Bioethics: February 2008 Archives

Obama and Infanticide

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Barack Obama's opposition as an Illinois State Senator to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act has been making the rounds, with a lot of people overstating their case on both sides. Some conservatives are taking this as a sign that Obama thinks infanticide is morally ok, and some liberals are acting as if his approach is what any supporter of keeping abortion legal before viability should say. I'm not sure either is true, but I'm also not sure this reflects well on Obama.

Here is the law. It says that if a baby is born alive, whether by intended delivery or by failed abortion, it is legally a person, a human being, a child, and an individual. It counts as born alive only if it is completely removed from the mother (ignoring an umbilical cord connection, which does not count as a sufficient connection according to this law). Partial-birth abortion is thus not ruled out, because a partial birth is not a complete removal of the fetus. As long as the birth has not fully taken place, this law threatens no actual abortion rights.

Obama's reason for not supporting this ban is not because he thinks it's ok to kill a born fetus. As far as he's said, he does not actually support infanticide (and he didn't vote against the law; he just voted present, although that in itself was part of a strategy devised by Planned Parenthood of Illinois to protect pro-choice politicians from voters seeing how pro-choice they are). For his actual words, see comment 9 here. What he says is that he worries about the logic. Here is what seems to me to be his argument:

1. The Supreme Court has declared laws banning abortion before viability to be unconstitutional.
2. There is no difference between the moral status of a fetus inside its mother before viability and the moral status of a born baby at the same developmental stage.
3. Therefore, banning the killing of a born baby at this stage is morally tantamount to banning abortion at a pre-viability stage. (from 2)
4. Therefore, the law is unconstitutional. (from 1 and 3)

This argument does not amount to supporting infanticide morally. It is merely an argument based on the constitutional issue. According to Supreme Court precedent, this law is unconstitutional, and thus it's pointless to pass it. He gives no moral argument against the ban, just a pragmatic one. So from this speech alone it's impossible to get any clear support for infanticide.

Nevertheless, I think this is a terrible argument. The first premise is clearly true. I would argue that the second is also true. I see no difference in the intrinsic moral status of the fetus merely because it is contained within someone or is separate. However, I don't think 1 and 3 guarantee 4. There's no legal reason why morally inconsistent laws can't occur. You can ban something that's morally equivalent to something else that's unconstitutional to ban, as long as the first thing isn't unconstitutional to ban. But the real problem I have with the argument is his inference from 2 to 3.

The standard pro-choice argument is not that a mother has a right to kill a fetus growing within her. Only the most extreme abortion-choice proponents hold such a view. The standard view is that a woman's right to control her body is morally more important than whatever rights a fetus might have. That argument allows for a fetus to have some sort of moral status such that killing it would be prima facie wrong, even if the bodily rights of the mother outweigh that. What this means is that the standard pro-choice argument does not accord a mother the right to the death of the fetus. If it survives removal, her rights have been satisfied. That means the moral status of the fetus is what kicks in to determine what you should do in such a case, and this law settles that question. It does not threaten the woman's bodily rights, at least not according to the standard justification of abortion rights.

Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" is sometimes said to be the most-reprinted article in philosophy, and I believe it. It's one of the most influential papers in all of applied ethics, and several of the arguments Thomson makes have become standard moves in completely unrelated discussions.

One of Thomson's claims is that it would be morally indecent to have an abortion in the ninth month for fairly trivial concerns but that we shouldn't expect a young teenager in her first trimester, pregnant by means of rape, to go through with a pregnancy. She thinks it would be a wonderful moral decision to choose to go through with it, but it's more than we should expect. Philosophers regularly speak this way. They find a middle ground between what is wrong and what is morally required. That range includes anything that would be morally excellent to do but not morally required. This does fit with a lot of people's moral intuitions. There are sacrifices that would be morally admirable to make, but no one is really obligated to make them. This class of actions is called supererogatory. Thomson is saying that it's supererogatory to go through with a pregnancy in some conditions, but it's morally obligatory to go through with it in other cases.

What struck me as odd as I was reading the paper again this time around while preparing to teach it was her use of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan to express this view. She says the ninth-month abortion in the above paragraph wouldn't even be an example of a Minimally Decent Samaritan. We should expect more morally. But going through a pregnancy in the other case would be an example of a Very Good Samaritan, i.e. well beyond the call of duty. I'm not going to dispute the possibility of distinguishing between a range of cases, with some supererogatory and some morally obligatory. It does seem strange to use the Good Samaritan parable to do so, however, since Jesus' point in that parable is that you ought to love your neighbor as yourself, and your neighbor is anyone in need, which means you ought to go way beyond what you thought you were obligated to do, and this is even in cases involving complete strangers whose social position means you wouldn't normally even rub shoulders with the person. In other words, Jesus is at the very least minimizing the category of supererogatory actions. He doesn't explicitly deny that there are such actions, but it's hard to avoid the impression on reading the parable that he thinks most actions philosophers would classify as supererogatory as actually morally required.

That suggests an interesting response to Thomson's argument. What about those who don't hold to a view like Thomson's about supererogatory actions? What we ought to be as good as we can be? What if we ought to do as much good as we can do? Thomson's intent is to assume for the sake of argument that a fetus has full moral status and a right to life, arguing then that there are still reasons to think abortion is morally permissible under certain conditions (and as she goes it becomes clear that those conditions aren't just extreme ones like rape but include any case of failed contraception, provided that the abortion takes place early enough in the pregnancy). There are lots of places people might question her argument, but one place I hadn't thought about was to question her reliance on there being a wide range of supererogatory acts. If not, then you might concede all her other points and still oppose abortion. If you think it's morally better to go through with a pregnancy, as Thomson concedes (and many pro-choice people have since then), then once you deny supererogation you end up with a moral obligation not to have an abortion, and this has nothing to do with fetal rights (Thomson is no longer assuming for the sake of argument that the fetus is a person when she gets into the Good Samaritan stuff).

So Thomson's argument gets turned on its head. She started with an argument defending abortion even if the fetus is a person with full moral rights, and once you deny the supererogation premise you end up with an argument that abortion is often immoral, without assuming anything about the personhood of the fetus. It does involve a pretty controversial premise, but it's an interesting argument nonetheless, and there are lots of people who deny supererogation (or at least should do so given their other commitments).

I started the semester off in my applied ethics class with a unit on abortion, so I've been thinking a lot about arguments in the abortion literature that you don't often see at the popular level. I haven't taught this subject since fall 2004, so I'm sort of coming at a lot of this from a fresh perspective and rethinking a lot of the arguments I've been familiar with. Several things have occurred to me that seemed worth blogging about, so you can look for several posts on abortion in the next week or so as I write up my thoughts on some of these things.

One highly-anthologized article on abortion is Don Marquis' "Why Abortion Is Immoral". Marquis sets out to explain why abortion is immoral without assuming the personhood of the fetus. He instead develops an account of why killing in general is wrong. Killing is wrong, says Marquis, not because of some intrinsic property of the thing being killed (e.g. its capacity to feel pain, its consciousness, its ability to plan for the future, its self-concept, and so on), but because of the future it would otherwise have or be likely to have if you don't kill it. The reason it would be wrong to kill me is because of what you're taking away from me if you do so -- my future. The reason it's wrong to kill anything is because of the future you're robbing it of.

Now it follows that you're robbing a fetus of a future, and the future you're robbing it of is one like the future you and I have. You're even robbing it of more of a future, since it won't even get what you and I have already had that's now in our past. So abortion is wrong because it robs a fetus of a future like ours. This is so even if a fetus isn't a person. It has moral status not because of its current properties but because of what you would be taking away from it if you do certain things to it. In other words, its future (or what would otherwise be its future) is what guarantees the wrongness of killing it (and what you might derivatively call its right to life, but this is now being framed in very different terms.

That's the primary argument of Marquis' article. He doesn't spend much time developing it. Most of his effort goes toward motivating his theory of why killing is wrong and explaining why it's superior to person-based accounts. In this post, I'm not going to focus in on whether his theory of killing is correct, but I do want to flag a part of his support for it that strikes me as question-begging or at least as only appealing to a relatively small subset of potential readers.

One of the features he presents for his view on why killing is wrong is that it gives the right results about a number of other issues. Philosophers often give such arguments. They present a theory about something, and then they point out that their theory fits nicely with people's intuitions about other matters, and the alternative theories they're considering conflict with those same intuitions. The problem in Marquis' use of this strategy is that he chooses some controversial intuitions, indeed a pretty strange combination of them.

McCain on Stem Cells

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Several people have asked me where I got the information that John McCain has changed his view on stem cell research. His position used to be the same as that of former Senator Bill Frist, who opposes the creation of new stem cell lines except in cases where the embryo is already going to be destroyed. I have defended this position as consistent with pro-life principles about the full moral status of the fetus (and again here in a slightly different context), but many people who are pro-life do not agree. A lot of people think the issue should largely be defused now, however, since the discovery that embryonic-like stem cells can be developed without destroying embryos at all. I was under the impression that McCain was one of them.

I'm pretty sure one of the political blogs I read that usually has very reliable, up-to-date information about candidates had a mention in the last week or so of this change in McCain's view, but I can't remember where. What it said is that McCain had changed his mind in light of this new research and no longer supports research even on embryos that will already be destroyed, citing the new research as evidence that we probably will no longer need to do that to get enough embryos for the research that he still considers necessary. Since I couldn't find where I saw this, I spent some time looking around for recent statements by McCain on the issue. Here's what I came up with.

Gerald Bradley wrote in the National Review on January 18:

McCain has said -- it is true -- that he approved embryo-destructive research in the limited case of so-called "spares"-- those embryos "left-over" after couples have exhausted their interest in IVF. I disagree with him.In face-to-face conversation with McCain I said not only that such research was wrong, but that it would never be limited to "spares." I said that big biotech needed a far larger supply of research subjects than "spares" could provide. McCain asked to continue that conversation, to hear more. Now he realizes that there is no need to exploit "spare" embryos, in light of recent successes with adult cells. And so he has been telling South Carolinians over the last few days.
According to the Catholic News Agency, this was where he stood about a week later:

When he was asked how he reconciled his otherwise solid pro-life voting record with his support for experimentation on "surplus" embryos, Sen. McCain called his decision to back the research "a very agonizing and tough decision".

He continued, saying, "All I can say to you is that I went back and forth, back and forth on it and I came in on one of the toughest decisions I've ever had, in favor of that research. And one reason being very frankly is those embryos will be either discarded or kept in permanent frozen status." The senator, while standing firm on his decision added, "I understand how divisive this is among the pro-life community."

Referring to the recent break through in stem cell research which allows scientists to use skin cells to create stem cells, McCain said that, "I believe that skin stem cell research has every potential very soon of making that discussion academic.... Sam Brownback and others are very encouraged at this latest advance...."
Now I don't see that as necessarily conflicting with Bradley's first-hand report. All it does is give McCain's justification at the time and then his indication that he thinks it was the right decision. It doesn't say if he still holds it, just that he stands firm in his view that it was the right one and that in the future it will be a non-issue. It says nothing about what he thinks we ought to be doing right now. So I don't see how this is inconsistent with what Bradley reports hearing from McCain in person.

But then there's this:

When a woman asked whether promising new methods of stem cell research
would end McCain's support for embryonic stem cell research, he replied
firmly: "I have not changed my position yet."
So now I'm not sure what to think. He very clearly does not think his initial view was wrong at the time he made it, and he pretty obviously thinks that soon it will not be an issue and that we will not end up needing to use "spares" for this research. Bradley's impression was that he now no longer wants to fund use of "spares". He seems not to have fully made that decision at this point, though, unless he's being misquoted or taken out of context (which I wouldn't put past Dana Milbank but certainly wouldn't assume is true).

Whichever is the case, I don't have a problem with McCain's initial view, although I think it would be good if he backed off in the face of this new research. He does seem to be moving in that direction at the very least under the influence of his close friend Senator Sam Brownback. My suspicion is that he's in a transition at the moment. His website account of his view on stem cell research notably does not treat this particular issue at all:

Stem cell research offers tremendous hope for those suffering from a variety of deadly diseases - hope for both cures and life-extending treatments. However, the compassion to relieve suffering and to cure deadly disease cannot erode moral and ethical principles.

For this reason, John McCain opposes the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes. To that end, Senator McCain voted to ban the practice of "fetal farming," making it a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes. Furthermore, he voted to ban attempts to use or obtain human cells gestated in animals. Finally, John McCain strongly opposes human cloning and voted to ban the practice, and any related experimentation, under federal law.

As president, John McCain will strongly support funding for promising research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research and other types of scientific study that do not involve the use of human embryos.

Where federal funds are used for stem cell research, Senator McCain believes clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress, and that any such research should be subject to strict federal guidelines.

I don't see anything there about using stem cells from embryos about to be destroyed. He says he hasn't changed his view yet, but I think he's probably at least suspended his view until further notice, even if he has not yet adopted Brownback's (while giving every indication that he probably will at some point).

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