Recently Secular Pro-Life participated in an abortion debate at the Texas FreeThought Convention. Pro-life atheist Kristine Kruszelnicki and pro-choice atheist Matt Dillahunty presented their sides, questioned each other, and then answered questions from the crowd. You can watch the entire debate here.
I'm pro-life, and I'd like to say the pro-life side dominated the debate, but that wasn't the case. While I agreed with some of Kristine's points, I also found some of her arguments confusing and problematic. Matt seemed calmer, clearer, and more confident. I don't agree with his conclusions but he made a strong case, arguing based on bodily rights.
Still, I thought Matt benefited a lot from an audience clearly on his side. It's not just that Kristine was laughed at and repeatedly cut off by applause. It's also that Matt had people cheering him on even when his points were ridiculous.
I agree people have a fundamental right to bodily autonomy. I believe one person's right to bodily autonomy supersedes another person's right to life in many (though not all) situations. Matt was right to focus on bodily rights. In my opinion, it's the only strong pro-choice argument.
However, Matt had some other, much weaker positions.
Human vs. Person
Matt insisted his argument is not based on the nature of the fetus. That is, even if we all agreed the fetus is a full person with equal rights, no one--a fetus, a child, an adult--has the right to use another person's body against that person's will. (There's room for debate over whether the Courts would agree.)
While Matt agreed that, biologically, human beings begin at "the instant of conception," Matt made it clear he does not believe the fetus is a person, calling the idea irrational and stupid. Yet when Kristine asked Matt for his view on when we become "people," Matt dodged:
When do we become a person? Ah! Now that’s a difficult question, and I think that pregnancy is the process of going from a fertilized egg to something that qualifies as a person, and that we can figure out—try to make our best judgments about that. But the fact that we can’t necessarily draw a quick and easy line--like, you know, the day that it pops out of a womb or 10 days before or 20 days before—doesn’t mean that we can’t make a determination that there’s a big difference between Day 2 and Week 38.
So..."I don't know when the fetus becomes a person, but I know it's not at conception."
Of course there are big differences between Day 2 and Week 38. As Kristine pointed out early in the debate, there are also big differences between newborns and adults. No one is denying big differences. The questions are:
- Which differences apply to the fetus alone among other human beings?
- What makes those differences morally significant?
Matt asserts bodily rights are supreme regardless of whether the fetus is a person. Even if I agreed with him, that would make fetal personhood insufficient to outlawing abortion. It would not make fetal personhood irrelevant. Personhood still needs to be addressed.
There are many factors that complicate the morality of unwanted pregnancy and abortion. It's simplistic to assert that because you've decided one factor is the most important, all the other factors need not even be considered.
[Aside: This works both ways. Many pro-choicers avoid personhood because they feel bodily autonomy supersedes. Many pro-lifers avoid bodily autonomy because they feel personhood supersedes. I find it generally irritating, but especially so if you've agreed to debate the other side. What sort of debate boils down to, "I feel the factors you emphasize are irrelevant and so I'm not going to discuss them"?]
Anyway, Kristine pressed further: "So if you don’t know, then, when a person begins, is it not possible that you might be killing a person?" Matt dodged again.
Well what I said was, first of all, personhood is irrelevant to my issue of bodily rights. My defense of bodily rights takes into account the idea of a person and this is not an issue for that. But what I just said was that even though we can’t make a necessarily distinct moment, that doesn’t mean we’re blind, that doesn’t mean we don’t have any information to consider. We know, roughly, about the development of embryos. PZ can explain it.
I didn't hear an answer in any of that, did you?
Even if we all agreed that it's justifiable to kill another person to preserve your bodily autonomy, the question "Are we killing a person in the first place?" is still an important question. After all, if the fetus is not a moral entity worthy of rights, none of this matters at all. We don't need to justify abortion through bodily autonomy any more than we need to justify a cavity extraction. But if the fetus is a person, things are much more complicated. Abortion advocates may assert personhood is irrelevant, but notice how carefully they avoid even the possibility that abortion kills a person?
[Aside: Kristine used the "SLED" argument to discuss differences between the fetus and other humans. While it's not necessarily incorrect, I think the SLED argument is a bit vague. I think it's better to get more specific about developmental differences, as I've found many people are dubious about fetal personhood based on these differences.]
"To Us" vs. "By Us"
Matt describes pregnancy as follows:
Pregnancy is an involuntary condition that results from our natural biological drives and interactions, and is often in conflict with our desires, our designs, and our best interests. It's something that happens to us, not by us.
First, yes, I think it's natural to want to have sex (or, to use Matt's euphemism, to want to have a "biological interaction"). And yes, pregnancy can result from having sex. And yes, pregnancy is not always in the best interest of the pregnant woman, and certainly not always her desire or plan. I agree.
But saying pregnancy "happens to us, not by us" seems to imply we have no control or choice and no responsibility in the situation. And that is false.
[Aside: I am referring here only to consensual sex. Clearly rape victims had no control or choice and therefore have no responsibility. Because of this crucial factor, I do not agree with Kristine on rape exceptions.]
When you choose to take an action knowing the risks, you are choosing to take those risks. If those risks come to pass, it is at least partially because of a choice you made. The risks didn't just happen to you--they happened because of your choices.
This is true for many circumstances, including the choice to have sex--and it's not just pro-lifers who see it this way. Consider current child support laws. If a man fathers a child, he can be legally required to pay child support. It doesn't matter whether having the child was in his best interest, and it doesn't matter whether he desired or planned to have the child. He consented to have a "biological interaction" and risk pregnancy. He is responsible for the child.
I am amazed at how strongly the more adamant pro-choicers reject this connection. I suspect, as with fetal personhood, acknowledging the important factors of consent to risks and responsibility for outcomes make the situation too complicated. This came up a few times during the debate. Here:
Matt: "The fact that you happen to die when we deny you the right to use somebody else’s body is not the woman’s fault."
Kristine: "Well the woman is actually the one who has put that child in a position of dependence on her."
Audience: "No!" "Not agree!" "No! No!"
I'm sorry, what? Kristine's statement is not a moral judgment--it's a biological reality. (I would only alter her statement by saying the woman is one of two people to put the fetus in a position of dependence. Both the man and woman are responsible.) I can't fathom how people can so strongly deny this fact. What's the alternative? Do fetuses invade the womb of their own volition?
Let me put it another way: has anyone ever accidentally gotten pregnant without having a "biological interaction"?
To be sure, sex is necessary but not sufficient for unplanned pregnancies. There are many other factors that can determine whether the woman gets pregnant. However, in the process of becoming pregnant, there is a choice over which people have control (sex), and then there are factors over which people don't have control (fertilization, implantation). In order to be subject to the factors you can't control, you must first choose to have sex.
This is not actually how it happens, guys.
Audience member: "I was on birth control, I used condoms, I did not want to be pregnant, I did not choose to be pregnant, at all—I guess by having sex I guess I did, but whatever—I didn’t choose to be pregnant. I took every precaution I possibly could. I got pregnant. Then I had an almost nervous breakdown because I did not want to go through that (at that time, I was much younger). And I ended up with a spontaneous abortion."
I do not envy this woman's situation; given my way, no woman would get pregnant who didn't want to be pregnant. It's smart for sexually-active people to use birth control if they don't want children.
However--as this woman's story so amply demonstrates--protected sex still includes risks. She is right when she says she didn't choose to become pregnant, but she's wrong when she says she took every precaution she possibly could. She took every precaution except refraining from sex (at least the type of sexual interactions that can cause pregnancy). She didn't choose to become pregnant; she did choose to risk becoming pregnant. These are distinct choices, but both include a level of responsibility. Saying "whatever" doesn't negate this reality.
This is usually the part in the conversation when people start accusing me of hating sex and/or women and demand I stop being so judgmental/such a prude and the like. These are all faulty assumptions. Nowhere have I said having sex is wrong. I don't care whether you have sex or how often or with who (as long as it's consensual, obviously). All I ask is you not put yourself in a position you will hate so badly you'll want to kill someone to get out of it. And all I'm saying here is that, yes, sex can cause pregnancy, and when you choose to take risks, the outcomes don't just "happen to you"--they happen because of your choices.
Termination vs. Killing
I've seen people avoid fetal personhood and the sex/pregnancy connection many times. I've seen people avoid the "killing" aspect of abortion by only discussing the restoration of bodily autonomy. ("Nothing to see here, folks!") But rarely have I seen people specifically assert that abortion isn't killing. I find that really bizarre, but that's what Matt seems to think:
Matt: "You can abdicate parental rights, and termination of a pregnancy is one of the ways in which you can abdicate those rights."
Kristine: "You can abdicate parental rights, but you can’t kill your children. If you abdicate parental rights by saying 'I’m going to place my child for adoption' or 'I’m going to withdraw child support,' that’s not the same as killing the child."
Matt: "Right, and neither, really, is abortion. We’re talking about the termination of a pregnancy. It is a fact of nature that this tends to result in the death of the fetus. There are also cases in late term abortions and late term [unclear] deliveries where we actually have a vested interest in the viable fetus."
It's also a fact of nature that a bullet in the brain tends to result in the death of a person, but "nature" doesn't put the bullet there. People do. Likewise, "nature" doesn't use surgical tools to break apart and remove the fetus from the womb. People do. When people take actions which result directly in the death of someone else, we call those actions "killing."
I'm interested to learn more about these late-term abortions in which there is a vested interest in the viable fetus. And by "vested interest" I mean an interest in protecting the life of the fetus. There are plenty of premature deliveries in which medical professionals try to protect the life of the fetus, but those aren't referred to as "abortions." They're referred to as childbirth. To me, Matt's reasoning sounds like an equivocation. If we define "abortion" to include premature delivery and childbirth, then sure, abortion isn't necessarily killing. I just didn't realize anyone defined abortion that way.
Kristine: "If there was a situation in which somebody became obligated for a born human being, you would not say ‘Well I’m meeting the responsibility of my obligation by killing them.’ The same way the child…"
Matt: "Yes, because I reject your ignorant strawman of "killing them"...[audience applause] The fact that they die is not necessarily the same as terminating the pregnancy."
Kristine: "If you’re actively going in there and you’re decapitating, dismembering, and disemboweling them, how is that not an act of killing?"
Matt: "It is, but that’s not the sum total of all abortions, first of all, and second of all, that is depending entirely on your assertion that it is a person with full personal rights."
I'm not sure what Matt means when he says that's not the sum total of abortions. He may be again referring to the idea that some late term abortions include trying to preserve the fetus, or that "abortion" includes childbirth. Alternatively, he may be asserting that Kristine's description would not apply to abortions in the earliest stages of pregnancy. For example, you can't be disemboweled unless you have, well, bowels, and intestines don't start developing until between 4 - 5 weeks after fertilization.
But 66% of abortions are performed after 6 weeks gestation. I can't find data that specifies how many are performed after 5 weeks gestation, but it's moot anyway. Even though earlier-term abortions don't disembowel the embryo, they still kill the embryo, which was Kristine's main assertion.
Beyond that, the assertion that abortion is a form of killing does not depend at all on the fetus being a person with "full personal rights." Living organisms that aren't people can still be killed. If you ran over your neighbor's cat and she said "You killed my cat!" you wouldn't say "Actually, I didn't, because your cat was not a person."
To say "abortion is killing" is not an "ignorant strawman." It's not even a moral judgment. It's physical reality, nothing more. You can reject the assertion if you like, but facts don't change based on whether we believe them.
As I said, I think bodily autonomy is an important right and a significant argument from the pro-choice side. But maybe it's not as strong of an argument as I had originally thought. If it were, I'd expect pro-choicers wouldn't require the mental gymnastics displayed here. As long as you ignore the possibility of fetal personhood, reject the connection between your choices and your circumstances, and, above all, don't think of abortion as "killing," I guess the pro-choice stance will actually feel solid.