Thursday, August 23, 2012

Biology, "Legitimate" Rape, and the Morality of Abortion

As you've probably heard, the GOP has officially taken a strong stance against the moral permissibility of abortion.  The party's position is that a woman should not be able to abort a fetus, even if the fetus is the product of rape or incest. 

Representative Akin's comments have received quite a bit of attention recently.  In discussing pregnancy resulting from rape, he remarked: “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”  

The majority of the controversy over Akin's comments revolve around: (a) biology and whether a raped woman is more or less likely to get pregnant than a woman that engages in "normal" intercourse; and (b) his use of the phrase 'legitimate'.  I don't think either of these is where oppenents should really direct their ire.

Regarding (a), it appears that Akin is incorrect about his biological claim.  A number of professional medical associations have disputed his remarks.  But, even if he's right, I don't see why this is relevant to the discussion.  Suppose that it is extremely unlikely that a woman becomes pregnant after rape.  Imagine that merely 1% of cases of rape result in pregnancy and the chances of getting pregnant from "normal" intercourse is significantly greater than this.  What's the argument that gets one from this (dubious) biological point to the conclusion that it is wrong for a woman to abort a fetus after being raped?  I don't see why the probabilities matter here.  

Regarding (b), I can certainly see why people think that Akin is implying that some (many?) cases of purported rape are not legitimate (where this is read:  actual cases of rape).  If this is Akin's position, there may be cause to be upset.  And we can have a very interesting discussion about what counts as rape and what exactly it is to give consent.  But, again, I don't see anything in what Akin says that has anything to do with whether women that have been raped and become pregnant ought to be allowed to have abortions.  And that's the issue at hand.  That's a major part of the official platform of the GOP.   A quick look at the GOP website and interviews with the major players in the Republican Party yields little by way of actual arguments for this controversial position. 

We need to engage in a debate about the issue and this requires wrestling with premises that are actually relevant.  Unfortunately, it seems the bulk of politicians (on both sides of the aisle) and members of the media (liberal and conservative alike) are guilty of failing to do this. This, I think, is deserving of our ire.  


Anonymous said...

"... we may conclude, that morality is not an object of reason. But can there be any difficulty in proving, that virtue and vice are not matters of fact, whose existence we can infer by reason? Take any action allow'd to be vicious: Willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but 'tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. Vice and virtue, therefore, may be compared to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind: And this discovery in morals, like that other in physics, is to be regarded as a considerable advancement of the speculative sciences; tho', like that too, it has little or nor influence on practice. Nothing can be more real, or concern us more, than our own sentiments of pleasure and uneasiness; and if these be favourable to virtue, and unfavourable to vice, no more can be requisite to the regulation of our conduct and behaviour."

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part I, Section I - Moral distinctions not derived from reason

Anonymous said...

Moral distinctions are not derived from reason. Geraldo, Hannity, O'Reilly, O'Donnell, Limbaugh, et al have better? things to do. Every Supreme Court justice is grilled here. Chill.

Jesse Steinberg said...

Thanks for commenting.

I think you're both correct in pointing out that some people think that "moral distinctions are not derived from reason." Some philosophers think that what one does when one makes a moral judgment is to express a feeling (rather than, say, a belief). But this is a contentious position and it's certainly not something that all philosophers agree upon.

In addition, it's not clear to me how this helps clear things up.
The issue is what sort of policy we should have and what reasons or justification (or, if you don't like reason-talk, explanation) we have for that policy. My point was that the reasons that many offer are rather poor.

Let's suppose that moral judgments are really just expressions of moral feelings--such that when I say "Abortions are immoral" or "We ought to prohibit all abortions" I'm really just expressing my disdain for abortions. So then the answer to why we ought to have the policy of banning all abortions would be something like: Because I disdain abortions. But surely we can discuss the merits of this reason/explanation. And surely many are going to be unconvinced by this kind of way of explaining why we ought to have the policy. More importantly, we can then try to figure out where we can go from there... we might appeal to considerations of what's practical or what's economical or what's more likely to result in greater human happiness in order to settle the issue of what sort of policy we ought to have.

Perhaps you're both suggesting that there's no need to engage in moral discourse, since all we're really doing when we make moral judgments is expressing our feelings. But I think we can still engage in moral discourse (and we can think about what sorts of policies we ought to have) even if moral judgments are really just expressions of feelings.

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Anonymous said...

Philosophers should engage in moral discourse; however, actions are the product of motives, which are, in turn, the product of passions, desires, moods and sentiments. "Reason... can have an influence on our conduct only after two ways: Either when it excites a passion by informing us of the existence of something which is a proper object of it; or when it discovers the connexion of causes and effects, so as to afford us means of exerting any passion. These are the only kinds of judgment that can accompany our actions, or can be said to produce them in any manner; and it may be allow'd, that these judgments may often be false and erroneous." - Hume.

Only motives are laudable or blameable; so, investigate feelings and make distinctions.

Anonymous said...

First, I find Akin's idea to be silly and rather degrading to women who have had to suffer from this. If people think that it is a cake walk for a women (regardless of age) to be raped, and then to discover they are with child due to the rape and have to make a choice to kill their own flesh and blood, then those who think that seem irrational. But, that's just a side note of my rambling, let us now get to the issue at hand.
It seems that we first need to decide what abortion truly is, which is a very hard definition (I am extremely interested to know how others define abortion). Abortion is the removal of an embryo or fetus (to put it most simply). What is wrong with this act? You are not "killing" anyone, and even if you were, we go to war and kill innocent people and find it just fine. Thus, abortion in general is not wrong. The mother may have regrets afterward and psychological problems, but she would have similar psychological problems if she gave birth and kept the child or gave the child up. Thus, abortion is not killing or going against "nature". If you are to say it is going against nature, than by the time a female goes through puberty to menopause, how many times did she go against nature?
As for a rape case, if we do not give women these rights to decide what to do, they are going to suffer sever psychological problems. Carrying an "unwanted" child is an immoral act to force upon someone. In this scenario, the woman gives no consent to intercourse or the carrying to term. The child has a high possibility to suffer from psychological problems as well. Of course some women do carry to term after rapes, but it does take a tool on the child.
I feel this has not solved anything or created any strong arguments, but I feel this is a very important controversy.

Moti Mizrahi said...

Jesse, I am with you on the issue of moral discourse. Even if moral judgments are simply expressions of feelings, it seems to me that we can still discuss which emotional expressions are _appropriate_ and which aren't.

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