When a believer and a secularist meet to discuss abortion, the result is often a disaster. After a few minutes of polite conversation, they start talking past each other, each failing to appreciate the deep concerns and genuine aspirations of the other. As the discussion continues, they look increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed, repeating themselves and no longer listening to each other’s opinion. What was meant to be a debate sometimes develops into a childish blame-game, the secularist ridiculing the believer as irrational, while the believer attacks the secularist as at best misguided, at worst evil. At the end of the discussion, the audience is left with the impression that we witnessed a divorce without the intimacy of a prior marriage: the speakers withdraw into the comfort of separation, weary of mutual indifference, mistrust and hostility.
This is the complete opposite of the abortion debate that took place on 18 October between Charles Camosy, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University, and Julian Savulescu, Director of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. The event was the first of a set of two public debates called ‘The Possibility of Religious-Secular Ethical Engagement’. Each speaker gave a short presentation on how one might advance a fruitful religious-secular dialogue on abortion, followed by Q&As and a further discussion between Camosy and Savulescu.
Camosy was the first speaker. After laying out a set of conditions without which a religious-secular conversation cannot even start, he firstly highlighted the surprisingly substantial level of agreement between Christian ethicists and their secular counterparts. His strategy was to focus on the work of the most influential secular ethicist of our time – that of Peter Singer – and discuss some of the controversial issues on which Singer and Christian ethicists agree. For example, they share the view that there is a logical connection between abortion and infanticide, departing from the popular view that abortion is morally permissible and infanticide is not. They also agree that some non-human creatures should be considered as moral entities, though Camosy would suggest angels as the prime example, whereas Singer is likely to pick chimpanzees. Camosy then examined several issues over which secular and Christian ethicists genuinely disagree, such as the moral status of the foetus. His central message was that both Christian and secular ethicists should focus on these specific issues to find a way to move the discussion forward, instead of seeing each other as attempting to impose an alien and comprehensive outlook.
Savulecu started his presentation by telling the personal story of how he came to revise his view on abortion in a less permissive direction. He now thinks that the destruction of an embryo is morally wrong under certain circumstances, such as when one or both of the parents want(s) it to develop into a child. An embryo, according to Savulescu, has a special moral value when it is a part of the plan of the parent(s). He also argued that the consequences of abortion for future generations must be considered. Bringing a child into the world, he suggested, is like bringing a work of art into the world; as Mona Lisa has given pleasure to the viewers, a baby has the potential for giving pleasure to the people to whom he or she will relate. Savulescu acknowledged that the evolution of his thinking about abortion had been fostered by his engagement with religious as well as secular ethicists, though he expressed his continuing disagreement with Camosy and others on several key issues, including the concept of potentiality when we speak of the foetus as a ‘potential person’.
The event was fully booked in advance and there were lively Q&As after the presentations. One issue that emerged recurrently was the internal diversity within each of the Christian and secular approaches to ethics. Camosy’s brief discussion of Christian feminist ethics had immediate resonance for those working on women’s rights and gender issues outside the framework of Christian ethics, while Savulesu’s express disagreement with Peter Singer on several important issues seems to have surprised many believers (and some non-believers) in the audience.
While Camosy and Savulescu showed respect for each other’s work, there was notable intellectual tension between them. The tension appeared vividly when they discussed the important and unresolved question of what the religious-secular engagement might achieve. Savulescu expressed the concern that the points of agreement he found with Camosy could be literally superficial, that is, overlapping conclusions reached from completely different premises via separate paths. Camosy showed more optimism, expressing the hope that the continuing engagement would result in some agreement on a more fundamental level. Savulescu’s reply seems to have captured the spirit of the event: the outcome of the religious-secular engagement depends on each party’s ‘willingness to revise their own views’.
If this is right, as I am inclined to think it is, then each of us who cares about ethics has a question to ask ourselves: do I want to keep discussing my ideas with my like-minded fellows; or do I wish to go about and try to persuade people with whom I share little in common, taking the frightening risk of finding myself revising my deeply held convictions?
I know what my answer is. What is yours?
Vice-President Biden is a Roman Catholic. In the recent debate with Paul Ryan he was asked his view of abortion and he said
I accept my church’s position on abortion…. Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews…I just refuse to impose that on others.
So he’s saying that abortion is murder and while he’s certainly not going to be murdering any babies that he’s carrying he’s cool with you murdering yours. Or am I being unfair? Continue reading
“Legitimate rape,” moral consistency, and degrees of sexual harm
Should abortions be allowed in the case of rape? Republican Todd Akin—running for the U.S. Senate from the state of Missouri—thinks not. His reasoning is as follows:
From what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy resulting from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment. But the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.
There appears to be no scientific basis for the claim that the trauma of forced intercourse can interrupt ovulation or in any other way prevent a pregnancy; indeed pregnancy is just as likely after rape as after consensual sex, according to the evidence I have seen. This news article sums up the relevant data - though please note that one of my readers [see comments] takes issue with the standard interpretation of the most frequently-cited studies.
Let’s start, for now, then, with a bit of data that is not in question: thousands of pregnancies per year, in the U.S. alone, ensue from cases of reported rape or incest–either through the caveat of Akin’s theory that “maybe [the body's defenses] didn’t work or something” or through the medically orthodox explanation that the body has no such defense. Assuming that falsely reporting rape is relatively rare, as seems to be the case; and acknowledging that many rapes are never reported in the first place, we should be able to agree that pregnancies resulting from rape are a life-changing reality for thousands of women on an annual basis. By “rape” I mean any penetrative act done without clear consent; and here I’m calling attention to the sub-set of such acts that result in conception. I won’t say much about the term “legitimate” — which I find troubling in a hundred ways — simply because other writers have gone to town on it, and I want to say something new.
Now, given everything I’ve just said, what could be going on with Todd Akin’s moral reasoning for him to casually downplay the relevance of rape and incest to the abortion debate while maintaining, as he does, that there should be no exceptions to anti-abortionism even in those cases? Psychologist Brittany Liu uses the notion of “moral coherence” to provide an explanation:
For those of us doing Catholic moral theology, we most often hear and read the name “Peter Singer” invoked by our colleagues in a dismissive way. Indeed, if one can somehow show that another’s argument is heading in a Singer-like direction, then for many of us one essentially has reduced it to the absurd. Furthermore, and very unfortunately, Singer remains consistently dismissed as a ‘popularizer’ who can’t be taken seriously as an academic given how widely his work is read.
But when I actually look carefully and systematically at his work I see not only how consistent and even rigorous it often is, but also how much it common it has with Christian Ethics. Consider, for instance, the topic of abortion. Though Peter Singer is pro-choice for abortion and infanticide, and the Catholic position condemns the intentional killing the fetus and early embryo as intrinsically evil, the actual disagreement between the two on this very complex topic turns out to be very narrow. Both believe that public policy cannot retreat into a privacy-centered moral neutrality with regard to (1) the moral status of the fetus and (2) whether one can kill or refuse to sustain a fetus. Both also agree, assuming for the sake of argument that a fetus is a person, that no unintended negative effects of making abortion illegal would justify allowing for the legal killing of fetuses. Both reject the American Supreme Court abortion decision Roe v. Wade. Both agree (again, assuming a fetus is a person) that not only would it be morally wrong to kill a fetus, but that one has a moral duty to support a fetus for nine months with one’s body. Both reject the idea that viability is a morally significant dividing line. Both also see a strong logical connection between one’s view of abortion and one’s view of infanticide. In fact, it is my contention that the wide divergence in their ultimate conclusions comes from a very complex argument involving the distinction that Aristotle and Thomas made between “active” and “passive” potential. On every issue but that one, Peter Singer looks a lot like John Paul II on abortion.
Singer also criticizes Christianity for being speciesist, but he (along with, to be fair, many Christians) is largely unaware of how complex the tradition is on this topic. For instance, the traditional definition of a person is “an individual substance of a rational nature”—with no mention of biological species as morally significant. Indeed, the Christian tradition makes explicit room for non-human persons (angels and aliens are good examples) and even (in the past) for the concept of human non-persons (human beings who are “slaves by nature”, for instance). Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that it is seriously morally wrong to needlessly cause non-human animals pain and suffering, and even PETA has used the words of Pope Benedict (now known as “the Green Pope” for his heroic ecological work) criticizing factory farming in their advertisements. This should not be a surprise to anyone who reads Genesis and learns that not only are non-human animals created “good” without any reference to human beings, but that God intended other animals to be our companions, not our food.
The most overwhelming case of all for overlap involves how each understands our duties to the poor. Singer broke on the academic scene with his 1972 article on Famine, Affluence and Morality, and continues to hammer away at the problem of poverty through his continued work (especially his recent book: The Life You Can Save) and personal giving. Modern-day Roman Catholic movements to aid the impoverished (led by the American Bishops via their poverty arm called Catholic Relief Services) are not only absolutely massive in scale and trend-setting among their peer organizations, but their roots go back to the very beginnings of Christianity. Indeed, though Jesus himself rarely speaks of Hell, when he does so it is almost always connected to a failure of one’s duties to the poor, and the early Christian Church largely served as the social welfare system of the ancient world. Singer himself built on precisely this point when, in the second edition of Practical Ethics, he suggested we give 10% of our resources to those in absolute poverty in part because this was the tithing percentage required by the social welfare mechanism of the age: the Catholic Church. In a shocking indictment of most of us, I suspect, both approaches insist that a selfish failure meet one’s duty to aid the global poor is seriously immoral behavior—akin to something like indirect homicide.
Those who are familiar with ethical theory are probably the most skeptical of conversation between Peter Singer and Christian Ethics—especially because Singer is utilitarian and the Church is a big fan of exceptionless moral norms. But even here the possibilities for overlap are striking and important. The Catholic Church has a teleological ethic which, yes, is ultimately directed toward union with God, but is proximately directed at the flourishing of the “universal common good.” Even exceptionless moral norms are teleological in nature given that they are at the service of this kind of flourishing. Furthermore, Singer is exploring a new kind of objectivity in his moral theory—even to the point where it is no longer clear that he will remain a preference utilitarian. Indeed, in his latest edition of Practical Ethics he admits that preference utilitarianism is at variance with his moral intuitions about replacement theory (especially of persons), the good of distant future persons, and whether the existence of persons at all is a morally good thing. Especially as Singer moves to include more objectivity into his theory and go beyond preference utilitarianism, he becomes an even better conversation partner for Christian Ethics.
Much more needs to be said to back up these ideas and arguments, of course, and I try to do just that in my new book Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization—just released this weekend in the United States by Cambridge University Press. (Available in both paperback and Kindle versions.) I’m certainly interested in any feedback about the book, so feel free to send me a note (either here or via e-mail: email@example.com), or join the discussion on the book’s Facebook page. The book will also serve as the basis of an exchange/debate between Julian Savulescu and myself next Autumn, so if you are in or around Oxford October 17th-19th, come by and see us.
Fordham University (webpage is here)
On Monday, the state of Kansas in the USA passed an anti-abortion bill which includes several morally controversial measures (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/04/kansas-abortion-bill_n_1478706.html). One measure receiving a great deal of media attention is the provision to prohibit tax deductions for abortion insurance coverage, thus making a women’s ability to have an abortion far more dependent on her socio-economic status. This is of course an important issue, but I shall address an aspect of the bill which I find even more disagreeable. Continue reading
Guest Post: James Wilson
The controversy over the Giubilini and Minerva article has highlighted an important disconnect between the way that academic bioethicists think about their role, and what ordinary people think should be the role of bioethics. The style of this dispute – its acrimony and apparent incomprehension on both sides – are a sure sign that we as bioethicists need to think harder about what we are doing, and who we are doing it for.
At the heart of tempest has been the authors’ claim that abortion and infanticide are morally equivalent. Nearly everyone will agree that the authors are wrong about this, and that infanticide is and should always remain beyond the pale.
The US Born-Alive Infants Protection Act 2002 stipulates that the category of person – and the full protection due to persons – must be extended to “every infant member of the species homo sapiens who is born alive at any stage of development“. The deep question – from the perspective of academic ethics – is why every human being that is born alive should count as a person.
Often in bioethics the most difficult task is to articulate just what it is that lies behind the sorts of intuitive moral certainties that we all have: that is, to make clear to ourselves, and to those who are inclined to hold opposing views, just what our confidence in our own intuitive moral judgments is based on. This is often extremely difficult to do.
Guest Post: Andrew McGee, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology
Reposted from The Conversation with Author permission
Philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva have received an avalanche of abusive comments and emails following the publication of their paper on “post-birth abortion” in last week’s Journal of Medical Ethics. The response has been despicable but it shouldn’t blind us to the flaws in the authors’ argument.
As the journal’s editor Julian Savulescu noted, their arguments “are largely not new and have been presented repeatedly … by the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world.” But the discussion has continued because it’s been notoriously difficult to prove the arguments wrong.
Giubilini and Minerva’s argument is stunningly simple. There is no morally relevant difference between a foetus and a newborn baby, because their capacities are relevantly similar. Neither foetus nor newborn is really capable of forming any long-term aims. Only a person can form long-term aims that are capable of being quashed – and this is what differentiates us from other species – so neither a foetus nor a newborn are persons.
The kind of harm that consists of preventing a person from achieving their future aims is especially acute. And since neither a foetus nor a newborn are persons, they cannot be harmed in this way. Therefore, if we allow abortion on that basis, we should allow infanticide.
Many people who believe abortion should be permitted would reject the conclusion that killing a newborn baby should likewise be permitted. The challenge is to explain why the rejection of that conclusion is not irrational. That’s what I will attempt here.
The wrong of infanticide
Guest Post: Charles C. Camosy, Assistant Professor of Theology,Fordham University, New York City
Despite the wide public outcry over their article, Giubilini and Minerva’s arguments in defense of infanticide are nothing new. Peter Singer has become one of the best known philosophers in the world in part because of the attention he has received from defending the practice. Infanticide was such an established part of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome that Christians and Jews became subjects of public mockery for opposing it. Even today, infanticide is consistently practiced in places where the Judeo-Christian tradition does not serve as a moral foundation, such as China and India.
But the Judeo-Christian tradition’s influence has diminished in the developed West, and as a result it has become more difficult to claim that all members of the species Homo sapiens are persons with an equal right to life. Giubilini and Minerva provide an important example of what follows from the rejection of the sanctity of human life. Even the most ardent defenders of abortion rights cannot deny the science behind the claim a prenatal child is a fellow member of our species, but that—at least to some in our post-Christian world—is not morally significant. What matters is having the interests and capabilities of persons: rationality, self-awareness, the ability engage in loving relationships, etc. Many already reject the personhood of our prenatal children because they do not have these traits, but Giubilini and Minerva make the fairly obvious point that our neonatal children do not have these traits either. Thus, they claim, if one supports abortion for this reason, one should support infanticide on the same basis.
The Catholic Church has been making the same logical connections between abortion and infanticide for the better part of 2000 years. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian manuals for converts, specifically mentions them together: “You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” Even in the modern era, when infanticide is not a clear public policy issue, we still find the Church making this connection. Consider the bishops of the Second Vatican Council claiming that “from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care” and in the next breath that “abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.” Interestingly, Giubilini and Minerva share a similar understanding to that of the Catholic Church with regard to the issues and reasoning in play—and, using premises which many other pro-choice people share, they follow the argument all the way to infanticide.
Editor’s note: we received this communiqué from Professor John Harris, who wishes to clear up any misreading of his position on infanticide.
I wish to clarify my position on infanticide to correct the impression that infanticide is something I defend or advocate. There is a big difference between an analysis of the moral symmetry of some abortions and some cases of infanticide on the one hand and the defence of infanticide or indeed the advocacy of infanticide on the other. I have always drawn a clear line between what I call “Green Papers” and “White Papers” in ethics. Green papers are intellectual discussions of the issues, white papers are policy proposals. I have never advocated or defended infanticide as a policy proposal. I would not and do not advocate the legalization of infanticide on the basis of any alleged ethical parity of infanticide with abortion.
By Brian Earp
Rick Santorum, birth control, and “playing God”
Rick Santorum thinks that birth control is immoral. Santorum, a former Senator from Pennsylvania, is one of two human beings – if the polls have it right – likeliest to become the Republication nominee for President of the United States this election cycle.