Saturday, October 08, 2005

On Reasoning about Abortion

Full Metal Attorney suggested in a comment that I visit his site for a dissertation on the various arguments given for and against the pro-life and pro-choice positions. You may not get through it all but if you go deeply enough into his discussion, you will, I think, see why various arguments for and against the pro-life and pro-choice sides will fail to be persuasive to the other side. However, that does not make the debate pointless. There are always young minds that are coming to the issue without having already prejudged the issue and they may benefit from such discussions.

The fact is that this issue is unresolvable. Our best hope, expressed in several posts is that as people receive more information about birth control and the need for protection against sexually transmitted diseases, the arguments may be mooted by the need for abortion waning over time. The terrible irony is that the nitwit Right Wing Christians who most oppose abortions also frequently oppose sex education, the free availability of condoms, etc. "Stupid is and stupid does," as Forest's mom said.

In reading Full Metal's post, it struck me that there is an ambiguity in the word "human" that has a significant bearing on arguments for and against the pro-life and pro-choice positions and this is that the claim that the foetus is human does not entail that the foetus is a human. NB: At this point I make a blunder saying "Linguistically, this is the distinction between the mass noun use of "human" and the count noun use" when I should have said, "Linguistically, this is the distinction between an adjectival use, treating human as a quality and a count noun use." No one disputes that the foetus is human in the sense that it consists of human DNA as opposed to chimpanzee or any other specie's DNA. However, the human zygote which is the single cell entity that results from fertilization of a woman's egg may have human DNA but is arguably still not a human.

The passage in Full Metal Attorney (where "P" stands for a premise) that brought this issue to mind is:

P1: Murder (the unjustifiable destruction of a human) is wrong.
P2: A woman’s body is her own business and no one else’s.
P3: Abortion destroys a fetus/embryo/zygote.
Sub-conclusion 1: If a fetus/embryo/zygote is human, then abortion is murder and is wrong.
Sub-conclusion 2: If a fetus/embryo/zygote is not human, then abortion is acting on a woman’s body and the state does not have a right to prohibit it.
Those who are adamantly opposed to the killing of innocent humans, will not automatically be opposed to abortions since in the phrase "the killing of innocent humans," "humans" is being used as a count noun. The debate about when, during the process of gestation, abortions will and will not be permitted is about when we can sensibly speak of the foetus as being a human. My linguistic sensibilities are offended by the notion that anything less than the product of birth would give us a human though clearly the foetus increasingly looks like a human as it develops. But, saying that something looks like a human doesn't mean that it is a human. Years ago, a friend who had hunted bears earlier on in his life said that a skinned bear "looks like a human," but I did not instantly come to the conclusion that skinned bears are human. In short, the fact that the foetus looks like a human does not entail that it is. The decision to say that the foetus at time t becomes a human will have to be based on a better argument.

[NB: I have elided a paragraph because revising it in the light of the earlier mentioned blunder would be too much trouble. As the saying goes, "to err is human," and so I must be human.]

Several commenters stated baldly that abortion is murder. This is a really quite childish thing to say. The word "murder" is a technical term in the law and any ordinary language use of it, as in a statement like "abortion is murder," has legal implications. It would not be childish to say that abortion is the murder a human and as a result, anyone who performs one and who allows one to be performed on her body should be prosecuted for murder and for conspiracy to commit murder and since conspiracy to commit murder is a felony, both parties should in fact be charged with committing felony murder and should thus be death eligible. If you don't have the balls to say explicit things like I have just said, then please don't go around saying "abortion is murder." As I said, it is childish.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does it strike anyone else as ironic that we don't really mind the killing of other humans by our indirect actions (or inactions): starvation, war casualties, slow emergency response, overpopulation, etc., but we seem to mind it terribly when it's one-on-one?

10:25 AM

Blogger Tracy Lynn said...

Mike, not only do I like the way you think, I like the way you make me think.
I have always been pro choice, but while reading the last three posts, I have had to reevaluate and reassess why. Excellent!

10:29 AM

Blogger demondoll said...

This is somewhat off the subject, but I have found that some people who oppose abortion also support capital punishment. What are your thoughts?
Thank you again.

10:38 AM

Blogger Nikki Moore said...

I'm just recently becoming acquainted with this blog and haven't read all the preceding posts; it's possible that the answer to my questions is answered there. But: what is the difference between "human" and "a human" when we're discussing an organic being?

Obviously, you could use the terms "human remains" or "human clothing" but in that case, the word human is an adjective and not a noun. But saying an unborn human (which a fetus is, inarguably) is human, but not a human at least initially seems fallacious. Again, you may have addressed this earlier, but could you explain?

I'm interested in the linguistic approach you're taking to this issue. It's good to hear something new.

12:58 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

One does not need to be a politician to use language creatively.

2:42 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

You've got me doubting myself, hero's cousin. Your specific example "saying an unborn human is human, but not a human at least initially seems fallacious" is contradictory because it comes down to saying "an unborn human is not a human," which is two count noun uses of human. Definitely though, one can use "human" as an adjective.

I should have said that using "human" as a predicate (adjective) treats it as a quality and so saying that a foetus is human is not to say that it is a human is still true. I think I should edit the text, giving you credit for pointing out my linguistic mistake though the logic of my point still holds.

4:23 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How did you get the "word verification" thing? I'm having a problem with spammers in my comments section. I'd love to prevent that.

7:29 PM

Blogger Matthew Klinestiver said...

here's my 10 yen,
I can't really be sure whether a fetus is a baby or not. I tend to like to err on the side of life. Therefore, I say abortion is wrong. Is it murder? Maybe. Do I want to prosecute all mothers who've had abortion and the doctors who have assisted them. No.

If it really were a medical procedure only used in desperate conditions, I would whole heartedly support it. But- American women have abused their "right" to have an abortion. There have been some 30-40 million abortions. That is huge! So, I think if you aren't smart enough to use the pill, the patch, a condom or the day after pill - you should damn well have to face the consequences. And the unborn shouldn't. End of story.

3:13 AM

Blogger pankajchandna said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:34 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

When does the "soul" enter a human body? To me, that's the main question.

It seems funny we should all be able to answer this, but we can't. My earliest memory is from around two years old.

10:54 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I must say; I like your site. It's a little wordy for my tastes, but I'm one of those speed readers that just picks out the good stuff anyways.
I'm not trying to hit on you or anything, but I'm really curious: What do you do for fun? I mean at a party? Do you hole up in a corner and have deep coversations or do you put on the lampshade and dance around?

11:35 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Honestly, I'm not trying to be rude, it's just that I have an interest in the human(adj.) side of life.

11:41 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The latest on abortion

12:53 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

L>T, I seek out the company of women at any party. They are more interesting than men.

1:24 PM

Blogger Nikki Moore said...

Thanks for responding to my previous question. Perhaps I could amend my own comments as well:

"...saying an unborn human [of the human species] is...not a human [possessing some moral quality we ascribe to older people] at least initially seems fallacious."

Does that make more sense with my sloppiness (hopefully) removed? I guess the underlying question could be restated: "If it's a human species, how is it not human" or, "Why do we differentiate between 'having human parents and human DNA' and 'having some other mysterious quality which develops at an unknown time in the womb, therefore adding a moral quality to the fetus?"

thanks again. Looking forward to continued dialogue, Language Guy!

6:48 PM

Blogger Nikki Moore said...

Blast. Won't let me edit posts. Please read my third paragraph as:

Does that make more sense with my sloppiness (hopefully) removed? I guess the underlying question could be restated: "If it's a human species, how is it not human" or, "Why do we differentiate between 'having human parents and human DNA' and 'having some other mysterious moral quality which develops at an unascertained time in the womb?'"

My apologies.

6:50 PM

Blogger goodgardener said...

Speaking of language: How can an unplanned pregnancy be "a surprise" since it is the direct result of a deliberate act? Nor can a pregnancy be an accident. "Oh, excuse me for being so clumsy as to spill my sperm all over your egg!" Come on, no one is that clumsy.
And, to say that a fetus or embro is not a viable life or a human being because it cannot live outside of the womb is ridiculous. The fetus or embry is obviously doing very well in the environment created specifically for it, just as you are doing very well in the evironment created for you. Remove the fetus from its natural environment and it will most likely die. Remove you from your natural environment and you will most likely die. (how long can you hold your breath?
And... "Right to choose" Why should a woman have any more right to choose who lives and who is to die than anyone else? She should have every right to choose whether she becomes pregnant, but having made that choice or putting that choice in jeopardy, her right to choose ends when it affects someone else's right to live.
I would defend any woman's right to petition the court for an order to terminate a wrongful pregnancy (one which she did not incurr as a willing participant) or to terminate a pregnancy in which the invited fetus turns vicious and threatens harm to its host. In a wrongful pregnancy the woman has been the object of a criminal act and the perpetrator should be penalized. In the second example the fetus itself is behaving in a criminal manner and should be either corrected and rehabilitated or expelled.

7:03 PM

Blogger Evil Smile said...

On an unrelated note, please visit evilsmile17.blogspot.com. Otherwise a zombie debate team will set apon and devour you. Then they will debate the morality of eating your brains and the rights of zombies.

7:56 PM

Blogger Larry Kollar said...

Goodgardner, as expected, conveniently overlooks the fact “it takes two to tango” — in other words, the usual assumption that since the woman is pregnant, it’s her problem.

Another convenient oversight: birth control can fail.

Ah well, another “life begins at conception and ends at birth” type. Nothing to see here, move on.

9:10 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Wow! you are suave, too.

11:48 PM

Blogger Rick said...

Too tired trying to finish my metaphysics issue summary on the problem of universals to share with you my "issue". But I will be sure to send you what I consider to be the "WILDEST" string of words to ever be called a sentence that I have ever seem in my life.

All I remember right now is the word exemplify about 50 times in the paragraph.

I'm curious what you have to say because you are a philosopher and a linguist.



2:05 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Hero's Cousin says: I guess the underlying question could be restated: "If it's a human species, how is it not human" or, "Why do we differentiate between 'having human parents and human DNA' and 'having some other mysterious quality which develops at an unknown time in the womb, therefore adding a moral quality to the fetus?"

The key here is that having dna does not make one a human given how we normally think about what it means to be a human. Imagine what properties you would have said an entity must have to be A human were the abortion issue never to have arisen. I suspect that these properties would have excluded the foetus from being a human.

7:40 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

The whole abortion issue has been argued (argh!) to death. I bet I can discuss abortion using far less words: abortion, baby, fetus, choice, pro-life, fanatic, christian, baby killer.

A question: Do other or primitive cultures(you know what I mean) use abortion as a political soapbox issue?

9:54 AM

Blogger johana said...

"I would defend any woman's right to petition the court for an order to terminate a... pregnancy in which the invited fetus turns vicious and threatens harm to its host."

Clearly this is a person who has never been pregnant... ; )

Seriously though- as for petitioning a court- how long would this process take? Hours? Days? Weeks? Months perhaps? If a woman discovers at 18 weeks that if she goes through with her pregnancy she will die in childbirth but if she terminates immediately she will live without having murdered a sentient being on the verge of being able to survive outside the womb, should she be forced to wait for a court order to ok the procedure?

I believe that sentient life is sacred and needs to be preserved rather than the potential for sentient life- hence I'm pro-choice.

Potential for life is beyond definition. Is masturbating murder? Ovulation? Castration? I'm not being deliberately factitious but it can become a teeny bit ridiculous. There is scientific evidence about when cognitive brain activity, rather than reflex activity begins. It's really late and I can't be bothered looking it up right now but that seems to be a good place to put the line in the sand for now...

12:49 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

VERy Nice Blog


5:39 PM

Blogger Right to Life of Michigan said...

Does how we "normally think about what it means to be human" determine whether the unborn are human organisms or not?

For example, many people in the South in the 1700's thought the color of one's skin was a factor in how they thought about what it means to be human. Did that change the objective fact of what a human being is or isn't? I think not.

Isn't whether the unborn are human organisms a question for biology and not a question about "how we feel?"

9:34 AM

Blogger Yewtree said...

My five eggs: to all those who said it's the woman's responsibility that she got pregnant. What about if she was raped? (Like the 12-year-old who was raped and Dan Quayle said she should go through with the pregnancy.) Also, what about abortions for medical reasons - i.e. where carrying the baby to term could be fatal for the woman? And then there's the vexed issue of what to do if the child's quality of life would be severely diminished by some major birth defect? (Where does one draw the line on that one, since it also involves issues like prejudice against the disabled.)

Personally I believe in reincarnation so I don't think that a pregnancy is a person's one and only opportunity to experience life - but I do think that abortion should not be used as a substitute for contraception. And that men should take more responsibility.

8:07 AM

Blogger uglygirl said...

I discovered this site very late, and i just want to put my take on abortion in here as everyone else. In india, abortion is legal. but till now so was sex-detection devices.so indians fathers and the family would force the mother to abort if the foetus was a female one.(i said fathers, cos i assume that women in these situations have no choice and little say)
so now sex-detection has become illegal(or going to become).

9:40 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

jivinj raised a good question: Is it a matter of how we feel, or what we happen to think makes us human? Is "being human" a biological fact, or is it a social construct?

Many have suggested that it is the qualities we enjoy which makes us human--qualities which foetuses do not possess. Mary Anne Warren, in a 1997 article, suggests six: sentience (having conscious experience), emotionality, reason, communication, self-awareness, and moral agency. And these are certainly characteristics which we might point to as a part of what it means to be human (yet perhaps not an exhaustive list).

The problem, as is oft pointed out, is that this list excludes small infants, mentally ill, or mentally retarded persons from the class of things "human." That seems to be a HUGE problem for that approach to the definition.

The other question that arises: does this mean that a robot which was developed with such qualities as sentience, emotionality, reason, communication, self-awareness, and moral agency would have to be regarded as human?

It seems that, while these qualities may describe the human experience, they do not, by themselves, clearly distinguish the class of things rightfully called "human."


11:58 AM


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