morality_play (morality_play) wrote,

Pro-life feminism

There's a thread on the abortiondebate community, here, about pro-life feminism, started by user sunovermountain. Usually, no thinking except the most elementary can escape the crushing gravity of the vast, droning, intellectual black hole that is that community, but a few stray particles of critical thought made it out this time. They originated with the_alchemist, who was trying to qualify how she arrived at her variety of pro-life ideology.

I think this thread contains some content that is instructive in where popular disputes about abortion tend to go wrong, and how they can be improved. I'd like to formalize my own thinking about this with some analysis, and field reactions from the FFL community.

sunovermountain initiated the thread with a description of what she understood the major premises of a pro-life feminism to be. Now, I should emphasize that I don't think anyone would find these premises sufficient. the_alchemist certainly didn't. I don't. But I think they represented some very ordinarily assumed premises, that I hear repeated in a lot of popular arguments. Basically, sunovermountain began with the assumption of institutionalized marginalization of women. That prevailing structures in the way we work, distribute income and raise offspring _intrinsically_ diminish women's quality of life. As it happens, I think this is a pretty reasonable assumption. Institutional marginalization is something we can demonstrate by appeal to real matters of record. Access to contraceptives and a society that supports their use are essential to a minimum social justice. Their absence could be said to "privatize the benefits" of sex among men, and "socialize the risks" of sex among women.

She proceeds to suppose that an agenda to minimize abortions is best served then, by a commitment to the well being of women, since a society that institutionally supports women during pregnancy, childbirth and parenting would have the net effect of decreasing the total number of abortions. This is how she synthesizes pro-life ideology with feminism. It's here that I think a number of pro-life ideologues fundamentally go wrong on several levels.

First of all, _why_ are we providing support for the women in this model? Is it because we're satisfying our obligations to women as moral patients? It doesn't look that way. Instead, sunovermountain begins with an objective of decreasing abortions, and works her way backwards to a strategy securing that objective. Improving women's quality of life is rationalized, not as something required of us by our moral obligations to women, but only as a means to the end of fewer abortions. This is a servile treatment of women, which makes them subservient to the neonate in any moral calculus we could draw from her model.

I don't see any way a thinking person could accept this rationale as compelling. Any discussion we're going to have about what our obligations are to another being can only rationally proceed from the inquiry of what sorts of properties moral rights follow from, and what quality of rights follow from those properties. We understand our obligations to women in this way. I'm morally obligated to modify my behavior (to not impinge on a woman's quality of life) because she possesses intrinsic moral value. Not because she can be instrumental in satisfying some kantian kingdom of ends. Yes, institutionally supported women may very well have fewer abortions. And (we could pretend) it might magically make them prettier to look at too. But such properties, however desirable, are extrinsic to their moral worth. Our obligations to moral patients can't _originate_ with how they function to satisfy our obligations to a third party.

Second, what sort of moral obligations to the fetus are served by this model? It seems that the objective of securing fewer total abortions often enters debate as a substitute for actually securing rights for the unborn. Both of these things cannot simultaneously be principal objectives of a pro-life feminism if they aren't consistent with one another. Can they be? It seems to me that any pro-life model of feminism must, at a minimum, concede that at least _some_ kinds of neonates are entitled to protections from aggression, And that we're morally obligated to enforce those protections as long as the mothers life is not at stake. So given this premise, what would an ultimate objective of "reducing abortions" among those types of neonates mean? That needlessly killing moral patients is acceptable as long as it's only a few of them? If pro-choice ideologues like unkai were accustomed to eating six babies a day, but she felt like she could cut back a little, what is the appropriate response? Do you ask her to reduce her daily consumption to two babies as long as it's not too inconvenient to her, or do you simply force her to refrain?

the_alchemist correctly points out that even if we created a comprehensive support network for all women, permitting them to give birth to and raise children in relative ease, there would still be prolific demand for abortion. The point I think is lost here, is that pro-choice ideology is propelled by the conviction that women are uniquely privileged to dispose of any neonate _whatever properties of moral worth it possesses_. This is an essential distinction. The ideology is fundamentally hostile to any analysis of moral status because it's prefaced upon the objective of defying the requirements of moral activity. For instance, when moral philosophers make an inquiry into what sort of moral status a human blastocyst possesses, whatever their conclusions, any premise of "reproductive choice" must respond to those conclusions... "the woman can abort the neonate." And when neuroscientists establish some fixture of a cognitive "self" within a fetus, the premise of reproductive choice must then respond... "the woman can abort the neonate."

I could go on, but it should be clear this same response comes as consistently as if the pro-choice community were being fed punched cards. There's no pause for reflection. The pro-choice enclave isn't participating in the rational inquiry described above.

The point is that we determine what our moral obligations are to other entities by establishing what morally relevant properties they possess. Pro-choice ideology doesn't make any such inquiry. It consistently appeals to rhetorical assertions that women are empowered to deprive certain others. So this isn't even a description of moral activity they're producing. It's a description of a power relationship. It's a description of hegemony.

Contrast this with the_alchemist's remarks...

"patriarchy is not the only evil in the world and I believe that some of the things we could do to make things more equal are immoral."

_This_ is a tentative description of a moral calculus. She's sensitive to a moral failure in the treatment of women, but she reasons that the moral status of other moral patients functions as a _limiting factor_ in how we can make reparations to that failure.

"I see feminism as being about freeing women from oppression, not enabling them to oppress others."

This comment turned out to be prescient. This is it exactly! The distinction between defense from aggression and _enabling_ with power. And this next comment really impressed me:

"I also see fighting for the rights of foetuses (and animals) as a natural progression from fighting for the rights of other oppressed groups... it's time to start thinking about those who share a lot of characteristics with born humans, but aren't exactly the same."

Another way of putting this that I think comes closer to the point is... It's time to start thinking about what the qualities are that impart "born humans" with moral patienthood, and stop institutionally denying it to a variety of marginalized communities that we can verify _also have those properties_! Communities like, you know... mammals. And neonatal humans in _at least_ the second trimester! We need to stop treating morally irrelevant properties as if they could ever be determiners of moral worth. Properties like species and _biological autonomy from the mother_, which have no bearing upon moral patienthood.

Confronted with such a thoughtful and attentive appraisal of moral commitments, one could have expected indignation and confusion from the pro-choice ideologue. And one didn't need to wait long for such expectation to be fulfilled. roseofjuly supplied both indignation _and_ confusion in short order:

She bookends her comments with the statements...

"Time to start giving those chimpanzees rights, huh?"
"I don't think fetuses and animals can be counted amongst oppressed groups."

The barb she injects here about chimpanzees sets a tone of dismissal she's not entitled to. Basically though, she's eager to assert that animals and fetal humans "don't count." That implicitly, there's something that distinguishes them from other types of socially marginalized communities. To that end she's willing to include women, gay people, black people... you know. The usual suspects. But she's adamant that our moral protections can never extend to these other groups. To even consider the possibility she describes as "noxious."

But why? If there really is some quality that distinguishes an adult human in full possession of his faculties from a fetal human or a dog, then she needs to enunciate what it is. And her description needs to distinguish these entities in a morally relevant way or fail on it's own face. roseofjuly does try to provide such a description in a fumbling kind of way. And she comes _so close_ to identifying the morally crucial property, it's worth looking at her analysis to see where she goes wrong.

"Women, gays/lesbians, and ethnic minorities are people who can think, reason, write, create art...who live on this earth as part of our society and make contributions to it." Fetuses are not and the movements CANNOT be compared! It's not a natural progression... fetuses are not going to start composing piano concertos and dogs are not going to start painting abstract art and forming social movements."

It's a haphazard and fragmented attempt at qualifying her position, but I can distinguish eight distinct criteria that she's submitting to attach the moral patienthood of a subject to:

Thinking, reasoning, writing, creating art, creating piano concertos, participation in a society, contribution to a society, and creating "social movements."

Now these are curious criteria. Three of them describe creative enterprises. Three others describe social functions. The first two are the interesting ones. They describe some functional internal property of the subject being considered. Something to do with it's intellectual subjectivity. This is the criteria she came so close to correctly identifying as a location for moral worth. Still, her thinking fails inspection.

It's worth remarking that the last _three fourths_ of her criteria don't even describe morally relevant properties. They're only popular misunderstandings of moral locus' that get passed from one adolescent girl to the next. Moral patienthood does not follow from a subject's creating art or literature. The moral patienthood of a scientist or engineer with no artistic aspirations is not compromised by failing to produce artwork, for example. No more so than the artist's is compromised by failing to produce engineering. Nor can their moral patienthood be localized to any latent creative _ability_, since we can easily imagine a subject with no artistic or technical skills, who can still experience suffering and prefer to avoid it.

Similarly, a person retains the same moral patienthood internal to a society that he possesses while external to one. Our obligations to the moral worth of another subject don't magically vanish if he's marooned on a desert island. His moral patienthood remains intact. The origin of moral worth must then exist in some other range of properties these subjects have in common. So six of her criteria are just worthless and don't merit any further consideration. She didn't think about them in any critical way. What about these last two? Thinking and reasoning? These come much closer to being meaningful criteria. They certainly possess moral relevancy. The problem is, they don't possess the right kind, if roseofjuly is using them to judge whether or not morality permits us to destroy or otherwise deprive a subject.

What does she mean by "thinking" for example? Does she mean phenomenological consciousness? And if she does, then what order? She distinguishes thinking from "reasoning," so it seems she might intend "first order representational consciousness" when she says "thinking." And if that's the case, then her position is just factually erroneous. First order p.c. is not closed to fetal humans or non-human animals. There is no good empirical or scientific evidence to withhold it from neonates after twenty weeks of gestation. And in fact, there is significant evidence to attribute real access consciousness and intentional states to a _broad_ taxonomy of animals. A taxonomy at least inclusive of mammals and birds, with amphibians and reptiles representing pretty good candidates too.

If on the other hand, she means second order phenomenal intelligence, then it's important to clarify that we wouldn't _need_ to establish that sort of meta-thinking in an organism to attribute moral patienthood to it. Second order representational states are only a prerequisite of moral _agency_. Patienthood hinges upon the subjects ability to possess an internal disposition about it's situation. The ability to experience qualia. And this only falls within the first order. In fact, moral activity only makes logical sense by locating patienthood with that sort of subjectivity. Locating it anywhere else leads to a preformative contradiction.

There are a variety of rights that would logically be denied to a subject that lacked moral agency. The right to vote, for example. roseofjuly is attempting to deprive subjects of protections associated with patienthood based upon the absence of agency. It's not clear if this is a deliberate obfuscation or if she's legitimately confused about the distinction.
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