The consistency of pro-choice, anti death-penalty perspectives.


Reading an article in the Guardian on Rick Santorum’s frankly disgusting views on abortion, I came across the following comment:

A problem with pointing out the inconsistency of opposing right-to-abortion and supporting the death penalty is that the same accusation in reverse can be made to liberals.

Really? I don’t think so. While it may seem that if one is inconsistent the other must also be so, I would argue that the consistency of the pro-choice, anti-death penalty position (and the inconsistency of anti-choice pro-death penalty viewpoints) comes from the values generally emphasised in each.

The anti-choice argument generally runs something like this: The primary right is to life, and all human life is sacred. Embryos and fetuses constitute seperate human life, and are therefore entitled to the same protections as other humans. Because of this, terminating fetal and embryonic human life is equivalent to murdering a person and should not be permitted. I gather that being in favour of the death penalty has something to do with punishing people who do bad things to the fullest extent possible, although to be honest it’s a perspective I’ve never been able to wrap my head around.

As a person who’s as pro-choice as I’m against the death penalty, the main difference is in the principles I emphasise.

Read the rest over at the Tea Cosy’s new home.

23 thoughts on “The consistency of pro-choice, anti death-penalty perspectives.

  1. The death penalty has always been a tricky topic for me. While for the most part I am against it, and certainly wouldn’t advocate it as a deterrent in any shape or form. It seems to me though that in some cases it is warranted, when the people are a major danger to society, such as serial killers, there’s no evidence that I am aware of that suggests that people like that can be rehabilitated. Is it more humane to lock them in isolation for the rest of their lives? Or worse, keep them so drugged that they’re trapped in their own heads? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts?

  2. bodily sovereignty doesn’t hold much weight with them as an argument since they consider the blob of cells to be a full person. Even if they accepted the bodily sovereignty argument in itself they’d hold that the other little person should also have an exactly equal right to not have their body interfered with, small as it is.

    It’s not that their arguments are inconsistant in this reguard, merely that they have utterly different starting precepts to you or I.

    Murder and execution by the state are considered seperate since execution is something you earn through your actions or choices while Murder is something that is simply done to you. Especially so since many such views are rooted in religion and the OT uses different words for Murder and Execution.

    Though of course most mainstream anti choice groups aren’t genuinely consistent with the position that the blob of cells is a full person.

    Weirdly enough the furthest far right ones who bomb abortion clinics and stick to “no abortions ever, under any circumstances” are the ones who’s beliefs are more consistent with actually being pro-life rather than simply wanting to punish women for having sex.

  3. While I largely share your views on these issues, I didn’t get there by the same route, and I’m not sure your stated reasons hold up under scrutiny.
    My opposition to the death penalty is based on a number of factors but bodily integrity is not one of them. I oppose it because it is irreversible, because it is ineffective, and because I don’t believe justice should be about retribution or revenge.
    Arguing the case from bodily integrity is problematic. Does the right to bodily integrity include the right to choose where one’s body is kept? If so, then imprisonment violates it. Does a criminal – or suspected criminal – have the right to refuse blood or DNA tests – or fingerprinting – that would establish their guilt or innocence? Those who commit serious crimes necessarily forfeit some of their rights including the right to freedom. It’s not immediately obvious to me why the right to life or the right to bodily integrity shouldn’t be up for grabs too.
    I am pro-choice because an embryo is not a person, and a foetus is not a person until -at the earliest – somewhere late in the second or early in the third trimester. I have the same issues with a very late abortion as I would have with neonaticide because the foetus/baby is just as much of a person whether it’s inside or outside a woman’s body.
    I have to question whether a body has the right to bodily integrity if it happens to be inside another body. It’s hard to see why it wouldn’t, so the argument comes back to whether a foetus has rights at all. And to me, it has rights if and only if it’s a person. It’s location is irrelevant.

    • I have the same issues with a very late abortion as I would have with neonaticide because the foetus/baby is just as much of a person whether it’s inside or outside a woman’s body.

      Who decides that it’s a person? I wouldn’t see it as a person at that stage. “Personhood” to my mind is a social not a biological characteristic, and location is very relevant because a body inside another body has no social capacity.

      • The question should not be “Who decides that it’s a person?” but “How do we decide whether it’s a person?” This is not an easy question, but your criterion would presumably allow a woman to give birth (at full term) into a bin bag, and then dispose of the baby, as a baby in a bin bag has no more social capacity than a full-term foetus in the womb. This is not hugely dissimilar to a line taken in many cultures that practise neonaticide (usually of girls) but I find it not only extremely distasteful but illogical.
        Note that a prisoner in solitary confinement, or an adult with “locked-in syndrome” have no social capacity either, but does that stop them being persons?
        In fact, is personhood the right criterion at all, or is it capacity for suffering?
        There seems to be a tendency among people who are passionate about the abortion debate to take extremes for fear of going down a “slippery slope”. Thus, “pro-life” campaigners find themselves arguing that a zygote floating down the fallopian tubes should have full human rights, while “pro-choice” campaigners argue that a full-term foetus on its way out of the birth canal should have none. To me, neither position seems to be tenable and the reality is that there’s a murky area in the middle where abortion becomes morally problematic.

        • “Baby in a bin bag” and “prisoner in solitary confinement” are social constructions too. There is nothing intrinsic to their being that makes them lack social capacity – in fact, they don’t actually lack it, they’re just being prevented from exercising it.

          As for lock-in syndrome, I’d say it depends on whether the patient retains some ability to communicate (as some of them do). If not, then no, I don’t think there’s any “person” there.

          In fact, is personhood the right criterion at all, or is it capacity for suffering?

          If the latter, how do you draw the line between humans and other animals?

          • I find it impossible to logically distinguish between the baby in the bin bag and the foetus in a uterus that it was just seconds before. The argument from “social capacity” has had to become an argument from “intrinsic social capacity” in order for you to defend it.
            I can see no convincing argument that it is morally acceptable to inject a full-term foetus with a lethal dose of poison and then deliver it, and is simultaneously unacceptable to reverse the order of those two events.
            I’m deeply concerned that you believe a lack of ability to communicate stops someone from being a person. Does this apply only to people in a permanent vegetative state or are temporary periods of unconsciousness enough?
            On drawing a line between humans and other animals, maybe part of the problem is that people are too eager to draw lines, where there are in fact almost infinite shades of grey. We need to be able to say that there are moral grey areas.

            • I find it impossible to logically distinguish between the baby in the bin bag and the foetus in a uterus that it was just seconds before.

              Well, I find it very easy to distinguish my uterus from a bin bag.

              The argument from “social capacity” has had to become an argument from “intrinsic social capacity” in order for you to defend it.

              It hasn’t “become” anything. My argument is that personhood is dependent on the social capacity of the being. A being that has social capacity doesn’t lose it just because they’re placed in a situation without any other people around (nor do they lose it in a temporary period of unconsciousness, to answer your second question).

              I’m deeply concerned that you believe a lack of ability to communicate stops someone from being a person.

              What qualities of “personhood” do you think they have, if they are entirely uncommunicative?

              We need to be able to say that there are moral grey areas.

              Of course there are moral grey areas (for example, when it is genuinely impossible to determine whether a state of consciousness is only temporary). I just don’t think this is one of them.

          • Correction: for “in a permanent vegetative state”, read “with total locked-in syndrome”. In the former case, there is no higher brain function so personhood has almost certainly ceased.

  4. Well, I find it very easy to distinguish my uterus from a bin bag.

    That wasn’t the comparison I was making though. What change does a full-term foetus that goes directly from your uterus to a bin bag undergo that makes him or her a person?
    If your answer is simply the “intrinsic social capacity” that it would have were it not put in a bin bag, then we can just go back a week (so we have a nearly full-term foetus) and induce labour, so had we not interfered, the foetus would have no “social capacity”. Is it then OK to kill it?

    A being that has social capacity doesn’t lose it just because they’re placed in a situation without any other people around

    So if I shine a bright light into your uterus or make a loud noise, causing your full-term foetus to respond, does it then have this social capacity, or does it always have to wait until it’s on the outside of the uterus? What if it’s taken out by caesarean, then put back in? Does it temporarily gain personhood, or does it keep it when put back?

    What qualities of “personhood” do you think they have, if they are entirely uncommunicative?

    The ability to think. The ability to remember the past and contemplate the future.

    (nor do they lose it in a temporary period of unconsciousness, to answer your second question).

    Why not?

    Of course there are moral grey areas (for example, when it is genuinely impossible to determine whether a state of consciousness is only temporary). I just don’t think this is one of them.

    So you’re happy with a strict delineation between a foetus and a baby, such that one is never a person and one always is? Just to be clear, is personhood obtained upon leaving the uterus or the vagina, and does the foetus/baby have to be completely outside the woman’s body before this transformation occurs? If it is still attached to the placenta, and the placenta is still inside the woman’s body, is it a person or not?

    • Is it then OK to kill it?

      My argument is not whether it is “OK to kill” a foetus at any point. I am strictly addressing the issue of whether or not a foetus is a person.

      So if I shine a bright light into your uterus or make a loud noise, causing your full-term foetus to respond, does it then have this social capacity,

      No, it doesn’t. It’s responding to a stimulus (which any living creature can do) with no concept of the fact that there is another being providing that stimulus. This is not social interaction.

      What if it’s taken out by caesarean, then put back in?

      Has this ever actually happened (apart from a very small number of cases where foetal surgery was needed at a stage in the pregnancy where it couldn’t survive outside the womb anyway)?

      The ability to think. The ability to remember the past and contemplate the future.

      How do you know they have these abilities if they are unable to communicate?

      Why not?

      Why would you think they do? People have lots of abilities that they aren’t capable of exercising at every single moment of their life, yet we do not say that they have lost their capacity to exercise it unless the loss is permanent.

      So you’re happy with a strict delineation between a foetus and a baby, such that one is never a person and one always is?

      I would not consider a baby in a persistent vegetative state to have personhood, either.

      The rest of your questions are pretty silly, especially for someone who won’t commit themselves to anything more concrete than “somewhere late in the second or early in the third trimester”.

      • My argument is not whether it is “OK to kill” a foetus at any point. I am strictly addressing the issue of whether or not a foetus is a person.

        If you believe that personhood is unrelated to the issue of abortion or infanticide, then we’re obviously arguing at cross purposes. If “person” is just another word for “a human being who is not inside a uterus or comatose” with no bearing on their right to life, then I’m not even sure what we’re discussing.

        No, it doesn’t. It’s responding to a stimulus (which any living creature can do) with no concept of the fact that there is another being providing that stimulus. This is not social interaction.

        I’m not sure anything a newborn baby can do would count as “social interaction” either, but then I’m not sure why social interaction is the important criterion here (and indeed, if personhood isn’t the issue for you that it is for me, then it’s not important).

        Has this ever actually happened (apart from a very small number of cases where foetal surgery was needed at a stage in the pregnancy where it couldn’t survive outside the womb anyway)?

        It’s at least conceivable that such surgery could take place on a foetus some time after viability. In such a case, does the foetus gain personhood only to lose it again once the surgery is over? Or does it retain its personhood through the rest of the pregnancy?

        Why would you think they do? People have lots of abilities that they aren’t capable of exercising at every single moment of their life, yet we do not say that they have lost their capacity to exercise it unless the loss is permanent.

        Fair point. So a person is someone who is theoretically capable of acting in a social capacity either now or at some time in the future and who is not currently in a uterus?

        I would not consider a baby in a persistent vegetative state to have personhood, either.

        But apart from such exceptions, is it your belief that a newborn baby is a person and an almost-born foetus is not?

        The rest of your questions are pretty silly, especially for someone who won’t commit themselves to anything more concrete than “somewhere late in the second or early in the third trimester”.

        You’re the one who says there are no grey areas here. I think there most certainly are. Human life doesn’t simply go: blob of cells > blob of cells > blob of cells > person. For me, there is definitely a moral difference between taking the morning-after pill and drowning a newborn baby. There is very probably a moral difference between an abortion in the first month of pregnancy and one in the last month. As we push the dates closer and closer together, it gets harder to morally differentiate.
        If there is no moral grey area for you, then you must be drawing a line somewhere. I’m genuinely interested in exactly where you draw it and why?

        • If “person” is just another word for “a human being who is not inside a uterus or comatose” with no bearing on their right to life, then I’m not even sure what we’re discussing.

          You stated, as an assertion of fact, that in the later stages of abortion “the foetus/baby is just as much of a person”. My point is simply that that isn’t a fact, it’s an opinion – just as much so as the view of some others that personhood begins at conception.

          It’s at least conceivable that such surgery could take place on a foetus some time after viability.

          But it’s hardly conceivable that it would be put back into the uterus if it was viable. Come on.

          The rest of your questions are simply asking me to restate things I have already said and frankly I have better things to do with my time. Anyway, your “moral grey area” is far more problematic than my lack of one. Women actually (albeit rarely) seek abortions around the time that you think the changeover from non-person to person occurs, and you think that changeover is crucial to whether they have a right to such an abortion; yet you can’t say exactly when that time is. My approach to the personhood question is only a philosophical one, but yours would have practical consequences. So it’s far more important for you to decide where the line is drawn than for me.

          • You stated, as an assertion of fact, that in the later stages of abortion “the foetus/baby is just as much of a person”. My point is simply that that isn’t a fact, it’s an opinion – just as much so as the view of some others that personhood begins at conception.

            I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that personhood begins at conception. But if they have, they’re using a radically different definition of the word from me. Whatever word is used, what I’m talking about are whatever qualities give a being what we normally call human rights, which probably include the capacity for suffering and the ability to think and to contemplate one’s own existence. Whatever criteria we decide on, it’s difficult – at least for me – to understand why a newborn baby would have them when an almost-born foetus would not, as if the uterus contains some sort of rights-dampening field.

            But it’s hardly conceivable that it would be put back into the uterus if it was viable. Come on.

            With modern technology, a human foetus is potentially viable at 22 weeks of gestation, but benefits greatly if allowed to continue to gestate for another 17 weeks so I don’t think it’s beyond the realms of possibility that this would occur. In any case, it’s there as a thought experiment more than anything else.

            The rest of your questions are simply asking me to restate things I have already said and frankly I have better things to do with my time.

            I can’t imagine a better use of time than arguing on the Internet😉 but I don’t think you have stated exactly where you draw the line, or why.

            Anyway, your “moral grey area” is far more problematic than my lack of one. Women actually (albeit rarely) seek abortions around the time that you think the changeover from non-person to person occurs, and you think that changeover is crucial to whether they have a right to such an abortion; yet you can’t say exactly when that time is.

            Oh, it’s hugely problematic. It would be ideal if there was a particular well-defined point where a human went from non-person to person but I really don’t think there is. As I mentioned earlier, there is a tendency among “pro-lifers” to argue that conception is the point at which human rights begin, and among “pro-choicers” to argue that they begin at birth, because these are (reasonably) well-defined points and there aren’t any in between. Superficially, either of those stances is easier than my rather fuzzy viewpoint that depends on probabilities and possibilities, but reality is messy and analogue and doesn’t always fit into our well-defined binary categories.
            So I can’t say exactly when abortion becomes problematic. I’m not even unsympathetic to Peter Singer’s argument that infanticide in the first month or so after birth may be morally justifiable.
            To say that a foetus or baby becomes a person at, say, 24 weeks of gestation or at birth or at one month after birth is every bit as problematic as saying that a human becomes an adult on his/her 18th birthday and becomes old on his/her 65th.

            My approach to the personhood question is only a philosophical one, but yours would have practical consequences. So it’s far more important for you to decide where the line is drawn than for me.

            Well, a philosophical approach with no practical consequences is just wordplay. Are you sure you have better things to do with your time?

            • what I’m talking about are whatever qualities give a being what we normally call human rights

              So later-term foetuses have rights because they are persons (your original assertion), and what makes them persons is the fact that they have qualities that give them rights. That’s circular reasoning.

              it’s difficult – at least for me – to understand why a newborn baby would have them when an almost-born foetus would not, as if the uterus contains some sort of rights-dampening field.

              Um, the “rights-dampening field” is the fact that the foetus’s presence in the uterus makes it impossible for it to socially interact. Really, I wouldn’t have thought that concept still needed explaining at this point in the discussion (whether or not you agree with me about what it means for personhood).

              As to your argument about newborn babies, while I’m far from an expert on the subject, what I have read seems to indicate that social interaction does begin pretty much right after birth. If that is not accurate then I would have no problem concluding that a pre-social newborn has not yet developed personhood either. Again, as far as I’m concerned it’s only a philosophical question, not a policy determinant.

              To say that a foetus or baby becomes a person at, say, 24 weeks of gestation or at birth or at one month after birth is every bit as problematic as saying that a human becomes an adult on his/her 18th birthday and becomes old on his/her 65th.

              Well, if you’re going to have legal categories (meaningful legal categories, anyway) then you simply have to be able to define them in such a way as to distinguish those within the categories from those outside. And if that can’t be done then either your categories are flawed or you need a non-categorical approach. It’s not such an issue where the categories have no legal effect anyway (like calling someone “old”).

              Are you sure you have better things to do with your time?

              Absolutely positive😀

          • you’re talking your way into a corner.

            If you hold that someone who isn’t permanently vegetative like someone in a coma still counts as a person then the obvious counter argument you’d face would be that a baby isn’t permanently in that state, it’s only unable to communicate for a short period of time.

            then of course you end up getting tied up in exactly the game they want play where you’re defending a poor position.

            this is a terrible terrible approach to the argument when there’s a number of arguments which do away with the “what is a person” argument entirely.

            They love to play the “think of the children line”. one of their precepts is that the foetus is a full person, you’re not going to convince them differently. ever. all you’re going to do is have a circle jerk with people who already agree with you.

            so lets subtract the personhood problem.

            relying on the “it’s inside me hence everything” argument is also a terrible terrible approach since it opens up a whole host of counter arguments.

            So lets do away with that as well.

            Arguing about thought and experience runs head long into the problem of other minds.

            So lets subtract that.

            What are we left with?

            lets imagine we have 2 thinking, feeling, full human beings. no questions of personhood. just for the purposes of this discussion, you and I.

            lets ignore practicality and put together a hypothetical.
            There’s some accident, some disaster, your liver/kidneys/lungs etc are badly damaged. I’m a perfect blood/tissues match.

            Some well meaning and desperate doctor keeps you alive by hooking you up to my circulatory system, my kidneys take on the job of filtering your blood, my liver starts doing the job for yours etc.
            (ignoring how impractical it is)

            I’m not getting anything for this, I suffer various discomforts, my organs suffer additional strain and stress supporting you.

            Now lets say it’s going to take the doctors 6 or 7 months to sort you out.

            A few months in I turn around and say “I can’t take this any more”, “this is horrible”, “I don’t want to do this”, “get these tubes out of me”

            nobody, not you, not the doctor, not anyone else has the right to tie me to the bed and force me to stay as your life support machine. they have every right to try to convince me to stay but they cannot enslave me for your benefit no matter that you’re a full thinking feeling human being.

            it’s the only argument which I’ve ever seen cause a pro-lifer who’s precepts included the belief that the foetus was a full human being to turn around and say “huh.. that’s a good point… huh…” because it starts using their own precepts.

            • the obvious counter argument you’d face would be that a baby isn’t permanently in that state

              A foetus is “permanently” in that state because it cannot develop that capacity until such time as it ceases to be a foetus and becomes something else. I’ve already said this.

              one of their precepts is that the foetus is a full person, you’re not going to convince them differently

              I’m not trying to convince them differently. I have no interest whatsoever in convincing them of anything. My point is simply that Derek’s assertion, that women have no right to a late abortion because the foetus is a person at that point, rests on a premise that cannot be taken as a priori. I’ve already said this, too.

              For whatever it’s worth, I find as little value in your “human life support machine” argument as in Derek’s “back to the uterus” argument. You’ve heard the saying “hard cases make bad law”? Well, hypothetical cases that are completely and utterly implausible and have nothing to do with the situations actually faced by real people make worse.

            • “A foetus is “permanently” in that state because it cannot develop that capacity until such time as it ceases to be a foetus and becomes something else. I’ve already said this. ”

              Either you’re twisting the word “permanent” into something meaningless or that makes no sense whatsoever.

              What you’re saying might make sense in your own head but it’s not making much sense to me….

              If it’s merely some kind of typo or poorly explained…. for comparison could you explain why your statement is true but the following is not:

              A kitten in a “permanent” state of being a kitten because once it stops being a kitten it’s not a kitten any more, it’s a cat.

              • Just wanted to apologise for this taking so long to be approved – it ended up in my spam folder somehow, and I only clear that out every few weeks. Sorry about that! Hopefully won’t happen to you again🙂

  5. It is about control. The anti-abortion, pro-death penalty, anti euthanasia side wants control of other people, the liberal wants as much freedom as possible for other people. So both sides are consistent and principled, but I know which principles I prefer.

  6. Pingback: OMG! 200 posts! | Consider the Tea Cosy

  7. If we’re putting people in jail, that is controlling them. Jail is a revenge/retribution for some crimes deemed due for jail. If laws disallow people to kill other people, that is controlling a potential killer’s actions. Crimes are committed, punishments are made, some punishments can not be left, they are enforced for life. Society involves law and order, enforcement and earned punishment,.. rules based on democracy. Society also involves earned freedom and the right to life and the pursuit and enjoyment of happiness, especially for those who have not committed crimes which would relinquish those rights, as a member of earth-human-society.
    Allow for abortion, allow for death penalty(as due justice for clearly found guilt of sufficient gravity of murderous acts, and possibly other acts as prudently deemed appropriate), allow for prudent euthanasia(especially for those in poor health who would die fairly soon without medical intervention).

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s