BILL MEACHAM, PhD : PHILOSOPHY | Moral confusion about abortion

One of my teachers has said that you can’t talk somebody into changing their mind, but sometimes you can listen them into it.

Photo by James McNellis at the 2017 March for Life. Creative Commons image.

By Bill Meacham, PhD | The Rag Blog | July 7, 2022

The controversy about abortion–whether it should be permitted or forbidden and under what circumstances–illustrates the problem with what I call the Rightness paradigm of ethical reasoning.(1) The Rightness paradigm frames discourse about what we should do in terms of what is right or wrong according to certain rules. It includes rules of law and etiquette as well as morality,(2) but my focus here is on morality. We will get to the details presently.

Harms

First, consider some recent findings about the effects of forbidding women to get abortions. Researchers tested the hypothesis that abortion harms the women who have them and found, to the contrary, that “in general, abortion does not wound women physically, psychologically, or financially. Carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term does.”(3) The researchers conducted a rigorous study, known as the Turnaway Study because it studied women who were turned away from abortion clinics. Most states ban pregnancy after a certain time, typically when the fetus is thought to be able to survive outside the womb. The researchers interviewed women who had an abortion shortly before that date and women who were turned away after. Both sets of women wanted the abortion, but one set was denied it and forced to carry the pregnancy to term. Both sets were similar in terms of demographics and socioeconomics, so the studies were “apples to apples.” The researchers recruited nearly 1,000 women to be interviewed every six months for five years. The results were striking.

Women who had their abortions generally did not regret having an abortion at all.

Afterward, nearly all said that termination had been the right decision. At five years, only 14 percent felt any sadness about having an abortion; two in three ended up having no or very few emotions about it at all. “Relief” was the most common feeling, and an abiding one.(4)

But women who got there too late and had to continue their pregnancy experienced an extraordinary range of bad effects.(5)

  • They were more likely to end up in poverty, had worse credit scores and were more likely to go through bankruptcy or eviction.
  • They were less likely to be in a good romantic relationship after two years and in fact were more likely to be with an abusive partner.
  • They were more likely to end up as a single parent.
  • They had more trouble bonding with their infants, were less likely to agree with the statement “I feel happy when my child laughs or smiles” and were more likely to say they “feel trapped as a mother.”
  • They were less likely to have aspirational life plans.
  • They were in worse health, having more hypertension and chronic pain.
  • Their children were less likely to hit developmental milestones and more likely to live in poverty.

And there are other deleterious effects on a woman’s health, particularly when she gets pregnant repeatedly in a short period of time, as is likely when abortion is unavailable. One expert called pregnancy “the ultimate stress test.” Possible complications include sciatica, pica, preeclampsia, perineal trauma, and gestational diabetes. The lower the woman’s socioeconomic status and the darker her skin, the more likely she is to suffer from one or more of these ailments.(6)

Arguments

In view of this rather depressing list of harms to women who want abortions and can’t get them, how can abortion opponents maintain their position? They do so because their morality tells them they must. The most common justification for opposing abortion is the following:

  1. Murder, the intentional killing a human being, is wrong.
  2. An unborn fetus is a human being.
  3. Therefore abortion, the intentional killing of an unborn fetus, is murder and is wrong.

Now, there are a number of ways to counter this argument. The most obvious is to deny premise 2 by asserting that an unborn fetus is not a full human being, but merely a potential one. Oddly, since most abortion opponents are Christian, there is actually biblical support for this position. Exodus chapter 21, verses 22 and 23, says

When [two or more] parties fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life ….(7)

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg comments

Two people are fighting; one accidentally pushes someone who is pregnant, causing a miscarriage. The text outlines the consequences: If only a miscarriage happens, the harm doer is obligated to pay financial damages. If, however, the pregnant person dies, the case is treated as manslaughter. The meaning is clear: The fetus is regarded as potential life, rather than actual life.(8)

This counterargument depends on reframing what we consider to be the facts of the case. Other arguments in essence stipulate the facts but disagree about the moral implications.

For instance, we can assert that while killing a fetus is indeed wrong, it is even more wrong to deny a woman her freedom of choice. To force her to carry the fetus to term against her will is to make her a slave, an ultimate injustice. This is a typical form of argument in moral disputes. When one rule contradicts another, we have to rank them. The criteria for ranking are a matter of further dispute, however. In this case moral intuitions are in conflict; the intuition that the rules must be obeyed conflicts with the intuition that our actions must be fair.

A very influential essay by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson makes a slightly different argument based on notions of fairness. Imagine, she says, the following:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. … Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?(9)

The analogy, of course, is with a fetus attached to its mother and dependent on her for life. After carefully teasing out many variations of the scenario she concludes that the answer to her question is No:

I am arguing only that having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body — even if one needs it for life itself.(10)

The fetus, in other words, has no right to take over a woman’s body even for its continued existence. The woman has the right to terminate the relationship.

So far we have listed fairness arguments. Another has to do with prevention of harm. In view of the well-documented litany of ill effects of forced pregnancy listed above, many might argue that the danger of harm to the woman and her children outweighs any rights the fetus may have. That’s because their moral intuitions concerning avoidance of harm are stronger than their intuitions concerning respect for authority. But others obviously disagree because they have different moral intuitions. Again, moral intuitions are in conflict.

Moral intuitions

Moral intuitions are a key factor in the abortion controversy, so let’s take a closer look at them. They are ubiquitous. We all make moral judgments rapidly and without deliberative thought. We have an instinct for morals, a moral sense that seems to be built in. Most often our moral judgments are gut reactions that come first when we face a quandary, and we formulate reasons for our judgments afterwards. There are plausible evolutionary explanations for our sense of morality. We are ultra-social; we can’t survive in isolation and depend on our group for support, so we have evolved to have a finely tuned sense of how to get along.(11)

Moral judgments have specific cognitive, behavioral, and emotional characteristics. Cognitively, the rules they evokes are taken to apply without exception. Prohibitions against rape and murder are believed to be universal and objective, not matters of local custom; and people who violate the rules are deemed to deserve condemnation. Behaviorally, we do in fact condemn moral offenders and praise those who obey the moral law. Emotionally, when our sense of morality is triggered, we feel a glow of righteousness when we abide by the rules, guilt when we don’t, a sense of anger or resentment at those who violate the rules and a desire to recruit others to allegiance to them.(12)

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has identified six domains of moral intuition, which he calls “Moral Foundations.” We all have a sense of morality, but different people have different intuitions in varying degrees.(13)

  • Caring and the Prevention of Harm. We feel an impulse to care for people who are needy, vulnerable or less fortunate than we are.
  • Fairness and Reciprocity. We want to make sure that people get what they deserve and don’t get away with more.
  • Ingroup Loyalty. We evolved as members of small tribal groups and are keenly attentive to threats or challenges to the group.
  • Authority and Respect. We feel an impulse to show respect to persons of higher rank and to treat subordinates protectively.
  • Purity and Sanctity. This one is the instinct to avoid contact with things or people we view as unclean or impure.
  • Liberty and Oppression. We have a visceral revulsion to those who dominate and misuse others.

Clearly, what’s going on in disagreements about abortion is conflict among these moral intuitions. The anti-abortion people are all about authority and respect. Moral rules are real, they say, and we are obligated to obey them, especially the one about murder. The laws have been handed down by authorities, in particular the God of Christianity, and we must respect them. The pro-choice folks feel more strongly about fairness and prevention of harm than about obedience to authority, and many feel a great distaste for being forcefully dominated. Both sides have a strong admixture of ingroup loyalty. The whole situation is a recipe for disaster.

The problem with the Rightness paradigm of morality is that there is no way to adjudicate moral disputes. We have no objective way to determine what the moral rules are. If there is some question about how tall the Eiffel Tower is, we can look it up and find the answer (300 meters, excluding antennas).(14) If there were some further question, we could go measure it. If there is some question about what follows from two premises, A implies B and A, we can consult the rules of logic and know that the conclusion is B. Anyone with suitable training and expertise can verify both physical and logical claims. But the same can’t be said for morality.

Morality is in a different ontological category. Moral rules are not real in the way physical things are, nor in the way logical and mathematical objects are. Instead, they are socially constructed. I’ve written a whole essay about this topic; here’s a summary.(15)

Social construction

Socially constructed facts are those that exist only because we agree that they exist. Some examples are money, property, marriages, governments and political boundaries. There are many more, and we could not live together without them. Take political boundaries. There is no bright line painted on the ground between, say, Texas and Louisiana. Laws and governance are different on each side of the border only because we all agree that they are. Or money. We take bits of paper or metal with certain markings on them to be media of exchange and stores of value, but their physical properties alone do not enable them to be used as money, even in the case of precious metals. They are money only because human beings use them as money, accept their use as money, and have rules that govern their use as money.

Moral rules are like that. They exist independently of any particular person, but they are not independent of conscious agents altogether as physical and (arguably) mathematical/logical entities are. Moral entities are socially constructed within a community of practice, a social group, a culture, or a society. Within such a community or society, everybody agrees (more or less) on what they are, everybody treats them the same way and everybody acts as if they are real. Just as there are consequences for the way we deal with physical objects, there are real consequences for the way we abide by moral rules or not, namely the reactions of others in the community. So, for members of such a community they are real.

And that’s why the controversy is so intractable. Each side thinks their moral intuitions and beliefs reflect reality and should be applied to everyone. If someone disagrees, they think that person must be mistaken or deluded at best or at worst downright evil. Neither side can persuade the other, so the conflict just goes on and on.

What can be done?

Fortunately, the situation is not hopeless. If you are of a philosophical bent and realize that morality is socially constructed, you have the freedom to examine your morality and change it if you like. That is easier said than done, of course. We can’t do away with having a sense of morality altogether. But we can see it for what it is, not a perception of an immutable set of laws external to us but an expression of who we are in community with others. If an element of our morality does not serve us–if it causes us to contract into fear or anger at those whom we consider enemies, or it causes us to miss out on opportunities for learning, or it stunts our growth so we fail to achieve our full potential—then we can, with patience and some help from others, change our moral outlook to become more inclusive, loving, and compassionate. If we choose this path, it will not be because we have a moral obligation to do so (we don’t) but because it enhances our life and makes us more fulfilled and happy. I call this approach the Goodness Paradigm, which evaluates actions and policies in terms of their anticipated or hoped-for benefits rather than their adherence to moral rules.(16)

The culmination of this approach, which I call the Goodness Ethic, looks at benefits not just to each of us individually but to all concerned. It recognizes that everything is connected to everything else and that nothing exists in isolation. A change in an organism affects its environment, and a change in the environment affects the organism. So it makes sense to change our environment to be more nurturing for everyone involved, including us. Then we will thrive. The Goodness Ethic advises us to work for the good in all things. We are all in this life together, so let’s make it good for everybody.(17)

That’s on a personal level. It’s advice for enhancing your own life. But what about effecting societal change? What about changing abortion laws and policies to reduce the harms and injustices caused by rigid prohibitions against the procedure? Philosophers can be rightly criticized for living in ivory towers divorced from real life. I’m no exception, so all I can do is offer some ideas that seem sound to me.

One of my teachers has said that you can’t talk somebody into changing their mind, but sometimes you can listen them into it. Get to know people who think differently from how you do. Listen to them with empathy rather than arguing with them. Repeat what they say in your own words to make them feel heard. Find areas of agreement. Get enough emotional support for yourself to be able to keep doing this when the effort gets uncomfortable. There’s no foolproof recipe here, but the fundamental thing is to remember that deep down the person you are talking to is not your enemy no matter how much it might feel that way.(18)

The fact is that we are all connected. The hope is that we can recognize that fact and get along with each other. The way to do so is to open our hearts with compassion.

Notes

(1) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”

(2) Meacham, “Ways to Say ‘Should’.”

(3) Lowrey, “The Most Important Study in the Abortion Debate.”

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Grose, “Pregnancy Can Affect the Body Forever.”

(7) Sefaria.org, “Exodus.”

(8) Ruttenberg, “My Religion Makes Me Pro-abortion.”

(9) Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,” pp. 48-49.

(10) Idem., p. 56.

(11) Haidt and Joseph, “Intuitive Ethics.”

(12) Pinker, “The Moral Instinct.”

(13) Haidt, The Righteous Mind, pp. 123–127, “Moral Foundations Theory,” and pp. 170–176, “The Liberty/Oppression Foundation.” See also https://moralfoundations.org/.

(14) https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/how-tall-is-the-eiffel-tower.html.

(15) Meacham, Bill, “Reassessing Morality.”

(16) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”

(17) Meacham, Bill, “This Goodness Ethic.” See also “Permaculture Ethics” and Part II of “Reassessing Morality.”

(18) Some resources include Barker, “This Is How To Change Someone’s Mind”; Brooks, “A Gentler, Better Way to Change Minds”; Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training; Gordon, Leader Effectiveness Training. The latter two give specific verbal techniques for fostering understanding. See also The Re-evaluation Counseling Communities, “Re-evaluation Counseling” for how to get emotional support.

References

Barker, Eric. “This Is How To Change Someone’s Mind: 6 Secrets From Research.” Online publication
https://bakadesuyo.com/2019/12/change-someones-mind/ as of 20 June 2022.

Brooks, Arthur C. “A Gentler, Better Way to Change Minds.” Online publication
https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/04/arguing-with-someone-different-values/629495/ as of 20 June 2022.

Gordon, Thomas. Leader Effectiveness Training. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1997 and 2001.

Gordon, Thomas. Parent Effectiveness Training, revised edition. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2019.

Grose, Jessica. “Pregnancy Can Affect the Body Forever. Have Abortion Foes Reckoned With That?” Online publication https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/15/opinion/roe-pregnancy.html as of 18 June 2022.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Haidt, Jonathan, and Craig Joseph. “Intuitive ethics: How Innately Prepared Intuitions Generate Culturally Variable Virtues.” Daedalus, Fall, 2004, Vol. 133, No. 4 (Fall, 2004), pp. 55-66. Online publication https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20027945.pdf as of 12 September 2017.

Lowrey, Annie. “The Most Important Study in the Abortion Debate.” Online publication https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/06/abortion-turnaway-study-roe-supreme-court/661246/ as of 18 June 2022.

Meacham, Bill. “Permaculture Ethics and the Chain of Benefits.” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/PermacultureEthics.html.

Meacham, Bill. “Reassessing Morality.” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/ReassessingMorality_v3.html.

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodAndRight.html.

Meacham, Bill. “The Goodness Ethic.” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodnessEthic.html.

Meacham, Bill. “Ways to Say ‘Should’.” Online publication https://www.bmeacham.com/blog/?p=622.

Pinker, Stephen. “The Moral Instinct.” New York Times, January 13, 2008. Online publication http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html as of 13 January 2008.

Ruttenberg, Danya. “My Religion Makes Me Pro-abortion.” Online publication https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/06/judaism-abortion-rights-religious-freedom/661264/ as of 18 June 2022.

Sefaria.org. “Exodus.” Online publication https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.21.22?lang=bi&aliyot=0 as of 18 June 2022.

The Re-evaluation Counseling Communities. “Re-evaluation Counseling.” Online publication https://www.co-counseling.org/ as of 20 June 2022.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Autumn, 1971, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1971), pp. 47-66. Online publication https://www.jstor.org/stable/2265091 as of 11 September 2021.


[Bill Meacham, PhD, is an independent scholar in philosophy and the author of the books How To Be An Excellent Human and How to Exert Free Will as well as numerous essays on philosophical topics as applied to everyday life. A former member of the Ragstaff back when The Rag was a print publication, he now ponders the deep questions posed by philosophy: What’s real? How do we know what’s real? And what shall we do about what’s real? His work is available on his website.]


This entry was posted in RagBlog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.