By Jon Cogburn
In the spirit of Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion"* I want to begin by talking about a couple of adults, who we'll call Sam1 and Sam2. As with most unfortunate fictional actors in philosophical gedankenexperiments the world over, we shall prescribe a horrific end to both. Let Sam1 be murdered in a bizarre road rage incident. His tendency to drive no faster than the legal speed limit enraged another driver who found himself inconvenienced by not being able to speed. Sam2 on the other hand, lives in a parallel possible world where the inconvenienced driver did not happen to be behind him that day. But (remember, this is a philosophical gedankenexperiment after all) when Sam2 drives his Honda Civic into the driveway of his split level he has a massive heart attack. Let's say that it is caused by a congenital weakness in the aortic connective tissue. Sam2 is dead.
In philosophy, we say that Sam1 was a victim of moral evil. His death was brought about by another human being. Sam2, on the other hand, was a victim of natural evil. This distinction usually comes up in debates about whether it makes sense to believe in the existence of God, whose permitting of such things is in tension with the idea that she is both all powerful and all good. The view that it's not God's fault because we have free will (omnipotent, omnibenevolent beings of necessity making a business of going and around creating creatures with the capacity to freely do evil) doesn't cut any water against natural evil, which isn't the result of our free will anyhow.
Tragically, the actual world is in all relevant respects just like the world of our gedankenexperiment. All of us will be victimized both by nature and by one another. Most of us won't be killed by other humans. Many of us will die too soon from natural causes. Those of us who survive mourn and we are right to do so. Let us return to Sam2, felled by a heart attack. If the parallel world is really like ours, and Sam2 is not a hermit, his friends and family will mourn. His death will be an ongoing trauma for those closest to him. Moreover, DSM to the contrary, this is the way it ought to be.
But let's imagine an alternate parallel world, where like ours most people die of natural causes, some die as a result of free will, and many die as children and young adults, again mostly of natural causes. But imagine that in this world nobody every mourns death by natural evil. When Sam2's wife and kids get home they just put his body in the backyard compost heap and get along with their day.
Clearly, it would be impossible to present such a world in a decent science fiction novel. This is because part of the reason that murder is wrong is because death itself is bad. Finding a dime on the street is not bad, and so it is not bad if someone else gives you a dime. Dying, on the other hand is horrible, and the badness of someone causing death is in part because of this.
This is commonsense. Moral evils would not be moral evils if the natural evil corresponding to the event brought about the perpetrator of moral evil weren't itself bad. Moreover, we rank the badness of moral evils in terms of the badness of the corresponding natural evils.
Now consider the position that a fertilized fetus is a human being and doctors who perform abortions are killing a human being. One might argue that nobody believes this this because if the fertilized egg really were a human being, then it would be licit to kill doctors performing abortions. But the fact is that some people do kill doctors who perform abortions. So some people do at least seem to believe this. And the idea that a fertilized egg is a human life is the core premise in the standard case against abortion.
But nobody really believes this. Not even Michael Frederick Griffin, the murderer of David Gunn.** This is because nobody on Earth undergoes traumatized mourning when they or their loved one menstruates. Note that 40 to 65 percent of fertilized eggs don't even attach to the uterine wall. And another non-trivial percentage do attach, but spontaneously abort before anyone realizes that the woman is pregnant. And the fact that nobody mourns these fertilized eggs, shows clearly that anti-abortion fanatics are trying to live in the strange parallel world where Sam2 is compost and Sam1 is a tragedy. But such a world is incoherent. It can't be the case that it is a horrible tragedy when someone performs an early term abortion, but not a tragedy when a zygote doesn't take.
Abortion opponents obviously don't really believe that it is a human death in the majority of cases where pregnancy doesn't take. But then it follows that they are not really moved to restrict women's freedom by a concern about protecting and promoting human life. I'll leave speculations about why they are so obsessed with oppressing women (and why many woman are obsessed with oppressing women) to the psychologists. I'm a philosopher. My job is to show that the reasons they are giving aren't really reasons at all. I've done that.
I should note that I've shared this argument with many of my most anti-abortion colleagues, friends, family members, and students and I've heard four kinds of responses.
- Democrats want it to be the case that anyone can murder a fetus, even one day before it is born. There is even a video of Hillary saying this. Response: First, this is hogwash. Roe V. Wade allows limits on medical procedures involving second and third trimester fetuses and nobody is arguing for the unrestricted right for people to perform late term abortions. The people who say this also say things like Clinton is more corrupt than Trump, her advisors are cannibals, and the Clintons personally operate a Murder Incorporated that puts the Mafia in its glory days to shame. In addition to being hogwash, it's a non-sequitur. The question was what follows from the fact that nobody really believes a zygote is a human life.
- People really do mourn miscarriages. Response: Also a non-sequitur. The question is whether people should more an unattached egg. If they should not, then it's not a human being and we can makes sure that early birth control and abortifacients that work so early in pregnancy are the norm. But anti-abortion people are against these too. Again, they don't really believe that a fertilized egg is a human life, but do believe strongly in reducing women to reproductive chattel.
- But people who can't get pregnant do mourn. Response: No they don't. There is a radical difference in being sad about lost possibilities and lost actualities, never more radical than when we're talking about human lifes. If it were rational for people who don't get pregnant to mourn the unattached eggs, it would be rational for people who can get pregnant to mourn the unattached eggs between pregnancies. And nobody takes that to be rational.
- All you've shown is that pro-lifers are hypocrites. And this is correct. But I agree that we should be against the death penalty and promote a culture of life beyond just life before you are born. Response: Yes it would be nice if pro-lifers characteristically did organize politically to support life. And the fact that they tend to support policies that (by clear Roman Catholic teaching, ironically) are anti-life in every case not involving abortion does show a similar profound hypocrisy, from which we might conclude that the real point is not valuing life, but rather endorsing the patriarchical reduction of women to reproductive chattel. But, this being said, the analogy is also a complete non-sequitur. It is the case that pro-lifers should support the Roman Catholic teachings, for example, against the death penalty and unrestrained capitalism. But this is not analogous to the hypocrisy of taking abortion to be murder but not treating discharged zygotes as dead humans. This hypocrisy should not be resolved by letting menstruation cause you as much grief as the death of a loved one. Because that would be absolutely absurd. So it is not the same as the duty of the Cafeteria Catholic Republican to resolve her hypocrisy in terms of accepting Roman Catholic teaching about the role of the state (and labor unions for that matter). Because these teachings are not absurd. Some of us non-Catholics recognize them as true, in fact.
One more thing I've learned from talking this over with so many pro-lifers is that reason has very little causal power when it comes to people's commitment to toxic aspects of the patriarchy.This should not be a surprise (and I didn't think that I was just as foolish in other respects, this would be intolerable). Even during the high period of communism in the twentieth century, those countries were just a nastily patriarchal. Think about that for a second. You can organize a whole continent and then some around getting rid of something as deeply ingrained to the human condition as private property, but you still can't get rid of the Aristotelian thing where women are seen and treated as lesser humans.*** It's no surprise that human reason has so little efficacy here. Qua philosophers, our job is to find and articulate reasons. That's some consolation, I guess.
This being said, with respect to the rhetoric around this issue, I think that Democrats are nuts to push the "I'm not pro-abortion, I'm pro-choice" meme. As far as I can tell, this is about as stupid as Obama stocking his cabinet with Republicans in national security roles, which telegraphed to the world that Democrats were not reliable stewards of public safety. When you say you are pro-choice but not pro-abortion you are telegraphing that abortion is wrong. But early term abortions are not wrong, because a zygote is not a human being. Late term abortions are often tragic, but we should certainly be in favor of them if the fetus is not viable or if it's necessary for the mother. As long as we refuse to say that we're for abortions we set up a rhetorical space where opponents of women can continue to lie.
[*The argument I'm going to go on and give is independent of Thomson's. The standard objections to hers do not apply to this one.
**My best friend at the time's girlfriend worked in Gunn's Montgomery, AL clinic. I went to a New Year's Eve party there the year before he was murdered and most of the employees, including Gunn, carried pistols, because there were so many threats of violence and murder against them. Nobody should have to do that, and such precautions are not in general effective. But Gunn never really had a chance anyhow, he'd had polio as a child and was walking on his crutches when Griffin murdered him.
***I'm a little bit leery about using the term "patriarchy" because so many people who use it strike me as being too radical, as if it would be a good thing to just chuck the nuclear family. But nothing I write above is inconsistent with Burkean conservatism, which is neither an apology for evil or the denial of moral progress (or regress, as is the case with the reversal of the traditional view that abortion was not murder).**
****From the Wikipedia page:
In On Virginal Conception and Original Sin 7, Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) said that "no human intellect accepts the view that an infant has the rational soul from the moment of conception". A few decades after Anselm's death, Catholic canon law, in the Decretum Gratiani, stated that "he is not a murderer who brings about abortion before the soul is in the body."]