Friday, May 18, 2007

Why does rape or incest matter?

Samhita at Feministing (one of the greatest blogs in the sphere) takes Sam Brownback to task for his comments on abortion and rape and incest the other night:

Yeah you heard it right. Senator Sam Brownback actually argued on Wednesday that, "We talk about abortion, but abortion is a procedure. This is a life that we’re talking about. And it’s a terrible situation where there’s a rape that’s involved or incest. But it nonetheless remains that this is a child that we’re talking about doing this to, of ending the life of this child."
Now, I grew up in a fundamentalist household, and I've simply never understood the rape-and-incest line of argument, as if somehow whether the fetus is a product of rape or incest changes the fundamental facts of the abortion question.

I feel like I do a better job than most really breaking down the debate, but we'll see.

A fetus is one of two things:
  • A) A human being, and should thus have full protection under whatever laws we could scrounge together to protect it, or
  • B) A clump of cells living in a woman's uterus that, if given the opportunity, would likely somehow escape the uterus and begin development as a human being.
By tone of writing, its readily apparent that I support the latter definition.

From B), two options seem reasonable to me:
  • 1) Mother decides that the clump of cells living in her uterus represents a future human being that should develop as her child. She wants that child, and she wishes for that child to escape her uterus and begin development, and from this point has a legal obligation to protect the child.
  • 2) Mother decides that the clump of cells living in her uterus does not represent a future human being that should develop as her child. She thus decides to have abortion to have an unwanted mass of cells removed from her body.
So, where does rape or incest fit into ANY of this paradigm? I see no morally defensible middle ground between A) and B) or between 1) and 2).

Between A) and B), we could insert these notions:
  • i) A fetus is a human being but does not enjoy the rights of a human being outside the womb.
  • ii) At some arbitrary point during gestation the fetus changes from being a clump of cells to a human being, irrespective of a mother's wishes.
But neither make any sense to me. i) requires arbitrary notion of a second-class citizen. ii) requires that there's something magical about a cellular process independent of a social construct. I reject both of these outright as absurdities, although I find these are two popularly held beliefs. They're convenient, and let people make decisions about abortion de facto (and set silly regulations about so-called partial birth abortions or legislate abortion regulations differently depending on trimester of gestation) without actually considering any consistency with other moral beliefs. These notions might be useful shortcuts, but they don't seem logically defensible.

So I only see two morally defensible takes on abortion:
  • A*) Abortion is wrong because a fetus is a human being who deserves all the rights and protections of law, except possibly in the case of a mother's life being in danger, where all of this paradigm breaks down, and more subheadings would be required.
  • B*) Abortion is on average morally neutral and a decision left to a woman who has the right to make decisions about her own reproductive health regarding a pregnancy at any point prior to its termination through abortion or delivery.
Again, by tone of writing, its readily apparent that I support the latter definition.

I just don't see how rape and incest fit into this paradigm. Either a fetus is a human being, and killing it is murder, or a fetus is a prospective human being, and killing it is not murder.

I'm a firm believer in B*, but I do believe that A* is morally defensible, even if I absolutely reject it, because I know of no absolute way to differentiate between A and B. Now, in some cases, such as when Sam Brownback starts talking, A seems flat out hateful and ignorant. "You got raped and became pregnant? Tough shit! Go to church, you filthy harlot! They have free nursery during services!"

But I know a handful of rational, pro-women pro-lifers who subscribe to A and A*, and they are intelligent and thoughtful enough for me not to reject their ideas as ignorant. A and A* can certainly be included in a rational progressive agenda that supports women in poverty, provides unfettered access to proper contraceptive and reproductive health resources, and punishes perpetrators of violence on women. But give me B and B* any day, because they simply make more sense to me, and allow women more control over their lives.

I'm actually asking for answers here, and I know of at least a few regular readers that have the backgrounds to make reasoned comments. Why does rape or incest matter when determining whether an abortion should be permitted?

6 comments:

Michael said...

My belief is that everything is de facto. Arguments may have the veneer of reason or logic, but that's all it is. We believe things simply because we do, and maybe because we want to. We do not believe things because of reason or logic. This is a radical thought, but one that I hold. It is less radical, I think, to believe that ethical rules, norms, and behaviors have nothing at all to do with reason or logic, and everything to do with habit, upbringing, and personal preferences. Do social apes conform to ethical behavior because they see the logic in it, or because that's how they evolved? I would suggest the latter. So to argue the logic of someone believing in incest, or it being ok to abort a baby for one reason or another, is kind of a pointless exercise. I personally believe that almost no one is influenced by cold logic when it comes to morality.

Michael said...

I will also add that consistency, when it comes to ethics, public policy, or anything similar, is nothing but purely academic (a mental game, fantasy, etc), and has nothing at all to do with how anything is done practically... or SHOULD BE done. I see this inconsistency as an inevitable result of several personal beliefs: 1) there is no logic/reason behind these de facto policies
2) the "nature" of morality is de facto and never de jure
3) therefore consistency is quite irrelevant, being useless as a benchmark for correctness, or as a justification for any one belief.

the above can be summarized as...
"everything is bullshit"

JHearne said...

As somebody with a considerable formal education in both formal and applied logic, I can concur with Michael's opinion: "I personally believe that almost no one is influenced by cold logic when it comes to morality." By my estimation, few people actually mean "logical" when they say it. Logic is usually applied later to make it seem "reasonable" for a variety of reasons (none of which I will get into right now).

Garrett,
While I see the inherent rationality in your argument (something I expect of you and something you should be proud of, I'd say), I don't find it immediately persuasive because it gives me some "formal logic heebie-jeebies" (the technical term). Anytime somebody writes something resembling, "...is one of two things...," I get really nervous. It suggests a false dilemma unless you're willing to argue that there is no other potential argument. Is there some middle ground between A and B? If so, then you have a functionally and formally crippled argument.

On the abortion issue, I am "pro-life" (I find the usage of "pro-life" and "pro-choice to be counter-productive) and, in a way that might be "biting the bullet," maintain the importance of life even in the face of rape and incest. I suggest Dr. Hauerwas' comments and arguments concerning abortion if you want to read something similar to my own understanding.

Thanks for having the courage to talk about this. It's not an easy conversation. Please understand, of course, that though we come from a very similar background that I'm not still in that background. I've moved through several arguments on it and look forward to your continued thoughts.

Garrett said...

See, this is what i wanted, all my philosophy majors in one place :)

Michael, I'm quite comfortable with the futility of the exercise, and possibly its irrelevance. This may very well just be a political exercise more than a philosophical one. Note that the whole post was a response to some flame-throwing on a feminist website. It may simply be a personal matter of wanting to figure out a way to reduce personal cognitive dissonance. Consistency in and of itself isn't the highest goal, but trying to be "more consistent" seems like a worthy endeavor. Or it at least it seems like it in this particular instance.

Josh, I'm not sure that even I buy that A and B are the only two possible options. But they're at least the two poles, the boundaries. At least any other options seem like they need to be between A and B on a line graph. And making distinctions within A and B are perfectly within the realm of our human decision making. I use the same counterargument to explain why allowing gay people to get married doesn't lead to Rick Santorum marrying a cocker spaniel, that we as human being at least can fool ourselves into believing that we can discern reasonable arbitrary cutpoints.

I guess what all this boils down to is a personal aversion to allowing abortions if the fetus actually is a human being afforded all rights. The "abortion is bad except in rape or incest" notion seems to create a line of thinking where a woman's health, and not her life, outweighs the life of a fetus-as-real-person. And that just makes me queasy. Maybe it's not that in-betweens don't exist; it's that they make my palms sweat.

The logical fallacy (amateurishly speaking, as I can't even pretend to have a reasonable understanding of formal logic) of my personal view, that the fetus isn't a human being until birth, is that suddenly birth has meaning. There doesn't seem to be any reason why gametogenesis or conception or implantation or birth or your 21st birthday should naturally be the time when you're deemed worthy of a right to life. Under my view that abortion up until birth isn't murder, there's really no reason why killing your two year old kid should be wrong either. But that's obviously screwed up, as obviously I didn't want my "logic" to justify the murder of two year old kids. So my logic is flawed, and as Michael points out, I still go with my best de facto draft of personal morality.

Thanks for jumping in, kids. I'd like to keep going, actually. If nothing else, I'd like a little more specifics regarding the title question, whether rape or incest really should change the debate on abortion. The answer seems to be, "it changes the debate if people want it to," but that just doesn't satisfy me, even if there's some inevitable truth behind it.

Michael said...

My personal benchmark is intent rather than the act. My view about abortion is similar to my view on euthanasia. I think euthanasia in some cases is the right thing to do, and these cases are those in which it is done for the benefit of the patient. In abortion, I think one must seriously look at why one would get an abortion. Is it for the benefit of the child? For example, is there a high chance of genetic disease? Will the baby be born to an unhealthy environment? (such as poverty, lack of education, severe dysfunction). If not for the benefit of the child, is there a compelling reason for the mother to abort the fetus?

I think too much of the debate is interested on legalistic, "how much can I get away with" aspects. It is as if, if this thing is a baby, you can't do anything to it, and if it's a clump of cells you can do anything you want to it. For me, morality is less about rules and more about doing what you feel is "good".

To paraphrase Plato, good people don't need laws to act responsbly, while bad people will find a way around the laws. If your morality is based on finding a way around moral rules or laws, what kind of person does that make you?

In other words, this whole human/cell debate is more sad than important.

Michael said...

I don't think incest or rape fundamentally changes the deliberative process. Does the rape prevent the mother from loving this child? Will the child grow up in a crappy environment because these issues? Will the mother suffer significant additional trauma from having a child? It's pretty much the same questions for incest, and same questions for any other case of abortion. I don't think rape or incest gives a mother a free license to do what she whatever she wants in a moral sense; it does however give her additional considerations when thinking about the welfare of herself and her fetus/baby. But that's just my opinion and how I choose to view things, nothing more.