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“Abortion is murder”

We’ve all doubtless heard today that an anti-abortion activist acted in an insane manner. We’ll also probably hear a lot about how this shouldn’t reflect on the anti-abortion movement at all — it’s a completely isolated incident, etc. In line with other discussions going on today, though, I’d like to point out that the position that “abortion is murder” is fundamentally insane, and if people really work themselves into a place where it seems to make sense, acting insanely is the logical consequence.

The very fact that there are so few anti-abortion terrorists is actually evidence that the slogan “abortion is murder” does not match up with any recognizable moral intuitions. Certainly I would hope that no one would have the same disapproval of a woman who had an abortion and a woman who had purposely murdered her post-born baby.

But let’s look at another example. We all know of situations where someone has accidentally killed a baby. Even if it’s truly not their fault, we think it’s appropriate that they feel remorse. But if abortion is murder, then miscarriage is unintentional murder. The woman’s body naturally fights against the fetus for resources, and just as the accidental killer of an infant always thinks “there’s something I could’ve done differently,” surely a woman who suffers a miscarriage could think along the same lines and should feel some amount of remorse that her body accidentally killed this human being inside of her. Yet isn’t that a monstrous thing to say? Wouldn’t you instinctively want to punch someone who said such a thing to a woman who suffered a miscarriage?

Obviously no one wants to draw such an insane conclusion from a widely-used slogan like “abortion is murder” — but such insane conclusions are possible because the slogan is itself insane. It’s not a deeply held moral conviction we should “respect,” it’s an amoral conviction that actively fights against our moral instincts and, when fully accepted, leads to insane behavior.

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June 1, 2009 - Posted by | family values

35 Comments

  1. I believe abortion is murder and am just a pacifist. So I’m doubly insane, I suppose. My general take on these kinds of things places blame for the murder in much wider social context, much the same as the murder in Chronicle of a Murder Foretold. I also feel that women that kill babies post-birth are usually suffering under the same types of pressures that women who obtain abortions are under. The miscarriage bit is similar to stuff I’ve heard you say before and just don’t understand.

    Comment by old | June 1, 2009

  2. We always knew you were insane, though.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 1, 2009

  3. Yes, yes insane. Produced by communities that insisted that abortion was murder, but somehow tried to distance themselves from such acts. Never understood it very well. Still don’t, though I have a few suspicions.

    Comment by old | June 1, 2009

  4. For some weird reason, this post isn’t appearing on the front page of The Weblog for me – I only noticed it as comments appeared on the side. Is it just me, or what?

    The anti-abortion movement is just another outcropping of the anti-woman, anti-sex movement that’s governed our civilization for most of its history. There is no serious consideration for murder, “life,” etc. It’s about the need to preserve pregnancy, and the stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, as a punishment for women who have sex without getting married/sold off to a man.

    Comment by strasmangelo jones | June 1, 2009

  5. Okay, it’s up now. I’ve no idea what was wrong.

    Comment by strasmangelo jones | June 1, 2009

  6. But if abortion is murder, then miscarriage is unintentional murder.

    I can’t follow you here. There is no such thing as unintentional murder. Murder is always deliberate, from a moral standpoint. More precisely, murder is deliberately taking an innocent life on one’s own authority.

    I have yet to decide how I feel about abortion, but I am nevertheless irritated by how everyone, on either side of this tired debate, seems to get the fundamental question wrong. It isn’t a matter of murder, nor is it a matter of a woman’s rights to her body.

    The question of abortion is actually the same question posed by the Terry Schiavo case. The fetus is clearly human, but it is a special case. Like Terry Schiavo, the fetus is fragile, unconscious, unable to survive on its own. But a fetus isn’t an organ, or another species. It is uniquely human. Thus the question posed by an abortion is this: is this one of those times that we deem it acceptable to deliberately end a human life?

    Any attempt to frame the question in any other way (murder, rights, etc.) is pure hack.

    Comment by Jared Sinclair | June 1, 2009

  7. For moral philosophy, it isn’t clearly the case that Terry Schiavo or a fetus are human because both (tend to) fall out of the standard definitions – specialized or lay – of “human” as a concept. That is, there will always be “humans” who do not meet the definition of human and there will always be “animals” who do meet the definition of human.

    Given that men tend to dominate discussions of abortion online, in politics, and in the media, I’ll refrain from expressing an opinion.

    Comment by Craig | June 1, 2009

  8. Craig: From a materialist stance (which I am, more or less), “human” is in the DNA. But you’re right, the boundaries are pretty fucking blurry.

    Comment by Jared Sinclair | June 1, 2009

  9. unintentional homicide then

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 1, 2009

  10. Good luck precisifying “human is in the DNA”. Remember! Most of us don’t have the same DNA!

    Comment by ben | June 1, 2009

  11. “Even if it’s truly not their fault, we think it’s appropriate that they feel remorse.”

    I don’t think I do, unless by “remorse” you just mean “sadness”.

    If it wasn’t their fault then there’s nothing they’re guilty of, and so if they do feel remorse they shouldn’t, and should in fact be reassured that they are not to blame — that their remorse is groundless, that their feelings of guilt do not betoken real guilt on their part. It is of course reasonable to feel sad when a baby dies, no matter the cause. But it can be reasonable to be sad or happy about things over which we have no control (and so where blame and praise find no purchase).

    I don’t see why it’s unreasonable to say the same about miscarriage: it is entirely reasonable to be sad when it happens, and remorse only makes sense in the (rare) cases where it seems that the miscarriage was avoidable (where it was non-intentionally caused by pharmaceuticals, is the only example I can even think of — a woman might feel guilty for not paying enough attention to how her drugs interacted). So the disanalogy with accidental infanticide is that it’s hard to kill a baby without there being anything you are to blame for; it’s hard to have a miscarriage and have there be anything the woman’s to blame for.

    “surely a woman who suffers a miscarriage could think along the same lines and should feel some amount of remorse that her body accidentally killed this human being inside of her. Yet isn’t that a monstrous thing to say?”

    I think that (some) women do think along the same lines, and blame themselves for their miscarriages. (I’ve known some instances of this.) It’s not monstrous; it’s human. People try to take responsibility for things that they really aren’t liable for. They feel like they’re to blame because they didn’t read enough baby books or didn’t eat enough vegetables, or something. It would be monstrous for someone else to try to get a woman to believe such a thing was true (because it’s not, in 99.9% of cases), but the idea is all too human.

    Comment by Daniel | June 1, 2009

  12. I think it would be really strange if I accidentally killed someone and didn’t initially feel guilty. That’s what I mean by “appropriate” — not that it’s a final landing place (they have to move on with their life eventually), but that it’s a natural and understandable first reaction.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 1, 2009

  13. @Ben – I would say it is fair to use DNA to say “this is a potential human” – 23 chromosomes, and a set of genes that will give rise to a functional organism that can act like, and breed with (to use a definition of species), other humans – this is sufficient biological footing to say a foetus is a potential human.

    The biological borders do get blurry when we ask why the life of a foetus is sacred, and not all the potential (practically infinite) human DNA combinations we could create in a lab, and not all those wasted sperm and egg cells that could have fused.

    Comment by rob | June 1, 2009

  14. That doesn’t so much materialist as it sounds like genetic reductionism. Even DNA is a matter of probability and how do you specify where human DNA begins and ends? At what point is a human different from a bonobo (estimated at 98% similarity at the level of DNA)? Why is a genetic definition of the human any better than the multitude of previous attempts – language, reason, tool-using, tool-making, reflexive self-consciousness, etc?

    Comment by Craig | June 1, 2009

  15. 13 – at the most recent count I am aware of, there are roughly twenty-three distinct, viable and contradictory definitions of species in the philosophy of biology literature. (See Grene and Depew, chapter 10, and Robert Wilson’s edited volume.)

    Besides, a potential human is still not in away an actual human.

    Comment by Craig | June 1, 2009

  16. The very fact that there are so few anti-abortion terrorists is actually evidence that the slogan “abortion is murder” does not match up with any recognizable moral intuitions.

    Yeah. Those who flip-out and start to kill and those who devote their lives entirely to the issue are probably the only sincere and “courageous” ones, of all those who profess to believe abortion = murder. (If we can see something like courage even in the face of extreme vice.)

    I don’t know if I could face the absolute horror of the day-to-day, were “abortion = murder” true. I get bummed out enough with historical tragedy. (I’m surprised more people don’t lose their faiths and hope for humanity after learning of the Holocaust.)

    I think abortion is fine up until the cord is cut (no joke), but I don’t lose much sleep over whether I’m right or wrong because I tend to think that the wrongness of harming someone is directly proportional to their and others’ ability to experience that harm. And fetuses aren’t experiencing much. (So, torturing someone into a vegetable and letting them live (eg, solitary confinement torture) is worse than just killing them. yada, yada, make up your own other examples.)

    I wonder if the anti-abortion radicals would have had Tiller aborted?

    Comment by Currence | June 1, 2009

  17. The problem with this formulation, Adam, is that most anti-abortion activists don’t want to punish women who have abortions. Because women’s bodies are just vessels, you see (which is why, for instance, Jared can say that women’s rights is a non-issue: even if you agree that it isn’t acceptable to kill a fetus, you still have this real problem with the fact that the only way to *not* kill a fetus is for a woman’s body to be constantly providing life support). It’s the *physician* who actually *commits* the abortion. Women aren’t really moral agents, you know.

    Comment by bitchphd | June 1, 2009

  18. Those who flip-out and start to kill and those who devote their lives entirely to the issue are probably the only sincere and “courageous” ones, of all those who profess to believe abortion = murder.

    Bollocks. It’s possible to believe that *murder* is murder without flipping out and killing murderers. Or that war is murder without flipping out and killing soldiers (or shooting recruiters, as happened today).

    Comment by bitchphd | June 1, 2009

  19. Remember! Most of us don’t have the same DNA!

    Tell that to me and my army of clones!

    Comment by strasmangelo jones | June 1, 2009

  20. Really, there’s a whole bunch of animals that can experience as much or more than a fetus or a newborn can, and in general we (as a society, as a civilization, as a species) treat them like shit. As for the “DNA = humanity/personhood” thing, that’s always struck me as sort of like saying “there’s a chemical formula for a soul out there, and it’s very specific, and it includes everyone I want it to include while excluding everyone I want to exclude, but I don’t know what it actually is – just trust me that it exists.”

    Comment by strasmangelo jones | June 1, 2009

  21. It’s possible to believe that *murder* is murder without flipping out and killing murderers. Or that war is murder without flipping out and killing soldiers (or shooting recruiters, as happened today).

    It probably helps that there appears to be an active, ongoing campaign to target, harass, threaten, and kill abortion providers, while there’s been no such campaign against military recruiters. And while I’m sure that Scott Roeder has more than his share of loose screws, it’s always seemed to me that Randall Terry and company know exactly what they’re doing – inciting the psychopaths without ever having to pull the trigger themselves.

    Comment by strasmangelo jones | June 1, 2009

  22. I 100% believe abortion is murder but have yet to even consider taking extreme action against it. Killing doctors and blowing up clinics isn’t the best way to stop abortion. And plenty of other normal-thinking people feel the same way. It’s perfectly logical.

    Comment by Chad | June 2, 2009

  23. Given that men tend to dominate discussions of abortion online, in politics, and in the media, I’ll refrain from expressing an opinion.

    Dear god, thank you for this.

    Comment by bitchphd | June 2, 2009

  24. The hypocrisy I’ve noted is that all the “leaders” of the anti-choice movement have come out to state that their own rhetoric has nothing to do with the actions of the killer. But, I think these are mostly the same folks who blame media for violence, depravity, etc. all the time.

    Comment by Rob | June 2, 2009

  25. Stras – research suggests that nearly all vertebrates experience pain in more or less the same way. On the one hand, clinical research accepts this. After all, if a rat or dog didn’t experience pain in more or less the same way as a human, the experiments they performed would be useless. On the other hand, this knowledge about the central nervous system is largely “contained” in order to prevent the logical consequences: if it is “inhumane” to treat a human like because it is painful, then it is likewise “inhumane” to treat an animal in the same way. While I appreciate – and generally agree with – you point, I’d be hesitant to compare clearly living and functional creatures (a dog or possum) to a fetus, regardless of species. It is, at best, a category error. And, yes, modern industrial agriculture is by far the most violent, abusive, and miserable system of organized death ever created.

    BPhD – the last thing women need is another man telling them what they can or cannot do with their bodies. It is also the last thing the “blog-o-sphere,” the media, politics, culture, or whatever needs.

    Comment by Craig | June 2, 2009

  26. So you guys have white guilt AND man guilt?

    You’ve become useless.

    Comment by Chad | June 2, 2009

  27. It’s interesting that you should say that, Chad.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 2, 2009

  28. If you can’t judge racism because you’re white, and you can’t judge abortion because you’re a man, and so on…you’re useless.

    Comment by Chad | June 2, 2009

  29. No one has made either claim, Chad.

    Comment by Craig | June 2, 2009

  30. The voices of the people affected should be primary. Part of being an ally to these causes means allowing them to take the lead in their own movement — white men seem to have a tendency to take everything over, so being self-conscious about that is helpful.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 2, 2009

  31. Sigh…I guess…but all other races and sexes are so stupid…

    Comment by Chad | June 2, 2009

  32. Bollocks. It’s possible to believe that *murder* is murder without flipping out and killing murderers. Or that war is murder without flipping out and killing soldiers (or shooting recruiters, as happened today).

    Eh, I’m somewhere between respectfully disagree and agree. I agree that you don’t have to murder soldiers to really believe that war = murder (which I do), but I think that some kind of drastic action is called for. (There are ways to incapacitate, to humiliate, and to otherwise materially discourage soldiers, recruiters, generals, CEOs of weapons manufacturers, etc. w/o killing them.) And I do consider myself a coward or a hypocrite for not engaging in drastic action.

    Comment by Currence | June 2, 2009

  33. War sucks, sure. Can’t imagine too many enjoy it. But what’s your solution for a country who’s attacked?

    Comment by Chad | June 2, 2009

  34. Yeah, Chad, it’s just *so unfair* when women thank someone else for showing some respect. Your rights are being violated by the contention that maybe your moral reasoning about things you have no experience of is less than perfect. It’s almost as if someone wanted to make it illegal for you to exercise your moral judgment.

    Comment by bitchphd | June 3, 2009

  35. Meh…it was dripping with insincerity.

    Comment by Chad | June 3, 2009


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