05 October, 2007

Ethical Issues in the Abortion Debate (part II)

In an earlier post, I laid out my position on the abortion question, outlined my reasoning, and offered some objections to it, all as background for a later post. However, as that last post was getting pretty long, I delayed completing it until this second post.

I left off with the following objection to my rationale for allowing "exceptions" beyond a 10-11 week limit on legal abortion:

Okay, I'll give you rape, but a woman who had consensual sex has by her actions consented to undertake the risk of getting pregnant (no birth control method is 100% successful) and thus the risks inherent in being pregnant.

This seems like a potentially serious objection. A priori, we should agree that non-coerced engagement in an action necessarily involves consent and there is a certain intuitive appeal to the idea that consent to an action also inherently includes consent to foreseeable consequences of that action. If I understand a bit about guns and anatomy, point a loaded gun at my friend's head and pull the trigger, I cannot claim that I'm not responsible for his gunshot wound. Understanding the consequences of my action, I freely undertook it anyway. I am therefore morally responsible for those consequences. And so if I choose to engage in intercourse with the knowledge that A) sperm + egg = pregnancy and B) no birth control method is 100% effective. Therefore, I am morally responsible for the foreseeable consequences (pregnancy).

But wait a bit. These two cases aren't exactly analagous. In the first, I took no action to mitigate or attempt to prevent the foreseeable consequences of my action while in the second I did (or at indicated that it was a possibility). This difference leaves completely open the question of intent and it seems to me that this is a material defect in the objection to my rationale.

As I see it, there are several elements necessarily involved in any determination of moral responsibility:

1) Identity. Did the person in question actually engage in the action? In the case of pregnancy, this is moot. Insemination, whether natural or artificial, is the "act" in question and one can't be pregnant without it.

2) Consent. Did the person in question consent to the action? We've already discussed this; non-consent is an automatic vitiation of moral responsibility.

3) Intent. Did the person in question intend the particular consequence to obtain? In a way, intent can be thought of as consent to the consequences of an action, rather than the action itself. It's my belief that this is a material element that's missing from the objection to my rationale.

Consider the following example: I am a scrupulously careful driver, always obeying traffic laws and ensuring that my car is maintained properly. However, while driving my car through a crowded downtown area, my brakes suddenly fail while turning a corner and my car runs down an elderly gentleman standing on the sidewalk. Am I morally responsible for this man's death? I think most people would say "no". In fact, I can't imagine any rational argument in favor of such culpability. While I was certainly the proximate cause of the man's death, and I did consent to the possibility of the death of a pedestrian as a foreseeable consequence of choosing to drive in a crowded downtown area, I most certainly did not intend to kill anyone and took all reasonable precautions (obeying traffic laws, maintaining my car) to ensure that this did not happen. I am not morally responsible for the failure of my brakes, however possibly foreseeable, and therefore not morally responsible for the man's death.

Consider a similar example: I am a careless driver, inconsistently obeying traffic laws and neglecting the maintenance of my car. The mechanics told me that I needed to get my brakes changed or they were going to stop working, but I ignored them. One day, while driving my car through a crowded downtown area, my brakes suddenly fail while turning a corner and my car runs down an elderly gentleman standing on the sidewalk. Am I morally responsible for this man's death? I think most people would say "yes". Again, I'm the proximate cause of the man's death and certainly had to understand that driving carries with it an inherent risk of accident. Disregard for the proper maintenance of my car can be rationally construed as an implicit consent to the forseeable consequences of my actions, which, as we already noted, is essentially the definition of intent. Hence, all three factors are present and I am indeed morally responsible.

With this line of reasoning laid out, we can return to the argument at hand and a distinction becomes immediately evident. A couple who engage in intercourse while failing to take any precautions against pregnancy are implying by their actions the consent to the consequence. Therefore they are morally responsible for the pregnancy and the objection against my view would seem to hold. However, a couple who take all reasonable precautions against pregnancy are obviously not consenting to become pregnant. They therefore lack intent and are not morally responsible for the pregnancy. The objection would seem to fail against this situation and this represents quite possibly the majority of cases in which abortion is sought.

So, essentially, the use of contraceptives indicates a clear lack of consent to a pregnancy. Any actual pregnancy is an accident and we've determined that individuals are not morally responsible for accidents. Absent consent and moral responsibility, the objection is vitiated and a couple is ethically permitted to terminate an unwanted pregnancy (as we've already determined that, even given that the fetus is a person, killing is warranted in cases of non-consent as an ethical response to enslavement or parasitism regardless of the innocence of the inflictor)

I will offer a disclaimer here: although the reasoning appears to me to be sound, this conclusion is somewhat uncomfortable to me as it seems to legitimize abortion-on-demand, at least in those cases where the couple have taken all reasonable precautions against conception, and I feel there are other reasons to hold that abortion-on-demand is morally questionable. I won't go into those here are they are not germane to this post, but I offer it in the interests of disclosure.

Whew! This post ended up being a bit longer than I wanted! In the following, and hopefully LAST post in this series, I want to finally get around to discussing some ethical dilemmas for both "sides" of this debate and things for all participants to consider.

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