secretly anti-choice

Hey, if the shoe fits....

The hair splitting about humanity and personhood is of course not what we normally think of when we hear the word human. Using that word for fetus and, when called on it, saying that actually, what you mean is not a proper person but just that a fetus has some qualifications for being human blahblahblah is dishonest. The people you're talking too won't understand that you are using human in such an idiosynchronatic way and will naturally default to the normal reading.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:16 AM on August 16, 2012


Hey, if the shoe fits....

You know, you're awfully interested in figuring out who is secretly anti-choice. I really think you're attempting to distract people away from your own anti-choice and anti-woman values.

The hair splitting about humanity and personhood is of course not what we normally think of when we hear the word human. Using that word for fetus and, when called on it, saying that actually, what you mean is not a proper person but just that a fetus has some qualifications for being human blahblahblah is dishonest. The people you're talking too won't understand that you are using human in such an idiosynchronatic way and will naturally default to the normal reading.

Speak for yourself. I think most people who are not wed to an a particular blinkered ideology are smart enough to figure it out.
posted by Snyder at 1:31 AM on August 16, 2012


The problem is MartinWisse, that this is an established field of ethics in which "person" and "human" have very different meanings. The distinction isn't getting pulled out of anyone's arse here. It's pretty clear that the people concerned to make the distinction in this thread are those with a greater familiarity with the literature on the matter. There are sound intellectual reasons not to use "human" and "person" to mean the same thing, and imagining that they something to do with being secretly anti-choice is a little foolish. I think you'll find that many people making the distinction are much more radically pro-choice than you appear able to conceive of as a possibility.
posted by howfar at 1:38 AM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


The world would not be a darker or poorer place without me.

Consequentialists - making important moral decisions based on untestable theories about unknowable alternate realities since forever.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:19 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


To me thinking about how I would feel if my mother aborted me is kind of like thinking about how I would feel if my mother had never had sex with my father in the first place, had married someone else or become a nun or just decided not to have kids.

It doesn't even have to be that dramatic. It could be as simple as their having conceived a child a month earlier or later than they did. Different egg, different sperm: different person. Not you.
posted by rory at 6:12 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The world would not be a darker or poorer place without me.

Consequentialists - making important moral decisions based on untestable theories about unknowable alternate realities since forever.


The first sentence is not a case of someone doing the thing described in the second. All the author is maintaining is that her mother made a consequentially suboptimal decision. A consequentialist is not committed to arguing that this shows the mother's decision to have been a morally wrong one, if she (even falsely) believed that its impact would result in a net benefit to the world. If you think that all decisions based on an expectation of future events are based on "untestable theories about unknowable alternate realities" you are committed to the position that my decision to have breakfast based on my expectation of getting hungry before lunch is similarly baseless.
posted by howfar at 6:45 AM on August 16, 2012


My birth probably kept my mother in an abusive marriage for a few years longer, and my father certainly didn't want me to be born. I can't say that keeping the pregnancy was the right choice for my mother.

I wasn't planned. My parents moved to a different town two years before I was born, with two children about to enter their teens, and my mother pushed for twin beds rather than a double (they bought a double). My mother decided to get sterilized, and was told she would have to stop taking the pill for the month before her operation, so once it was booked, she did. She got pregnant with me three weeks later.

My dad was, well, not great to say the least, and I often wonder how much of this was due to being 40 and having a child to look after again. My parents were not particularly happily married and I wonder what would have happened if I wasn't there. I've never felt unloved by my mother in the slightest and I know she is extremely proud of who I am and what I've done, but I felt the opposite from my father - I was useful if he needed someone to hold something while he did DIY or if the dog was sick and someone had to hoover, otherwise I was an inconvenience at best and someone to take out a bad temper on at worst. He died a few years ago so I'll never have the answer to that question.

I'm glad I live at a time and in a place when it is okay for women to have abortions if they want to, and also okay to walk away from a situation that isn't working with their baby in their arms. Both decisions are extremely difficult and I'm somewhat grateful that I'll never be in a position to have to make them.
posted by mippy at 7:24 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


No good comes from thinking "There are some people who are a net loss, and their autonomy and interests can be ignored" but the first statement does not imply the second.

I don't see any evidence that human beings are capable of making that distinction in practice.
posted by straight at 7:45 AM on August 16, 2012


So if I could demonstrate to you that any particular individual's life had been a net-loss (which is, after all, a factual claim), you would be compelled to believe that their autonomy and interest should be ignored?

The life of a multiple random killer, of whom there are not a few, is, to any definition I can currently think of, a net loss. I do not believe that this allows us to ignore that person's autonomy or interests. It may require us to take steps to reduce the harm they may do, but that is a questioning of balancing interests, not discounting those of any individual. If such a person can be shown to be no longer a danger to the public, there is a moral duty to give them their freedom, even if there is no realistic prospect of them ever undoing the harm they have done.

Also, the fact that believing something may be morally deleterious is not an argument against its truth. Is your argument then that there is a moral imperative to practice self-deception in cases where honesty would lead to assessing a life as a net loss?
posted by howfar at 8:01 AM on August 16, 2012


So if I could demonstrate to you that any particular individual's life had been a net-loss (which is, after all, a factual claim)

There's nothing "factual" about the arbitrary decision to decide how you would assign value to various things in a person's life and attempt to score it as net gain or loss (to whom? to you personally? to me? to her family? to her hometown? to the fashion industry? to the world of classical music? to the cause of eradicating sexism? to the British Empire? to the solar system? to God?)

The extremely obvious (and historically pervasive) negative consequences are not the only reason to reject this kind of thinking, but they're probably the most important.
posted by straight at 8:29 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


People shouldn't be allowed to be this fucking ignorant.

Unfortunately, that means the majority of the earth's population would cease to exist. This observation is based on my personal experiences in several different working environments, shopping centers and random neighborhoods. People are, for the most part, dumb. If we were to be graded on our intelligence as a species, we'd need a strict curve to rise above 50%. Most people are unteachable, so we can leave the education argument at the door.

(It's possible my observation is based solely on where I live, in one of the more depressing states in the southern United States.)
posted by doyouknowwhoIam? at 9:04 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's nothing "factual" about the arbitrary decision to decide how you would assign value to various things in a person's life and attempt to score it as net gain or loss

That's a difficult position to hold, isn't it? Is assigning a gain (to her) of leading a happy life and a loss to being constantly miserable really arbitrary? Is assigning a gain (to me) of her teaching me to speak French and a loss to her deafening me with a mistimed explosion arbitrary? I could go on, obviously. Or are you saying that the gain of being alive in all cases outweighs any negative consequences of that circumstance? In which case, we come back to the old question of how one morally justifies not continually attempting to reproduce.

I really don't think there's any great difficulty in arguing that some outcomes are better than other outcomes, if only insofar as satisfying a personal or general preference. But even if we were to accept the notion that all preferences are either partly or wholly arbitrary, it does not logically follow from this that they are irrelevant to moral decision making. I might have an arbitrary preference for the colour red, which would make it immoral to substitute my red balloon a blue one.

Hence I'd argue that one of your premises (arbitrary preferences) is false, and that your reasoning (arbitrary things cannot give rise to moral imperatives; all preferences are arbitrary; therefore preferences cannot give rise to moral imperatives) begs the question, as the universal claim is dependent on your definition of a moral imperative.
posted by howfar at 9:13 AM on August 16, 2012


Thanks for that comment, mippy as bad as it made me feel (at 7:30am, nonetheless). :( As a dad, it is something I'll remember.

howfar, your argument (of which I'm not totally sure what it even is) seems a bit ridiculous

People are, for the most part, dumb. If we were to be graded on our intelligence as a species, we'd need a strict curve to rise above 50%. Most people are unteachable, so we can leave the education argument at the door.

This is a pretty dumb statement. Most people, when given the opportunity, are remarkably intelligent.

And this statement is completely nonsensical:

"If we were to be graded on our intelligence as a species, we'd need a strict curve to rise above 50%."

?!?
posted by mrgrimm at 10:26 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's a difficult position to hold, isn't it? Is assigning a gain (to her) of leading a happy life and a loss to being constantly miserable really arbitrary? Is assigning a gain (to me) of her teaching me to speak French and a loss to her deafening me with a mistimed explosion arbitrary? I could go on, obviously. Or are you saying that the gain of being alive in all cases outweighs any negative consequences of that circumstance? In which case, we come back to the old question of how one morally justifies not continually attempting to reproduce.

I'm saying there's no way to assign values to those gains and losses, add them up, and arrive at a net gain or loss assigned to that person's life.

Say she taught you French and kicked a puppy. What's her total score?

And whose score counts? That she taught you French is probably worth more to you than it is to me or to the Bank of Scotland or to the New York Yankees or to the government of Venezuela or the Andromeda Galaxy.
posted by straight at 10:34 AM on August 16, 2012


mrgrimm, I think you're trying to talk to doyouknowwhoIam?. Eponysterical!
posted by howfar at 10:44 AM on August 16, 2012


I'm saying there's no way to assign values to those gains and losses, add them up, and arrive at a net gain or loss assigned to that person's life.

Certainly it will be hard to do this with great precision, but it should, in many cases, be fairly simple to differentiate between a sequence of events that has been a net positive rather than a net negative for all the interests concerned. It seems reasonable to me to characterise WWI as a net negative, for example, and the development of penicillin as a net positive. Of course there will be uncertainties and ambiguities, but I don't see that there is anything ridiculous about such assessments. A life and its consequences can be interpreted in the same way as any historical event. What that event (the life) is and what its implications are are a matter of construction and debate, but no more than any other evaluation of things in the world.

My broader point is, whether this is true or not, it really doesn't tell us anything at all about the moral duties we owe to the individual and their interest at any point in time or in general.
posted by howfar at 10:56 AM on August 16, 2012


Yes but how do you compare them? If one person invented penicillin and started WWI, is that person's life a net positive or negative (and do we get into all the counterfactuals of speculating whether penicillin or WWI would have been discovered/caused anyway without that person)? You never even gave me a total score for the person who taught you French and kicked the puppy.

And my broader point is that, whether or not you think such calculations ought to influence our moral duties we owe to individuals, history shows us that making those kinds of calculations does influence us, and not for the better.
posted by straight at 11:22 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


If one person invented penicillin and started WWI, is that person's life a net positive or negative

The reason I selected those two events is that they are not separable, but rather connected. If it weren't for WWI, no WWII, and no development of penicillin (at least not in the way it occurred). History, just like a life, doesn't break down into easily distinguishable chunks with clear effects, and yet it is uncontroversial that we are capable of making judgements about the positive or negative value of an event. I think we could have a reasonable disagreement about that, but what you seem to be saying is that human lives are a different category of event that cannot be evaluated in the normal terms, and I don't really understand the reasoning behind that.
posted by howfar at 11:41 AM on August 16, 2012


straight, are you really arguing that it's wrong to make any judgment about a person's ethical worth? That seems to obviate ethics generally, or at least make it impossible to talk about beyond "I personally don't want to kill anybody." Perhaps you mean that you can only judge that worth in a particular context for a particular purpose?
posted by LogicalDash at 1:11 PM on August 16, 2012


I'm saying two things:

1. The concept of a person being a net "gain" or "loss" is incoherent. Gain and loss to whom? I personally value certain people, but others value them differently, and there is no way to add up those values and get a total. There is no way to decide whose opinion is relevant, or how much weight each person's opinion should have. What if someone stole your bicycle and tweeted a joke that made 700 people happy? What if a civil rights leader beats his wife?

And it assumes too much knowledge of counterfactuals. I believe that my wife is a net positive part of my life, but I have no way of knowing if I would have been happier without her.

2. I'm saying the whole enterprise is unethical because it seems inevitable that it would be used as an excuse to ignore our moral duties to others.
posted by straight at 3:08 PM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


I presume then that you believe that such incoherence extends to other circumstances? Would you say it is incoherent to assess the gain or loss involved in, say, a terrorist act against a brutal regime? Or incoherent to assess the value of someone pretending to be sick to get a day off work as a doctor. Or assessing an event like WWII, which many people benefited from greatly.

I can understand the above as a theory, I think, but I'm not sure its a very tenable ethical practice. For example how can you assess how ethical the enterprise of assigning a net loss or gain to something is? Having an excuse for oppressing people will presumably bring a benefit to the oppressor.
posted by howfar at 3:35 PM on August 16, 2012


Or assessing an event like WWII, which many people benefited from greatly.

Consider the U.S. involvement in WWII. Net gain or loss? I'm sure you'll find passionate people who can rationally argue both sides.

The notion of "net gain or loss" is nonsense unless you define the goal or what the person/event/thing is contributing to (or detracting from).

straight, are you really arguing that it's wrong to make any judgment about a person's ethical worth?

Ethical worth is fairly definable, since we mostly operate within an agreed upon set of ethics.

"Net gain or net loss" means absolutely nothing. Someone could be an ethical failure (e.g. a serial killer or mass murderer) and also invent a miracle cure for cerebral palsy. Net gain or net loss?

Any including either of those abstract concepts in a debate over abortion is a massive mistake. The potential assets/deficits for civilization from an individual should have nothing to do with whether or not his/her mother has the right to abort.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:47 PM on August 16, 2012


Consider the U.S. involvement in WWII. Net gain or loss? I'm sure you'll find passionate people who can rationally argue both sides.

Indeed, but that doesn't render the notion of there being good and bad events incoherent. The fact that people have different assessments of worth does not necessarily mean that worth itself is relative.

The notion of "net gain or loss" is nonsense unless you define the goal or what the person/event/thing is contributing to (or detracting from).

Well this is exactly what consequentialist ethics seeks to do, define an ethical goal of "maximising human flourishing" or "satisfying most preferences" or whatever. It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to reject consequentialism, although I think it's harder to sustain in practice than proponents of deontological ethics typically suggest, what I am unsure about is whether that's what straight is actually doing.

Any including either of those abstract concepts in a debate over abortion is a massive mistake. The potential assets/deficits for civilization from an individual should have nothing to do with whether or not his/her mother has the right to abort.

I find this statement difficult for two reasons.

Firstly because I think, as stated above, that it's difficult to do without at least some consequentialism if one is to behave in a way that will typically be recognised as ethical, although that doesn't mean I'm not at least open to the possibility of consequentialist-deontological hybrids.

Secondly, because this "assets/deficits for civilisation" approach is one that the law engages in all the time when determining proscribed actions. I can't legally burgle the house of someone who has robbed me, not because it would be wrong for me to do so, but because of the negative societal consequences of allowing burglary in general, no matter whether it is justified in some cases. I can't smoke in a place of work, even if all the employees and customers want me to, because protecting the general interest of people in being able to work in smoke free environments is judged to be of a greater importance than allowing the possibility of an opt-out. Sacrificing individual interests for societal benefit is so widespread as to be commonplace, and I think an attack on that practice, while possible, has to deal with a number of issues in order to present a coherent alternative.
posted by howfar at 4:38 PM on August 16, 2012


Would you say it is incoherent to assess the gain or loss involved in, say, a terrorist act against a brutal regime?

I see your point, and I agree that we would be unable to act at all if we didn't routinely decide that an action was a net gain or loss by some standard.

I think my position is that, given how uncertain those decisions (or evaluations after the fact) are for individual actions, trying to sum up an uncountable list of them and get a total tally for a person's entire life is folly. The error bars are much bigger than the thing you're trying to measure.

Also, when you ask "WW2 -- net gain or loss?" I think most people see that you have to ask, "Net gain for whom?" But the person in the article seems to be making a sweeping, universal claim: "The world would not be poorer without me!" That sort of glossing over who is doing the evaluating (or who is entitled to do the evaluating) seems much more of a danger when people start talking about whether an individual person is a net gain or a net loss.
posted by straight at 5:14 PM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


That sort of glossing over who is doing the evaluating (or who is entitled to do the evaluating) seems much more of a danger when people start talking about whether an individual person is a net gain or a net loss.

I don't disagree with you here. I don't think that talking about whether a person is a net loss or gain is particularly useful, and I think that there are risks to it. Certainly whether the author's life was in fact a net-loss or net-gain is of no relevance to whether her mother's decision was either sensible or ethical. In a better article, this might have been the whole point of the piece, thus satirising the logic of anti-choice arguments that depend upon the "look how well I turned out after I was saved" gambit.

I also agree that consequentialists (which I broadly identify as) have to work hard to incorporate personal perspectives into our ethical account of the world, partly because of the risk posed by thinking that invokes "the greater good"*. My way of tackling this is a consequentialist liberal one, in that I see the maximisation of each person's control over their own interests, capabilities and conditions of life as being one the key "good" that we are trying to promote in relation to people. I think putting the notion of individual choice at the heart of one's approach to dealing ethically with people at least ameliorates many of your concerns.

I general, however, I suspect that I'm more optimistic about ethics as an exercise than you seem to be. I, perhaps naively, tend to believe it is possible to follow wherever logic leads and come up with an ethical approach that is both philosophically and practically robust. Your argument suggests that you are not convinced of the practicality of this approach.

*the greater good
posted by howfar at 5:41 PM on August 16, 2012


If you think that all decisions based on an expectation of future events are based on "untestable theories about unknowable alternate realities" you are committed to the position that my decision to have breakfast based on my expectation of getting hungry before lunch is similarly baseless.

I think utilitarianism is a perfectly useful approach for making decisions like 'should I have breakfast?' I also think it's perfectly useless for making decisions when something more important is at stake, like assessing the worth of a human life, or whether to go to war. As you put it, 'there are risks'. I think that's quite an understatement.

Our moral landscape has widely varying terrain. For long, flat stretches, gentle curves, and even the occasional rolling hill, we're probably well served cruising along in fourth in our two cylinder Bentham. Anything more challenging than that and you'll find yourself rolled in a ditch after hitting Peter Singer. For hilly terrain, and even off-roading, I'll take my V8 four-wheel-drive Kantmobile, thanks.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:55 PM on August 17, 2012


(We should totally Kickstart a 'Top Gear'-format TV show, hosted by a brash, towering but enormously popular consequentialist; a shorter, trimmer, boyishly charming deontologist with a penchant crashing rocket cars into rainforest natives; and a long-haired, pot-bellied, paisley-shirted Aristotelean who frustrates everybody by asking inconvenient questions. But who would be The Stig...)
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:01 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think Rorty was actually the Clarkson of philosophy, in that you often got a worrying sense that he didn't actually believe anything he was saying. In Rorty's case, that was arguably the point, in Clarkson's case it's more a way of filling a column aimed at middle-aged men dressed in head-to-toe denim.
posted by howfar at 4:21 PM on August 17, 2012


When I was younger I somehow got wind of the story of Midas and Silenus, and from that day to this I just can't see any flaw in its logic. (It prepped me for the ha-ha-only-serious philosophy of VHEMT, too.)

My understanding of the ethical quandary about abortion has never been based on any question of when a blastocyst/embryo/fetus is officially recognized as "human": I see it as an thorny exception to the whole "the right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins" ideal. Multiple parties make demands of the same body, so we try to consider the needs and rights of everyone, but ultimately only the mother's wishes can be made clear to us. It explains all the agonizing about viability and rape/incest, right?

If we could bottle and decant embryos like they do in Brave New World maybe that would sidestep these questions, but until then we're stuck with a messy best-guess reality. "To err is human" and all.
posted by tyro urge at 7:42 PM on August 20, 2012


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