October 25, 2007

The Argument about Abortion

Reading Unity's excellent fisk of Nadine Dorries and Sunny's most recent post on abortion and the comments under it, something suddenly struck me. If you look carefully at both posts and the comments under Sunny's various people consider the issue of abortion. However there is something rather interesting that had never struck me before about the way that they discuss the issue. The pro-life camp discuss the issue from the point of view of the rights of the unborn child, but rather than trying to defend or sustain those rights as a philosophical project, they jump straight to images or ideas about the dead foetus, using words like murder. The pro-choice side don't really attempt to deny the images of the pro-life side- they immediatly jump to discussions about abortion clinics in back streets and the fight of women for equality down the century as well as the pain of childbirth.

I don't want to get involved on either side of the debate, however there is something rather intriguing in thinking about the way these arguments are being made. Unity is a great blogger and one of the most impressive thinkers on the net- but I think when he says that the abortion debate is about a contest of rights, he is actually wrong. He misplaces the moral language that the argument is being had in. Actually this is about a contest of empathies- the question is who do you empathise with- the unborn embryo or the mother. Consider a website like the US Pro-Life Alliance- the website entrance contains pictures of smiling babies and the statement that 'abortion stops a beating heart'- this isn't an argument being made to your concept of an abstract right to life but an argument being made to your capacity to sympathise with another human being. Rights are used as a way of trumping the other empathetic understanding- but this is morality based upon empathy not upon an understanding of right. The word 'right' is called into service here as a trump card- because the recognition of human rights is (rightly or wrongly) deemed an absolute within our culture.

Looking at the abortion debate, the most interesting thing about it is that it denotes I think the basis for most modern moral judgements. The basis for most people's morality it seems to me from this and other debates is concepts of empathy. In this sense Adam Smith was right- in that he predicted that the marketisation of society would lead to more empathetic understandings of morality. Whether you are a Christian pro-lifer or a feminist pro-choicer the basic vocabulary with which you talk about religion is exactly the same- its about the sympathy that a particular object should receive. Phrasing it in terms of rights is a mere rhetorical choice. This also explains to me the presiding causes of our time- the way that pictures of African orphans or victims of the Tsunami can become cause celebre and evoke millions of charitable donations. One of the interesting things about abortion is that it is an issue where empathy can justifiably be evoked on both sides- both the mother and the embryo can be said to deserve our understanding- that makes it a difficult and controversial issue within an age where the dominant moral climate is partly an empathetic one.

Of course there are more principles involved within our moral climate- but I think the abortion debate reveals something very interesting about the way that we think about right and wrong. It reveals how important empathy is in our decision as to which way to go on an issue- that is the way that both sides make their arguments. And it also reveals the way that the language of rights, is in this case at least, more of a trump card than an actual argument.


Matthew Sinclair said...

Very good post.

Makes a lot of sense if you watch the Dispatches programme (is probably still on C4 On Demand) and the section about the foetal scanning guy. In factual terms he's being completely disingenous, the "baby" is not "smiling" - its brain isn't connected to its central nervous system. However, in evoking the emotional response of sympathy terms his actions make sense.

true outsider said...

I have to say i dont think Unity post is an Excelent fisk at all- (which is not to say Dorries is entirely right)

I have posted some comments on his blog he ignores that Harries and some (frankly probably all) of the submitters are being massively partial and engages in unsuported reasonoing. Ditto for Sunny.

i ca belive the chap may have been disingenous but i'm not sure "smilling" requires consicou choice i've talked about dead people smilling and people in some kind of sleep (including ones where they won't be dreaming)

true outsider said...

on to your fascinating and good post i would make a number of comments

a) I think it's hard to think of a debate where there is not empathy (and usually some kind of rights claims) on both sides- even slavery say the poverty of former slave owners the risk of women being raped by free slaves ect were stapes of pro slavery rhetoric.

b) What is distinctive about the abortion debate is only empathy / ethical concerns exist as the more force on one side of it. Any interest based objections to abortion are very complicated ( the contempt for human life can lead to worst.. long term demographic effects ect) on the other hand the pro-choice sound has enormous interests to back them up-anyone who wants to have an abortion at some point, anyone who think they might want to, anyone who might to get someone else to as well as people who work in providing abortions. This is very important for understanding the abortion debate- so in many ways the arguments against legal euthanasia are weaker, however there's a big interest group of people who worry they may some day be bullied in to having themselves killed/ be temporarily deranged / be killed when they're old and sick NO one fears they're going to get aborted only that others might be.

c) i think most political debates at least nowadays (and to a certain degree generally) tend to be similar in nature this is not peculiar to abortion.

d) I think you are in a certain sense unfair to Unity i think his right about the activists /enthusiasts ( so e.g. most probably all of the people who've testified at this absurd hearing) they do think in terms of rights generally the terms

I) all innocent living human beings are people and killing people should be banned (the pro-life position


II) Personhood is not based on humanity but some other value e.g intellect, consciousness, independence, physical location, appearance, physical strength

( I should add I’m slightly oversimplifying the debate so for example I think there are quite a lot of people who think a foetus is not a full person but still has a value i.e. killing a foetus is only 1/10 as bad as killing a new born but that's still enough to justify banning a 1/10 of murder is horrid! however while common among people i don't think this view is very common among activists on either side)

e) However in debating among the uncommitted (and genrerally pretty badly informed) emotive appeals tend i agree to dominate this i think is for two reasons

I) pesuasion , people i think respond more to the emotional arguments or at least they their immediacy ie the logical ones you have to stick around unlike photos of the dead or coat hangers).

II) Mobilization if you're trying to get the already committed to do something the rational arguments are irrelevent they already accept them! However emotional appeals can whip them up.

f) i think the reason why empathy is used so much in this debates as others is there is a lack of agreement in our society about fundamentals. There lacks the beliefs in say deistic reason that was strong in the early 19th century or scripture or the teachings of Marx or some other atheist prophet. There is no clear majority moral or philophical system so debates about values easily become debates about emotion

g) i do agree it's very interesting though how much empathy is not used as the basis for morality rather than other emotional concepts such as dignity or honour. They could easily be used in the abortion debate (and i think peoples actual emotions are somewhat wrapped up to them) these could be used in the abortion debate- it's dishonour to kill the product of your actions say or it's dishouring a women to not allow her to do as she wishes wht the product of her own actions.

H) i agree this says a lot about the way we think. Empathetic Sentimentality is the common moral currency rather than other emotional concepts or reason.

I) I’m unconvinced this has much to do with the “marketization of society” outside certain very limited ways .(I would say in most respect we’re less marketized than the Victorians though they used empathy less as a moral h bomb) would be interested in more on that- though that may need a whole post!

Lord Nazh© said...

One side believes in choice, one side believes in life

simple :)

Graeme said...

Gracchi, if you haven't read him already, Peter Singer's writings on abortion are worthwhile. The strength of his argument is that he doesn't fall into the usual pitfall of the abortion argument, where one side claims that abortion is about x, whereas the other side claims that it's about y, and there's no common ground that allows for legitimate discussion. He contends that a foetus is a human being but that abortion is still permissible on the grounds that it isn't a person. It's interesting stuff.

Graeme said...

There's a load of Singer's writings here http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/ and there's likely some of his writings on abortion there.

Gracchi said...

Cheers Graham- Singer is one of those people that I always think to myself I should read more of but never get round to it! :) Thanks for the link.