Tag Archives: disagreement

Diagnosing the abortion debate

Reporting back in January 2017 showed that abortion rates have fallen to levels lower than any year since 1973, the year of the Roe v. Wade decision, and reflect about a 50% decrease in the rate from its peak in 1981. The study, conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, cites as causal factors greater access to contraception as well as laws in many states that restrict abortion clinics or require ultrasounds. The controversial Texas bill is the most recent attempt by states to broaden restrictions by preventing abortions when “cardiac activity” can be detected. Of course, pro-life groups still ultimately want to see Roe overturned. This would mean that individual states would determine what legal restrictions, if any, would apply to people seeking and providing abortions.

Abortion rights and restrictions can pose a special challenge to a species of liberal views about when it’s permissible to interfere with a person’s liberty of action. Liberal views generally presume non-interference as a moral default and impose the burden of justification on those who would coercively restrict them. And, on some prominent liberal views, simply pointing to “the truth of the matter” won’t be sufficient to overcome this justificatory burden. On these liberal views, beliefs, values and commitments that don’t make sense to people, or for other reasons they can’t go along with, don’t satisfy the justificatory test. These “alien” restrictions would, from the point of view of these people, undermine their authority and agency. Coercion will sometimes (often!) be permissible, but only in virtue of considerations that make sense relative to their commitments.

Applying this to the long-standing abortion controversy, first, notice how easy things would be if it weren’t based on reasonable considerations. If it were flatly unreasonable to deny fetal personhood, then it would be much easier to justify laws restricting abortion. And if it were flatly unreasonable to ascribe personhood to fetuses, then there would perhaps be no accounting for such a law. But reasonable people disagree about fetal personhood. 

More: both parties to this disagreement reasonably believe that the other side is involved in imposing serious harms to the interests of others. This means that abortion law will lack authority for pro-choicers if pro-lifers have their way politically. It’s relatively obvious how this is so: most restrictions won’t make moral sense to pro-choicers. They say that the restrictions violate women’s privacy or bodily autonomy. But abortion law will also lack authority for pro-lifers when pro-choicers have their way politically. The reason is that, since pro-lifers reasonably believe that fetuses are persons with a right not to be killed, they think they have adequate justification for protecting them by imposing coercive measures that increase the costs of people killing them. In other words, pro-lifers have an intelligible rationale for rejecting laws that carve out space for people to kill other people. 

This situation, then, describes something like a moral state of nature between the two sides. We’ve failed to achieve coordination. Pro-choicers know that, even after engaging in careful and respectable reflection on the relevant moral and empirical evidence, pro-lifers won’t acknowledge the right of women to have an abortion. But this doesn’t mean that they just let pro-lifers violate women’s bodily autonomy. Pro-choicers are basically left with one option: to take up what P.F. Strawson called the objective attitude towards pro-lifers. They will see pro-lifers as a force to contend with, managed and kept at bay as best they can as they go about their affairs, but that’s different than exercising genuinely normative authority over them. 

Yet in the same way, pro-lifers know that abortion-seekers won’t acknowledge the personhood of fetuses, even after careful and respectable reflection on the relevant moral and empirical evidence. “Public reason” has run out for them, too. But this doesn’t mean that pro-lifers just let abortion providers kill children. Third-party protection is publicly justified. From the pro-life perspective, abortion seekers and providers are doing something similar to driving a car towards a person in the street they can’t see. They have reason to stop them or make them swerve. In other words, pro-lifers similarly must treat abortion-seekers as mere objects of social policy rather than people with whom they are interacting on genuinely moral terms.

The problem, then, isn’t that both sides are willing to impose their preferences, limiting the freedom of those who disagree, simply because they know they’re right. Rather, both sides are intent on protecting their freedom to protect themselves or important third-party interests. Both sides, from their respective points of view, are resisting subjugation. 

I’m at a loss to make moral headway here. Disagreement doesn’t always lead to this kind of social breakdown of reasoning and moral community. I can think of some other examples (meat eating?), but it’s relatively rare, which is a good thing. It also seems pretty isolated most of the time — thankfully, a disagreement and breakdown in this area hasn’t led to a more general breakdown of moral relations among people who are on opposite sides of the issue. Most people even have friends who disagree with them about abortion. 

In fact, I think this lends some credibility to the account of the abortion debate that I’ve offered here. It’s a case where we are forced to take the objective attitude towards our opponents because it turns out that they aren’t true moral subjects of the proposed requirements. Strawson’s participant reactive attitudes wouldn’t be appropriate since those things suggest serious culpability for violating something everyone is in on and knows better than to do.