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Semiformalishmaybe

Mourdock and Rape

Recently, political candidate Mourdock raised controversy by taking a stance that abortion should only be permitted in the case of the mother's life being in danger, stating that in his view the traditional other exemption that anti-abortion people, that of pregnancy resulting from rape, is not sufficient.


First, a reminder of my own position. I am reasonably comfortable with abortion throughout most of the term of prengancy. I am less comfortable with late-term pregnancy, and I find partial-birth abortion despicable (and feel that it should probably be illegal but not the equivalent of murder). I have some sympathy for Steven Pinker's position that early infantacide is not much different than late-term abortion; intrinsically I think that's true, but the rapidly expanded options for third-party care for an infant changes the balances of concerns enough that infants deserve legal protection; it's not that birthing adds a sudden boost in personhood for them so much as the counterbalances (independence of the mother, body choices, etc) disappear. More deeply, while I consider humanness to begin at conception, personhood does not, and I believe that personhood is the basis on which we should base legal protections. Personhood develops slowly, starting at some threshold of brain development and only reaching remarkable, species-specific levels sometime in the first year or two after birth. There are points in development where a human is not more morally significant than any other animal, and at point we don't owe them different moral duties, any more than we would owe a (truly) brain-dead human.

Mourdock is working from a different framework; in contrast to me (also in contrast to Christian theologans, who have argued for years about the process of "ensoulment", which has some structural similarities to my notion of personhood), he seems to be (corrections welcome on this) operating from the perspective that what's important for judgement of acts is that something is a living member of our species. From such a perspective, all living humans are to be given full moral rights, and are protected from killing with similar vigour as adults are. The first reason that abortion might be permitted, from that perspective, fits the logic; if the life of the mother is in danger, either necessity or self-defense explain the permissibility of abortion. The second exemption, that of "in cases of rape", never had a strong moral argument; the unwanted pregnancy from insufficiently effective prophylactics in consensual sex doesn't have any morally significant difference from the unwanted pregnancy from a rape (even if the "sin" of consensual sex-for-pleasure is considered, it never entangles with the question of whether the issue is morally significant).

As for the exact nature of his quote, it's not significant and easily understood; the "it's god's will" is, I think, not a statement that the christian deity desires rape so much as that when life is created, it is a gift from that god, and that gift happens even in situations when the surrounding situation is unfortunate. It's a complicated position that unfortunately my fellow liberals/atheists are skewering without really understanding (always tempting, because we actively oppose both the cultural and legal interpretations that flow from the position).

I don't think we should be more bothered by Mourdock's position than we should by general anti-abortion advocate positions. It's the same problem; if you (like me) are best classified as pro-abortion (whether you follow my reasoning or some other reasoning), he's still part of the crowd of people who are aiming to shift policy in ways we find undesirable. He is being more consistent, but that consistency doesn't give him extra cred any more than we should be impressed by the consistency of other philosophies based on foreign values; so long as we are ourselves reasonably consistent (and I believe I am), we can be comfortable.

Comments

I find partial-birth abortion despicable

I think you would do well here to change your terms even if you maintain your position. "Partial-birth" is not a scientific term, and is (like "pro-life" and "pro-choice") a term of propaganda invented by a particular side to further its argument by emotive rather than logical means.

If you want to object to abortions after a certain amount of development, on the basis that the fetus is sufficiently developed that you consider it person, I can't stop you though I disagree. (Although it is not clear to me from your post exactly how you feel about this.)

But there is nothing about the intact dilation and extraction procedure that makes it somehow "especially bad" aside from the fact that it involves killing a human fetus of a particular age. The idea that it is so has no basis in reality. It's a position based entirely on what feels icky, which is not an acceptable way to form political, moral, or legal positions.
Did some spot research on this, and it appears I was (somewhat) misinformed about what partial-birth abortion is; I was under the impression that it is abortion that happens during what would otherwise be a normal birth; it seems that the procedure often (but not always) involves induced labour and happens significantly before a normal birth would occur.

For me, the despicability is tied to the level of brain development that has happened at time of death. The described procedure at time of normal birth still strikes me as despicable; done earlier I would have it judged by the "when" of that.

By my views, it is mental development that adds personhood to humanity. Abortion near conception is not even slightly morally significant, and might as well be clipping nails. Later in the pregnancy, the perogatives of the mother over her body largely outweigh the still-developing personhood of the infant, which is why I only am very unhappy about abortions that are particularly late in pregnancy. For practicality's sake, I hope that generally people have had the time to make their choice by then and put it into action, although it's very worrying that anti-abortion advocates have made it very hard for abortion clinics to operate in most states.

I don't know if we can ever escape framing terms; I hope people can learn to hold their terms loosely enough and to try to always look at topics through multiple frames; that seems a lot easier in practice than trying to find some neutral terms, and I am wary of shaping my terms too much to suit my positions; that'd feel too propogandic, plus my positions often don't line up that well with the mainstream ones. If there are terms that seem factually based (like "illegal immigrant"), I'd probably prefer to use them even if they nudge towards conclusions that I don't hold (which is why I acknowledge humanity at conception, but split humanity and personhood in my framework so we can recognise both (IMO useful) concepts while structuring our reasoning/conclusions appropriately.

What do we do if there are no neutral terms, or if in losing a given term we lose our ability to talk about something? Or find ourselves falling back onto cumbersome short phrases or hyphenated words that make it hard to think/communicate? I'm not totally averse to rephraming by rewording, but it's not my preferred method.
"aside from the fact that it involves killing a human fetus of a particular age"

And that age is not very large, btw. Dilation & extraction isn't just something done in the third trimester; it's done as early as 18 or 19 weeks, I think. That's well before the fetus can feel pain, let alone live independently. We're not talking about women having abortions the day they would have gone into labor.

I can't think about late-term abortions without imagining the circumstances that would lead a woman to seek an abortion so late when she didn't seek one at 8 weeks. None of those circumstances are good: getting diagnosed with cancer, leaving an abusive relationship, finding out the baby has a horrendous birth defect, or even just not having access to an abortion clinic in time or not knowing you were pregnant in time. Any circumstance that would lead a woman to spend three days forcing dilation so she can deliver a dead baby has to be fucking tragic. I don't think there's adequate basis for shaming those women above and beyond the shame already heaped on the women who manage to get their abortions in convenient pill form.
"Personhood develops slowly, starting at some threshold of brain development and only reaching remarkable, species-specific levels sometime in the first year or two after birth. There are points in development where a human is not more morally significant than any other animal, and at point we don't owe them different moral duties, any more than we would owe a (truly) brain-dead human."

Well, except that a dog is not likely to develop adult-human intelligence, and a brain-dead human is not likely to recover, but a 1-year-old may be just a few years away from things like conversation, math, and reading, so there may be a basis for distinguishing between "not going to become a person" and "not currently a person."

Are there areas of policy that focus not on current state but on trajectory?

Someone convicted can be considered as "someone who will, in one way or another, reintegrate into society after a period in jail" or "now and forever, someone who has been convicted." I mean, yes, the past state there has lasting relevance given the chance of repeat offenses, and it's reasonable to handle repeat offenses in light of the past.

I'm getting off topic and it's time to re-focus on work.