Abortion Debate Series: Round Two

Should the United States government (federally or through states and territories) restrict (totally or partially) a woman’s right to an abortion? This article is the second round in a debate series on the topic of abortion by authors Deion Kathawa and Andrew Beddow.  Read the original arguments here.

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Deontology is more in Keeping with a Regime of Illegal—not Legal—Abortion

(Deion Kathawa)

I find myself in wholehearted agreement with my opponent, Mr. Beddow, in his assertion that human beings “are intrinsically valuable” and are thus “ends-in-themselves of objective value,” which means that they are both owed “respect simply because they are persons” and that, consequently, no person is “entitled to treat others as objects to be forcibly manipulated.” But I find myself wondering how he moves from that robust position to, in the final analysis, concluding that abortion acts—instances of great disrespect, naked objectification, non-deontological (i.e., consequentialist) means-end calculation, and violent coercion—ought to be legal.

I would begin by asking why freedom itself, our supposed “first right,” is both (1) objective in the sense that it makes demands on us in the way Mr. Beddow insists that it does, and (2) why something else cannot take its place: duty to family, perhaps, or religious obligations. It seems that one might plausibly make the case that freedom itself is a mere subjective good, especially when paired with the reality that none of is so free as my opponent alleges that we are: All of us are entangled beings, restrained and constrained by our biology, resources, and societal structures and institutions. As for the second point: Even if freedom is objective, why is freedom the prime good/capacity/principle? Mr. Beddow seems to simply assume this without providing an argument establishing it as the case. Why not obedience to a Divine authority?

He goes on to makes a strong claim: “I owe persons respect simply because they are persons, and it is for this reason that I am obligated always to treat humanity (in myself or in others) as an end-in-itself, and never as mere means to be used or disposed of in the pursuit of some subjective end.” And yet, it would seem abortion is a paradigmatic case of a person’s abjectly failing to “honor” humanity as objectively valuable, instead opting to take illegitimate moral discretion by using or disposing of the preborn human organism via an abortion “in the pursuit of some subjective end.” Women seek abortions for various reasons. What they all have in common, however, is that they are merely subjective ends in which the preborn human organism, what my opponent grants may be called a “person,” is treated as being of merely “contingent value”—a position manifestly at odds with our duty to treat all persons as intrinsically valuable, according to my opponent’s view recapitulated at the outset.

Mr. Beddow then writes: “A mother has a right to determine the use of her body insofar as this is compatible with the equal freedom of self-determination of all others. As the fetus (being in the body of the mother against her will) violates this right of self-determination, the mother is authorized to coercively remove the fetus from her body.”

But this is too quick. I would ask: Does freedom have consequences? Assuming the mother freely chose (whatever the word “freely” means in the world in which we live—one in which we are bundles of psychological contradictions, bound up in societal webs which spawn for us competing obligations and pressures) to engage in sexual intercourse, should she not bear the results of those free choices, i.e., the pregnancy?

There is also a contradiction later on. Mr. Beddow reminds us that the “value of humanity” is found in our “capacity for self-determination,” but then he goes on to say that, in abortion, the mother “certainly harms the interests of the fetus, but she does not violate its rights, since the fetus’s existence was never fully rightful, being parasitic upon the use what was another’s by right (that is, the body of the mother)” (emphasis added). Which is it? Is the fetus unprotected from the abortionist’s forceps because it is not able to immediately exercise self-determination via acts of rationality, or because it is living within the mother? This mystery remains unsolved.

Ultimately, Mr. Beddow’s argument, one which contained so much promise, goes off the rails because of its infidelity to its central redeeming feature (that humanity is valuable in itself), contradictory intermediate conclusions, and insufficiently defined key terms, such as freedom.

Abortion Should Be Legal: A Response to Deion Kathawa

(Andrew Beddow)

In my first post, I outlined a general theory of rights: insofar as human beings are practically rational, they are both entitled to freedom and constrained by the same entitlement of others. As best as I can tell, Mr. Kathawa appeals to a similar moral intuition: people have at least a prima facie right not to have coercion used against them. Since he believes fetuses are persons, they have the same set of rights as adults, and this entitles them to the protection of the law.

The first important thing to note is that nothing in this account actually conflicts with my own justification of the right to abortion. As I stated in my opening post, we can accept that fetuses are not only humans but also persons, and therefore entitled to rights. My argument does not rest on the differing “degrees” of humanity in women and fetuses—only the conflict between their rights that occurs in an unwanted pregnancy.

Still, it’s unclear to me why biological humanity carries with it any moral value. Corpses and disembodied organs are all ‘human,’ but we wouldn’t ordinarily say that any of these things have rights. This is not to say that a fetus has no rights (in fact, I think it is likely they do), but that any argument for the independent moral worth of a fetus will require an appeal to something other than its biological constitution. As a good Catholic, perhaps Mr. Kathawa will offer a Thomistic theory that roots the value of the fetus in its innate purpose (telos), but how exactly rights follow from this (and how we are to resolve conflicts between rights) is not a trivial matter. He will need to pick out some part or implication of human nature that grounds rights.

In any case, Mr. Kathawa’s argument hinges on one premise in particular—that “the State must protect those persons within its domain from physical violence of any sort.” While an appealing platitude, this seems straightforwardly absurd to me. As I mentioned in my opening post, coercion faces a significant justificatory burden, but that does not mean that coercion is always and everywhere unjust. If the duty of the state is to prevent physical violence, then clearly the state must itself use physical violence (e.g. arresting criminals) for the sake of protecting its subjects, so at least some forms of coercion are justified.

Mr. Kathawa has not given us any general standard for determining when the use of force is or is not justified. I have provided this criterion in my opener: coercion is justified when it is used against rights violations. This is why assault (which violates the right of freedom) is unjust, but self-defense (which protects freedom against a rights violation) is just. Because people’s choices regularly conflict (my making use of some object X prevents your making use of the same object X, so we cannot both at once freely act upon X), there must be some general principle for resolving our conflicts in a way that respects our equal right to freedom. All this is to say that justice is innately coercive—there can be no such thing as justice without the authorization to use force.

Now, the last point worth considering is the objection that alternative criteria of personhood (e.g. consciousness) justify too much—that my ethic entails repugnant conclusions like the right to use violence against children or sleeping people. This, I admit, is a complicated objection, since it requires an explanation of the persistence of identity over time. Still, a short answer should suffice for now: it is rational nature that grounds the dignity of human beings, not the actual exercise of that rational nature. I do not lose my rights when I go to sleep: clearly, if I have rights essentially at T=0 when I am awake, then, as long as I am essentially the same person at T=1 when I am asleep (and it would be truly bizarre to think that I regularly pass into and out of existence every night), I should also have rights. One might say that fetuses have rights then, because fetuses—like children—have a rational nature that is not yet developed. Recall again that this is fully consistent with my justification of abortion, since I don’t need to deny the personhood of the fetus.

Mr. Kathawa’s argument suffers because it does not give any consideration to the rights of women. Even if he succeeds in justifying the moral worth of the fetus, both the fetus and its mother have equal rights to bodily self-determination. Mr. Kathawa has given no reason to think that the right of one person to his own body carries with it an entitlement to make use of the body of another without her consent. If you have a right to use force to prevent me (a person) from using your body, then it’s unclear why a woman should not have the same right to prevent a fetus from using hers.

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