On The Abortion Debate

On Tuesday, I linked to a debate between Peter Kreeft and David Boonin. The argument attributed to Mr Boonin supporting abortion was the following:

Boonin went on to argue that “the right to life is not the right to be kept alive by somebody else.” If all human beings shared the same right to life, abortion could be justified using this distinction. Proposing a thought experiment, Boonin suggested the audience imagine being kidnapped and forced to donate bone marrow.

“Suppose you walked out in the park yesterday and a doctor caught you and conked you on the head and knocked you unconscious. You wake up, and the doctor has hooked you up to a bone marrow extraction device. The bone marrow is extracted from you and pumped into me. You ask ‘What’s going on?’ The doctor says ‘Don’t worry, stay hooked into Professor Boonin for the next nine months, he’ll be fine. Disconnect yourself now, because of a bone marrow disease, he’s going to die.'”

Most people, Boonin thought, would agree that in this case a person would not have a right to be kept alive. He argued the situation was analogous to abortion. “The fetus isn’t just sitting in a lounge chair somewhere,” he said, but is in the body of a woman who doesn’t wish to be pregnant.

This is a variant of the Violinist argument had in particular it has a number of “problems.” For those readers who wish to take issue with the pro-life stance, feel free to point out the problems with my dissent … below the fold.

  1. Infants require more attention, care and support after birth than before. However few argue that exposure of infants is morally sound. Infants specifically “need to be kept alive by somebody else.” Indeed they require more than just feeding and cleaning. failure to thrive is attributed as a diagnoses to infants not getting enough social care and contact, i.e., love.
  2. Suppose you walked out in the park yesterday and a doctor caught you and conked you on the head and knocked you unconscious.” The pro-life movement would be overjoyed if abortion were only granted in cases of actual involuntary or non-consensual sex, i.e., rape or incest. Those cases account for about 1% of the cases of abortion. Normally, unsurprisingly, it is via consensual sex that pregnancy arises. How might the consensual nature of this act replace the abduction scenario outlined. For does that not affect the morality of the situaion. If for example, would one then rewrite the paragraph as:

    “Suppose you and 100 other people volunteer for bone marrow sampling. You are informed that there is a $100 reward for participating and that if your tissue matches, which is somewhat unlikely, you have thereby committed to an extraction procedure. You are told weeks later that you have a match. The doctor wants to hook you up to a bone marrow extraction device. The bone marrow is extracted from you and pumped into me. You ask ‘What’s going on?’ The doctor says ‘Don’t worry, stay hooked into Professor Boonin for the next nine months, he’ll be fine. Disconnect yourself now, because of a bone marrow disease, he’s going to die.'”

    Does this not change the nature of the apparent immorality or outrage over this procedure?

  3. Note the problems with Mr Boonin’s analogy “gets worse”. Pregnant women are actually mobile. Unlike a hospital procedure in which you “remain bed bound and hooked into” a machine for nine months, unless there are medical problems, which occur in a small number of cases normally for just a small part of the entire nine months of pregnancy, pregnant women are actually not bound to the bed for their entire pregnancy. In fact, frontier tales of women ploughing fields until just prior to delivery abound in literature and folklore and moreover actually happened. This is remarkably different from Mr Boonin’s “hooked into and hospitalized” part of his little analogy.
  4. Furthermore, one might actual note for example in What to Expect When You’re Expecting the middle trimester is associated with feelings of health, contentment and so on due to the changes and the hormonal cocktail that accompanies pregnancy.
  5. The “person” in question is not some random stranger or famous individual. He or she is close family, really close. The baby shares half your DNA, recall the “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” saying. And while it’s true you don’t know the individual well, in some sense … you do because in the mix of nature aiding nurture (or vice versa) you will/would share a lot of both.
  6. The “disconnect yourself now” and he’ll die is the consequence given. However, abortion is the active and inherently violent choice. Do nothing, allowing nature to take its course and a baby (and ultimately an human adult) will be the result. Mr Boonin’s analogy suggests one that abortion is akin to halting an act of violence (the procedure), when in fact the reverse is the case. By committing to abortion you are selecting consciously an inherently violent act be performed on your behalf.

So ultimately the little analogy of Mr Boonin’s might be better recast as:

Suppose you and 100 people volunteer for tissue sampling. You are informed that there is a $100 reward for participating and that if your tissue matches, which is somewhat unlikely, you are committed to an series of extraction procedures. You wake up, and the doctor has hooked you up to a tissue extraction device. The tissue is extracted from you and is being implanted into your cousin. You ask ‘What’s going on?’ The doctor says ‘Don’t worry, you’ll have to return weekly for an extraction for your cousin Mr Boonin over the next nine months (during which the process will admittedly more inconvenient). You can go about your normal life for the most part. However after the procedure is complete you’ll have a full recovery. If go through with this process do he’ll recover and be fine. However if you choose not to take part in this, you have to realize that your refusal means, as per your agreement, I will then take that cleaver and stab him repeatedly until dead.”

My guess is that sort of story wouldn’t play quite as well, but fits the actual ethics of the case just a bit better. Do you have the right to kill your cousin?

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  1. Yeah, I think it’s a terrible analogy. For me the question is all about whether the fetus should be regarded as a human being or not. If it were (or when it becomes) an actual baby, abortion just ain’t right.