Thursday, September 11, 2008

"The Abortion Ethics Debate" -- Brief Summary & Personal Afterthoughts

Earlier today, I attended "The Abortion Ethics Debate". However, due to my not taking of notes (it does get a bit tiresome to do so after about 5 weeks of taking notes during lessons), I will only attempt to, based on my memory, provide a brief summary of the proceedings of the event, list out the different arguments mentioned during the event on why abortion should be permissible and the arguments against. I will also briefly provide my personal thoughts about the event and the issue of whether abortion should be permissible.


The event opened with the customary introductory remarks. Next, excerpts from the film "Lake of Fire" was shown. After that, the event proceeded with the panel discussion and a Q&A session.

During the event, the following arguments on why abortion should be permissible were put forward (or at least suggested in the excerpts of the film).

i) According to the latest medical/scientific findings, the parts of the human brain which allow individuals to feel pain are only developed in about the third trimester. This would mean that, as one of the panellists pointed out, if and when a foetus is aborted in the first trimester, it would have no sensation of pain. And, the same panellist added, considering that the foetus is not yet able to feel pain, it would be hard to imagine that it can be considered as being sentient and/or having consciousness.

ii) Building on the above argument, another panellist remarked that when comparing the life value of a pregnant woman with that of a foetus in the first trimester, it would perhaps be clear that the latter's life value will be "minimal".

iii) It should also be considered that women should have the right, albeit within limits, to decide what happens to their bodies.

iv) In addition, it may be the case that a woman seeking abortion perhaps may not be ready to have a child or already have too many children to take care of to allow her to have another. With the option of abortion, this woman would hence be able to prevent an unwanted child from coming into being.

v) If abortion was not allowed, an unwanted child may not be adequately and/or properly raised, thus resulting in him or her having poor living conditions and/or life opportunities (cf. "Freakonomics")

vi) If legalised abortion was not allowed, women, who seek to abort their child, may resort to dangerous and illegal means of abortion.

On the other hand, the following arguments on why abortion should not be permissible was raised or suggested.

i) All human lives, regardless of their status, are equal in value. Thus, it cannot be said that a foetus somehow have less life value than its mother. With this in mind, abortion can be seen as the killing of an innocent & valuable life, which is morally wrong, and hence, it should not be permissible.

ii) Although a foetus may not be sentient yet, it still has the potential to become fully sentient. Thus, abortion should not be permissible as it would prematurely terminate this potential.

[If I may interject, I personally find this argument about the potential of a foetus somewhat ludicrous. I mean, a foetus can have the potential to become anything, good or bad. Yes, the foetus may just perhaps grow up to become the greatest person on earth. But the foetus may also just grow up to become a mass murderer and/or a war criminal. And, to add an ironic twist to it, perhaps the foetus will grow up to become a doctor who specialises in carrying out abortions? Also, what about the potential of the woman wanting to abort an unwanted child? Perhaps she can move on to fulfil her full potential without an unwanted child burdening her?]

iii) There are other options available, e.g. adoption, besides abortion for women who are ready to raise a child or already have too many children to take care of.

Personal thoughts

Moving on, I suppose that while I found the whole event to be somewhat interesting, I also found it to be rather one-sided (I mean, just look at the imbalance between arguments for and against why abortion should be permissible), considering that of the three panellists, two were evidently of the stance that abortion should be permissible. Also, I found that the event was perhaps too short (1 hour was spent screening excerpts of the film while another hour was the panel discussion and Q&A session) to fully explore and engage the issue of whether abortion should be permissible.

And on a sidenote, perhaps it was just me but I found it somewhat annoying that one of the panellists repeatedly interrupted not only members of the audience asking her (or the other panellists) questions but also her fellow panellists.

As for my personal view on whether abortion should be permissible, I have to state that, as of now, the arguments for why abortion should be permissible have greater appeal to me than those arguments against abortion.

Sidetracking, allow me to say that it is perhaps a mistake to label those who think abortion should not be permissible as being "pro-life" while labelling those whom think otherwise as "pro-choice". This is considering that such labelling perhaps implies that those in the latter camp are not "pro-life" and therefore are "anti-life". I mean, it should be evident that respecting the choice of women to have access to the option of abortion is not antithetical with respecting human life. I, for one, think abortion should be permissible but still have great respect for the value of human life.

Indeed, as suggested above, those who think abortion should be permissible perhaps respect human life enough to realise women's lives are also human lives and that if forced to bring an unwanted child into being because abortion is not allowed, women's lives may be ruined (cf. Arguments "iv" and "vi" under the section for why abortion should be permissible). Also, thought should be put into what happens to the child after it comes into being? Would the child have proper living conditions and enjoy adequate life opportunities? (cf. Argument "v" under the section for why abortion should be permissible).

And, strangely enough, it is those who are supposedly "pro-life" (or at least the more militant and/or fundamentalist amongst them) that sometimes resort to the use of violence, if not killing, to prevent abortions from being carried out e.g. killing abortion doctors or destroying abortion clinics.

Returning back to track, I suppose I need to clarify that I believe that, as hinted by one of the panellists, abortion should only be one option, if not the last option, amongst a package of different options for women pregnant with unwanted babies should be allowed access to. If all other options have been exhausted and the problem remains unresolved, then perhaps abortion should be carried out. It cannot be the case that abortion be the only and first option. It should also not be an option which is excluded.

Of course, proper guidance should be implemented to ensure that women seeking abortion understand fully what the option of abortion involves. And, as the panellists remarked, proper guidelines and regulations should be put in place to ensure that women seeking abortion are doing so for valid reasons, not frivolous ones.

In the end, I suppose we need to understand that while abortion may not be an easy or appealing option, it is perhaps a necessary option in certain circumstances.


Agagooga said...

For abortion:

i) In that case, one should be vegetarian since the defining criterion of a moral entity is the ability to feel pain/sentience/consciousness.

And you can have a thought experiment: it's possible to have a person whose pain sensations have been cut off (e.g. that guy in "The World Is Not Enough"). Would that person then not be a moral entity?

ii) Yes, that would apply if the mother's life were in peril. However, most abortion is not carried out for that reason.

iii) Yes, but imagine that you volunteer for an operation to hook yourself up to a famous unconscious
violinist who has a fatal kidney ailment, and you alone have the right blood type to help. The
violinist's circulatory system is plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract
poisons from his blood as well as your own.

One day, just before the violinist is due to be unplugged (because he can now be cured), you say "Screw it, I don't want this anymore". If he is unplugged you will kill him. Is it morally incumbent on you to *not* unplug him a day before he can be cured, since you volunteered for this in the first place?

iv), v) Suppose I have 6 children, and my husband loses his job.

If I cannot support all my children, should I be able to kill one of them?

Against abortion:

i) So to be consistent you have to be against In-Vitro Fertilisation also, since it results in the destruction of embryos.

ii) If I am about to screw a girl, there is a potential for a fully sentient being to come into being. Does this mean if I don't screw her, I am killing a potential life?

The potential good or bad of the baby is a red herring. Neither side should raise it.

iii) Yes, but the mother's body is still imposed on for 9 months

It isn't that inconsistent for pro-lifers to kill those who assist abortions.

Would you kill Hitler, knowing that by doing so you'd save millions of lives?

Same logic (if you accept their premises)

LCC said...

To Agagooga,

Hmm... Seeing how you object to the arguments from both camps, I can't help wondering where you personally stand on the issue...

That aside, some of your objections to some of the arguments are similar to some of those raised during the event. And some of these objections were, to varying extents, answered by the panellists. However, I decided to not discuss them as I thought that they will make the post excessively long.

Well, in reply to your analogy about the violinist, one of the panellists, who was responding to a similar objection, said it is not appropriate to equate a living sentient adult, who can explicitly express a wish to continue living, with a foetus which may or may not be sentient and which would most likely not be able to express a wish to continue its existence. Also, note that the panellist, who advanced the argument about women having the right over their bodies, said that there are limits to this right. [of course, where these limits lie can be another whole debate by itself]

[Anyway, there's another flaw in your violinist analogy in that not all women volunteered to become pregnant]

And I suppose the above can also be a reply to your objections to "iv" & "v", in that a living child cannot be equated to a foetus. Also, note that a child is already a separate living entity by itself and no longer an entity contained within his/her mother's body.

As for your objections to those arguments against abortion, specifically "i" & "ii", similar objections were raised both in the film and by the panellists. Indeed, if the logic behind these arguments against abortion is to be extended, masturbation should also be not permissible [of course, if I am not wrong, this is already the case for certain religions].

Moving on, I agree that the potential good or bad of a baby is a red herring which should not be raised by either camp. I was just discussing the potential bad of a baby to illustrate how the potential argument can potentially (pun intended) go both ways.

And, yup, I am also familiar with the "Will you kill Hitler before he committed all those bad things he did?" thought-experiment. Well, the thing is I don't fully accept the premises of the anti-abortion camp so their actions, in my perspective, appear inconsistent, if not hypocritical.

Anyway, lest anyone be mistaken, I do not claim that the arguments for why abortion should be permissible are somehow perfectly logical and/or valid, it is just that, when compared to the arguments against abortion, they appeal more to me.

Agagooga said...

This issue is a problematic one, and neither side has clear, knock-down arguments.

My views on abortion:

We're assuming that the violinist hooked up to you is unconscious and cannot express a wish about continuing to live. And one-day-old infants cannot express a wish about continuing to live either right?

My analogy applies to cases where the woman wanted to get pregnant. Most abortions are not a result of rape.

Why should being an entity within the mother's body be relevant? A 7-month-old baby in the womb is almost the same as a 7-month-old premature one.

What pro-life arguments do you find inconsistent?

LCC said...

To Agagooga,

Hmm... So you're an abortion agnostic?

Well, with regards to your violinist analogy, I still think that regardless of how you specific the conditions to make the famous violinist similar to a foetus, there will nonetheless remain a distinction between the violinist and a foetus.

Also, the fact that your violinist analogy, as you have stated, applies only to women who want to get pregnant makes it a flawed analogy. For one thing, if a woman wanted to get pregnant, why would she want to even consider abortion? I mean, is it not the case that it is women who do not want to get pregnant that consider the option of abortion?

In addition, although it may be true that most abortions are not carried out on the grounds of rape and/or a desire for the mother's health, the thing is that some of those in the anti-abortion camp seek a blanket ban on abortion, even in cases of incest, rape and when continued pregnancy would be detrimental to the mother's health.

As for the difference between a 7 month old baby in the womb and one outside the womb, I suppose the difference would be perhaps evident if one accepts that women have the right over their bodies.

If you remain to have a problem with the argument of abortion being permissible because women have the right over their bodies, I suggest you approach Dr. Neiladri Sinhababu, who was the panellist who advanced this argument at the event. You may find his contacts details at the staff profile page of the NUS Philosophy department.

To those people running the Singapore Kopitiam forum,

I have seen your invitation and appreciate it.

Hence, there is no need for you all to repeatedly send me the invitations through comments. The reason why the invitation have not shown up under comments is that I do not find the invitation particularly relevant to the discussion at hand.

Agagooga said...

No, I support abortion being safe, legal and rare through till the start of the third trimester. From then on it should be allowed only in the cases of incest, danger to mother's life and serious congenital birth defects (did I miss out any reasons?)

The decision whether have an abortion is not one that stays constant. People can and do change their minds either way after counselling, looking at their financial situation, depending on their family/partners etc.

I agree that women should be able to decide what happens to their bodies, but if you assume that a foetus is alive, surely the preservation of life is a more important priority? After all, not so long ago women were denied rights because they were the property of men, and men have the right to decide what happened to their property. Ditto for slavery.

The logic of feminists also happens to screw men over: they have no say at all over whether a baby is aborted or kept, yet once it plops out it magically becomes their responsibility.

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