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Simon Rippon’s Posts

Is Half an Abortion Worse than a Whole One?

Last week, the New York Times Magazine included an interesting article about abortion by Ruth Padawer. It provoked not a little angst and soul-searching among members of the pro-choice community, as well as some exultant pronouncements from anti-abortionists highlighting supposed inconsistencies in the pro-choice position.

The Times article profiled a number of women who chose to “reduce” their twin pregnancies to a single fetus, recounting the emotions and ethical issues grappled with by women, their partners, and the doctors who perform (or refuse to perform) this type of selective abortion. The procedure, which according to Padawer is “usually performed aound Week 12 of pregnancy”, involves the doctor selecting under an ultrasound scan a healthy fetus whose chest is lethally injected.  It shrivels in the womb, whilst its twin is carried to term. In the cases in question, the procedure is not performed for medical reasons, but because the woman has chosen for social reasons to carry only one child to term. Although reductions arose historically as a procedure that was medically indicated – reducing risky quint, quad or triplet pregnancies to twins that had a much better chance of survival – most practitioners have not recognized reduction below twins as having an adequate medical justification. Some practitioners consequently refuse to perform the procedure, but others perform it willingly. As Dr. Richard Berkowitz explained: “In a society where women can terminate a single pregnancy for any reason – financial, social, emotional – if we have a way to reduce a twin pregnancy with very little risk, isn’t it legitimate to offer that service to women with twins who want to reduce to a singleton?”  Dr. Berkowitz’s question is a good one, as is the main question that Padawer raises: “What is it about terminating half a twin pregnancy that seems more controversial than reducing triplets to twins or aborting a single fetus? After all, the math’s the same either way: one fewer fetus.”

So what is it that makes “terminating half a twin pregnancy” seem more controversial than aborting a single fetus? Does our  almost universal uneasiness about it show a fundamental inconsistency in pro-choice thinking, or is there a consistent pro-choice position that pays sufficient respect both to a woman’s presumed right to choose, and to our uneasy intuitive reactions to twin reduction?

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A New Life Unexamined may be More Worth Living

Suppose that you’re part of an interracial, black African and white Caucasian, couple. You have a baby together, and immediately after the birth you phone around your friends and family to tell them the happy news. They all seem to have just one question, which you keep hearing over and over, immediately after you tell them that you have a new baby: “What skin tone does it have?”

As soon as you consider replying “light” or “dark” or “in-between”, you begin to wonder why the people you love are so strangely focussed on an unchosen and ultimately unimportant feature of your baby’s physical make-up. Do they think that your baby should be thought of or treated differently, merely on account of its skin colour? Instead of answering the question, you tell them this: “What does it matter? It’s not for us to impose our categories and expectations on the child. Let’s leave the child the freedom to form and choose its own identity as it grows old enough to do so.”

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Could Groupons Save the World?

Two-and-a-half year old web start-up Groupon is a stunningly successful company. It reportedly turned down a six billion US dollar buyout offer from Google in December, and Reuters reports that is now planning an initial public offering that may value the company at between $15-20 billion. It has achieved this staggering valuation with a simple business model: every day in each of a number of cities (now hundreds worldwide) it offers on its web site a deal from a merchant wanting to access Groupon’s email subscribers in the local market. The daily deal might offer such luxuries as a massage, a day of paintball, a restaurant meal or hotel stay for two, or tooth whitening treatment, at a discount of about 50-70% off the regular price. The concept is that a minimum number of people have to sign up to the deal for it to be valid, so Groupon provides a bundle of willing buyers to the merchant. In return, the merchant provides what amounts to a bulk discount. The Groupon company makes money by operating as a middleman for payments: it sells buyers a voucher for the product, and Groupon passes on some of the money it received for the voucher to the merchant, keeping a chunk of it for itself.

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Should Conservative Christians be Allowed to Care for Our Children?

Eunice and Owen Johns are Christian Pentecostalists who believe that sexual relations other than those within marriage between one man and one woman are morally wrong. They also want to be foster parents.

Should they be allowed to care for other people’s children? Derby city council have been reluctant to allow this, and the High Court has recently agreed with the council that the attitudes of potential foster carers to sexuality are a relevant legal consideration. Considering the moral question whether they should be allowed to foster – that is, the question of what the law ought to say about cases like this – my colleague Michelle Hutchinson cautiously says it all depends on the risks of harm to the child, and the risks of harm to society as a whole, but implies that her sympathies lie with the council. With one proviso, I believe we should allow Eunice and Owen Johns to foster – because to do anything else would be illiberal.

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What is the Big Society?

When a lane is closed off for repairs, are you that driver who ignores all the  “change lane” signs as you zoom past the stationary line of traffic, then cut in at the very last moment? Are you someone who loves to go to the beach or park to enjoy the scenery, eat a picnic, and leave your rubbish strewn behind you? Are you a bank trader taking risks for profit that would be ridiculous – were it not for the fact that your bank is “too big to fail” and the government will have to step in and raid the public treasury to save it if the gamble goes the wrong way? Do you cheat on your taxes? When your country goes to war, are you one of the brave legions of Keyboard Kommandos who tirelessly blogs (and comments on blogs) in support of it, yet wouldn’t even dream of signing up and risking your life to fight for what you believe in? Do you never buy a round of drinks at the pub, or pick up the tab at a restaurant, though you can afford to do so, and enjoy it when others buy  for you?

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If North Africa Starves Next Year, I’ll be Rich!

Inflation is swinging upward in the UK and it will surely cause us some irritation soon in the supermarkets. But most of us do not have difficulty putting enough food on the table for our families, and it’s easy for us to forget that things are different elsewhere. During the past few years sharp rises in food prices have contributed to widespread hunger in the third world and to civic unrest, including the recent toppling of the government in Tunisia,  and riots in countries including all of these: Algeria, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonsia, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

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Sam Harris, the Naturalistic Fallacy, and the Slipperiness of “Well-Being”

This post is about the main argument of Sam Harris’s new book The Moral Landscape. Harris argues that there are objective truths about what’s morally right and wrong, and that science can in principle determine what they are, all by itself. As I’ll try to demonstrate here, Harris’s argument cannot succeed. I call the argument “scientistic” because those who take (a variation of) its first two premises to be obvious are led to exaggerate the importance of scientific measurement for determining what’s morally right, and correspondingly to underestimate the importance of moral reasoning and moral philosophy.

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Religion and Virtue: The Pope’s Truncated Vision

The Pope arrived in Britain today, held out his “hand of friendship” and called on all the British people to remember:

Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike.

So far, so respectable. Many (though by no means all) historical British leaders were of course Christians, and Christianity does teach respect for truth and justice, mercy and charity, in broad terms at least. (Some will disagree that the Pope’s faith teaches justice or respect for truth when it comes to contraception, HIV, gay rights, and women’s rights, and some may point out that historically this faith was neither particularly merciful nor just – but let us put these quibbles aside.) It is not unreasonable to think that historical Britons drew their morals from their faith, and that this benefitted us in the present day, even if it is debatable whether faith was or remains a “mighty force for good”.

My problem is with what the Pope then went on to say:

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Facilitating, Condoning, and Preventing HIV

The Eighteenth International AIDS Conference is currently underway in Vienna, and one of the issues that has been under discussion is how to reduce HIV transmission within the various at-risk groups. One such group is the prison population, among whom HIV transmission occurs due to both illicit sexual activity and intravenous drug abuse. But prison authorities have often resisted putting in place public health measures such as condom or needle distribution that have been shown to be effective, because they regard sexual activity and drug use as prohibited in their prisons, and do not want to to be seen as condoning these activities. Is this concern a reasonable one?

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