A while ago, we published a blog article featuring a dialogue I had over email with Chloe, a reader of my friend Isaac Saul’s Tangle newsletter. It was a great dialogue, and Isaac was also gracious enough to publish a condensed version of it for his readers.
Today, after last night’s story leaking a draft of Justice Alito’s (hopefully soon-to-be) majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Isaac published his own response to my dialogue with his reader. I responded to him privately to point out a couple ways in which I think his post mischaracterizes my position, but I also wanted to give an expanded public response, because the way he responded makes it seem like the team at ERI doesn’t actually understand pro-choice people very well.
(I think part of the issue is that Isaac is responding to the much shorter dialogue published in his newsletter, rather than the full version we published on the blog. We had to trim the full version aggressively to fit the word count he requested, which takes away time for some of the nuance we value in our dialogues about abortion.)
As I mentioned earlier, Isaac is a friend, so I don’t want this to be perceived as attacking him or anything like that. But I do think it’s important to clarify what I’m saying in my dialogue, since it’s important for me that people understand us as able to articulate the pro-choice position as well as any pro-choice advocate could.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes.
I’ll be quoting from Isaac’s response, but you can read it in its entirety here.
Are People Pro-Choice Because of Bodily Autonomy or Personhood?
For starters, Josh began by saying that most pro-choice people “aren’t primarily pro-choice because they believe the fetal human isn’t a person, but because they believe the government shouldn’t tell a woman what to do with her body, or something in her body, even if that thing is a person.”
Anecdotally, I don’t think this is true. I think a lot of pro-choice people recognize a fetus as having the potential to grow into a person, but also view it as something markedly less than an individual that deserves the same rights as a mother or newborn. Most pro-choice Americans I’ve heard discuss abortion argue that a fetus — especially in the first few weeks — is little more than a “clump of cells.” Many also make this point about “personhood” by noting that, for instance, you can’t know if you’re having twins or triplets until roughly 10-12 weeks of pregnancy. So how could you possibly define anything before that as an individual person?
Fundamentally, I think the pro-choice side views a fetus as “less than” a newborn, and much more as part of the woman’s body, which is precisely why they find it so objectionable that the government can regulate how they navigate pregnancy, especially early on.
This is an accidental but major strawman of what I was trying to say. Of course I realize that most pro-choice people believe the unborn to be a potential person, and I say that all the time. I was trying to emphasize that this other belief about bodily autonomy and the role of government is more fundamental or significant to their pro-choice view.
I could be wrong about that, but my view is based on data from over a thousand conversations. For example, every time we set up a poll table to invite conversations on college campuses, practically the entire pro-choice side is filled with comments that relate to bodily autonomy. So maybe I should have been more clear, but the word “primarily” in my quote is doing a lot of lifting, and we were trying to cut every unnecessary word possible.
I admit, I was a bit frustrated when I read this, because I would be TERRIBLE at my job if I didn’t realize that most pro-choice people think the unborn is not yet a person. But it’s part of the nature of bodily rights arguments that they concede, for the sake of argument, that the fetus is a person. “My body, my choice” would hold true whether or not the fetus is a person. It doesn’t follow that, because I think pro-choice people view bodily autonomy as more fundamental than the idea that the fetus isn’t a person, I think pro-choice people accept fetal personhood. In fact, you’d practically have to make the same charge against Judith Jarvis Thomson in her “In Defense of Abortion” paper, because she talks about bodily autonomy as primary and concedes or ignores personhood for most of the argument.
Did My Thought Experiment Adequately Frame the Question?
Josh also re-wrote the analogy to propose a scenario where he had to donate a kidney to me to keep me alive. Of course, Josh’s analogy was meant to be similar to the one the reader proposed, but I think it speaks to the complexity of this issue that it’s uneven and imperfect to frame it this way. My personal belief is that there is a marked difference between “conception” and “personhood,” and I don’t think the analogy does enough to address that, which definitely biases my criticism.
The analogy isn’t supposed to address personhood arguments. I have other arguments for why the unborn is a person from conception, but Chloe’s question was in the bodily autonomy category, which functions by assuming, for the sake of argument that the unborn is a person and arguing that abortion should be legal anyway. The best thought experiments (like the best experiments in general) are meant to isolate one or two variables and test different versions.
The Violinist argument doesn’t distinguish between “conception” and “personhood,” because it’s not important for that argument. If a pro-choice person argues that a woman’s bodily autonomy interests are somehow bound or limited by fetal personhood, then it would no longer really be a bodily autonomy argument but a personhood argument using bodily autonomy language. That’s because bodily autonomy arguments make the claim that a woman’s bodily autonomy interests supercede the fetus’ right to life, which is also why it’s an extreme argument that allows for no exceptions or meaningful regulations of abortion.
When I respond to a pro-choice person in a dialogue, I want to be clear and respond to the question that they’re asking, not the question they’re going to ask next or the question I want them to ask so I can make the best secular argument for fetal personhood they’ve ever heard. This is part of how I show respect to the person I’m talking to, which I hope comes through in this and other dialogues.
The Substantive Concern: Abortion as Self-Defense
Still, he wrote that the “morally relevant difference” between forcing a person to give a kidney to a dying friend and having an abortion is the distinction between “not helping someone and directly killing them.” I thought his framing of the reader’s analogy did little to address the reality of pregnancy. Josh, for instance, proposed two passive decisions: not giving a kidney to a dying friend and not terminating a pregnancy.
But the difference between not donating a kidney and carrying a pregnancy to term is massive. I understand that Josh is arguing there is a difference between an abortion (where a life is taken) and refusing a kidney donation (where a life is being lost and nobody saves it), but a woman who gives birth to a perfectly healthy baby is changed forever (physically and emotionally) and faces very real danger until (and immediately after) giving birth. Statistically, carrying a pregnancy to term (23.8 deaths per 100,000 in the U.S., even with access to legal abortion) is far more dangerous than donating a kidney (7 deaths per 100,000 donations for the healthy donor). Given that, I struggle with the rationale that an abortion is any more of an “active murder” than allowing a friend to die when you’re perfectly capable of safely giving him your kidney.
As a risk assessment alone, I think I could make a convincing argument that refusing to donate a kidney to a dying family member is much more morally objectionable than, say, having an abortion 10 weeks into a complicated pregnancy. Even if I’m accepting that the life of a friend is equal to the life of a fetus, I didn’t feel that Josh addressed that argument adequately (though I’m sure he’s already writing me an email!).
The most substantive part of Isaac’s critique, which I didn’t have time to respond to in my initial email to him, was a version of the self-defense claim that abortion should be allowable because giving birth poses a significant health risk to the woman. This is where it’s really unfortunate that he’s responding only to the condensed excerpt posted on Tangle rather than the full exchange on our blog, because the full version already contains a response to the self-defense argument that would largely defuse the point Isaac is making here.
From that post:
I obviously agree that any pregnancy can pose some level of risk to the pregnant individual, with there being large variables for the amount and nature of the danger. Your analogy of the child “swiss cheese-ing the boat” brings up an interesting question about our individual rights to decide what level of risk we are comfortable within certain situations, and I think you’re right that it can be enough for self-defense for the defendant to prove they thought their life was in danger, as long as that belief was reasonable. However, I don’t think it’s true (or practical) to say that a person can claim self-defense for any level of risk they thought they were in. For example, let’s say that I got stuck in a small spaceship with someone who, moments after we launched into space, discovered he had an asymptomatic case of Covid-19. (Just to clarify, I’m not one of those people who is dismissive of Covid-19. It’s just the virus in this thought experiment because it’s a clearer case than a virus like Ebola.) There’s no way to turn around the spaceship, and there is zero way to isolate us from each other because the capsule is so small. Covid-19’s symptoms, side-effects, the length of those symptoms, and the odds of mortality can vary widely, and I can rightly think that my life may be in danger even though my traveling companion is completely fine! However, it seems fairly obvious that I can’t simply throw him out of the spaceship—that would be killing him. We should do absolutely everything possible to protect me from the potential dangers of Covid-19, except kill someone.
Let me be super transparent about where I’m coming from here. I take Covid-19 very seriously. I’m fully vaccinated and have received the booster shot, and I’m frustrated by a lot of people on the political right who aren’t taking Covid-19 nearly seriously enough. I think the government has duties to protect public health, and I’m open to arguments that that could include mandates for things like masks or vaccines in certain circumstances.
However, in the US right now, you have about a 2% chance of dying if you contract Covid-19 (this statistic is understandably imprecise given the difficulty of tracking Covid-19 cases). (Editor’s note 3/17/22: The percentage is now closer to 1%, but 2% was the statistic used in the original correspondence and is unaltered here.) It’s complicated to determine what exactly constitutes a legitimate risk to your life, but it seems obvious that you can’t kill an asymptomatic person with Covid-19 even if they technically have a 2% risk to your life. I do think that people should be able to judge what kinds of risks they are willing to take, but if I killed someone with Covid-19 out of a perceived risk to my life, that seems pretty unreasonable. It seems even less reasonable when the risk is less than 1%, like the risk of dying from a pregnancy-related complication in the United States (which is 0.017%, as I mentioned in my last response). If I can kill someone who has a 0.017% chance of causing my death, I could kill just about anyone and claim self-defense!
Continuing the Dialogue with More Clarity
I am grateful to Isaac for the chance to dialogue not only with Chloe but with him. I really appreciate the work he does on trying to eliminate confirmation bias through his Tangle newsletter, and I’m constantly telling people they should sign up! I’m a paid subscriber myself, as I think his work is incredibly important and valuable to society at large. I hope to continue both of those dialogues, and I hope pausing to make these clarifications helps them be even more productive going forward.
The post “Adding Clarity to Isaac Saul’s Response to My Tangle Dialogue” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”