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In a previous post, three foundational questions in the debate about abortion were raised.

  1. Does a right to life even exist for anyone?
  2. If it does exist, how and when is the right to life conferred to an individual?
  3. Are there instances where a person’s choice has more value than another person’s right to their own life?

This post will seek to address the third question.  The heart of the problem is the conflict between the right of a woman to control her own body and the right of a fetus to not be aborted.  When examining conflicting rights, such as these, it is useful to consider Hohfeld’s analytical system.  According to Hohfeld, all rights can be divided among four distinct classes (also call Hohfeldian incidents) that are described below.

  1. Claims—A has a claim that B x if and only if B has a duty to A to x.
  2. Liberties—A has the liberty to do x if and only if A has no duty to not do x.
  3. Powers—A has a power if and only if A has the ability within a set of rules to alter A’s own or another’s Hohfeldian incidents.
  4. Immunities—B has immunity if and only if A lacks the ability within a set of rules to alter B’s Hohfeldian incidents.

Many describe ‘claims’ as ‘claim-rights’ and ‘liberties’ as ‘privileges.’ Hohfeld further categorized these fundamental incidents into tables of opposites and correlatives.  For example, if A possesses a power, then A does not possess a disability.  However, if A possesses a power, then some other individual, B, possesses a liability. 
With Hohfeld’s system, we now the conflict of woman and fetal rights discussed above, following the excellent work of Dr. William May.  In this discussion we only need to concern ourselves with the first two Hohfeldian incidents: claims and liberties.  There are three possible logical relations between two persons, A and B, and some incident, x.

  1. A has a claim that B should x if and only if B has a duty to A to x.
  2. B has a liberty (relative to A) to x if and only if A has no-claim that B should not x.
  3. B has a liberty (relative to A) to not x if and only if A has no-claim that B should x.

Notice that claims involve actions (i.e., the x) performed by the party other than the one possessing the claim.  In contrast, the action is done by the person who possesses a liberty.  For example, people claiming a right to smoke are really claiming a liberty to smoke (i.e., the smokers actually smoke) relative to other people.  Fetal right to life involves action performed by another party (the mother) and, therefore, represents a claim.  In the most fundamental sense, the right to life means a person should not be unjustifiably killed by another person.  An abortion necessarily results in the killing of the fetus.  Therefore, the corresponding Hohfeldian incident represented by the fetal right to life is,

The fetus (A) has a claim that the mother (B) should not abort him/her (x) if and only if the mother has a duty to the fetus to not abort him/her.

The right of a woman to control her own body is more nebulous because it shifts from circumstance to circumstance.  A grown woman certainly has the right to not eat green beans for dinner if she desires to not eat them.  In this context, the phrase means that a woman has sufficient autonomy over her body to enable her to abort her child should she so choose.  Thus, the right of a woman to control her own body is actually a liberty in the Hohfeld system, for she is performing an action over her own body relative to the fetus. 

The mother (B) has a liberty (relative to the fetus, A) to abort her child (x) if and only if the fetus has no-claim that the mother should not abort him/her. 

We now clearly see that the crux of the issue is whether or not a fetus possesses the claim that the mother should not abort him/her.  If the fetus has such a claim, then this claim will curtail the mother’s liberty to abort the child.  This is an important observation because it significantly clarifies the conflict between the right to life of the fetus and the right of a woman to control her body into the single question of whether or not the fetus has a claim to not be aborted.  If the fetus does not possess the claim to not be aborted, then the mother does in fact have the stated liberty.

To answer this question, we need to know if abortion satisfies the criterion of being a justifiable killing.  It seems hard to think that it is.  No one has such a strong sense of personal autonomy that it eclipses another person’s right to their life.  This is because a person’s right to life flows from their ontology and is therefore inviolable.  If the fetus does have a right to life (see this previous post for an argument), then the mother is duty bound to not abort the child.

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There are three foundational questions in the debate about abortion.
 
  1. Does a right to life even exist for anyone?
  2. If it does exist, how and when is the right to life conferred to an individual?
  3. Are there instances where a person’s choice has more value than another person’s right to their own life?
I believe that the first question is largely non-controversial in this debate. Most individuals recognize the right to life for humans beginning at birth and ending at natural death. Thus, I will tacitly assume that the answer to the first question is “yes, humans do enjoy a right to life.” However, I want to examine the second question in some detail, for that is one of the crucial divides. The third question, although very important, will not be dealt with at this time. However, a few posts here by other bloggers have touched on this very important issue.

I found myself defending pro-life policy on some online Canadian newspaper.  The pro-abort author was, shall we say, less than tactful.  My friend Rhology summed up the article well when he said, “You promised vulgarity and implied immaturity, and you didn’t disappoint!”  The real action, however, was in the comment box.  In my opinion, the conversation developed well.  Many pro-life arguments were advanced (e.g., definition of life and its beginning, analogy to slavery or genocide, time when the right to life is conferred to humans, etc.) and most were not challenged.  Few pro-abortion arguments were advanced and most of the conversation from their end revolved around ad hominem and bluster.  In this post, I want to capture a few of the arguments to save for personal use later on.

 The important questions in the context of abortion are as follows:

(1)    Does a right to life even exist for anyone?
(2)    If it does exist, how and when is the right to life conferred to an individual?
(3)    Are there instances where a person’s choice has more value than another person’s right to their own life?

I think the first is not controversial, so I will not go into that here.  The second and third questions are the central questions in the debate.  These are discussed in more detail below.

Read the rest of this entry »

Brian Auten has given a list of 100 contemporary Christian apologists, including appropriate web links for each individual.  This appears to be an excellent resource for Christians.

I read my son Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss tonight, and I was struck by the over-arching theme of the book.  Anyone who is familiar with the book or movie will know that the entire plot of the story revolves around Horton the elephant saving a city, called Who-ville, that is full of people.  These people, however, live on a speck of dust, and only Horton is able to hear them.  The other jungle animals think Horton is mentally unstable for thinking there are people on the speck and attempt to discard and destroy the speck.

The parallels between the citizens of Who-ville and unborn children are striking.  I have no idea if Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) intended his book to mirror so closely the rights of the unborn, but the overlap is unmistakable to me.  In the book, we see Horton repeatedly trying to save the very small citizens of Who-ville from death.  These citizens have no voice of their own until the very end of the book.  Horton summarizes his motivation well with his signature line, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  Isn’t this true with the unborn children today?  They have no voice, but they are still persons.  Who are we as a country to deny them the basic right to life?  May God use this simple story to impress into the minds of my children the crucial fact that all people are persons regardless of size or capability.

Back in March, I had a very nice debate with someone named Paul C over at my good friend’s blog. The context of the debate was morality, specifically abortion. Paul C is a moral skeptic. He presented a view that an ethical code must maximize individual autonomy. Based on my interactions, this seemed to be his overarching guide in these sorts of things. It was my first exposure to the argument, and I have been thinking about this off and on since the debate ended. I decided to gather my responses here, mostly so I have access to them when I need them again. They are getting buried deep in the nether-reaches of Rhoblogy.

In the discussion, Paul C defined autonomy as “the free exercise of choice.” Furthermore, “maximizing autonomy means giving people a) a wider range of options for their decisions and b) more information on which to base their decisions.” The argument was then made that maximizing autonomy will increase well-being, both personally and corporately. However, Paul C contradicted this, “my goal is to maximize autonomy, not well-being, and for everybody, not personally.” In my opinion, the point of an autonomy-based ethic would be to increase well-being. If not, why pursue such an ethic? At any rate, I argue that an autonomy-based ethic fails for the following reasons:

  1. There no reason to accept that having more autonomy will provide more information for decision-making. Increasing the range of options available does not mean that information is increased as well.
  2. The idea that increasing choices will increase well-being is flawed.
  3. Maximizing autonomy for one individual affects the autonomy of others, by changing the range of options available to other people. In this sense, the goal of maximizing autonomy paralyzes decision-making because we do not have appropriate knowledge of the contingencies involved nor are we able to realistically determine whether or not one autonomous decision increases the autonomy of the whole. It is important to note that the summation is required to apply an autonomy-based ethic to a group of people. Ignoring this problem because we do not have the information or are the calculations are too cumbersome to evaluate is shortsighted because we may be making decisions that actually reduce overall autonomy.
  4. Long-term consequences must be known to effectively use an autonomy-based ethic. I argue that if we are in the business of maximizing autonomy, specifically to increase well-being, then it should be over the long haul. The fact that we can’t actually make this assessment counts against this methodology.

On its most basic level, the right-to-life position rests on two pillars: that the fetus is alive from the moment of conception and that the fetus has an intrinsic right to life.  To be honest, I was foolishly under the impression that the first major pillar was settled even among the pro-abortion crowd.  Certainly, with all of the medical advancements we have had since the 1970s, people recognize that life begins at conception?  Sadly, this is simply not the case.  For example, a couple of my friends were involved in what turned out to be a rather lengthy debate over abortion on Facebook.  At one point in the debate, the pro-abortion defender argued that the fetus is not alive because “Dr.’s have determined that a fetus is not yet alive until a specific point in development.”  Later in the discussion, her husband expanded on this view, “the medical community has created a threshold of existence that hinges on the development of the fertilized egg, most notably the nervous system.” Read the rest of this entry »