A bit more on abortion

I'll be in and out of internet contact for the next few days, so I may or may not respond to any new wingnuttery from Michael Egnor. But it's worth making a few broad points.

First, nothing I've written should be taken to suggest that fetuses (especially in the third trimester) don't have moral status as people. My previous posts in this vein have been dedicated to showing that Egnor's criteria for making that judgment from the moment of conception are flawed and lead to pernicious and absurd results. I think I've succeeded there.

Second, in discussing abortion, I don't think the really the important issue is when human life (or personhood) starts. The important issue is that the wellbeing of the fetus is dependent upon the wellbeing of the pregnant woman. If that pregnancy threatens the life and health of the woman, the moral status of the fetus cannot be considered in a vacuum. The woman has moral status, too, and any analysis that only considers the fetus's moral status is misogynist and immoral.

Third, I want to point people to this documentary on the murder of Dr. George Tiller. Rachel Maddow does a great job showing the vital importance of doctors who provide third trimester abortions, and also exposes the moral bankruptcy of the anti-abortion movement. No movement purporting to defend life and to value and defend the moral status of fetuses can consistently support or defend the murder of doctors. And way too many folks stood up for Scott Roeder, the confessed and even proud murderer of Dr. Tiller.

Watch especially the third part of the documentary, in which three patients explain the heartbreak entailed in their decision to have a late-term abortion. None of them rejected the personhood of their fetuses, their babies. The doctors and nurses interviewed all describe the fetuses as babies, and do not seem to have any reason to doubt that they were morally human. They obtained and provided late term abortions because to do otherwise would cause and perpetuate human suffering, would not prevent the deaths of those fetuses, but would protect the mothers. Because of those abortions, those women could attempt another pregnancy, care for their previous and future children, their husbands and extended family, and could live their lives. If those abortions had not been done, these women could well have died. On top of their own lost lives, the lives of many other people would have been torn apart by those women's deaths.

And those babies would almost surely have died, too.

Abortion is not done lightly. When it is necessary, though, it is absolutely necessary, and it is wrong to second-guess the complex moral and medical choices hashed out between a woman, her family, and her doctor.

For saving the lives of thousands of women over the years, George Tiller was shot in the head, on a Sunday, in his church. Scott Roeder pulled that trigger, but as I wrote at the time, he's just a pawn in the game:

Roeder did not act alone. Setting aside the comings and goings at his house, Roeder operated at the fringes of society, in a world where phrases like "justifiable homicide" were routine, and everyone knew who "Tiller the Killer" was. He lived in a world where murderers of other doctors were lionized. He operated in circles that believed it was acceptable to cast off the shackles of our nation's laws when you disagreed with them, circles where people declare themselves "sovereign citizens," construct compounds to keep police out, and stockpile guns, ammunition, and bombs. He devoted himself to stopping women from receiving life-saving medical treatments, and, spurred on by the whispers of his supposed friends and whatever demons were crawling through his mind, he drove to Tiller's church, opened fire, and then started the long drive home.

To Roeder, and the other members of his "pro-life" community, Tiller was less than human. Because he provided a legal and necessary service to women, Tiller's life didn't count. That troubles me, and it ought to trouble Michael Egnor, too.


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Hilzoy and Megan McArdle have had an exchange over abortion, which includes, as these discussions always do, a ton of talking-past-each-other. This tends to happen, because anti-choicers tend to ignore the pregnant woman, and put all their attention on the well-being of the embryo (and my friend…

It is a logical fallacy to state that reliance of one person upon a woman somehow diminishes the the woman's fundamental right to life.

Egnor's moral judgment seems exactly on a par with his grasp of science.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 22 Dec 2010 #permalink

Im curious, do you think the pro-lifers really care for the scientific definition of life? Will they accept any definition of human life which doesn't involve stating life begins at conception?

By Deepak Shetty (not verified) on 22 Dec 2010 #permalink

Josh, I've watched you spin for years, and it's beyond me how you think you can justify your conclusions. What the heck is wrong with you? Your stance on abortion is abhorrent as well as painfully uniformed. Engor's latest... please read and absorb. Stop trying to justify something that you KNOW is wrong.

Abortion is not done lightly. When it is necessary, though, it is absolutely necessary, and it is wrong to second-guess the complex moral and medical choices hashed out between a woman, her family, and her doctor.

I'm not sure that's true. Each year in China, for example, thousand upon thousand of women have had abortions because they've wanted their allotted child to be a baby boy. Assuming there's a complex and inexplicable moral conundrum behind each such choice appears - however unconsciously - to be a bit of a side-step.

China's one-child policy is absurd, and distinct from the legal and moral issues in the US, where there aren't perverse incentives at work.

True, but I think the use of "necessary" is a bit suspect. Well over a million abortions take place yearly in the U.S. alone: a small fraction of those will take place in situations where the mother's health is at serious risk, and it's not unfair to assume that a far greater proportion will be lifestyle choices (uncertain employment, dodgy relationships et cetera). Even if we're to accept that women have a legal right to abortion the ethics of the thing should be considered. After all, they'll make the choice to abort/keep the foetus within the context of whatever view society projects upon the act.

Your a smart guy Josh, but Egnor has won each exchange easily and smoothly, probably because he has the unfair advantage of being right.

But backing down is anathema to you guys, isn't it? You're your own prisoner.

James, Egnor has yet to even score a point.

I'll give you 2 points, one for effort and one for conviction. That's your limit though.