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Monday, April 7, 2014

I'm not distraught when people kill embryos.

I reevaluate whether I am really pro-life on a regular basis.

I believe abortion is almost always morally wrong. I believe it should usually be illegal. But I typically don't feel very emotional about it, at least not regarding early-term abortions (the most common abortions).

When I think of early-term abortions I don't feel anything like I would feel if someone killed a born child. Or even if someone had a late-term abortion. I mean, sure, I have some emotions about the topic. If a woman chooses to abort under duress, I feel sadness and frustration that we haven't made society better, or her position better in it. If a woman chooses to abort a wanted pregnancy because of a Down syndrome diagnosis, I feel indignant and defensive on behalf of born people with Down syndrome. If a woman has multiple abortions, I just feel exasperated.

So, sure: sad, frustrated, indignant, defensive, exasperated--I feel things. But these aren't the emotions I would feel over infanticide--deeper emotions like sorrow, despair, or rage. I don't feel overwhelmed.

In contrast, my fellow pro-life activists often seem to feel these deeper emotions over abortion. For example, my good friend Kelsey Hazzard has never tried sidewalk counseling, partially because she fears the scenario in which she's unable to change an abortion-minded woman's mind. She says she doesn't think she could live with herself. I don't feel the same. I think I could live with it fine. I'm not indifferent--I'd be disappointed, frustrated, disillusioned, maybe--but I wouldn't be crushed.

If I believe all humans--including fetuses--should have a right to live, shouldn't I feel the same way about early-term abortion as I feel about any other death? (That notion is the basis for the Burning IVF Lab thought experiment.) And if I don't feel the same way about abortion as I feel about other deaths, does it mean I don't think fetuses are morally relevant human beings? Do my inconsistent emotions signify insincere beliefs?

I wonder about this apparent contradiction on a regular basis. But then at least one of two main thoughts brings me back around.

1) Abortion isn't the only type of human death I feel numb to. Every day, around the world, people die of starvation, preventable diseases, and violence--including military conflicts in which my own country is involved. Yet, on a day-to-day basis, I'm more likely to get upset over my car acting up, my research progressing slowly, or my weight climbing too high than over real human suffering and death.


Which of these situations should bother me more?
Which one actually bothers me more?

Does my ambivalence indicate I don't believe the people suffering around the world are morally relevant human beings? If so, what does that say about how strongly my personal emotions are connected to the moral relevance of others? If not, what other factors influence my varying emotions about equally relevant people?

Either way, it seems obvious to me that my emotions aren't necessarily a good indicator of my intellectual beliefs, much less a good indicator of the reality of a situation. In my experience, emotions don't function off of consistency and objectivity, but off of a wide variety of factors, some relevant and some not.

2) Which brings me to my second thought: there's nothing wrong with holding a position you find intellectually compelling even if your emotions don't follow. When my mind and emotions diverge, I've found it's almost always a better decision to go with the mind--and I admire people who try to do the same. It's the intellectually honest thing to do.

So, even though I don't feel much over the idea of early-term abortion, I can find no consistent, objective reasoning to explain why there would be more value in, for example, a fetus who has synapses in the brain (8-9 weeks) compared to a fetus who has only just developed cerebral hemispheres (4-5 weeks). The former is more developed than the latter, but neither of them have present abilities like self-awareness or intellectual connection with others, while both of them have those future capacities. I still feel less emotion over the idea of aborting a 4-week embryo compared to a 9-week fetus, but I find no morally relevant differences between the two. If I can't intellectually defend my emotions, I try not to base my political positions on them.

So what do you think, guys? What are some issues where your intellect and emotions aren't aligned? How do you then approach those issues? What place does emotion have in forming your worldview, and how much weight to you give it?

12 comments:

Jameson Graber said...

I like your honesty here. It reminds of one time when someone asked me why I cared so much about the abortion issue, and I responded, "For the same reason I would care about any issue of justice." If we're going to wait on our emotional attachments before we care about how other humans are treated, chances are we're not going to be much concerned with that many people.


That said, I do think there's something healthy about developing some level of emotional attachment to human beings we don't know. One issue I care about very much is immigration. Now, it's impossible for me to know all the millions of people being prevented from entering the US because of immigration laws. They probably don't look like me, and they probably have a pretty different outlook on life. But I feel for them as human beings. Obviously if you split up the amount of emotional attachment I have among all of them, it would amount to vanishingly little. I suppose the same goes for aborted babies. But it's not a question of quantity of emotion so much as motivation to speak and act. Emotions have little to do with the rightness or wrongness of an act but a lot to do with whether we're willing to get involved.


Still, as involved as you are in the pro-life movement, no one can really criticize you for having too *little* attachment to the unborn. Whatever motivates you to speak out, I think that's all that's required. And there are advantages to keeping a certain emotional distance, since it helps you to evaluate your work more critically and rationally. The people who do the most for a movement may not necessarily be the ones who feel most passionately about it. But what do I know...

KM Misener said...

I appreciate the honesty of this post. It reminds me of the essay that went viral a few years ago about "the monkey sphere": http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html


Do any of us honestly, honestly have the emotional energy to feel deeply about every tragedy and injustice we hear about? No, I don't think we do. Some people care more about strangers than others do, but I think we all have to tune out some of the world's cruelty to be able to function and enjoy life.


I work in a "helping profession" and I hear some very sad stories on a regular basis as part of my job. Some of the stories I hear do touch me deeply and I certainly do try to help everyone that I am able to. However, if I grieved for every single sad story I heard, I would not be able to function. I would not be able to stand going to work every day. I think most physicians, social workers, nurses, etc. have learned to detach to some extent to stay sane, happy, and avoid burnout.


I am also very passionate about animal rescue. I have sometimes felt more emotional about a bad case of animal cruelty than I have about cases of humans being harmed or killed. The thought of a helpless dog that only wants to please its human owner being mistreated by that owner gets to me on an emotional level in the way that many forms of human-against-human cruelty doesn't. In spite of that, however, I would never say that animals are more important than humans or deserve rights above humans.

Nathaniel said...

I also appreciate your honest, M. But I don't really think that fetal development is an exceptional case. I think emotional response to death follows some pretty universal patterns, and fetal development is just fitting into the pattern along with everything else.

So the biggest factor in how affected we are by death is how much we choose to dwell on it. That's voluntary, so let's set it aside. I'd say four other universal factors are:

(1) strength of our relationship to the decedent
(2) similarity between ourselves and the decedent
(3) amount of pain endured by the decedent (including psychological)
(4) impact of the death on others (not ourselves)

So it's easy to imagine hypothetical murder scenarios that vary on these four parameters. A stranger (1) living in a foreign culture in a life very unlike ours (2) killed in a relative quick, painless way (3) who doesn't have young children (4) is going to hit us a lot less hard than a friend (1) who lives down the street and has a similar background (2) and is killed in a painful way (3) and who leaves behind a spouse and young children (4).

Disparate emotional response, but does this undercut our believe that each victim had an equal right to life? I don't think it does.

So, in the case of very early-term abortions, we're talking about a human being with whom we don't have a relationship at all (1) who is very unlike us due to biological development and life experience (2) and who can't feel pain because of a lack of brain and nerve development (3) and who has had very little effect on anyone else (4). So, by the same criteria that we always use, an early-term abortion is going to have very little emotional impact.

So what?

As the fetus develops, it's easier to (1) have a relationship with him or her (my kids had very different personalities in utero that mapped to their personalities after birth) and also (2) see them as similar to us and (3) realize that their abortion will be much, much more painful and (4) suspect that they have already started to form a relationship with more people (just because more people will know about the pregnancy).

In other words: we're not reacting to the abortion victim any differently than any other person who dies. We're following the same basic rules for emotional response that we always do. And if they don't mean that a born person has a greater or lesser right to life based on emotional response, why should we assume that they are suddenly relevant for the unborn?

Michelle Ewing said...

I see very little difference between a 6 week abortion and a 13 week abortion. the mother may have gained 5 pounds at 13 weeks, but also have no morning sickness she had at 6 weeks. her organs are not shifting yet. and the unborn has no capability to learn or feel pain (that we know of). So what is the harm in waiting? it's too hard on your wallet? well guess what, making babies is not cost effective and has nothing to do with your body at that point! You have the same basic changes at 6 weeks you do at 13, so that has also has nothing to do with it. I say, if it's really your choice because it's your body that's changing, wait till the 2nd trimester what that "clump of cells" takes the shape of a fetus that looks like a baby. instead of a embryo that looks like a tadpole. Then well see how many mothers truly want to abort.

m17l6s85 said...

Agreed. That was the overall point I was trying to articulate, really.

Chalkdust said...

You want to force women to go through 7 extra weeks of morning sickness and other unpleasant pregnancy symptoms. That harms them. Your proposed benefit is that doing so would make it easier for you to guilt-trip them into carrying their unwanted fetuses to term. That takes away their right to make their own decisions.

And while you see no moral difference between a 6-week fetus and a 13-week fetus, I do. Killing something that has no brain activity, or less activity, is to be preferred to killing something that does have more brain activity. You want to force women who have decided to have abortions to delay--and they may well feel that they have a moral imperative to abort as soon as possible once the decision is made. I know that if I was going to have an abortion, I'd feel that way. You are proposing that we force women to violate their own moral code because it makes it easier for you to get them to do what you want.

m17l6s85 said...

That Monkeysphere article was pretty interesting.

someone45 said...

Actually I have known women who for them the suffering started pretty much from day one. They were miserable the entire time they were pregnant.
Some had abortions and one carried to term.

Michelle Ewing said...

She would still have the right. She just wouldn't want to. I'd rather her feel the guilt of abortion before it's too late to change her mind, not after. If she truly didn't want a baby she would choose not to go though the first trimester by avoiding getting pregnant. and I understand most people think it's more sad for a fetus to be aborted than an embryo. just because it's more or less sad, it doesn't mean that their not equal. That's like saying you should beat your child early because they have less brain development and you choose the way you punish your child. It two conflicting statements. if beating you child had to be legal i'd say ok, wait and think about it for the first 15 years, the younger children should be free from that because they are less developed. maybe it would reduce child abuse as opposed it all child abuse being legal. rape is rape, abuse is abuse, and abortion is abortion. They are words that make people cringe for a reason. All these issues are not ok, even if always perpetuated by a woman. If they is nothing wrong with forcing a female rapist or abuser to violate their moral code, I don't see what's wrong with saying, go ahead if you want, but stop and think about it.

Michelle Ewing said...

I bet the "whole" time they were pregnant wasn't even close to the end of the second, or "honey moon" trimester for those who aborted. they'll never know.

someone45 said...

The ones who had abortions had them at 4 weeks, 6 weeks, and (she says they told her she was 3 weeks along)...


Not sure what the honey moon trimester is but from friends who have been pregnant they sure haven't talked about anything like that.

Ingrid Heimark said...

For me, this line goes at implantation. I do believe any zygote is as valuable as the rest of us, but I also know that most of these tiny humans die and we never knew about them. I don't feel like a woman should be considered having an abortion for using the pill either. Still the value of the life is there. But when the child is implanted, the fundamental milestone that ensures continued development is at place The zygote will always have a chance at implanting, even in a hostile environment. But after implantation, to kill the child you must be active. It is a deliberate choice to take a life that would otherwise live. It enrages me that people have late-term abortions or kill their newborn child, mostly because they KNOW the child is human and still does it, and also that later abortion are torture in addition to killing.


I would never myself use a embryocidal contraceptive, and I have opinions about it, but I would never dream of trying to make it illegal. Abortion on the other hand, I feel very strongly about. So I guess, even though life is just as valuable before implantation, the active act to take the life makes all the difference for me