Sunday, 18 May 2014

Abortion, Miscarriage and Differences of Belief

     Last week I happened to be in Ottawa with my wife as she attended a conference, and I was looking forward to touring Parliament. I did finally get to see it on the last day we were there, but the first day it was closed, so after a visit to the Supreme Court, I walked to the Canadian Museum of Nature instead. On the way back, my path was blocked by a rather large parade that explained the reason the houses of Parliament were closed: a major anti-abortion rally was taking place. Fortunately, I was in no hurry, so I stopped into a bookstore on the corner and had a chat with the clerks there while watching the protesters.

     I've written before about how I am torn by the debate over abortion. On the one hand, I think that objectively, morally relevant functional personhood doesn't emerge until some time after a baby has been born. At the same time, I recognize how vitally important it is for parents and others to bond early with babies, and treat them as if they are persons in order to help guide their development into real persons. In short, it's good that so many people believe and act upon something that isn't actually true. So I don't really want to be telling pro-lifers that their babies aren't actually people yet. I want them to talk to and cuddle and interact with their babies as if they were, so I am very reluctant to upset the belief that they are.
     And yet, I strong resist promoting that belief, not only because I believe it to be objectively wrong, but because such a belief can also create a great deal of unnecessary grief. If the fetus is a person and abortion is murder, after all, then miscarriage is the tragic death of a child. And while I do not mean to minimize the very real grief of parents who equate a miscarriage to the loss of a child, I think the author of this article is asking a little too much. She is right to ask us to acknowledge and validate her grief -- it is real -- but in asking us to talk about her miscarriage as the loss of an actual rather than a potential child, she wants to invalidate the feelings of people like myself and my wife, who have suffered miscarriages as disappointments rather than tragedies. One doesn't usually think of an absence of grief as something that needs validation, and to be sure we don't need to be consoled or comforted the way a grieving person does, but that isn't an excuse to dismiss our feelings as inauthentic or worse, heartless. We honestly don't feel like grieving parents of dead children, and I'm not sure there's any good reason why we ought to.

     Yet I'm still not comfortable with this as an answer. The same structure of argument could be applied to something like slavery. If I were a slave owner who genuinely, sincerely believed that slaves are not legally or morally persons, lack souls and don't feel pain or suffer in any meaningful way, then would my failure to feel guilty over whipping them be worthy of validation and respect by people who believe otherwise? I wouldn't think so. Moreover, I wouldn't want to say that slavery should be tolerated because people who believe slaves are persons aren't obliged to keep them, but have no right to impose that belief on others who do want to keep slaves. I categorically reject that argument, so I'm not satisfied with an argument of the same structure with respect to abortion. Someone who genuinely believe slaves are persons is morally obliged to oppose slavery everywhere, not just abstain from keeping slaves, and so someone who believe a fetus is a moral person is similarly obliged to oppose abortion everywhere, not merely decline to abort her own fetus.
     Of course, that is not the end of it. Let's consider, instead of slavery (where we all pretty much agree now that slaves really are persons), something else. Suppose you genuinely and sincerely believed that blades of grass were persons, could feel pain and think and had a right not to be mowed, stepped on, or eaten. If you really believed that, you'd of course be morally obliged to act so as to protect grass from such mistreatment, ideally by persuading other people of the personhood of grass so that they too would cease harming grass, and eventually you could enact legislation to impose the consequences of this belief on everyone. But of course, persuading people that grass has the attributes of personhood is no small matter, because there's no evidence whatsoever for this ridiculous idea.
     So which of these two cases is that of the fetus more like? Is a fetus so obviously a person that those of us who doubt it are plainly delusional? I don't think one can fairly say that. Is a fetus so obviously not a person that those who believe it is are plainly delusional? I wouldn't say that, either; even though I've come to the conclusion that a fetus isn't a person, it took me an awful lot of brain-time. Moreover, as I've said before, I think the belief in the personhood of the fetus is in some ways beneficial even if untrue.
     Both beliefs are reasonable. That's what makes this a tragedy in the classical sense; reasonable and well-intentioned people are on the losing side of the conflict, whoever wins. At present and for the foreseeable future in Canada, my side has won and abortion is legal. But I think we all need to be gracious in victory, and honourable in defeat.
     On the pro-choice side, we need to be better at acknowledging and validating the feelings of people who genuinely and reasonably believe millions of helpless children are dying, whether through abortion or miscarriage. We need to better communicate that we want abortion to be legal not because we like it but because while we wish it were never needed, sometimes it is and it should be available. And we should be open to the possibility of being convinced that maybe we were wrong, and the fetus really is a person after all and we should change sides.
     On the pro-life side, you need to recognize that reasonable people have come to a different conclusion from yours about the fetus, and that they might be right. Open your mind to that possibility, consider it fairly, and even if you still ultimately reject it, remember that in seeking to restrict our access to safe abortion you are seeking to impose the consequences of your belief on sincere and well-intentioned people who genuinely and reasonably do not share it.


  1. This is very close to my own internal debate, with one exception. The other issue is that while the personhood of a fetus may be in question, the personhood of women is not. Placing the 'rights' of an entity of questionable status above the rights and wellbeing of a person is not defensible, in my mind.

  2. That isn't an exception to my position, but rather something I just didn't mention in this essay because I didn't feel it necessary to squeeze it in.

    But it's a little more complicated than that, because one should probably then include some calculation of the probabilities and balance of hardships. We can peg the loss to the fetus as a prospective person at 100 units, since death is kind of total like that, and we can assess some value for the disutility to the prospective mother of being forced to bear a child in her particular circumstances. For some this will be a heavier burden than others, but for the sake of illustration let's say 50 units for some particular woman; her hardship would be half as bad as just dying outright.

    But her loss would be a certainty, since we KNOW she's a person. So the balancing of interests puts a 100% chance of 50 units of loss, versus some chance of a loss of 100 units. If we think it 50% likely that the fetus actually is a person, then it's a tossup: a 50% chance of a loss of 100 units is equal to a 100% chance of a loss of 50 units. If we think it's only 10% likely, then the abortion is the safer bet, but if we think it's 90% likely, then the woman should bear her 50 unit hardship rather than inflict an expected loss of 90 units on the child.

    Obviously, it all depends on what values we assign to the probabilities and to the hardships. In my own calculus, I set the likelihood of a fetus being a person very low, so even a very small hardship on the mother is worth aborting. Pro-lifers set a very high probability on it, which is why most of them allow for abortion to save the life of the mother, about the only situation where the expected utility values can be close.

  3. Hi Tom, long time reader etc..

    I like the reasoning, but I think it falls down on the imperative demands of belief. Your analogy: "Suppose you genuinely and sincerely believed that blades of grass were persons, could feel pain and think and had a right not to be mowed, stepped on, or eaten. If you really believed that, you'd of course be morally obliged to act so as to protect grass from such mistreatment, ideally by persuading other people of the personhood of grass so that they too would cease harming grass, and eventually you could enact legislation to impose the consequences of this belief on everyone."

    To use another analogy :

    I am a vegetarian. This is a moral decision: I think animals should be recognized as having a degree of, if not actual, personhood. They feel fear, pain etc. To kill animals for ends they aren't necessary for, is profoundly immoral.

    I think it would be better if everyone thought the way I did; that the world would be a better place. However, I also acknowledge that other people's moral calculus will differ from mine - that while I believe what I do about animals, this isn't necessarily apparent to everyone. Some people have reasons to eat meat - inability to access sufficient other food; iron deficiencies etc.. If presented with the opportunity to talk about why I think meat eating is wrong; I will do so. If people are persuaded, so much the better.

    But my belief about animals and their nature does not necessitate me acting to convert others to my way of behaving. (see also: a belief in [any given] X doesn't require acting Y). The actions that I chose as a result of my beliefs are just that - not the underlying belief itself; rather the consequence of further moral reasoning predicated on the underlying belief. Suggesting that genuine belief (if you really believed that) requires are particular form of action feels right (I mean; that's how you'd act if you believed that, right?) but isn't necessary or logically congruent.

    I think we do a disservice to fundamentally link a belief from action-consequences of a belief. There are clearly some epistemological frameworks that 'narrow the gap' between the two to almost non-existent, particularly various religious practice systems.

    I think where this also goes off track when we consider the difference between fact and belief, and this is where much of the debate goes off track. We aren't very good at distinguishing the two. When you call for accepting that another person's belief may be correct; all well and good. But when both sides sincerely believe they are *factually* correct, respect for another persons *feelings* be damned! feelings-smeelings. we're talking facts here! Until all parties are willing to acknowledge that whatever they maintain is an opinion/belief only, calls for meaningful dialogue are to deaf ears.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Jael. You make an interesting point. I'm not certain I agree, but I haven't yet thought about it enough to know why. I suppose it just seemed intuitively obvious to me that if I believed the fetus to be a human, I'd be morally obliged to attempt to protect its interests (at least by non-violently trying to persuade others). It simply had not occurred to me that I'd need to support this step of the argument, so thank you for calling my attention to it; now I can think about and question my unquestioned assumption.

    That said, I don't think the step is crucial to my argument. The main reason I mentioned such an obligation was a desire to acknowledge and respect the moral intuitions of the pro-lifer, to say "Yes, I understand why you feel morally obliged to oppose abortion, and I applaud you for acting on your moral convictions, even if I believe you are mistaken about your initial premise." Calling that obligation into question is a valid option, but wasn't important to my main point.

    As for the second point, I agree completely that we do not have access to facts as some privileged category of "reliable" belief; we only have beliefs in which we have varying levels of confidence. High confidence in beliefs is good, but it doesn't create facthood. If you can't give good reasons for why you have confidence in a belief, you have no right to expect someone else to accept it.