VDB-NOBIS abortion discussion (round 9): My reply to Nathan Nobis’s reply of January 23, 2021
I. Introductory comments
I appreciate Dr. Nathan Nobis for his patient interaction with me. Even though we have some deep and ongoing disagreements in our discussion, I believe we are modelling how to engage in respectful, truth-seeking discourse. This is important—and good.
Some background to get our bearings:
- Dr. Nathan Nobis co-authored a book published in June 2019.
- Both Nobis and I had articles on abortion published in August 2019 in a pro-con forum at Political Animal Magazine (Nobis’s article was an excerpt of his earlier book).
- I published a book in October 2020 (in which I criticize some of what Nobis and his co-author wrote in their book).
- In November 2020 Nobis wrote a review of my book.
- In late December 2020 I provided some replies to Nobis’s review.
- On January 1, 2021, Nobis provided a response to my replies.
- On January 23, 2021, I provided a response to Nobis’s response.
- Later on January 23, 2021, Nobis provided a response to my response.
- What follows is my response to Nobis’s latest response.
Concerning Nobis’s and my last “round” (round 8), I’ll respond with some comments on (1) the notion of analogy vis-à-vis Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist, (2) the substance view, and (3) risk. In a postscript I’ll suggest a reading (i.e., one of my recent articles based on a chapter of my book) on a topic that I hope abortion-choice proponents and opponents can agree (in the article I argue that the claim abortion is essential health care is false).
II. The notion of analogy vis-à-vis Thomson’s violinist
In view of Nobis’s clarification of analogies and how they work, I think Nobis and I are not really disagreeing about the kind of reasoning that Judith Jarivs Thomson is using in her essay “A Defense of Abortion.” The second view or “approach” to analogies set out by Nobis seems very much to be what philosopher Trudy Govier calls an a priori analogy, which I described in my last reply, and which I think is the structure of Thomson’s argument. I’ll leave it to readers to compare what Nobis has written about his second approach to analogies with what Govier says about a priori analogies (as I have written). Again, I think Nobis and I are not really disagreeing here. This means, contrary to what Nobis suggests, that I do not misunderstand how to think about analogies when I say that Thomson is arguing via a priori analogies and doing so fallaciously.
(BTW: When Thomson describes the violinist scenario as an analogy, she also describes the scenario of your favorite celebrity not touching your head to save your life as an analogy. Thomson describes these as analogies; it’s not just me.)
I agree with Nobis that Thomson’s fictional scenarios are, as Nobis points out, “useful cases to develop and confirm the insight that the right to life is not the right to everything someone needs to live, even if that requires the use of someone else’s body.” But—and I think Nobis continues to miss this—the problem is that Thomson’s cases are at the get-go not analogous in crucially important and relevant senses to pregnancy and abortion, which are the primary subjects of Thomson’s argument. (Thomson’s fictional cases are the analogs, and pregnancy and abortion are the primary subjects. In analogical reasoning in general, and in a priori analogies in particular, the analogs are set out to provide insights about the primary subject.)
Because Thomson’s cases are not relevantly similar to pregnancy and abortion, the “insight” or principle that’s generated by Thomson’s cases (analogs) ends up being question-begging on a massive scale. Thomson’s cases fail to reflect the relevant and actual goings-on in pregnancy and abortion, and as a result the cases assume as settled that which is at issue.
Let me clarify. Nobis uses William Paley’s famous watch analogy, which Paley employs to infer a designer of the world, to illustrate analogical argumentation. Here I will illustrate the problem with Thomson’s analogical argumentation. The problem with Thomson’s argument from analogy is that its analogs, which generate the insights (or principles), are faulty. Consider this: A fictional atheist, let’s call him Ricardo Parmenides-Dawkins, tries to argue against the existence of a designer of the world (the world is the primary subject) by using (instead of a watch analog) the analog of a fictitious eternal unchanging stone which has no parts that work together.
According to Parmenides-Dawkins, the stone analog generates this insight/ principle: If an object always has no parts working together for a purpose (that is, it isn’t a “teleological system”), then it’s probably not designed. Parmenides-Dawkins then applies this principle (gotten from the never-changing stone analog) to the world (his primary subject) to conclude that the world isn’t designed. Critical thinkers (whether believers or atheists or whatever) should reply as follows: “Hey, that argument by analogy is faulty because the analog (the eternal unchanging stone) used to generate the insight/ principle is relevantly and hugely dissimilar to the primary subject (the world) at the very start!” That is, the eternal unchanging stone (the analog) has no parts working together at all, but the world (the primary subject) does. In other words, what’s at issue (how to account for the working parts of the world/ primary subject) is assumed in the analog (which has no working parts) and thereby the argument ends up using its atheistic-analog-generated principle to draw an atheistic conclusion about the world, but this is to engage in question-begging. (In logic to beg a question is to assume as established that which is at issue.)
See the problem? Thomson’s fictitious analog—the violinist—is similarly problematic at the get-go. Note: It’s not problematic to use fictitious analogs, but it is problematic if the fictitious analogs have hugely relevant dissimilarities to the primary subject.
To achieve clarity on the (similar) problems with Thomson’s violinist and other analogies, permit me to quote again from my book (a note on page 83):
Thomson writes: “You wake up in a hospital, ‘plugged in’ to a famous violinist, who needs to use your kidneys to stay alive. You were kidnapped for this purpose. If you unplug, he will die. But it’s only for nine months.” Thomson’s idea is that even if the unborn human being were a person, abortion is permissible morally, just as you aren’t morally obligated to remain hooked up to the violinist to sustain his life. But, as many critics have (rightly) pointed out, Thomson’s analogy is faulty—terribly faulty. Getting pregnant is (typically) not like rape. That is, getting pregnant is not like being forced to get “plugged in” to a violinist, famous or not. Also, to unplug or detach the violinist is not like hiring someone to directly kill the violinist by poisoning him, ripping off his limbs, crushing his skull, or shredding him via a suction machine, which is what abortion does. Rather, the violinist’s death is caused by the kidney ailment, not your or your doctor’s direct killing action. And keep in mind that “Euphemistically calling abortion the ‘withholding of support or treatment’ makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen” (Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, 133). Also, the violinist is a stranger, to whom one does not have a moral obligation to provide life-sustaining care, unlike the special moral duties parents have to care for their children. In her article Thomson attempts to address these sorts of issues by setting out other analogies, but they are terribly faulty, too. According to Thomson, if you opened a window and someone blundered or fell into your house, you don’t have a moral obligation to let them use your house, so, similarly, abortion is permissible. But, as critics (rightly) point out, it’s a different story—one more analogous to pregnancy—if by opening the window you knowingly pulled (or risked pulling) an innocent person into your house. So it would be morally outrageous to kill the innocent person you pulled into your house. Also, according to Thomson, if “people seeds” floated into your living room carpet (which is required for their gestation) and they began to sprout into persons even though you tried to keep them out (via fine-meshed screens/contraceptives), you wouldn’t be morally obligated to sustain them. But, as critics (rightly) point out, if you actually planted the people seeds by engaging in a planting activity (while knowing that screens/ contraceptives are not 100% foolproof), you would be morally obligated not to kill them.
The reason you would be morally obligated not to kill them is that they are persons. And persons have the right to life, which is, at minimum, the right not to be killed—especially if they haven’t done anything wrong, and especially if you are responsible for their existence, vulnerability, and dependence.
The main argument in my book that’s relevant here, i.e., relevant to Thomson’s violinist argument where the fetus is a person, is on page 82 of my book. I’ll repeat it here, because it’s important and seems to be not understood:
Objection: Okay, the unborn human being is a person, but just as nobody has a right to my kidney to ensure his/her survival, abortion is morally permissible because I’m not morally obligated to sustain another person with my body.
Reply: Yes, I agree that at least this much is true: If you lost the function of your kidneys, then you wouldn’t have the moral right to force me to donate one of my kidneys to you, nor would I have the moral obligation to donate one of my kidneys to you. And if I lost the function of my kidneys, then I wouldn’t have the moral right to force you to donate one of your kidneys to me, nor would you have the moral obligation to donate one of your kidneys to me. But these truths are not analogous in any relevant way to the situation in pregnancy. It’s a faulty analogy, in other words. The situation in pregnancy is more like this: My life depends on a kidney you’ve voluntarily given me, i.e., you’ve consented to giving me the kidney by deliberately engaging in and willfully permitting the action that put the life-giving kidney in me (a kidney you can live without), but now you want to take it back—and doing so will kill me. See the difference? Yes, one is not morally obligated to sustain another human being via kidney transplants/ donations, but one is morally obligated not to cause the death of another human being by taking away what she requires to sustain her life—even if it was your kidney. It’s one thing for someone who needs a kidney to die because of a kidney ailment, but it’s quite another thing to rip out kidneys from another person and thereby kill that person. Abortion is like the latter case: it deliberately kills a person (often by poisoning, ripping off limbs, crushing the skull, etc.).
In other words, freely giving your kidney (which you can live without) to a vulnerable, dependent person (a person whose vulnerable, dependent state you’ve also created, by the way) so the other person can live is like—analogous to—pregnancy (in non-rape cases); tearing out from that person the kidney you’ve donated to him/her and which thereby kills that other person because you’ve changed your mind about your previously-freely-made decision to donate is like—analogous to—abortion.
So persons indeed do have a moral right to what was someone else’s kidney, if they need that kidney to live AND if one (the donor) has already, in a fully-informed manner, engaged in freely giving/ donating one’s kidney to the person in question (and the donation isn’t a physical threat to the life of the donor). Ditto for human fetuses—which we and Thomson concede are persons—and the biological systems gifted/ donated to them also freely and in a fully-informed manner.
Again, it seems to me that repossessing a donated kidney in the important sense that the biological systems gifted/ donated freely and in a fully-informed manner and are now being ripped away is like—is analogous to— aborting a human fetus, which we and Thomson concede are persons. By ripping the fetus out of his/ her life-sustaining environment we are (from the fetus’s perspective) ripping away the biological systems that were freely gifted to the fetus by the donor/ parent in a fully-informed manner. This is not a case of merely declining to sustain a person’s life for whom you have no responsibility and who has no moral claims on you. Rather, it’s a case of killing a person — your son or daughter whom you’ve created to be in a vulnerable and dependent state — by ripping away the necessary life-lines (some of which do the work of kidneys) you gave him/her in the first place; AND it’s not just ripping away the life-lines, it’s also a case of poisoning that person (by the abortionist’s needle) or tearing off that person’s limbs (by the abortionist’s suction machine) or perhaps crushing that person’s skull (by the abortionist’s forceps). The tearing out of a donated kidney is like—is analogous to—abortion, though abortion is much worse. Thomson’s cases assume this is not the case and thus are question-begging, i.e., assuming as established what is at issue.
All this to say that Thomson’s insight that the right to life is not the right to everything someone needs to live, even if that requires the use of someone else’s body is appropriate in the violinist scenario, but it does not justify poisoning, dismembering, and crushing another person, which is what abortion does (remember that Thomson assumes, for argument’s sake, that the human fetus is a person, and remember that Thomson is attempting to use the violinist scenario as a defense of abortion). The analog used to generate Thomson’s insight as a defense of abortion is faulty—terribly faulty.
In my book I appeal to a view that’s often called (as Nobis points out) “The Substance View.” On this view there is new substance that results from sperm-egg fusion: it’s a new, living, genetically distinct, self-governing whole individual entity that belongs to the human species—it’s a human being—and has great moral worth.
Nobis wishes to cast doubt onto that view, so he encourages readers to take a look at Don Marquis’s review of Christopher Kaczor’s book The Ethics of Abortion, a review in which Marquis criticizes Kaczor’s substance view. I think Nobis’s suggestion is a good idea. It’s good to look at the criticisms of a view. But I would also encourage readers to read the second edition of Kaczor’s book. Why? Because Marquis’s review is of the first edition of Kaczor’s book, but in the second edition Kaczor responds to critics of the first edition—critics such as Don Marquis. Critical thinkers should be aware of this.
(Christopher Kaczor’s recent book Disputes in Bioethics, especially his chapters on speciesism and on human dignity, may also be helpful.)
Nobis also sets out links to various academic journal articles on the substance view, articles that are critical of the view and articles that defend the view. I appreciate the links. Though I do side with the substance view (because I think it is more accurate and makes better sense than competing views), it’s good to be aware of the scholarly disagreement.
Critical thinkers should also be aware of the defense of the substance view set out in the 2018 book by Samuel B. Condic (a philosopher) and Maureen L. Condic (a neurobiologist): Human Embryos, Human Beings: A Scientific and Philosophical Approach.
Again, I agree with Nobis that it’s good to look at the criticisms of a view. It’s good to look at pros and cons. Doing so helps us get a better understanding of the issues at hand and, hopefully, closer to truth.
Also, having a look at criticisms and counter-criticisms helps us be aware of the fact that there is disagreement. This disagreement is significant for the abortion issue, as will become clear in the next section on risk.
I’ll just re-iterate what I’ve called (in our earlier discussion) my Hugely Important Point, so it doesn’t get lost in Nobis’s and my ongoing discussion. If we’re going to kill a human being (and we know it’s a human being) and there’s reasonable disagreement about that human being’s status as a person (and there is reasonable disagreement in the discussion about abortion; see previous section, see previous “rounds” in the VDB-Nobis discussion, plus see pro-life and pro-choice books by other philosophers), I think it’s wise that we err on the side of not killing. As I point out repeatedly in my book, “If we aren’t sure whether a body is dead, we shouldn’t bury it. And if we aren’t sure whether what is moving in the bushes is a hunter or a deer, then we shouldn’t shoot it.”
V. Concluding comments
I hope my comments are helpful in promoting careful thinking about abortion. Again, I appreciate Dr. Nobis for our thoughtful and respectful discussion! I hope that one day (after COVID) Dr. Nobis’s and my paths will cross so he and I could continue our discussion over a coffee or beer—or over several beers and then some coffee.
In recent months I have noticed that the claim “abortion is essential health care” has been popular in mainstream media and has even been stated by U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. I think that when it comes to abortion in general, the claim—that abortion is essential health care—is false. And I think that abortion-choice opponents and proponents can agree on this. For further thought on this topic, I suggest the following article (it’s one of my recent articles based on a chapter of my book): “Is abortion really ‘essential health care’?”
Hendrik van der Breggen
Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired philosophy professor who lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada. Hendrik is author of the book Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments: Critical Thinking about Abortion, available at Amazon.