When You Take Women Out of the Abortion Debate

So…Richard Dawkins is still insisting on Twitter today that his comparison of fetuses to pigs and talking about their relative pain is critical to the abortion debate, more important than talking about the actual pregnant person involved.

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/RichardDawkins/status/312497197801410560″]

He’s not saying why his is the better argument. He’s ignoring all the people who are telling him that an argument based on lack of pain opens up several other cans of worms. He’s just claiming his argument is better because…reasons.

He certainly doesn’t respond to Ana Mardoll’s excellent post yesterday that has already explained why his position is wrong.

From a consequentialist standpoint, a woman’s right to bodily autonomy outweighs fetal pain not because the fetal pain is or is not arguably less important than pig pain, but because the fetal pain is demonstrably less than the woman’s pain. Abortion is safer than childbirth. If Dawkins wishes to make the point that pain matters when discussing the morality of abortion and that relative pain is relative, then he should focus on the pain of the women carrying an unwanted and potentially unsafe pregnancy rather than invisibling that woman in order to focus on farm animals. To suggest that we once again effectively erase pregnant women from the discussion about the rights of pregnant women is to suggest that they are the least important entity in this on-going debate. That’s not consequentialism; it’s rank marginalization.

I wish I’d written that post. I wish Dawkins had read that post and taken the time to think about it. (Yes, I’m assuming he did not. If he did, and he simply restated his position today without addressing that post, that’s far worse behavior.)

Why do I wish this? Because erasing women (as a rough proxy for people who are or are capable of becoming pregnant) from the discussion of abortion has serious consequences. I’m not just talking about consequences for who can get abortions and who can’t. I’m talking about consequences to women’s health care in general. When we allow people to treat abortion as anything other than a women’s health care issue, with thinking on the topic centered on the women in question, you end up with decisions like that made in Texas.

The Planned Parenthood clinics that anti-choice legislators booted from the state’s Women’s Health Program serviced nearly 50 percent of the program’s patients. Along with contraceptive counseling, the clinics provided basic screenings for cancer, hypertension, and other key problems. There’s no shortage of need: women in Texas suffer high rates of STIs and unintended pregnancies compared to national figures, and the state ranks 50th for diabetes prevalence in women. Nonetheless, Republican lawmakers went after the clinics in 2011, thanks to their long-standing beef with the organization, and forfeited tens of millions in Medicaid reimbursements to the Women’s Health Program so they could defund Planned Parenthood clinics without breaking any federal rules governing how states have to spend Medicaid money.

Despite losing its highest-volume providers, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission insists the revamped, wholly state-run and state-funded Women’s Health Program can reshuffle all the displaced patients and keep providing the same levels of care as before. But last October, researchers at George Washington University examined five Texas counties and found that in order to effectively replace Planned Parenthood, other clinics would need to increase their caseloads two to five times.

When we erase the consequences to women in the abortion debate, we end up–intentionally or not–erasing all those consequences. If we allow the debate to be about how many babies or fetuses or embryos are going to be saved, we just don’t talk about what happens to the women. Even when the terrible things that are done to the women in the name of babies/fetuses/embryos have nothing to do with abortion.

This isn’t about winning an argument. It’s not about an abstraction or a philosophical position. This is about real people who suffer real harm and real injuries when we muck this stuff up.

Can we stop doing that already?

When You Take Women Out of the Abortion Debate
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18 thoughts on “When You Take Women Out of the Abortion Debate

  1. 1

    It’s “bitches ain’t shit”.
    Not in so many words but in sentiment.
    What the fuck does Dawkins think a pregnancy is?
    Just a permanent excuse to eat chocolate?
    When I was pregnant with #1 she strained the cords in my belly in a way that sometimes each step hurt like being stabbed with a knife. I would need 45 minutes to walk 1000 m to my workplace and cry on the way there.
    And I haven’t even mention labour, birth, tearing, healing…

  2. 2

    I posted this in the “We should feel ashamed” thread, but I’m posting it here, too, as it seems relevant.

    OMFG North Dakota just banned abortion after a heartbeat can be detected! Which can sometimes be detected at six weeks! Considering that a pregnancy is measured from the date of one’s LAST period, this means that you can only have an abortion for two weeks after your first missed period! And North Dakota has one clinic! And a 24 hour wait period!

    OMFG I’m freaking out.



    (Sorry, can’t figure out how to make the link turn into something shorter).

  3. 3

    IMHO, the best argument against restrictions on abortion-ANY restriction on abortion-is this: There is no situation except for pregnancy in which one person is required to give up control of their body for the sake of another. We do not force people to donate organs, bone marrow, or blood. We allow people who do volunteer to donate to withdraw their consent at any time up to the moment the tissue leaves their body. We do not force treatment on people of sound mind in any situation, up to and including when they’ll die without treatment. There is clear precedent for withholding treatment even from patients who are not of sound mind if there is reason to believe that they would not agree to treatment when of sound mind (i.e. you can’t give an unconscious Jehovah’s witness blood if they consistently refused it when aware). Bodily autonomy is, for lack of a better term, sacred in medicine. Even assuming the most radical of the “pro-life” assumptions about the fetus is correct, i.e. that it is a person from conception on, why should a fetus have more rights than a person who has been born. We don’t force women with newborns to breast feed, we don’t force fathers of infants born with PKD to donate a kidney to their child, we don’t force parents to donate blood if their child needs surgery. If a baby doesn’t have the right to use a parent’s body after birth, why should it have that right before?

  4. 4

    It’s not about an abstraction or a philosophical position. This is about real people who suffer real harm and real injuries when we muck this stuff up.

    Quite right.

    But the kicker is that even if it were about a philosophical position (since in his tweets, Dawkins presented himself as giving a good consequentialist argument), he still blew it. No consequentialist worth hir salt would include consequences-to-pigs and consequences-to-fetuses in the calculus while totally ignoring consequences-to-uterus-havers.

  5. 5

    Well, I for one feel Dawkins is doing good here. It takes real talent to provoke so many eloquent and wonderful posts on this subject! (/sarcasm)

    But really, there have been a lot of excellent posts. Lots of new resources to point less-informed people to. Lot of conversation, and so forth. Not to mention a textbook illustration of “You don’t get privilege? Look at this!”

    All that accompanied, of course, by an emphatic UGH.

    @ Eristae:

    (Sorry, can’t figure out how to make the link turn into something shorter).

    [a href=”Link here”]Your awesome words here[/a]

    but with the less-than / greater-than brackets, of course (side note: pre and &lt/&gt tags don’t work here? code didn’t help either — still converted to a link in preview.)

    Also, still feeling the warmth from your awesome comments in that other thread.

  6. 6

    Excuse me if I’m mistaken, but isn’t consequentialism the moral system in which you kill a person to save the lives of six people who need blood and organ transplants?

  7. 7

    Simpleminded consequentialism encounters that kind of problem case. The sophisticated consequentialists seem to have ways that maybe let you avoid them (by building a calculus that doesn’t permit superbad outcomes for the one to be outweighed by reasonably good outcomes for the six, or by ranking some types of happiness as counting more, or something). Other people acknowledge that the kind of case you mention indicates “boundary conditions” where consequentialism isn’t the right tool in your ethical toolbox to give a reliable judgment.

    That said, Dawkins swung and missed in an instance where consequentialism probably gives reasonably good guidance — at least if you believe that humans with uteri are relevant members of one’s moral community.

  8. 8

    I have never heard that consequentialist argument before. Honestly, I’ve never considered the woman’s actual pain before. In fact, I’ve never heard of an argument that considers the pain of the woman, only the woman’s health and autonomy.

    That’s a really good point. Whoa.

  9. 11

    Thanks for the set-up:

    Clearly, the point Richard Dawkins was trying to make goes like so:

    1) Pigs feel pain

    2) Some fetuses can feel pain.

    3) There’s good eating on a pig.

    4) I, Richard Dawkins, eat pig.


    5) At least sometimes, there’s the potential for good eating on a fetus.

    … and my life is complete. 🙂

    Just for clarity, I’m not at all “pro-choice” because I feel like that’s an unfair restriction on my position. I’m actively pro-abortion, I think there should be more of them right now, and in the future there should be easy access even after birth control becomes more reliable and regularly used. I’d rather see 10,000,000 abortions than see one actual real human being born and raised in an abusive household with parents that would have been happier without a child to hurt and abuse. No fetus can conceive of things. Actual human beings can. Let’s treat that as two separate things.

  10. 12

    @PatrickG Thanks so much for the link help! I’ve been trying to figure out how to get that work for a while now, but no luck. I’m very excited to be able to do so now!

    Also, thank you very much for your compliment! I am very glad that my comments were helpful to you. ^_^

  11. 13

    My fetus felt no pain when it was aborted. It was already dead. I almost was, too. The disintegrating fetus had made my blood stop clotting. I nearly bled to death on the operating table. I would have left a 29 year old widower and a 2 year old daughter.

    One of the cute side effects of “right to life” is that women who must have an abortion for urgent medical reasons may have that life saving procedure delayed or denied. But by all means, let’s not let that stop Dawkins from focusing on the important issue of pain in pigs.

  12. 14

    @docfreeride: also, when you consider consequences, you also have to consider the consequences of living in a society where you or your loved ones could be sacrificed at any time to benefit someone else. To say that would be extraordinarily psychologically devastating if it happened to someone you love would be an understatement. Just living with that sword over everyone’s heads would make normal everyday activities terrifying. It would also create a strong disincentive to go for routine medical care lest your organs be harvested or to provide first aid in a disaster lest you be the one thrown into harm’s way–all of which would lead to major systemic poor outcomes that would outweigh a few lives saved by sacrificing some people. Never mind the guilt some people might experience knowing someone else was forcibly harmed for their benefit. People would also have less incentive to put off enjoying life and preparing for the future (for instance, by getting an education and developing things that benefit the rest of society) if their life could be cut short or redirected at any time. It would simply be massively, massively destabilizing to society. Think of how many resources societies would have to invest to make sure people wouldn’t avoid being sacrificed (think Southern slave patrols or the KGB!). As a final consequentialist assessment of the idea of sacrificing some people to the greater good–let’s look around and notice that societies that have done that haven’t tended to do very well, and aren’t really flourishing (ancient Mayans, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, the antebellum south, etc.).

  13. 15

    Woman’s right to own body is good but not BEST pro-choice argument

    Why the hell not? It’s simple; can be explained by reference to common analogies, like blood or organ donation; is rock solid; and side-steps all the nonsense about whether the fetus has this or that quality. Fetal pain or not, the bodily rights argument holds. Whether the fetus is human or not, the bodily rights argument holds. No matter what medical developments might come in the future, the bodily rights argument will hold, because it’s not an argument based in any fact about the fetus.
    The argument is based in the simple fact that the woman is a human being with human rights, among which is the right to bodily autonomy. To defeat the argument you have to either:
    1) argue that women aren’t human
    2) argue that not all humans have human rights
    3) argue that the right to bodily autonomy should not be included as a basic human right

    None of these points can be argued without opposing quite fundamental parts of western democratic civilization.

    Dawkins appear to consider the rights argument an “absolutist” position. First, that’s obviously not true, since good utilitarian arguments can be made for why such a universal right should exist. Second, even if it was true, who cares? I’m quite OK with being an absolutist on the point about women being friggin’ human.

  14. 16

    hoary puccoon
    Your story is one of the reasons why abortion MUST be legal and the woman’s choice. Because today’s low rates of maternal death are not due to pregnancy being anything “safe”. They are due to modern obestetrics being able to intervene and safe women’s lives.
    I have no idea how many of my friends’ and acquaintances’ child-birth stories contain the element of “and then everything went Wahoonie-shaped and thanks to the doctors doing this and that I’m alive to tell the tale.”
    Even today many pregnancies end in acute life-threatening situations. And that doesn’t even take into account the many potential life-threatening situations that end in a planned C-section.
    Not only should it be the free will of any woman to enter that situation, it also directly kills women when their access to abortion is limited.

    I’m also sorry. Sounds like it was one of those abortions that are a sad end of a wanted pregnancy. Had one of those as well…

  15. 17

    Giliell @ 16 —

    Thanks. Didn’t see your comment before. The happy ending to my story is that a year and a day after that terrible night, I was back in the same hospital, giving birth to another beautiful little girl.

    I was lucky. One of the possible side effects of delayed abortion is that the woman may have to have a hysterectomy to stop the bleeding. So, the woman loses not only that wanted baby, but any chance of having more children. This is one of the reasons I support abortion on demand. If I had been able to get an abortion as soon as I felt something was wrong, I– and my ability to bear children– would have been put in far less jeopardy.

  16. 18

    I think Ana Mardoll’s post sucked.

    Besides being very uncharitable and needlessly and personally rude to Dr. Dawkins, as written it is counterproductive to the free choice position. Why? Because it appears to not ever make mention of any limit of a woman’s “absolute” right over her own body. And, by doing so, it undermines Roe vs Wade, and no doubt would bring a smile to every anti abortion zealot out there who loves to caricature the free choice position as “abortion on demand”. Mardoll states:

    a woman’s right to bodily autonomy outweighs fetal pain because we live in a society that does not force people to use their bodies to support others — not their organs, not their bone marrow, not their blood, not their skin. We do not force people to sacrifice parts of their bodies to save others not because we don’t care about a patient’s pain, but because we recognize that bodily autonomy is an essential part of a functioning free society. To suggest that we ignore that and make an exception when it comes to forcing pregnant women carry a pregnancy to term suggests that we force pregnant women to submit to a violation of their rights that we impose on no one else.

    This is not true. Roe vs Wade does essentially force a woman to carry to term, barring certain medical emergencies, once the fetus becomes viable. You won’t find a responsible physician in America who would perform a third term abortion barring medical necessity. A woman’s right to bodily autonomy is not absolute according to the Supreme Court, which crafted Roes vs Wade as a compromise between the autonomy rights of a woman and the right to life of a viable fetus.

    Perhaps Ana Mardoll accepts this compromise, but her article never makes mention of that. Perhaps I missed a reference? As such, her article undermines Roe vs Wade which is not exactly an ideal position for abortion rights. Which makes Dr Dawkins’ argument about fetal pain a lot more attractive by comparison, at least for rhetorical purposes.

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