Judy Nicastro's Abortion at 23 Weeks

This past week democrats in Texas managed to stave off a bill that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks, thanks to a filibuster by Wendy Davis and a noisy gallery of abortion rights advocates.  A few days earlier, there was an editorial in the New York Times week in review section called "My Abortion at 23 Weeks".  I thought Wendy Davis should have read it during her filibuster.  Rarely does anyone even talk about her abortion at 10 weeks--openly discussing a second trimester abortion was incredibly brave and very relevant to the proposed Texas law.

Nicastro was pregnant with twins, one of which had a herniated diaphragm.  But that's not all--doctors informed her that "the organs were pushed up into our boy's chest and not developing properly."  After more testing, they told her "Only one lung chamber had formed, and it was only 20 percent complete."  Were the baby to be born, he would suffer through life support and probably (the article insinuates but doesn't say) die anyway.  The only complication is that aborting one of the twins would increase the chances of the other miscarrying.  But Nicastro took that chance and her daughter was born healthy three months later.

Did she do anything wrong?  There are four letters to the editor on Nicastro's story, two supportive and two critical. One is from Sarah Moses. Under her name it says "The writer, an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Mississippi, teaches a course on medical ethics."  It bothers me for readers to think her letter is representative of medical ethics, so I will point out that her departmental website says she is an "assistant professor of religion".  This may have some relevance to the substance of her letter.

Her opinion is that Nicastro had an alternative to intentionally killing the fetus at 23 weeks--she could have let the pregnancy continue and refused life support for the newborn baby.  She makes the point that at the end of life, refusing life support is morally better than outright killing the patient.  Her counsel (in so many words): see the pregnancy through, do nothing heroic to save the baby, let him die.  There's more suffering in that scenario, but she thinks that's what morality requires.

Yes? No?  No! First glaring problem: the fetus at 23 weeks is not yet a legal person, both in the opinion of most philosophers, and as judged by the supreme court in Roe vs. Wade.   So the choice between killing at 23 weeks and withdrawing life support after birth can't be compared to the choice between those two options as they pertain to a patient -- a person -- at the end of life.

Is intentional killing (painlessly at 23 weeks) really the worse alternative, compared to letting the newborn baby suffer and die?  Even granting the dubious supposition that a person is involved in both cases, rather than a fetus in one and a person in the other, this is highly dubious.  If death is inevitable, reaching it in the least painful way is not just permissible, it's imperative. To think intentional killing is forbidden, even when it achieves an inevitable death less painfully, involves a quasi-religious sensibility (which is why I mentioned Moses's position as a professor of religion, not philosophy and religion).  You can't explain the forbiddeness of intentional killing (to prevent the pain of an inevitable death) in secular terms--you have to bring in what God thinks about intentional killing, or God's ownership of our lives, or the health of the soul, or some such.  This is not medical ethics, simpliciter, it's religious ethics.

What do most philosophers think about killing to prevent a painful death?  They think it's justifiable.  In fact, they think it's justifiable at the end of life, too.  When the individual killed is a fetus, it's just all the more clear. 

The only puzzling thing about this case, to my mind, involves the healthy twin.  Was it right to put her life at risk, to prevent the painful death of her brother?  That's where there's some room for debate here. In our society we have limited alternatives, because infanticide is off the table.  Were that an option, it's hard to say why it would be better to terminate earlier, exposing the healthy twin to risk, rather than waiting until after birth.  It's probably only better psychologically--easier, all around, to bear.


The Adoption Radicals

I've been reading (for the second time, actually), Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays (ed. by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt).  I find myself in violent disagreement with practically every author in the volume.  The theme of one article after another is that to properly value and respect families created through adoption, we must reduce the significance of biological parenthood.   Many of the authors say that parenthood is always contractual, volitional, "constructed"-- no more so in case of adoption than otherwise.

But what about the egg and sperm that came from Kim and Kanye--don't their genes give them special rights with respect to Kimye (er, North West)?  One of the authors, Jacqueline Stevens, says No--genetic parenthood is morally immaterial.  She does recognize pregnancy as conferring rights on gestational mothers, but that's because of all the work involved, not because a mother's genes go into making her biological child.  Since fathers contribute nothing but a moment's ejaculation, they have no rights over their biological children.  Stevens proposes that birth mothers should have to adopt as well (so all parenthood is adoptive), but have special rights--(a) they're first in line, and (b) they should have the power to select others as co-parents. Which others?  Maybe the father, maybe not.  Maybe a romantic partner, maybe not.  "Not the person I am dating, but perhaps my colleague or the person who I met in line at the supermarket could be the perfect parent. Enlarging the scope of potential parenting partners, acknowledging a broader community as potentially family, can only deepen all our connections."  (p. 94)

The person I met in the supermarket line?  There is a lot more silliness in the article.  For example, she writes "...the genetic contributions from a particular inseminated egg contribute little to the individual distinctiveness of progeny beyond species specificity."  (p. 81)   And she complains that another author "fails to appreciate the material importance of pregnancy, in contrast with the largely useless nature of sperm."  (p. 86) And then there are her strange views about disease--"99% of all diseases, including cancers have a preponderance of environmental etiologies, ranging from geographical location to wealth."  (p. 83) 

Anyhow.  I think genes do count, and that fathers have a natural right to their offspring, as mothers do. The amount of labor parents put into creating their progeny could be relevant (perhaps in a custodial conflict between the biological parents, it does make sense to give the edge to the mother, in virtue of the 9 months she spent carrying the child), but it's not the only relevant thing.  The fact that my child came from me and from my husband gives us special prerogatives.  Why?  Good question. I think we can explain that without regarding children as property of their parents, but that's a long story... (the book I'm working on -- or manuscript, as cautious academics prefer to say! -- contains an answer).

I find myself wanting to insist on the natural rights of biological parents for many reasons, but partly for the sake of those at risk of having their parental rights taken away--and that's young, poor women in many cases.  (A great, great book, and one that makes you see how vulnerable poor mothers are: Random Family, by Adrian LeBlanc.)  If we thought about who gets to raise which children in terms of societal fairness and justice, perhaps it would make most sense to redistribute children, transferring them from ill-prepared, low-income genetic/birth parents to well off gays and lesbians and infertile people.  That would overcome the natural injustice of infertility and probably give more children a better future.  But no--we have reproductive rights: both to not have a child at all and to keep a child we choose to have.  My child is my child, not up for redistribution, unless I'm outright neglectful or abusive.

Once biological parents do choose to give up a child to an adoptive parent, the adoptive parent's entitlement to the child has a different basis than the biological parents' did.  Many authors in this anthology seem to think that if this difference is countenanced (or made too much of), it must have problematic ramifications--adopted kids, adoptive parents, and families formed by adoption will be seen as second class.   This alleged danger comes as a surprise to me.  I wouldn't have thought that in this country, anyway, adoption creates any sort of stigma.  We admire the woman who gives up a baby instead of having an abortion (the movie Juno comes to mind); we admire people who adopt.  And then again, we just don't think about the whole matter.  I can't imagine anyone meeting friends in college and wanting to categorize them as "adopted vs. non-adopted" whereas we certainly do screen people in terms of race, sexual orientation, religion, and so on.

Nevertheless -- stigma or no stigma -- it's interesting to ponder how adoption works.  If some of the "meaning" of parenthood has to do with biological ties, does the same meaning carry over to adoptive parenthood?  And how does that happen?  Or are there other meanings? And are they just as satisfying?  Are the prerogatives of parents exactly the same, however parenthood comes about?   I've moved on now to Mary Shanley's book Making Babies, Making Families: What Matters Most in an Age of Reproductive Technologies, Surrogacy, Adoption, and Same-Sex and Unwed Parents.  Plus I've been reading first person accounts of adoption (since I have no first hand experience to draw on).

Got adoption literature to recommend?  Suggestions welcome!


Self Ownership

Do we own ourselves?  I'm thinking about the concept because it facilitates a certain model of the parent-child relationship.  On that model, parents hold their children in trust, readying them for the self-ownership they'll attain upon majority.  That's an attractive view in some ways, but ... self-ownership?  What?

The idea that persons are self-owners is a cornerstone of libertarian philosophy.  Some say it's actually not so foreign really, but actually a natural outgrowth of Kantian ideas about autonomy and self-determination.  But that doesn't seem quite right.  Libertarians think we start out as self-owners but could transfer ownership to someone else. I could sell myself, just like I could sell my computer. After the sale, I'd have a new owner--not myself. The Kant-inspired idea would be that I'm necessarily a self-owner. I can't stop owning myself, even if I want to. 

This sort of limit on transfers wouldn't be so strange.  There are limits on what we can do with other owned entities.  We can own a dog but not torture him.  We can own an antiquity, but be prevented from selling it to a foreign museum.  So ... why not say we own ourselves, but can't sell ourselves to anyone else?  The idea of self-ownership would still have plenty of bite--it would place limits on what others can do to us.  Just as the government can't step in and use my computer for data crunching, it can't step in and use me to labor for the good of others -- so Libertarians would get some of what they want out of self-ownership, even if it were thought of as necessary self-ownership.

And yet, and yet .... the whole idea seems wrong.  Things owned have monetary value, right?  If I own myself, that adds to my estate (I take it).  If everyone owns themselves, the GDP of the US has to reflect all the people here, not just the goods and services.  And then you have to wonder about the valuation.  Does little North West, brand new daughter of Kim and Kanye, have more value than an ordinary kid?  And how is value calculated? Do the parts of persons (kidneys, pints of blood) have values too, on grounds that we own our parts as well as our whole selves?

More absurdities: I thought the horror of slavery was (partly) the treatment of humans as being up for ownership.  Buying and selling slaves offends against the idea that we can't be owned .... I thought.  But no, says the libertarian, we can be owned.  The problem with slavery is not that people were treated as up for ownership, but that slaves weren't recognized as their own owners.  You could strengthen that to "slaves weren't recognized as necessary self-owners" and be opposed to slavery in every instance.  But would you really have captured what's so terrible about slavery?  What's repugant (among many things) is the whole idea of a person being the sort of thing that has an owner.

Libertarians, I think, see dignity in self-ownership.  For them, "self-ownership" has the same flavor as "autonomy", "self-determination", "self-management", "sovereignty", and "inviolability".  But all those are concepts from the political sphere--the basic idea being that a person is self-governing.  Self-ownership is a concept from the marketplace.  Governing myself and owning myself are two different concepts.  I'll go for self-governance, but the idea that I have any owner seems like (as one used to say) a category mistake.


The Predation Defense

Lately I've been torturing my family with the question: what would the world be like if all animals were herbivores?  I'm pretty sure the answer is: not as good.  Evolving to hunt makes a species develop all sorts of perceptual and cognitive strengths, and likewise, evolving as another species' prey.  I can't see how a world filled with herbivores, and only herbivores, could have minds as sophisticated and varied.  Predatory mammals would be missing, but also carnivorous birds and fish.  You could wish the world had an intelligent and benevolent creator that would just make clever, diverse, bounteous animals, so the misery of prey being eaten could be avoided, but that's not what our world is like.  In our world as it is, predation is a necessary phenomenon that's shaped species for the better.  There aren't just vastly more species, because of predation, and more "filled" ecological niches, but the species that exist have more and better skills.  Or so it seems--I'd love to have an opinion from an evolutionary biologist given to speculation! 

If predation is a force for good, one thing that follows is that when we think of lions eating zebras, or raptors eating mice, or sharks eating baby whales, we should not disapprove. Few will outright morally condemn a lion but sometimes the reason for avoiding condemnation is not the right one. It's not just that the lion isn't a moral agent, so can't be condemned. A lion is not like a toddler drowning his baby brother--doing wrong, but not blameworthy. It's also not just that the lion, as an individual, needs meat to survive.  The imperative to hunt wouldn't go away, if the lion had a nutritious vegan alternative (faux zebra?). Because (to repeat) predation is a force for good -- without it, there wouldn't be some of the traits, abilities, and species that seem most valuable.   Yes, of course, predation does cause harm to the individual animal eaten, but it's still overall a force for good (in a world like ours, not run by a perfect being).

Now, what does this paean to predation mean for us? We are predators too, of course--since we are omnivores.  If predation is on the whole a force for good, we should at least not be disturbed by the impulse to eat meat or drink milk. These are not the least bit like impulses to torture animals for fun, or molest children, or rape women.  Your inner lion is okay, not criminal or pathological or malevolent.  So much for self-esteem!  We should have it, even as we feel attracted to the smell of barbecuing meat, on a hot summer night.  But should we go further--should we consume meat and other animal products?

I don't think I'd be in worse moral fettle than a lion, if I were running around in the wilderness killing rabbits for my dinner.  As a moral agent, though, I'd have to think through why I was doing this as well as how.   I'd have a duty to kill the rabbits as kindly as possible, and to kill no more than I needed.  Moral agency does, then, make a difference, but not the difference sometimes claimed: I don't have to refrain from killing rabbits, because I'm a moral agent. 

But what about meat consumption in a more typical case? Predation is a force for good in nature, to the extent that it makes nature more varied, bounteous, and mentally sophisticated.  It works wonders in an ecosystem.  But are we humans really still part of an ecosystem? We seem more like destructive aliens, relative to every ecosystem.  Predation is generally a force for good, but predation via domestication, as practiced today by our extremely populous species, is a special case.  Its impact is just the opposite of classic predation--we plus five or six domesticated species now dominate the biosphere, and these species have been bred so that they've lost mental acuity. They're so numerous and dominate so much land that they're a tremendous threat to biodiversity.

When all is said and done, the predation defense for meat-eating seems to exonerate the impulse to eat meat, and even acquit actual meat-eating in some conceivable cases.  But domestication throws a wrench into the works.  Human, predation-via-domestication is a very different thing from predation as it functions in a healthy ecosystem.


Why aren't you a vegan? (results)

HERE are the results of my survey.  88 people took the survey.  I asked--
This survey is aimed at people who are not vegans. You qualify as "not a vegan" if you deliberately consume some or all animal products (meat, eggs, milk, cheese, fish, oysters, clams, etc.) Which of the following statements capture your reason(s) for not being a vegan? Select ALL of the answers that express your viewpoint to any degree at all.
Note, responders could give multiple answers, so the percents don't add up to 100.

The most popular answer (43.2% gave it) was
I believe I am obligated to treat animals humanely but also think some animals raised for food are treated well enough
Next most popular (40.9%) --
I believe I should be a vegan, but I find it too difficult and so I am just a part-time vegan or vegetarian or part-time vegetarian.
Another 25% cited difficulty as their reasons for being omnivores.
I believe I should be a vegan, but I find it too difficult to limit what I eat, so I am an omnivore.
Those two answers are mutually exclusive, so I can (probably!) add the numbers together:  65.9% of those surveyed believe they should be vegans.

Responders rejected an obligation to abstain from animal products for a variety of reasons.  The most popular reasons (26.1%) was that "consuming animals is natural."  Another 25% gave a Kantian reasons for not being obligated to abstain--
I don't believe I am obligated to abstain from animal products because animals are not persons, so I can use them as a means, as long as I am not gratuitously cruel to them.
20.5% think animal products are nutritionally necessary, and therefore ethically acceptable--
I don't believe I am obligated to abstain from animal products, because they are nutritionally necessary, and we can't be obligated to abstain from something we need for our survival.
19.3% have their energies focused on problems they consider more important.
I don't believe I am obligated to abstain from animal products because there are many other problems in the world and my energies are currently directed at problems I consider more important.
30 people selected "other".  Some of the explanations:
1) I don't believe I am obligated to abstain from animal products because not every ethical issue is a matter of obligation: still, it might be good to abstain from animal products, or it would be morally better to do so.
2) There are upland areas of Britain (where I live) which are only suitable for grazing by animals. If there was no market for these animals, not only would the animals not exist, also the economy and environment of these areas would be detrimentally affected, along with the lives of people living there.
3) For reasons incomprehensible to me I cannot care about the rights of animals. I know that I should but I do not.
4) Very roughly: if for example I accept some animals have a right to not be killed or only to be killed humanely, then this should extend to wild animals too. If one takes a consequentialist type view that omissions are not that different from comissions, then we should maximize the welfare of animals in the wild, if it not too onerous. Since in fact, I think of the lifestyle of animals in the wild as the "baseline" good life, then a domesticated life at around that level is acceptable to me.
5) I believe that vegans make a category error by privileging the actions of humans over the actions of other animals. To elaborate: 1) If eating other animals is wrong, and 2) Humans are animals Then either all animals eating other animals is wrong (which seems absurd) or humans are in some way a special kind of animal (which seems contrary to the notion that animals should be treated with the same respect as humans).
6) For ethical reasons I don't eat sentient creatures. I doubt oysters feel pain, but still don't consume them because of yuck factor of eating any animals. Most people would describe me as vegan, but I can't see a serious ethical objection to silk or honey, so I guess I don't qualify as a real vegan. Boo hoo.
7) I am slowly transitioning into being vegan
8) I am not vegan because the ethical satisfaction I would derive by going vegan again would be minor to nonexistent, and so provides little to no motivation for me now that I enjoy eating animal products. If I got nothing out of eating animal products, and could achieve even slight ethical satisfaction from being vegan, I would be vegan -- but that's not the case at the moment. Also possibly relevant is that I don't believe in moral obligations (although it is of course possible to want to be vegan for ethical reasons without believing in moral obligations).
9) It's too exhausting to try to eat completely the "right" way. The rising demand for quinoa is apparently detrimental to the farmers who grow it (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/20/quinoa-boom-bolivian_n_2724251.html). Brown rice has arsenic. Unless you grow your own food, which I have neither the knowledge, skills or desire to do, you're hurting someone, somewhere. So I try to buy local, consume animal products in moderation (and pay extra for humanely raised, cage-free, etc. etc., to show that there is a market for these products instead of abstaining entirely), and live my life without constant anxiety and second-guessing at every meal. It's the best I can do right now. I also believe that everyone eating half as much meat would be the same as half the people abstaining entirely, which seems more realistic.
10) Admittedly, I don't try very hard. And clearly I don't feel that omnivorism is very wrong, as wrong as other things I refrain from doing, like murder or theft, or I would be more motivated to comply with my moral reasons. Rationally I believe veganism is the only morally defensible position - however I don't feel strongly enough motivated to comply with that, especially as I'm a lazy and unimaginative cook, and really love dairy.
You can find out who these responders were (philosophers? with background in ethics? knowledgeable about the treatment of animals?) by looking at the survey results.

Why did I create this survey?  I am a vegetarian (20 years now!), but not a vegan, and have a longstanding puzzlement about why I cannot make myself go further.  I like the milk in my cappuccino too much--I am a sinner!  But is that all there is to it? Periodically I ponder the possibility that I am not actually a sinner.  We all have a right to food that's "nutritious and delicious"--and our obligation is only to exercise that right in the most humane way possible. For me, given my taste preferences, that means being a vegetarian, not a vegan. That sounds a bit lame and "spin"-ish, so I wondered what other non-vegans have to say in their self-defense.   Several of the "other" answers strike me as food for thought--especially 4) and 5).