Estimated reading time: 9 minutes.
This morning I saw an article on DailyWire and I couldn’t decide if I was surprised or not. Kimberly Ellis points out that in Matt Lauer’s recent interview with Charlie Sheen, they were operating under a clear assumption that it is morally obligatory to disclose your HIV status to a sexual partner. Then Ellis points out that Planned Parenthood disagrees with Lauer and Sheen in their booklet for teens with HIV, Healthy, Happy and Hot.
Should I be surprised? On one hand, finding out that Planned Parenthood thinks HIV people have a moral right to not tell their sexual partners of their condition ought to be shocking. It’s a horrible, evil, destructive view. But on the other hand it shouldn’t be surprising because it coheres with what I already know about Planned Parenthood: they think the rights of some people to live (like the unborn) are less important than the rights of other people to have sex.
Two months ago I wrote an article about my conversation at the University of Michigan with a student I called Brent. Brent was honest enough to admit that he was pro-choice because he believed that the right to have sex was absolute, and without the right to kill unborn children, women wouldn’t be able to exercise that right.
Brent and Planned Parenthood (and many other pro-choice people) are making the same mistake: believing that the right to have sex is absolute. They are wrong. Your right to have sex is less important than another person’s right to live. Your right to live is more important than another person’s right to have sex.*
I used the following thought-experiment to challenge Brent’s view:
Trigger warning: I had to push Brent pretty hard in this thought experiment to change his mind, and the analogy became pretty grim. If you’re sensitive to dark thought experiments involving born babies being killed, this may not be the article for you.
Tim: Okay, let’s try another one. Suppose a woman gave birth to a child at the hospital. Her dirtbag boyfriend is out of the picture. The kid is gross-looking, she doesn’t want to take care of him, and she knows if she has to take care of him, he will dramatically limit her opportunities, including her opportunities to have sex. Let’s suppose the hospital has a shredder installed for just this purpose, kind of like what they use for Christmas trees. Can she dump the born baby into the shredder?
Brent: Well, that doesn’t seem necessary. She can just leave it at the hospital and walk away.
Tim: Again, that isn’t an option in pregnancy, so let’s change the story again to reflect that. What if she couldn’t just leave the kid at the hospital? Let’s suppose the government has cracked down on child-abandonment. They’ll let you put a kid in the shredder but not abandon him. If she takes care of the kid for nine months, the adoption agency can take over. Should she take care of the kid for nine months, or can she put the kid in the shredder?
Fortunately, Brent changed his mind after I pushed him hard enough. I used a simple thought-experiment that pitted the right to sex against the right to life, and showed him that valuing sex too highly leads to a conclusion he couldn’t live with.
Similarly, I’d like to pose a thought-experiment to Planned Parenthood that also pits the right to sex against the right to life, this time to shed light on whether people with HIV should have to disclose their condition to their sexual partners.
The IDAS Thought-Experiment
Suppose a sexually transmitted infection was discovered that came to be known as IDAS (for Instant Death After Sex). The way it works is that one out of a thousand people that contract the infection become a carrier of it, infected and able to infect others, but immune from its effects. The other nine hundred and ninety-nine die within minutes after contracting it. Is a person with IDAS morally obligated to disclose their condition with someone before having sex with them?
It should be obvious that the answer is “yes, they should have to disclose.” But how can Planned Parenthood justify such an answer? Their brochure Healthy, Happy and Hot says:
Sexual and reproductive rights are recognized around the world as human rights. . . Every person living with HIV is entitled to these rights and they are necessary for the development and well-being of all people and the societies in which they live.
According to Planned Parenthood, sexual rights (including not disclosing your HIV status) are basic human rights. They say later in their brochure:
You have the right to decide if, when, and how to disclose your HIV status.
Why do you have the right to decide if you should disclose your HIV status? Because, according to Planned Parenthood:
You know best if and when it is safe for you to disclose your status. There are many reasons that people do not share their HIV status. They may not want people to know they are living with HIV because of stigma and discrimination within their community. They may worry that people will find out something else that they have secret, like they are using injecting drugs, having sex outside of a marriage or having sex with people of the same gender. People in long-term relationships who find out they are living with HIV sometimes fear that their partner will react violently or end the relationship. [Emphasis added]
So Planned Parenthood, let’s suppose I have IDAS. I’m afraid of stigma and discrimination within my community. I have other secrets I’m worried people will find out, and I’m worried that my long-term girlfriend might react violently or end the relationship. Are you telling me that I have to tell her that I have IDAS before having sex with her? I thought sexual rights are human rights. Are you denying me my human rights? Isn’t one of my sexual rights the right to decide if, when, and how to disclose my IDAS status? After all, I know best if and when it is safe for me to disclose my status. What principled reason can you give me to explain why I am obligated to disclose IDAS, but a person with HIV is not obligated to disclose HIV? It can’t be based on the severity of the condition, because your whole justification for why a person with HIV doesn’t have to disclose it has nothing to do with the severity of HIV, and everything to do with what sexual rights are. If the HIV person has the sexual right to not disclose an infection that could kill someone, then I have the same right not to disclose my deadly infection.
Planned Parenthood rightfully feels bad for people with HIV and they want to help them to be as happy as possible. I want that too. It is wrong to treat anyone cruelly because he has an infection. But it is also wrong for a person with an infection to risk infecting other people without their knowledge. Unlike Planned Parenthood, I am not only concerned about the safety of the person with HIV; I’m also concerned about the safety of his sexual partners. It is truly astounding how egotistical Planned Parenthood encourages people to be.
When Rights Conflict
This controversy over disclosure is similar to bodily rights arguments for abortion. In both cases we have a conflict of rights. Women (and men) have the right to bodily autonomy, generally speaking. Women and men have the right to not be killed, generally speaking. The question of abortion forces these rights to be in opposition with each other.
I’m always frustrated when pro-life advocates respond to bodily rights arguments by denying that the pro-life view restricts women, when it obviously does. The pro-life view says that women should no longer have the legal right to kill their children when they are inside the woman’s body. That is a restriction, but it is a reasonable restriction. The pro-choice view is a restriction on the right of the unborn child to not be killed. Both views are putting one right of one person (remember, the bodily rights argument grants at least for the sake of argument that the unborn is a person) over another right of another person.
But just like it is foolish for a pro-life person to deny that their view restricts women’s rights (specifically, legal rights they have no moral right to), it is foolish for a pro-choice person to just fixate on the fact that the pro-life view restricts women without considering that their view restricts unborn babies. We cannot just fixate on one person’s rights when there is a conflict of rights; we have to evaluate both of them together and make a case for which right is more important. In a similar way, Planned Parenthood foolishly fixates on the rights of people with HIV and ignores the conflicting rights of everyone else.
Whether we are arguing about abortion or disclosure of HIV, it is illogical to put the right to sex above the right to life. Such a view collapses in on itself. You cannot justify abortion by appealing to sex as a human right because by killing the unborn, you are preventing them from ever having sex. Similarly, you cannot justify Planned Parenthood’s view of HIV disclosure by appealing to sex as a human right because a right to sex cannot be a more fundamental right than the right to life. You cannot have sex if you are not alive, so in order to protect the right to sex, you also have to protect the right to life. Dead men tell no tales, and they also have no sex.
The Problem of Consent
I heard several pro-life people respond to Brent’s view by saying “If the right to sex is inalienable, then rape is justified.” I think it is appropriately charitable to interpret Brent’s view as actually being that the right to have consensual sex is inalienable. Any view that is going to place a high value on the right to have sex needs just such a clarification. But by asserting that people with HIV don’t need to disclose their condition with sexual partners, Planned Parenthood strongly undermines consent.
An important part of consent is that it needs to be informed. If you deceive someone into having sex with you, then you haven’t really gotten their consent. Interestingly, Planned Parenthood agrees with me about this! Take a look at this graphic they published on their Facebook page just two months ago!
So which is it Planned Parenthood? Is it the human right of people with HIV to not disclose their condition to their sexual partners and thereby deceiving them into having sex with them, or is everyone obligated to get the informed consent of people before having sex with them by not deceiving or lying to them? You can’t have it both ways.
*I think there is legitimate controversy between intelligent people about the extent to which the right to live of every needy person around the world has a pull on us as individuals. Clearly it should have some, but I don’t think it’s obvious what exactly it is. To borrow a thought-experiment from Peter Singer, you have an obligation to jump into a pool to save a drowning child even if it will ruin your shoes. How much do you owe each starving child around the world, given that you can’t help all of them, and you aren’t the only one who could help some of them? I’m not sure. But this legitimate controversy has very little bearing on the point that I’m making in this article. The nature of your obligations to not intentionally inflict death on people right next to you, either through abortion or infection, is obvious.
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The post “Planned Parenthood’s Absurd Position on HIV Disclosure” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Click here to subscribe via email and get exclusive access to a FREE MP3 of Josh Brahm’s speech, “Nine Faulty Pro-Life Arguments and Tactics.”