David Boonin was written the standard, academic defense of abortion: A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge 2005). According to one admiring reviewer:
“This is a very impressive book. I think Boonin has largely succeeded in what he sets out to do. The outcome is a very exhaustive treatment of the subject of the moral permissibility of abortion, which also makes it a very exhausting and demanding read. It is hard to imagine that Boonin has left any deserving stone unturned on the subject. Boonin's treatment of the arguments of the critics of abortion is thorough, judicious, and careful. His refutation is typically decisive and often very insightful. If there is any fault in his treatment of the critics' arguments, it is probably that he has bent over backwards to be charitable in some cases. Boonin's book is definitely an important contribution to the philosophical debate on abortion.”
Boonin’s work is useful for illustrating just how much moral capital an abortionist must consign to the flames to justify abortion. For this reason, I’ll quote and interact with some of his principle arguments.
Boonin’s work also illustrates the limitations of natural law theory. Among other things, natural law theory appeals to our innate moral intuitions.
However, a writer like Boonin spends much of his time questioning our innate moral intuitions. And when you’re as radical as Boonin, you can simply deny that you find something morally compelling or morally repellent.
Boonin’s work is largely an extended defense of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s notorious illustration. Boonin uses that hypothetical as his own frame of reference for much of the book, and tries to rebut prolife arguments by rebutting objections to her thought-experiment. Of course, this artificially narrows the pros and cons of the debate.
To understand what Boonin is saying, it’s necessary to present her original thought-experiment:
But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree. But now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.
An obvious problem with this hypothetical is that it’s quite artificial. It posits an analogy between the violinist and the unborn baby. But that very comparison is prejudicial. Are the two cases relevantly parallel?
Having set the stage, let’s review some of Boonin’s arguments:
“Even if the ‘adoption’ is really a kidnapping, as in the case where a woman steals a baby from the hospital and takes it home to raise as her own, we still presumably believe that her duty to care for the infant is as strong as the duty of any parent to care for her child, and this would again favor (a) [tacit consent] over (b),” ibid. 183n36.
This illustration is quite misleading.
i) Yes, a kidnapper has a duty to provide for the child. Having made the child dependent on the kidnapper, she assumes responsibility for the survival of the child.
ii) Of course, this doesn’t mean she has a right to the child. She has violated the rights, both of the parents, and the child. She has a duty to return the child to the custody of the parents. Ironically, her duty to provide for the child is predicated on the prior violation of another overriding duty.
iii) Tacit consent is not the issue. Suppose the child was a founding. A newborn baby is left on your doorstep. No one else will care for the child.
You didn’t consent to this responsibility. But you still have an obligation to care for the child rather than letting it die of exposure.
However, a secularist like Boonin might deny that intuition. There are no prior limits on what he’s prepared to deny.
“Consider the case of Laverne and Shirley, each of whom declines to make a substantial sacrifice on behalf of a three-year-old child who is in need of her assistance. In Shirley’s case, the child is a stranger, but in Laverne’s case the child is her daughter. Surely this will make a difference in our moral assessments of the two cases…The first thing to say is that it does not follow from the fact that there is a morally relevant difference between what Laverne does and what Shirley does that there is a difference in terms of the moral permissibility of what they do. For consider the case of Thelma and Louse, each of whom murders a third-year-old child in order to collect payment from someone who wants the child dead. The child Louse kills is a stranger, but the child Thelma kills is her own daughter. Surely this will make a difference in our moral assessments of the two cases here, too, just as it did in the case of Laverne and Shirley. Our moral intuitions almost invariably judge that as horrible as both acts are, Thelma’s is worse. But it is clear in this case that we do not really believe that Louise’s victim had any less of a right not to be killed than Thelma’s…And this suggests that at least a good deal of our intuitive response to the case of Laverne and Shirley can be accounted for by saying that Laverne is a worse person than Shirley, rather than by saying that Laverne does something she has no right to do while Shirley does something she has a right to do,” ibid. 227-28.
i) Laverne may well be a worse person, but that’s not the issue. It’s a worse deed. And it’s precisely the parental bond that makes it a worse deed.
ii) Boonin is also blurring the distinction between killing someone and letting him die, where the child in Shirley’s case stands for the violinist.
Now, there are cases in which letting someone die is morally equivalent to murder. If I let a child drown in swimming pool when it was within my power to rescue him, that’s morally equivalent to murder.
But there are other cases in which there is a morally significant difference. Where I’m not responsible for someone else’s self-destructive behavior (to take one example). If someone is committing slow-motion suicide through drug addiction, I could prevent his self-inflicted demise by kidnapping him and keeping him in a holding cell, where I restrict his diet. But that’s hardly a moral obligation on my part. Indeed, that would be overstepping my duties.
In the hypothetical case of the patient, we’re letting him die. In the case of abortion, we’re killing the infant.
It’s one thing to let a dying patient die. It’s another thing to euthanize a patient who’d recover (which is more analogous to an unborn baby). It’s not morally permissible to do this to a patient, regardless of biological affinity, or the lack thereof.
iii) At the same time, I do have a higher responsibility for the wellbeing of a drug addict who is my very own son or brother or best friend.
iv) And that doesn’t mean I have no obligations regarding the welfare of a perfect stranger.
“But there are several difficulties with this account of the difference between the cases of Laverne and Shirley. The first is simply that it seems to be utterly mysterious how the mere fact of biological relatedness could, in and of itself, generate such a difference in moral obligations…In addition, the claim that it is the biological difference that makes the difference in terms of permissibility in the case of Laverne and Shirley produces extremely counterintuitive results if we consider variations on the violinist and pregnancy cases that differ from the original cases in terms of biological relatedness only. Consider first the following case: You are about to unplug yourself from the stranger-violinist, as Thompson’s critic concedes you are permitted to do. At the last moment, a DNA test reveals that the violinist is actually a son of yours who you never knew existed. Many years go you had contributed to a study in which people donated sperm and egg samples for fertility research, and without your knowledge and against our expressed wishes someone had stolen some of what you had donated and created a zygote in vitro, which was then implanted in a woman, the result of which now lies on the bed next to you. If one objects to Thomson’s violinist analogy on the grounds that it ignores the morally relevant distinction between biological relatedness and biological nonrelatedness, then one will have to insist that in this modified case, it would be morally impermissible for you to unplug yourself from the violinist. But this is likely to strike most people as highly implausible. It is not difficult to imagine that this discovery would have some effect on your. Even though you have had no personal relationship or interaction with the violinist, the fact that he is your biological offspring might well make it more difficult for you to decide to unplug yourself. And it is not difficult to imagine that others might criticize you for deciding to unplug yourself in a way that they would not have done had the violinist been biologic ally unrelated to you. Still, it is extremely difficult to believe that while you have the right to unplug yourself from the violinist in Thomson’s version you do not have such a right in this version,” ibid. 229-31.
i) But Boonin is simply begging the question at this point. And a bioethicist has no right to beg the question at this point. He can’t take that conclusion for granted. He needs to defend his conclusion.
ii) I’d say a parent has no right to let his child die under those circumstances. The fact that he doesn’t know it was his own child until now is irrelevant. Having made this discovery, he has an obligation to get to know his child. And, yes, he has an obligation to save his life.
iii) Boonin also makes breezy claims about how most people would react. Does he have any statistical data to back that up? What’s his sample group, if any?
iv) Suppose, for the sake of argument, that most folks agree with him? So what? They might agree with him because they share certain assumptions in common. They might believe they have a right to let their son die in that situation because the alternative would violate their personal autonomy. But, of course, that’s another one of those assumptions that needs to be defended, and not taken for granted.
v) Suppose my dad has an affair. As a result of this illicit union, he fathers a son. Years later, my half-brother tracks me down. By now, both of us are grown men.
But he wants to get to know me. Become part of the family. How should I react?
Incidentally, this is a far more realistic scenario than Thomson’s hypothetical violinist.
a) At one level, my half-brother is a perfect stranger to me. I never met him before. We never communicated. I had no idea I even had a half-brother.
b) But does that mean I should treat him like a perfect stranger? No. We share a common, preexisting bond, even if we were unaware of our bond before now.
For one thing, we’re likely to share certain character traits, since we have the same father, and parents transfer some of their character traits to their offspring.
c) Unless my half-brother is a total creep, it ought to be a wonderful thing to suddenly discover a brother you never knew you had. It says something about Boonin that he treats situations like this as if they were a curse rather than a blessing. Nothing but a burden. A person who’s intruding on my “space.”
vi) One of Boonin’s standard tactics is to use borderline cases or limiting cases to challenge our moral intuitions.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that tactic. However, the fact that I might do something different in an extreme situation doesn’t mean I should do something different in a normal situation. At the very least, Boonin needs a separate argument to bridge the distance between his hypothetical scenario and a real life scenario.
On the face of it, the true analogy is not between an ordinary situation and an extraordinary situation, but between one extraordinary situation and another extraordinary situation of the same kind.
Boonin can’t simply extrapolate from a borderline case or limiting case to a normal case. On the face of it, all a borderline case would prove is that if the actual situation happens to be a borderline case, then different rules may apply. That doesn’t begin to show that different rules apply in a normal case.
Yes, we sometimes make exceptions in extreme situations. Does it therefore follow that we make the same exceptions is less extreme situations? Not at all.
I have a prima facie duty not to drive on the wrong side of the road. In a mandatory evacuation, the authorities may divert all traffic out of town. In that situation, I’m allowed to drive on the wrong side of the road.
Does it follow, from this example, that I’m also entitled to drive on the wrong side of the road under ordinary circumstances? I don’t think so.
“There is a different and more satisfying explanation that can be given for that judgment: A woman has a stronger duty to assist her son or daughter than to assist a stranger not because she is the child’s biological parent, but because she is the child’s guardian…For as I argued in Section 4.4, it seems plausible to suppose that when a woman (or man) takes a newborn child home with her from the hospital she tacitly accepts the role of guardian for the child,” ibid. 232-233.
i) This is a very revealing example of the lengths to which Boonin is prepared to go to justify abortion. On this view, a parent has no parental duties unless he consents to care for his own child.
It’s good to pause for a moment and consider the consequences of that position. The parent/child relationship is the most fundamental of all human relationships. If even parental obligations are merely optional, then Boonin has poured a universal solvent on all social obligations.
ii) This also introduces a radical tension into his own position. You can’t speak of women’s rights, including a woman’s right to abortion, unless we have social obligations. For example, that we should oblige a woman’s right to abortion.
But if even something as natural and fundamental as parental obligations were optional, then in what sense should we oblige a woman who is a perfect stranger to us? If a child doesn’t have fundamental claims on his mother or father, then how does some anonymous woman have any claims on me?
iii) Boonin subverts the notion of moral duties in another respect. He acts as if all duties are voluntary. But that subverts the very notion of a duty. A duty may be a duty whether or not I consent to it. A duty obliges me to do something. That’s the point. What’s makes an obligation obligatory is, in many cases, that it’s morally compelling.
Of course, there are cases in which it’s possible to voluntarily assume certain duties. If I join the army, I assume certain duties which I didn’t have as a civilian.
But to treat all duties as inherently optional or voluntary denies the moral force of a moral obligation. That I’m sometimes required to do something irrespective of my personal preferences.
Suppose I’m driving to a job interview. There’s an accident ahead of me. The car ahead of me catches fire. I can drive around the scene of the accident and get to my appointment on time. Or I can rescue the driver from the burning car. If I do the latter, I’ll be late for my appointment, and blow my chance at landing the job.
What should I do? Let the driver burn to death? I don’t know how Boonin would answer that question. I do know how I’d answer that question.
iv) On a related note, Boonin doesn’t seem to think we should ever be obligated to do something if that entails personal sacrifice or hardship. Only do the right thing it if doesn’t cost you anything.
But the acid test of morality is doing the right thing even if it hurts. Even if it’s unfair.
Ask yourself this question: would you want a man like Boonin to be your friend, or father, or brother? Isn’t Boonin the kind of guy who would desert you in a crisis? Or, worse, hand you over to the enemy in exchange for certain favors?
v) Boonin has it exactly backwards. A parent is a guardian because he’s a parent. Parental duties imply guardianship, not vice versa.
Of course, Boonin can deny all this. In his disposable world, there are no moral boundaries. But that’s a price tag for that move. That move simultaneously undermines his case for a woman’s right to abortion.
“Finally, this analysis enables us to account for judgments that we would naturally make in variant cases of the story of Laverne and Shirley. Suppose, for example, that Laverne’s daughter is adopted. Does this make any difference to your assessment? I suspect that it does not. It would be difficult to deny that adoptive parents have all of the duties to the three-year-old children they have adopted that biological parents have to the three-year-old children they have raised from birth,” ibid. 233-34.
i) To say that some duties are voluntary doesn’t mean that all duties are voluntary. The fact that adoptive parents voluntarily assume parental duties doesn’t mean parental duties are voluntary.
ii) Moreover, to revert to my earlier example, I have an involuntary duty to the foundling.
Or, to vary the example, suppose I’m a soldier who stumbles across an orphaned child. Now, I’m in no position to care for all the orphans of the world. So, I have no obligation to care for each and every orphan.
This doesn’t mean, however, that if, in the course of providence, I cross paths with this particular orphan, whom no one else will care for him, and I’m in a position to do so, that I should leave him there to die.
Of course, if the soldier were David Boonin, the child’s prospects would be pretty dim. I expect that Boonin, for one, would abandon the child to his fate. After all, to take the child in might prevent Boonin from having the free time to write a long book on abortion rights. We mustn’t let mere human beings get in the way of human rights.
iii) In addition, even if put your child up for adoption, that doesn’t mean, morally speaking, that you thereby relinquish all parental duties to your child. Children are not commodities that we can simply trade or transfer to a second-party.
If, say, at some point in the future, your grown child tracked you down, you would still have a standing duty to be a mother or father to him. You wouldn’t have the right to treat your child like a perfect stranger, even if someone else raised him. He still has claims on you.
“In the case of the pregnant woman and the fetus, there is someone else who may be called upon to make a sacrifice if the woman agrees to bring the fetus to term: the baby’s father. The role of the father is conspicuously absent from Thomson’s story, and this threatens to create a problem for the good samaritan argument for the following reason: If there is a sense in which the father’s position is symmetric with the mother’s, and if we agree that the father has a duty to make sacrifices on behalf of the child, then there is an equally strong reason for thinking that the woman has duty to make a sacrificed for the fetus…And this, in turn, might justify the claim that you are entitled to unplug yourself from the violinist while the woman is not entitled to have an abortion,” ibid. 246.
i) This way of putting it skews the issue. It’s not as though the only reason to introduce paternal duties is to create a parallel argument, so that we can then establish maternal duties—as if the paternal duties have no independent force since all that ultimately matters is the choice of the mother. For whether the choice of the mother is the only decisive consideration is hardly something that Boonin is entitled to take for granted. That’s a key contention which he must defend, not merely assume.
Both parents have an independent duty to defend the life of their child. A father has a duty to prevent the murder of his child. A mother cannot overrule that paternal duty, any more than a father can overrule the maternal duty to protect her child.
ii) In addition, this is not a question of symmetric sacrifice, but symmetric duty.
“This objection has been pressed by Beckwith, among others, who argues as follows: consider a man who has brief sexual encounter with a woman. Since he does not wish to become a father, he insists that they use contraception, but the woman becomes pregnant despite their having taken every reasonable precaution,” ibid. 246.
Don’t you love the way unbelievers treat pregnancy as if it that were an unnatural consequence of sex? As if the natural purpose of sex had nothing to do with procreation, but sometimes, despite taking every reasonable “precaution,” you “accidentally” conceive a child.
It’s as if I said, despite every precaution to the contrary, I found food nutritious. Or despite every precaution to the contrary, breathing air oxygenated my lungs. Or despite every precaution, I found myself using my feet to walk.
“Although the man remains unaware of this fact, the woman decides to bring the pregnancy to term. After the baby is born, she tracks the man down and leads for child support. He refuses. After all, he says, even though he is partly responsible for the child’s existence, the fact that he used contraception shows that he did not wish to accept the responsibilities for being a father,” ibid. 245-47.
Of course, the obvious response to this is that, once you’re a father, you have paternal responsibilities whether or not you wish to accept your responsibilities. The duty flows from the fact. Being a father yields paternal duties.
“As a result of his refusal, the woman takes legal action against him. As Beckwith points out, ‘according to nearly all child-support laws in the United States he would still be obligated to pay support precisely because of his relationship to this child’ (1994: 164)…There are several problems with this objection based on obligation to pay child support. The first is that it conflates moral obligations with legal obligations,” 247.
Speaking for myself, I agree with Boonin that morality and legality are distinct issues. However, Boonin himself is not entitled to draw such a facile disjunction. After all, Boonin often cites popular opinion (or what he alleges to be popular opinion) to corroborate his moral intuitions. So child-support laws would furnish prima facie evidence of normal moral intuition on the issue at hand.
“The relationship that underwrites this obligation, Beckwith emphasizes, is not the mere fact that he is the biological father of the child. That would imply that sperm donors are also ‘morally responsible for children conceived with their semen, and Beckwith takes it that this is plainly implausible,” ibid. 247.
I disagree. Once again, Boonin is begging the question. And it’s a key question.
In fact, one of the stock objections to anonymous sperm donation is that men don’t have a right to donate their sperm in this no-strings-attached fashion. That’s a serious issue in bioethics. Not something that Boonin can hurry past without further ado. Men are responsible for what they do with their semen when they give it away to produce a child—their child.
Maybe Boonin thinks he can get away with this because he’s summarizing the position of an opponent. But that won’t do. He is critiquing what he takes to be the faulty reasoning of his opponent. That requires him, in intellectual honesty, to critique their faulty reasoning even when they concede a point to his position which is a faulty concession!
“Even if we agree that laws requiring such men to pay child support are morally proper, it still does not follow that such men stand under any moral obligation to pay such support that is independent of their obligation to obey the law generally?” ibid. 248.
i) Is that his actual position? That fathers have no inherent obligation to provide for their children?
If men have no special obligations to their children, then men have no special obligations to women—be it their wife or mother or sister or girlfriend—much less perfect strangers. No obligation to save a woman from a rapist. No obligation to help a woman whose car broke down on a deserted stretch of road, on a dark, rainy night.
It’s a very Hobbesean view of the world. Every man for himself.
ii) Incidentally, it trivializes fatherhood to reduce paternal duties to child support payments. Indeed, some fathers duck child support because this is all that’s required of them. They don’t have custody or visitation rights. They’re expected to write checks while being excluded from the life of their son or daughter. They would like to be more involved, but the system doesn’t let them.
“Or suppose instead, more mundanely, that in order for the child to survive, the father would have to undergo a painful series of bone marrow transplants, or have one of his kidneys removed. Again, the law would surely not compel him to undergo such procedures…But now suppose that instead of needing money to pay the medical bills, what the child needs is a new kidney or a bond marrow transplant. Again, the law clearly does not and clearly would not require a woman under such circumstances to make such a sacrifice and, again, virtually everyone would regard it as outrageous if it did…Unless Pavlischek is willing to endorse laws compelling people to donate needed bone marrow or organs to their children, for example, he must also agree that the legitimacy of laws imposing financial burdens on unwilling parents provides no support for the legitimacy of laws imposing physical burdens on unwilling parents that would violate their bodily autonomy,” ibid. 250-54.
i) Is he claiming that (a) there should be no legal requirement to that effect because there is no moral requirement to that effect? Or is he claiming that (b) even though there is a moral requirement to that effect, that’s insufficient to justify a legal requirement?
If (a), then his claim is question-begging. Why would it not be parental duty to donate a spare organ or bone marrow to your ailing child? If that is Boonin’s contention, then he needs to defend that contention, not treat it as a given.
If so, then that also illustrates just how much he’s prepared to surrender in order to uphold the right to an abortion. To repeat myself, the parent/child relationship is the most fundamental human relationship there is. If the price we must pay to defend abortion is to devalue such an elemental, social commitment, then abortion comes at an astronomical cost.
If (b), then that is still a major concession.
ii) If you don’t want to suffer any infringement on your “bodily autonomy,” then don’t have sex in the first place. And don’t have children.
iii) Invoking “bodily autonomy” is just another case of Boonin begging a key question. Notice how often he does that. He needs to defend that tendentious criterion.
iv) Although it shouldn’t be necessary to legally mandate that parents donate spare organs or bone marrow to their ailing children, I don’t see why it would be wrong to pass such a law—in the case of selfish parents.
Once more, Boonin needs to argue his position, not assert it.
v) The question at issue is not whether some parents are unwilling, but whether they have a right to be unwilling. Are they shirking their duties?
vi) And this is another instance in which he uses an extreme scenario to justify a parallel position on a less extreme scenario.
vii) Yes, there’s a sense in which pregnancy is a physical burden. But it’s not as if women are doing a favor for others. They are doing themselves a favor as well. After all, this is the natural process by which women as well as men come to exist.
Moreover, prolifers don’t think that mothers should have to bear children or rear children on their own.
viii) He has a double standard where the law is concerned. If the law implicitly supports the prolife argument, then he discounts the relevance of the law by distinguishing between morality and legality.
But if the law implicitly supports his own position, the state of the law suddenly becomes relevant to the discussion.
There’s a point beyond which you can’t argue for a moral intuition. In fact, we never argue for the intuition directly. Rather, we use lots of different examples to illustrate our moral intuitions. These enable us to draw some useful distinctions. To avoid overstating or understating our case.
But, at the end of the day, if someone like Boonin says parents have no parental duties unless they consent to parental duties, or that parents have no moral obligation to donate a spare organ to an ailing child, you can’t force him to say otherwise.
It’s like a man who says Catherine Deneuve is ugly. If that’s his reaction, then there’s nothing I can do to talk him out of it. I might question his manhood. I might suspect that, under the surface, he’s not quite human. Maybe he’s a Martian in disguise. A pod person.
That’s one advantage of biblical ethics. While someone like Boonin would also reject biblical ethics, it’s possible to argue for the Scripture on objective grounds. We’re not limited to mere intuition.
At the same time, I think liberals are often dissembling. They can get away with it because no one is forcing them to suffer the consequences of their stated position.
For example, I notice that Judith Jarvis Thomson is now on YouTube. And she looks the way you’d expect a woman to look who was born about 80 years ago.
Well, “bodily autonomy” in 2009 ain’t what it was in 1971, when she published her infamous article. She is far more vulnerable than she was back then. It’s only a matter of time before she is hospitalized. Before she is dependent on the kindness of strangers. Before she becomes the violinist.
What if her doctors and nurses measured patient Thomson by Prof. Thomson’s yardstick? She would find herself in the dumpster, alongside the aborted baby. If we began to hold liberals to the practical consequences of their liberal theories and policies, there’s be far fewer liberals.
Incidentally, Francis Beckwith has written a long, trenchant review of Boonin’s book: