Abortion & the limits of personhood

Personhood is an abstract concept. Most people’s concerns are mundane.

© Dave DuBay

The National Review ran a thought provoking article about abortion and the limits of the personhood argument.

In a nutshell, pro-choice advocates typically say a fetus is not a person while pro-life advocates say a fetus is a person.

The assumption is that personhood equals rights, and this is central for the right to choose or the right to life.

Philosophy professor Berny Belvedere summarizes the arguments of Judith Jarvis Thomson and Don Marquis, siding with the latter. Thomson argues that abortion is morally permissible even if a fetus is a person while Marquis argues abortion is immoral even if a fetus is not a person.

Thomson seems to view a fetus as a foreign imposition on a woman’s body, so even if a fetus is a person abortion still could be justified as a type of self-defense.

Marquis argues that killing in general is wrong because it robs someone of their future. This future is actual, not potential, because the future will unfurl unless someone intervenes. Fetuses, even if they’re not persons, also have futures. Therefore, abortion is no different from murder.

Belvedere addresses some objections to Marquis’ argument. Is killing a bug wrong? No, because qualitatively a bug doesn’t have a future in the same sense as a human being. Is euthanasia wrong? Belvedere concedes it is not (within this framework, at least) because the dying person has no future.

This is rather abstract, and I think it helps to bring it down to concrete cases:

  • What about rape or incest? Thomson’s view that a fetus is a foreign imposition seems strong here. Marquis’ position is less tenable. An abortion robs the fetus of its future. But disallowing an abortion robs the rape victim of her future (even though she’s still alive).
  • What about the mother’s life being in danger? Avoiding the truncation of someone’s future is impossible here, so who decides if the fetus’s future takes precedence—the woman or the government
  • What if the mother isn’t financially or emotionally ready for motherhood? The argument that she’ll still have a future—but it will be greatly altered—applies here too (though it’s weaker).
  • What if there are no extenuating circumstances, the mother is entirely capable of motherhood, but just doesn’t feel like having a baby? The fetus as a foreign imposition could still be used, though it may sound callous or selfish. And because an abortion would clearly diminish the fetus’s future more than the woman’s future, Marquis’ argument seems to be stronger.

But the personhood debate is unlikely to settle the abortion debate. What is personhood? How do we define it? Can we achieve consensus on this definition? What about those who fail to meet that definition or lose personhood status?

I’m pro-choice because ultimately I think our most intimate choices belong to us and not to the government.

Rights are things that belong to us—our opinions, speech, religion (or lack thereof), our bodies, our property, etc.—and government serves two primary roles regarding this.

First, our rights limit government. Our rights tell government what it can’t do. For example, the Bill of Rights says things like, “Congress shall make no law…”

Second, government must protect our rights against those who refuse to recognize other people’s equal rights. That’s why the government can lock you up for stealing other people’s stuff.

But what do we do when alleged rights conflict?

Obamacare mandates that insurance cover birth control for women (but not men), and that employers buy insurance for their employees.

Religious business owners, however, say forcing them to provide birth control coverage violates their religious rights.

Many women, on the other hand, say they have a right to birth control.

Women’s right to use birth control is not being attacked, however. The question is who pays for it. But there’s no right to have someone buy something for you.

But if your religion prohibits you from getting mixed up with birth control then you have the right not to be forced into an action you disagree with.

While conservatives will likely agree with me on problems of the birth control mandate—and progressives will likely become irate—the same framework leads me to conclude that abortion is a woman’s choice because the government cannot compel her to act in a way that is not of her choosing.

A final aside. What if scientists invent an artificial womb and can extract a fetus in a manner no more invasive that an abortion? Safe haven laws already allow women (but not men) to walk away from parenthood with no legal or financial repercussions.

In such a case, could a woman end her pregnancy but have no legal right to say whether the fetus will be destroyed or implanted in an artificial womb? My answer is that the woman would have no more right than the doctor to decide the fetus’s fate.

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Grandma & Rita. Also, Nurse Jackie: Another Mixed Up Not Quite Movie Review

I don’t really write movie reviews. I’ll say I liked a movie without saying exactly why, then I’ll point to something about the movie that made me think, and I’ll go off on a tangent. So bear with me. Oh, and spoilers everywhere.

Grandma stars Lily Tomlin as grandma, aka Elle Reid. I’ve loved Lily Tomlin since I was a little kid. In the 1970s she would guest star on Sesame Street as a character my sisters and I called the retarded girl. I know, not a nice thing to say. And not something I’d say today as an adult and a social worker.

Tomlin sat in a giant rocking chair, dressed like a child. It was a skit she had done since the early ’70s on Laugh-In. As a five year old watching Sesame Street I thought she really was a child, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. My mother claimed that Tomlin wasn’t small. Instead, the chair was big. But Jean Piaget told us almost a century ago that little kids don’t get stuff like that. Hence a child’s conclusion that Tomlin had special challenges.

Lately she’s played Frankie in the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, which is about two women whose husbands divorce them for each other. It’s an ingenious and hilarious look at gay marriage.

But I digress.

In Grandma, Tomlin’s granddaughter Sage is pregnant and has decided to have an abortion. The film doesn’t hem and haw over a choice that’s she’s already made, nor does it debate the issue. The problem is finding enough money to pay for the abortion. Bravo.

Grandma is really about women mending relationships. There’s grandma’s grief over the death of her long time partner and fear of committing to the new woman in her life. And there’s grandma’s broken relationship with her daughter while Sage deals with similar mother-daughter issues.

But in the tradition of feminist films such as Thelma & Louise and Maleficent, every man in Grandma is either an asshole or is useless.

Sage’s boyfriend is an irresponsible kid with a beard that looks like an armpit on your face (I laughed out loud at that line). When grandma tells the boy that he is responsible for half the cost of the abortion, he threatens her with a hockey stick. So she grabs it and slams him in the nuts.

Later, grandma finds her ex-husband (played by Sam Elliott), and he manages to extort a kiss from her in exchange for loaning her the money. But then he tries to extort sex. And once he finds out what the money is for, he adamantly refuses because grandma aborted their child 50 years ago without even telling him she was pregnant.

The only (presumably) decent man in the film is married to a woman with a women’s studies degree, but she won’t let him speak.

Still, I enjoyed the film Grandma (and Themla & Louise and Maleficent), and I recommend seeing it.

But Grace De Rond, writing for the Good Men Project, asks “Why Is America the Home of Male Bashing?” She married a man from the Netherlands, and she writes about questions he had when he first experienced American culture first hand. “Why was Papa Berenstain clumsy and over-reactive? And why was he portrayed as a poor husband and dad?” I would add, why is every TV dad a variation of Homer Simpson?

De Rond observes that “This stereotyping of males was new to him because his country doesn’t have a male bashing culture.”

The Danish TV show Rita (which Netflix said I’d like because I watched a Swedish film) illustrates De Rond’s point.

It’s a great show about a nonconformist teacher who really cares about her students, but whose personal life is a bit dysfunctional. Rita’s ex-husband is a narcissist who isn’t involved in the lives of his kids. He left Denmark for London long ago.

Rita is flawed too, however. Yes, she cares about her students. But she’s unable to maintain adult relationships. The headmaster, Rasmus, is a kind man who’s looking for a relationship. But Rita just can’t maintain it, even though Rasmus is great with her kids, one of whom is her gay teenage son.

Rasmus ends up leaving Rita for a woman who’s serious about wanting a relationship. Meanwhile, there are plenty of cads hitting on Rita.

Finally, though Rita’s heterosexual son is a somewhat irresponsible young man, upon becoming a father he does a 180 and become a devoted husband and father.

Rita’s fellow teacher is a young woman who grows personally and professionally as the show goes on. She also struggles with a boyfriend who might not be up to the task of fatherhood, but he eventually comes around too.

My point is that Hollywood has long featured women in push up bras and low IQs, and feminist themed films turn the tables on that. But from what I’ve seen of Scandinavian film and TV, there’s far less gender stereotyping and more character complexity. No wonder De Rond’s husband looked at American culture and was like, seriously?

But there’s hope. The American cable TV show Nurse Jackie features a Rita-like lead character who goes the extra mile for her patients, but who totally fucks up her personal life because of drug addiction. But she tries her hardest to turn her life around.

Her husband (and then ex-husband) is not perfect either. But he is a devoted dad who provides his daughters with some stability. The show has other positive male characters as well.

One of the most interesting characters, however, is Zoey. In the first season she’s nurse fresh out of school, a callow and naive girl. But her character develops bit by bit, and suddenly you realize she’s become a professional and in-charge woman who fills the professional void Jackie has left behind.

Wrestling With Double Standards

Double standards are all around us. It’s easy to think of examples. The problem is what to do with them. Some seem intractable. But some might exist for a reason.

A recent Facebook discussion got me thinking. The topic was abortion and choice. I mentioned a controversial idea advocated by some. What if a man doesn’t want to be a parent? Should he have the right to a “financial abortion”? That is, to give up all legal and financial rights and responsibilities as a parent?

I wrote that I don’t support this, but I felt hypocritical for thinking that women can’t be forced into parenthood, but men can be. Some of the responses were pointed, however, even though I was agreeing that only women can choose birth or abortion because only women can get pregnant, and that the father’s financial support is in the child’s best interests.

One man wrote that a man “already made his decision… when he chose to have sex with her…A condom is a fuck of a lot cheaper than child support”. A woman agreed: “So, here’s the thing boys, the time for male choice is when you enter into a sexual relationship.” I responded that I wouldn’t make that argument with the gender roles reversed. Rather, I don’t believe a woman is consenting to motherhood just because she consents to sex.

My point was simply that my stance on choice is inconsistent, and I’m admitting that I hold a double standard. But most of us don’t like to admit that we hold double standards.

The types and degrees of sex differences are hotly debated. Are women really better at multitasking? Are men actually better at math? Differences in what makes a man or a woman attractive are obvious, however. Being poor doesn’t diminish a woman’s attractiveness nearly as much as it does for a man. On the other hand, as he ages a man’s physical appearance is judged far less harshly than an older woman’s appearance is.

What’s considered beautiful in a woman varies by culture, but men in every culture value women of youth and health far above all. And extensive research shows that women the world over value men of high social status, which usually means being a good provider.

In other words, parental investment theory has it right. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we seek mates who will bear the healthiest offspring (men’s desire for young women), and who are best able to provide for these offspring (women’s desire for resourceful men). Though the latter is less important in the modern world of career women who can provide for children without men. 

But the human ability to make choices, with knowledge as power, means biology is not destiny. A key point for men and women who are looking for love is that just because certain people are considered to be the most attractive doesn’t mean that other people are not attractive. In the long run, the quality of the relationship matters more than youth or social status.

The most indisputable sex difference, however, is that no man can get pregnant. Further, women’s reproductive opportunities are more limited than men’s. Women can get pregnant but once a year, and not past middle age without medical intervention. But a man could impregnate several women each year, and some men have become fathers even as retirees.

It’s no wonder that women are more selective. There are Youtube videos of men asking women for sex, which is always met with a refusal and sometimes a slap; and women asking men for sex, which inevitably results in several yeses. 

Casual sex is simply less risky for men. But the most infamous double standard for those with multiple sex partners is that women are sluts and men are studs.

I oppose slut shaming (and shaming in general), and I think there’s much we can do to change cultural attitudes. But I doubt women will ever be thought of as studs for having multiple partners. Do we have an unconscious bias because of women’s exclusive physical investment in pregnancy? If so, women might always be more selective than men, while promiscuous men are seen as successful because they’ve demonstrated a track record of overcoming the barrier of female selectiveness. But note that this bias in no way condones shaming either women or men.

Besides slut shaming, there are other ways that culture can magnify sex differences. Perhaps men’s role as the initiators, and women’s role as the choosers, is why the “yes means yes” debate focuses almost exclusively on whether men obtain consent from women.

But we must not blind ourselves to the reality that women can sexually assault men. For example, there’s been a proliferation of news items about women (usually teachers) having sex with boys. Women, however, receive far lighter sentences than men who have sex with girls. Indeed, many people don’t think it’s as bad when a woman has sex with a boy.

Like slut shaming, I think this is a double standard we should address even if it’s an uphill battle. After all, I doubt women’s motivations are different from men’s. It’s about an adult’s control over a vulnerable person. And even if the boy desires the woman, he might not be prepared emotionally or legally for the consequences.