Friday, February 8, 2013

Argument from Bodily Autonomy

Before people read this post and assuming my stance, perhaps reading my moderate position might be handy.


There is no other hotbed issue an ethicist could talk about in the US that as a moral philosopher we might all rather ignore in the Intro to Ethics classroom. Having taught ethics before, I can assure you everyone has a moral intuition about the status of a fetus, and there is no other issue more safeguarded by one's female colleagues than the right to decide one's own biological destiny. This topic can be very personal. Often, the very reaction it elicits borders on fanaticism in both the pro-choice and pro-life camps. Furthermore, abortion is the cultural litmus test of partisan membership in either the Republican or Democratic Party in the United states. The only exception, it seems, is the Catholic Democrat whose opinion on social justice sees Christ as dismantling an oppressive power structure of Rome as one might apply his teaching to oppose capitalism and favor redistributive efforts. Even then, the Catholic Democrat is typically against abortion. As Christ's teaching are taken to protect the vulnerable, the poor and the weak, certainly it follows that a fetus is prima facie vulnerable.

The argument from bodily autonomy is a favorite amongst those that most justifies the permissibility of aborting fetuses. While it is hard to belive that Judith Jarvis Thomson invented the thought experiment that invented the position, her violinist thought experiment has inspired its defense in a creative way.

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you (J. J. Thomson's Violinist thought experiment)

From this thought experiment, let me construct what I think is the Sophisticated Argument from Bodily Autonomy supported by the previous thought experiment. Most objections to Thomson show rightly, I imagine, that her thought experiment is disanalogous in many ways. For instance, Mary Anne Warren clearly shows that the analogy of the violinist is only

1. All human beings have a right to life (including the fetus).
2. If a human being grows into a mature adult with sufficient practical reason, then the autonomous use of that mature human beings practical reason is the source of determination for that person.
3. Autonomy confers value on our actions and is the condition for being a person.
4. Even with the right to life, the fetus does not have a right to the use of a female's body. If the fetus did have the right to use of the female's body, then it would violate 2.
5. If the fetus has a right to life, then its right to life conflicts with the claim of a mature autonomous female to be the source of determining her own ends.
6. Given the conflict, the right of bodily autonomy trumps the fetus's claim to 1.
7. By extension, therefore, any hindrance of autonomy restricts the value-conferring action capacity and condition for her to be a person.

The real question is what even the best version of the argument regards about abortion. Abortion advocates concede the right to life of the fetus. Admittedly, I think that's where the debate starts on both sides. Many pro-life activists want to conclude that the fetus has a right to life, and then stop the debate there. However, it's not clear that's what either party should want from morality. Morality is to inform us about our duties in cases when there are two persons with competing claims. In this case, the exercise of autonomy is argued as being more valuable than the fetus's right to life. Why is that?

The exercise of autonomy is what it means to be a person, and be part of what Kant called the Kingdom of Ends. The Kingdom of Ends is what appears in a milder form of premise 1 above. Having a right to life indicates that we start with the assumption that all human beings have an intrinsic value, and that being so valuable, all human beings are taken into account in moral considerations. Kant assumed, like defender of the Argument from Bodily Autonomy, that the development of the person matters in one direction. Only beings that grow "into a mature adult with sufficient practical reason" are capable of determining their own ends. Only autonomous people are capable of being worthy of moral consideration. In this way, I think the proponent of the Bodily Argument position cannot help but inherit some of the same problems Kant inherits.

First, the abortion case is unfairly stacked. Fetuses will develop autonomy, but they do not have it yet. Therefore, they are a marginal case in the same way that developmentally disabled people stand outside of full moral consideration permanently in Kantian ethics. As a matter of prudence, we do not kill off the disabled when they are part of our lives already in the world, but we decide matters about their care that require autonomy they might not have depending on how developmentally-challenged a person might be. In this way, developmentally-challenged people can be half-persons, three-quarter persons or not persons at all. Similarly, the fact that fetuses are not yet autonomous we rob them of that possible autonomy by justifying their termination early because their possible autonomy taken as a right to life impedes the present autonomy of the mother. Yet, the present autonomy of the mother is no more of a relevant moral property than the fetus's potential autonomy. Possible moral properties weigh on our decisions all the time as much as present ones. It's only that the pro-abortionist advocates a conception of morality that favors wholly autonomous beings over those that will someday be autonomous.

Second, the reason why the fetus stands outside of full moral consideration is that the transition between 5 and 6 above still relies on the lesser sophisticated assumption that women can use their bodies as they see fit. Being a person is being autonomous with one's body. In this way, the bodily autonomy suggestion makes all experiences of the body equal in moral consideration. Abortions become morally neutral in the same way that one might say a haircut is morally neutral. Yet, it is never the case that morality requires full bodily autonomy. The expectations of any community are that I not use my body in certain ways. It would be unhealthy for me to start cutting my skin with knife. The authorities would be justified in impeding my autonomy and calling for an evaluation of my pscyhic health. Additionally, tt would be wrong for me to go naked exposing myself to others in my community. As such, the claim that I can use my body as one sees fit defies the expectations of being part of a community. We accept as being part of a community certain restrictions on how we can determine the use of our own bodies and more generally how autonomous we can be.

Third, while I have trouble with the Argument from Bodily Autonomy, I cannot help but be skeptical about the assumptions it makes about morality. The role morality plays in autonomy-based ethics is not what I want from morality at all. I do not want autonomy to be the final arbiter of claims between persons as much as I want morality to protect the vulnerable, dependent and weak. Their will be times even when fully-developed persons conflict with each other over competing rights, and in that case, we cannot simply respect both persons as autonomous end-setters. Instead, something more will be needed from morality. Let me propose to you what I think morality is and how it ought to function.

Morality is the set of self-other relations that prescribe what we ought to do and not do to others. Kantians, feminist libertarians, or feminists appealing to a principle of autonomy, are committed to this view of morality as am I. However, that's where it ends for the others and not for me. Morality should also account for marginal cases that get missed in the autonomy-perspective. The fetus is one such case only for a short time, and to be fair, the language of "marginal cases" only applies to the logic of autonomy-based perspective if we keep to such a perspective. Let me be clear. I do not think we should keep to that perspective alone.

The dependency of children upon parents and society is not new. We cannot ignore how the vulnerability of the fetus and the dependency of children matter in the search for our own duties. It's not as if the dependency of children and vulnerability of the fetus are new to the human condition. Instead, morality is about fostering a world in which the vulnerability of others is wholly internalized in the search for what my duties are to others and to myself. In addition, I am a committed constrained pluralist in which the fact that moral situations exhibit a claim of vulnerability.

Moreover, the want for bodily autonomy could be a desire to remove the reproductive burden of females. Abortion, birth control and condoms liberate, but they are not morally equally. Abortion kills a viable fetus; birth control and condoms prevent pregnancy. Unfortunately, a biological fact does exist that makes females responsible for the reproductive burden of the species. Some feminists in conversation with me have desired the full removal of this burden through uses of technology and time will tell. However, the fact that these technologies liberate women somewhat from the reproductive burden of the species does not mean they are morally equal in their liberating function.

Finally, I do want to say what I have not claimed. I have not argued for an exceptionless commitment against abortion. Instead, I have called into question the argument from bodily autonomy as a poor argument. To recap, let me summarize these objections again. A) Within the autonomy-perspective, the autonomy perspective cannot account for marginal cases very easily. B) The existence of marginal cases prompts an intuition that morality is more about the expression of human vulnerability than the autonomy-perspective can. C) Appeals to autonomy phenomenologically distort the moral relevance of abortions to other exercises of bodily autonomy we find unproblematic. C) is by far the biggest flaw.

If you wish to comment on this thread, then be aware that I am not interested in people that react emotionally to the topic. If your comment is incapable of deductive reasoning, rigor and decent writing, I will not publish it. This is one of those rare times where I would only like to talk to philosophers about this issue.


choiceone said...

A zygote can be made in a petri dish and grown into a morula and blastocyst, but it will die if it does not implant in a live body of a born and developed member of its species.

We can double a blastocyst's natural maximum pre-implantation life span by using a scientific supernutrient in the petri dish. While it is illegal to grow a human blastocyst for longer than 14 days, the human blastocyst's own life span is 8-10 days and could be extended to 16-20 days.
It implants in the woman's uterine wall to share in her life in order not to die naturally.

The blastocyst invades the bodily tissue of the woman. It uses some of her tissue to make an organ that cloaks the blastocyst as a parasite is cloaked to avoid detection by the woman's immune attack T-cells, which, on detecting it, attack the organ and the blastocyst to disimplant them.

The blastocyst/embryo directs that organ to produce an enzyme that starves the local attack T-cells of the woman's immune system so that they have to go into latency to survive and cannot protect her against viruses. Her blood complement also attacks, but cannot effectively disimplant them.

The blastocyst/embryo causes the organ to redirect the woman's bloodstream to allow the embryo to take oxygen, nutrients, and antibodies out of the woman's blood.

The blastocyst/embryo also causes the woman to become addicted to a particular hormone. It dumps its waste into the woman's blood and leaks its cells and isolated chromosomes into that blood increasingly across the pregnancy and massively in childbirth. Alien chromosomes stay in her blood as long as 25 years and can make her liable to potentially lethal diseases.

If you or I did what the blastocyst/embryo does, we would be arrested, charged, tried, and convicted for assault. And because it does some of this in a sex organ of a human being, the charge could be sexual assault.

Any number of states allow a person who believes another is threatening sexual assault or who is actually being assaulted to use lethal force if necessary to prevent/stop that assault. They allow a third party to use such force if necessary, too.

If a blastocyst/embryo is taken to have become part of the woman's body, no one will care if she ends the pregnancy by induced abortion.
But suppose the blastocyst/embryo has the legal status of person. The woman did not agree to its use of force to do all those things to her sex organ and immune system. If she consented to sex, she agreed to let a man put part of his body in her. But this embryo is a different person who does different things to her body and must obtain a separate consent, which it cannot do until it exists. If it doesn't, it is committing serious crimes.

As it has no mind, it can't know right from wrong. That is also the case with legally insane rapists and sexual assaulters, but as long as they are committing rape or sexual assault, their victims and third parties can use lethal force to stop those acts.

You can argue that this is immoral, but I'm tired of all the fetus fetishers. Liberty is as important as life. We do not know whether or not having liberty depends upon having life, but we do know that when mentally competent, conscious persons are deprived of liberty, their lives are hardly worth living. Do you really think women are so different from Patrick Henry?

Carbondale Chasmite said...

You are mistaken in the use of analogical reasoning. You've given an analogy in which you think of a blastocyst as an invader and contrasted this idiotic analogy as a threat to personal liberty of the woman to the point where a pregnant woman is "deprived of liberty." I do not think pregnant women are under threat from the function of their own bodies anymore than tooth decay from sugar is enamel genocide. Not only is this metaphor wrongly placed, I cannot begin to see how it relates to the post at hand except to say that it illustrates the dis-analogous perceptions of those people that invoke tenets of the Argument from Bodily Autonomy. Instead of autonomy, you invoke concerns about personal liberty from the threatening force of the blastocyst itself. I must say. That's a new one.

I criticized the Argument from Bodily Autonomy. I did not criticize abortion itself. And, I have come to rethink my defense of abortion's permissibility in the long run as many arguments used to justify its practice suffer from some bad arguments.

Kevin said...

So, if a woman has autonomous right to her body, and is holding a rope that holds a person from falling, doesn't that mean she has the right to let go and allow the person to drop to his death? The key that is missing is that we are a social group, and can not recon meaningful moral outcomes without considering relational consequences. Morality does not even exist apart from relationships!

Carbondale Chasmite said...

Okay, Kevin:

There are a few things going on in your post. First, let's tackle the fact that you said that morality does not even exist apart from relationships. I don't have enough information about what you mean to infer what that really means. I will say that I think morality is about actions people take in self-other relationships. Certainly, we can agree on that.

Secondly, what does it mean to reckon meaningful moral outcomes without considering relational consequences? Is this a utilitarian commitment on your part. If so, then I am unsure about what you are asking here that pertains to social groups. I will not infer what you mean here either.

Again, I will say that a woman or a man do not have absolute autonomy over their body such that they can do whatever they want with their body as they wish. Clearly, there are laws that regulate the time and place where I can be somewhere, and what I can do with my body.

Lastly, I do not know what your imagined scenario is trying to motivate for discussion. I do not think your example is analogous to pregnancy anymore than Thomson's violinist. I was pretty clear in the post why I think this.

Kevin said...

I can see I wasn't clear. I am in agreement with your analysis, though I did miss part of what you said. What I was trying to add is that it seems the key to the discussion is to define what the relationship should be between the woman and the embryo. If the embryo is considered a person then it seems straightforward that there is a social obligation to preserving the embryo's life (other factors aside).

However, the argument I hear more often is that the embryo is not a person. Aside from what faults this argument may or may not have, such an argument ignores the simple fact that a woman who willingly has sexual intercourse has an obligation to a resulting embryo because this is the natural operation of her body.