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Oklahoma pro-life measures: preventing abortions and promoting sadism

Two abortion bills passed by the Oklahoma legislature made the headlines recently. The first of these bills requires a doctor to force a patient seeking for an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the foetus while having the ultrasound monitor in front of her.  The second bill prevents women who gave birth to a handicapped child to sue the doctor who purposely refused to provide her information about the foetus defects, fearing that this information would induce the pregnant woman to terminate the pregnancy.

Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry vetoed these bills on constitutional grounds.  On Tuesday, however, the Oklahoma legislature voted to override Henry’s veto.

Although there are things to say about the legal aspects of the case (I indeed wonder how could the state prevent a private citizen to sue another one), in this post I would like to focus on the moral issues involved.

Pro-life supporters claim that these measures are supposed to prevent abortion and consequentially prevent the death of innocent foetuses. I especially found interesting what Republican Senator Todd Lamb declared: “The goal of this legislation is just to make a statement for the sanctity of human life. Maybe someday these babies will grow up to be police officers and arrest bad people, or will find a cure for cancer.”
We need a distinction between, at least, foetuses with defects and foetuses that would maybe develop into healthy human beings.

So, if the goal of Senator Lamb is not to prevent potential police officers from coming into existence, someone should remind him that you can’t be both severely disabled and a police officer. Furthermore, it’s also true that maybe someday these babies will grow up to be thieves or serial killers. So if the main reason to oppose abortion is that at some point these foetuses will bring some good to society, the opposite possibilities that they will instead cause damages to society should be used as an argument to favour abortion.

Yet I do not think that what some merely potential being might do in the future should be regarded as good reason for the mother to either undergo or refuse an abortion, even if we leave aside the fact that it is in practice really hard to foresee what kind of person (criminal of saviour of humanity) a foetus will eventually become.
After clarifying that pro-life should maybe think more carefully about the reasons they want to prevent abortions, I now want to briefly examine these two measures in turn.

 The first measure

Forcing a woman to watch the monitor while undergoing an ultrasound and while the doctor is showing the forming organs of the foetus.
Here the goal is to make women feel guilty underlining how similar to a human is a foetus.

I do not think that a person who decided to carry out an abortion would really change her mind watching her embryo on a screen, although  it can just make it more stressful. I also do not think it is legally admissible to force a person to undergo a certain treatment or procedure, especially when the procedure is useless or aimed at causing distress.

In any case, I don’t think this strategy would work because pro-life usually fail to take into account two important elements

1.1) Abortion is usually a painful choice for women: no one undergoes an abortion if it is not necessary.1. 2) Saying that an abortion is necessary implies that the consequences of not carrying out the abortion are worse than the ones that would follow if the person would continue the pregnancy.

There are many reasons a person can decide to carry out an abortion, but in general such decisions are made because (a) the foetus is severely ill; (b) the woman herself is ill; or (c) her psychological or financial situation does not allow her to take proper care of a child.
We are used to think in term of pro-life and pro-choice, though I myself do not like the expression “pro- choice” because many times the real alternative to an abortion is a situation that implies so much pain that a person who has a little bit of conscientiousness cannot do anything but terminate a pregnancy.

Thus, the alternative to an abortion in case (a) is not life but a sort of agonizing biological existence; in case (b) the alternative is not life but the death of the pregnant woman; and in case (c) again, the alternative is not life but a psychological breakdown or extreme poverty or other situations where no responsible adult would put her child in.
So if a person decided to undergo an abortion she very probably has her own good reasons to do that and therefore making the procedure more complicated and stressful looks like a sadistic punishment and not like an efficient way to save the foetus.

Since pro-life argue to be inspired to a charitable morality, they should at least try to be consistent and refuse any sadistic behaviour unless they just mean they are supposed to be charitable to foetuses only. In this case, they should (a) explain why they discriminate against persons in favour of embryos and (b) how they explain to a disabled person who lives in pain and unable to enjoy any pleasure of life that they didn’t give the chance to her mother to abort her because of their infinite charity.

The second measure

The second measure prevents women from sue the doctor that did not inform them the foetus was abnormal so that the woman could not opt for an abortion. This bill, they say, should prevent discrimination against ill foetuses.

 Apart from the arguments I just introduced to show that abortion is sometimes the only option, I would add that in this case the doctor is violating the right of a patient to be informed. This right is important especially because it is a necessary element of an autonomous choice.

Information and autonomy are basic rights of patients and they are recognised to be fundamentals in the modern practice of medicine. If a doctor does not share this approach, she is simply unqualified to work in health field.

It is then the state responsibility to punish and/or to prevent access to medical careers people who do not share the principles medicine is founded upon.
The State of Oklaoma is seriously violating its own duties promoting such an irresponsible and immoral conduct among physicians.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. You could add to the argument that the foetus is not a separate person from the mother, but is in fact part of the same person. The foetus is, in essence, an organ or a part of the person carrying it. A bill that requires doctors to withhold information about the state of health of a person’s own organs is perverse.

    If one want to treat foetus’ as persons, then one carries the burden of showing that a foetus is a person.

  2. Francesca Minerva

    Thanks James. I am not sure an embryo could be considered as a part or an organ of the mother, though. Also think to where this similarity would bring you: in same cases the law can prevent you from remove a (healthy) organ from your body. It seems to me that an embryo works like a parasite, more than like an organ.
    Thank you, Francesca

  3. Whether a foetus is a “person” is not a biological question, but a political one. It has to do with entitlement to partake of the state’s protection of individual life. It certainly isn’t an organ of the mother; it is more of a parasite developing into something individual with human characteristics, feeding off the mother. It may be important to a liberal society to preserve human life against unwarranted killing. So, the question shifts to what is warranted. Recall that the injunction, “thou shalt not kill” turns into “thou shalt not murder” (*it has to, in order not to condemn the genocide practiced by the Israelites in the trip to and conquest or Canaan) and “murder” is only unjustified killing.

    I think what Oklahoma is attempting is to compel the pregnant woman to consider the humanity of the child. This will work only after the 3d month, when the foetus looks sort of like a human. You could say that this is nothing more than a fairly brutal furtherance of liberal values, if I am right that a liberal society needs a strong policy in favor of preserving (and dignifying) human life.

    I made this argument to my wife and daughter, and, from their responses, had reason to be glad the were no heavy missiles nearby.

  4. Francesca Minerva

    Thanks Danny.
    First, why do you assume that defining a foetus as a person or not is a political issue? Is it also a political question to define a mushroom or at least to say a mushroom is not a person? If not, why? If yes, why? I would say that defining a mushroom (or a foetus, or a horse) is a biological issue, correlated to biological traits of the entity we are talking about.

    It seems to me you use the words “human life” and “person” as they were they same, but in the debate about abortion the terms are used to indicate different things. The foetus is surely human, and it is an individual (indivisible) after 14 days of pregnancy, but a few (not even the catholic church!) would say it is a person.

    Also you assume that to dignify and to protect human life is the same thing, but as people who ask for euthanasia claim, sometimes the only way to dignify human life is to end that life. Could you please explain why you think that to dignify and to preserve are the same?
    leaving apart embryos, I would say that you dignify a chocolate cake when you make the best of it, which is eating it. So even in the common language and understanding I don’t see this overlapping of dignity and preservation.

    thank you! Francesca

  5. Fracesca:

    As to chocolate cakes, there may be a political issue in its naming. What if it is called a Birmingham Chocolate Cake. Is that a statement of origin or a statement of type? E.g. “Black Forrest Torte” is (I think) now lawfully sold in Europe even if it is made in Lourdes. More generally, things sold are subject to labeling laws. If I cross an apple with a pear, is it still an apple? That’s a question of biology, but also for the law governing the sale of goods and a matter for social convention. But, on to life and liberal society/politics

    I agree that the dignity of human life is honored by allowing the person holding that life to end it, subject to some limitations. Honoring the person’s choice to die (with protection against coerced decision, making that decision someone else’s) is fully consistent with a liberal society’s interest in the living individual. But personhood is a political rather than a biological question (although biology is referenced by the political decision); politics determines when and how that life is honored. I should have said in the post you answered that preservation of life is important because it preserves the value of the individual in society.

    With abortion, in the context of liberal society, there are two questions: what is a person and when one person is dependent on another in a way that seriously impinges on the latter’s liberty, how do you deal with the conflict of interests of the two persons? Oklahoma wants the individual pregnant woman to have the personhood (as Oklahoma decides the foetus is a person) of the foetus brought home hard to the woman so that she can, as she must under today’s law, judge whether the foetus should be (killed)(terminated)(aborted in its development).

    What do you do, by the way, with the case of the foetus that could be born prematurely and survive? Should the mother be compelled to let the child be born, when she wants its life terminated (killed)? There was such a case. Assume that insurance or the state would pay the expenses of the operation and the care of the child (I suppose you’d call it a child once it’s out of the mother’s body) and that the operation is not a (statistically) risky one to the life or health of the mother. In such a case, if the state has an interest in preserving the dignity of the individual human being and conferring on that human the right to life, then I am without a doubt that the foetus/child should be born. I am at a loss to figure a satisfying argument the other way. The state court in that case let the abortion proceed.

  6. Francesca Minerva

    I will focus just on the last problem you rise (sorry, very busy).
    I think there is an argument to the other way, and it is based on the right not to be forced to become the genetic ascendant of someone, in other words not to become a parent even if any social duty connected to this role would be excluded and even if the burden of pregnancy was removed.
    Let’s imagine you can transfer an embryo of one week from the woman into an artificial womb, and then, when the pregnancy is over, the child will be given for adoption, so that the genetic mother interrupt every social relationship with the embryo after that first week of pregnancy. If I understand what you say, you think the woman would have a duty to “put”the embryo into the artificial womb. I think this would be a prima facie duty that would be over-weighted by the moral right of the woman not to become the genetic ascendant of anyone against her will.
    There could be many reasons to explain and justify this choice, but I think that even the weakest motivation would over-weight that right to life you mention. I cannot think of such a right, indeed. I think there is a right not to be born when the life someone is going to live will be miserable and therefore there is a duty not to give birth to subjects who will have a low quality life (because ill etc).
    But to claim that there is a right to be born and as a consequence a duty to give birth seems to me a claim hardly justifiable. If such a duty would exist, we all would be compelled to give birth to as many children as we could, and women would have a duty to be pregnant for all the time they are fertile (on average, from the age of 13 to the age of 55!). At the very least this is a super erogatory request.
    The tricky thing about the language of rights is that a right to something means nothing if there is no duty for another subject involved. This is a very basic principle of law/rights. But in the case of a right to be born (which is the right to life applied to embryos) you cannot define an equivalent duty to give birth.
    And in any case, there is a right not to be forced to become genetic ascendant.
    If you have sex and accidentally get pregnant against your intention you should have the chance to decide non to have a child. It doesn’t matter if you are not supposed to take care or to grow up her: you maybe just don’t want to know there is someone somewhere outside who has that kind of genetic relationship with you.
    I cannot think of any argument to limit such a right (as I don”t think there is a right to be born). At the same time I am aware we have to find an agreement on the limit of this: my parents cannot kill me NOW because they have changed their mind. It’s like when you buy a new laptop, you are given a week to change your mind, and in case you do, the shop will give your money back. But you cannot change your laptop after 10 years. In case of embryos this should be a little longer, I guess, but I could not say how longer. Three months seems for example a reasonable time for a withdrawal right applied to embryos, but I have no argument in favor of this random choice, I need to think carefully about it. It could even be three months after the child is born. I really could not tell.
    Anyway, all this works just in the case the embryo is healthy, because in the case it is not, I can see strong arguments in favor of a right not to be born and therefore of a duty not to give birth.

  7. Francesca: “the right not to be forced to become the genetic ascendant of someone” is another argument for the right to an abortion which, I have argued, stands against and needs to be balanced with the right conferred on the foetus by the political system applying cultural norms favoring … etc.). Is the mother’s right to an abortion ever subject to being outweighed by any “right” of the foetus or, are rights conferred on the foetus illegitimate and therefore void. That can’t be your position, as I understand your argument.

    I don’t understand that right to be free of descendants. What is it about? Is it about legal duties? Is it about inheritance rights against others the mother’s preferred relatives? It certainly contradicts the popular notion that we want our genes to survive in the form of offspring.

    To me, the mother’s claim is strictly about her freedom to decide what to do with her body. We already know from the criminal law that that right is not absolute. For example, she may not use her body as a means of carrying state secrets to the enemy or transporting stolen goods. So, once the foetus is removed, her claim is exhausted. If there is an additional right not to be the genetic ascendant of another, that right does not seem to stop at the stage a minute before birth. What if she donates an ovum to another woman and, after the ovum is fertilized and implanted in another woman’s womb, the ovum donor decides she doesn’t want a genetic ascendant. Has her claim any weight at all, even if the implanted fertilized ovum could be retrieved from the womb with little pain and no danger whatever? If she had the fertilized ovum put in an artificial womb, same result. Moreover, I could see why there could be a duty derived from the cultural preference for the individual human being for her to have it implanted where she can, if she will not carry it, I can’t see why, if the implantation is not dangerous to her, that her duty to allow the deposit is qualified.

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