Monday, February 14, 2005

Every Sperm is Sacred

Mapmaster of the London Fog quotes Ayn Rand in a recent post concerning the legality and morality of abortion:

"Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong."
Although I hesitate to get into a debate about such a sensitive issue as abortion, I feel that as a libertarian and yes, a woman, that a few comments are required in return. I will keep my response as short as possible, as I have no intention of writing an essay on the subject and also because I am still thinking through the arguments.

I think Mapmaster and I can agree that it is logically inconsistent to assign a point in time after which the fetus becomes a human, with all the rights to life, liberty and property so attached. It is indeed arbitrary to say that abortion is wrong after the first trimester, but not before. Accordingly, for the sake of argument, I will thus take the position - which I am prepared to follow to its logical conclusion - and say, despite intuitive naggings, that a woman has a right to an abortion, right up until the fetus becomes a human, which is to say, at the point when the umbilical cord is cut and the infant becomes a self-sustaining human being, albeit dependent, as all humans are. Until that point, the mass of cells that exists within the body of the carrier is but potential.

Also for the sake of argument, we will assume whether or not a woman has a right to an abortion is all or nothing - that is, a woman is permitted in all cases - not just the difficult ones - to get an abortion, or she isn't in any case, excepting cases where the woman's life is in danger, abortion in this case viewed as an act of self defence.

I also agree that the state should stop the funding of abortions, which amounts to forcing people to pay for procedures they are personally opposed to. The nature of the state is such that it inevitable leads to the opposite - the tyranny over innocent people who are at the mercy of those in power.

However, I take issue with Mapmaster's assertion that "a strong logical argument could be made for making abortion illegal", because while he believes the state should stay out of the business of funding abortions, he suggests there might be some justification for making it unlawful.

He quotes from Liberty corner:
"The state should be in the business of protecting the lives of innocent humans -- from conception to grave."
Such a viewpoint depends on the status we grant to a fetus. I take issue with the idea that a fetus, as it resides in the body of the carrier, takes precedence over the rights and desires of the fully formed person that houses it. Otherwise, the fundamental libertarian principle of the right to property and life is possibly jeopardized.

From Mr. Peikoff:
That tiny growth, that mass of protoplasm, exists as a part of a woman's body. It is not an independently existing, biologically formed organism, let alone a person. That which lives within the body of another can claim no right against its host. Rights belong only to individuals, not to collectives or to parts of an individual .....

"Rights," in Ayn Rand's words, "do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born."

It is only on this base that we can support the woman's political right to do what she chooses in this issue. No other person -- not even her husband -- has the right to dictate what she may do with her own body. That is a fundamental principle of freedom.
In the interests of logical consistency, doesn't according the fetus the status of a human necessarily lead to an opposition against the morning after pill and perhaps birth control in general? If the morning after pill is permissible, then why not an abortion pill, taken three months into pregnancy? It seems to me that if we accord the status of a human to what really amounts to a mass of cells some rather strict requirements and expectations follow. As Basil from the London Fog says in a comment to Mapmaster's post:
Where does one draw the line between autonomy over one's body and the right to life for a purely dependent fetus - after all, it is little more than an extension of the woman who carries it.
The Catholic church used to argue (back when Popes were expected to be cognizant - shouldn't he excommunicate Martin for his insult to marriage?) that - in the words of Monty Python - "every sperm is sacred, every sperm is good". In other words, you better keep your pecker in your pants unless you're aiming to have kids, 'cause otherwise you're wasting the essence of life itself.
For the record, I am not attempting to argue on the basis of 'unfair disadvantage', for I believe that a woman is aware of her reproductive capacities and so should take responsible precautions. My main point is really this: from the fact that we have a right to life, it does not follow that we have a right to everything that will sustain that life. There are necessary constraints on what a person can demand from other persons. What is a right to life if not a right to your own body; what is at issue is whether persons have a right to interfere with our bodily autonomy in order to sustain their life. Whether or not the dependent had some choice in the matter seems irrelevant.

In an essay entitled "A Defence of Abortion" by Judith Thomson, a woman's body is likened to a house. Assuming we all agree that we have rights to property, which includes the right to defend that property, Thomson imagines that a burglar invades the house. Most of us would think it an absurd requirement to let a burglar off the hook because we left our window open or our door unlocked. Similarly, is it not a rather exacting requirement to expect a woman to pay for the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy or one where unforeseen consequences arouse? And it should not matter whether the person broke into our property innocently or not, for of course, the fetus is not committing any wrong as it forms in the mother's body. The point here is merely that even if an innocent person stumbled into my house, they still would not have the right to reside in my house against my wishes.

If a woman really doesn't want to pregnant should we go so far as to say that she should get a hysterectomy to safeguard against possible rape?
There are many legitimate reasons why a rational woman might have an abortion -- accidental pregnancy, rape, birth defects, danger to her health. The issue here is the proper role for government. If a pregnant woman acts wantonly or capriciously, then she should be condemned morally -- but not treated as a murderer.

9 comments:

MapMaster said...

An excellent post — people confronting their prejudices on both sides would contribute to a civilized debate about abortion. In-betweens like no abortion after the first trimester are just arbitrary compromises that satisfy noone. But even logical reasoning at this time seems to reach its limits on this issue—

Basil suggests that a logical extension of the idea that there is no clear dividing line between the onset of life and the onset of human-ness means, like some churches claim, birth control and even "spilling the seed" are verboten as well. I disagree — although I can see where a theological tendency might exist to support that notion. But a seed or an embryo by themselves do not have the genetic combinatory attributes of either xy or xx that constitute human-ness. I don't think that's arbitrary at all. Although n other words, you better keep your pecker in your pants unless you're aiming to have kids — well, maybe people should unless they're willing to face the consequences of their actions. And ignorance is no excuse, especially when a life is at stake.

One contradiction I didn't attempt to resolve in the earlier post was based on the statement that the state should be in the business of protecting the lives of innocent humans -- from conception to grave. I recognize that there is potentially a fatal contradiction in supposing that a minimal government can even exist when it is not based on the contractual agreement of every citizen that it purports to protect. Even Ayn Rand didn't resolve this. But that's a topic for another post. I should mention that I do agree with Lisa that immorality can't be equated with criminality in this case, given the lack of consensus about what constitutes life.

The only quibble I have with this brave post by Lisa is that the infant becomes a self-sustaining human being, albeit dependent, at the time when his or her umbilical cord is cut. This could be seen as arbitrary as well, given that premature babies who are "cut" from the womb before childbirth are as equally self-sustaining (or not) as those that make it all the way to natural childbirth.

Mike said...

"I think Mapmaster and I can agree that it is logically inconsistent to assign a point in time after which the fetus becomes a human, with all the rights to life, liberty and property so attached. It is indeed arbitrary to say that abortion is wrong after the first trimester, but not before. Accordingly, for the sake of argument, I will thus take the position - which I am prepared to follow to its logical conclusion - and say, despite intuitive naggings, that a woman has a right to an abortion, right up until the fetus becomes a human, which is to say, at the point when the umbilical cord is cut and the infant becomes a self-sustaining human being, albeit dependent, as all humans are. Until that point, the mass of cells that exists within the body of the carrier is but potential."

I agree in a way with the first sentence, where you say that "it is logically inconsistent to assign a point in time..." but then you reintroduce the notion under the label of potential vs actual.

And surely a newborn is *less* self-sustaining than a baby in the womb.

"Such a viewpoint depends on the status we grant to a fetus. I take issue with the idea that a fetus, as it resides in the body of the carrier, takes precedence over the rights and desires of the fully formed person that houses it. Otherwise, the fundamental libertarian principle of the right to property and life is possibly jeopardized."

The fully formed! May the day when you are fully formed be many years from now! The living are a work in progress.

The "formation" happens when a sperm fertilizes an egg. The unique genetic blueprint, ie, the human, is derived, and things proceed deterministically from there. It's the same process elaborating on the thing specified by the DNA, all the way to death, when it stops. The fetal stage is just that, a stage in one process.

>snip Objectivist context dropping<

"It seems to me that if we accord the status of a human to what really amounts to a mass of cells some rather strict requirements and expectations follow."

V.I. Lenin, "On the extermination of objective social detriments", p.13, 1915?

"What is a right to life if not a right to your own body; what is at issue is whether persons have a right to interfere with our bodily autonomy in order to sustain their life. Whether or not the dependent had some choice in the matter seems irrelevant."

It's pretty much the whole point.

Anyone who is familiar with the facts of life will tell you that the whole (completely avoidable) situation was invited by the "host"s. Thomson's batty analogy omits that aspect entirely.

I just want people to acknowledge that an abortion destroys a person, and for those who have abortions to be able to say to themselves, "My convenience is more important than another person's life, and the law lets me kill this inconvenient person because pragmatically nobody else is in a position to defend him." If you can say that to yourself then abort away good sir. Life forces tough choices between incompatible values; but for the grace of Dionysus, etc.

Lisa said...

Mike;

Perhaps I didn't explain myself as well as I would have liked. I am not saying that I support abortion and I don't believe abortion should be used as a 'birth control' method. My main point is merely that one must be prepared to take an all or nothing stance on the issue. I think it ridiculous to say an abortion is permissible before the first trimester but not after for example - it has to be all or nothing, so if the blueprint for a human being exists as soon as the egg meets the sperm, then one must say abortion is immmoral at that point - period. Which is fine - my purpose mostly being to push the logic of both stances.

I also question whether it should be unlawful - illegal - for a woman to have an abortion. From the fact that something is immoral, does it follow we should elect the state to intervene? Are we prepared to call abortion 'murder'? And if we are prepared as liberatarians to call abortion murder, who is to enforce and carry out the penalty upon that woman if we reject the state as the caretaker of our lives?

Certainly abortions should not be funded by taxpayers and I bet people might be more responsible if they had to be out of pocket for their own carelessness.

Furthermore, I hesitate to call abortion murder, because I don't feel that the fetus as it exists in the womb is the same as the infant when it is removed from the host. The idea of potentiality and actuality is not intended to be the central point in my argument. Certainly the position could be taken that when the egg meets the sperm that a human is 'actual' and thus, agrue that abortion is wrong in all cases as it constitutes murder. I am arguing from the position that a fetus is not potential at all, but rather an actual fetus, the status of which I am questioning.

And when I said "It seems to me that if we accord the status of a human to what really amounts to a mass of cells some rather strict requirements and expectations follow", I meant to illustrate again that one must be committed to saying abortion is wrong or permissible in all cases, depending on the status granted to the fetus. If we call the fetus a human being, don't we have to say that even in cases of rape that abortion is wrong. It would not be right to murder an innocent being - the fetus - for the sacrifice of the innocent does not right the wrong done to the woman.

I wasn't trying to sound like comrade Lenin and yes, both Peikoff and Thomson are rather nutty, but I still think their discussions raise some interesting points. I don't believe that lives can be disposed of as a means to another's end because they are a 'social detriment' - i ask whether fetuses should be accorded the same rights as humans.

At the same time, I do feel there is a difference between a fetus and an infant once removed from the support of the mother. I wonder if we charge a woman with murder if she eats at MacDonald's everyday and smokes cigarettes while pregnant, thereby causing the death of the fetus?

The use of the words 'fully formed' were meant to express the idea that possibly the fetus should not be accorded the same rights that we would accord 'humans'', human meaning outside of the woman's body. For example, there does seem to be a difference between abortion and infanticid.

This also brings to mind Mapmaster's 'quibble' - it does not matter whether the baby is born premature, or delivered through a caesarean section. Fully formed was simply meant to express the idea that there is a point in which the fetus does become less dependent than the infant child - if the mother dies - so does the fetus, but if the mother dies, not necessary the infant.

I said:

"What is a right to life if not a right to your own body; what is at issue is whether persons have a right to interfere with our bodily autonomy in order to sustain their life. Whether or not the dependent had some choice in the matter seems irrelevant."

Of course there is a huge difference between having your house burglared and having unprotected sex. At the same time, the fetus exists within the woman's body, which is her property, as you would agree.
Surely property rights entail the right to do with your property as you see fit, although what you do with that property might not be moral.

Indeed "Life forces tough choices between incompatible values". My question to you is: do you think abortion should be illegal?

basil said...

"My convenience is more important than another person's life, and the law lets me kill this inconvenient person because pragmatically nobody else is in a position to defend him."
I think this every time I step on the gas of my SUV which I purchased on the free market. I don't give two shits whether it consumes more resouces than necessary, or contributes to the polution which will one day prove far more hazardous to people than cigarettes. It is my right to consume resources as best benefits me if I can pay for them. God bless industry and the profits I reap from it! To hell with anyone living downstream from my battery acid - anyone living downstream has the God-given human potential to move up stream. And while it is considered immoral, if not illegal, in most cultures to kill ones self - whether slowly or quickly - I will smoke cigarette after cigarette poisoning each and every cell in this "mass of cells" which is me.

Lisa said...

Are you suggesting that there is a 'better' alternative to free market economics? Shall we leave it up to the 'planners' and bureaucrats to determine how we should spend our money and what we consume? Like London City Council perhaps? What a fine job they do spending other people's money. Who is to decide who the planners will be, especially considering that people are deemed unfit to govern themselves.

Either you trust people to make choices that promote well being, or you ask the politicians to run the show.

We don't live in a perfect world, but I bet we would have less battery acid running down the river in a free market economy. Afterall, property rights are the best guarantee that property itself will be protected and respected. As well, environmental regulations amounts to a licence to pollute.

And let us not forget Suzuki, Mr. apologist for Stalin. Such a high standard of living we see in the communist / socialist countries, which are among the leaders in pollution.

gm said...

The concept of rights start in "law" at 18. Children under that age have status. The issue is what kind of status is assigned too the various stages before and after birth.

Lisa said...

gm;
precisely my point.

MapMaster said...

Basil brings up the connection between the free market and the status of the fetus, which I find very interesting. What distinguishes the free market from socialism is ultimately respect for human life. What follows from acknowledging the right to life is acknowledging the right to dispose of one's efforts to sustain that life so long as they don't interfere with others' rights to life — the products of one's efforts to acquire food, shelter and the necessities of life are formally called property. If you don't have the right to dispose of your property, you are properly called a slave, and to what degree you are a slave does not mitigate the fact that you are one. And so the right to life entails the right to property. Does pollution by some constitute jeopardizing the property rights of others? Well, it does of course, but one has to be careful about how defines that jeopardy. Property always extends beyond real property bounds — the competition for resources, especially mobile resources, ensures that. The only test for interference with property rights is that the interference be demonstrable, such as physical assault, or, in the case of complex qualitative harm in the form of emissions and ppm of chemicals, or identifiable to a jury of peers of the defendant. That's the only way a decision can be the least arbitrary — and consistent with the ideals of protection in the community that holds those ideals. I would not accept the judgment of environmentalists on the matter you cited above, unless they happened to be peers of the defendant. So if you think that your SUV tramples my property rights, I'd like to know how that could be demonstrated unless you run me over or could convince a jury of your peers that that is the case (although this sounds like you're prosecuting against yourself!).

On the subject of abortion, I think the killing of life is demonstrable harm. If the status of the fetus does not warrant the same protection as that of the infant who has been removed from the womb, then the distinction should be clear and not arbitrary — which is what Lisa is trying to get at. I disagree with her, however — I do not think there is a clear distinction between the "self-sustaining, albeit dependent" attributes of a newborn infant and the attributes of a developed fetus, and from there, no clear distinction between an undeveloped fetus and a developed fetus. In fact, the only clear and completely non-arbitrary distinction I can see is the moment when chromosomes meet at the moment of conception to create the genetic blueprint of a new and unique individual. Arguments based on innocence are immaterial. Arguments based on the property rights of the host of the fetus… well, there we go back to the test for intereference with property rights. I believe abortion constitutes demonstrable harm to one person. If not, then a hypothetical jury of peers of the mother could settle the matter — from there we can see what sort of community we have, whether that community feels that the rights of the mother supercede the rights of the fetus or whether the community wants the unborn to have rights at all, and the consequences to the community of that decision.

Lisa said...

Mapmaster:

After prolonged verbal discussion on this matter, I emphasis the following:

The point I am trying to make is simply this: if you think that the fetus is a human being "the moment when chromosomes meet" then you must also be committed to saying that abortion is murder, as it involves the willful distruction of life. A human being is a human being period. If my neighbour enters my apartment and kills me because my occupancy of the premises interferes with his wish to rent the same space, then surely, a woman who has an abortion is similarly wrongfully disposing of another innocent being. Thus, no matter what the community deems as permissible, logically, if you think along with or perhaps even opposed to your community of elders or peers or whatever you call it, deem that a fetus is a human, then a woman who has an abortion is a murderer and should be subjected to the same treatment as my neighbour who wrongfully ended my life.

Is the fetus, or human being, or whatever we want to call it, to be accorded the same rights as the infant, as removed from the host? What rights does the fetus have as it exists within the womb of the mother in its unique relationship of being a fundamental part of the woman in a way the born infant is not?