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I feel most ethical discussions of abortion are flawed

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BrianB
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Mods: this is only my second post here, and I fear that I may be starting off on the wrong foot by putting this in the wrong topic. It could be argued that it belongs in the debate section or the politics section, etc., as it is sort of broad. If I have erred in my placement, please move it and accept my apologies.

Abortion is one of those topics that seems capable of dividing people otherwise in solidarity on most ideological grounds. Most of the discussions regarding the ethics of abortion seem to gravitate to a discussion of when a multi-cellular clump of tissue with human DNA becomes an actual human, worthy of rights. I've read thorough numerous pages of the several abortion topics here in Ethics, and while there certainly were numerous posts pushing the question back in the proper direction, most of the people who are struggling with the issue still gravitate toward the natural question of when the fetus is bestowed with rights.

Based on my reading here, I think that many people believe that Ayn Rand's position is that up until the moment of birth, the decision to terminate the fetus is solely the woman's. While she may have literally said those words, I'm of the mind that she was intelligent and honest enough to see that, from any meaningful standpoint, there is no difference between the fetus on the day it was born and the day before that. I read her statements mostly as largely focused on early term abortion with no concept of viability.

My analysis of the issue has led me to the conclusion that whether or not the fetus is human, has rights, etc. is, for the most part, irrelevant to the discussion. I will attempt to illustrate by way of analogy.

Say I carry a firearm for self defense. I am accosted by someone and have a reasonable and well founded fear of imminent serious bodily injury or death (or whatever your personal moral or legal standard for the use of lethal force is). When I resort to using my firearm, although this seems counter-intuitive at first glance, I do not do so because I want to kill the attacker. I do so because I want to terminate the attacker's infringement of my rights, and my use of lethal force is the surest way to accomplish that. The possibility (or eventuality) that the attacker dies is incidental, and is not the primary goal. Here the attacker is certainly human, and certainly has rights, but his rights do not trump mine. His right to live must be violated in order to preserve my right to be free of his attack. One could argue that if I presently possess a means of terminating his attack, that would not result in his death, but is equally effective in terminating it, consistent with my safety, that I should be obligated to choose that avenue.

This analogy fails to match the abortion scenario in a couple fundamental ways, all of which can be overcome with additional analogies.

First, the attacker is acting intentionally and maliciously and the fetus is not. This weakness in the analogy is easy to overcome. If instead of a mugger, the person were a retarded individual with an IQ of 50, standing in the middle of a mall, firing a handgun that they found, but having no concept that it is anything other than a toy, and no concept they are hurting anybody, you would still legally and morally be justified in shooting them. Their guilt, innocence, or intent is not relevant. Again, it isn't that you want or need to kill the person (who certainly is human, and has rights), it is that you need them to cease their violation of the rights of others by whatever means necessary.

This still only gets us so far. Even those opposed to abortion will frequently concede that abortion is permissible in cases where the mother's life is threatened (which closely parallels the "retarded person with a gun in the mall" scenario).

But what of a fetus that does not pose a (known) immediate threat to the life of the mother? Instead of a threat to the life of the mother, it is more of an interloper of sorts -- who is using the resources of the mother's body -- and we are assuming that the mother does not consent to such use. In my opinion, any reasonable person would conclude that using someone else's body without their consent is a violation of their rights. If you disagree with that, we'll deal with it in a bit. But, even if you agree it is a violation of their rights, is killing the fetus justified in this situation? This is where we have to remember that we don't necessarily want to kill the fetus, we just don't want it using our body against our will -- whether or not it can survive by other means is an issue for science to contend with.

Obviously the only way to prevent the use of the woman's body against her will is for the fetus to be removed. If the fetus is so underdeveloped that it could not possibly survive once removed, then the method of removing it should simply be whatever is the safest, most cost effective, etc., at the discretion of the mother. If however the fetus is developed to the point where it is even possible that it could survive once removed, then one might reasonably argue that if there were two equally effective and safe (relative to the health of the mother) methods of removing it, and one implicitly involved the destruction of the fetus while the other offered the chance of survival if it were capable, then the option offering the chance of survival could be required. If it lives, then the ordinary legal requirements of parenthood are in effect, but the mother could also opt to surrender it to the State -- in other words, put it up for adoption. To be clear, if the "chance of survival" delivery method were more risky to the mother, she'd be under no obligation to undergo it as we cannot demand that she expose herself to risk just for a potentially more favorable outcome to the (unwitting) offender.

It would seem now that the only weakness in the above being persuasive to all but the most intractable would be if they disagree with the notion that the fetus is infringing on the rights of the mother by using her body against her will. For that I really like this passage by Judith Jarvis Thompson [A Defense of Abortion, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971)]:

In some views having a right to life includes having a right to be given at least the bare minimum one needs for continued life. But suppose that what in fact IS the bare minimum a man needs for continued life is something he has no right at all to be given? If I am sick unto death, and the only thing that will save my life is the touch of Henry Fonda's cool hand on my fevered brow, then all the same, I have no right to be given the touch of Henry Fonda's cool hand on my fevered brow. It would be frightfully nice of him to fly in from the West Coast to provide it. It would be less nice, though no doubt well meant, if my friends flew out to the West coast and brought Henry Fonda back with them. But I have no right at all against anybody that he should do this for me.

The determined will object that Henry Fonda owes me nothing, but the person who became pregnant owes a duty to the fetus that a stranger does not. Dismissing that notion seems as simple as asking when does that duty end? Assume that your 3 year old child needs a liver transplant, you are a match, and could donate part of your liver and survive just fine. As a parent, you might say you'd do it without a second thought. But that's not the question. The question is, "may the state compel you to do it against your will?" While I'm sure there is someone, somewhere that would answer yes to that question, in my mind that person is hopelessly lost and debating with them would be pointless. For the rest, the parallel should be clear. If the state may not compel you to share your body with your born, living child, how can it compel you to do so with the developing fetus? Additionally, say I own the only iron lung in the city, and Mr. Jones needs an iron lung or he will die. Nevertheless, I cannot be compelled to let him use it -- even if I only plan to let it sit idle. How is a person's body any less worthy of protection than my control over mere personal property?

Others will also attempt to argue that the woman was culpable in the pregnancy (with some differences of opinion in the cases of rape, etc.) and therefore surrendered the right to control the use of her body. This notion has been responded to by some with analogies to cigarette smokers having the right to kill the cancer that may result, etc. That argument suffers from the weakness that the cancer is arguably not human, in no way cable of surviving independently, etc. My personal favorite for the "you earned it" argument follows. Most would agree that while it may not be smart, I have a right to walk through a "bad part of town", at night, richly dressed, counting a large stack of 100 dollar bills as I do so. Most would also say that if I did that I might reasonably expect that someone would try to take my property from me against my will (or worse). But most would also agree that even though I put myself in that situation voluntarily, and while it was a stupid thing to do, and although I should have reasonably expected that someone would try to violate my rights as a result, I haven't surrendered the right to defend myself. A more emotionally charged variant on this theme would be if I was a hot twenty-something female, dressed in provocative attire, walking alone at night, in a seedy part of town, have I forfeited the right to defend myself if someone attempts to rape me? Rape is an especially interesting parallel to use. It involves the non-consensual "use" of your body, does not necessarily involve your injury (or even the use of force if for example you are unconscious), yet you absolutely have the right to refuse consent and defend yourself from it with lethal force if necessary.

I feel the above is quite thoroughly persuasive on the topic and leaves little room for honest intellectual disagreement. I really wish it could be synthesized down into something a little more brief.

Given the glut of words above, I guess I have two questions:

  1. For those who agree, do you see any objection it fails to overcome with reasoning that should be broadly relevant (in other words that most people would agree with -- even if they were pro-life)?
  2. For those who disagree (and still think the government should be able to bar abortion) how does the above fail to persuade?

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There's a long abortion thread somewhere on the forum.

There are actually several, but I felt (rightly or wrongly) that my approach to the question was somewhat different.

Briefly, you've simply assumed rather than argued that a fetus that can survive outside a mother has rights.

Actually, I touched on the issue of the rights of the fetus very lightly, and almost not at all. My position is pretty much that the rights of the fetus don't really matter much since the fetus is the rights violator and the mother has the right to refuse the encroachment even if the death of the fetus is a consequence.

The only place I give any deference to the fetus at all is in the unlikely scenario where the fetus is developed to the point that it may be viable and there is a non-destructive means of delivering it that is no more harmful to the mother than the safest for the mother but destructive to the fetus alternative.

With my analytical framework it honestly doesn't matter if you decide the fetus has rights from the moment of conception, doesn't attain rights until naturally born, or somewhere in between. The conclusions drawn and actions taken are nearly the same regardless. I think that is the main attraction of the analysis. A lot of the questions that people struggle with (when is it human, when does it gain rights) cease to matter. This simplifies the discussion greatly.

If we were to debate whether or not a fetus that can survive outside a mother has rights, I would most likely take the position that it does. But just like the retarded person with a gun in the mall, the rapist, and the mugger (who also have rights) the fetus's rights don't trump the mother's and aren't much of an issue.

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My position is pretty much that the rights of the fetus don't really matter much since the fetus is the rights violator and the mother has the right to refuse the encroachment even if the death of the fetus is a consequence.

This is a huge mistake: Rights matter (and actually you are equivocating even on this point as you say "rights ... don't really matter", which means "they matter somewhat", you are denying their absolute inalienability). Respecting Rights is what separates the US from Nazi Germany, the USSR, China, Iran and North Korea. To say that "rights don't matter" is to overthrow the only legitimate basis of government; it is to negate the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Furthermore, the only way to violate rights is by physical force a fetus or a baby have no ability to use force so they have no ability to violate anyone's Rights.

The only place I give any deference to the fetus at all is in the unlikely scenario where the fetus is developed to the point that it may be viable and there is a non-destructive means of delivering it that is no more harmful to the mother than the safest for the mother but destructive to the fetus alternative.

This premise combined with the notion of "the rights of embryos" opens the door to forced surgery and forced incubation.

With my analytical framework it honestly doesn't matter if you decide the fetus has rights from the moment of conception, doesn't attain rights until naturally born, or somewhere in between. The conclusions drawn and actions taken are nearly the same regardless. I think that is the main attraction of the analysis. A lot of the questions that people struggle with (when is it human, when does it gain rights) cease to matter. This simplifies the discussion greatly.

Legalizing murder doesn't simplify the discussion at all, in fact it hands the entire issue, rightly, to the other side.

If we were to debate whether or not a fetus that can survive outside a mother has rights, I would most likely take the position that it does. But just like the retarded person with a gun in the mall, the rapist, and the mugger (who also have rights) the fetus's rights don't trump the mother's and aren't much of an issue.

Nobody's Rights trump anyone else's. The fact is that a fetus doesn't have Rights while the mother does (the reasoning for which is discussed in the other thread).

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If we were to debate whether or not a fetus that can survive outside a mother has rights
The thing is that whether you use the term rights or not, your analysis views the fetus as becoming a (legal) "being" with some type of legal standing the moment current technology can allow it to survive outside the womb. This is faulty. There is no reason to find any such legal standing in a fetus.

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This is a huge mistake: Rights matter (and actually you are equivocating even on this point as you say "rights ... don't really matter", which means "they matter somewhat", you are denying their absolute inalienability). Respecting Rights is what separates the US from Nazi Germany, the USSR, China, Iran and North Korea. To say that "rights don't matter" is to overthrow the only legitimate basis of government; it is to negate the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

You ignore the context of my statement. Of course rights matter, but they may not necessarily be pertinent in a given situation. Before you counter that all rights are always pertinent, please read the remainder of this post to understand what I mean when I say that. The way I mean "not pertinent" is probably different than the way you take it. For example, I would say that I have a right to life - as do you. However, if I attempt to murder you, you have a right to use lethal force to defend yourself. Then the fact that I have a right to life isn't pertinent to the discussion and the fact that I may die as a result of your defensive actions is of no moral consequence.

Furthermore, the only way to violate rights is by physical force a fetus or a baby have no ability to use force so they have no ability to violate anyone's Rights.

I disagree with you on this point. If, when you are not looking, I steal 20 dollars from your desk drawer, I have violated your rights and have not used any physical force. You may ultimately never even realize it has happened, but your rights have been violated nonetheless. I am assuming here that by "physical force" you mean violence or the threat of violence, and not simply touching or manipulating objects. In the unlikely event that you did mean "simply touching or manipulating objects", certainly the fetus does that -- it even produces hormones that manipulate your body to its benefit.

This premise combined with the notion of "the rights of embryos" opens the door to forced surgery and forced incubation.

With regard to forced surgery, this would only be true if you feel that the alleged right of the embryo supersedes the right of the woman to control her body (which of course it does not). With regard to forced incubation, if I give it up for adoption, I don't particularly care if the State wants to incubate it or not.

Nobody's Rights trump anyone else's.

In a way your statement is simultaneously true and false. Take my attempted murder scenario. You and I both have a right to life. I attempt to murder you. My right to life doesn't trump your right to life, so you kill me in self defense. But simultaneously it is the case that your right to life has trumped my right to life because mine has been extinguished to preserve yours. There is no issue here because I was the rights-violation-initiator. I'll admit I don't know precisely how Objectivism treats this scenario from a phraseology standpoint, but clearly Objectivism supports that I may take your life to prevent you from taking mine. Whether this is to say my rights trump yours in this case (due to our respective roles in the situation) or that yours don't trump mine, honestly is arguing over semantics to me.

The fact is that a fetus doesn't have Rights while the mother does (the reasoning for which is discussed in the other thread).

The rights of the fetus are little more than a logical curiosity until such time as the rights of the victim (to control what is and isn't done with their body) have been satisfied (by removing the fetus). Even then, the rights of the delivered entity are not particularly relevant to this analysis (assuming I am surrendering it to the State to incubate, raise, discard, etc.)

Legalizing murder doesn't simplify the discussion at all, in fact it hands the entire issue, rightly, to the other side.

Murder is an interesting word to use for denying another entity the use of my body against my consent. If I'm the woman, I don't particularly care if it lives or dies -- so long as it does so outside of my body. In a ridiculous scenario, if someone enters my home without my consent (front door is unlocked and they just walk in), but for whatever reason if they were removed from my home it would kill them, they still have no right to remain in my home. Even if their removal results in their death, their removal is not murder.

I think a lot of our disagreement here centers around phraseology, not fundamental principles. I think in some ways you are really taking exception to how I've phrased a given principle, and not necessarily the principle itself. This is most certainly due to a lack of depth on my part when it comes to accepted principles of Objectivism and the standard meanings ascribed to certain phrases. Much like "selfish" means one thing to most people and something completely different in Objectivism. I appreciate your efforts in shoring up this deficiency, as well as any true deficiencies of principle from an Objectivist standpoint.

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The thing is that whether you use the term rights or not, your analysis views the fetus as becoming a (legal) "being" with some type of legal standing the moment current technology can allow it to survive outside the womb. This is faulty. There is no reason to find any such legal standing in a fetus.

I don't think I categorically stated that. With regard to the possibly-viable fetus, my analysis said "one might reasonably argue" (emphasis added) and then proceeded to discuss the notion that if the fetus can be delivered non-destructively, and the non-destructive delivery method was no more invasive, unsafe, or injurious of the mother's rights than the destructive method, then such method could be required (under that argument). I have not overtly concluded this, only pointed out that one might argue it.

As a point in fact, I don't necessarily argue that the rights vest at the point of viability (or have any firm opinion on the matter). You could just as easily have assumed (from my statements) that it always had rights and only at the point of viability do those rights have any practical effect. Prior to viability the refusal of the mother to allow her body to be used to support the fetus is a death sentence to the fetus, but that is her right, and whatever rights the fetus may have are more or less mooted by her right to evict it (resulting in its death) at any time. At the point of viability, then we could start to ponder whether those alleged pre-existing rights then do have some bearing, in the unlikely scenario that the woman can exercise her right to control her body in a way that allows the fetus to survive without sacrificing any rights she holds.

To be clear, I do not believe that rights begin at the moment of conception. But I also think that to use the moment of birth as the magical vesting point is equally absurd. I suppose that the use of "birth" as the magical moment of rights-vesting is no more absurd than the current practice of conferring all rights (including the right to buy, sell, sue, be sued, and enter into contractual agreements) at the magical age of 18. I will read more about the Objectivist reasoning behind birth as the threshold and see how persuasive it is.

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To be clear, I do not believe that rights begin at the moment of conception. But I also think that to use the moment of birth as the magical vesting point is equally absurd.
"Equally absurd" is strong. Surely, granting rights at conception is absurd and then less and less absurd as one gets closer to birth ;)
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"Equally absurd" is strong. Surely, granting rights at conception is absurd and then less and less absurd as one gets closer to birth ;)

Excellent point. It is not equally absurd. Perhaps equally arbitrary, but not equally absurd. You are correct -- the closer one gets to being something that most everyone recognizes as an independent entity with rights the less absurd it gets.

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I have never heard this argument before, that the fetus could be regarded as a rights violator, so thanks. It is interesting, but I have two objections:

(1) Is the fetus really a separate organism, or is it part of the mother's body? For example I believe the fetus shares the mother's bloodstream. Because I'm not sure that a part of your own body can violate your rights. Would a tumor be a rights violator for example (though I apologise for the horrible analogy)? On the other hand it does have different DNA, but why should that be the deciding factor instead of it's physical separation?

(2) It's not the case (I believe) that any invasion of your person counts as a rights violation. A stranger simply bumping in to you on a crowded street is not a rights violation. The concept of rights comes from the need for man's mind to connect with his actions. Violence can "sever" that connection by e.g. restraining the limbs, and rights are to prevent that. But the fetus is not stopping you from acting according to your thoughts or wishes, so is it violating your rights? Yes, it takes sustenance from the mother, but that is not forced, she can abort. If a human fetus grew some sort of tenticle in to the brain stem and took over the mother's free will then it would be a right's violator, but I'm not convinced actual human fetuses are.

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(2) It's not the case (I believe) that any invasion of your person counts as a rights violation. A stranger simply bumping in to you on a crowded street is not a rights violation. ...
Also, the fetus is more analogous to the woman bumping into the stranger by her own actions, not the other way around. The idea that the fetus is violating rights is easily countered by the fact that the fetus was forced into that position by the mother. The initial post views a fetus as analogous to someone who accost you as a firearm. If so, the woman put the fetus there, put the firearm in his hand, and said, "you're going nowhere until I let you". The fetus's only rational option is to be born. The whole analogy breaks down with the logical conclusion being that the woman cannot claim innocence and ignorance vis a vis the fetus. No, the real argument has to be about the nature of the fetus: about its biological nature and its legal nature.
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The idea that the fetus is violating rights is easily countered by the fact that the fetus was forced into that position by the mother.

That is an excellent point. Also, another related point is that the perceptual level happens automatically, so a purely perceptual being can not have free will. Concepts require effort to form and are therefore optional and therefore closely related (not sure how exactly) to our freedom of action. So a fetus (and even a small baby) not only was it forced in to that position by the mother, it has no free will to change it on its own.

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Sorry for being away for a bit. I've been busy and will catch up on this thread now. Lots of good discussion and I appreciate everyone's feedback.

(1) Is the fetus really a separate organism, or is it part of the mother's body? For example I believe the fetus shares the mother's bloodstream. Because I'm not sure that a part of your own body can violate your rights. Would a tumor be a rights violator for example (though I apologise for the horrible analogy)? On the other hand it does have different DNA, but why should that be the deciding factor instead of it's physical separation?

The most readily available analogy I'd have here would be the case of conjoined twins. They may share each other's blood stream, major organs, etc., but personally I can't reach any conclusion other than that they are individuals, each with their own rights. There are lots of other concepts worth analyzing in the case of conjoined twins, but it strikes me that if you agree conjoined twins are individuals then sharing a bloodstream doesn't automatically make you not an individual. It is possible that "rights violator" may be a little too stern and "unauthorized resource consumer" would be better. I will develop that more in reply to another post below.

(2) It's not the case (I believe) that any invasion of your person counts as a rights violation. A stranger simply bumping in to you on a crowded street is not a rights violation. The concept of rights comes from the need for man's mind to connect with his actions. Violence can "sever" that connection by e.g. restraining the limbs, and rights are to prevent that. But the fetus is not stopping you from acting according to your thoughts or wishes, so is it violating your rights? Yes, it takes sustenance from the mother, but that is not forced, she can abort. If a human fetus grew some sort of tenticle in to the brain stem and took over the mother's free will then it would be a right's violator, but I'm not convinced actual human fetuses are.

My main purpose for this analysis is to argue that abortion is a moral right of the mother that can't be interfered with by the State. If so, then the other side of that argument is that it can be interfered with by the State, in which case it is forced because she cannot abort.

Also, the fetus is more analogous to the woman bumping into the stranger by her own actions, not the other way around. The idea that the fetus is violating rights is easily countered by the fact that the fetus was forced into that position by the mother. The initial post views a fetus as analogous to someone who accost you as a firearm. If so, the woman put the fetus there, put the firearm in his hand, and said, "you're going nowhere until I let you". The fetus's only rational option is to be born. The whole analogy breaks down with the logical conclusion being that the woman cannot claim innocence and ignorance vis a vis the fetus. No, the real argument has to be about the nature of the fetus: about its biological nature and its legal nature.

Let's assume a perfect situation (from the standpoint of your argument) and that is that the woman got pregnant intentionally (therefore she truly did invite the fetus into her body to share her resources), but then, for whatever reason, has decided she no longer wants to share those resources. The fetus of course can't do anything but that which biology directs, so it has no will. As I said just above, therefore "rights violator" might be a little stern but perhaps (once the woman decides she no longer wants to share her body) "unauthorized resource consumer" would be more appropriate. Generally speaking, as a society, we do not condone involuntary servitude (any more), nor is there any other example I can think of where consent, once given, can never be withdrawn. Regardless of whether the fetus has will or not, that doesn't change whether or not it has a right to the mother's resources and whether or not she can defend her right to refuse to provide them.

As an analogy let's say we have someone who is presently in a vegetative state (they have no ability to exercise will) and they are currently connected to life support in my facility. It is expected that in 9 months time they will emerge from their vegetative state and no longer require my life support facility (though they may still require other care). I no longer wish to provide this care or the use of my facility. Perhaps I'm getting out of the care giving business, just want to use the facility for another purpose, can no longer afford to operate it, etc. There are other facilities who may be willing to take the person, but unfortunately the state of technology is such that an attempt to transfer them would almost certainly result in their death. Must I continue to stay in the care giving business and share my resources just because this particular individual demands it? To avoid any contract issues, say my willingness to provide this care was voluntary and charitable at the outset. Even though the person has no will, they consume resources I no longer wish to provide or share. I would say that intuitively I can get out of the business and redeploy my resources and the person must take their chances with a transfer to another facility even though they will almost surely die. And if you agree with that, should I not be able to control my body in the exact same way and for the exact same reasons?

In the analogy above one might argue that I could let someone else take over the facility for the remainder of the 9 months, but of course that's not possible with your body (although the State would presume to do just that if allowed to).

Also, another related point is that the perceptual level happens automatically, so a purely perceptual being can not have free will. Concepts require effort to form and are therefore optional and therefore closely related (not sure how exactly) to our freedom of action. So a fetus (and even a small baby) not only was it forced in to that position by the mother, it has no free will to change it on its own.

Such would be the case of the person in my analogy above that is using my life support facility. I'm not sure that lacking the will or ability to change confers rights to something that must be voluntarily given by another.

One final thought before wrapping up this particular post. If the State may compel you to share your body with your child when it is necessary to the survival of the child, when does that obligation end? Does that obligation somehow end magically at birth? Here's why I ask. Let's say your 3 year old son has liver cancer. You are a donor match, and could easily donate part of your liver to replace your son's failing organ. Your liver will regenerate (the liver is interesting in that regard) so other than the unknown risk of the surgery, and the scar you will have afterward, you will have no lasting harm from the experience. Most parents would probably do this without a second thought. But, may the State compel you to if you do not wish to? And if the State can't compel you to do this with your "born" child that is certainly an individual and certainly has rights, then how may it compel anyone to donate their body to an entity (the fetus) of not-so-nearly-certain status?

All of the arguments above are not meant to take the position that the fetus has rights or doesn't, or is an individual or isn't -- they are to point out that whatever those rights may or may not be, it does not have a right to your body without your consent and if that is true, then it doesn't matter if it has a right to life or not and it doesn't matter if it is an individual or not, because no matter what the answer is to those questions, it doesn't change the outcome.

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I want to clarify something in the opening of this post -- that thus far I see the principles of Objectivism as a well reasoned, and reasonable framework for understanding man's proper relationship to other men, to the government, etc. Concurring with the principles is one thing, but my feeling is that blindly accepting the dogma without honest critical analysis is the type of thing I would expect of the religious.

It is in this vein that I examine the Objectivist reasoning for supporting abortion as an absolute right (a position that I agree with, but perhaps through different reasoning). I started out with little knowledge other than that Objectivists were pro-abortion-rights, plus familiarity with some excerpted passages of Ayn Rand's on the topic. With regard to those excerpts, while there is some self-evident wisdom in there, in my opinion enough of it rests upon unsupported, apparently arbitrary assertions or assumptions, that it can't be accepted as a credible argument for the position.

Realizing that reading excerpts in isolation is not a good way to gain a full appreciation of the Objectivist view of the topic, I have tried reading various and sundry relevant writings. While there are many out there, I found one in particular that covers the topic rather broadly and references Objectivist principles and written materials as supports. For those of you who are well versed in proper Objectivist reasoning regarding abortion, I am curious if you feel that article is a good representation. Personally, I read the piece and found it much the same as I found the excerpts I referenced earlier -- possessed of some self-evident wisdom, but so riddled with baseless assertions as to have little effect other than to beg for a rebuttal -- and that is coming from someone who agrees with the author's conclusion (but not his methods).

Quizzically I think that an argument in favor of abortion absolutely can be made soundly with Objectivist principles, I just don't think that the current standard Objectivist argument (that prior to birth it is not living and not human) is it. I realize that it would be the height of presumptuousness and arrogance on my part to say that Ayn could have done a better job applying her own philosophy to the question, but I suppose that's what I've said. In the briefest manner possible, I'd say that abortion is an inalienable right of the woman because the fetus, no matter what rights it may or may not be alleged to have, has no right to the the sacrifice of the woman's body to serve its needs. Most people, except the most hopelessly misguided, can agree that your rights end where mine begin. In other words, you have no right to anything that requires my rights to be sacrificed. I'm particularly fond of the phrase "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins".

That seems to me to be the core philosophy of Objectivism -- that each live their life "neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself". Further, even if the fetus were an individual, fully vested with rights, that "[m]en must deal with one another as traders, giving value for value, by free, mutual consent to mutual benefit". But those are both Objectivist axioms which cannot be assumed to be universally accepted, and are therefore worthless when debating those opposed to abortion. Although it may seem pointless at times, we should debate those opposed to abortion because, like it or not, public opinion drives public policy -- but that is a topic wholly separated from the ethical basis for supporting abortion.

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"Concurring with the principles is one thing, but my feeling is that blindly accepting the dogma without honest critical analysis is the type of thing I would expect of the religious."

I don't know why you mentioned this, but you are absolutely correct.

Since rights are about people and only people, it is strange to talk about a fetus doing any sacrificing. Do you say a bear invading your garage is violating your rights because it's sacrificing you for its needs? Would you say it's okay to shoot the bear with a gun because whether or not it has rights doesn't matter, it still violated your rights if we did consider bears to be rights-bearing? Or do you say it's fine to shoot the bear because it has no rights in the first place? The only question that matters is what is a human, and when does a fetus become a human. From what I know, the moment a baby pops out of the mother is not that point, it's more sensible to suggest at some late stage in pregnancy that the fetus becomes a human.

To be specific, neither of those are axioms. They are fundamental principles, but not axioms. When it comes to debates and discussions, what counts most is being specific about what your words refer to. Sometimes, for some audiences, you need to explain a lot more and explain how you reached a conclusion, other times it's assuming your audience to be stupid if you have to explain where some premises come from.

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I think that an argument in favor of abortion absolutely can be made soundly with Objectivist principles, I just don't think that the current standard Objectivist argument (that prior to birth it is not living and not human) is it.

Would that be, but that is not at all Rand's argument for abortion. A fetus is living and is human, but we need more than that to establish complete hominization and thus a moral agent possessing rights. The point is, it is not a human being, i.e. separate individual person. It is a fallacy of equivocation on the words "living" and "human" to assert otherwise.

Aren't you a bit hasty in condemning all who disagree with you as being dogmatic, here? It's not that we don't get your argument for expulsion from the woman's body. We understand the doctrine of evictionism, that it doesn't matter whether the fetus is a person or not, it can be expelled from the woman's body either way. No doubt, the fact that the woman has a right to her own physical body is an indispensable part of the equation here. But what is the reason why it should replace the "standard argument" that the fetus is not a person and has no rights? The failing of a pure evictionism doctrine is precisely that it ignores this most vital questions at the heart of the issue: when does hominization occur, and when do rights begin?

You could say that if the woman as a right to expel the fetus regardless of its moral status, then this is the stronger argument because its moral status is irrelevant. Abort away. But this is unconvincing. The anti-abortionist would say this begs the question. If its moral status is precisely as the anti-abortionist would claim, then it does have a right to be in its mother, and her alleged right to her own body is what is irrelevant. On the other hand, if we can show that hominization does not occur at conception, and a fetus correspondingly has no rights, then that is the argument which makes the rest of the assertions irrelevant. Used together, the fetus has no rights and the mother owns her own body, the strongest possible case is made. There is no justification for replacing or condemning as flawed the "standard argument," unless you believe that indeed the fetus is fully a human being and has a right to life.

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Thanks for the reply Eiuol. Lots of interesting things to talk about here.

"Concurring with the principles is one thing, but my feeling is that blindly accepting the dogma without honest critical analysis is the type of thing I would expect of the religious."

I don't know why you mentioned this, but you are absolutely correct.

I've read quite a good volume of debate attempting to convince people of Objectivist positions, and have seen numerous cases where dogma (that is clearly flawed) is repeated as though it was fact to counter the opposing position. This is particularly silly when even a moment's reasoning can dispel the notion or render it moot. Take the assertion that rights can only be violated by force (which Ayn explicitly said and is oft repeated in lectures and other materials). If "force" means "violence or threat of violence" then this is clearly false (as my "desk drawer" example above illustrates). If "force" simply means the interaction of matter with other matter, then the statement is meaningless because everything that happens in the universe involves such forces. Even speaking involves such forces (as speaking can't occur without modulating the density of some material in an analog waveform that can be received and comprehended by a listener). Yet not only do I see this principle repeated often, I also see various Objectivist analyses struggling to find a way to prove that it is true even though the author appears to have serious doubts that it could possibly be. This "wanting something to be true even if it doesn't make sense" strikes me as the behavior of the religious -- and it is not a becoming thing.

Ayn's favorite mechanism to attack faulty reasoning is to simply offer the word "Why?". Dogma says say fetuses are magically vested with rights at birth, and I ask "Why?". Thus far I've read no credible answer to the question. The best I've seen is something along the lines of "we have to draw a line somewhere and that seems as reasonable as any other". All other answers (that I've seen so far) fail by using analogies which undermine their central premise -- but it is quite possible that I've just not read the right answer yet.

Being that we are all likely atheists, we're all likely in agreement that while Ayn may have been quite brilliant and talented, she was not a deity and was certainly imperfect (as is everything). Even Ayn seemed to recognize that the abortion question was not quite so simple when she said "[o]ne may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months". Granted, that does not mean she concedes the argument, but that she at least recognizes that it is arguable.

Since rights are about people and only people, it is strange to talk about a fetus doing any sacrificing. Do you say a bear invading your garage is violating your rights because it's sacrificing you for its needs?

No, but presently, I know very few people that believe a bear is a person (though I'm certain at least some people think bears should have more rights than people). But, you speak as though it is plain and obvious to everyone with a whit of sense that a fetus is not a person, when in fact the matter is not nearly so well settled. Further, other than my repetition of the quote "neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself" (which I was using to explain why the mother has no moral obligation to sacrifice herself for the fetus if she does not so choose) all of my other dialogue concerning sacrifice was on the part of the mother -- I never said anything about the fetus sacrificing (I suppose that is further evidence of the one-sidedness of the transaction).

Would you say it's okay to shoot the bear with a gun because whether or not it has rights doesn't matter, it still violated your rights if we did consider bears to be rights-bearing? Or do you say it's fine to shoot the bear because it has no rights in the first place?

If we lived in a world where 50% of the people thought that bears had rights, and 50% of the people did not think bears had rights, and most of the arguments about shooting bears centered around whether or not they "had rights", then I absolutely do think I would use my argument to demonstrate that whether or not they had rights was not relevant to whether or not we had a right to shoot them. I would then use reasoning to show that whether they do or don't have rights, the outcome of the analysis is the same (under the circumstances you present) -- they get shot -- and so coming to a conclusion as to their rights is superfluous. If we lived in a world where nobody would give a second thought about anybody shooting a bear for any reason they desired, then I would not need to make the point that a conclusion of the rights of the bear need not be reached because that would be superfluous.

The only question that matters is what is a human, and when does a fetus become a human.

And my argument is that question is irrelevant. Your 3 year old child is human and has been for a long time. Yet it still does not have the right to the use of your body if you don't wish it. That assertion alone (assuming you agree that the child has no right to the use of your body) should be the end of any assertion that the "humanness" of the fetus matters.

From what I know, the moment a baby pops out of the mother is not that point, it's more sensible to suggest at some late stage in pregnancy that the fetus becomes a human.

Sensible or not, Ayn's position is that prior to birth the fetus has no rights and is even "not-yet-living". This is offers an amazing (in a bad way) opportunity to distract the conversation into the un-winnable argument of when/where that magic point is, when in fact, the whole conversation is a moot point since whether the fetus is a bear, a human, protoplasm, or something else, it still has no right to your body.

To be specific, neither of those are axioms. They are fundamental principles, but not axioms. When it comes to debates and discussions, what counts most is being specific about what your words refer to. Sometimes, for some audiences, you need to explain a lot more and explain how you reached a conclusion, other times it's assuming your audience to be stupid if you have to explain where some premises come from.

I guess I see them as axioms ("a universally accepted principle or rule") to Objectivists because I don't think any Objectivist (myself included) would fail to accept them. If you fail to accept either of those two statements ("neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself", and "[m]en must deal with one another as traders, giving value for value, by free, mutual consent to mutual benefit") then I would argue you could not possibly be an Objectivist.

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Would that be, but that is not at all Rand's argument for abortion. A fetus is living and is human, but we need more than that to establish complete hominization and thus a moral agent possessing rights. The point is, it is not a human being, i.e. separate individual person. It is a fallacy of equivocation on the words "living" and "human" to assert otherwise.

I like the distinction of "human being" -- i.e. separate individual person -- for the purposes of the conversation. That said, I'm still a bit fuzzy on what line we would draw for when something is and isn't a separate individual person. I've read various arguments, none of which seems to survive scrutiny. One centers around not being self-sustaining (which causes problems when compared to accident victims who will recover but are presently in need of life support equipment to survive -- yet seem to obviously still be human beings). Another concerns the fact that they are connected to the mother's blood supply and require the use of her organs (which causes problems with conjoined twins who always share a blood supply and who often may be dependent upon an organ of the other -- yet are generally regarded -- by me anyway -- as individuals with their own separate rights). Another argued that since they are in darkness and cannot perceive the world by the senses that we take for granted, they can't be human beings (but then perhaps that would mean Helen Keller wasn't either). Again, perhaps I've just not read the right argument yet.

Aren't you a bit hasty in condemning all who disagree with you as being dogmatic, here?

I'll start by saying that my use of the term "dogma" was unnecessarily inflammatory and a poor choice. I did not mean to apply it to everyone who disagrees with me -- I mean it in the context of those who treat things as dogma and parrot them without much apparent independent questioning of the validity. Even then, "dogma" was a poor choice. Point taken.

It's not that we don't get your argument for expulsion from the woman's body. We understand the doctrine of evictionism, that it doesn't matter whether the fetus is a person or not, it can be expelled from the woman's body either way. No doubt, the fact that the woman has a right to her own physical body is an indispensable part of the equation here. But what is the reason why it should replace the "standard argument" that the fetus is not a person and has no rights?

My reason it should replace the "standard argument" is that the standard argument: a) seems arbitrary, and B) can never be expected to be convincing except to people who already agree with your position on abortion. Heck, it's not convincing to me and I do agree with your position on abortion. I think it couches the conversation on an un-winnable position that is not truly the central question. Thus the argument is sabotaged without any apparent beneficial purpose.

The failing of a pure evictionism doctrine is precisely that it ignores this most vital questions at the heart of the issue: when does hominization occur, and when do rights begin?

And perhaps I'm just too dense to get it, but exactly why are the questions "when does hominization occur" and "when do rights begin", "vital" or even meaningful to the analysis? If I could prove by a means wholly satisfactory to your mind that the fetus is hominized, and has rights, would it change your position on abortion? Would you then say "well, this hominized, rights-bearing person now absolutely has the right to conscript the body of another hominized, rights-bearing person to their own purpose"? I assume you would not. And if it would lead you to conclude that the now-proven-hominized being can conscript the body of another, then certainly you would agree that the State may compel a parent to donate a portion of their liver to their dying 3 year old in need of a transplant, right? I assume you would not. And if you would not, doesn't that render those two questions not only "not vital", but in fact pointless?

You could say that if the woman as a right to expel the fetus regardless of its moral status, then this is the stronger argument because its moral status is irrelevant. Abort away. But this is unconvincing. The anti-abortionist would say this begs the question. If its moral status is precisely as the anti-abortionist would claim, then it does have a right to be in its mother, and her alleged right to her own body is what is irrelevant.

I'm thinking my "3 year old child in need of a liver transplant" cleanly does away with that argument (that the fetus does have a right to be in its mother). I have not yet found even a single anti-abortion person that thinks the State may compel a parent to donate part of their liver to the child. Of course they all say they would readily do so, but say that they do not feel the State may compel it.

On the other hand, if we can show that hominization does not occur at conception, and a fetus correspondingly has no rights, then that is the argument which makes the rest of the assertions irrelevant.

But you can never show that because it can't be shown. It depends on an underlying moral premise that is not widely enough shared. To the religious life begins at conception, so abortion is murder and murder is wrong and the State may oppress it. But even those people don't seem to think the State can make you donate part of your liver to your 3 year old. Somewhere therein lies a more universal moral principle that is a better basis to build an argument from.

Used together, the fetus has no rights and the mother owns her own body, the strongest possible case is made.

Agreed - if the hominization argument were universal enough to be widely held - and it's not.

There is no justification for replacing or condemning as flawed the "standard argument," unless you believe that indeed the fetus is fully a human being and has a right to life.

I reach neither conclusion about the fetus because a conclusion of those questions is not necessary for me to determine the moral outcome of the question. Because of that, and all that I have said above, I am compelled to condemn as flawed the "standard argument". I suppose (in hindsight) that "flawed" is also too strong a term. Perhaps less-than-optimally-convincing would have been better. If you couch your argument based on a position that only a narrow few agree is true, then, other than in the midst of those same people, it isn't worth much.

This is a great conversation. Hopefully everyone is enjoying it in the spirit of a good intellectual exercise and isn't put off by my occasional poor word choice. I too am immensely fallible.

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Being that we are all likely atheists, we're all likely in agreement that while Ayn may have been quite brilliant and talented, she was not a deity and was certainly imperfect (as is everything).
To whom are you addressing this comment and similar comments? Do you not realize that this is insulting: to imply that people are accepting what Rand said on faith, and that you are the exception? Yes, some people do that and you should feel free to insult them, but please don't do it in this thread, unless someone here is saying things like "this is true because Rand said so". Edited by softwareNerd
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Take the assertion that rights can only be violated by force (which Ayn explicitly said and is oft repeated in lectures and other materials). If "force" means "violence or threat of violence" then this is clearly false (as my "desk drawer" example above illustrates). If "force" simply means the interaction of matter with other matter, then the statement is meaningless because everything that happens in the universe involves such forces.

I don't understand what your point is. When speaking of *initiating* force, no one is merely talking about your body, it's about property too. Your desk drawer example is bad because that does involve use of force on your property without having granted permission.

(I suppose that is further evidence of the one-sidedness of the transaction).

Doesn't transaction involve two or more parties that make a choice?

I would then use reasoning to show that whether they do or don't have rights, the outcome of the analysis is the same (under the circumstances you present) -- they get shot -- and so coming to a conclusion as to their rights is superfluous. If we lived in a world where nobody would give a second thought about anybody shooting a bear for any reason they desired, then I would not need to make the point that a conclusion of the rights of the bear need not be reached because that would be superfluous.

Why talk about rights ever, then? Why not say discussion of rights is superfluous in the first place?

And my argument is that question is irrelevant. Your 3 year old child is human and has been for a long time. Yet it still does not have the right to the use of your body if you don't wish it. That assertion alone (assuming you agree that the child has no right to the use of your body) should be the end of any assertion that the "humanness" of the fetus matters.

Then doesn't it follow that the humanness of anything doesn't matter when talking about rights and rights violations?

Sensible or not, Ayn's position is that prior to birth the fetus has no rights and is even "not-yet-living". This is offers an amazing (in a bad way) opportunity to distract the conversation into the un-winnable argument of when/where that magic point is, when in fact, the whole conversation is a moot point since whether the fetus is a bear, a human, protoplasm, or something else, it still has no right to your body.

If it's a human, you'd call it an unborn baby probably. If it's a fetus, you call it a fetus. There IS a point where a fetus becomes a human, no one should suggest a magical/arbitrary point when speaking about rights (legally speaking, perhaps an arbitrary point *for now* is okay).

Edited by Eiuol
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My main purpose for this analysis is to argue that abortion is a moral right of the mother that can't be interfered with by the State. If so, then the other side of that argument is that it can be interfered with by the State, in which case it is forced because she cannot abort.

Being prevented from killing another human being (once it meets that criteria) is not an act of force against you, it is the whole reason for having a government.

My understanding of your argument is that you think it's irrelevant if the fetus becomes a human being at some point or not, because before that point it is not a human being and therefore ok to abort, and after that point even if it is a human being it is a rights violator for taking sustenance from the mother and therefore still ok to abort.

I agree with the first half, that it is ok to abort a non-human being. But I disagree with the second. A fetus, not having the power of restraint or mind control over the mother, is not violating her rights merely by taking sustenance. Therefore once it reaches the point of becoming a human being, it is a non-rights violating human being and she may properly be prevented by the government from aborting it. But I do not know at what point this transition takes place.

Actually I don't know why a woman would object to such a law. It is not like saying, once you are pregnant society owns you. It is like saying if you get pregnant, it's your life, you can get an abortion. But you don't have forever to decide because at some point it will get rights too. It is only the religious interpretation, that gives rights at conception, that makes the woman a slave, because she has no period of decision. But as long as there is a period of decision, there is a decision! It is not an all or nothing thing where if you can't defend abortion at all times in all circumstances then women lose, it's that once you've defended a long enough decision period, women have won regardless of the rest of it.

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"The case for abortion rests on when the fetus obtains rights. Individual rights. I've personally heard arguments from Andrew Bernstein on this matter which in summary state that in order to properly place individual rights onto a fetus, that fetus would have to have reached a point in their development where they’ve achieved individuation as an organism sufficient enough that it could survive independently of its host organism i.e., the mother. The weakness in Bernstein’s argument is that you could have fetus’s that’ve developed conscious faculties being aborted at 8 and 9 months. Babies who could well be able to survive outside of the mother as human beings. In other words his argument is a good one but is flawed in that he bases rights on the event of physical individuation and negates the fact that a conscious being is being terminated."

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To whom are you addressing this comment and similar comments? Do you not realize that this is insulting: to imply that people are accepting what Rand said on faith, and that you are the exception? Yes, some people do that and you should feel free to insult them, but please don't do it in this thread, unless someone here is saying things like "this is true because Rand said so".

Good point -- I am not addressing anybody specific, and certainly not anybody here. It really was a rhetorical question of sorts based on the feeling that I get from reading some writings hither and yon -- that Ayn's writings are gospel and even when they don't make sense, great pains should be taken to rationalize them until they do.

Sometimes, when writing, I write as though I'm speaking, and am not completely mindful of the fact that the intonation in my mind doesn't come through to the reader. So something intended as rhetorical, perhaps even facetious, can come across as insulting. My apologies for that.

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I don't understand what your point is. When speaking of *initiating* force, no one is merely talking about your body, it's about property too. Your desk drawer example is bad because that does involve use of force on your property without having granted permission.

I think though, that given your perception of the meaning of "force" in this passage, then doesn't the passage cease to have meaning? Don't all deeds of any kind -- rights violating, or otherwise -- involve the use of force? I'm certainly not the first to have trouble with this particular premise.

Doesn't transaction involve two or more parties that make a choice?

I'm not sure what would have been a better word there. "Exchange" doesn't work because the other "party" doesn't give up anything. Perhaps "the one-sideness of the situation" would have been more satisfactory to you?

Why talk about rights ever, then? Why not say discussion of rights is superfluous in the first place?

This question gives the impression that you are either missing my point intentionally. I will concede that I don't know the accepted verbiage for a situation when the sustenance of the rights of one being are dependent upon something that being has no right to. If you are starving to death, and you have a right to life, and I have the only food left in the world, but do not wish to give it to you, or sell it to you, with regard to that situation, what shall we say of your right to life? In that situation, I would say your right to life has no bearing on what I may or may not do with my food. Hence, I would say it is superfluous to that discussion -- not that it is categorically superfluous. Certainly you can't have mis-understood me to the contrary.

Then doesn't it follow that the humanness of anything doesn't matter when talking about rights and rights violations?

I'd be happy to entertain the argument if you wished to make it, but I'm sure you are being rhetorical. As I belabored above, I am speaking of situational relevance, not categorical relevance. In my scenario above (you will die without my food, but have no right to my food), does you being human or not have any bearing? Whether you are human, or a bear, or protoplasm, you still have no right to my food -- so, in that discussion, we don't really need to know or care if you are human or not. Sure, if you weren't human, it would moot the whole discussion, but the fact that nobody and nothing has a right to my food also moots the discussion.

If it's a human, you'd call it an unborn baby probably. If it's a fetus, you call it a fetus. There IS a point where a fetus becomes a human, no one should suggest a magical/arbitrary point when speaking about rights (legally speaking, perhaps an arbitrary point *for now* is okay).

I'm not sure I have any concern over what we call it. The crux of my statement that you quoted was that whatever it is, and whatever we call it, I am aware of no Objectivist principle that would give it a claim to my body even if it were human, had rights, etc. I've provided analogies supporting that, and I believe those analogies have gone unchallenged.

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