Abortion and Incurred Responsibility

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In the online ethical theory course I'm teaching this summer, one of the students brought up the abortion question, which led to a discussion among the students, during which some of the usual points came up. I think I just realized more explicitly what's wrong with one common line of argument that I've seen on this topic.

It's often said that someone consents to parental responsibility by having sex. By engaging in behavior that has a risk of producing a new human life, one has agreed to care for that resulting child. A common response to this line of argument is that we don't apply the same line of thinking elsewhere. For example, we don't (or at least shouldn't) hold someone responsible for being raped just because she wears revealing clothing or because she leaves her house to walk to the house ten houses down, during which she risks someone dragging her off and raping her.

What I think I've just realized is that we're conflating two different kinds of responsibility. In the rape case, we're talking about whether someone ought to suffer the consequences of a small risk. The risk of getting raped while walking down the road is very small, and we don't usually say people deserve what happens to them merely because they were walking alone outside. But the abortion question isn't about whether suffering is deserved. It's about whether you have a moral obligation to do something about what results. Conception occurs. Now there's a tiny human organism that results from the behavior in question. So does someone have obligations that incur because of the small risk you took?

That's more analogous to whether I owe damages to someone if the baseball I hit goes through their window, which was a small risk but one I willingly took. Raising a child is a much more serious responsibility than paying a one-time monetary compensation for breaking a window, but the issue seems parallel in many ways (and the obligation might not be raising the child but might simply be going through with the pregnancy, which is quite a bit less at least). If it's not parallel in enough ways, it would be interesting to explore why. Francis Beckwith has pointed out that one indication why we might think we do consent to parental obligations merely from one sexual act is that we assume that very thing in our child-support laws. Should we also assume it in our abortion laws, or is there a morally relevant difference between the two situations (beyond the mere fact that we're talking about men in one case and women in the other)?

Update: An anonymous coward commenter has criticized this post in the comments of the Philosophers' Carnival that includes it. Maryann has closed comments, so I have to respond here.

1. The idea that this post contains any victim-blaming is ludicrous. I said nothing about any victim being blamed for any behavior that victimized the victim other than to say that people should not be blamed for what they're not responsible for. What I did say is that sometimes we incur an obligation when we are not to blame. How that amounts to claiming that you are to blame is beyond me.

2. There's some debate in the comments about whether I meant the baseball analogy to be an analogy with rape cases or an analogy with a case of consensual sex with no desire for children. I meant it as neither. In fact, it's not an analogy. It's an example illustrating that a general principle held by Thompson (which I discussed in point 1 just above) is in fact false. I had in mind only that principle when I gave the baseball case. I wasn't thinking it was an analogy for either case. It was simply given as a case demonstrating that we don't hold to such a principle unless we want to hold to it to avoid a conclusion we don't like about abortion. But what I say about the principle itself because of the baseball case does indeed apply to rape cases. That certainly doesn't mean I'm blaming any rape victims, though, because what I in fact said (as I said in point 1 above) is that any incurred responsibilities in such cases are despite not being blameworthy.

3. There's a claim that I held to certain conditionals and a response that I didn't include those conditionals and did a terrible job indicating that I meant them if I had meant them. Let me repeat my last two sentences: "Francis Beckwith has pointed out that one indication why we might think we do consent to parental obligations merely from one sexual act is that we assume that very thing in our child-support laws. Should we also assume it in our abortion laws, or is there a morally relevant difference between the two situations (beyond the mere fact that we're talking about men in one case and women in the other)?" That does entail, I think, the question: if we hold people responsible for something they're not to blame for in child-support situations, why shouldn't we do so in abortion situations?" And I don't think it's all that hard to get that out of my post if you actually read it.

5 Comments

I'm sympathetic to the "baseball" analogy. (In class, I use a golf ball-through-a-windshield example.) And I think this is where J.J. Thomson's analogy fails. In both the baseball and consentual sex cases, the actor(s) is primarily causally responsible for the outcome (the broken window and a person being in a precarious situation, respectively), and as a result is partly morally responsible for the redress. This seems so irrespective of whether one took pains to avoid just that outcome - say, by aiming in another direction or using birth control.

To adapt one of Thomson's cases, if one were driving just a bit too quickly on wet roads, and caused a bizarre car accident with a world famous violinist such that the violinist is now using your kidneys in the way she describes (okay, a REALLY bizarre accident), it would seem that one would have MORE of a reason to let the person use your body until they could survive without it. In rape cases (and burglar cases), the criminal bears primary responsibility for the resulting situation. Not so with window owners and fetuses. And, in her people-seeds case, the home-owner is passive in a way in which the consentual sex partner is not. (Say, she goes to Home Depot with her neighbor to buy, and then plant, the people seed-producing trees in her yard, as their fragrant flowers make the breeze that much more enjoyable.)

There are of course other issues here. As you mention, given what a woman is asked to sacrifice, is the greater reason sufficient to produce an obligation? The satisfaction of sexual desires seems much less trivial than the desire to hit a baseball (if hitting a baseball were central to some peoples' identity, would we view window-breaking accidents differently?) There are causality issues here, and how causes of a certain sort give rise moral obligation. And Thomson assumes that fetuses are people, which is a matter of contention.

But, the point you raise deserves greater attention.

A.J. Kreider

The analogy between sex and baseball window breaking is predicated on the assumption that the killing of a fetus or embryo is the unjustified killing of a person. I and many people who support a generally pro choice position (with certain reservations in my case) deny that embryos and many fetuses are people. I do think that fetuses are human beings or "human organisms" as you have called them but not all human organisms are persons (thus do not have the requisit rights and obligations due to persons including the right not to be unjustly killed) and, potentially, not all persons are humans.

Some human organisms such as brain dead individuals who are kept alive by artificial means are still human organisms but not people on my view. Neither the law nor morality considers them to be persons (the legal definition of death is brain death). Also, potentially, there are non human persons (such as intelligent aliens, machines or maybe even some non human animals like elephants, great apes, dolphins, etc). Thus human-hood, properly understood as being a member of the species homo sapiens, is neither necessary nor sufficient for person-hood.

I haven't assumed that the killing of a fetus is unjustified. I've simply pointed out that there are cases where someone is not at fault for having caused a situation that they then bear some responsibility for doing something about. The idea that someone makes every effort to avoid a result does not always absolve someone from responsibility to deal with that result if it comes about anyway. I'm simply pointing out that there are plenty of circumstances where someone is indeed incurs a responsibility to do something even if they did quite a lot to avoid that circumstance.

That's why the child support case is so important to this. If two people have sex with a condom, and the woman takes the condom with the semen and uses it to impregnate herself, the man is responsible for paying child support under current U.S. law. This is so even if he'd had a vasectomy, and it was a freak occurrence that something got out. So there's something wrong with the people-seeds analogy, unless our child support system is all messed up (and cases of this sort of thing abound).

I'm not sure where, in any of that, I've assumed anything about the moral status of the fetus. For all I've said, it has no moral value. All I've pointed out is that the people-seeds analogy doesn't show that someone who tried hard to avoid something is free of any obligation when it happens anyway. If I wanted to get into the moral status of the fetus, I'd have a lot more to say, but that wasn't the point I was making in this post.

For the record, I have little patience with the idea that we (1) first figure out if something is a person based on some ad hoc account of personhood designed to prevent a fetus from having personhood, then (2) declare a fetus to have no moral status or low enough that we should compare them to a newly-hatched (or as Mary Anne Warren says, newly-born) guppy. First of all, that's not how the word 'person' is used by the ordinary speaker of English, who uses it in a broad enough way as to include little persons inside a uterus. I've heard ordinary non-philosophers (even medical professionals) with no obvious agenda on the abortion question use it that way.

Second, it seems like a merely verbal issue if you're going to base the moral status question on whether someone is a person. It's better simply to focus on the issue of moral status and avoid the whole personhood issue. That prevents hiding behind the veneer of personhood as a mere substitute for having moral status and requires actually having an account (which Warren does a much better job of with her animal rights stuff) of what gives moral status. There are those who base it in the capacity to feel pain and pleasure (i.e. hedonists). There are those who base it in the capacity to make moral decisions (e.g. Kant) or being the sort of thing that will naturally develop such a capacity. I have more patience with that third approach than the other two, since those lead to intolerable conclusions (with the first, a fish has a much moral status as I do, and with the second someone with severe cognitive deficits has little or no moral status rather than being the sort of person who leads to far greater moral responsibility on the part of the rest of us to care for them).

I don't think much of the usual accounts that leave fetuses with little to no moral status. I can tolerate a less morally-blind account that gives them less status than a newborn, with a gradual increase, but even that leads to abortion being wrong far more than most pro-choicers would admit, since they see it as a sacrosanct right that it's wrong to limit in any way. It's very hard for me to understand the mindset that anyone could have a right to kill their own offspring merely because they want to, with no allowable limits on that, and the history of how women have been treated doesn't seem to me to cancel that intuition, despite how it's commonly used to do so.

But all that's for the record. The post doesn't assume any of that. It just makes the point that trying very hard to avoid a situation doesn't automatically absolve you of the responsibility that incurs if that situation occurs anyway.

I wasn't implying that your argument as presented explicitly said anything about the moral status of the fetus, just that if it is to be used to argue against abortion, it would need to assume that fetuses have the moral status of persons.

Second, I don't think it is a merely "verbal issue" at all. I don't know how you arrived that "we (1) first figure out if something is a person based on some ad hoc account of personhood designed to prevent a fetus from having personhood, then (2) declare a fetus to have no moral status or low enough that we should compare them to a newly-hatched (or as Mary Anne Warren says, newly-born) guppy."

It should have been clear that I wasn't using the term "person" in the normal way people often use it. I was using it in a philosophically relevant and legally relevant sense.

The law clearly has a legally relevant definition of personhood that is not merely verbal but has justifications, metaphysical, biological and moral and since it does not recognize brain dead individuals as persons though they may be sometimes termed so under normal circumstances that wouldn't even be wrong under the colloquial usages but it would be wrong legally. My point is that there should be some symmetry based on the reasoning behind that denial of personhood (under those moral and legal grounds). I did not "declare" fetuses have the moral status of guppies but showed a relevant connection between the status of (some) fetuses and all embryos to brain dead human organisms since both are human organisms but if the later has no rights qua persons, the burden of proof false on those who assert that they do have them qua persons to show why they do but brain dead people do not.

Now I believe that they may attempt to do this by 1. biting the bullet and say that brain dead humans do have rights as persons, 2. showing that embryos have some relevant non arbitrary property that brain dead people do not which grounds their right bearing status qua persons.

I just don't see how they could do any of these.

A person for a philosopher may be something that has distinctive properties that normally, people may not care to realize and have no role in normal usage. But making certain philosophical distinctions are relevant for moral discourse.

You also make a point regarding any moral status of fetuses, not just of persons, but say, as pain feelers. I think some fetuses do have the moral status of persons and some fetuses merely have them as pain feelers and some don't have any moral status whatsoever. Namely for the last, it is those fetuses that do not have any functional cerebrums (which includes all fetuses before the about the 18th week of development). Some may make a good case that it is not just a functional cerebrum but a functional and integrated cerebrum that allows for the feeling of pain that counts and if this is right then fetuses would attain some moral status (qua pain feelers and perhaps as persons too) after the 24th week but I don't wish to delve on this issue. But notice that making distinctions here are substantive, not verbal. They depend on facts about the fetuses' development and capacities, not merely on how we may take on words.

No, you said, "The analogy between sex and baseball window breaking is predicated on the assumption that the killing of a fetus or embryo is the unjustified killing of a person." That in fact is not the case. It's predicated on the assumption that engaging in sex can be risk-taking behavior with unwelcome consequences.

My argument is not for any positive thesis, not in this post. I'm simply arguing against a particular claim that Thompson makes and that I see fairly often. That claim is that the mere fact that someone has taken precautions that usually reduce the risk of an unwelcome consequence is enough to remove any responsibility that might come for an unwelcome consequence that turns out to occur. That claim is false, and the example I gave shows that we don't usually hold such a principle. I made no further claim one way or the other about abortion, but this principle (which no one holds in other circumstances) turns out to be the foundation of one particular claim that often gets made in abortion debates. Of course if someone wanted to argue for a full-blown pro-life position they'd have to say more. I simply wasn't doing that in this post.

I'm not getting into the other issue here except to say that I do think brain-dead people have moral rights. Dead people have moral rights (otherwise we wouldn't bother to recognize their wills), so why shouldn't brain-dead people?

That's not what this post is about, though, and I don't have the time or patience to deal with the intricacies of the issue right now. I was criticizing Warren's view, though, so I'm not sure why you're pointing out that you didn't say the things I was criticizing from her famous pre-Roe paper.

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