Patrick Lee

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Abortion: Is It Justified as Non-intentional Killing?

A recent innovation within the pro-choice repertoire of arguments doubles as perhaps the most chilling argument to date: namely, that abortion is justified as non-intentional killing of an infant.

Judith Jarvis Thomson is a proponent of this view. She argues that while the fetus has a right to life, that does not mean that permissibly kill it (“A Defense of Abortion”, 174-175). She argues that “[t]here is a distinction between intentional killing… and bringing about death as a side effect, and instances of choosing not to make a great sacrifice [carrying the fetus to delivery], rather than refusing to make a small one. Thus, many abortions are morally right” (Patrick Lee, 11o).

Thomson infamously uses an analogy of a violinist and the violinist appreciation society. Suppose there is a famous violinist who is dying, and the violinist appreciation society discovers you are the only living match for her blood type. While you’re sleeping, they hook your vitals up to the violinists in order to keep you both alive. You only need to stay in this bedridden state for 9 months, and then she’ll have recovered. Would you be culpable for cutting off the treatment?

Intuitively, the answer seems to be no. The problem is when Thomson uses this analogy for pregnancy. For one, pregnancy is the result of a choice (other than in the case of rape), whereas the violinist was hooked up against someone’s will. Second, mothers have a duty to protect their children. Thomson agrees that the fetus is a human person, but then seems to think that the mother has no duty to protect this human person. Third, “…the child is committing no injustice against [the mother]. The baby is not forcing himself or herself on the woman, but is simply growing and developing in a way quite natural to him or her. The baby is not performing any action that could in any way be construed as aimed at violating the mother” (Patrick Lee, 129).

There are other problems with this view, of course. For example, what if caring for a three year old is deemed a “great burden”; perhaps even a burden which is as great as pregnancy. Should mothers and fathers be allowed to cut off care, thus leading to the “side-effect” death of the toddler?

Another problem is that Thomson’s view depends totally upon the distinction between “intentional killing” and causing death as a “side-effect.” Thomson argues that it is permissible to bring about death as a “side effect” as opposed to intentionally killing an infant. There are two ways to argue against Thomson. The first is to deny her major premise, namely, that abortion is non-intentional killing. One could argue that in every case, abortion brings about the intended death of an infant. Such an argument has initial plausibility, but mostly falls apart when one considers that in at least some cases the death of the infant really is a “side-effect.” Consider the case in which a woman “dislikes the prospect of bodily changes due to pregnancy” (Lee, 115). In such a case, the woman’s intent is to prevent the bodily changes. That the infant is killed in the process is an unintended, but known side-effect of terminating the pregnancy.

In light of this, a more fruitful counter is to deny that Thomson’s conclusion follows from her argument. One could argue that abortion is morally wrong for, among other reasons: 1) the parent has a responsibility to the child (again, contra Thomson’s scenario) and  2) the harm of destroying one’s life is significantly greater than the harm of things such bodily changes.

Justifying 1) should be intuitively obvious, but consider Patrick Lee’s example in Abortion and Unborn Human Life:

Suppose I am in a motorboat in a lake and speeding past the pier I knock… four children into the lake…. I am responsible for their being in a dependency condition [like that of the fetus upon the mother], and… I owe it to them to go back and try to help them out of the water, lest they drown. However… I might also claim that I was only responsible for their being in the water, not for their being in an imperiled condition. It is not my fault… that they do not know how to swim… But clearly, it is specious to distinguish between my causing them to be in the water (for which I am responsible) and their being in a dependency condition due to their inability to swim… (Patrick Lee, 122-123)

Thomson would have us believe that we should draw such distinctions, which are indeed specious. The mother is responsible for her child.

Similarly, 2) also defeats Thomson’s argument. Lee points out that “Death is not just worse in degree than the difficulties involved in pregnancy; it is worse in kind” (128). To kill an infant in order to avoid pregnancy is to confuse not only the degree of “difficulty” but also the kind of difficulty involved.

If either 1) or 2) is correct, Thomson’s argument fails. In order to deny 1), the advocate of abortion must deny that parents have responsibility for their children. In order to deny 2), the advocate of abortion must show that killing someone is no better or worse than putting them in the state of pregnancy. Either alternative is totally implausible. Therefore, abortion is not justified as non-intentional killing.

Sources:

Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion” in The Problem of Abortion, ed. Joel Feinberg (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1984), 173-187.

Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2010).

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation and provide a link to the original URL. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: Abortion and Unborn Human Life by Patrick Lee

There are few ethical topics more controversial than abortion.Finding books on the topic is not very difficult, one needs only to search “abortion” on Amazon to find more than 10,000 results in the books category. Patrick Lee’s Abortion & Unborn Human Life (hereafter AUHL) stands out as one of the better pro-life books I have read, despite one major flaw.

AUHL starts with a syllogism:

1) Intentionally killing an innocent person always is morally wrong

2) Abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent person

3) Therefore, abortion is always morally wrong.

The rest of the book (164 pages of content) serves to defend this syllogism.

Chapter one argues against the idea that unborn human beings become persons after birth. Lee’s arguments are very good until he starts to argue by going against substance dualism to make his case. I think that this is a major flaw of Patrick Lee’s book. Substance dualism serves as a powerful argument against abortion. Not only that, but to argue against substance dualism primarily for the sake of an ethical position doesn’t make a lot of sense. Lee does introduces several philosophical arguments against dualism, but they fail to make a sufficient case against the position. This makes the rest of his case seem weaker than it is, had it been bolstered by substance dualism rather than arguing against it. It is really unfortunate, because readers may walk away thinking that the case against humans becoming persons after birth is weaker than it is.

In chapter two, Lee argues against the idea that human beings become persons during gestation. This chapter is particularly strong, and Lee introduces many arguments I hadn’t thought about before. Particularly important to this argument is what it means to have “moral standing.” Often, pro-life advocates forget that we sometimes don’t share the same basic presuppositions as the pro-choice advocates. Lee helps to bring the focus back to the basics (I have focused on this elsewhere myself, see here).

Lee argues in chapter 3 that individual human beings come to be at the moment of fertilization. This is another very strong chapter in which Lee offers scientific and philosophical reasons to accept this position.

Chapters 4 and 5 address the particularly chilling (and more recent) arguments that abortion can be justified as non-intentional killing of human beings (4) or that preventing certain consequences permit the killing of human beings (5).

Overall, AUHL is a fantastic read. Lee produces a compelling and powerful case that abortion is morally wrong, no matter what. Despite the rather large flaw of arguing against substance dualism, the book is a must-read for those interested in a philosophical defense of the pro-life position.

Abortion and Unborn Human Life

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation and provide a link to the original URL. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

 

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