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May 30th, 2003

In a paper cited on

In a paper cited on the philosophy papers blog today, Alexander Pruss makes the following remarkable claim:

Despite the fact that the strength of argument is clearly on the pro-life side—nobody except a handful of academics would question the grave wrongness of abortion were pregnancy never inconvenient—somehow ordinary intelligent people, like our students, often remain unconvinced.

As Ayer might have put it, there’s a normative claim and a factual claim here. And they’re both wrong. I’ll leave the discussion of the normative claim to the experts. (Take it away, 617 Bloggers!) But what of the factual claim, that nobody except academics would believe abortion is permissible if it were not for the associated inconvenience? Is this true?

Well, Pruss charmingly gives no evidence whatsoever for his claim, so I’ll guess it’s just basically anecdotal evidence. So I’ll offer my competing anecdotal evidence. Anyone who wants to substitute actual evidence should feel free to do so.

In my experience, the ‘convenience’ argument for the permissibility of abortion is more persuasive among men than it is among women. Pro-choice women are more often moved by arguments to do with autonomy. And by this I mean not just arguments to do with bodily autonomy, narrowly construed, but to do with the right to control fundamental aspects of one’s life, such as if and when one will procreate. (I seem to recall Liz Harman had some good discussion of this point somewhere, but I can’t find the relevant paper online.) You can sort of test for this by getting people’s reaction to the use of ectogenesis as an alternative to abortion. I think that many, if not most, pro-choice men think that there would not be a right to abortion if it were possible to (relatively painlessly) remove the foetus and have it grow in an incubator and be nurtured by adoptive parents. My impression is that relatively few pro-choice women (even non-academics!), think this possibility would be a sufficient reason to ban abortion. But if Pruss’s assumption were correct, they all should find this a compelling reason to introduce a ban, because given this possibility there need not be the ‘inconvenience’ of pregnancy.

As I said, I don’t have the actual data at my fingertips to support all my assertions here, but if anyone knows where to find relevant data, the comments section is open!

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized

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One Response to “In a paper cited on”

  1. Alexander R Pruss says:

    Obviously, I have no data, and can have no data here. Polls as generally designed are much too coarse an instrument, though the majority of people on polls who are morally opposed to abortion for most of the reasons for which abortions are had is a suggestive fact.

    I meant “inconvenient” in a wide sense in this throw-away line. For instance, a part of the “inconvenience” is in the responsibilities that one has to the child once the child is born. A thought experiment one might imagine is one where the pregnancy is in no way unpleasant or uncomfortable, in no way limiting to the mother, and indeed not even visible to outside persons, and birth is entirely painless and safe—babies are just beamed out. Once the child is born after nine months of gestation (having developed over those nine months just as ordinary human fetuses do), in a few seconds more it grows up into an adult, already positioned physically, financially, intellectually and morally to lead a meaningful and intelligent life, independently of the parents.

    Let’s take our old friend, the violinist. But let’s shrink him until he is very tiny, a micrometer long. He in fact lives right inside my kidney. He is in no way inconvenient to me. I can do whatever I would have done without him. He entered painlessly and will exit painlessly in nine months, but will die if I expel him. He did not enter my kidney through his own choice. It would be, I think, plainly churlish for me to begrudge him that place. No rational reason could be given for expelling him—I am in no way worse off with him inside me than with him outside me, and nobody else loses by his presence inside me. We may suppose that a desire to punish the person who wrongfully implanted him is not relevant. We can suppose this, for instance, by supposing that he entered purely by an accident of fate—he was wafted into me by the wind.

    I think that any pull we may feel towards the idea that I have a right to expel him (a pull that I think is mistaken) is likely due to the way in which this situation is disanalogous with pregnancy, namely that it is an abnormal state of a human being. And if we further add that this wafted-in violinist is in fact my son who accidentally got shrunk and blown inside me, then it is absolutely clear that autonomy considerations would not be sufficient to allow me to expel him to his death.

    If we look how pro-choice ideas have gained ascendancy over a large segment of American society, I think it’s clear that a crucial role was played by people’s compassion for the manyfold sufferings of many pregnant women and their children, especially poor women. If abortion were an issue that only concerned rich women for whom pregnancy only stood in the way of yet greater riches, I think we would see very little in the way of the kind of sympathy that is essential to making the pro-choice movement more than a small fringe.

    A small witness to this is people’s reactions to apotemnophilia. Even though the apotemnophile wishes to have removed something that indisputably is a part of his or her body, my feeling is that the vast majority of people rejects the idea that the apotemnophile has a right to an amputation or else thinks that such a right comes from the kind of misery that the un-amputated apotemnophile seems to be in. I do not even think that people are very moved by arguments that amputation would lead to personal fulfillment—the apotemnophile has to be in actual positive misery for people to have any significant sympathy for his or her desires. Now this is not the same as saying that they think such amputation is immoral—generally, people in this society are also uncomfortable with calling acts that concern the agent alone “immoral”. But I do think people are morally very uncomfortable with the idea of doctors performing amputations for apotemnophiles, and if the apotemnophile in no way suffered from apotemnophilia, the discomfort would tend to be decisive.