Sunday, December 28, 2014

Secular Pro-Life's New Double Standard

Secular Pro-Life (SPL) announced they were going on hiatus for the week of 22-29 December 2014. It appears they have been using the time to systematically ban pro-choice advocates from commenting and deleting their comments. I noticed this today when I was going through my Disqus comments and discovered a string of them had been marked "Removed." So far, at least forty of my posts have been so removed as I write this post. I've been given no warning, no explanation. When I made another post, I was informed I had been banned from posting comments. Again, no warning, no explanation.

Going over several blog entries, I've noticed that at least eight more pro-choice commenters had at least some of their posts deleted. I can't say for certainty the posters have also been banned, but no doubt they will get a surprise when SPL publishes new blogs and they try to comment.

Don't get me wrong here. It is SPL's blog and they can allow or disallow comments from anyone they so choose. And it is certainly no skin off my back if they are so insecure about their position that they have to block opposing viewpoints being left on their blog. If they only want to hear from yes-men, that's not my problem.

What is interesting though is that SPL has posted several blogs complaining about perceived censorship when it comes from the pro-choice side. Take a look here, here, here, and here.

I guess censorship doesn't really bother them that much after all.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bodily Rights vs. "The Responsibility Argument"

Lately, I've been spending a lot of time debating the abortion issue.1 A frequently recurring theme I run into is the so-called responsibility argument. The responsibility argument is usually used by anti-abortion advocates in response to the bodily rights argument put forth by pro-choice advocates. So to understand the responsibility argument, we must first briefly review the bodily rights argument.

The classic statement of the bodily rights argument is Judith Jarvis Thomson's “A Defense of Abortion.” Thomson argued that even if a prenate was entitled to the right to life, that right does not include a claim to using the mother's body in order to sustain itself. Just as we have the right2 to refuse anyone our body parts, even when their lives depend on it, so too a mother can refuse the prenate the use of her body. An abortion is therefore permissible in most cases.

The responsibility argument counters that, by virtue of voluntarily engaging in an activity knowing that pregnancy is a foreseeable result, the mother has given the prenate a claim to her body. This is sometimes phrased as “Consent to sex is consent to pregnancy.” Other times, it is more bluntly phrased as “[Choose a snarl word denoting woman] opened her legs, she can pay the price.” However phrased, the argument is that the mother's bodily autonomy has been forfeited3 by the act of having sex. Excluding cases of rape,4 abortion is therefore impermissible. Matters such as using birth control are irrelevant so long as the risk of pregnancy is not zero.

I must admit the responsibility argument does make a prima facie case for giving the prenate a claim on its mother's body in non-rape cases.5 The idea that people are required to take responsibility for their actions is well established in both legal and ethical reasoning. The consequences may sometimes include the forfeiture of certain rights, including bodily autonomy.6 Thus, we cannot simply dismiss this argument out of hand.

The questions that confronts us are: Is the woman really responsible for her pregnancy in a morally meaningful way? Granting the woman has some responsibility for her condition, does that responsibility rise to the level that abortion becomes impermissible when the woman had voluntary sex?

I have already gone through many outlines and started many drafts of this post. But the more I think about the “responsibility argument,” the more objections I come up with. So I've decided that, rather than write an essay that connects all my objections together, I would just make a numbered list. I am not saying these arguments are equally strong, though I do think some of them are decisive.

Without further ado then--

1. Consent to sex may be voluntary, but it is not necessarily free. To understand what I mean here, consider something more than ninety-nine per cent of adults have done at one time or another: getting up in the morning, crawling into their vehicles, and going to a crappy job, working for a crappy employer, making crappy wages. Those actions are completely voluntary—nobody put a gun to their heads and said they must do this. Yet, for all that, are those actions really free? No, they did it not because they wanted to, but because there is a host of pressures and obligations that forced them to do so. To not go to those crappy jobs carried consequences that made having even a crappy job worthwhile. Likewise with consenting to sex. Often enough, a woman consents to sex because of pressures and obligations7 that force her to do so.

Why does this matter when it comes to the “responsibility argument?” Precisely because of the rape exception. The rape exception specifically excludes rape victims because she was forced into the act. If being forced into the act is enough to exempt women from a general prohibition against abortion, then we can't limit ourselves to considering the crime of rape. We need to also exempt those who were forced to have sex by means other than physical force.

2. Sex may be necessary,8 but it is not sufficient to cause pregnancy. In order to get pregnant, a number of different factors must be in place, most of which are beyond the woman's control. The woman had sex, what happens after that is under the control of nature. The woman's lack of control over whether conception occurs or not also casts doubt whether pregnancy is foreseeable for any given act of intercourse.

3. Granting that objection 2 is wrong, it is still nature's fault that the prenate needs the woman's body to survive. In human reproduction, there simply isn't an option where the prenate can be created and not require the woman's body to survive. The woman is no more responsible for the prenate's condition than a potential organ donor is responsible for the illness or injury that caused the need for a replacement organ. In other words, at most she is simply responsible for the fact the prenate exists, and not for the fact it needs her body to survive.

4. Accepting a risk does not entail that we must accept the result should the worst occur. When we get into our vehicles and start the engine, we accept that there is a risk we will be injured in a car accident. But should an accident occur, it would be absurd to say that we must therefore forego medical treatment.

5. Nor does accepting a risk entail that we automatically give up our rights. If I leave my door unlocked in the knowledge that there are burglars out there, it would be absurd to say I've forfeited my property rights should a burglar actually enter my home and steal my things. If this is true for mere property rights, how much more so when it comes to the right to bodily integrity?

6. The responsibility argument sets a standard of strict liability that imposes extreme burdens on the woman to avoid the punishment of forced gestation. Effectively, her only options are complete abstinence during her fertile years, having a hysterectomy, or having a bilateral oophorectomy. All of these options have severe consequences for a woman's total well-being. There is no other case where we would impose extraordinary burdens on someone to avoid strict liability.

7. The responsibility argument does not address cases where the man sabotaged the birth control.9 Though having sex in these conditions cannot be considered voluntary (indeed, in some places sabotaging birth control legally constitutes sexual assault), logically the responsibility argument will not excuse the woman. True, her consent was conditioned upon properly using birth control, but even using birth control does not reduce the risk of pregnancy to zero. Since she would have still voluntarily taken the risk, she must still accept the responsibility and can still be required to gestate.

8. Even a rape victim may not be able to evade the strict liability standard demanded by the responsibility argument. One could avoid being raped by building an impregnable fortress and remaining inside of it. By failing to do so, she assumes the risk of rape and, by the terms of the responsibility argument, is therefore liable for the results. Given that we live in a rape culture where the woman is often, if not usually, blamed for the rape as it is, this argument isn't as absurd as it might appear at first glance.10

9. The responsibility argument is not applied evenly. The same argument would justify forced donations of blood, tissue, and organs when someone caused the need. Yet anti-abortion advocates deny this implication.

10. Anti-abortion advocates also try to say the responsibility argument isn't about punishing women for having sex. As it is, prohibiting abortion deprives pregnant women of their right to life, liberty, and security of person; their right to be free from slavery; their right to be recognized as a person before the law; their right to equal protection under the law; their right to be free from torture; their right to bodily integrity; and their right to decide when and if to have children, all without due process of law. The responsibility argument goes further than a blanket prohibition of abortion though, precisely by claiming that this wholesale deprivation of rights is justified because the woman had sex. The responsibility argument turns sex into an act of negligence, if not a crime.

11. If abortion is prohibited on the basis of the responsibility argument, it is inevitable that someone will die as a result of an unwanted pregnancy. This means she will have been sentenced to the death penalty for having sex. Even assuming the responsibility argument can be sustained, we should rightly ask if the punishment fits the crime. Death for having sex is completely incommensurate.

The responsibility argument creates a prima facie case that the woman who engages in voluntary sex forfeits her bodily autonomy by giving the prenate a claim to her body. This case does not hold up under scrutiny. Though her participation in sex is voluntary, it does not necessarily mean her choice was free. Even granting that her choice was free, her responsibility for her pregnancy is in itself questionable. The responsibility argument sets up a standard that imposes excessive burdens on a woman trying to avoid punishment. Advocates of the responsibility argument are not consistent in applying the principle. Finally, even if it is granted that the woman is responsible for her pregnancy, the punishment is wholly disproportionate to the act she committed.

Edit: Changed the link to Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" after one of the comments made me realize the html version here contained an error. The pdf version now linked also retains Thomson's footnotes, also omitted in the html version.

1I wish to make it clear that I am discussing abortion as a political issue, rather than a strictly moral one. My moral stance on abortion, while still comparatively permissive, is more restrictive than my political stance.
2Later recognized in the case of McFall v. Shimp.
3Some proponents will prefer to say that the right has actually been waived rather than forfeited. Holly M. Smith decisively refuted that notion in her paper “Intercourse and Moral Responsibility for the Fetus.”
4Most people using the responsibility argument also exclude cases that pose serious threats to the life and/or health of the mother. Technically speaking, the life/health exception belongs to a different category than the rape exception and is beyond the scope of the responsibility argument.
5Other cases may be exempt given the responsibility argument. For example, a woman who engages in intercourse without the knowledge that sex causes pregnancy would likely be exempt. It is not my object to tease out all the possible exemptions. If my counter-arguments are successful, then exceptions to the responsibility argument becomes a moot issue.
6A convicted criminal, for example, forfeits certain rights, including freedom of movement, an aspect of bodily autonomy.
7I realize that saying a person can be obligated to have sex will put me on thin ice in some circles. While I am prepared to argue that in some circumstances, a person can be objectively obligated to have sex, I need not have recourse to such an argument here. It is enough for the purpose of this argument that the woman feel some obligation to have sex, whether or not that feeling is based on an objective duty.
8Or not, when considering artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization.
9Indeed, in my experience, abortion opponents avoid the topic of reproductive coercion in general. The exception is when the man attempts to force the woman to have an abortion, which they use as a reason to prohibit abortion.
10And let's not forget Todd Akin's comments about “legitimate rape” in this context.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reviving the Anointed Quorum: An Idea

In Joseph Smith on Mormon Women and the Priesthood, Fiona Givens argues that, contra some assertions, that Joseph Smith did not necessarily envision granting women the priesthood. Instead, the Relief Society was intended to be an autonomous organization within the Church, parallel to the Priesthood and collaborators in the administration of the Church. As the Relief Society was meant to be an effectual (if not actual) priesthood, Givens implies that restoring the Relief Society to its autonomous position would resolve the problems that lead some women to call for ordination in the Priesthood.

I disagree with that implication. Joseph and Emma's historical vision boils down to a separate but equal status for the Relief Society. But human history has shown over and over again that "separate but equal" is anything but equal. The reason why “separate but equal” schemes don't work is because there is always an unequal distribution of power between the parties being kept separate, and it always works against the party who is declared equal. For example, during the Jim Crow era, the problem wasn't just that the white majority didn't ensure the facilities being kept separate were maintained equally. Jim Crow laws worked because the white majority devised various workarounds to the 15th Amendment that effectively deprived African Americans the power to remedy the inequities.

We can see this dynamic working in the history of the Relief Society. During the preliminary stages of the Relief Society's organization, Joseph said his intent was to “organize the women under the priesthood after a pattern of the priesthood” (emphasis added). As Givens noted, Joseph instructed the Relief Society that “If the sisters needed the prophet's instruction," they were to "ask him [and] he will give it." And notably, the Priesthood shut down the Relief Society, possibly because of the conflict between Joseph and Emma Smith over polygamy.1

Therefore, restoring the Relief Society would not give women the role of full collaborators in the Church. The Relief Society never gave women the status of full collaborators in Church affairs to begin with. Being full collaborators in Church affairs requires having power, and the Relief Society was subject to the Priesthood, even in its original vision. The Priesthood retained the prerogatives of power while giving the Relief Society the illusion of equality. So long as the Priesthood retains the power, the Relief Society can never be truly autonomous, nor can women ever be equal collaborators in Church administration. The power differential between the Priesthood and the Relief Society must be addressed for this to happen.

If a separate but equal status for the Relief Society doesn't address the power differential between it and the Priesthood, what could? I have an idea. I don't pretend to have fully fleshed out the idea and all its implications, and therefore wouldn't call it a proposal. But if the basic idea is sound, I'm sure others could take it up and work out the details.

My idea is to revive the Anointed Quorum. The original Anointed Quorum existed for the purpose of ensuring the general membership received their temple ordinances. Once that purpose was accomplished, the Quorum was disbanded. For our purposes, the most significant point that should be noted is that the Anointed Quorum was composed of both men and women. Though intended for a specific purpose, the Anointed Quorum is the only governing body in LDS Church history where women were even theoretically made full collaborators with men.

This time, the Anointed Quorum would be vested with the authority to govern general Church affairs. It's membership would be composed of members appointed in equal numbers by and from the Priesthood and the Relief Society, subject to the law of common consent. The Priesthood and the Relief Society would be truly autonomous in the governance of its own affairs, subject only to the general policies set by the Anointed Quorum. The Anointed Quorum would have the power to proclaim official Church doctrine (subject to the law of common consent), administer Church finances, appoint Church courts, and otherwise set policy and procedure governing Church administration.

Women will never be full collaborators in Church governance unless and until the power differential between the all-male Priesthood and the female membership is resolved. The first and most obvious way to accomplish this is to extend ordination to women. Another alternative is to find some way to reorganize the Church's governing structure to ensure women have equal power with the Priesthood in administering Church affairs. Reviving the Anointed Quorum offers just such a possibility.
1. In another conversation, Don Bradley disputes the polygamy theory, noting the reasons the Relief Society stopped meeting in 1844 are not clear. It is not my intent to delve into a historical analysis about why the original Relief Society disbanded beyond noting it is unlikely it would have happened without the Priesthood exerting pressure on it.