Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy, Boston College
David Boonin, Associate Professor of Philosophy, UC-Boulder
Yale University

Download available at: http://www.isi.org/lectures/lectures.aspx?SBy=lecture&Sfor=28e773af-4bd2-44da-8b3e-be5570fad64d
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Professor David Boonin began this debate with an analogy which illustrated the difference between accepting that someone, or something, has a right a life and accepting that this entity has an automatic right to have their life supported by a particular person. In his example, a man has a life threatening condition and requires a bone marrow transplant to survive. If there is only one man who fits the requirements for bone marrow donation is that man obliged to give his bone marrow to the dying man?

Boonin set out three limiting conditions on this obligation: cost, consent and compensation.

The primary limiter was the cost to the donor of providing life support for the recipient. The greater the burden placed on the donor the less right the dependent life form has to have its life maintained by the donor. The more trivial the cost to the donor, the more right the dependent life form has to receive aid.

Boonin equated the severity of pregnancy and birth in a healthy woman with the cost to the donor of providing a bone marrow transplant to maintain someone else's life. In other words, even for a healthy woman in the prime or her life, pregnancy and birth are not trivial things.

For many women the effects of pregnancy and birth are far more severe than this. The window for prime health during gestation is between 20 and 30. The further away one goes from this period the more dangerous these events becomes. For me the cost of having a first child after the age of 45 was severe and I will never recover from them. Unfortunately my disabilities also affect the quality of care which I can provide for my son. Anti-abortionists fail to account for these things. They also fail to factor in the rights of the eventuating child to be well cared for. Life is not the only, or even the primary, right of human beings.

Boonin’s second limiter was consent. To what did the woman consent? Did she consent to have intercourse? If so, did she consent to all the possible consequences of that? He maintained that consent to engage in the former does not include consent to carry the burden of the latter. To be consistent he should extend this to the male partner, even though they are not required to shoulder anything like the burden placed on the woman because of her biology.

This is an important question for non-Catholics since they have no religious reason to assume that every instance of sexual intercourse is for the sole purpose of creating a new life form. (Something few sexually active males would ever concede in reality anyway.) Sexual intercourse is a necessary part of relationship building and maintenance and, for most humans, is almost entirely divorced from the desire to get pregnant and give birth.

Boonin’s interesting twist was to suggest that it might not be moral for a women to have intercourse if she is aware that it could result in one or several miscarriages. In this case, putting herself at risk of pregnancy, or worse, deliberately trying to get pregnant, is committing herself to knowingly bringing about the death of developing humans. Is she justified in permitting the death of as many fetuses as is necessary to achieve the end goal of one or more full term pregnancies? This is a serious and embarrassing challenge to the Catholic view of woman’s reproductive role. If a woman can only fulfil her religious role as a baby factory by killing several developing humans as part of the process, then what right does she have to be married? And what of the male's responsibility here? Does he have a right to have sex with his wife in the approved Catholic fashion if this is almost certain to result in the death of a developing human life form?

Boonin entirely avoids the question of responsible birth control. Is it moral to deliberately refrain from using the most effective methods of birth control when there is a risk that a resulting pregnancy would lead to social, physical or financial disasters and/or to a medical termination of the developing life form? Is it moral to provide misleading information on the reliability and effectiveness of vows of abstinence and the use of approved Catholic methods to prevent unwanted pregnancies? Is it moral to have sexual intercourse if there is a significant risk that a resulting pregnancy could kill the woman if it is not terminated? There are a number of medical conditions where this outcome is either certain or very likely. Should these women be allowed to marry or have sexual relationships at all if they know that this will cause either their death (virtual suicide) and/or the death of a developing life form within them? What is the male partner's responsibilities here? Is he required to live in a celibate relationship in order to prevent the death of his wife or his developing progeny? Given that he is aware of the lethal consequences, would a lapse on his part be considered as murder or manslaughter?

Boonin’s third limiter was compensation. Did one life form do something which harmed the other life form? Inflicting bodily harm, for example. Has one person caused the other person to be entirely dependent on them? Forcibly confining them to the house, for example. In these cases it is argued that the one who inflicted harm is responsible for recompensing or repairing that harm and the one who inflicts dependency is responsible for the complete care of the dependent person.

In the case of pregnancy it can be argued that the developing life form has harmed the host mother and therefore is in debt to her. This is the reverse of the "right to life" stance which assumes that the host mother is in debt to the life form she is carrying purely because it is dependent and cannot live without her until birth. The woman, however, has not caused the dependency of this life form. While the life form is not deliberately causing harm to its host, the fact that it does so makes it a hostile inhabitant and reduces its right to protection. Boonin does not go so far as to compare the developing human life to a parasite, but the parallels are implied.

For the purposes of the debate Boonin conceded that a human fetus is a "person" with full human rights. I would not concede that at all. I do not attribute personhood to a sperm, egg, blastoma or fetus in the first trimester of pregnancy. At these stages of development there is no consciousness, awareness, cognitive sensation of pain or sense of self. There may not even be mindless reflexes. In other words, I do not consider the implanted life form that is aborted in the normal window for abortions to be a person in of the senses in which it is usually used. Therefore it does not have the right to the privileges extended to those who possess such attributes. As the pregnancy progresses beyond this stage this line blurs until the fetus is viable. There is a further fuzzy stage before the entity develops a working memory and clearly attains full personhood.

Even so, I would put the host mother's life ahead of the developing human at all stages before and even during birth. Until birth the developing human has the same rights as any parasite: free passage if it is not harming its host, otherwise its right to have its life continually supported is on a sliding scale according to the level of harm which it is inflicting on its host. After the newborn has been delivered it is a different story. Now its survival does not demand so much (if anything) from the host.

Breast feeding a child to ensure its survival is trivial compared to the risks and pain of pregnancy and childbirth. In any case, the ex-host is now able to have someone else take over these tasks (if such a person exists and they can be persuaded to do so).

Professor Peter Kreeft argued for the opposing side.

His argument was also threefold: scientific, moral and legal.

His scientific argument was that all life begins at conception... So far, so good.

He then changed the scientific definition of life to one of his own choosing. He included all stages of life under the one banner and implied that the same rights should apply throughout. That part was not at all scientific.

His second point was that all life is life and all life has a right to exist. At this stage he appeared to be including animals, insects, bacteria and viruses under this banner, a somewhat Buddhist stance. I wondered how he was going to vindicate the killing of animals or plants for food.

He moved on to narrow his position to the contention that all human life has an automatic right to exist. He expanded this by stating that all life with a human genetic code is human, followed by the assertion that all humans have a human nature.

His point is flawed right there. Not every stage of human life has an identical "human nature” or even any "human nature" at all. The pre-sentient stages have not developed any such nature or personality. The post-sentient stages (vegetative states) will never exhibit one again. The intermediate stages (discrete brain death, as in motor vehicle accidents and stroke, and progressive brain death, as in dementia) have lost various parts of what makes up "human nature" and "human personality".

He used the Golden Rule as the reason why all of those whom he defined as humans deserve to live. Since we, as individuals, do not want to die, then we should do all that we can to prevent others from dying.

The hidden assumption in this argument is that at all stages of human life, and in every case, humans invariably have the same wish to live that he does right now. This is just not true. Pre-sentient life forms cannot form such a wish and nor can those who have no self-awareness. Again, post-sentient life forms (permanent coma, brain dead life forms) cannot have this same wish.

We can presume that those who are in a state of temporary non-awareness (sleep, unconsciousness, recoverable coma) will wish to live once they regain awareness. This may not be the case, however, in the case of those who have an intractable and painful terminal illness. In this case what we would wish for ourselves is not what they wish for themselves. In that case, the Golden Rule proves to be less than adequate.

The better rule (and one to which the Abrahamic religions cannot lay any claim) is that we should do to others what they would wish us to do to them. That is at the highest stage of the Kohlberg Moral Development Scale. The average religious person is stuck much lower down. The Jewish Yahweh god operates at Level 1 and 2 for most of the Old Testament.

His third point was that the law must protect human rights. All stages of life are human. Therefore the law must protect the human rights of all stages of life equally.

This argument is flawed because, once again, the term "human life" is used to cover a range of differences in self-awareness, autonomy, ability to feel pain, desire for life rather than death, and so on. It also simplifies things to the point of idiocy by denying that one life may be dependent on the life of another. There is no room for the medical reality of triage: deciding who will live and who will die when there are insufficient resources or competing needs.

Kreeft's exceptions were based on the concept of revenge, rather than triage. He was happy to waive the right to life of those he condemned as "non-innocent": those who sought to harm and kill others or who had already done so. This, in essence, is the argument used by those who feel justified in murdering doctors who work in abortion clinics.

According to Kreeft, every other life form is "innocent" and therefore deserves to have its life maintained - even if it does not wish to live. He fails to consider the morality of forcing a life form to continue its existence against its express wishes. He gave me the uneasy impression that he would feel justified in prolonging human agony or humiliation in order to satisfy the requirements of his religious dogmas.

Other gems in Kreeft's defense were that pregnancy is a "gift" and a "privilege" rather than a potentially and often very dangerous condition. This is a very male orientated and medically naive viewpoint. Even nine months of a "good" pregnancy is no gift unless the host mother is looking forward to the reward of a child of their own at its conclusion.

Kreeft threw in some statistics from unacknowledged sources. He claimed that "surveys" prove that 70 percent of all women who have had abortions feel guilt as a result. That could be expected in any country and community where there was a strong Christian Fundamentalist and/or Conservative Catholic influence. It's the kind of result which could be expected in the middle of the US Bible Belt or in the church going populations researched by the US Pew Report. It would unexpected if conducted in more secular countries such as China, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Denmark. It would be interesting to compare such studies. Kreeft, of course, failed to provide such comparative data, probably because it did not suit his argument.

The reality may be that religious indoctrination is largely, or almost entirely, responsible for this unhealthy guilt reaction following abortions. Other factors would be lack of appropriate pre- and post-abortion counseling sessions (mandatory in some countries) and the attitudes and lack of support provided by the friends, families and partners of those who terminate a pregnancy. In many places it is acceptable to talk about the effects and consequences of natural or god-induced abortions (miscarriages) but not about medically induced abortions. This enforced silence, covert message of disapproval and overt lack of support is a long way from the kind of support necessary for the development and maintenance of good mental health and solid caring social relationships. Unfortunately it is rife among sections of the community who consider themselves to have the edge on moral rectitude.

There was a very strong religious thread throughout. Keeft made it quite clear that he opposed abortion at any stage of the development process occurring inside the woman’s body because he wanted to be a good Christian.

He also proposed that argument by emotion is perfectly legitimate. He lost any support I might have had for him at that point.

Kreeft continued on to argue that human life is sacred (a Catholic viewpoint which depends on the belief that "souls" are implanted in each newly conflated egg-sperm combination). Finally it got weird when Kreeft argued that the abortion of a developing human life is essentially deicide because all humans are made in (his) god's image.

Boonin was clearly the winner in this debate. His arguments were interesting and challenging, even when I disagreed with their logical extension. Kreeft, on the other hand, merely parroted the same old lines which have been sprouted by the religious right for many years. Both left out important contributory issues but this is usual in time-limited debates of this nature.

Overall, the debate was worth listening to. I would give it a 4 rating on a five point scale.

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Comment by Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM on August 6, 2009 at 6:38pm

Interesting. We seem to have come to entirely different conclusions based on the rational study of the same thing.

Thanks for the input.
Comment by LeoPardus on July 28, 2009 at 1:40pm
1. Did you compare the human embyros/fetuses with those from other mammals at similar stages of gestation, relatively speaking?

Not at the same time. Later and ongoing, as part of my education and out of personal curiosity, I did do that.

2. Are you aware how very common so-called "natural" abortion is?

Yes. Estimates fun to 50% and upwards as you said. The main reasons seem to be non-viability (e.g., genetic defects), failure of proper implantation, and failure to establish blood supply. There are probably more, but those are the main ones.

Do you feel differently towards these naturally aborted embryos?


If so, why?

They are not deliberate and there is really nothing anyone could do to stop them.

Do you think the feelings are more rational or more emotional?


Why do think that is?

Because I'm inclined that way. Not that I can't have emotional reasons for my opinions, but I try to find time to divorce emotion from them and look at them as coldly as I can.
Comment by Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM on July 27, 2009 at 11:11pm

That surprises me greatly. It is not well regarded by Australian psychologists. Research done outside the institute supporting it (which understandably suffers from publication bias) is not good. Look it up on Wikipedia.

The added complication is that the personality types are based on Adler's psychoanalytic-type theories. Except for extraversion-introversion they cannot be objectively tested because there are no objective bench marks, other than the scale itself. On the basis of Karl Popper's distinction between science and religion/ideology, the basis of the MB is is derived from a religion/ideology, not from empirical research.
Comment by Angie Jackson on July 26, 2009 at 8:42pm
@Rosemary - I'm really late getting back to this, but my mom has a PhD in psychometrics, and I'm pretty sure she considers the MB reliable.
Comment by Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM on July 22, 2009 at 11:42pm
Thanks, Leo. Interesting perspective and worth considering.

Two questions spring to mind:

1. Did you compare the human embyros/fetuses with those from other mammals at similar stages of gestation, relatively speaking?

2. Are you aware how very common so-called "natural" abortion is?

First trimester abortions are usually missed and the woman has absolutely no idea that she has even been pregnant, or else thought that a pregnancy test must have been wrong. The embro is simply passed out along with the menstrual blood. It complicates matters that many women have a couple of light bleeds at their normal time in the first trimester.

I think it has been estimated that as many as 50% of pregnancies end in abortion in the first month - usually because the embryo does not implant in the womb properly. Of course, when the embryo does not implant there is no nausea and there is a normal strength bleed. Sometimes the only clue is that the period was late. Otherwise it is almost impossible to tell, really.

Nature aborts trillions more babies a month than any abortionist. Except for those with non-viable defects, there is essentially no difference between these common abortions and early term medically induced terminations. Do you feel differently towards these naturally aborted embryos? If so, why? Do you think the feelings are more rational or more emotional? Why do think that is?
Comment by LeoPardus on July 21, 2009 at 4:57pm
Just piping in a bit late in the game. I found the debate only mildly interesting. Pretty damn poor analogies I must say.

For my own part I am against abortion except in those very rare cases where the mother would die due to the continuation of the pregnancy (e.g., ectopic pregnancies).

The anatomy professor I used to work for (an agnostic himself) had essentially the same position. He was instrumental in my adapting the position I hold. Why? Because his position depended not on religion, but on his knowledge of embryology. (He taught it along with some other topics in the medical school.)

There was a whole collection of human fetuses, from about 2 weeks until about 32 weeks, in his lab. One of the things I did while there was to take measurements, photos, and notes on these fetuses. Needless to say, I got pretty familiar with what a baby in the womb looks like at every age, and how the whole development process goes.

Looking at these fetuses closely like that made their individuality clear to me. I knew that the ones younger than about 25 weeks would have had little chance of survival outside the mother, but while they were dependent on the mother, they were not "part of her". They were individuals. They were part of the continuum of human life. And their lives (yes, they were living when in the womb) had been ended by the will and hand of other humans. [I recall that a few were accidental/spontaneous abortions, so they'd be exceptions to what I just said, but most of them had no defects as far as I could tell.]

The idea that just because one person found them inconvenient or unwanted was enough to stop these perfectly healthy lives, just doesn't sit right.

Enough for now. There you have my reasons for being against abortion except in the most extreme, rare, and unavoidable circumstances.
Comment by Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM on July 20, 2009 at 10:32pm
You are very welcome, Arron.
Comment by Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM on July 20, 2009 at 9:09pm

I did actually reply, but is was attached in the same posting to which I replied to someone else. Perhaps you didn't see it. So let me repeat myself.

Counseling pre- and post-abortion is recommended procedure and even mandatory in some places. The Australian abortion clinics that I had contact with would not provide an abortion unless the woman, preferably accompanied by her husband or partner, had seen one of their conselors three days previously (to give her sufficient time to consider things again). The only exceptions were made for country visitors, late termers (where every day counted) and life threatening emergencies. The US, of course, is different.

Most women seeking abortions were married and already had children. Again, that may differ in the US, especially in the Bible Belt where the ineffective abstinence method of birth control is taught and there are pharmacists have a legal right to refuse to provide women and girls (but usually not men) with medically prescribed contraceptives.

There is absolutely no valid evidence that there is such a thing as a "subconscious connection" between mother and child, although some mothers might imagine this to be the case. The pregnant and post-partum women's brain is awash with hormones which generally (but not always) help the mother-child bonding process develop. A woman whose hormonal levels were too high might perhaps develop the delusion that she was "connected" to her baby in some mental way. It is, however, definitely a delusion. Sorry.

Evan a freshly born infant's brain does not have the brain development for this type of thing. It takes quite a while before babies can tell the difference between themselves and "out there". To begin with, they think everything, including their mother, father, siblings and the household dog, are all part of itself. Babies are still growing brain cells for 6 months after they are born.
Comment by Chrys Stevenson on July 20, 2009 at 7:43pm
Late term abortions (past 20 weeks) account for only a tiny percentage of abortions - in most countries, less than 1%.
Comment by Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM on July 19, 2009 at 8:14pm
Apology accepted.



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