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Why Pro-lifers Need Philosophy (Part 2)

Trent Horn

Audio only:

In this episode, Trent continues his discussion about pro-life philosophy by rebutting some of the most sophisticated arguments made in defense of abortion.

Welcome to the Council of Trent podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.

Welcome back, everyone. This is part two of pro-life week. I mean, we’ve got the commemoration of the evil Roe vs. Wade decision, the Biden-Harris administration being inaugurated. There’s a lot of things that can bring us down.

But I’ve said this before when it comes to the saints, what makes someone a saint is not that they don’t get knocked down, whether it’s by sin or struggles in this world. What makes someone a saint is they refuse to stay down. They refuse to say no to the grace of the Holy Spirit, they ask for God’s help, and they get back up again. They let the Holy Spirit be the coach from Rocky, “Get up, you bum.”

So, we need that. And we need to be encouraged and equipped to address all the different pro-choice arguments that are out there, especially the most sophisticated ones put out by contemporary philosophers. And these aren’t just an ivory tower. I’ve seen variants of these arguments, even on social media, you’ll come across them. That’s why I want to cover them this week here on the show.

So, without further ado, here is part two of my interview with John DeRosa on his Classical Theism Podcast. You should go and check that out also. It’s a great resource on why pro-lifers need philosophy.

John DeRosa:
Well, here let’s get to this though because you’ve mentioned David Boonin, you’ve debated him, and he’s written what many seem to think is the most philosophically sophisticated and powerful Defense of Abortion. And he’s got a couple different arguments. First, why don’t we say what is his dispositional desire argument and how do you respond to that? And then we’ll go to the more bodily autonomy arguments after that.

Right. So, David Boonin, back in 2003, he wrote a book called the Defense of Abortion. And then just a year or two ago, he wrote another book on abortion that was only about this bodily autonomy type argument.

So, in his original book of Defense of Abortion, and David and I debated it several years ago at Stanford University. The audio is available online, you could link to it. It was a good debate, but I would love to sit down with him and have just another round table with other people.

Because he’s a great guy. I have his other books on philosophy. He’s a very careful and rigorous thinker. And he tries to do this with the issue of abortion. And actually, in the defense of abortion, Boonin does a really good job of refuting other pro-choice positions on the issue. So, for example, this came up in my dialogue with Shannon Q. Shannon is really big into neuroscience. And so, what she says is, “Look, what makes you a person is possession of an organized cortical brain activity,” a particular kind of highly developed upper brain, what’s been called the cortical brain criteria. That is what makes you a person.

And so, Boonin says, “Well, the problem with that is,” he critiques another book by Moro and Trefil. It’s called The Facts of Life. And what they try to argue is they try to just use science to answer the abortion debate. And of course, that’s dubious. Science doesn’t tell us what’s right or wrong.

So, Boonin rightly points out they make a mistake. That they use science to say what makes humans distinct from other animals is they have this organized cortical brain. They have this particular brain structure. That’s what makes humans unique. And because humans are unique, we treat them in a unique way. So, you only have to treat them in a unique way once they develop this structure that makes them unique from other animals.

But Boonin rightly points out, well, you’ve picked one thing that’s unique, but you haven’t said why it has value. Because you could also say what makes humans unique from other animals is we have a 40-week gestation period among females. You could say parrots are unique from other birds because they can talk, but that doesn’t mean they have a special value compared to other birds. So, you’ve leapfrog over the important question.

So, Boonin tries to argue and say, the cortical criteria is important. He tries to say, “Look, killing is wrong because it frustrates our desires. I want to live, you kill me. I don’t like that. We shouldn’t frustrate other people’s desires.” But then he says, “Look, killing can still be wrong even if you don’t have an active desire to live. You could have a dispositional desire to live.”

So, like John, if somebody goes up to you and points a gun at you, and you’re like, “Please don’t shoot me. ” And he shoots you, that’s wrong. But if you’re just walking down the street, and he shoots you, and you don’t even know what’s happening, that’s still wrong even though at that moment when you’re walking, you don’t say “I really want to live. I like living.” Because it’s not in a current desire.

So, when a current desire is something, “Oh, I really want In-N-Out right now.” Like “I’m hungry,” or “I want to talk to you on a podcast.” I know I want to do this. But we have all other kinds of desires we’re not thinking about. It’s our disposition. We just have them. We don’t even know we have them. I want to keep breathing. We all have that one, but it only becomes a current when we’re short of breath. But other times, 99.9% of the time, our desire to breathe is dispositional.

So, Boonin would say, “Look, it’s wrong to kill someone if they have also a dispositional desire to live.” And so, you’d say, “Yeah, but what about someone who is comatose or someone who’s sleeping? It’s not even dispositional for them.” And so, Boonin tries to say, “Well, once you have had any desires whatsoever,” he tries to say you could have ideal dispositional desires.

So, for example, let’s say somebody jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, they want to end their own life. They don’t have an actual desire to live. But what Boonin would say is they have an ideal desire, if they had just got mental health help, they would want to live.

So, it’s wrong for you to kill somebody, to shoot somebody jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, even though they don’t want to live. All right, so are you with me so far?

John DeRosa:
Yes. No, great. You really set it up well.

Okay. So, I mean, it’s brilliant what he tries to do here. He says, “Look, fetuses from the 20th week on, you could say, have ideal dispositional desires to live.” In that a third trimester fetus or a newborn infant has desires. And they’re dispositional. And if they were ideal, they would want to live. But fetuses and embryos have never had these desires. So, they’re not persons. All right, so to me, that’s the best you’re going to get to try to say the unborn is not a person this desire theory.

But I would say it fails for a variety of reasons. As I alluded to in the previous answer, people think if it doesn’t hurt me, why would I care? If I don’t know I’m being killed, what does it matter? Well, this confuses harm and hurt. So, harming someone makes them worse off. Hurting someone causes pain. Sometimes these are the same thing.

If somebody punches me in the face because I’m an obnoxious pro-life apologist on a university campus, I am harmed and I am hurt. But you can harm someone without hurting. And you can hurt someone without harming. When the dentist drills a cavity, he hurts me. But he’s not harming me because he’s making me better off. So, it’s not the same.

Likewise, other examples, two examples I can think of, if you steal an inheritance from someone that they never knew about, you don’t hurt them, they’re not in pain, but you harmed them. You made them worse off. Or if you practice voyeurism, if you’re the Peeping Tom, who looks through a sorority girls bedroom window. Let’s say he doesn’t videotape. He doesn’t take any electronic. He just looks and he walks away and that’s that. He has harmed the girl, even though she’s not aware of it. So, harm and hurt are not the same thing.

So, the stealing of the inheritance then goes well when it comes to abortion. We could say abortion is wrong because it causes the worst harm you can endure. It deprives you of the best good you could have, which is life. That will get to the next argument we’re going to discuss here, actually.

So, we could say that that’s the framework. And then I might give a counter example to Boonin. I might say, “Look, imagine we took a fetus, right? And what if we genetically engineered this fetus to have desires to only be a slave to others?”

We genetically engineer this fetus to grow up to be a brainwashed slave who loves being enslaved. Have we harmed this fetus? I would say we absolutely have. Well, how? How do we harm this fetus? Because when we did that action, the fetus had no desires of any kind. It was eight weeks old. And I would say, well, we prevented this child from developing normally. We took away something from him or her.

And I would say, “Look, then if it’s wrong to do this genetic experiment to take away a child’s ability to develop normally, then it’s wrong to abort them because you’re taking away their ability to develop at all,” if that makes sense.

John DeRosa:
No, I think that does make sense. And I really appreciate you walking us through that argument. Because I will say I can do the basic stuff, but if somebody who has read Boonin or you’re on a campus and you’re trying to argue for the pro-life view, and they bring up this dispositional desire thing, I think we got to be able to make those distinctions confusing harm and hurt.

And I guess that distinction, too, is like whether something is towards or against their flourishing, which making that distinction kind of helps you point back to the rational nature argument too, where we talked about how it was difficult to identify what’s someone’s flourishing or not, if we don’t have something like a concept of a rational nature. So, I almost see like a lead in there of going from this answer back to that other definition that we had. So, this is really good stuff in here. And we’re going to get to Boonin’s and other argument.

Yes. But what’s interesting there’s actually something similar to this about deprivation. And we’ll talk about deprivation, if we talk about Marquis’ argument.

John DeRosa:
Let’s go to that next. Did you want to add one more point about the dispositional desire?

Well, no, just that this argument about depriving someone or causing harm later, keeping someone from developing properly, that if it’s wrong to prevent someone from developing properly, it’s wrong to prevent them from developing at all.

There’s an argument that was published in the Journal of Bioethics a year ago by Perry Hendricks called even if the fetus is not a person, abortion is immoral, the impairment argument. And so, that argument with, it compares how causing fetal alcohol syndrome is wrong. Then from that logic, you could get to abortion being wrong. But there’s also similar to what Marquis argued. So, maybe we should talk about that.

John DeRosa:
Yeah. Let’s go to that. So, Marquis or Marquis, I’m not sure how to say it. I’m not familiar with this philosopher.

I think it’s Marquis.

John DeRosa:
But he has an argument.


John DeRosa:
Marquis. Okay. Thank you. He has an argument. It’s about a Future Like Ours.


John DeRosa:
The Future Like Ours argument. And so, I’m curious, it’s a little bit different maybe than what people have heard. But do you think it has weight for the pro-life position?

I think it does. So, there’s a variety of arguments, just like there’s a variety of arguments for the existence of God. There are a variety of arguments one can make for the pro-life position. And there are other arguments we won’t touch on in this episode.

But Boonin actually does a good job addressing them in his book of Defense of Abortion that are not the standard kind of arguments. So, there’s arguments based on potentiality. There are arguments based on the golden rule, on feminist ethics. This is the other one, along with the rational nature argument, this is the other one I consider a strong argument, but it’s not my primary argument against abortion, but I do find it fascinating.

So, Don Marquis is an agnostic philosopher. I think he’s at the University of Kansas, least he was when I visited several years ago. And if you go to a college ethics class and they talk about abortion in an anthology, usually there’ll be three essays you read. Mary Anne Warren saying the fetus is not a person, Judith Jarvis Thomson, pray for the repose of her soul, she’s passed away this year actually, arguing and we’ll talk about Thomson’s argument that the right to use a person’s body. And Marquis’ argument, which says, “Look, even if the fetus is not a person, what makes killing wrong, makes abortion wrong.”

So, that’s where Marquis was starts. He doesn’t start with the question, what is a person? Instead, he wants to ask, he looks at it in reverse. He says, “Well, what makes killing wrong? Why is killing wrong?” Because you’ve already seen with Boonin, it’s not just frustrating our desires, so it’s wrong to kill someone, even if they have a desire to not live. It’s interesting, our culture is a double standard. If you have a terminal illness, we don’t think it’s wrong to help someone die.

But there was that court case a year or two ago of a girl in Massachusetts, who helped her boyfriend egged him on and he wanted to commit suicide and she helped him when it’s a healthy person. You help a healthy person commit suicide. People say that you’re liable. It shows a horrible valuing. It’s an ableism, the discrimination of ableism valuing those who have more abilities over those who have less.

So, well, then what makes killing wrong? Well, I think what we’ve seen so far is what makes it wrong is the kind of deprivation. And Marquis says what makes abortion specifically wrong is it deprives fetuses of a future like ours. It’s wrong to kill you. Or it’s wrong to kill me, from Marquis’s perspective, because we have a future of valuable experiences. We shouldn’t take away from someone.

It’s not wrong to kill a cow because cows don’t have a future like ours. He says it’s wrong to kill infants because they have that same future. And he would say likewise, that an unborn embryo or fetus has a similar future as well, and so it’d be wrong to kill them. So, the strength of this argument is a sidesteps the personhood question, just looks at what makes killing wrong, and it applies it pretty directly to the unborn child.

The deficit of the argument, there are two deficits to it. One is that some philosophers will say that it goes too far and says sperm and egg also have a future like ours. Though I don’t think this is an insurmountable objection. I think I would say, you still have to have a robust metaphysic to say sperm and egg are parts. And that this argument applies to beings, a thing, a being, an individual being whether it has a future, only beings can have futures that are possibly valuable, not parts.

But the other objection, not objection, is just that the argument doesn’t cover all the reasons killing are wrong. So, for example, this argument would not show why it’s wrong to abort a child with anencephaly, who will die very shortly, or wouldn’t show why it’s wrong for someone to commit assisted suicide or euthanasia for someone who is about to die within a few days or weeks. So, it doesn’t cover everything. But it is an interesting argument that covers a vast majority of cases that I do think is worth exploring.

John DeRosa:
I like the way you put that, too. And the fact that we’re willing to make multiple arguments for the existence of God and have a whole territory that we can canvass. We could do something similar with the pro-life position. We have our real strong go-to arguments, but then these other considerations might be helpful to certain people. But I like that you also mentioned probably the most popular essay people are going to see in a college ethics class from Judith Jarvis Thomson.

So, I want to give you a chance to talk about these bodily autonomy arguments, and they’ve been presented by Thomson, and then also you said David Boonin, who makes these arguments in 2003 book as well as a recent book. So, what makes them different from other pro-choice arguments? Why don’t you lay them out a bit and then I’ll let you respond?

Right. So, remember what I said earlier, if you’re a pro-choice advocate, there are two ways you could go about it. You can say, “Well, abortion kills a human fetus.” You could say, “It’s not a person. So, killing is not wrong.” we’ve covered those arguments. The other one is going to say, “Well, yes, they are a person, but you’re not killing them with abortion, or at the very least, you are not illicitly killing them.”

So, what’s interesting is sometimes the standard pro-life argument has this deficiency. You would say, “It’s wrong to directly kill an innocent human being. An unborn child is an innocent human being. Therefore, abortion is wrong.” They’ll say that except that the argument leaves out a premise.

The other premise you have to include is, abortion directly kills an innocent human being. You have to include that in the argument because a philosopher could say, “Well, wait a minute, sure, they’re an innocent human being. But abortion doesn’t directly kill them, it more indirectly kills them, because they can’t survive on their own and they have no right to sustenance from their mother’s body.”

I’ve noticed this argument is quite popular among both lay pro-choice advocates, as well as professional philosophers, because it does trade on very powerful emotions and intuitions. There was a district court case a while back where this guy sued his cousin, or his brother sued a relative saying that guy needs to give him bone marrow because he’s dying of leukemia. And the court said, “It’d be great if he did. But he’s not legally obligated to do that.”

And if the government could force us to donate our organs to save other people, use really colorful language, it would be like the government sinking its teeth into the person’s neck. Because I love when judges just have kind of flair. Scalia was really good at that.

In the Obergefell case on same sex marriage, Scalia said, “The justices have said that marriage is for finding fulfillment and personal enjoyment, this and that.” He said, “When is that ever been put forward in the law? I don’t know. Ask the nearest hippie.”

And so, I love when judges can have flair with that. But it does make a big point, you say, “Well, yeah you put it this way.” And Boonin intends to put it this way. If I can’t make you give me bone marrow, how can you make a pregnant woman give her unborn child her body.

And Judith Jarvis Thomson proposed this with her very famous thought experiment called the violinist. And on college campuses, I mean, a lot of people know this argument. And it basically goes like this. You wake up one morning and you’re in a hospital bed connected to a very famous unconscious violin player.

The doctor comes in and tells you, “I’m so sorry, you were kidnapped last night by the society and music lovers. This violin player is going to die in nine months. But you have the right blood type to keep him alive. We’ve connected them to your kidneys. We wish you could unplug from him. We’re sorry about what happened. But if you unplug from him, you’ll kill him. You’ll kill the violinist and he has a right to life. You can’t kill him.”

Now, Thomson says it would be really nice if I did that, but I don’t have to. Most people think you don’t have to. So, if you and I can unplug from the violinist, why can’t the pregnant woman unplug from the unborn child quote unquote. So, that’s the argument. And we have Boonin’s bone marrow donation example.

And what’s important to remember, before we go on, is that these are arguments by analogy. They’ll say, “Look, we know what’s right. We don’t know what to do in case X. We know what to do in case Y. Why is like X, therefore do this in X.”

So, we do this too as pro-lifers. We say, “Hey, is abortion wrong? We know it’s wrong to kill a newborn infant. And a fetus is a lot like a newborn infant. So, it’s wrong to kill a fetus.” We make arguments by analogy, too. And so, then people will say, “Yeah, but a newborn infant is not like a fetus.” They’ll try to show a disanalogy. And we try to say, “Yeah, they’re different, but the differences aren’t relevant.”

This also happens in the bodily autonomy argument, but we switch roles. The pro-choice advocate says, “Here’s my analogy.” You and I will say, “Hey, that’s not very analogous.” And Boonin and Thomson will come back to say, “You’re right, there’s a difference, but it’s not relevant.” And that’s the kind of game we play.

John DeRosa:
No, I think you’ve laid that out really, really well. And yeah, definitely, it’s an argument from analogy. And from what I know, Thomson in her paper really does a nice job of trying it to make it match up with a case of pregnancy as much as possible. So, she kind of wants people to grant that it’s really, really relevantly similar to pregnancy so that the intuitions can flow. They have to be consistent in both cases. So, what are some different ways of responding from the pro-life view?

Right. So, the different ways to respond is to point out these disanalogies. And to me, there’s three primary things that are disanalogous.

Now, some lay advocates, I dealt with these people on Twitter a while back, and I’m still stuck in their thread. I mean, I’ve muted the conversation, but it still pops up. They will say, “You don’t have the right to use my body. I have the right to refuse to ever let somebody use my body.” And they’ll just put their foot down and that’s that.

And I’ll say, “Well, here’s the problem though. The biggest difference I would say between the organ donor case and the Thomson case is responsibility.” In the violinist example, I’m not the reason the violinist is dying. I’m not even the reason he’s plugged into me. I’m an innocent bystander in all of this. So, I have nothing to do with that.

So, my friend, Tony George and I once sat down and we thought up an example we called reverse violinist. So, imagine you belong to the society of musical pranksters, okay? And you like to go out and have fun. You have a lot of drinks. You guys get carried away. But sometimes after a night of getting carried away, you wake up the next morning with somebody connected to your kidneys, and they need your kidneys for nine months. An innocent person wakes up connected to you.

And so, in that case, I would say, “You’ve harmed this person. If you unplug from them, you are murdering them. You took part in an activity you knew had a chance of causing a person to be plugged into you.”

So, the reverse violinist example, what we try to do at Thomson is to say, Thomson is good at putting you in the shoes of the pregnant woman in the analogy. But what if it was reversed? What if you were the fetus? What if somebody did something to make you plugged into them or I kidnapped you and I plugged you into me and you needed my body? And then I could just unplug from you? That doesn’t seem to make sense. In fact, even Michael Tooley, who defends infanticide says, “This argument is not good because you’re responsible for the person needing you.”

Now, there’s different ways to try to get around this. Boonin is trying to say, “Well, if you cause someone to be responsible to be needy, then you owe them care.” If you take a healthy person, caused them to be needy, then you owe them compensation. If you take a healthy person and you make them needs your body, then you owe them.

And so, Boonin in his book tries to say, “Well …” It’s hard to compare abortion to things because abortion creates a new life. But he tries to say there’s a parallel to extending life. He says, “Let’s say there was a violin player.” Boonin goes through hundreds of hypothetical thought experiments in his book.

One of them is, this is a real example. Suppose you’re messing around in a laboratory engaging in a pleasurable activity that releases a kind of gas that will cause an unconscious violin player to have nine more months of life than he normally would. I know. I know. I know. That’s his example, not mine. And he needs your kidneys, do you owe them?

And all these examples missed the point because what you’re doing is you’re gratuitously adding life to someone though there I would say you might have some liability here and being entangled in this person, whatever your pleasurable activity is. But I would say no. This distinction Boonin tries to raise between you’re responsible for someone’s neediness rather than their existence, he says, “You owe them compensation if you made them needy, but not if you happen to just make them exist.” And what I would say is, “Well, no, what if you create someone who is needy by nature?”

So, to give you an example, imagine the Star Trek replicator, like on Star Trek, they had the thing. You push the button that can make any kind of food you want, makes anything you want. And let’s say you combine that with the Holodeck, which can make any kind of area world you want. The best Star Trek episodes where the Holodeck goes crazy. I love the one where … You ever see the one where they brought Moriarty back to life?

John DeRosa:
I have not.

It’s a great Star Trek where they play Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty becomes self-aware and tries to take over the enterprise.

Let’s say you combine that. You got a replicator and you push a button on the replicator. And nine times out of 10, it produces gold bars. But 10% of the time, it creates a newborn infant ex-nihilo. If I push the thing and the infant comes out, instead of the gold bars, could I just walk away? I would say no. I mean, you could say with Boonin, well, I’m responsible for the baby existing, but not for the baby being so needy. Well, no, you’re responsible for a baby existing who is needy by nature. If you’re the reason this kid exists, you owe them compensation.

So, I feel like when I’m on a college campus, most college students say, “Okay, I get you. It doesn’t work in the vast majority of cases of abortion.” Except, they’ll say in the case of rape. Let’s say in the case of rape, you’re like the violinist. You didn’t do anything. So, you shouldn’t be held liable.

So, there’s where the next two examples come into play, the next two disanalogies. One would be killing versus letting die. I would say that this comes from the philosopher Philippa Foot. The question here is when I unplugged from the violin player, I don’t kill him. He was already dying of his kidney ailment. I’m just refusing to save his life.

When it comes to Boonin’s bone marrow donation, Boonin says, “Well, what if you started giving me bone marrow, would you be obligated to continue?” I would say “No, because if I stopped giving you bone marrow, I’m not killing you. I’m not harming you even. I’m just returning you back to the original state I found you in and I wasn’t obligated then to help you.” So, in the organ donation example, we would ask this to borrow from Philippa Foot, what starts the fatal sequence of events, okay?

So, let’s say Fred has a kidney ailment. I don’t give Fred my kidney and Fred dies. So, I ask you, John, when did Fred start dying? Fred has a kidney ailment, it’s killing him, I refuse to give him my kidney.

John DeRosa:
Well, whenever the kidney ailment was overcoming his body to start killing him.

Right. Me not giving him my kidney did not start the fatal sequence. I just refused to stop the fatal sequence. So, I’m not responsible there. And I’m not killing him. It would be kind if I intervened, but it’s not obligatory.

But with abortion, we would say that the child is perfectly healthy. Abortion is not withdrawing life support from a dying person. It is withdrawing the natural care due to a child. So, you would say with abortion, what started the fatal sequence of events for the child? It was the abortion that started the fatal sequence.

Now I mean, Boonin and others, I think Boonin tries to say, “Well, the fault lies with whoever designed the fetus so that its lungs are incapable of breathing outside of the womb.” That’s where the fatal sequence started. And I think that’s kind of a weak response.

It’d be like if I sink a ship at sea, and people said, “You killed those people.” And I said, “Well, did I? Don’t you think the fail sequence really started with whoever designed these people so they couldn’t breathe underwater? That’s really where the fatal sequence started, don’t you think?” But these are the replies that are made. So, I think killing versus letting die is big.

The other one is organ use. I would say that the unborn child has a natural right to the organ that sustains him or her. So, even in the case of rape, let’s say you have a victim of rape who is kidnapped. She escapes her rapist and then gives birth to her child in an isolated area. And the only way she can sustain her child is through breastfeeding.

In fact, I was dialoguing with these pro-choice, radical pro-choice individuals on Twitter, surprise. And they just would not be willing to just flat out say it’s wrong to withhold breastfeeding if it will result in the starvation of your child. Because if you say no one has the right to your body, we’d have to say an infant could just be starved if you didn’t want to let them be nourished in this way.

So, even in that horrible, horrible situation with the victim of rape, even though they’re not responsible, they’re still in a position where they’re the parent of this child and they have a kind of natural, moral obligation to their children, even if one of the parents has in a grand, horrible, awful way failed in that responsibility by being a rapist.

So, that brings me ultimately though to what I would consider to be the overall incoherence of these kinds of bodily autonomy arguments. So, this is what I don’t like about them. They’ll say, “Look, I’ll grant for the sake of the argument that an unborn child is a person with the same right to life you and I have, but they don’t have a right to the mother’s body so you can abort them.”

And so, this is my problem with that. I would say, “Look, if the unborn child has a right to life, if they’re a person and they have a right to life, what does their right to life mean? You say they have a right to life. But what does that mean?”

Because let’s say you and I have a right to life. Well, what does that mean for us? Nine times out of 10, that just means leave me alone and don’t kill me. You respect my right to life. You don’t stab me, don’t shoot me, leave me alone and you’ll respect my right to life. In some rare cases, especially if you’re a rescue worker, law enforcement, my right to life is violated if you don’t help. But usually with adults, you leave people alone, you will respect their right to life.

But with children, especially infants, if you leave them alone, you violate their right to life. Think about it. If you have an infant and you leave them on a table, you leave them outside, you leave an infant in the woods, I left them alone, you have murdered that child. How? I didn’t even touch him? Well, because you abandoned them. You failed to provide them what they have a right to. So, you can violate someone’s rights by failing to provide what they have a right to.

So, if an infant has a right to care from his or her parents, I would say “Look, what does the fetus have a right to from his or her parents?” If you have a right to life, there’s that duty, especially with children, I would say if the fetus is a person with a right to life, what do the mother and father owe the fetus. And if they don’t owe the child anything, then the child’s not a person.

And this is a point Beckwith raises in his book Defending Life, a great book, by the way, on the pro-life position, defending life. He says “Thomson’s view of a person is very minimal. And her view of obligations is voluntaristic.” And this is very common nowadays.

So, the voluntaristic view of ethical obligations is I’m only obligated to do something I chose to do. I mean, it’s a toddler mentality. I don’t know what else to put it. It says you can’t make me do something I didn’t choose to do. You can’t make me. Well, no, sometimes as human beings, we are in positions where we are obliged to help others. Not always, but especially in cases where we caused a person to be in need.

So, for example, what Beckwith says is the term “person”, as persons, we’re not like eggs in a carton. It’s not like we’re just little persons all slaughter. We’re not the little pegs on the life, the Game of Life board. We think of persons is just these little sculptures on the table, those are persons. A person is a being that exists in community with others. Persons have mothers and fathers. Some persons have sons and daughters. Part of our personhood includes obligations to other persons as to what it means to be a person.

So, if that’s the case, then if a child, if all children have the right to, a child may not have the right to extraordinary care, but children have the right to at least food and shelter. They have the right to food and shelter for their parents to provide in an ordinary way. Now, my kid might be dying, I don’t have to cut off my arm to feed him. But my wife may be obliged to breastfeed our three-month-old, John Paul, if that’s the only thing that will sustain him.

And if the only thing that can sustain an unborn child is the presence in the womb, I would say that’s obliged as well. Like, look, and Stephanie Gray makes this … I’m name dropping all the time, but that’s good. People will follow up on the reading. Stephanie Gray in an article in ethics and medics makes this point about the kidney example. She wrote an article called the Kidney is Not a Uterus.

My kidneys were made for my body. So, I don’t have an obligation to provide them to someone else. But the uterus is what is it for? It seems to be an ordinary obligation arises. It’s not unheard of to say no, this uterus is for me. The uterus does it is the pregnant woman’s uterus. But if the child is a person, we would actually ask what is this thing for? And it makes sense, the child has a natural right to the only organ that sustains him or her if that helps.

John DeRosa:
No, that is a lot of good stuff there, Trent, you provided us. So, the three main disanalogies that you would point to was, one, responsibility, two, the killing versus letting die, and then three, about organ use and natural rights and you provide a lot of helpful examples to motivate those.

I wanted to throw you a quick curveball though, if you can give us a brief response here, because I’ve heard some philosophers recently actually arguing that it would be unethical to unplug from the violinists in certain circumstances.

So, recently on the Pat Flynn show, another good friend of the show, a Thomistic philosopher, Dr. Gaven Kerr, argued that based on the scenario Thomson lays out, it would be unethical to unplug from the violinist, because if we grant, and I guess he’s granting Thomson’s case that it’s relevantly analogous to pregnancy, well then unplugging with the understanding that the violinist is uniquely dependent on you and would die otherwise would be wrong because your intention in context would include letting the violinist die that you could have saved.

And that intention in context idea, it gives us one other example, the motivated. He says if you’re a parent who just smokes inside your house and you say, “Well, it’s my intention to smoke inside my house,” that might be fine. But then if you’re smoking inside your house with a young child home or young child near you, you can’t just say my intention is to smoke inside your house. You might say that might be your verbal intention. But your actual intention and context is smoking in the presence of a young child, which would be wrong.

And so, he uses that to kind of motivate this idea of how he’s thinking of intention. And on his argument, he says it would be unethical to unplug. I know it’s kind of unfair to ask for a brief response, but in a couple of minutes, what are your thoughts on that?

Yeah. Well, what I would say is that I strongly disagree with Dr. Kerr’s conclusion here, though Boonin actually addresses this in his book somewhat under one of the objection he calls duty to save the violinist. And he talks about how, well, we expect men to use their bodies to go to war. Why can’t we maybe you should save the violinist? And Boonin points out, “Yes, but that’s for a public good that affects all of us, not for the private good of another.”

But I would disagree with Dr. Kerr’s assessment because I think that ultimately, it would collapse ethical thinking and destroy the reasoning we use for the doctrine of double effect. The example he gives, I believe, can be defended under that, but abortion cannot.

The idea here is, well, I intend to do X, knowing that it will result in the death of this person. But I mean, double effect is very clear. I can intend to do an action that has a good and a bad effect, where I intend only the good effect and I foresee the bad effect.

This example reminds me of there was a story of two climbers in Mount Everest, who fell into a crevasse and one of the climbers he was being pulled down, he was going to die. He cut the guy under him loose, and the guy fell into the crevasse. The guy ended up living, he survived. And when they interviewed him, they said, “What did you think how he cut you loose?” He said, “I would have done the same thing. He did exactly the right thing in that situation.”

So, what’s interesting here under Dr. Kerr’s assessment, it seems like you would expect the guy to die in the crevasse. But he’s not intending that. It’s an act of self-defense, in this case, or it’s an act of double effect.

But I would say here that just because you find yourself in a position where someone has become dependent upon you, ceasing that dependency is not always illicit. For example, what if you donated bone marrow once, and it was accidentally given to someone who needs 10 more donations to live? Now, this person will die if you don’t help. And if you stop donating, you intend something that you know that will result in this person’s death. We wouldn’t say that it’s wrong.

John DeRosa:
Well, I think you just follow up on that real quick, because Kerr does make a big point in his analysis about the person being uniquely dependent. So, I guess in this case, if the person was uniquely dependent on your particular bone marrow and no one else’s, then I guess he would have to bite the bullet and say, maybe, yes, you would have to do it. But I’m not sure exactly. So, I don’t want to make sure [crosstalk 00:38:16].

But we can change it. Yeah, we could say you have a super rare blood type. I mean, it’s hard to find donors. You might say, statistically speaking, we’ll find you a donor in 12 months, but you only have three months to live. So, even in that case of unique dependency, I think most people intuitively would say, “You’re not obligated to continue donating bone marrow for this individual.”

The example of the smoking around a child though, see, here’s the problem I have with this. Let’s say we use the example of chemotherapy for a cancerous uterus during pregnancy. The doctrine of double effect allows us, Catholic ethicists have allowed this for a long time to fight the cancer using chemotherapy, knowing that the good effect is saving the pregnant mother’s life and preventing her from dying. But the bad effect is the child’s death. But the child’s death is not what contributes to the mother being cancer free. So, for something to be double effect, it has to satisfy certain conditions.

So, it cannot be an intrinsically evil act. You can’t use double effect to defend rape or murder or something like that. The bad effect cannot come from the good effect. So, I’m sorry, the good effect … Sorry, I got to reverse that. The good effect that you’re hoping for has to be intended. The bad effect can only be foreseen not intended, and you can’t get the good effect directly from the bad effect. And very importantly, there must be a proportionate reason for doing this.

So, for example, if I shoot a burglar coming into my home, I intend the good effect of saving my life and the bad effect of him dying, I don’t intend for him to die if he lives, it’s great. But I have a proportionate reason.

In the cancerous uterus example, here, chemotherapy is not intrinsically evil. We intend saving the mother’s life. We know the child will die but we foresee it, we don’t intend it. If the child happened to live, we would rejoice in that.

And there’s a proportionate reason, if we don’t act, the mother will die. That it’d be a proportionate reason to justify this act of double effect. In the case of regular abortion, double effect isn’t going to work. It’s intrinsically evil. We do intend the child’s death, and it’s not proportionate.

In the smoking example that Kerr gives, I would say that you could justify certain activities that could place a child at risk by for example, let’s say you lived in a dilapidated country, and you go and work somewhere, and you bring home allergens that cause your child to be sick. You don’t intend it, you foresee it. But the reason you do that is because the other job you could take would make your child much sicker, or more likely to die and say something like that.

So, I would say in the smoking example Dr. Kerr gives where double effect would not apply, I would say that smoking is not intrinsically evil. You could say you intend the good effect of relaxation, not the bad effect of secondhand smoke. But what I would say in this case where double effect fails, this is not proportionate. The good effect of the relaxation you get from a nice cigar is not proportionate to the harm that is caused to what the child undergoes from secondhand smoke.

And so, I would apply that in the case with Thomson, that the harm involved of being bedridden having your body invaded is proportionate enough for double effect in that case. So, I hope that’s a decent reply.

John DeRosa:
No, I think that’s definitely helpful to get that on the table. And I’ll make sure to link to that episode we do with Pat Flynn, because Pat Flynn actually raised a lot of the disanalogies that you pointed to, and they had a little bit of a back and forth. So, it was an interesting conversation as well.

But Trent Horn, you have been very generous with your time. You’ve given us a ton to chew on a whole crash course in pro-life philosophy. Why don’t you sum it up for us? What’s the most important thing we need to remember when defending the pro-life view or maybe just one or two things? And then tell us where can listeners go to find out more about your work before we say goodbye?

Absolutely, most important thing like a laser, stay on the question, what are the unborn? What are the unborn? If the unborn are human beings, we should ask why do human beings matter?

If human beings matter because they belong to a kind that matters, no matter what member of the community you are, you’re equally valuable, whether you are an elderly person, a child, an infant, a fetus or an embryo. This applies not just to human beings, but any species.

So, in the Mandalorian you have Yoda. Yoda is valuable person can talk but the child aka baby Yoda, it’s not really baby Yoda but for simplicity, the child can’t speak like Yoda, but it’s still a person member of a rational kind. And we should treat each member of a rational kind in a humane way.

I would recommend resources on this my book, Persuasive Pro-Life, Ethics of Abortion by Chris Kaczor, Defending Life by Francis Beckwith, Abortion and Unborn Human Life by Patrick Lee. A lot of great resources there. My mentor, Scott Klusendorf, has good work on this. You can check out my debates online.

You want more from me, you can check out my podcast, the Council of Trent, available on iTunes and Google Play, COU and SEO counsel. If you want to become a premium subscriber, you get access to bonus content. You can go to trenthornpodcast.com. Trenthornpodcast.com is where you can get a lot of great stuff.

John DeRosa:
Trent, thank you so much for sharing those resources. I’ll make sure to include that on the show notes page. And thank you so much for this incredible crash course in pro-life philosophy. It’s been a blast.

Definitely has. Love to come back.

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