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.

Is There A Right to Become a Parent?

What do you do when one person’s rights conflict with someone else’s rights? You might see my alleged right as a sense of entitlement.

Your right to free speech conflicts with my right not to be offended. Your religious rights conflict with my right to marry the person I love. Your right to become a parent conflicts with my right to not become a parent without my consent.

I’ve written about boundaries on several occasions. The basic idea is that there is no right to impose yourself on others, even when the situation is heartbreaking. An op-ed piece in the New York Times asserts that a husband who agreed to have children has, upon divorce, an obligation to pay for his ex-wife’s fertility services. Calling it “alimony for your eggs,” the op-ed notes that “Her ex may have many years left to start a new family of his own, but by the time she meets a new partner, it may be too late.”

That a woman has a right to change her mind is accepted (though it took much effort to change society’s mind). Does a man also have a right to change his mind? Does a woman deserve compensation for delaying pregnancy? Or is it her choice for which she is responsible?

These are complex questions that vary for each couple and individual. Sometime a woman puts off pregnancy because she doesn’t want to have kids or doesn’t feel ready yet, because she can’t find a suitable partner, because her partner says he isn’t ready, because of her career ambitions, and so on.

Dr. Mimi C. Lee has no other chance to have children, except by using frozen embryos created with her ex-husband. He agreed to become a father when they were married, but upon divorce he withdrew his consent. But Lee is a cancer survivor in her mid-40s. That he could end her dream of motherhood seems hugely unfair.

But let’s reverse the gender roles. Sofia Vergara (from TV’s Modern Family) found herself in a legal dispute with her ex Nick Loeb, who wants to use embryos they created. Vergara wouldn’t have to be pregnant against her will – Loeb would use a surrogate. Still, a woman possibly becoming a parent against her will, even if she isn’t required to become pregnant, puts the debate in a different light.

But it shouldn’t. The issue comes down to consent. If a woman is already pregnant then it’s her body, and it’s her choice. If she wants to have the baby, but he doesn’t, then it’s an impasse and someone’s will must prevail. No one has the right to force something on her physically that she doesn’t consent to. So the man is out of luck, even if that means paying 18 years of child support.

Embryos, however, are in test tubes. Not implanting them in the woman’s body isn’t about what is being done to her. It’s about what’s not being done to her. And half the genetic material is his. The condition of pregnancy does not yet exist, and she has no right to force him into parenthood against his consent – even if he previously consented but now withdraws his consent.

The tragedy is that this might end any opportunity for some women to become a mothers. But no one, woman or man, is entitled to create a pregnancy (even with a surrogate) when the other potential parent has denied or withdrawn consent.