I am pro-choice. And I am on Facebook.

I am pro-choice.

And I am on Facebook.

Some real-life friends are pro-life, and also FBFriends.

<queue ominous music>

We occasionally, ahem, clash online on the issue of abortion.

Recently a friend, call her H, linked me to this article, disputing the Judith Jarvis Thomas argument about abortion.

I was exposed to Thomas’s argument 20+ years ago in, who-da-thunk-it, an ethics class.  (Thomas actually wrote it in 1971, 20-odd years before that.)  I was pro-choice then; Thomas’s argument just sealed the deal for me.

I am by no means saying “this is the way it is; Matt’s 100% wrong and I’m 100% right, end of story.”  I’m saying, here are my thoughts on the subject, and on Matt’s reasoning.  I am open to correction, and, to the extent that time and interest allows, dialog.

Below, Matt is in normal type.  And I’m bold.  I originally wrote this in Evernote, where I merely highlighted myself in yellow.  I can’t seem to figure out how to do that in my blog editor; this bold font is the best I can do.  I’m not shouting, really.  And I’m pretty calm.  I hope and presume Matt was too, when he wrote his essay.  Try to imagine reading both of us in Morgan Freeman’s voice.  And neither of us in, say, Sam Kinison’s voice.  🙂

(As an aside: I couldn’t remember Sam’s name at first, but he’s the first hit when you Google “screaming comedian”.  That strikes me funny.  🙂

Here’s Matt:

I took the bait.
I couldn’t help but open an email with the subject line: “You’re afraid of this pro-choice argument” Afraid? I’m afraid of a lot of things. Actually, five things: spiders, asteroids, ghosts, head lice, and malaria. But arguments? Especially pro-abortion arguments? Definitely not on the list.

I might be frustrated by them; annoyed, angered, even disturbed, but afraid? I don’t think so.

Here’s Rachel, trying to strike fear into my heart:

Dear Matt, ever since I first read your blog I knew you were a cowardly fake. It wasn’t until I started reading some of your anti-choice articles that my suspicions were truly confirmed. You spend a lot of time picking the low hanging fruit. You attack the weakest abortion rights arguments while ignoring the glaring weaknesses in your own position. If you had the guts or the brains you’d try to respond to the most important abortion rights argument… bodily autonomy or bodily integrity. This means that we have the final jurisdiction over our own bodies. Nobody can claim a right to our body that goes above our own right. Nobody can use our bodies without consent. We cannot be forced to donate organs or blood to someone else. A fetus must survive on a woman’s body so the woman has a right to withdrawal her consent and her body at any time.

This is the pro-choice argument that no anti-choice fanatic… especially one as stubborn and simpleminded as you… could ever possibly dispute. If you still don’t understand, try to imagine this hypothetical… Imagine that you wake up one morning in a hospital bed. In the bed next to you is a famous singer. He is unconscious and all of these tubes are connected from him to you. A doctor comes in and explains that the singer became sick and you are the only person with the right blood type to match his. They need you to remain hooked up to him until he recovers… they tell you it should only take nine months. Until then, he needs to use all of your organs… your kidneys, liver, lungs, everything… just to survive. If you unplug yourself, he will die. So do you think you are obligated to stay plugged in? Does he have a right to live off of you like this? Should you be FORCED to stay connected to him?

That’s what situation the pregnant woman is in. Instead of harping on all of these irrelevant issues, I wish you’d be brave enough to address it from this angle. It is immoral to require a woman to sustain a fetus and it is moral for a woman to make a decision with her body based on what is right for her. How can you argue against this?

But I guess your blog is more about preaching to the choir than actually being intelligent and bold in your writing. What a shame.


LC: I dislike the opening of Rachel’s email.  It is combative and insulting — literally; she calls him a “cowardly fake”.  I think Matt definitely takes the high road in his response.  I also dislike it because it is a blatant rip-off of Judith Jarvis Thomas’s argument, A Defense of Abortion, as Matt alludes to when he mentions the violinist.  I think a better email would have been “How do you respond to Judith Jarvis Thomas’s argument?”

Disclaimer: I don’t read Matt’s blog; for all I know Rachel’s tone was entirely justified.  But not plagiarism.

Preliminarily, I agree with Matt on some points: Thomas’s analogy breaks down in some places.  (I don’t call it “Rachel’s analogy” ’cause I don’t think Rachel came up with it.)  Yes, that’s true.  Analogies do that.  The only thing directly isomorphic to pregnancy is pregnancy.  Anything else will differ in some specific point or another.

Also, I think when thinking about the question of abortion, you have to think about the whole system.  If abortion is right or legal in any one case or for some specific reason, are there nevertheless any situations where it would be wrong or should be illegal?  Once you open the door, where, how, and why do you, or in fact can you, close it?  Where do you draw the line, and why?

Can we acknowledge that there exist some situations where no right answer is possible — or failing that, that no agreement about some alleged right answer is forthcoming any time soon?  And that we must choose between the least wrong answers available?  For me, part of that acknowledgement is the demonstrable fact that even if we outlaw abortion, women/couples will still seek them, and many of them and their unborn zygotes / embryos / fetuses / babies will die.

And that’s where we get back to the whole system: If you make abortion legal on the grounds that it’s less terrible than women dying of botched abortions (or anything else women did before abortion was legal and comparatively safe (I acknowledge that “legal” does not necessarily entail “safe”); see History of Abortion) … if we make abortion legal on those grounds, where do we draw the line on who can get one or for what reasons?

All that said, none of it is really relevant to the analogy at hand.

Back to Matt:
Here’s my answer:

Dear Rachel, You’re right. You win. I have no response. I can’t think of any reason why you’re wrong about any of the points you raised.

Well, I can’t think of any reason — except for, like, ten reasons. So I’ll start with five reasons why that hypothetical is flawed, and move on to five additional reasons why your overall argument is flawed.

Here we go:

1. Your analogy is flawed because it presupposes that the relationship between mother and child is no more significant, and carries with it no more responsibility, than the relationship between a person and some random stranger in a hospital bed.

This is absurd. If we’re trying to make this hypothetical as close to pregnancy as possible, shouldn’t the sick singer (or violinist, according to the original iteration of this hypothetical) at least be your child? Your argument doesn’t work because the fact that your child is your child, and not some strange adult from across town, is precisely the point. Hidden cleverly in this hypothetical is the insinuation that one cannot agree that an unborn child has a right to his mother’s body, without agreeing that anyone in the entire world, in any context, for any reason, at any point, for any period of time, has a right to a woman’s body.

Nice try, Rachel.

Just because a mother is expected to be a mother doesn’t mean she’s also expected to be a slave, a prostitute, and a forced organ donor to talented musical artists. Indeed, the extent of our responsibility to a person hinges in many ways on our relationship to them. You would, I assume, agree that you have a responsibility to your born children, wouldn’t you? And your responsibility to them extends far beyond your responsibility to your neighbor, or your plumber, or your trash collector, doesn’t it? The relationship matters. Your hypothetical fails because it pretends that relationships are irrelevant.

LC: I think this is actually a good point, but not enough to override the basic argument.  He’s right in that the basic analogy, as such, does break down at that point.  The relationship to a mother and her child, or a mother and her unborn fetus, is different than the relationship between the same woman and various other entities.  But this begs the question because it asserts that because of this difference in relationship, a woman has no right to an abortion (“because a mother is expected to be a mother”; “your child is your child”), which is exactly the question under discussion.

The comparison to one’s neighbor, plumber, or trash collector fails because none of those relationships, or the rights and duties implied by them, involve you sharing your circulatory system with them, or in any other way violating your bodily autonomy.

As a side note: This objection to the analogy doesn’t contradict several of the situations in which actual abortions come up, like ectopic pregnancies, in-utero death, genetic abnormality, or rape, to say nothing of the various economic factors that come into play.  (To be clear: I’m not saying that Matt’s saying it does, either.  This is just a general observation.)
2. Your analogy is flawed because it leaves out an important detail: how did the singer become ill in the first place?

Aside from cases of rape, a child is only conceived because two people intentionally committed a particular act which has, literally billions of times, resulted in the conception of a human life.

This singer came down with a terrible sickness. You might feel pity for him, but you didn’t cause him to be sick. You didn’t put him in this state. You had absolutely nothing to do with it. The same cannot be said when a child is conceived.

LC: Ah, the argument of responsibility.  You had sex voluntarily, you knew the risks, so you have a duty to follow through.

Except, what if it wasn’t voluntary?  Matt hand-waves away this possibility, but it does occur (some foolish politicians to the contrary).  So does Matt condone abortion in the case of rape?  Does he condone abortion in the case of failure of “birth control” (“the pill”, condoms, IUDs, the withdrawal method, the rhythm method, hoping for the best)?

(I put “birth control” in scare quotes because, as H and I have agreed in the past, they should really be called “conception control”, or perhaps even just “conception inhibitors”.  They don’t address, much less control, birth, as such.)

And this objection discounts that getting an abortion could be a reasonable response to the responsibility of getting pregnant.  I had sex, and now I’m pregnant, I don’t want to be, I get an abortion.  The argument that that’s not a responsible response is, again, exactly the question under discussion.

It seems to me that this is a slippery slope, too.  For lots of things people do, a reasonable person can foresee undesired outcomes.  Does that necessarily mean said person is obligated to lie back and accept those outcomes when they come to pass?  I’m on an airplane as I type (as I typed the first draft, anyway).  Airplanes crash.  Should I avoid airplanes?  Should we (society, or the State) let people that survive airplane crashes die of their injuries?  They knew the risks, right?  They were on the plane voluntarily, right?

Driving a car, you might have an accident.  Should you die gracefully?

But these objections to Matt’s objections also aren’t really to the point, either, not directly.

Nothing else (that I can think of) in the human experience has some non-zero probability of the creation of a connection between my circulatory system and yours.  Or, more to the point, my circulatory system and a clump of cells that bears my and my partner’s lineage, which given time and a suitable environment will result in a fully-formed child.

But on the other hand, that’s why these are analogies.  They’re similar in some response, and different in others.

Matt’s argument is that, to the extent that they’re similar, if you consented to the activity and you knew the risks, you have a duty to follow through with having a child, and (I suppose) that this is fundamentally different from the risks undertaken when boarding an airplane or driving a car.

And I just disagree, on the grounds that we do not have a duty to follow through (my words, not Matt’s) on lots of foreseeable, probable, yet undesired outcomes, and not pregnancy, either.

Aside: Like point 1, this rebuttal also doesn’t touch on ectopic pregnancies, etc.  Again, not that Matt says it does.

3. Your analogy is flawed because, when framed properly, it doesn’t strengthen your moral position — it defeats it. The hypothetical should be this: your own child becomes very sick because of something you did. He needs a blood transfusion and you are the only match. Would you refuse to give him your blood because it infringes on your bodily autonomy? Could this be morally justified? You put your kid in the hospital and now you will choose to watch him die because he ‘doesn’t have a right to your blood.’ THIS scenario would be the closest to abortion. And, if you are consistent in your affinity for ‘bodily autonomy,’ you could not criticize parents who’d rather let their child die than be inconvenienced by a blood transfusion.

LC: Frankly, I think this is a good point.  Not completely valid, but good.  The analogy does break down, but then we knew that already.

And the question of “could [the situation he outlined] be morally justified” is an interesting one, but not really to the point, either.  The question is “should it be illegal to not do so?”  We have laws about child care, and what constitutes reasonable care, but to conflate those laws with the care due an unborn fetus once again begs the question under discussion.  Well, sort of; it begs the question about abortion, not so much the analogy as presented.
4. But, no matter how you frame the hypothetical, it is still flawed because it ignores one crucial thing: natural order.

An unborn child is exactly where he is supposed to be. He couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. This is the fundamental difference between two people hooked up to machines on a hospital bed, and a ‘fetus’ connected to his mother insider her womb. The former represents unnatural and extraordinary measures, while the latter represents something natural and ordinary. The unborn child is where Nature (or God, as I call Him) intends it to be.

The unborn child is not, in any scientific or medical sense, an intruder or a parasite. These words have meanings, and unborn babies do not fit the bill. They are where they are supposed to be. They are where they belong. A fish belongs in water, just as an unborn child belongs in his mother’s womb.

LC: Ah, natural order.  Miscarriages and other kinds of spontaneous abortion are also part of the natural order.  Surgical assistance and other medical interventions are not part of the natural order.  The natural order argument is crap.

“The unborn child is not, in any scientific or medical sense, an intruder or a parasite. These words have meanings, and unborn babies do not fit the bill.”  This is not actually true.  Those words do have meanings, and some zygotes clearly do fit the bill.

  1. to thrust or bring in without invitation, permission, or welcome.
Many zygotes are clearly uninvited, unpermitted, and unwelcome.

  1. an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense.
The negative connotations aside, a zygote/embryo/fetus does fit some of the senses of an intruder or parasite, according to my dictionary.  I suppose Matt might argue that these are not “medical” or “scientific”.
5. Beyond all of these points, the analogy is flawed because abortion is not the same as ‘unplugging’ a person from medical equipment.

It might be quite sanitary and pleasant to refer to abortion as a woman ‘withdrawing support’ from her child, but the procedure goes beyond this. During a ‘termination,’ the baby is actively killed. It is crushed, dismembered, poisoned, or torn apart. It is killed. It is actively, actually, purposefully, intentionally killed.

In fact, even in the original hypothetical — where you’re hooked up to a singer in a hospital bed — while it would be acceptable to unplug yourself, it would NOT be morally or legally permissible to shoot the poor guy in the head. A person’s physical reliance on you does not give you the moral (or legal, usually) right to murder them. ‘Withdrawing support’ is precisely what an abortion isn’t. If it was, then the baby would be delivered and left to die in the corner of the room. Of course, this is how some abortionists conduct business, but it’s illegal. If they’re caught, they go to jail.

LC: I actually agree with this point.  As mentioned above, I’ve seen this analogy before, and I’ve often thought that while I think you should have the right to disconnect yourself from the singer (or violinist, or whomever), you certainly don’t necessarily have the right to have them killed.

I think if it were possible to transplant a fetus to another host, or raise it in an artificial womb, that would be preferred, though not always (ha) practical.

So those were Matt’s first five reasons that Thomas’s hypothetical is flawed, and now he wants to “move on to five additional reasons why [her] overall argument is flawed”.

6. But the bodily autonomy argument is flawed in ways that go beyond that utterly fallacious and misleading hypothetical. It’s flawed because nobody is crazy enough to consistently apply it to pregnant women.
According to bodily autonomy, a mother could not be judged harshly for smoking, drinking, doing coke, and going skydiving (hopefully not all in the same day) while 6 months pregnant. If you really believe that a woman’s body is autonomous — that she has absolute jurisdiction over it — then you must defend a mother who does things that could seriously harm her unborn child, even if she hasn’t chosen to abort it. This is not a slippery slope argument; this is a reasonable and inevitable application of your principle.

LC: “this is a reasonable and inevitable application of your principle.”  I actually don’t think it is.  It might be reasonable; I don’t think it’s inevitable.

Here’s where my point about potential comes in.  I think that until and unless a woman gets an abortion, she should exhibit all due care for her zygote / embryo / fetus.  Because plans change, intentions change, and sometimes sheer time and logistics just don’t work out (see below), and so until such time as the pregnancy is actually terminated, it should be nurtured.
This may, in fact, be inconsistent with the bodily autonomy argument.  But I think it’s the least wrong of the alternatives.

7. The bodily autonomy argument is flawed because it requires you to support abortion at every stage of development.

I’m throwing this in here because most pro-aborts will not (vocally) defend abortion at 8 or 9 months. But — if bodily autonomy is your claim — you must. Is a woman’s body less autonomous when she’s been pregnant for 35 weeks? There is no way around it: bodily autonomy means that it is moral to kill a fully formed baby, at seven months, or eight months, or nine months.

LC: Run that by me again?  A fully formed baby … at seven months?  No.  This again assumes its argument.

This is part of the “whole system” I mentioned above.  If it’s legal in some situations, are there other situations where it’s wrong or should be illegal?  Where do you draw the line?  It’s hard to draw the line anywhere but conception or birth.

Another reason I bring up the whole system is that many anti-abortion advocates have worked very hard to make abortion very hard to come by, practically speaking.  It’s frequently hard to get, hard to get to, and expensive, and not always covered by insurance.  Not everyone that would choose to have one can afford it or get to it immediately, even if they want it immediately.  And that’s why I think I’m in favor, practically speaking, of the legality of late term abortions.

So I guess my response to “it requires you to support abortion at every stage of development” is, Yeah, pretty much.

These next three are, in my opinion, where Matt really starts to go off the rails.  In general he conflates “bodily autonomy” with “any responsibility whatsoever”, which the analogy doesn’t claim, and which no one that uses the analogy claims, either, so far as I know.  (Not that I’ve researched that particular question.)  Certainly I don’t.

8. The bodily autonomy argument is flawed because you can’t limit it to pregnant women.

You say that our bodies cannot be ‘used’ without our ‘consent.’ Why should this apply only to pregnancy and organ donations? Children, at any age, create profound demands on their parents’ bodies. Whether it’s waking up in the middle of the night for the crying baby, working long hours to pay for their food and clothing, carrying them around when they cannot walk, staying home when you’d like to go out, going out (to bring them to the doctor, or school, or soccer practice) when you’d like to stay in, etc, etc, etc, and so forth. An argument for absolute bodily autonomy means that it can’t be illegal, or considered immoral, for a parent to decline to do any of these things, so long as their decision was made in the name of bodily autonomy.

LC: What?  No, no, no.  None of this breaks bodily autonomy.  None of this forces me to link my circulatory system to another entity.

9. The bodily autonomy argument is flawed because it necessarily justifies things like public masturbation.

If I can ‘do what I want with my body,’ then it becomes very difficult to launch a salient moral or legal attack against a man who chooses to sit in a playground in front of children and pleasure his own body.

LC: Again, what?  No.  Masturbation has nothing to do with forcing me to link my circulatory system to another entity.  The part about doing so in a playground full of children is simply inflammatory.  Heck, mentioning masturbation at all is, for many pro-lifers, inflammatory.

10. Finally, the bodily autonomy argument is flawed because our bodies are not autonomous.

I’m often accused of oversimplifying, but I’ve never oversimplified to the extent of you bodily autonomy proponents. Once we’ve considered every complexity and nuance, we can rightly say that our bodies are autonomous in some ways, and in some circumstances, but not in others. We cannot say that they are absolutely autonomous, and I find it hard to believe that anyone truly thinks that.

Any claim or responsibility placed on me, automatically includes a claim and responsibility on my body. Everything I do involves my body. I am my body. CS Lewis would say that I am my soul and I have a body. I agree with him, but for our purposes in this discussion, leaving souls and spirits aside, we are our bodies. Whether we are expected to pay taxes or drive the speed limit or provide a safe and sanitary home for our children, we are using our bodies to meet these expectations. We experience and participate in life with our bodies. Absolute bodily autonomy is inexorably linked with personal autonomy. If my body is autonomous, my person must be autonomous, and if my person is autonomous, then my very existence is autonomous, and if my very existence is autonomous, then it is simply unacceptable and (by your logic) immoral for anyone to expect me to do anything for anyone at any point for any reason.

If you concede that we ought to be expected or even required to do certain things, then you are placing limits on our bodily autonomy. If you place limits on our bodily autonomy, then you are admitting that limits can be placed on our bodily autonomy. If you are admitting that limits can be placed on our bodily autonomy, then you must consider whether abortion falls within or outside of those limits. And here’s the rub: if you contend that abortion falls within the limits on bodily autonomy, you must justify that belief beyond simply reasserting our right to bodily autonomy.

LC: No.  For the third time, none of this forces me to link my circulatory system to another entity.
Personally, I think that abortion goes well beyond the limits on bodily autonomy, for all of the reasons I’ve previously stipulated.

There’s your answer, Rachel.

But, except for the ten reasons why you’re wrong, you’re right on the money.

And, except for the ten answers I’ve provided, I have no answers for you.

I guess you win.

Thanks for writing.

LC: Thanks for reading.