Wednesday, February 06, 2008

More on abortion and misogyny

Let me clarify a few points regarding abortion rights.

I'm not at all interested in arguing the underlying question. If you want to actually argue against abortion rights do it somewhere else. It's a fight, not a debate, and I know which side I'm on.

I don't consider private moral deliberation to be particularly interesting and important from the perspective of ethical philosophy. Private moral beliefs — beliefs that one applies only to one's self — are, from a philosophical position, only slightly more complicated forms of desire fulfillment. Their examination more suited to scientific psychology than ethical philosophy. Even to a friend actively soliciting advice, I could advise only that, "You have to figure it out for yourself; whatever you decide, I'll be supportive."

As a small-ell libertarian humanist, one of my foundational moral principles is that it's important for each person to decide for herself what will bring her the most happiness. I become interested as a philosopher and a citizen only when there are conflicts between people over the best thing to do. It's none of my (philosophical) business to critique the internal reasons a woman chooses to deal with her own pregnancy. (Of course, if she believes that God forbids abortion, I might point out that on a factual basis she is mistaken.) There are a lot of things that each person has to work out for him- or herself.

Abortion rights — right of every woman to choose for herself what to do about her own pregnancy, and implement that choice using established medical institutions — is a no-brainer as a liberal position. Struggle all you like with your private decision; it's seems like an obvious liberal position to allow other women to resolve that struggle freely. I have never in my life even considered voting for a Republican, in no small part because any other difference is swamped by not supporting the right of half the population to control their own bodies.

When the decision to become pregnant is 99.999% voluntary, with only the most extreme physically possible exceptions, and the decision whether or not to become pregnant does not constrain a central and ineluctable part of a woman's psychology, her sexuality, I will at that point begin to consider the question of abortion. Implement — lip service and tokenism is not sufficient — universally available birth control and universally available and accurate sex education and then we can talk about abortion.

The word "misogyny" is kind of a fuzzy word, and I'm using it in a looser sense that shades into "sexism". Restricting abortion rights entails at least a degree of indifference to the actual suffering of real women, and I construe this indifference — in favor of the interests of a collection of cells that is not self-aware, cannot think and cannot feel pain — to constitute misogyny. If you're unhappy with this interpretation, don't bug me, go lobby whoever it is that's in charge of language evolution to make natural languages more precise.

Yes, women can be misogynist. They might not hate all women, just those dirty sluts who have sex for pleasure instead of procreation. That's still misogyny. In the same sense, you can admire (or even be) Clarence Thomas and Condaleeza Rice and still be a thoroughly racist Republican Neoconservative. And, in the same sense, I myself am indifferent to the suffering of (some) actual criminals who are imprisoned. (I'm against imposing gratuitous suffering, but I'm indifferent to the suffering caused just by the the loss of freedom. Imprisonment for victimless crimes, i.e. homosexuality, drugs, prostitution, etc. is completely ridiculous.)

All universals, and all generalizations involve probabilistic reasoning; the difference between universals and generalizations is at what level to employ probabilism. Furthermore, almost all scientific universals outside quantum mechanics are really pseudo-universal generalizations; since they rely on principles that are not physically fundamental, there are edge cases where the "universals" do not actually apply. For example, the universal mechanics of billiard balls would be invalid if I were measuring them during an earthquake; very strictly speaking, that makes "universal" classical mechanics a generalization.

The modern struggle for abortion rights is occurring in an historical and political context. To try to lift the arguments for and against abortion out of that context is not only unproductive but also dangerously misleading and usually disingenuous.

An enormous part of the context is the hatred of sexuality and the hatred of women that is explicitly written in to Christian scripture and has been explicitly promulgated by an substantial part of the Christian clergy and theologians. (There are exceptions, but I'm dealing in generalities, not universals.) Christian scripture is not just sexist, relegating women to inferior, second-class status, it is actively misogynist, in many places considering women to be intrinsically evil; one need read no farther than Genesis, but Paul is no fan of women and is seriously screwed up about sex.

It's virtually impossible to legislate any restriction of abortion-rights without rape and incest exceptions. These exceptions reveal the basis that women (and not men) should be punished for having sex for pleasure. Until such opponents advocate imprisoning men who accidentally impregnate women for at least nine months (and until we have universal adoption, the twenty-some years it takes to raise a child) they have no basis to deny misogyny.

Furthermore, the struggle for abortion rights is inexorably bound up in the general struggle over the distribution of economic, material wealth. The correlation between abortion rights and economic philosophy is no coincidence: Those against abortion rights tend to also be for the concentration of economic power, either explicitly and intentionally, indirectly, or often stupidly. No small few abortion rights opponents could give shit one about a child after it's born; to justify their opposition to abortion on a deep concern for the rights of innocent life is too blatantly hypocritical to take seriously.

Even the most superficial examination will reveal that just these categories cover a substantial majority of abortion-rights opponents. On just this evidence we can convict every abortion-rights opponent of at least tolerating misogyny. "You lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas," and you can't call yourself a Nazi without tolerating genocide. To escape this guilt by association* you have to bend over backwards to except your argument from the political struggle. Possible, perhaps, but it hardly seems worth the effort.

*Association establishes guilt of tolerance without fallacy.

Sure, abortion is squicky. I'd be very happy if every pregnancy were intentional, and we could focus the moral debate about abortion only on those too stupid, irresponsible or perverse to avoid pregnancy in the first place. But such conditions are so far removed from present reality that treating them even hypothetically smacks of disingenuity, hypocrisy and hidden agendas.


  1. Not to be all sycophantic, since I agree but have far more qualms about the issue than you express, but this is very well written indeed.

  2. Very eloquent, yes. I don't think there's a morality debate at all. As you stated in the beginning, you don't wish to focus on the heart of the issue. The question is whether or not the fetus is a human being. If you're right and it is not, I agree with you completely.

    Privacy, right to do what you want with your body... I agree with all of those things, but I also believe that there is a child present. Your arguments fall upon either completely deaf ears, or people who agree with you anyway.

    If there's a child present, a human being, the abortion debate is over, so I'm not surprised that even the most eloquent pro-choice advocates refuse to discuss the issue. So, as an FYI, nobody disagrees with you about privacy issues or a woman's right to do what she wants.
    I'm pro-life, and I believe that no one has the right to punish people for having sex. I believe it wrong, but that's there choice. If there were a punishment, it should fall on the man equally, if not more. Don't assume things about us you don't know to be true.

  3. Alex: If you consider a fetus to be a "child", then whatever it is that makes the person, it is not the mind. I must thus conclude that at some level you are indifferent to mind and you are indifferent to actual suffering or happiness, and that you would sacrifice the happiness of a thinking, feeling being to something nonthinking, non-feeling.

    Your position is despicable, contemptible, hateful and evil.

    It's dangerous too, because whatever it is you consider a person, I know that you would sacrifice my thinking, feeling mind — which is me — to whatever it is you consider my person.

  4. I have no patience with the use of the formulation "If there's a child present". It implicitly assumes that some day 'science' will answer the question of when a fetus becomes a human being. Does anyone seriously believe this will ever happen? It's as if they think we'll some day just test the amniotic fluid for the holy grail of a "humanity" protein. Any decision about when a fetus becomes human always is, was, and will be a social construct, not a scientific one. It's a societal decision, not a scientific fact. By using the formulation, the person signals that they will never entertain the notion that abortion is permissible, since until it can be scientifically decided that abortion is not murder, anyone's opinion that it is murder is valid and moral.


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