Thursday, September 15, 2005

Abortion And Autonomy

In the last post I noted that the problem with abortion is weighing up the different interests: Most obviously, the right to life of the foetus and the right to autonomy and choice of the woman. While I put forward one way people use to weigh up the situation (pre-existing attitudes to sex) I suggested that this was a poor way to consider the situation. Now I will explain one of the main reasons that I am pro-choice.

Looking at the two major competing interests as stated above, it is easy to quickly conclude that the right to life must trump all else, as superior and more important. This is one reason people argue the pro-life viewpoint. Another is the idea that the woman is (in cases other than rape) at least in part to blame for the pregnancy while the foetus is blameless. Therefore the benefit of the moral doubt must go to the foetus. In a way this suggests that as a punishment for consenting for sex, the woman gives up some rights over her autonomy. She has no right to complain as she could have prevented the whole situation from coming about.

These arguments should be kept in mind as I present my analogy, and I will come back to them. For the record, when I became a fully fledged liberal and attempted to apply the idea that people should have autonomy over their bodies and choices to my beliefs, abortion was one of the three main sticking areas (along with prostitution and drugs) which caused me a lot of trouble. It was a long time before I was able to put myself on one side of the fence on the issue, and it was only when I came up with my analogy that I was able to see the issue clearly.

The Driving Analogy:

A couple enjoy driving around in their new sports car. They are not going anywhere in it, just taking it around the roads at reasonably high speeds, the wind in their hair. There is of course always a risk while driving, but they are competent drivers and only think of the feeling of being on the open road.

One day, something terrible happens. They do not see a pedestrian until it is too late, and although they swerve to avoid him they hit him and the car crashes, knocking them both out.

When the woman of the couple wakes up she is in a hospital. Around her are doctors trying to reassure her, and as she becomes more lucid she realises that something feels wrong. Looking down, she sees many tubes attached to all different parts of her body. All of them lead across to an adjacent table, and on it lies the pedestrian they had hit. Before she can struggle and rip the tubes out, the doctors hold her and soothe her, telling her to relax.

Once she is awake, they explain to her what happened. Paramedics arrived at the scene of the crash and took the three injured people to hospital. It quickly became clear that the pedestrian was in bad shape. His organs were damaged, unable to perform their functions to keep him alive. He was also losing a lot of blood.

However, they realised that there was a way to save him. Using all their skill and technology they were able to hook him up to the woman, whose blood type matched his. By using the sustaining power of her almost undamaged body, they were able to keep him alive, and he is slowly starting to recover, by leeching nutrients from the woman's blood and using her organs.

This disturbs the woman much, but she is glad that the man is at least alive. However, she is shocked to learn that estimates suggest that the man will need to be hooked up to her, unconscious, for nearly nine months before he will be able to survive alone (and even then he will need constant care for some time). The woman is horrified at the idea of having him hooked up to her in this way for such a long period of time.

As time goes on she feels worse and worse as she can constantly feel the way her life is being leeched for the man's purposes. Her emotions go beyond her control and what she can do is restricted. She also finds out that unhooking him so he can live on his own is likely to be a very painful, exhausting and embarrassing procedure.

She starts to consider the possibility of refusing to continue her existance like this, removing the tubes and so letting the man die. As she considers this, she recieves guidance from two sources. One side call themselves pro-life, and insist that it would be murder to do so. They tell her that it is her own fault that she is in this situation, so she is obliged to let the man continue to leech her life force and undergo the final operation. The other side is pro-choice, and tell her that she has autonomy over her body, and so it remains her choice as to whether she removes the tubes or allows the man to stay like that. They say that no-one has the right to force her to remain like that.


The question, of course, is which of the two sides would you agree was in the right? I will not patronise by going through the analogy explaining every line of it. Needless to say, the driving is sex, the crash is getting pregnant, and the pedestrian is the foetus growing in the womb. I would like to explain how this can help to shed some light on the issue of abortion.

Earlier I said that it can be easy to immediately conclude that the right to life is more important than anything else. I would say that the analogy might help to dispense with this particular gut feeling. While the right to life is important, I would argue that it is not enough to completely void the rights of others to autonomy and personal dignity. Other analogies could be given like this: A criminal threatens to kill a man unless his girlfriend allows him to have sex with her. While many would do it for their lovers, it would seem ludicrous to expect an absolute obligation to consent to sex to protect someone else's right to life. In the original analogy, the woman has to put up with much indignity and sacrifice some of her autonomy to keep the man alive - often pregnancy requires similar sacrifices. The point is that just because a life might be at stake, does not null and void all competing rights.

Secondly, it was suggested that some pro-lifers think the woman's choice should be nullified as punishment for partly causing the situation. If the response to this was not already clear, I would hope that the analogy would help to make it so. While it may be legitimate to associate blame with the act, the point is that the 'punishment' or consequences are wildly out of proportion with the infraction committed. It is like shoplifting in a country which executes theives. Even though the consequences might be foreseeable, it is not right to say that the consequences are fair because they are to blame. Our natural sense of justice (and empathy, I would hasten to add) requires that we only enforce consequences / punishment on people if it is proportional to the wrong done. In the analogy, while perhaps the driving was an unnecessary risk, the terrible consequences for the woman are out of proportion. Similarly the consequences of pregnancy on autonomy and dignity are far out of proportion to the 'wrong' of sex, particularly given the natural urges and societal pressures involved.

As such, it is argued that the analogy suggests that the decision must in the end be with the one whose dignity and autonomy is compromised. It is her sacrifice to make, not for someone else to force her to do so. The analogy made me firmly pro-choice, and remains my favourite way to explain my position.


an interested party said...

Unfortunately the analogy breaks down on the level of purpose. At least at one level (the biological) the purpose of sex is fulfilled in the continuance of the species.
I hope your drivers have no belief that the purpose of driving a sports car is to maim pedestrians.....? (That sounds like a particularly dark fantasy)
Ignoring that purpose and divorcing the act of sex from it gives a very distorted view.

Pejar said...

While that is an interesting point and one I'm glad has been made, I would argue that it does not significantly damage the analogy.

The first reason for this is that it is difficult to assert that procreation is the purpose of sex. It is hard to argue for definite that anything has a certain purpose. If we look to the natural world, sex is not just a procreative measure - it bonds together social groups and individual couples as well. All of these are reasons that sex evolved into being, so it is hard to point to procreation as 'the purpose'.

It is equally hard to do so even if you look at procreation from a religious point of view. How is one to know the reason any god might have created the act? Mainstream Protestantism seems to have accepted marital bonding and expression of love as alternate purposes. It is only Catholicism which rigidly demands that there can only be one purpose (drawing on Aquinian teachings).

Another problem is that if one were to accept that procreation is the sole purpose of sex and to deny it is wrong (as in Catholic tradition and as how I assume you mean) then one must condemn the use of contraception (as the Catholic Church does), masturbation, sex while infertile etc. Clearly this is not by itself a reason to reject your criticism, but it does mean that if you stick to your line, to be consistent you must condemn these things.

Most importantly, however, even if you are Catholic and willing to consistently apply the principle, it does not actually make a difference to my argument. Even if connected with the right to life, I think most people would reject that these automatically trump dignity and autonomy. Furthermore, it does not affect the fact that as a 'punishment' for sex, pregnancy is out of proportion to the wrong committed.

Finally, with regards to rape as discussed in the next post, if not thwarting the purpose of sex is so important, it would suggest that the same is true even in cases of rape. To be consistent, you would probably have to make no exception for cases of rape.

Thanks for your comment!

Anonymous said...

With regards to your analogy, have you read the Violin-player analogy written in the 1970s? (Discussed here: Ratio Juris
Vol. 17 Issue 3 Page 381 September 2004
An Ethics Ensemble: Abortion, Thomson, Finnis and the Case of the Violin-Player
Melanie Williams)This analogy was pro-choice from a feminist perspective. What do you make of second-wave feminism's calls for abortion on demand? Do you believe that a woman should be given this choice because there is scientific potential?
Where do you stand in relation to the morning after pill? Personally I think that this muddies the waters even further for anti-abortionist people.
I was just curious.
I particuarly enjoyed the clarity of your writing.

Pejar said...

I have vaguely heard of the analogy, but only since I came up with my own. From what I can tell, the two are reasonably similar although I like to think that my car crash scenario gives an analogy for the 'fault' of sex.

I do think that abortion on demand should be available because I think that even if we accept the foetus as alive from conception (and I would say that while an indistinguishable bundle of cells it is clearly not alive and when it does become alive is uncertain), it must still be up to the woman to balance the intrusion to her dignity and autonomy with the child's right to life.

I personally think this justifies abortion up to viability outside the body, because after that birth can be induced and so the life saved without prolonged damage to dignity or autonomy, and childbirth is unlikely to cause more damage to these than the abortion at this point.

Whereas I see abortion as a difficult issue, I really don't see the same for the morning after pill. Even the latest this could possibly 'kill' the foetus, there is really no question that it is alive - it is the bundle of cells I mentioned previously. I see no difference between this and preventing sperm and egg meeting in the first place.

Thanks for your comment!

Meme said...

I enjoyed your post but I would just like you to consider another analogy.

One day a lady is sitting in her one bedroom apartment. She didn't finish high school and makes very little at her job. Her weekly income is barely enough to pay for rent and buy herself food. One day a homeless person knocks on her door and demands that she provide him with food, clothing, shelter, etc. He says that he will need this assistance for ten to twenty years. If you do not provide it, he will surely die of starvation or exposure.

Would she be morally obligated to give in to this person's demands? Surely almost everyone would agree that she would not, and any law forcing her to do this is a serious infringement on her freedom. No one may demand that she sacrifice years of her life, her money, her privacy, etc to assist another person, even if he will surely die without her help. (Or the help of someone else, of course, but if that’s the case this same question would be proposed to a different person) It would certainly be noble of her to make such a sacrifice, but she has every right to throw the homeless beggar out into the street and tell him to get a job and take care of himself.

And so, the same thing must apply to children. If I decide that the burden of caring for my four-year-old daughter is just too much, I can throw her out into the street and tell her to get a job and take care of herself. If she starves to death in the street, too bad, but that's not my problem.

Does your analogy work in this case?

What about the legal aspect? If the woman was driving recklessly and hit a pedestrian and the pedestrian died she would be going to prison, maybe for life, for committing manslaughter. This is what the law says we should do with the woman. Do these consequences seem terribly out of proportion with taking the risk of driving? Is being hooked up to the man you hit for nine months worse than going to prison where (I hasten to add) you will lose most of your right to privacy and autonomy. Also since you analogy is relating to abortion should every person who gets an abortion go to prison, maybe for life, for committing manslaughter?

Also the woman did cause the accident and an innocent bystander did get hurt. Some may say she does have some moral obligation to help the man. Yes, she may be inconvenienced and be embarrassed but she caused this. Some would argue that her decision to drive fast does give her the obligation to help the man for the nine months.

The murderer forcing the woman to have sex analogy is unrelated because the decision to have sex to save her husband was forced on her and she had no other options. A more accurate analogy would be, a woman decides she hates her husband so she hires a hit man to come and kill him. The hit many agrees but warns the woman that she might change her mind in which case he will want sex as compensation. The woman disregards this warning and hires the hit man any way. The night the murder is going to take place the man buys the woman some beautiful flowers and she decides he’s not that bad after all, but try as she might she can’t reach the hit man to call off their plans. That night the hit man breaks into the house and the woman begs for her husband’s life. The hit man decides to let the man live, and he asks the woman to pay him for his services, because he bought a new 3,000 gun to commit the murder. She refuses on the grounds that he didn’t actually have to kill the man. The hit man, being very forgiving, agrees to save the man and not get paid if she will have sex with him.

In this case it doesn’t seem so ludicrous to expect an absolute obligation to have sex, because the woman hired the man, she invited him into her house to kill her husband, she knew sex was a possible consequence, and then she refused to pay him. She had many options along the way to stop the final consequences; she just chose to ignore them.

Your thief analogy has some flaws as well. In that case the man or woman who made the decision to steal is killed because of their decision, the consequences in that case can be considered unfair. In abortion the woman who made the decision to have sex is just inconvenienced for nine months and then has the option to give the baby away. A more accurate analogy would be, I go to a foreign country and decide to steal a bracelet from a side of the road salesman. The police drive by just as the man is yelling thief; they arrest me and chop off my hand for stealing. Yes, that injury will be a big inconvenience and I will probably have to deal with some pain and discomfort but I will still be alive. The moral of the above story is don’t steal in countries that will chop your hand off for it or have sex when you know you could get pregnant.

I am not saying I agree with pro life advocates that say abortion is wrong simply because the woman deserves it. I am pro life, but for many other reasons unrelated to the fault of the mother. If you are pro choice simply because you believe one aspect of the pro life argument is unfounded I encourage you to look at some other arguments that we have and then if you have a rebuttal I would be more than happy to hear it. I have seen many websites dedicated to responding with the pro life position against many of the pro choice arguments. I have yet to find one, and would love to see one, dedicated to the pro choice rebuttals to pro life arguments. Maybe you could take the initiative to create one. If you do I hope you post the address so I can check it out. I like to look at both sides of the argument but I find sources for the pro choice side limited.

p.s. I liked you analogy better than the violin player. I think you did a better job presenting it especially since you handled the responsibility aspect.

AngryReptileKeeper said...

The man who was is the car is suddenly nowhere to be found, I noticed. Per usual, all the blame and consequences for the accident lie on the woman. Was she even the one driving? Why is she the only one who gets punished?

That really does perfectly frame the status-quo, though. Women are the ones who typically shoulder all the blame and the consequences. Nobody ever scolds the man for his role in things, and most often, there is great pressure for the woman to take on all the responsibility for contraception (like "making" the man wear a condom, and the lack of male birth control). One more reason why I think the pro-life side of the fence is, under the surface, fueled largely by misogyny.

Anyway, I don't think abortion should be an argument of "is it alive or not?" but of sentience. A blastocyst/embryo/fetus is alive- in the sense that our skin cells are alive- and that's the extent of it. It, however, is incapable of contemplating it's existence, death, the world around it, emotions, etc. It's brain quite simply isn't developed enough. That's the same reason it's perfectly acceptable (depending on who you ask) to kill and eat plants and animals (though I'd have to say that a lot of edible animals are far more sentient than an embryo, and there is some evidence that plants are also quite sentient).

As for the supposed sanctity of human life, nobody can really say how true that is. I'd have to say that it is based solely in human arrogance. Why our species and no other? Because some book (written by humans, might I add) says so?

Did you know that female animals, when stressed, will often kill (and sometimes eat) their young? Abortion is very similar (as are cases where PPD women kill their kids). 'Tis the natural way of things, and all the religion-fueled hyperbole in the world won't change that simple biological fact. Theology will never erase or trump biology.

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Matt said...

Hi, found this post while looking to see if there were pro-life groups that arose independently of the Judeo-Christian notion that every human life is (equally) valuable.

I am as pro-choice as you can get. I think Meme's analogy is spot on. So I was a bit surprised to notice just how unsympathetic I was to your driver analogy - you drove recklessly, you hit someone, there's a way to save them (and maybe your insurance premiums won't go up as badly if they don't die), I see no reason why the driver should be let off the hook.

I only managed to reconcile this reaction with my views upon AngryReptileKeeper's reminder that the man in the car was suddenly nowhere to be found. It's always going to be two people doing a thing and one getting hit with the consequences, the choice of whom being purely based on accident of birth. I think this sort of hard-wired, arbitrary, economically significant and actual unfairness far outweighs the value of the human potential wasted in allowing abortion.

So yes, thank you for reminding me why I have the views I do, if perhaps not in the intended way. :)

(For what it's worth, I could totally see myself as pro-life if people laid eggs that developed outside of anyone's body. Dunno what I'd do if humanity were to meet with another sapient species that had exactly that setup...)

Matt said...

Correction: Strike out "I think Meme's analogy is spot on" and in its place insert "I do not admit to being particularly intelligent, having not read all the comments in full before posting, and in particular having only skimmed a few choice words of the first couple paragraphs of Meme's".