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My response to Eileen McDonagh's review of Defending Life

Last month I published a WWwTW entry with a link to Professor Eileen McDonagh's review of my book, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007). I finally got around to composing a response, which took longer than expected because of the move to South Bend as well as a few publishing deadlines and speaking commitments.

You can find my response online here.

Comments (17)

Dr. Beckwith,

A very impressive argument in response to McDonagh's review. It seems that McDonagh has been undone. I'll be keeping my eye on this. Of course McDonagh's argument is prima facie repulsive. Yet one feels immediately stumped by it. And yet you've come to the rescue.

Repulsive, monstrous, and many other things besides. It places an innocent, which has never made any choice of any kind, and whose "predicament" has been imposed upon it by the woman herself, in the position of an attacker. It places moral responsibility for the child's existence on the child, rather than the person who (except in such cases as consent to intercourse is lacking) brought him into being. It's a self-evidently demonic inversion of moral agency, and it is almost more than I can stomach to wade through a polite philosophical rebuttal of such obvious wickedness.

Gosh, I don't feel stumped by McDonagh's argument. :-)

Good job, Frank. I think your rape of an unconscious patient argument is especially good. What McDonagh doesn't seem to be acknowledging when she responds to it is that her position forces us to treat pregnancy as an on-going act on the part of the unborn child, for which consent is required by the woman at every moment, in an ongoing way. This is the place her strong analogy to sexual intercourse forces us to, if we accept anything so...er...stupid. But if we were to take that seriously, then your scenario with the unconscious pregnant woman becomes very pointed. McDonagh, in her answer, wants to imply that an unconscious woman can have given consent to the pregnancy even though we don't know it. But this ignores several things: It ignores the fact that she is now allowing a disanalogy between rape and pregnancy, since we would never say that the unconscious woman could have given consent ahead of time to someone to have sexual intercourse any time in the next nine months, even if she were unconscious. It ignores the fact that the woman might literally not have known of her pregnancy, and yet obviously the doctor shouldn't perform an abortion without her consent, where there is no similar point to be made for the rape of the unconscious woman. In other words, your whole set of scenarios just makes evident (to anyone who couldn't see it before) the obvious ridiculousness of McDonagh's analogy in the first place.

Oh, btw, I agree with Sage, too. I can't bear to be that polite with these faux-objective pro-aborts. They make flames burst out of my ears. My impatience has gotten me in trouble before.

And I shd. add that McDonagh pretends, as all of her ilk pretend, that the main reason they and other pro-choicers think a woman has a right to an abortion is because of the effects of the pregnancy on her body, when in fact many/most women who have abortions do so because they want a dead baby, or because someone pushing them into it wants a dead baby, and pro-choicers defend them to the max, as the PBA debate has made evident. One wonders what McDonagh's take on PBA would be. "Gee, couldn't we just let the baby slip out a couple of inches more, without stabbing it in the back of the skull, which would make _no difference_ to the effect on the woman's body, and then take care of the preemie?" No doubt she would find some sophistical argument for why this isn't morally required.

Gosh, I don't feel stumped by McDonagh's argument.

But then again, you're much smarter than me. Although, funny thing, right after I read Frank's piece I suddenly had an insight into the correct refutation of McDonagh. I also dumped my girlfriend immediately after she told me she didn't want to go out with me anymore.

Makes me think of Paul's warning.

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ Colossians 2:8.

Great response. I think it could be even stronger by explicitly making a point that is implicit in your argument. "Bodily integrity" is not enough to give rise to a right to self-defense. The invasion of bodily integrity must be morally culpable in order to allow for self-defense.

A doctor who perfoms an eye-lift on an unconscious patient who hasn't consented committs a battery, but a doctor who removes an appendix that is about to burst on the same patient has not.

Similarly, a rapist who violently or through the use of drugs violates a woman is morally culpable and can be killed in self-defense, whereas a child incapable of willing themselves into being is not.

CJ is correct. Moral culpability is vital with respect to the self-defense argument. I would add, on a related note, that proportionality is also important.

If a fellow on the subway nods off and his head falls on my shoulder, I may not shoot him in "self-defense."

Even if someone intentionally spits on me or pokes my arm with a twig, I may not claim self-defense and then blow his head off with a shotgun.

But obviously, the first example, which involves a lack of moral culpability per CJ's comment, would be sufficient.

Thanks C. J. I do make that point in the book. But my response just focused on two of her challenges.


Anytime, Francis. I Probably should buy the book! :-)


(This was cross-posted at Southern Appeal)

Although you have put together a strong defense of your position, I’m still having difficulties understanding some of these issues. There are some questions I don’t know how to answer in a simple way. McDonagh writes, “Once born, for example, no state in the country requires a biological parent to donate even a pint of blood to a needy [born] child, much less organs or other body parts.” Take these two examples:

1. A biological parent being required to donate a pint of blood or donate organs or other body parts to one’s born and needy child.
1. A biological parent being required to find some way to feed her born and needy child. For example, the parent using her hands (hands being a body part) to feed the born and needy child.

There seems to an important difference between the two types of body requirements above. The first requirement above seems like it shouldn’t be allowed and the other requirement seems like it should be required.

Although we don’t think of the born child as doing anything like raping the parent, we would still agree that the parent should not be required to donate a pint of blood or donate organs or other body parts to her born child? We know that parents do have particular types of requirements, for example, requirements that don’t involve things like donating a pint of blood to their needy and born child, but then how can we require the parent to (figuratively speaking) donate a pint of blood to the child before the child is born? If we don’t require particular types of body donations to the child after the child is born, why would we require the parent to give those same types (generally speaking) of body donations to the child before the child has been born? I’m honestly having difficulties understanding this aspect that McDonagh brought up. Can you give some advice on this? Thanks! Any lack of understand is my fault. I’m a pro-lifer.

I should have written 1 and 2 above, but I wrote 1 and 1.

Kyl, Jennifer Roth answered this issue competently in A Secular Case Against Abortion. I think the rest of her argument needs some improvement, her answer to the issue here is good. Though, I will bold some clarifications of my own.

However, current law only requires parents to provide for their children's needs after birth. If the child is a person before birth, should the parents have a duty to provide for his needs before birth as well?

Many people would answer that they should not, because the needs in this case include the use of the mother's body. A parent cannot be required by law to donate a kidney, or even blood, to save his/her child's life. Therefore, abortion defenders argue, a mother cannot be required by law to donate the use of her uterus, even though her refusal will cause her child's death.

However, there are significant differences between a kidney donation and pregnancy. In the former case, the transplant is an extraordinary measure. The need for it is caused by disease or injury, and most people will never need one. The parents may not withhold from the child the opportunity to receive a new kidney -- they must seek medical care for her (Even a non-parent might be morally obliged to do this). But they need not provide a kidney themselves; they did not directly create the need (this principle is what parental liability limitations are based on. Since inducing a child's existence is not in itself bad, parents are not morally responsible for gross pathological aberrations as long as they did not directly contribute to the child's condition. The application to organ donation is obvious.).

When a woman is pregnant, the situation is different. In the usual case, where pregnancy did not result from sexual assault, the child himself, and his need for shelter and nourishment in the womb, is a direct result of actions taken voluntarily by both parents. The need to live in the mother's uterus for approximately forty weeks is also not an extraordinary measure, in the way that the term is generally used. It is a basic human need -- every single person who has ever been born required it. Just as the newborn has a specific claim against his parents due to the fact that they created him in all his helplessness (this includes breast milk if that is the only option, even though a significant bodily alteration must be sustained to continue providing it), so too did he have a claim against them before he was born, for the same reason. It is true that the heavier burden falls on the mother during the prenatal period. Men simply cannot directly provide what their children need during the first forty weeks of their lives. (I would advocate requiring fathers to indirectly provide as much as they can by compensating mothers for their medical bills, lost work time, and other expenses during pregnancy.) The fact that women must shoulder more of the parental obligation during pregnancy than men is regrettable, but does not negate the obligation.

We might also think of conjoined twins here. Boonin argues that since conjoined twins came into existence at the same time, they never acquired moral rights to their organs, unlike pregnant women. But this is not persuasive. Women's bodies are intrinsically ordered towards pregnancy, unlike sustaining rapists or violinists. Once we grant that two entities can have a claim to a set of organs by virtue of body design, the body use argument becomes much less persuasive.

I have emailed McDonagh several times about these issues, and she has never answered.

I think the case of a comatose woman raped in that state and pregnant as a result is an even more compelling analogy for it exactly, if McDonagh is to be believed, places the woman in a situation where she is being forced to be preganant. And why should we assume this? Well McDonagh herself gives us the reason: "we should assume this form of pregnancy (sexual intercourse in the analogy) is occuring without the woman's consent as defined by her comatose state". If McDonagh rape analogy is to succeed, then the doctor is morally obligated to procure an abortion to stop this "violation". That idea came to me while watchin a Pedro Almodovar folm that deals precisely with tha case of a comatose woman raped and impregnated.

I will also note that indeed "bodily integrity is not enough".I submit that a person X is an agressor if:

(1) he is the iniatator of force
(2) such an initiation of force causes harm or can be considered a prima facie harm.
(3) the initiation of force is a willful act of X
(4) X is morally culpable as noted by C.J

If any of those condition is not satisfied then X cannot be deemed an aggressor and retaliation is an illegitimate initiation of force and hence an aggression. It seems in the case of the unborn all the four requirements are not met.

I first wnat to state that McDonagh's analogy can only be applied to cases of rape. I also wants to point out that the unborn cannot be deemed responsible for implantation as the latter is what can be defined as an automatic mechanism waiting to happen, that is implantation is immediatley started and proceed automatically if and only if an entity whose nature is ordered toward implantation is deposited on a surface which is impregnable by nature. Thus those responsible for implantaion are hence the people whose action caused the unborn to come into existence and be deposited on an impregnable surface, that is the parent themselves. Hence there is no such thing as nonconsensual pregnancy distinct from nonconsensual sex and the unborn is not responsible for the initiation and maintenace of pregnancy.
Thus I will here critique McDonagh's argument strictly in the context of rape.
It seems that McDonagh wants her opponents to remain agnostic about whether an unconscious person might be consenting to something while being in that state. But this is demonstrably false since an unconscious person cannot by definition consent to something. It therefore follows that everything done to an unconscious person is by definition nonconsensual. Does this mean that nothing can the be done to an unconscious person who will never be able to consent to that thing? Absolutely not: it therefore depends on whether the action is a prima facie good since then we will be in a position to assume that the unconscious person may well consent to or approved such an action when he wakes up.
In McDonagh's critique, she states that the comatose woman may well be consenting to the pregnancy though unconscious and that the doctor should not act as he does not know that. But this argument fails as we do know that the woman is not consenting to the pregnancy now: the pregnancy is nonconsensual and wil remain so until the woman wakes up and consent to it, if she still doesn't the pregnancy will still remain nonconsensual.
McDonagh comes close to acknowledging this flaw when she states that we will assume that the woman is not consenting to sexual intercourse because of her comatose state. But clearly, that the woman is not consenting to sexual intercourse is not an assumption but a pretty obvious fact; however recognising that this is not an assumption will demoslish McDonagh's critique.
Now, knowing that the comatose woman is not consenting to sexual intercourse places McDonagh between a rock and a hard place because if her claim about pregnancy per se and "nonconcensual" pregnancy is true, then the pregnancy of the unconscious woman is logically tantamount to rape and the doctor is obligated to intervene, something that McDonagh disagrees with. But then the only reason for the doctor not being entitled to act is that pregnancy, even without one's consent, is a prima facie good as explained above. Interestingly, the presence of the unborn cannot be a prima facie good if the latter is actully causing harm. Therefore I conclude that the unborn can never be an aggressor.

So, exactly what territory does "Christendom" as a country cover? Don't mix politics and religion. They just do not belong together. Rationalizing a particular view (in general, not just abortion) because of your inherited belief about what god thinks can not justify subjecting another person to such view who has no such inherited belief (or at some age realized the "hogwash-ability" of such belief) . In other words, something is not simply right because you say, "that's what god says." Find other ways and reasons to justify your opinions. But, if you do that, you may find that your opinions, outside of the "god justification," are with out merit--socially and scientifically.

Confused Atheist, actually read the book for yourself.

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