Masimo Pigliucci – Abortion ethics without the experiences of real life is just inadequate

I thought the debate was over. Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life? We sit and debate ethics in the ivory tower when we should base our ethics on real world outcomes. It is for this reason we have recently clashed with Secular Pro-Lifers and the rather puzzling stance.

In every case they don’t think women or doctors should be punished either criminally or monetarily for abortions but they want abortions as a practice to stop. They have offered no real world solutions to the issues and the real world solutions if any are frankly magical and require people to work like the hypothetical humans in their world. Masimo Pigliucci weighed in with two articles on the topic.

Philosophy is great, but we shouldn’t decide how we behave solely on philosophy without looking at the real world consequences of the action. 

You may have heard of the latest tempest in a teapot to hit the often tumultuous waters of modern atheism, this one surrounding American Atheists’ President David Silverman.

David unfortunately gave a little boost up to people who stand for a movement that in every single implementation has resulted in harm to women. Abortions are a vital pillar of women’s health and the people who benefit from them the most are the poorest. Abortion as part of a comprehensive sex education system and with good long term contraception coverage is a vital part of family planning.

It has incredible benefits to society, the major opposition is almost purely religious because religious bodies (mainly Christian) fund Pro-Life groups. The benefits include better health of mother and children (Remember, spacing of children is vital and closely spaced children tend to not be so healthy). It also provides both economic and social stability. It helps women have careers and helps the poorest keep food on the table.

And no, I have not gone into bodily autonomy, because that’s a given and been flogged to death by other writers. I have not gone into embryology either because others have covered that. I speak on the basis of humanitarian values. In most cases, the provision of abortion has gone on to improve a lot.

And we guilt the people who have them. We make it seem like the picked petty wealth over the life of a human being. We don’t tell them what that really means. What the advantage of a solid diet means for a growing child. What an education means. What a career means. The benefits of legalised abortion and a laissez fair pro-choice has no equal. Now this is a different ideal than the old Chinese “compulsory abortions” of the 80s and 90s or the pro-life nations where people are desperate for basic gynaecological care. We have made abortion harder for women who have them by painting them as callous monsters who want another Prada bag and vodka shots rather than the wholesome glow of motherhood.

David Silverman is right and wrong. There do exist Libertarian and Economically Conservative atheists and I do not like their economical strategies. And they are not properly represented by the GOP since the GOP may as well be renamed to the JOP since they seem to insert the King of Jews into all decision making rather than “common sense”. However in order to vote Republican you have to agree that you take the rough with the smooth. And those smooth tax cuts and free market come at the price of a government so small it can fit right into your uterus.

Therefore, to vote conservative is to compromise on women’s rights. It is also to compromise on education standards and vote  for policies that harm the poorest through the removal of the economic safety net.

Let’s start with Ahlquist. He was very upset that Silverman went to CPAC to begin with, apparently under the misguided understanding that atheism is a special province of political progressivism (it isn’t). In particular, Ahlquist really didn’t like the following sound bite from the AA President: “I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

There is a secular argument against abortion. It’s just a terrible one. It’s one made by people who make the argument bereft of experience and understanding of why abortions take place. To them abortion occurs in a vacuum of social, economic, health and personal autonomy and in the realm of pure thought experiment.

It may not be as clear cut to Pigliucci, or Silverman but that’s because neither of them sees the argument in terms of real life  versus none but under the notion that this is not a sacred thing.

And they are right. Abortion is not sacred. It is why we do not do DnC abortions anymore and instead prefer medical abortions and suction evacuation. The abortions of yore are no longer done. However what we are debating is a debate that is done. Abortions clearly make everyone’s life better. A pro-life stance is harmful. We have actual evidence of people in Pro-Life countries and Pro-Choice countries and we can compare the two and note that for the same socio-economic strata people who are pro-life are more negatively affected than pro-choice.

I find precisely nothing to object to in that statement, which seems to me obviously true. Not so, says Sarah Moglia over at Skepchicks: “If by ‘secular argument,’ you mean ‘a belief based on personal feelings,’ then, sure, there’s a secular argument against abortion. There could be a ‘secular’ argument against puppies, in that case. If you’re using ‘secular’ to mean ‘a logical, science-based, or rational’ belief, then no, there is no ‘secular argument’ against abortion. The supposed ‘secular arguments’ against abortion are rooted in misogyny, a lack of understanding of science, and religious overtones.”

Sarah, not everything you (or I, for that matter) dislike or disagree with is based in misogyny, stupidity, or religious fundamentalism, and it’s high time people stop using the m-word as the ultimate trump card to which one cannot possibly dare to reply.

I have spoken to pro-life Secularists. They accused the mothers of murder. However when I asked if the mothers should be jailed and pointed out that we once jailed such women they said “No, it’s cruel”. Okay so we don’t jail the women. What about the doctors? If we jail them then the only abortions would be unsafe ones. No we cannot jail them. What if we fine them? Then the poorest women are hurt.

So we don’t jail doctors and women, we don’t fine them. Then what? We stop educating women about comprehensive medical care so that they don’t know about abortions? That will harm women.

And then it was conceded that maybe first trimester abortions are okay. To which I say “Why are we arbitrarily placing restrictions on abortion at a random point decided by dividing normal gestation by 3 rather than the current system where we place the limit based on foetal viability.

Which they then conceded and spoke about late term abortion bans. I had to point out that I have never heard of a late term abortion being done for economic or personal choice. It was always done due to health reasons or due to severe birth defects and in many cases would save the mother’s life and if the number of these has gone down due to our ability to do C-Sections. These are incredibly rare.

I have seen anti-vax hold their own better than this. What this is, is a philosophy so bereft of the real world that it lacks the spine. Pro-life gets it’s spine from religion, because religion inculcates a set of rules handed down by the divine that produce a rigid and inflexible code that must be adhered to. Christianity as a whole has a lot of pro-lifers who don’t care about anything to do with abortion mainly because all they need to oppose it is “A good Christian is Pro-Life”. By contrast Secular Pro-Life does not have that spine.

Of course there are logical, science-based, and rational arguments against abortion. They may turn out to be ultimately unconvincing, or countered by better arguments — as I believe they are — but they certainly exist. To start with, you may want to spend some time perusing a few entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (like this one, orthis one, or this one), for instance (don’t forget to check the relevant references too).

Science does not argue, science demonstrates evidence. The evidence based medicine states that abortions are a vital part of women’s health.

And those are rather sweet arguments made in the ivory tower of academia. Not on the front lines where I have known women so desperate for an abortion that they would throw themselves down stairs and out of windows to damage themselves enough to get the abortion.

Outside of this reality the utilisation of such ethics to play devil’s advocate can charitably described as naive.

Are these arguments sufficient to justify forceful state interventions on women’s bodily integrity, under any circumstances? Very likely not. But plenty of countries (including the US) do already regulate, for instance, late term abortion, noting the ethical complexity of the issue and of course making room for a number of special circumstances, usually having to do with the health of the mother. Morally, should the decision to abort not be the subject of serious consideration, at the least on the part of the mother? After all, Dave didn’t say anything about legislation, he simply stated that the case of abortion is ethically more complicated than that of minority rights or Church-State separation. Seems to me that this is a no brainer: since abortion involves more than one life, and there is a marked difference in the consequences of a given decision for the two parties, the issue is thornier than others, and it ought to be so for secularists also. To decide to get certain types of abortion* (say, last trimester) is always (or, at least, should always be) a very difficult and emotional step, precisely because it has significant ethical consequences. There is no equivalent to that in, say, deciding whether to allow gay couples to marry or not, as a moment’s reflection should make clear.

Do you really think a woman would carry a child for 6 months and endure all that and change her mind at the last step? I have professionally never seen a late term abortion requested for personal choice or economics. I have asked and experienced Obs/Gynaes back me up. The majority of late term abortions occur due to health issues of mother or foetus. I am sure there may be one or two but this is a minority within a minority. Even without the bogeyman of late term abortion, the majority of abortions occur at the first and second trimester. In the USA which is a battle ground for women’s rights around 1% of all abortions are late term and the vast majority are tragic events. A mother to be has to abort due to unforeseen circumstances.

This has never been contentious, it was made contentious by the people who fear monger and implied that this procedure was common. And that it was being done for fun rather than to help people.

It is not ethically complicated. If we have two people whose lives are at risk due to one then we may as well save one life. If one of the people is only alive because the mother is acting as a life support system and there is no chance of survival outside (Eg. Anencephaly – The baby lacks large sections of brain) and a normal life then why force the mother to endure 3 more months of pregnancy to give birth to a dead child. Or why birth a child doomed to suffer? Do you think it is healthy to keep a child missing massive portions of it’s brain and skull alive solely through medical technology for the sake of your ethics?

No. The ethics of pro-Choice are backed up with real life. This is the debate, the pro-lifers think late term abortion happens to perfectly healthy babies in perfectly healthy mothers not in the underaged, in victims of incest and rape, in mothers who become ill and need medical care during pregnancy or in foetuses who are irrevocably damaged.

Now, does that mean that we should therefore advocate a restriction of women’s rights as they are currently defined in the US? Of course not, nor do I see any evidence that that’s what Dave meant to suggest. But to dismiss the complexity of the issue by suggesting that only irrational, science-illiterate country bumpkins could possibly think that there is reason for pause is either intellectually naive or dishonest.

Perhaps but the Secular Pro-Life arguments seems to be not just science illiterate but (and I repeat) thinks such a discussion of morality occurs bereft of real life.

Silverman is quoted as saying that “the Democrats are too liberal for me.” You can quote me as saying that the Democrats are far too conservative for me.

Okay, that’s fine.

The point is: so what? What does any of the above, including abortion, fiscal conservativeness (or not), support for the military (or not), owning guns (or not), and liking or disliking Obama have to do with atheism? Nothing, absolutely nothing.

Except how one behaves. The Pro-lifers aren’t just happy to make intellectual arguments but have argued for campaigning outside clinics and indeed harassing patients with pictures of abortions.

At an abortion clinic? That’s a dick move

Bear in mind, I am not criticising them for their ethics, I am criticising them for their ethics means and what people do with them. This is a common picture among those who volunteer at clinics. It is volunteers trying to make the experience for women who have to undergo an abortion a little less painful because the pro-lifers wish to “debate” by scaring women who are making a medical decision.

If you showed pictures of an appendectomy to a young man with an inflammed appendix that young man would now panic and may not want the surgery any more. That does not mean your argument was strong but that you scared an already scared person into making a rash decision.

In fact, pretty much the only social issues that ought to unite every atheist are the separation of Church and State and the rights of unbelievers. Not even a defense of science and critical thinking are really “atheist” causes, since there is a good number of atheists who buy into all sorts of woo (just not the particular woo featuring a white bearded male who sits high in the sky and spends a lot of time watching people’s sexual habits) — trust me, I know a number of them.

And this is a right of unbelievers and personal bodily autonomy. It is a cultural war that is going on in America and to be pro-life is to help the religious denial of bodily autonomy. You aren’t helping anyone, you are merely validating religious oppression of women by giving them the “See, even atheists think abortion is icky” argument.

And please do not dare comment on this post and characterize me as conservative, misogynistic, anti-feminist, and so forth. I’ve written enough about all the above mentioned issues that it ought to be crystal clear that I’m to the left of Jon Stewart when it comes to all of them. Thank you.

Okay, you aren’t misogynistic. You said you are pro-choice. But here is the thing, you think we still have to have this debate with every Tom, Dick and Helen who comes along who doesn’t get it. That we have to keep bashing our heads against the wall forever. We should not HAVE to explain this to a bunch of people who think academic arguments are all they need to deny people basic medical care. And I repeat the Pro-Life atheists have supported individuals who have taken away basic access to healthcare.

Predictably, my recent post on some remarks made by American Atheists President David Silverman has generated a firestorm on blogs and twitter, even though I thought the opinions expressed therein are actually quite mild. But such is the nature of debates in the age of social networking. There are several interesting points that have emerged from the thoughtful discussion that has taken place on this blog, for which I thank my readers. (No, I never check discussion threads on other blogs. Sorry, not enough time and energy!)

Your mild comments are only mild because you do not see what they mean.

Yes you think the pro-life atheists have a right to be heard. I think they do too.

BUT, I also have a right to tell them exactly how and why they are wrong and point out that they are harming women. And that by supporting a debate between academic ethics and real life as equal measures you are harming real women. Not personally, but a supporting an ethic that is hell bent on denying women basic Obs/Gynae care.

They are mild because it is giving a platform to individuals who seek to deny women an integral part of healthcare and bodily autonomy and control over their destiny. Let’s not make this about late term abortions, this is about the bulk of abortion. The morning after pill, the IUCD, the methotrexate… The suction evacuations. Let us not pretend that this is about late term abortion.

Predictably, neither piece takes a kind view of my essay, nor, frankly, did the authors try to give it a charitable reading that may lead to fruitful discussions rather than name calling. But in the case of PZ’s sarcastic remarks, I richly deserved it. His entire (short) post takes me up for writing (in the original version of my essay) that “abortion should always be a very difficult and emotional step.” I did not mean that literally, as should have been clear from the context and the examples given. But it was certainly an instance of sloppy writing on my part. After some of my readers pointed it out, I revised the entry to read: “certain types of abortion (say, last trimester)” should always be a very difficult and emotional step,” and later added a footnote to call readers’ attention to it.

And I repeat, the last trimester IS a very difficult and emotional step already and making it even more so doesn’t help them mother and her choice. Imagine the guilt of a woman who has a threatened abortion that is completed by the doctor? Or of an anencephalous foetus’s mother thinking “if only she had more Vit B12″. Or the existing guilt and shame felt by victims of rape and incest and child abuse.

To expect a woman to feel guilt at this point is punishment. This does not help.

I don’t get it. We do this all the time, and it is a cornerstone of our moral education — in true virtue ethical-Aristotelian fashion, I might add. We begin with young children, trying to both explain to them the reasons why certain things (e.g., stealing) are wrong and how they should properly feel about those actions (shame, guilt). We do it to adults too, of course. We criticize the greed (emotion!) of big bankers, we call on our politicians to feel sorry (emotion!) about their misdeeds, and we are horrified by the lack of emotionalresponse on the part of sociopaths when they show no regret (emotion!) at whatever crime they may have committed. And this goes for positive emotions as well, of course: we say that people should feel pride for this, happy about that, and so on. So, what exactly, is the problem with someone arguing that another person should (morally) feel troubled by a certain (ethically salient) decision?

Except abortion is not a crime. To compare it to stealing, greed and other misdeeds is to fail to understand what abortion is and the reasons why it takes place.

Having sex with consent is not a crime. Being raped is not a crime either. So why should the repercussion be treated as a crime to be sorry and guilty about?

You are criminalising masturbation and sex. Are you guilty about the millions of potential humans you doomed by your selfish pleasure? No? Why not! I want you to feel guilty!

Except people do this too. Just not to the level of abortion. It is morally salient only because we give undue importance to a foetus.

But perhaps the idea is that I, as a man, should not dare tell a woman how to feel or think about something I couldn’t possibly have experienced myself. But that is also highly problematic. As one of my readers pointed out, we do this too all the time. We don’t think that only people who have relatives on death row have a right to express opinions about the emotions and ethical reasoning of people who do. And the same holds for pretty muchany other ethical discussion: being a first-person participant is neither a requirement to engage in it, nor necessarily an unquestionable positive (the reason we don’t let families of victims of crimes render verdicts and hand out punishments is that they are too emotionally close to the events themselves).

Except we are discussing ethics sans experience. Ethics and anything that tells humans how to behave cannot be bereft of human experience. And you aren’t involved in abortion, but you ignore the statements of those who are involved.

Yes you can discuss abortions, no one’s stopping you even though you have a Y Chromosome. However, it is helpful to have an actual working knowledge of the issue rather than bring philosophy and assume that’s all there is to the issue.

And stating that our actual experiences with abortion on both the medical and the patient side is not as valid as your pure and unencumbered philosophy (and face it, that’s what you are trying to defend your stance as) is just foolish.

The emotional closeness to the issue is due to the emotions being part of the issue. That all the shame and fear and lost hope are part and parcel of the issue. To remove them invalidates the fact we are discussing an issue that involves real humans.

According to SW: “Entertaining anti-choice arguments delegitimizes women’s humanity and bodily autonomy,” which essentially amounts to an exceedingly anti-freethought stand, seems to me. And here is more hyperbolic rhetoric from SW: “What seems to be lost on Silverman, Mehta and others is that debating women’s humanity is not an academic exercise.” Debating women’s humanity? Seriously? I’m appalled.

No, we are debating a medical procedure. A medical procedure with enormous benefits. A medical procedure demanded by women across the globe and by experts. It is opposed by religious groups who utilise ignorance and rhetoric to vote in people who deny women  access to this medical procedure. Women who have this medical procedure are shamed and blamed till in order to be a good woman you have to support denying other women this procedure. People die trying to do the procedure on their own and it is through hard won experience we have come up with ways to make this procedure safe.

To provide a platform for people from a pro-life stance to push for the banning of this medical procedure, jailing of women and doctors and otherwise preventing access is a stance of support. You may not personally support them but you are giving them a higher profile than they already have to push an agenda that is hopelessly naive, out of touch with reality and that is being used to make decisions with regards to access to this medical procedure.

And these decisions are being made by people with shockingly bad grasps of embryology and a complete ignorance of the issue and who seriously were arguing that women should be jailed for murder for abortions. Are we seriously going to debate this now? Are we going to debate the secular arguments for slavery and indebtured labour next?


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Pigliucci: I don’t get it.

    Quite so.

    The rest of his essay is superfluous.

  2. hoary puccoon says

    I doubt that Pigliucci spent even five minutes listening to any woman who had actually undergone a third trimester abortion. He just grabbed a talking point from the anti-choicers because he thought it was a strong debating position.

    At least I hope he never heard any of our stories.

    Because if he listened to stories like mine and then used that point, he’s not just a lazy debater. He’s a monster.

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