A look at a major New York Times article
On December 28, 2018, the New York Times published a 13,500-word article attributed to its editorial board. A momentous question underlying this article almost receives the recognition it deserves from the authors. In the third paragraph they say this much about the question: a deep shift in American society, away from a centuries-long tradition in Western law and toward the embrace of a relatively new concept: that a fetus in the womb has the same rights as a fully formed person. But the article is titled only “A Woman’s Rights” – nothing about the fetus or its rights – and except for one incongruous sentence near the end, perhaps added for token purposes, this long attack on fetal personhood nowhere directly addresses the question: Is the unborn, fully-formed or not, in fact a person, and thus entitled to rights?
In terms of any direct examination, the question remains an elephant in the room throughout the article.
But the article strongly suggests that the unborn child is actually a zero as regards moral importance. According to the authors, the editorial board, any ostensible belief in fetal personhood is mainly a ruse to mask social reaction . . . to a perceived new permissiveness in the 1970s.
If that is true, then of course the only concern for anyone that the “new concept” really involves is erod[ing] the existing rights of . . . women, and it hardly requires 13,500 words to prove that. Though I strongly advocate anti-abortion laws, if I thought that the unborn was a zero, I too would find it abhorrent to tell women what they can do with their bodies. And if the unborn child is actually a zero, then the abortion issue is not complex or sensitive, and any laws designed to protect the unborn are nothing but the unnecessary and inexcusable headache for women that the article portrays them to be.
Social reaction . . . to a perceived new permissiveness in the 1970s can only be an allusion to a tired and desperate theory (perhaps itself sometimes a ruse), popular among pro-choice feminists, that goes like this: Uptight personalities don’t like it when women enjoy sexual intercourse, so, since they cannot punish them all, they wish at least to punish those who stumble into an unwanted pregnancy, by making them endure what they don’t want. This is supposedly the main reason that anyone opposes the gruesome slaughter of an innocent unborn child.
But let’s just directly ask the question that the article consistently sidesteps: Is the unborn in fact a person?
That the same harm – the same loss of a good – is caused to even a zygote or early embryo, if we kill it, as to a born person, can be shown, in a way that is perfectly satisfying to thoughtful secularists, by an argument that is usually attributed to Don Marquis. We owe much gratitude to Marquis for the most precise and thorough formulation of the argument so far, but actually the essence of the argument has been present for a long time in Indian philosophy, and was also stated perfectly, sixty years before Marquis was born, by pro-life feminist Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to declare her candidacy for the US presidency.
Following the logic of that argument, personhood is ultimately semantics, a fight over definitions, but in the context of a proposal to kill any organism, the most morally-relevant definition of “person” would be: “any organism which, if you kill it, will be deprived of the conscious human life (or equivalently conscious non-human life) that it would likely have had.”
Another argument that has convinced many people of the humanity of the unborn is the equal-rights argument used by the Equal Rights Institute.
So yes, a fetus is, in fact, a person and a full-fledged member of our human family, in the ways that are most morally relevant when abortion is considered.
In the early 1940’s, when the possibility of an atomic bomb was becoming clear to scientists, some people may have said, “If uranium 235 is fissile, that may have negative consequences for many people. Therefore uranium 235 is not fissile.”
And today there are people saying in effect, “If a fetus is a person, that may have negative consequences for pregnant women who would like to make themselves unpregnant or hire someone to make them unpregnant or behave as if they are not pregnant with a vulnerable little person. Therefore a fetus is not a person.”
But obviously when we need to make a correct ontological evaluation of anything, the way to do it is not to base it on any possible negative consequences for some group of people. There may be many ways to deal with the possible negative consequences of any truth, but first we have to embrace any truth that is clearly true, and then deal with the consequences.
Following the new concept: that a fetus in the womb has the same rights as a fully formed person lines, the article continues:
This idea has now worked its way into federal and state regulations and the thinking of police officers and prosecutors. As it has done so, it’s begun not only to extend rights to clusters of cells that have not yet developed into viable human beings, but also to erode the existing rights of a particular class of people — women. . . .
Because of the newly fortified conservative majority on the Supreme Court, such laws are likely to multiply . . .
Suppose we were to read instead an article like this:
a deep shift in American society, away from a centuries-long tradition in Western law and toward the embrace of a relatively new concept: that a black person / woman has the same rights as a white man.
This idea has now worked its way into federal and state regulations and the thinking of police officers and prosecutors. As it has done so, it’s begun not only to extend rights to black persons / women, but also to erode the existing rights of a particular class of people — white men . . . .
Because of the newly fortified conservative majority on the Supreme Court, such laws are likely to multiply . . .
Do you get the point? Progress toward equality and inclusiveness for a previously-marginalized group is something to celebrate, not something to condemn and misrepresent as this reactionary article does! Real progress for our species involves movement toward greater and greater inclusiveness, as one previously-excluded class of people after another becomes included as equals in our human family – though of course this never happens without some loss of privileged status by some other group, and never without opposition by the dinosaurs in society.
I think that in a way, the very appearance of this article should be celebrated; the resources spent on this article seem to indicate a real fear by the dinosaurs that inclusiveness for the unborn is now at hand.
The long-term trend toward ever-greater inclusiveness in human society is something that cannot be stopped. As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The inclusion of the unborn is the last major frontier of civil rights, even if it is the most difficult.
It is a sad fact, of course, that inclusion always has a trade-off and that that will be all the more true when the unborn are the ones included. There is no denying that unborn child-protection laws will make life tougher in some ways for some pregnant women. And it is also true that sometimes the laws are poorly written. Articles such as the Times’s, along with all the misleading stuff they are likely to include, do, in passing, make one valid point: that poorly-written pro-life laws can cause unjustifiable suffering for pregnant women.
However, it is not difficult to formulate intelligently-written pro-life laws that cannot cause such unjustifiable suffering.
The editorial board who wrote this article are either obtuse or dishonest. I have already mentioned their implication that those who champion fetal personhood do not really believe in it – which is overwhelmingly false – and I have already mentioned the elephant in the room. The authors fail ever to confront directly the obvious question right under their noses, and seem to be trying hard to avoid it – which would be a form of intellectual dishonesty. Only in one sentence near the end do the authors address at all whether it is possible that a fetus is, in fact, a person. That sentence is, And it reflects a tragic reality: There are circumstances in which the interests of a fetus and those of a pregnant woman collide. But if the death of a fetus is truly a tragedy, then why the authors’ sly (or unthinking) suggestions to the effect that any “tragedy” is just a ruse employed by neurotic personalities, and that Ronald Reagan was only convinced by cynical “Republican strategists” to deem it a tragedy?
And if the authors really considered unborn deaths to be tragedies, then there would be another question right under their noses, which either it does not occur to them to raise (obtuseness) or which they choose not to raise (duplicity): Even supposing it were true (which it is not) that pro-life laws could not be written more intelligently to avoid injustices against pregnant women, how many unborn lives have been saved – not only spared from some injustice, but saved – by those same laws? They count “several hundred” women who suffered harassment, etc., since 1973. They don’t claim that any of those several hundred died. But within that span of years, entirely unmentioned by them, is the fact that about 60 million unborn children were slaughtered by abortion – a ratio of about 1 incident to 600,000 incidents, without even considering the differing magnitudes of the incidents. How many more unborn children would have died if not for the laws the authors condemn? Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, a million or two? By all indications, the authors could not care less how many babies were saved by those laws – they are willing for it to have been any number – it seems that to them, any number would be irrelevant to their contention that the laws were unjustified.
And why is abortion an explosively emotional issue if it is really accurate that the unborn can be reduced to clusters of cells?
Elsewhere I have provided several more examples that I noticed of falsehoods that the authors have obtusely, or more likely deliberately, spread in their article, and of sloppy logic that they have obtusely, or more likely deliberately, employed.
One effect of what the authors have done will be to scaremonger, and to unduly alarm readers who do not think critically enough.
I am not saying that there is NO cause for sadness or alarm. Whenever there is an unwanted pregnancy, there is rarely going to be a perfectly happy solution. Often the baby loses its life, while the woman loses something psychologically; if the baby’s life is to be preserved, the woman will likely lose something on the material level, while the unwanted baby’s life will be less than perfect; and on top of that, some pro-life laws have no doubt been poorly written. It is imperative to correct the defects in pro-life laws that can cause avoidable suffering for women. But the solution is not to literally throw out the baby with the bathwater.
I said earlier that How the idea of fetal rights gained currency is a story of social reaction . . . to a perceived new permissiveness is “overwhelmingly false.” The most obvious explanation as to why one might treat a fetus as a person is that one actually considers a fetus to be a person. Not only is that the most obvious motivation for treating fetuses as persons, but in my personal acquaintance with many people who do treat fetuses as persons, it is the only motivation I have ever detected.
[Today’s guest post by Acyutananda is part of our paid blogging program.]
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