LTI Q & A #2: Abortion is Self-Defense [Jay Watts]
I recently received this question via e-mail and decided to share my response on the blog. Here is the original message:
I recently engaged in an online discussion where one of the commenters said, "I actually think a fetus is at least becoming human, although it hasn't quite gotten there yet, but I support abortion as self-defense. Any thing that threatens a woman's life, happiness, health, finances, and general well-being is something she can choose to defend herself against. I am wondering how you would respond to this objection/argument. Thank you all for what you're doing! I've learned a lot from Mr. K and others!
This is a tough argument, but not because the substance of the claims are particularly sophisticated. The problem is the arguer is confused about what they are arguing and this commonly leads to confusion in the audience. This is something that we really need to look out for, because in the world of on-line arguing (a world I try hard to avoid) failure to respond immediately is understood as an indication that a comment has some intellectual force.
Here is a good way to begin. Let's ask ourselves questions. How is this person justifying abortion? Why do they think it is a good thing or minimally a necessary thing?
This commenter thinks that abortion is justified as self-defense. This justification is generally a form of the principle of double effect. Defending oneself from an unjustified or unprovoked attack is a good action. If you defend yourself intending to defend yourself and an intrinsically valuable human being dies as a result – because they were attacking you and your defense required killing them – then the act of causing the death of the attacker is justified because you did not intend to do evil. Your intention was to stop or limit evil and the death was a result of the good intentions. The killing was not the purpose of the action. You meant to save yourself and your attacker got killed in the process.
But this is weird. Self defense is a justification. The commenter begins by saying that they believe that the unborn aren't human yet. So if the unborn are not human then why justify your actions toward them at all. Killing non-human life doesn't appear to be the kind of action that requires a system of justification intended to provide moral reasons for killing an attacker. If the unborn are not human then no need for this extra step. The justification is that they are not human in the same way that you and I are and that's that.
Let's give our arguer the benefit of the doubt, though. They actually believe that the unborn are human beings and appeal to self-defense. This argument sounds reasonable enough because it appeals to a commonly held intuition. If a person intended to do me harm or intruded into my house then many people agree I am justified in taking action to protect myself that may end in the death of the aggressor.
But the commenter applies standards that might not be so obviously true by intuition, right? Life? Absolutely. Happiness? So would she be justified in killing a boyfriend in the process of breaking up with her? Do we permit lethal action when our happiness is threatened? If so there some people who talk in movies that are in for a surprise the next time I go to a theater. Health? To what degree? Some lady pushing a whooping cough little kid in the grocery store is threatening my health. The coughing and feverish fellow on MARTA who went to the Falcon's game when he should have stayed home with the flu is threatening the health of us all. Do we condone lethal action in those cases? Flu can be fatal, so this is not trivial. In the last 30 years 3,000 to 52,000 people in the United States die from flu every year with more recent averages being in the 25,000 to 36,000 range. Are inconsiderate people fighting through their symptoms to expose us all a threat we can terminate? Finances? So the guy that is better at my job than me threatens my financial security and I want to rid myself of this threat. Kill him or no? The two year old that got sick at the wrong time threatens the finances of the single mother and her two older children. Kill her? If not, why not? General well being? That is so vague as to mean anything inconvenient. The power of the argument is that most people accept the principle already, but the application here is so broad as to put anyone a woman encounters on any given day at risk of being killed as an aggressor.
Let's look at the traditional self defense model. Is the unborn analogous to a dangerous aggressor? Is it trying to hurt the mother? No. The mother's body and the unborn are working in concert to create a safe environment for the nascent human life to develop and receive nourishment. Most pregnancies do not represent an immediate threat to women. The properly working reproductive system is working in accordance with it's purpose and not being invaded by a parasite or foreign pathogen. Unlike the home invader, the unborn is exactly where it is supposed to be given the predictable and understood developmental process that all human life goes through. Except in the cases of rape, the unborn is not only where it is supposed to be but is there as a direct result of the actions of the woman. This seems wildly different in nature than the kind of aggressor that we accept can be killed by our common intuitions.
So how would I handle this commenter? I would point out that they seem to be confusing their arguments. If they think the unborn aren't human in morally important ways then they need to argue why that is. If they think that women are justified in taking morally important life because that life is analogous to a dangerous aggressor then they need to defend two points: (1) their insanely broad concept of behaviors that justify killing human life and (2) how a life that is exactly where it ought to be in a natural physical relationship that is not - under normal circumstances – dangerous or threatening is comparable to home invaders, assaulters, and attempted murderers.