MLA: It’s hard to believe this is issue #400. My thanks to all of you who have read this so consistently over the past few years. I am hoping to making the transition to Substack later this week, which will mean emails will look different…and there will be new opportunities to become ‘members.’
For those on the fence: I am interested in writing responses to some of the main and best analyses of the pro-life movement post-Dobbs and the arguments surrounding abortion, contraception funding, etc. If you have read something that you’re interested in having me respond to, send it along.
Thanks again for your kindness. And now, onward…
Kaveny rightly notes that the pro-life position rests upon seeing the embryo as a person, and so protected by an absolute norm against intentionally killing the innocent. Kaveny suggests, though, that we might also “also describe the act of abortion as the refusal of the pregnant woman to provide bodily life support to the person growing within her.” The peculiar facts of pregnancy make abortion an odd case of killing: because it is uniquely burdensome, highly risky, and cannot be shared with anyone else, pregnancy has a special status that demands an alternate description for the act of………..
Well, of what, precisely? The “refusal of the pregnant woman to provide bodily life support to the person growing inside of her” requires some sort of performance. In that refusal, someone does something to someone. The refusal in this case is not simply a non-action, a sitting quietly while one’s next-door neighbor starves to death. This refusal still involves a termination—of a pregnancy, yes, but also of the embryo whose life began that pregnancy.
Moreover, a “refusal to provide bodily life support to an innocent person” might be an intentional killing—if, that is, we owe them life support and are capable of giving it to them. To invoke an analogy of my own, the person who owes their infant food and can easily supply it to them is rightly charged with killing if they deliberately decline to give it to them. What else have they done?
Ultimately, we cannot retreat into the hazy world of action-descriptions in order to justify what it is we are about to do. While the intended end is inextricable from such descriptions, it is also not reducible to them. Otherwise, we descend into a purely private morality in which what each person says they are doing is what we take them to be doing.* We can describe suffocating adults on their deathbeds in ways that would similarly obscure the nature or form of our action from us. Why should we not, if we find ourselves burdened by their existence in ways that are in keeping with the pregnant mother? While the dependency at work in pregnancy might be unique, it is not so unique that it has no analogous.
Kaveny proposes that such arguments have not had purchase because “thinking about abortion under two descriptions requires more nuance,” and because the culture wars favor sharp dichotomies. But it is also worth noting that basing our moral assessments of abortion on “descriptions” this way effectively eliminates the possibility of persuasion about who is right on the fundamental moral question. The culture wars are wars precisely because there is a right and wrong, and because the answer to that question is in contest. Kaveny might put an end to the dispute—but only by enshrining incoherence as a permanent feature of our polity.
Where Amia Srinivasan wanted to get beyond Judith Jarvis Thomson
, though, Kaveny wants to defend her. Where the first part of her essay defends
pregnancy as a unique condition for moral assessment, her final move regards it as on the same plane with compulsory organ donation by parents to save their children’s lives. Pro-lifers regard those cases as different, she suggests, because of how they understand sex and nature. While pro-lifers regard consent to sex and sufficient to encompass its consequences, pro-choice people think the “consent” connection can be severed by birth control or the availability of abortion. And some
pro-lifers regard pregnancy as a “matter of woman’s natural being, not her express will,” while pro-choicers regard women as individuals who are subject to the unique pressures that arise from their social location.
There’s much that could be said about these final proposals—though it is worth noting that these sorts of explanations only come into play once we get beyond or behind the personhood of the embryo and the question of whether abortion is an intentional killing of an innocent.
There are other reasons, I think, why a pro-lifer might reject analogies between pregnancy and the case Kaveny puts out. For one, they might argue that it is not “bodily autonomy” as a principle that keeps the state from coercing parents to give organs to dying children, but rather the inability of the state to coerce anyone to rescue those in need. The analogy suffers from the outset, as it presupposes that the embryo in the womb is there for the same tragic reasons that the child stands in need of an organ.
Even if we set that aside, Kaveny’s description of the pro-life position ends up subtly distorting it, by dividing “consent” and “nature” in ways that break their necessary continuity. Her first analysis of consent suggests that consent for the pro-lifer includes the “natural consequences.” Such a description depends upon some theory of nature—but invoking a theory of nature cannot, ever, mean that questions of consent become immaterial to how we understand what has been done, and what is to be done, as her second reading implies. Such an account would mechanize women, dehumanizing them. While Kaveny suggests that this is true of “many” pro-lifers, though “not all,” I wonder who—really—she has in mind.
Kaveny is right that alternate possibilities for approaching abortion as a culture are now water under the bridge. Yet it is hard for me to see how the proposals Kaveny tacitly sets forward would have been viable, anyway.
*This is a pedantic note, but it is just such a private account of morality and intentions that Elizabeth Anscombe’s massively important Intention opposes.