Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
Abortion as a Case Study for Understanding Morality in the Light of Future Technology
11/27/2013Posted by on
You may have noticed I chose a controversial topic to start a blog with. This may concern you, and for good reason. Bear with me, and you may find something a bit more interesting as you go. I chose to begin blogging with this topic for a few reasons, some good, some terrible. 1
One of my guiding principles in writing this blog is to avoid making arguments that end in telling you that, by power of superior logic, this is what to believe.2 Not only is learning what someone else wants you to believe profoundly boring, it is underpinned by bad understandings of the nature of belief and the utility of arguments. An argument is an exploration of an idea in a forum – or an act of forensics. A debate is a crucible where arguments are tested and with a little luck, truth emerges. The best sorts of arguments are like an archaeological dig of the soul; through painstaking effort, belief is discovered.
So instead of telling you what to believe, I’m much more interested in helping people discover what they believe. The deeper foundations, moral instincts, gut feelings, and deeply held beliefs in the heart of hearts, far and away from the theoretical superstructures and ideological tribes we think define us. Labels are good tools but poor masters. And in order to get to that point, we must cut you adrift from the day to day context of controversial issues. It is too easy to simply choose by figuring out what side is that of the oppressor, or the barbarian, or the coercer and to act accordingly. To discover, to grow, you must be alone with your thoughts and your intuitions, with no clear markers to guide you. To do that I turn to thought experimentation, to the hypothetical.
My very favorite part of law school was the use of hypotheticals. While professors used them as a combination of legal teaching tool and hazing ritual, they also turn out to be useful for provoking thinkers to dig deeper into their convictions. Hypotheticals also allow me to pervert premises from what I read and applying it to questions not contemplated by the author. In this case, in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, there exists a reproductive technology used by nearly all the advanced human societies in the far flung but oddly Napoleonic future: tubing. Tubing is a simple outpatient procedure with no discomfort where a naturally conceived embryo is transferred from a pregnant woman early in her pregnancy to an external artificial womb. The artificial womb reliably and safely raises the embryo to fetus and to full gestation whereupon the tube is decanted and the child is born. Societies have adjusted and there is no social stigma and emotional cost to using the tube compared to natural birth – in fact it is less risky than carrying a child to term.
So, assuming that tubing is a technology that is available and further assuming that the community is willing and able to adopt a tubed child given up by its mother3 does abortion become less morally permissible to you?4
At this point, allow me to take a brief detour into theory. Broadly speaking, there are two major moral arguments in favor of permissive elective abortion that are not contingent on specific facts about our society as it is – such as the disgraceful state of the foster care and adoption system. The first argument is the bodily integrity argument, and the second is the inhumane suffering argument.
Let me summarize the bodily integrity argument like this:
- All persons have a right to control their own body. This includes the right to move about without interference, to deny anyone the right to touch, penetrate, or otherwise interfere with your body, and the right to do the same to yourself if you wish.
- The right is absolute against any outside force or coercion. While it might be a decent thing to sacrifice your body in order to aid another, it is your right to refuse to do so, and never the right of another to make you do otherwise.
- No matter how precious the life of a fetus, it cannot trump the bodily integrity of the pregnant woman, any more than we would allow even the most gifted musician a right to our kidneys absent our consent.5
The inhumane suffering argument can be summarized like this:
- It is wrong to cause suffering to another.
- If a woman does not wish to carry a child to term but is forced to, she will undergo enormous physical and psychological pain commensurate with being forcibly impregnated in the first place.
- No matter how precious the life of a fetus, no matter how morally responsible the woman, it cannot justify the inhumane cruelty of forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term.
My point is not to argue whether these two arguments are compelling, or which one is from a logical stand point better. Rather, it is to suggest two very different ideas of what is at stake that lead to the moral decisions on whether elective abortion is morally justifiable.6
What we’ve essentially done with the tubing technology is assumed away, a much as possible , any physical and psychological price of an unwanted pregnancy. With tubing, you don’t have to strap down a woman and force her to give birth – just compel her to visit a doctor for an appointment. In fact, the same sort of appointment that would be necessary to obtain an abortion, which would be at least as painful. On the other hand, you are still forcing a woman to have that appointment, you are still performing a medical procedure on her body, and thus violating her autonomy.
If you find yourself likely to be willing to foreclose abortion as an option, you have discovered yourself to believe in the inhuman suffering argument much more than bodily integrity, no matter how convincing and sound you think the argument is. Likewise, if your willingness to foreclose abortion has not increased a whit, pain and suffering isn’t what bothers you nearly as much as a commitment to absolute autonomy.
You might want to object at this point that I have set up a false dichotomy, or ignored the complexities introduced by a any possible legal regime, or the infinite edge cases and nuances. These objections are true, but they also miss the point. The hypothetical is a tool to discover what we believe, not settle any argument that divides the polity – and legitimate objections when settling a policy matter become cowardly evasions when probing the boundaries of what you believe. If the hypothetical is inadequate, you should change it, not to give you an answer, but until it challenges your responses, and you discover what you truly believe.