Friday, March 8, 2013

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.

Hope that helps.


  1. At first I thought this argument was just another excuse to kill babies. But as I think about it, I realize that this argument isn't really that different from what I think about abortion. I think it's only acceptable for the purpose of saving the mother's life, and no other reason is really OK with me. That's the whole crux of self defense right there, isn't it?

    1. In part, yes. But even self-defence does not permit you to "murder" - ie. to will, by an act, the death of another. You do what you can to defend yourself, being as conservative as you can, but if in so doing the baby dies, that is sad, but not murder. Actually, murder is never permitted in any circumstance - and that principle rules out certain forms of pregnancy procedures - such as methotrexate injection, which pursue the death of the baby, rather than treatment of the mother.

  2. "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."

    And the cases of pregnancy in the case of rape are miniscule. Pregnancy from rape is extremely unlikely. As pro-lifers, we need to admit this and not be afraid of being politically incorrect. And a lot of rapes are preventable by the women too. This is important to know because a lot of pro-aborts will bring up the "violinist" argument where a needy violinist is involuntarily hooked up to someone. But in the case of pregnancy, it's the actions of the woman who put the baby in the dependent position it's in.

  3. I agree with all you said, Paul, except for lots of rapes being preventable by women. Care to elucidate?

  4. It's so ridiculous that pregnancies resulting from rape actually even come up when we discuss the abortion issue, much less dominate the conversation. It's like if drunk-driving were legal, and yet people insisting on talking about circumstance where somebody's has their drink spiked with alcohol and doesn't know it and then goes driving. And I mentioned that a lot of rapes are preventable. I would think that's a no-brainer. You wouldn't have a problem admitting that a lot of thefts are preventable. You lock your car, hide valuables, don't make yourself an easy target. But mention rape or any women's issue and people's IQ's suddenly drop 30 points.

  5. Interesting article and I would like to attempt to answer your two points at the end -

    "(1) their insanely broad concept of behaviors that justify killing human life"

    There is no broad concept in abortion as self-defence, individually the injuries occurring do not justify deadly force, as a cumulative effect they do according to the current self-defence laws. Currently the states recognize three justifiable reasons for deadly force;

    1. when one is threatened with death
    2. when one is threatened with a serious bodily injury (defined as damage or loss of use of an organ or limb for a protracted period of time, such as six weeks)
    3. the invasion of one's liberty, such as in kidnaping, rape, or slavery

    I am assuming that very few people would disagree with number 1 on the list as a justifiable reason for abortion .. however there are two other reasons listed. Deadly force is also justified to stop the fetus from imposing the massive number of changes occurring in even a normal pregnancy, if a woman does not consent to those changes, and in essence that is what it comes down to . .consent, and consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy.
    If you are an advocate of 'person at conception' ideology then what needs to be explained is how consent given to one person (the man) for sexual intercourse (one action) can be consent, implied or otherwise, to a separate person (the fetus) for a separate action (sustaining its life at the expense of another). You could imply contributory negligence on the part of the woman, but then you would have to defend that implication. The initial act of sexual intercourse does not contribute to the injuries, that is purely done by the pregnancy, also contributory negligence requires no intent on the part of the fetus and the whole point of pregnancy is to serve the fetuses interests of course the argument then comes back to that a fetuses has no conscious intentions or control over its behavior .. however it is precisely to protect the fetuses interests that current laws restrict abortion, legally it is assumed that a fetus, could it articulate its purpose, would make and keep a woman pregnant, since legally the harm a fetus imposes is recognized as intentional if the fetus were mental competent then there cannot be a contributory negligence on the part of the woman or the man.

    1. I take it you've read Eileen McDonaugh's book. I think the biggest problem with her argument is that the fetus causes harm solely by its existence rather than by its actions. A better analogy would be one where a woman is tied down by a villain and stripped naked. The villain then drops an unconscious, naked man on top of the woman (with his erect penis pointed directly toward the woman's vagina). In this case, I take it that it's not at all obvious that the woman has the right to kill the falling man (even though it would mean that she is effectively raped). And we certainly would not allow a third party to kill the falling man on the woman's behalf.

      Furthermore, if you separate intercourse from impregnation and view the fetus as the cause of the latter, then you cannot sue a rapist for wrongful impregnation (as he is not the cause of the pregnancy).

    2. Sorry for the long wait for my reply.

      I have read Eileen's book and have had regular correspondences with her regarding specific issues within her book. To your "problem" with the argument - The fetus does not cause harm solely by it's existence, from the moment of conception it produces hormones that restrict the local immune system of the woman, if it did not the woman's body would reject the fetus as a foreign body. furthermore the law recognises that not all actions are voluntary despite this it also recognises that involuntary actions can and do cause harm, the inability of the fetus to govern its actions in no way changes the right of the woman to stop those actions if she does not consent to them .. in fact the state has a duty to help her protect herself from those actions, just as it does for any other person. IF the fetus were to be legally seen as a person then for the purposes of the law it would be required to be assigned a level of mens rea, for the fetus this would, in all likely hood, be that of a mentally incompetent person. A mentally incompetent person cannot be legally held responsible for their actions .. however, this does not give them free reign to "do as they please".

      If the fetus becomes legally seen as a person then you are correct, the rapist could not be sued for wrongful impregnation as he would not be the legal cause of any pregnancy that occurred from the rape, though this really has nothing to do with the subject matter being debated.


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