Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Monday, May 30, 2005

Back from Berkeley

Tired and cranky.

Lisa's response to my recent posting is well worth reading, and it points in the direction I was kind of sort of heading, which is this: we hear all the time about how 'pro-life' women, women who choose not to have an abortion, are making "the moral choice." But I would counter that all women who are faced with this wrenching decision are making a moral choice. That is, I think all women are confronted with a cruel and difficult decision as to the nature of the greater good, and that the choice to have the abortion is often--almost always--as much a moral choice as the decision not to.

Let me see if I can explain. It seems to me that, as I said before, "pro-life" is idiotically oversimplifying/distracting from a complicated issue. For one thing, no "pro-life" person really is. Nobody's "pro-life"--presumably, these people are "pro-human-life." (I know it seems I'm once again playing trivial semantics, but bear with me, I am actually going somewhere with this.) I mean, "pro-lifers" aren't opposed to, say, the prescribing of anti-biotics or weeding one's garden. I bet most of them aren't even vegan. So "life" ain't the issue. So, OK: what' s so special about human life--what distinguishes it from all other forms of life that causes it to be sacrosanct? Here, I think that fundamentalists and atheists are actually in agreement: our possession of reason. Clearly, when God said that He was going to make us in His image, the "image" He was talking about was His mind--His ability to reason, muse, contemplate both action and consequence, perform abstraction and metonymy, etc. That's what distinguishes us from even the smartest of other animals--our reason. (Please don't tell me that He meant that we were going to look like Him--that's just...I mean, does that mean God has an appendix? Or is it just the outer self we resemble--in which case, God has an anus? Call me perverse for thinking such thoughts, but I only do so to point out that the metaphysical really needs to transcend such vulgarity. Point being: He's not an old man with a beard sitting on golden throne in the clouds. Just let that go, OK?) OK, so what the pro-lifers really are is pro-reason--it is reason that makes life precious--hell, they even let this vital point slip in the fiasco of Ms. Schiavo when they struggled desperately to prove via that damn balloon footage that there was still a mind in there and that therefore her life was worth saving. The point is--look, let's do a little reductio ad absurdum.

You know that whole "living head in a jar" cliche that extends all the way back to movie classics like The Brain That Wouldn't Die and They Saved Hitler's Brain to TV classics like Futurama? OK, now let's get one of those heads in a jar and put it next to one of those zombies from the Night of the Living Dead knock-offs, one that has taken a shot gun to the head and had it blown off completely but is still wandering around 'alive.' (It has to be a Romero knock-off, of course, because in Romero's films, "Kill the brain, and you kill the ghoul." We need one of those Return of the Living Dead-type films when nothing save total vaporization kills the damn thing. God damn but I'm a geek.) Point is, we've got this living body without a head, and a living head without a body. Kill the former, and you might be charged with something, but it probably wouldn't be murder--this is why people are allowed to pull the plug on the truly brain-dead. Kill the latter, and it's definitely murder. The brain and its ability to reason make all the difference.

So preventing the creation of reason is really the point, isn't it? But if reason is only incipient, then it doesn't exist. If it doesn't exist, then what we have is life without the quality that makes human life meaningful. Granted, it is the possibility of human life, but it isn't--yet--human. Of course, we then get into the messy question of "does a baby reason, and if not, why not kill them too?" Well, having been trapped next to a screaming one on a plane recently, I'm willing to discuss that option, but no, I get your point. My counter-point would be that a foetus--when it is a foetus and not a zygote or an embryo--is a blank slate/canvas, upon which the building blocks of reason are beginning to be imprinted. So perhaps we could discuss that issue--and indeed, reputable physicians will not perform abortions past a certain point. So I don't think there's much contention there, really.

So if abortion itself is, as I've argued, is morally neutral (since what is terminated is neither reasoning nor even close, and therefore not human, its destruction is neither evil nor good) then upon what basis can a woman make a morally positive--even virtuous--decision to have one? Well, we can always start with the unholy trinity of "Rape, Incest, and Life/Health of the Mother."

"Life of the Mother" is of course the easiest. If the choice is between killing a person and killing the potential for a person, it's a no-brainer, and anyone--anyone--on the "pro-life" side who forbids abortion on these terms is not "pro-life"--they're just lunatic and frankly evil fanatics and they truly can f*** off and die.

"Rape" is trickier, but actually pretty straightforward once you think it through. We're talking about a completely involuntary pregnancy--never mind the utterly devastating trauma of the event itself--and so we're talking about a person being forced to submit involutarily to the bodily service of another. That's the textbook definition of slavery, folks, and it's not cool, not even for a finite--9 month--period of time. Even if the embryo is a person (which it isn't) and needs the mother to submit in order to live, it's still slavery. If we can't drag women off the street to, say, harvest their kidneys and bone marrow--without which people will die, to be sure--then we can't force them to yield up their wombs just because somebody else needs them. Sorry, doesn't work that way. Forcing a raped woman to carry the child to term is slavery, and there's no such thing as "slavery in a good cause." So, that.

"Incest" puzzles me a bit. I assume it's mentioned in the same breath as the others on the assumption that the incest in question is sexual abuse--but wouldn't that make it Rape? Or are we just trying to avoid the kind of reproduction that produces the Kid On The Porch With The Banjo In Deliverance? Just asking. I mean, a brother and a sister who are voluntarily lovers and want to have a kid is weird--gross, perhaps--but I don't see how Incest in and of itself is grounds for a 'moral' abortion. I need some clarification here, is what I'm saying.

Then there's "Health Of The Mother." Florence King (smart lady, very conservative but a cynic, so you have to kind of respect her) points out that this label can be construed so widely--"She might feel bad about herself and that would be injurious to her mental health"--as to represent no standard at all. Perhaps. It's tough--but it all comes back around to the question of who gets to decide and why. (The answer to the first one is The Woman In Question--possibly, possibly in conjunction with her doctor--that's always been my fall-back position on abortion, by the way: the only people who should have a say in the matter are the women who undergo them--or not--and the physicians who perform them--or not. Everyone else is largely unaffected by the consequences of enforced pregnancy, and thus their position is questionable at best, save for the sigh-inducing inevitability of comparing the practice to the Holocaust and the refusal of 'unconcerned citizens' to intervene when they should have. Which brings us back again to the question of whether the embryo is the same as a thinking, reasoning human being, which, I say, it isn't. But that ain't gonna convince those who think that when God told Jeremiah that He "knew [him] in the womb," that that meant that J. was a person from conception. Except of course that wouldn't God have known him even before that--that as one who knows that which is fated, He knew Jeremiah as an inevitability rather than as a person-in-embryonic-form? Omniscience independent of space and time really does render questionable the whole issue of 'we're human the second the sperm hits the egg because God says so' theory. Long parenthetical digression, this.)

I'm not done with this issue, but I'll post this and continue to muse...


Blogger Lisa said...

Peter, you're too kind. But since you liked my 2 cents, here's 3 more:

It can be argued that it is not reason which makes human life morally valuable, but rather our ability to form emotional bonds with each other. Yes, some animals obviously feel love, but not all. That's why it's such an awful thing to have to put your dog to sleep, but most of us don't really mind eating beef. Is the dog really a more reasonable creature than the cow? Not by much. Does this in any way inform the decision of at what month in the pregnancy to draw the line? I don't know.

On the subject of justifications for abortion:

I think the assumption underlying an exception for incest is this: even between consenting adults (which incest usually isn't), the birth of a child to close relatives is inherently destructive to the entire family, and the stigma against such a child is very, very strong. Plus the high risk of genetic disease and all.

Your rape scenario is Judith Jarvis Thomson's unconscious violinist analogy, which bears reading, but she takes it farther: one ought not be legally required to continue to allow one's body to be used, even if the conception was intentional. I'm not sure how to reconcile this argument with my general opposition to very late term abortions.

Regarding the mental health of the mother: it's not just that she might feel bad. It's that she might have to stop taking her medication for the sake of the baby, and then she might jump off a bridge because she's mentally ill and she stopped taking her medication. Crazy people get pregnant too.

9:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would submit that the meaning of "incest" in the abortion justification context is probably code for coerced sex, father or uncle, usually, on daughter or niece. Isn't that rape, as you ask? Well, yes, to many of us, but it *is* a little tricky from a semantic point of view. Rape tends to imply actual coercion, either by pure physical force or by use of some pharmacological incapacitating element. A normal rape, whether a stranger rape or an acquaintance rape, does not involve consent from the victim, by definition. That, by the way, is why statutory rape exists as a rather odd legal fiction, because the state deems the minor to be *incapable* of giving the consent, but in most cases, consent is in fact given. Here, then, what we're dealing with is a situation where familial pressure, perhaps combined with a sense of helplessness or disempowered status, causes the incest victim to give "consent," or at least, to fail to make a concrete expression of unwillingness to engage in the act. The analysis is similar to that of statutory rape -- there may be some *apparent* consent, but such consent is not *real* consent, in this case because the victim was not realistically able to say no. I think we could reasonably agree amongst ourselves to call that rape, and have done with it. But I also think that society at large isn't quite so sure they want to extend the term beyond its normal bounds. The *type* of rape involved in an incest situation is sui generis -- it has no true parallel. I think, in a world where people are still trying to get used to the idea that most rapes are not perpetrated by strangers hiding in the bushes, that odd family situation, where perhaps no one says no, but no one really means yes, either, is so singular that it is simply easier to give it its own name. And as you point out, incest isn't the best name either, because there could well be truly consensual adult incest, but here's where Lisa's point about the stigma comes into play -- it's so beyond the pale that we're going to pretend it doesn't happen voluntarily, and simply apply the name to the usual situation, which is a species of coercion.


7:16 PM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

Oh, I definitely agree that crazy people get pregnant. (Insert cheap joke about one's wacky mother.) Seriously, the fact that I'm a chemical depressive often gives me serious pause about having a kid and passing on THAT ugly little gene. And if a woman were in my particular psychological state and decided that she didn't want to inflict misery on someone else, well, that'd be fine by me.

As for the emotional bond point, well, maybe. But aren't emotions instincts recognized and articulated by reason? I mean, if we didn't have a word for "love," would the emotion exist, or would it simply be an irrational impulse (not that it isn't anyway)? Dunno, and I seem to be complicating things more than I am clarifying them. But then, I'm an academic AND a liberal, so I suppose that's my job...

12:40 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

SCG, your points on incest are well taken. While coerced sex certainly happens between non-relatives as well, most cases of incest must involve the ugliest kind of coercion. If a man has a torrid affair with his wife's supermodel sister, that's one kind of incest, and destructive to the whole family even in the absence of coercion. But if the sister is only 18, lives with them, and has nowhere else to go, that's another thing entirely. I do hesitate to call it rape, even if the alternative was homelessness. Still, it's not a situation that society should exacerbate by forcing her to carry a child to term, even if it does take her six months to save enough money to travel to the city for an abortion.

Peter, I think that if we had no language and minimal capacity for rational thought, we would still have emotions; in fact we would have very little else. But human emotions are not the same as animal emotions, which with notable exceptions (dogs, chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins) are more self-interested. Would you jump into a raging flood to save a stranger's child from drowning? Of course you would. Would a cat do it to save an unrelated kitten? Not bloody likely. It's not reasonable, but emotions like love, altruism, and loyalty, although instinctual, make human culture possible and allow us the luxury of rational thought and the opportunity to learn from each other. And learning from each other is the human evolutionary niche. It's not our capacity for reason that makes human life morally valuable. It's the moral value of human life that makes reason possible.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Sorry Peter, I'll go back to ranting on my own blog.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

Nonsense! I won't hear of such self-censorship! Inspiring rants is really what I'm all about--especially when they're rants I AGREE with (mostly.) So stay a spell, put your feet up, and fulminate until the voices in your head tell you to stop (or is this just how it works for me...?)

10:18 PM  

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