30 August 2014

Social media and ethics and abortion

There's been a bit of fuss lately on some social media about abortion, largely between PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, and involving "abortion rights."  I'm less concerned about the abortion issue as I am about the nature of the ethical considerations and the quality of argumentation I'm seeing via social media.
First up is a post by Terry Firma, which argues against the position taken by Richard Dawkins via Twitter, in which Dawkins seems to suggest it would be best to abort a pregnancy if the fetus is known to have Down's Syndrome.

Firma's post begins with him placing himself in a bit of a quandary as he readily admits to having a vested interest in the issue; this suggests that his position may be more biased than would be otherwise preferred for such important issues.  At the same time, the first paragraphs of Firma's post read to me like he may be setting himself up as an authority on the matter (which in turn raises the spectre of arguments by authority).  At the same time, he begins to make another significant error: he conflates children and fetuses.

He then goes on with a combination of ad hominem arguments against Dawkins mixed with references to other tweets by Dawkins that could be interpreted as controversial.  At no point does Firma present any reasonable argument against Dawkins's position.

Let's start with one of my favourite philosophical principles, that of Charity, which I summarize as: unless you know better, assume the agent of an utterance has a reasonable, rational point.  In this case, whether or not one knows Dawkins's track record, there clearly one must assume there's an intended and reasonable interpretation.

Here's a rather obvious one: if a women knows the fetus they're carrying has Down's, then this can reasonably be assumed to be the result of her having had the appropriate tests.  Those tests are typically done before week 20.  Fetal viability usually kicks in by week 24. So, if the woman knows her fetus has Down's, we can assume it's not yet viable. Before the point of viability, the fetus cannot be in any rational way be considered a true human being because it cannot exist at all on its own. This is the time to decide to abort, and begin again.

I don't know if Dawkins would agree with this interpretation, but it is both straightforward and reasonable.

Another troubling aspect of Firma's post regards his denying Dawkins's assertion that it would be immoral to bring a Down's baby to term.  The trouble is, as I mentioned above, that Firma's counterargument is based on using the term "children."  If Firma means by this birthed humans who have Down's, then he's missing the point because we're talking about unviable fetuses.  If Firma instead uses "children" to denote fetuses, then he's technically using the wrong term, and may sound a bit like those risible pro-lifers who think that a fertilized human egg is a "child."

Perhaps there's a belief in the "sanctity" of human individuality - that there's something special about each person, and that that distinctiveness is worth forcing a woman to go through an entire pregnancy and then (hopefully with the child's father) raise the child.  But this isn't the case; any rational attempt to characterize the nature of a person's distinctiveness reduces down to chemistry, genetics, neurology, and socialization.  There's nothing there that makes an arbitrary individual particularly noteworthy.  Also, if one assumes that there's no such thing as dualistic free will, then each person is nothing more than the sum of their genetics and their life experience.  Again, no reason to think any one given fetus is particularly special.

There question of the morality of knowingly giving birth to and raising a person with Down's is itself an interesting one, a short answer for which I simply do not have.  However, it is not sufficient to just say that people with Down's can have meaningful lives.  Yes, some do; indeed, some have amazing lives.  But having a great life depends at least as much on their environment and community as on themselves. Furthermore, the way in which people rank the meaning of their own lives is a socialized behaviour. Any argument based on subjective self-assessment is as much a comment on, and as wildly variable as, the nature of the society in which the subject lives, as it is a judgement of a person's worth.

Furthermore, people with Down's will typically have a variety of physical and cognitive deficits. They will have difficulty having and raising children of their own; they will have to set themselves lower expectations; they will have to settle for less. They will put more of a strain on the society of which they are part.

On the one hand, some argue that Downs is no grounds to abort a pregnancy. On the other hand, we invest significant effort and funds in research to find a way to correct the genetic error that causes Downs. This is paradoxical. If there's nothing wrong with having a Downs baby, then why do we bother trying to find a "cure?" It doesn't make sense.

Firma also pulls up another tweet by Dawkins that suggests adult pigs are more human than any fetus.  I've read that tweet a dozen times, and I still cannot figure out what Dawkins means by it.

Firma goes after Dawkins quite vigorously for this tweet, as if no one has ever posted a brainfart before.  I return, instead, to the Principle of Charity.  Why not ask him what he meant?  That would be novel - certainly novel to those who responded to the tweet on Dawkins's stream.

When in doubt, seek clarification or move on.  Having a hissy fit, as Firma did, is pointless and unproductive.

The real problem in all this is that Firma's blog post is out there now, on the web, and available to millions of people. Its lack of rationality will do nothing for the humanist cause, or for the cause of reproductive rights.  Instead, it will likely become fodder for extremist nutcases who would have women treated as chattel, and will be used by the religulous to argue that atheists are bickering among themselves and therefore cannot be trusted.

The second part of this social media silliness comes from PZ Myers.  In his post, Myers takes exception to a tweet by Dawkins in response to another post by Myers.  Here's my summary:

  • Myers claims that he has absolutely no say in whether a woman aborts a pregnancy, even if he "thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb...."
  • Dawkins "profoundly" disagreed with this.
  • Myers counters that it is the pregnant woman that "bears all of the obligations," to decide what will be done.
  • Myers then proposes a thought experiment wherein men are "infected" by an alien virus which eventually leads to a new alien creature being born, with the men for which there is a simple and harmless medical intervention to remove the alien "cyst."
  • Then Myers gets weird. He also stipulates that the alien "cysts" will communicate meaningful and significant information to their male carriers, and even refers to the entity as a "parasite." He also completely ignores the possibility of putting the alien entities, once born, up for adoption, but instead assumes that the birth parent/human will have to raise it for a couple of decades.
Clearly, Myers is asking men to consider what they would think if they could bear children and wished to control whether or not they aborted.  But it's a truly ridiculous analogy.  First of all, the alien cysts are essentially forced upon men - so... we're only talking about rape here? Second, who in the fuck would ever think of a human fetus as a parasite?

Again, let me go back to the Principle of Charity. It is obvious to anyone who has any sense of Dawkins's work that Dawkins's tweet has to do with the notion of viability (indeed, he makes this explicit in an immediately subsequent tweet, which Myers conveniently omits from his post.

Given what we know about human development, the only reasonable interpretation of a fetus as a "conscious, aware beings writing poetry," is that the fetus is viable, and has a functioning (and likely reasonably healthy) mind.  At this point, the fetus could be delivered and given up for adoption; it is, for all intents and purposes, a human being.

Dawkins is just saying that once a fetus is sufficiently developed to be viable, then it really needs to be treated as a human being.  He's also implying, I think, that a society truly interested in maximal well-being must be willing to set its collective ethical norms down as rules to be followed.

(For the record, the neural infrastructure to support consciousness starts developing, as far as I've been able to find out, between weeks 24 and 28.  Viability is usually set at week 24, so it's a wisely conservative estimate from the point of view of fetal consciousness. That is to say, a fetus that has not reached viability has no consciousness.)

Myers, on the other hand, dumps all the obligation on the birth parent, and is advocating, I think, for a very asocial "It's your problem; you deal with it" approach.  He makes it sound like he supports a woman's freedom, but it seems to me that he is more interested in abdicating his own responsibility as a member of a society.  That's mighty American of him.

Again, we get a perfectly reasonable statement by Dawkins that's turned inside out in a mish-mash of ridiculous analogy and an extreme social laissez faire attitude.  This kind of stuff does no one any good. And yet it's zooming around the web dropping into the laps of so many people who really don't know any better - and is just confusing matters even more than before.

As mass/conventional media descends into a quagmire of lies and intellectual prostitution, it is up to social media to pick up the slack.  I don't blog much, but I take it very seriously; and it concerns me deeply to see such poorly argued cases as these against Dawkins becoming so prevalent these days.

(For the record, I agree with Dawkins on all counts - except the one about adult pigs, which I still don't understand).

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