Tag Archives: pro choice

Absolutist vs. Consequentialist Bullshit

Laurie and Debbie say:

Melissa McEwen at Shakesville recently delivered a very satisfactory smackdown to Richard Dawkins when he decided to discuss his opinions of abortion on Twitter. In this series of tweets, Dawkins said, “My criterion for “relevant to morality of abortion” is standard consequentialist morality. Opponents follow absolutist morality. Simple.”

First, to quote McEwen: “Not only women have uteri, get pregnant, and/or have need of access to abortion.”

McEwen makes (for the hundred thousandth time, because she’s such a wonderful warrior in battlefield of women’s bodily autonomy) numerous important points about why no useful abortion discussion can even take place if the experience of the women carrying the babies is not included. But she goes on to challenge the “absolutist vs. consequentialist” language.

First of all, I want to get these terms out of the way, because I don’t want any bullshit rules-lawyering clouding up this post. Dawkins is claiming to parse a difference between Absolutism (which believes that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of consequence or intent) and Consequentialism (which holds that it is the consequence of an action that makes it ultimately right or wrong). So the built-in troll defense for all of the above is that Dawkins didn’t call pro-choice activists like myself “absolutists” as in extreme left-wingers but rather “absolutists” in the sense that we think women have a right to bodily autonomy because it is a basic human right instead of a contributing factor to the greater good. And that Dawkins’ point of view is the consequentialist view of morality and therefore naturally disposed to come up with a different answer than the absolutists.

She’s not wrong at all, but she missed an important point. Simply by bringing up this “absolutist vs. consequentialist” language, Dawkins is engaging in more than one shoddy arguing technique, and responding to him on his own terms only gives this crap some standing. This particular Twitter argument has already scrolled off the bottom of everyone’s screen, but the underlying style of argument deserves a lot more attention than the people who use it. What he’s doing is called “intellectual fingerfucking” and the only good thing about intellectual fingerfucking is that no one actually gets pregnant; otherwise, the practice varies from wasteful to destructive and this is a destructive version.

First of all, if a woman decides to (or decides not to) have an abortion, she is not sitting down and thinking “Am I being an absolutist or a consequentialist?” She’s thinking (and feeling) some version of “I have this very complicated thing going on in my body, my head, and my heart, and I need to do something about it, because it’s going to affect my whole life.” In other words, she’s having a major life experience (which, by the way, is both absolutely happening to her and fraught with consequences, and she knows both those things, though usually not in that language).

Using technical derailing ethical jargon builds a false context for real issues. By setting things up in this on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand framework and labeling that framework with big intellectual-sounding words, a “pundit” can redefine a very human problem as if it was taking place in some sterile academic atmosphere, rather than being a problem of blood, bone and tissue, heart and mind, real human life and real human risk.

At the same time as this kind of argument falsifies and dehumanizes, it also bullies all kinds of people out of the conversation.

In a recent post on the concept of “stance,” as commonly used in the litmus tests of many evangelical Christian positions, Fred Clark at Slactivist approaches this problem from another perspective:

Doing the right thing — i.e., doing good, loving — is almost always a matter of where we’re choosing to stand and of who we choose to stand beside much more than it is an abstract matter of the rectitude of our stance. This is why the Bible is so belabored and repetitive in its discussion of the weakest, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the least of these — those Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “the quartet of the vulnerable,” meaning “the widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished.”

Who does have time for this garbage? Well, let’s start with people (men) who run their own foundations. People (men) in “think tanks.” (Doesn’t that phrase always make you want to drop them into “feeling tanks” and see if they can swim?) Professors. And (here’s the big one), people who advise the lawmakers all over this country (and all over the world) on how they can continue to remove women’s rights, how they can justify their own “convictions” (which were created within the last hundred years and flourish in an ongoing context of absolutism, consequentialism, and stance) and create the kinds of increasingly horrifying anti-abortion laws which are popping up all over–and ruining lives.

(Some of the Reasons) Why Slavery Has No Place in the Abortion Debate

Laurie and Debbie say:

As the battle for women’s reproductive rights heats up to even more insane levels, certain right-wing anti-abortion fanatics are comparing the rights of fetuses to the rights of slaves. (Never mind that some of these same people also want to repeal the 14th Amendment, which freed the slaves. We’re not going there.)

We found this through a superb post from scatx at Speaker’s Corner, which we’ll quote from as we go along. But read the whole post and the comments.

Rick Santorum, former United States senator and a probable Presidential candidate in 2012 (!) has said:

For decades certain human beings were wrongly treated as property and denied liberty in America because they were not considered persons under the constitution. Today other human beings, the unborn of all races, are also wrongly treated as property and denied the right to life for the same reason; because they are not considered persons under the constitution.

Simplistic fanatical claims like this one can sound almost convincing until you take a minute to notice that they are looking at an extremely narrow slice of what is always an extremely complex story. The simplification usually involves taking into account a tiny fraction of the viewpoints involved, and acting as if many of the central people and forces in the story simply don’t exist.

Santorum didn’t invent this analogy and he’s not the first prominent politician to use it, by any means. Ta-Nehisi Coates has one response which we think is particularly important.

The analogy necessarily holds that the enslaved were the equivalent of embryos–helpless, voiceless beings in need of saviors. In this view of American history, the saviors, much like the pro-life movement, are white. In fact, African-Americans, unlike, say, zygotes, were always quite outspoken on their fitness for self-determination. Indeed, from the Cimaroons to Equiano to Nat Turner to Harriet Tubman to the 54th regiment, slaves were quite vociferous on the matter of their enslavement. It is simply impossible to imagine the end of slavery without the action of slaves themselves. And it is equally impossible to say the same about the end of abortion, if only because fetuses are generally incapable of egressing from the womb and setting up maroon societies, publishing newspapers or returning to the womb to “liberate” other presumably endangered fetuses.

So one thing Santorum and his ilk are doing is erasing the agency, desires, and struggles of slaves.

Another thing they are doing is erasing the question of lives inevitably linked to other lives: notice the absence of mothers from this argument. Coates speaks to that also in an older post on the subject:

If you’re going to compare abortion and slavery, then, by God, understand that whereas mothers choose every day whether to bring children to term, no slave-master ever chose to have his slave escape. (To say nothing of comparing mothers with slave-masters!! Fuck, my brain is hurting.)

Scatx takes yet another tack, by pointing out and examining the role of slave women in this analogy and in the real world:

This reading of history removes the enslaved female all together (which is, incidentally, how much of the history of the enslaved is written – “the enslaved” is assumed to be male unless otherwise noted. …)

When people talk about slavery and abortion as if they existed in two separate realities, they are ignoring so much and giving enslaved women very little credit and no agency. At the same time … having a child as an enslaved woman was not the wonderful thing we like to imagine motherhood and childhood to be. I think that is really important when we think of the institution of slavery, abortion nowadays, and the history of enslaved women.

Here’s more from scatx:

… looking back through the lens of history and the eyes of enslaved women, the intersection of slavery and abortion doesn’t teach us that abortion is wrong and evil and inhumane. Instead, it teaches us that the lives of women are complicated, often dependent on resources and support beyond themselves, dictated by people whose interest in their bodies are divergent from their own and callously so. Also, it shows us that the moral arguments around abortion often exist in direct relationship to larger ideas about economics and who has the right to a woman’s body.

If you do take the time to understand the intertwined history of abortion and slavery, it becomes painfully difficult to assert that abortion is wrong. Because then you must defend the slaveholder who wanted the enslaved woman to birth that child so that he could enslave them both (even as he probably used religion and morality, rather than economics and labor, as his excuse and defense for why one shouldn’t turn to abortion). Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus because she didn’t want that child to be a slave? Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus because she physically could not bear the burden of labor and pregnancy? Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus as a punishment to the man who raped her, barely fed her, barely clothed her, denied her religion, denied her liberty, and whipped her when she worked too slowly, made a mistake, or attempted to flee? Who would be willing to fault the enslaved woman who aborted her fetus to protect her life and to save the evils of her life from those of her child? To include the history of enslaved women in the history of slavery and then compare that history to abortion is not easy.

To equate abortion to slavery involves at least three viciously dehumanizing oversimplifications: you have to forget or ignore the fact that slaves had agency and were capable of independent thought and action; you have to forget or ignore that there are living human mothers involved in the futures of fetuses, and you have to forget or ignore that there were enslaved women who were also living human mothers. These are only three of the dimensions you have to ignore to take this analogy seriously.

Thanks to Stefanie for the pointer!