Hendrik van der Breggen’s replies to Nathan Nobis’s review of Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments
Nathan Nobis, PhD, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College (Atlanta, Georgia), recently reviewed my book Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments: Critical Thinking about Abortion. Dr. Nobis argues that my book is characterized by several “weaknesses.” The alleged weaknesses have to do with how my book “engages deeper, more challenging philosophical issues.” Also, according to Nobis, the book’s “quickly-developed arguments given on more controversial issues are weak.” And, according to Nobis, the book “often assumes things that need to be argued for.”
I appreciate Dr. Nobis for taking time to review my book and to do so civilly, but I find his criticisms to be deeply problematic from the point of view of careful reasoning. In fact, I think his arguments that purport to show that my arguments are weak … are weak. I hope my replies below are helpful.
I encourage readers first to read Nobis’s review (link below), and then read my replies. (Of course, it would be better if readers first read my book prior to Nobis’s review, but I realize that not everyone has time for that. But perhaps my response to Nobis will encourage a look at my book.)
I respond to Nobis’s criticisms in reverse order: I begin with his last criticism and work back to his first criticism. For clarity and ease in reading, I set out Nobis’s criticisms in black font followed by my replies in red font.
II. Nobis’s review
Nobis posted his review of my book in several publically-accessible places: in the review section for my book at Amazon.com (where he also rated my book 3 stars out of 5); in the comment section for my Political Animal online magazine article (this article spurred me on to write my book); over at his personal website; plus in the blog dedicated to his book Thinking Critically about Abortion: Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should Be Legal, co-authored with Kristina Grob. The link below is to the review located at the blog for Nobis and Grob’s book:
Again, I encourage readers first to read Nobis’s review and then read my replies.
III. Nobis’s criticisms with VDB’s replies
Reminders: I respond to Nobis’s criticisms by beginning with his last criticism and work back to his first criticism. (Why? It’s just the way it worked out and, as it turns out, it makes good sense.) Also, Nobis’s criticisms are in black font and my replies are in red font.
A. The Right to Someone Else's Body
Note: Nobis lists his discussion of this topic as his point #5. This should actually be #4, since it is preceded by #3. No big deal. It’s a minor mistake (of the sort I have made in my other written work). I don’t intend to be nitpicky here—I simply make note of this for the sake of clarity.
Finally, it has been famously argued by Judith Thompson that even if fetuses are persons with the right to life, the right to life is not a right to someone else's body, even if that body is needed for that person to continue living.
So, it seems to follow that a woman could not allow a fetus to use her bodies [sic], and so abort that fetus, yet not violate that fetus's rights to life (which we are assuming fetuses have, for the sake of argument).
Van der Breggen:
Yes, Judith Jarvis Thomson is famous (notorious?) for the arguments published in her 1971 essay, “A Defense of Abortion.” To justify the permissibility of abortion even if the unborn is a person, Thomson sets out various thought experiments that serve as arguments from analogy. But, as I argue, they are terribly faulty as justifications of abortion.
Thomson makes her case using many imaginative examples which van der Breggen observes are often quite different from pregnancy.
Van der Breggen:
Right. Thomson’s examples are “imaginative” and “often quite different from pregnancy.” AND they in fact are faulty as justifications of abortion. (It’s not just me who thinks this. In my book I set out a footnote in which I reference first-rate philosophers such as Francis Beckwith, Robert George, Christopher Kaczor, Patrick Lee, and others who argue that Thomson’s arguments are faulty.)
Permit me to quote from my book (p. 83), so readers will have a better sense of how faulty Thomson’s analogies are:
Thomson writes: “You wake up in a hospital, ‘plugged in’ to a famous violinist, who needs to use your kidneys to stay alive. You were kidnapped for this purpose. If you unplug, he will die. But it’s only for nine months.” Thomson’s idea is that even if the unborn human being were a person, abortion is permissible morally, just as you aren’t morally obligated to remain hooked up to the violinist to sustain his life. But, as many critics have (rightly) pointed out, Thomson’s analogy is faulty—terribly faulty. Getting pregnant is (typically) not like rape. That is, getting pregnant is not like being forced to get “plugged in” to a violinist, famous or not. Also, to unplug or detach the violinist is not like hiring someone to directly kill the violinist by poisoning him, ripping off his limbs, crushing his skull, or shredding him via a suction machine, which is what abortion does. Rather, the violinist’s death is caused by the kidney ailment, not your or your doctor’s direct killing action. And keep in mind that “Euphemistically calling abortion the ‘withholding of support or treatment’ makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen” (Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, 133). Also, the violinist is a stranger, to whom one does not have a moral obligation to provide life-sustaining care, unlike the special moral duties parents have to care for their children. In her article Thomson attempts to address these sorts of issues by setting out other analogies, but they are terribly faulty, too. According to Thomson, if you opened a window and someone blundered or fell into your house, you don’t have a moral obligation to let them use your house, so, similarly, abortion is permissible. But, as critics (rightly) point out, it’s a different story—one more analogous to pregnancy—if by opening the window you knowingly pulled (or risked pulling) an innocent person into your house. So it would be morally outrageous to kill the innocent person you pulled into your house. Also, according to Thomson, if “people seeds” floated into your living room carpet (which is required for their gestation) and they began to sprout into persons even though you tried to keep them out (via fine-meshed screens/contraceptives), you wouldn’t be morally obligated to sustain them. But, as critics (rightly) point out, if you actually planted the people seeds by engaging in a planting activity (while knowing that screens/ contraceptives are not 100% foolproof), you would be morally obligated not to kill them.
This analysis is appropriate…
Van der Breggen:
Yes, Thomson’s arguments involve serious errors in logic. And these errors are serious morally, because they are used to permit the destruction of human lives—human lives that even Thomson concedes are, for the sake of argument, human persons.
…yet I do not think that van der Breggen makes a convincing case that fetuses (or anyone) indeed have a moral or natural right to anyone else's body, even if they need that body to live.
Van der Breggen:
Unfortunately, Nobis does not address the argument in my book that’s relevant here, i.e., relevant to Thomson’s argument where “anyone” (including the fetus) is a person. Here is my argument (from page 82 of my book):
Objection: Okay, the unborn human being is a person, but just as nobody has a right to my kidney to ensure his/her survival, abortion is morally permissible because I’m not morally obligated to sustain another person with my body.
Reply: Yes, I agree that at least this much is true: If you lost the function of your kidneys, then you wouldn’t have the moral right to force me to donate one of my kidneys to you, nor would I have the moral obligation to donate one of my kidneys to you. And if I lost the function of my kidneys, then I wouldn’t have the moral right to force you to donate one of your kidneys to me, nor would you have the moral obligation to donate one of your kidneys to me. But these truths are not analogous in any relevant way to the situation in pregnancy. It’s a faulty analogy, in other words. The situation in pregnancy is more like this: My life depends on a kidney you’ve voluntarily given me, i.e., you’ve consented to giving me the kidney by deliberately engaging in and willfully permitting the action that put the life-giving kidney in me (a kidney you can live without), but now you want to take it back—and doing so will kill me. See the difference? Yes, one is not morally obligated to sustain another human being via kidney transplants/ donations, but one is morally obligated not to cause the death of another human being by taking away what she requires to sustain her life—even if it was your kidney. It’s one thing for someone who needs a kidney to die because of a kidney ailment, but it’s quite another thing to rip out kidneys from another person and thereby kill that person. Abortion is like the latter case: it deliberately kills a person (often by poisoning, ripping off limbs, crushing the skull, etc.).
In other words, pregnancy (in non-rape cases) is like freely giving your kidney (which you can live without) to another person (a vulnerable, dependent person whom you’ve created) so the other person can live, whereas abortion is like tearing out from that person the kidney you’ve donated to him/her—and thereby kills that other person—because you’ve changed your mind about your previously-freely-made decision to donate it.
So persons indeed do have a moral right to what was someone else's kidney, if they need that kidney to live AND if one has already, in a fully-informed manner, engaged in freely giving/ donating one’s kidney to the person in question (and the donation isn’t a physical threat to the life of the donor). Ditto for fetuses—which we and Thomson concede are persons—and the biological systems gifted/donated to them also freely and in a fully-informed manner.
For Nobis to claim that he does not think I make a convincing case that fetuses (assumed for argument’s sake to be persons) indeed have a moral or natural right to anyone else's body, even if they need that body to live, he should at least address my relevant argument in his review. But he doesn’t. By omitting my argument, he makes my book seem weak when it isn’t. In effect, it seems to me, this misrepresents my book.
He proposes that if you consent to something, then you consent to that something's inevitable or likely consequences, using examples of consenting to light a match and thus consenting to starting a fire, consenting to smoking and consenting to cancer, and consenting to gambling and so consenting to losing money (p. 85).
Van der Breggen:
For the sake of clarity (and to ensure my argument is not inadvertently misrepresented), here is the argument from my book (and keep in mind that the context of my argument below is that it comes on the heels of dealing with Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument, in which it is conceded, for argument’s sake, and for which I argued previously in my book, that the pre-natal human being is a person):
Objection: An impregnated female has the right to consent to having sex without consenting to becoming pregnant, so if she gets pregnant it’s morally permissible to abort the fetus.
Reply: This argument doesn’t seem to make sense. This argument requires believing that it’s meaningful to give consent to the beginning of a causal chain of events and do so without consenting to the causal effects—the risks of which one admits and knows are real and yet goes on to risk. It’s like saying I have a right to consent to lighting a match in a room full of gasoline without consenting to the room catching on fire. Or I have a right to consent to smoking without consenting to getting cancer. That’s odd, surely. And this oddness counts against this argument.
The point is this: If you consent to action X and X has known consequences (or a known high risk of consequences) then basically you are consenting to accepting responsibility for those (risked) consequences. As in gambling at Las Vegas, when you decide to gamble you risk your money and are responsible for your possible losses, so too in initiating a causal chain of events you risk the outcome of the causal consequences—and are responsible for them even if you hoped they wouldn’t occur. Again: Claiming one isn’t consenting to the consequences is odd—and this oddness counts against the above argument.
One may not want to get pregnant and one may take precautions against getting pregnant, but because no precaution is foolproof—and we know this—by engaging in sexual intercourse one takes the risk of pregnancy for which one is responsible. If the outcome is a person with the right to life, then killing that person via abortion is not morally permissible. (Untangling, p. 85.)
But these are bad analogies to pregnancy.
Van der Breggen:
I disagree. Let’s look (below) at the two reasons Nobis goes on to set out for thinking “these are bad analogies to pregnancy.” It turns out that both of Nobis’s reasons fail: they commit the fallacy of irrelevant reason.
First, the chance of a pregnancy resulting from any act of sexual intercourse is, or can be, very low to none, depending on the details.
Van der Breggen:
Yes, but this is not relevant—it’s beside the point. The same holds for my examples, depending on the details. That is, the details in my examples could be such that the chance can be very low to none. One could take lots of precautions in the case of the fire, or use filters or resist inhaling in the case of smoking, or play cards in such a way as to reduce the odds of losing in the case of gambling. The fact is that even when one takes the precautions to minimize the risk—and yet one chooses to go on with the action in question in full knowledge of the risk—then one consents to the possible reality of that risk, which is to consent to the possibility of the undesired outcome however improbable it is. Ditto for pregnancy resulting from sexual intercourse (we’re not talking about rape here).
So Nobis’s reason doesn’t engage my analogies in a truth-bearing way, positively or negatively. Nobis’s reason is true, but it’s neither here nor there—its truth doesn’t bear on or weaken my analogies in any way. It is beside the point of my analogies. It’s simply not relevant. So my analogies still stand. They aren’t bad analogies to pregnancy.
Second, there is nothing that someone can do to "reverse" the consequences in the cases van der Breggen mentions: it's not like one can "undo" a fire or cancer or a gambling loss.
Van der Breggen:
This is not relevant, either. Yes, we can’t “undo” or “reverse” fire or cancer or gambling losses when they’ve occurred in fact. That’s why I chose those examples. The fact, too, is that we also cannot “undo” or “reverse” pregnancy once it has occurred. If one thinks one can, then one is mistaken. Reproduction—the creation of a new, living human being—occurs at conception, when the egg and sperm unite (see part 1 of my book, if one doubts this), and pregnancy occurs when the newly produced human being implants in the uterus. Of course, it’s possible to destroy via abortion the human being who has been produced and thereby “terminate” the pregnancy, but one cannot “undo” or “reverse” the fact of reproduction or pregnancy. That is, one cannot return to the previous state in which reproduction and pregnancy did not occur. Thus, Nobis’s second reason also doesn’t engage my analogies in a truth-bearing way, positively or negatively. Nobis’s reason is true, but neither here nor there. It is beside the point. So my analogies still stand.
Significantly, if one thinks the human being who has been produced via sexual intercourse isn’t a person and we can “undo” it by destroying it, then one is forgetting the context of this discussion. Recall that my discussion occurs on the heels of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument, an argument in which the human being produced by sexual intercourse is assumed to be a person for the sake of argument. And recall that in my book I argued prior to this discussion that the pre-natal human being is a person. To think, then, that the pre-natal human being is not a person and thus pregnancy can be “undone” by abortion is to beg the question at hand concerning the unborn’s personhood status (i.e., it is to mistakenly assume as established that which is at issue, which is a “sin” in critical thinking).
So Nobis’s two reasons for thinking my analogies are “bad” fail. They commit the fallacy of irrelevant reason (and the second one may even commit the fallacy of question-begging).
So here's a principle that's false: if you consent to something, then you consent to accepting that something's not likely consequences, and so you must accept them even if you can address those consequences, meaning do something to make it such that those consequences hadn't occurred.
Van der Breggen:
But the principle Nobis sets out is not my principle nor is it the principle at hand.
Rather, the principle at hand is this: If you consent to something, then you consent to accepting that something's not likely causal consequences, especially if you know what those consequences may be and choose to go ahead anyway, and so you must accept them because you can no longer address those consequences, meaning you can no longer do something to make it such that those consequences hadn't occurred.
The difference between my principle and Nobis’s principle is significant.
Unfortunately, Nobis’s irrelevant reasons against my analogies to pregnancy lead him to misrepresent the principle at hand and make it seem that the misrepresentation is mine. Three fallacies occurred here, then: fallacy of irrelevant reason (x2), and straw man fallacy.
So, for example, if you consent to buy a house, even in an area with high crime, you don't consent to being burgled, and you don't just have to go along with a burglar being in your house; and you can restore things to as they were, as best you can, if you are burgled.
Van der Breggen:
I agree with Nobis’s example in the sense that one doesn’t consent to being burgled when one buys a house, but I disagree that the example illustrates my principle. The example misrepresents my principle.
An example that’s more analogous to the situations and principle under discussion is this: If you consent to buy a house, and you at the same time invite a vulnerable person to live in it, i.e., a person who is dependent on the house and can’t move out because of life-threatening health problems—and you know all this and go on to buy the house complete with the invited-dependent-vulnerable person in it—then, if, after you buy the house and in doing so knowingly have allowed the invited-dependent-vulnerable person settle in your house, you choose to hire someone to fumigate the house with poisons and/or rip the dependent person’s arms and legs off, crush his/her skull, and haul the body parts to the garbage, then you are consenting to killing this person—and should be held responsible.
So, in sum, while there are indeed complications with Thomson's arguments or how many people (perhaps mistakenly) understand them, I don't think that van der Breggen successfully explains why an embryo or early fetus would have a right to the woman's body, or the woman is otherwise obligated to provide for that early fetus. This is especially the case if, in fact, and contrary to what he argues, an embryo or early fetus is not a person.
Van der Breggen:
In sum, Nobis does not successfully refute my arguments. See my replies above. My arguments are good—and still stand.
It is notable that van der Breggen seems to think that abortions of (comparatively rare) pregnancies that result from rape are also wrong. This, at least, makes sense, since if embryos and early fetuses are persons with the right to life, their origins wouldn't change that fact.
Van der Breggen:
Perhaps it would be more notable to note what I actually think about rape and thereby not risk misrepresenting my view. Here is what I write in my book (pp. 79-80):
Objection: Rape justifies abortion.
Reply: Rape is wrong and terrible, definitely. But perspective is needed.
Of the total abortion practice, abortions for rape account for a small percentage only. According to ethicist Charles C. Camosy, “about 1 percent of all abortions take place in situations where the mother was raped.” Thus, to justify the general abortion situation because of these few terrible cases is to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization.
Also, abortion does not undo the trauma of rape. The mother has been victimized—she needs care. Moreover, abortion can be traumatic, too. And abortion may be related to subsequent health problems. Abortion risks include breast cancer, premature birth (of subsequent children), and psychological problems. By seeing abortion as a solution to rape, we might victimize a woman (a second time).
Furthermore, to kill by abortion the human being conceived by the crime of rape is like killing an innocent bystander at the scene of a crime, a crime perpetrated by the bystander’s father. The father deserves (severe) punishment, not the child.
Moreover, the child's voice should be heard. Significantly, there are people who have been conceived by rape and are now speaking out on behalf of those who cannot. Enter anti-abortion activist and attorney Rebecca Kiessling and company—people conceived via rape. Kiessling asks: “Have you ever considered how really insulting it is to say to someone, 'I think your mother should have been able to abort you.'? It’s like saying, 'If I had my way, you’d be dead right now.'” The child's voice should be considered—so we should listen to those persons who were conceived via rape.
Rape justifies abortion? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Yes, rape is wrong, definitely, for sure, 100%. Yet there are also very good reasons for thinking rape shouldn't justify abortion. What is certain is that rape doesn't justify the general practice of abortion—not by a long shot. What is also certain is that the rapist deserves punishment and we shouldn’t victimize a woman twice by inflicting another trauma (or traumas) onto her. What is certain, too, is that we should speak for those who can’t, which includes the child conceived by rape. In thinking about whether rape justifies abortion, let's be sure we don't attempt to right a wrong by adding more wrongs.
1. Charles C. Camosy, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 20. Camosy's source is Lawrence B. Finer et al., “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 37:3 (2005), 113, https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/journals/3711005.pdf . The journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health is a publication of the Guttmacher Institute, which is a pro-choice organization.
2. See the documentary Hush: A Liberating Conversation about Abortion and Women's Health, directed by Punam Kumar Gill (Mighty Motion Pictures, 2016). For trailer, see here: http://hushfilm.com/ . See too Angela Lanfranchi, Ian Gentles, and Elizabeth Ring-Cassidy's book Complications: Abortion's Impact on Women (Toronto: DeVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research, 2013).
3. See the video Conceived in Rape in which Rebecca Kiessling and other people conceived via rape speak out:
4. See Hendrik van der Breggen, “Two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy,” Political Animal Magazine, July 17, 2020.
Recall that Nobis writes: “It is notable that van der Breggen seems to think that abortions of (comparatively rare) pregnancies that result from rape are also wrong. This, at least, makes sense, since if embryos and early fetuses are persons with the right to life, their origins wouldn't change that fact.”
Right, it makes sense if embryos and early fetuses are persons with the right to life. Nevertheless, the point of my discussion of the situation of rape is to encourage critical thinking: to look at the pros and cons. Rape is terrible, for sure, definitely. And perhaps it’s a justification of abortion. But, as I point out, perhaps not. To avoid causing further harm, careful thinkers should also examine the other considerations that I discuss. Again, I am trying to encourage careful thinking.
From the point of view of careful reasoning, Nobis’s criticisms of my views in point 5 (actually point 4) are seriously problematic. I count 3 (possibly 4) straw man fallacies, 2 fallacies of irrelevant reason, plus 1 possible case of question-begging. Nobis’s faulty criticisms do not show that my arguments are weak.
In Thinking Critically About Abortion, we [Nathan Nobis and Kristina Grob] argued that persons are psychological beings: persons are, roughly, conscious or minded beings. This is a modification of John Locke's view on personhood.
van der Breggen argues that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are persons from conception because they have a capacity for the type of consciousness found in "typical" adult human beings: they are the kind of beings that are conscious in those ways.
To better understand this sort of view, we could observe that this description applies to human embryos and fetuses, but not, say, those of cows, pigs and chickens: they aren't that "kind" of being or have that capacity:
He supports his view with many quotes from Francis Beckwith and Robert George, who favor this view. But they might not have good arguments for their views, as I have argued elsewhere, so these appeals may be weak.
Van der Breggen:
OK, the appeals to Beckwith and George may be weak, as Nobis claims; but they may not be weak, as I argue. Francis Beckwith, Robert George, Christopher Kaczor, Christian Smith, and others whose work I incorporate in my book make a powerful case for the personhood of the pre-natal human being, a case I believe is more powerful than Nobis and Grob’s case to the contrary. To make an informed decision, I encourage critical thinkers to assess Nobis and Grob’s arguments vis-à-vis the arguments in my book in which I appeal to the work of Beckwith and company.
At this juncture it’s important emphasize a Hugely Important Point (that’s in my book but missed by Nobis): If my appeals to the insights from Beckwith, George, Kaczor, and others cast at least some significant doubt onto to the abortion-choice view (which I think they do, and more), then, it seems to me, we should err on the side of not killing what may or may very well be a person, especially since evidence points to it as being an actual human being (albeit a pre-natal human being) and since arguments against its personhood have problems. As I point out in my book’s introduction, in my book’s discussion of personhood, and in my book’s conclusion, it’s crucial, especially if one favours abortion-choice—which may kill a human person—to be sure that one’s arguments are solid. Indeed, as I point out repeatedly in my book, “If we aren’t sure whether a body is dead, we shouldn’t bury it. And if we aren't sure whether what is moving in the bushes is a hunter or a deer, then we shouldn't shoot it.”(Norman Geisler, cited in van der Breggen, on pages 3, 41, and 126.) In other words, we can rightly demand of abortion-choice advocates that they must have very strong arguments. The abortion-choice view, which permits the destruction of human beings, has the burden of proof to show—demonstrate—that arguments which purport to show that those human beings aren’t persons are beyond-a-reasonable-doubt strong. This is a matter of life and death, after all, and the arguments that permit choices for killing must be so convincing that no reasonable person would ever question them—just as in a conviction for a criminal case the evidence must be so convincing that no reasonable person would ever question the defendant's guilt. I don’t think abortion-choice advocates have succeeded in showing this. As Beckwith, George, Kaczor, others, and I have argued, there are very reasonable doubts. (By the way, Beckwith and George and Kaczor are first-class philosophers. To dismiss them and their views as unreasonable would be false as well as foolish.)
At the end of his review, Nobis acknowledges that “there is much of the book I [Nobis] haven't discussed here.” Yes, reviews cannot cover everything. Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate that Nobis doesn’t mention my book’s (what I call here) Hugely Important Point. To miss this point—a point I emphasize in my book—is a significant shortcoming for a review.
I encourage readers who value critical thinking to consider the arguments I set out in my book, while keeping my Hugely Important Point in mind. Surely, if we have some reasonable doubts about the unborn’s alleged non-person status, we should err on not killing what may very well be a human person. Again: “If we aren’t sure whether a body is dead, we shouldn’t bury it. And if we aren't sure whether what is moving in the bushes is a hunter or a deer, then we shouldn't shoot it.”
The idea of this theory of personhood seems to be that personhood depends on consciousness, and if something has the capacity for consciousness, then that something is a person.
Van der Breggen:
This is roughly the idea. But in my book I don’t just set it out as a mere idea. It’s an idea for which I set out arguments. Those arguments—my arguments—should be assessed. I would emphasize that the kind of being in question is important, too. To be a person is to be a kind of being that has a rational nature, which is to have features such as the capacities for rational speech, self-awareness, understanding truths, forming friendships, making moral choices, loving, etc., though these capacities may not be immediately exercisable (because maturation may be required or because of an injury). These features are significant morally. They are mysterious awe-inspiring features, which should inspire us philosophically to tread carefully—extra carefully—and err on the side of life.
The claim that if something (or someone) has a capacity for consciousness that makes it a person is dubious on its face though.
Van der Breggen:
Well, I disagree. That’s why the arguments in my book should be considered. Unfortunately, especially for those who haven’t read my book and who might be interested in the topics at hand, my arguments are not considered in Nobis’s review of my book.
Consider some seemingly parallel reasoning (a common strategy for critical thinking):
Being a responsible moral agent depends on consciousness, but even if something has the capacity of consciousness, that doesn't make that something (or someone) a responsible moral agent.
- Being a praiseworthy individual depends on consciousness, but even if something has the capacity of consciousness, that doesn't make that something (or someone) a praiseworthy individual.
- Being able to consent to various activities depends on consciousness, but even if something has the capacity of consciousness, that doesn't make that something (or someone) able to consent.
In these cases, the "capacity" at best makes something (or someone) a potential moral agent, a potential someone who is praiseworthy, and a potential someone who can consent. The suggestion, therefore, is that the capacity for consciousness also only results in something that potentially could be a person, which is never an actual person.
Van der Breggen:
Here (again) I recommend that critical thinkers examine my book’s arguments to the contrary, which are, unfortunately, not examined in Nobis’s review. As I point out in my book, I disagree with Nobis and Grob’s view of personhood, and in my book I provide arguments in support of my disagreement. In my book I quote Nobis and Grob extensively in their attempt (in their book) to dismiss the personhood of the unborn, and I argue that their arguments fail. My arguments should be examined. I—and others—think my arguments are in fact strong.
In my book I also address Nobis and Grob’s objection (similar in some respects to the one above) having to do with being a potential something:
Nobis and Grob might reply that “in general, potential things of a kind don’t have the rights of actual things of that kind: potential doctors, lawyers, judges, presidents, voters, veterans, adults, parents, spouses, graduates, moral reasoners and more don’t have the rights of actual individuals of those kinds.” [Nobis & Grob, Thinking Critically about Abortion, p. 44; italics in original.] This is true. But fetuses are human beings with potential (not potential human beings), and the fact is that being a human being who will have consciousness etc.—if we don’t kill it—is a morally significant moral kind of thing! That’s why we don’t kill people who have non-permanent comas, and that’s why we would not kill people who (hypothetically) have been in a coma all their previous lives but we know will waken and will become conscious. (Untangling, p. 40.)
It may be of interest to point out that Nobis and Grob argue that the case of the unborn human being is like the case of a human being in a permanent, irreversible coma and so the unborn human being lacks consciousness and thus personhood status. But the state of being of the fetus is more like a non-permanent coma or non-permanent vegetative state: the fetus will awaken/ gain consciousness—if we don’t kill him/ her. (See my book’s chapter 11.) That’s hugely significant, morally.
Also, let’s consider Nobis’s claim (suggestion) above. Nobis writes: “the capacity for consciousness also only results in something that potentially could be a person, which is never an actual person.” I think this claim is false. As I argue in my book (see pages 33-43), the capacity to give rise to consciousness is a necessary and sufficient condition of personhood (to be distinguished with the merely sufficient conditions to which Nobis points and mistakenly thinks also are necessary conditions). The capacity to give rise to consciousness is what grounds the personhood of sleeping people and people in reversible comas. They are not potential persons; they are actual persons with the capacity to give rise to consciousness, which is what the fetus has.
So, although there is much more to say about this,…
Van der Breggen:
Yes, there is! See my book. :-)
…it seems to me that van der Breggen's defense of thinking that zygotes, embryos and early fetuses are persons is underdeveloped and not well-defended. Also, his objections to a Locke-inspired view of personhood, which appeals to consciousness and psychological connectedness and continuity over time, resulting from memory, are weak.
Van der Breggen:
I disagree. Again, I encourage readers to take a look at the arguments in my book.
(To think further about personhood, a theory of personhood needs to at least explain and account for these:
1. why we (say, readers of this text) are persons—what makes us persons;
2. how and why our personhood ends or could end (or if we are essentially persons, what can end us);
3. what it is to "personify" something—which tells us what the characteristics of persons are;
4. how there could be, if not are, non-human persons;
5. why it can be ok to do this to some living human beings: let some permanently comatose individuals eventually die, let anencephalic babies die, and kill brain dead individuals for their organs, as happens in some forms of organ donation: if these human beings were persons, then this all would be wrong.)
Van der Breggen:
There is much in the above parenthetical comment to be discussed. For the sake of time, I’ll just set out some brief comments for further thought (and which show, I believe, that the personhood concept I defend has merit; enough merit to cast significant doubt on the denial of the unborn’s personhood).
1. Re: “why we (say, readers of this text) are persons—what makes us persons.” My response: We have the capacity to give rise to (rational, etc.) consciousness which we are presently exercising. (By rational, etc. consciousness I mean having the features of rational speech, self-awareness, understanding truths, forming friendships, making moral choices, loving, etc.)
2. Re: “how and why our personhood ends or could end (or if we are essentially persons, what can end us).” My response: Our personhood ends or could end via the permanent ending of our capacity to give rise to (rational, etc.) consciousness which we are presently exercising.
3. Re: “what it is to "personify" something—which tells us what the characteristics of persons are.” My answer: We do this when we discern whether that something is the sort of being that has the capacity persons have, i.e., the capacity to give rise to (rational, etc.) consciousness.
4. Re: “how there could be, if not are, non-human persons.” My answer: Non-human persons would have and could exercise the capacity to give rise to consciousness of a rational sort, which humans have, and perhaps some animals have, and, if they exist, so would angelic beings and God.
5. Re: Why is it OK to “let some permanently comatose individuals eventually die, let anencephalic babies die, and kill brain dead individuals for their organs, as happens in some forms of organ donation”? My answer: Because they no longer have the capacity to give rise to consciousness, which is necessary for personhood. (Human fetuses have this capacity and, unlike, permanently comatose etc. individuals, will exercise it if we don’t kill them.)
From the point of view of careful reasoning, Nobis’s criticisms of my views in his section on personhood are seriously problematic. Nobis misses my hugely important point about the need to err on the side of safety when there are reasonable doubts about the non-personhood of the unborn. Nobis basically ignores my arguments concerning capacity of rational consciousness as a criterion of personhood. And Nobis ignores my critique of his (and Grob’s) attempt to dismiss the personhood of the unborn. This, it seems to me, is unfair to readers. Nobis’s faulty criticisms do not show that my arguments are weak.
Again, as I point out in my book on three occasions (a.k.a. my previously-mentioned Hugely Important Point), it’s crucial, especially if one favours abortion-choice—which might kill a human person—to be sure that one’s arguments are solid. “If we aren’t sure whether a body is dead, we shouldn’t bury it. And if we aren't sure whether what is moving in the bushes is a hunter or a deer, then we shouldn't shoot it.”(Norman Geisler, cited in van der Breggen, on pages 3, 41, and 126.) In other words, we can rightly demand of abortion-choice advocates that they should have—must have—very strong arguments. The abortion-choice view, which permits the destruction of human beings, has the burden of proof to show—demonstrate—that arguments which purport to show that those human beings aren’t persons are beyond-a-reasonable-doubt strong. This is a matter of life and death, after all, and the arguments that permit choices for killing must be so convincing that no reasonable person would ever question them—just as in a conviction for a criminal case the evidence must be so convincing that no reasonable person would ever question the defendant's guilt. I am a reasonable person (and I have set out reasonable arguments) and I don’t think abortion-choice advocates have succeeded in showing this. And there are many other reasonable persons who agree with me (and with the reasonable arguments I have set out). To be a person is to be a kind of being that has a rational nature, which is to have features such as the capacities for rational speech, self-awareness, understanding truths, forming friendships, making moral choices, loving, etc., though these capacities may not be immediately exercisable (because maturation may be required or because of an injury). These features are significant morally. They are mysterious awe-inspiring features, which should inspire us philosophically to tread carefully—extra carefully—and err on the side of life.
C. "Human life begins . ."
Second, van der Breggen argues that "individual human life begins at fertilization" (p. 7) but does not use critical thinking to observe and address important ambiguities in the phrase "human life" and "when life begins."
Van der Breggen:
Yes, I do argue that individual human life begins at fertilization. AND I go on to argue and clarify what this means. In fact, that’s pretty much what the majority of Part 1 of my book is about.
Here are some examples of what I do in Part 1 of my book. I clarify the distinction between potential human life and human life with potential. I clarify the distinction between ongoing human life in general versus the distinctive beginning of the life of an individual human being (when egg and sperm unite). I clarify the distinction between human life and canine, feline, etc. life. I clarify the distinction between early developmental stages of human life versus later developmental stages. I consider monozygotic twinning as an objection to when human life begins. I consider the transition from haploid to diploid cell, and I consider the biparental hydatidiform mole. Also, I argue against misunderstandings of human life which arise from faulty analogies to acorns and oak trees, faulty analogies to bricks and houses, faulty analogies to human skin cells, faulty analogies to parasitic organisms, and more. And I argue on the basis of scientific evidence, careful reasoning, and via the careful use of words (words that accurately describe the goings-on in reality) for when a biologically human being begins, and I argue that attempts to distinguish biographical human life (à la Nobis and Grob, and others) from biological human life run amok because of confusions having to do with immediately exercisable capacities and root/basic capacities. And I argue much more!
Surely, contrary to what Nobis would have readers think, I do “use critical thinking” to observe and address important ambiguities with regards to “human life” and “when life begins.”
It's plausible that biological human life begins at conception (or close after), but many argue that this isn't what really matters: what matters is when what is sometimes called biographical human life begins.
Van der Breggen:
I think it’s more than plausible that biological human life begins at conception (or very close thereafter). As I argue in my book, it’s pretty well established as a fact of biology that biological human life begins at conception (or very close thereafter, i.e., when the micro steps involved in fertilization have been completed).
Yes, there are philosophers who argue that what matters is when “biographical” human life begins. But I think—and argue—that this view is philosophically and morally problematic. I encourage interested readers to take a look at chapters 10 and 11 of my book to see what I actually argue.
To better understand this concept, imagine a 30-year-old is in a major car crash, their brain is very much damaged such that they are totally unconscious, in a coma, yet their heart keeps beating and their lungs keep breathing for 10 years, and then their body died "naturally" yesterday. When did their "life" end?
Their biological life ended yesterday, but their biographical life ended 10 years ago, when their mind or consciousness ended. "Brain death" is well-known, but "brain birth," which is related to the beginnings of a biographical life, is a less well-known concept, but the concepts of "brain birth" and "biographical life" (as well as, in general, psychological theories of personal identity) are appealed to argue that "human life," in a morally significant sense, does not begin at conception; rather human life, in the sense that matters, morally, begins when consciousness starts, which is much later in pregnancy, after when at least most abortions occur.
Van der Breggen:
I find it odd that Nobis sets out the above example but doesn’t acknowledge that I mention the case of Karen Quinlan in my book—a case that’s relevant to his example.
From a note in my book (p. 36): “Tragically, in 1975, Karen Quinlan, age 21, took various drugs and alcohol at a party, came home, collapsed, and became comatose. Eventually Karen’s parents took her off her ventilator and she remained in a coma for 10 more years before dying.”
One would think that a reviewer would be interested in the context of this note, since it has to do with a philosopher’s argument that, like Nobis’s, promotes a “biographical” view of life as “what really matters.”
Also, it should be noted (even though Nobis oddly misses this, too) that in the very next chapter I deal with Nobis’s view that consciousness is what matters morally, as presented in his and Grob’s book Thinking Critically about Abortion: Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should Be Legal. Critical thinkers should be aware of this.
For readers who are interested in my book’s critique of the view that consciousness is required for personhood, please see chapters 10 and 11 of my book. (I argue that consciousness is a sufficient condition for personhood, but not a necessary condition.)
The point is just this: there are subtleties and complications here, such as with the common "human life begins at conception" claim (and the mistaken assumption that this would prove that abortion is often wrong), that van der Breggen doesn't address.
Critical thinking helps us understand and see what might and might not follow from the different claims expressed by that phrase. Critical thinking and understanding the more basic abstract philosophical issues helps us see that the issues aren't as simple as many people think they are.
Van der Breggen:
The above “point” made by Nobis (about “subtleties and complications” that I allegedly don’t address) is mistaken. For the record, I do not argue merely that human-life-begins-at-conception-therefore-abortion-is-wrong (or often wrong). I argue that the abortion of pre-natal human beings is wrong because of a combination of several sub-arguments: pre-natal human beings are persons because they are human beings (who have morally significant capacities that give them personhood status); objections to this fail; and it’s important to err on the side of not destroying what may very well be person, so we shouldn’t abort (in most cases). In other words, my argument is much more complex and subtle than what Nobis would have readers of his review believe. In fact, in my argument I even consider “biographical” views of the sort that Nobis holds—a fact apparently missed by Nobis. Readers of Nobis’s review should realize that my book isn’t as simple as Nobis’s portrayal makes it out to be.
Nobis’s review of my book and his criticisms in his section “Human life begins . .” are, again, problematic. Nobis alleges that I don’t make important distinctions to clear up ambiguities, when in fact in my book I do. Nobis makes it seem that I’m not aware of “biographical” life, when in fact in my book I am.
First, from the beginning (p. 2) and throughout the book van der Breggen seems to refers [sic] to any zygote, embryo (and fetuses) as a "child."
Van der Breggen:
This is a false as well as misleading claim.
It’s a false claim because nowhere on page 2 do I use the word “child.” Nowhere. (For those who don’t own my book, page 2 is available on the Look Inside feature at Amazon.) Rather, on page 2 I use these words: “unborn human beings,” “living pre-natal human being,” “what is or may very well be a human person” (x2).
Also, throughout the book I use words such as “zygote,” “embryo,” “fetus,” “pre-natal human being,” “unborn human being.”
Yes, I do use the word “child” in the titles of Parts 1 and 2 of my book. Part 1 is titled “Untangling popular pro-choice arguments closely related to the denial of the unborn child’s personhood” (italics added), and Part 2 is titled “Untangling popular pro-choice arguments that have to do primarily with the bodies of the mother and the unborn child” (italics added). But the reason I use the word “child” in these titles is because the chapters in these sections have to do with arguments that purport to deny that the unborn are pre-natal children who are persons—arguments that I untangle. I argue that those arguments fail, and in the arguments I use words such as “zygote,” “embryo,” “fetus,” “pre-natal human being,” “unborn human being.”
For a variety of reasons, one might reasonably believe that that term just does not fit: it's a misuse of the word because embryos just are not "children."
Van der Breggen:
With respect, I disagree. I think that human embryos and fetuses are our offspring or children. Interestingly, according to Oxford Languages (which is Google’s English dictionary), “fetus” is Latin for unborn offspring; “offspring” means a person’s child or children; “embryo” means an unborn (or unhatched) offspring in the process of development.
The problem with this word choice or conceptualization is that it's emotive and potentially question-begging: since children are wrong to kill, to call an early fetus a "child" is basically to assume that it's wrong to kill.
Van der Breggen:
Significantly, contrary to what Nobis seems to suggest, I do not assume they’re wrong to kill—I argue for this thesis. So I do not engage in actual question-begging (i.e., assuming as established that which is at issue). And, even if there are emotive elements connected to the word “child” (the word I use in the titles for Parts 1 and 2), I do not rely on the emotive elements to make the arguments in my book. Nobis’s apparent suggestion may mislead readers, which is unfair to readers (and unfair to me).
I don’t write about what follows in my book, but I’d like to add it here:
I wonder if the use of the word “fetus” is a way of dehumanizing the pre-natal human being. We talk about “baby showers” not “fetus showers.” We talk about pregnancy as being “with child” not “with fetus.” We ask, “When is your baby due?” not “When is your fetus due?” And we never refer to the expectant mother as “gravida,” which is what we should expect if we wanted to be consistent in our use of Latin terms (gravida means expectant mother). It strikes me as suspicious that in the early framing of the moral question surrounding abortion (back in the 1970s and 80s, which I am old enough to remember), the unborn child quickly got referred to as “fetus” but the pregnant woman was not referred to—and still isn’t referred to—as “gravida.” Yes, “fetus” is medically accurate, but so is “gravida.” The inconsistent switch to medical terms strikes me, as I said, suspicious.
(Thanks to philosopher Christopher Kaczor for many of the above insights concerning “fetus” and “gravida.” See this interview and see Kaczor’s essay “Abortion as Human Rights Violation,” in Kate Greasley & Christopher Kaczor, Abortion Rights: For and Against [Cambridge University Press, 2018], 90. Kaczor goes on to say that he likes to use the non-dehumanizing term “pre-natal human being,” which is what I often do in my book.)
(In case it’s of interest: When bioethicist Margaret Somerville read my book prior to publication, she recommended to me that I use the word “child” in the titles for Parts 1 and 2 of my book. Originally, I didn’t have the word “child” in these titles. But I took Dr. Somerville’s advice, and I’m thankful I did. Using the word “child” in the titles has helped to draw attention to the witting or unwitting dehumanization of the unborn in the history of the abortion debate.)
Indeed, van der Breggen describes the stages of a human being as "infant, toddler, child, adolescent, adult" (p. 22, emphasis added), which at least seems inconsistent with his claim that any beginning fetus is a "child."
Van der Breggen:
I suppose it might seem inconsistent if one doesn’t keep in mind the context of usage. Sometimes “child” can mean a fetus, as in the context in which we say a pregnant woman is “with child” (see my previous comments above). And sometimes “child” can mean a human developmental stage that is beyond toddler but isn’t yet a teenager, like a child who is in grade 2 (which is how Nobis and Grob use the word in their book). Critical thinkers should realize that in a case of a seeming (or alleged) inconsistency it’s helpful to take context of usage into account.
Nobis’s criticisms in his section “Child” are problematic. One criticism is clearly false, and the others are to various degrees misleading concerning the goings-on in my book.
E. Nobis’s introductory comments
Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments: Critical Thinking about Abortion by Hendrik van der Breggen is described as a short book that can "serve as a counterpoint" (p. 2) to our Thinking Critically About Abortion [subtitle: Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should Be Legal]. The book developed out of his Political Animal online magazine article "Untangling popular “pro-choice” claims and arguments concerning abortion" that was posted alongside a selection from our book in a forum on abortion. His book includes other materials that are often developed from his blog posts and newspaper articles on abortion.
The book succeeds at least in making it clear that there are many poor pro-choice arguments. Many pro-choice people, unfortunately, rely on slogans and attempts at "gotcha" moments to support and defend their views and critical thinking shows that these responses are often ineffective. These slogans do not provide rational support for pro-choice views and should not be persuasive to anyone who wants to think seriously about the issues. Readers should scan Untangling's table of contents to see many of these common but bad arguments and ways of engaging the issues.
Van der Breggen:
So far, so good. But I think it’s important to draw the reader’s attention to the omitted subtitle of Nobis and Grob’s book: “Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should Be Legal.” Why do I think it’s important to draw attention to the omitted subtitle? See below.
Untangling would be far better though if van der Breggen "untangled" many of the common arguments and responses from abortion critics who also too often rely on slogans, false assumptions, and simplistic bad arguments. A more "fair and balanced" discussion of the many bad arguments given on the issues from all sides would have improved the book since informing abortion critics that they often have bad arguments, with the goal that they adopt better arguments, is a valuable task.
Van der Breggen:
Yes, it’s a valuable task, but it’s not the task of my book. Recall that the title of my book is this: Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments: Thinking Critically about Abortion. The task of my book is to untangle popular pro-choice arguments. As I mention in the introduction to my book (and as Nobis points out above), I hope that my book can “serve as a counterpoint” to Nobis and Grob’s book. Why did I say that? Because, as the subtitle of Nobis and Grob’s book makes clear, the main project of Nobis and Grob’s book is to attempt to use critical thinking to make a case for believing most abortions aren’t wrong and all abortions should be legal. Again, here is the (full) title of Nobis and Grob’s book: Thinking Critically About Abortion: Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should Be Legal. Clearly, Nobis and Grob believe that careful thinking will lead us to believe in the moral and legal permissibility of abortion in general. But I think Nobis and Grob are deeply mistaken in this. Hence, my book—and its specific task as a counterpoint to Nobis and Grob’s abortion-choice view.
To criticize my book for leaving out other tasks is to misunderstand the explicit purpose of my book.
Untangling's weaknesses concern how it engages deeper, more challenging philosophical issues. It often assumes things that need to be argued for and the quickly-developed arguments given on more controversial issues are weak. Here I'll briefly review some of these weaknesses, as they present themselves in the book.
Van der Breggen/ Main conclusion
As I have argued above, I don’t think Dr. Nobis succeeds in showing that my book has the weaknesses he claims it has. In fact, Nobis’s criticisms are problematic—weak. So my arguments remain standing.
In my reckoning Nobis’s review incurs the following errors (the following are repeats of my above sub-conclusions):
- Nobis sets out 3 (possibly 4) straw man fallacies, 2 fallacies of irrelevant reason, plus 1 possible case of question-begging.
- Nobis misses my hugely important point about the need to err on the side of safety when there are reasonable doubts about the non-personhood of the unborn (if we aren’t sure whether or not it’s a fellow hunter that’s rustling in bush, don’t shoot); Nobis basically ignores my arguments concerning capacity of rational consciousness as a criterion of personhood; Nobis ignores my critique of his (and Grob’s) attempt to dismiss the personhood of the unborn.
- Nobis alleges that I don’t make important distinctions to clear up ambiguities, when in fact in my book I do. Nobis makes it seem that I’m not aware of “biographical” life, when in fact in my book I am.
- Nobis sets out a clearly false claim concerning my book, and he sets out a couple other claims that are to various degrees misleading concerning the goings-on in my book.
- Nobis criticizes my book for not engaging in a task that isn’t the book’s task.
In other words, Nobis’s review does not show that the arguments of my book are weak. The arguments in Nobis’s review need untangling (sorry, I couldn’t resist using that word). Critical thinkers should be aware of this.
Like Dr. Nobis, I want readers to think carefully about the arguments concerning the abortion issue, and, like Dr. Nobis, I want readers to engage civilly those with whom they disagree. I hope my book and my replies to Nobis’s review are helpful in this regard.
Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is a retired Associate Professor of Philosophy (formerly at Providence University College) who lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada.