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Having children and having – Part 1
Abortion as a question is so complex that even the most nuanced and balanced conversations, even two such conversations combined, can leave things out.
This newsletter is not about advancing views but how we argue about views, especially in spaces that try hard to cover as much nuance as possible. But as the subject of part 1 is abortion, perhaps the rest of this post would appear in clearer light if I at least lay some cards on the table. I find the question difficult, and not for want of contemplation. Difficult enough that I have not yet found a way to reconcile the way I would vote on the issue in an election with my moral intuition in the balance after weighing everything I can think of. As a single man, when all my female friends are unanimous in how I should vote, it seems straightforward to follow their advice. But if a couple of close friends get pregnant without meaning to, confide in me and want me to candidly share how I feel, I have decided to treat that context as separate from my vote. I would share with them my doubts and some of the unresolvable parts of what follows below.
Ezra Klein held two recent interviews on the subject in anticipation of today’s momentous change in the USA. It is arguably the only reversal of a fundamental right—whatever your perspective—in the Land of the Free in two generations, but that is not the primary angle I paid attention to. Besides being a man, I also live in a faraway land that doesn’t take its policy cues from the USA at least on this issue. Instead, I was keen to trail along as Klein navigated the many aspects of one of the hardest modern moral questions. The choice of interviewees seemed very apt too—one’s a philosopher, Kate Greasley, the other a conservative legal scholar, Erika Bachiochi.
Even though this is an enduring political debate, both conversations contained thoughts new to me.
Bachiochi brought up the ‘feminization of poverty’ and before I could absorb the striking phrase, backed it up with names like George Akerlof and Janet Yellen.
…the pill has really been an instigator in this technological shock that has created more single motherhood. And what do we see but single motherhood is the single greatest predictor of poverty in our country?
Note to self: when conservatives teach you something about inequality, always pay attention. She also got to expand on an angle that Ross Douthat had covered in his November 2021 ‘The Case against Abortion’.
As Erika Bachiochi wrote recently in National Review, if our society assumes that “abortion is what enables women to participate in the workplace,” then corporations may prefer the abortion default to more substantial accommodations like flexible work schedules and better pay for part-time jobs
That is an astute observation that policy makers should indeed reflect long on. Douthat though stretched it to a much more generalized and magnified version:
Consider, for instance, that between the early 1980s and the later 2010s the abortion rate in the United States fell by more than half. …
If there were an integral and unavoidable relationship between abortion and female equality, you would expect these declines — fewer abortions, diminished abortion access — to track with a general female retreat from education and the workplace. But no such thing has happened: Whether measured by educational attainment, managerial and professional positions, breadwinner status or even political office holding, the status of women has risen in the same America where the pro-life movement has (modestly) gained ground.
Uh… sorry I needed a moment to recover. That is a specific variety of rhetorical sortilege that we never quite eradicated from the practice of punditry.
I wish elite newspapers of the world would take a lead and codify it as a cardinal journalistic no-no — implying causal inference at the macro level without the rigorous evidence that asserting causality requires and is all but impossible in social science models such as the one implied there. To the lay readership, the juxtaposition of trends in two variables seems like a reasonable argument. But those are just two variables in a complex phenomenon that involves several dozen. Twenty writers could come up with twenty-seven distinct narratives to explain that data, each equally invalid for reporting. Two from me: 1) Americans have been having less sex since the 1980s, which agrees with both trends and 2) the fallacy of averages – the gains that Douthat notes are unequally distributed in the population, so the average trends tell us little. The Guttmacher Institute datasheet he linked to indeed says 75% of abortion patients earn below the federal poverty level. These are not the people driving the stats of managerial positions or political office, which, in the 1970s were starting from too low a baseline to begin with. Again, these too are invalid explanations, just as much as the one in the quote.
Back to the Klein interviews, Greasley’s embryo version of Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem was an equally starling thought. I spent some solid minutes staring at a huge tree outside, trying to answer it. We’ll return to that in a bit.
Both conversations were deep and fairly nuanced, but left me a little dissatisfied. That’s the business of this newsletter – the oversights. Or, given the weighty nature of the question and limited time, things they probably decided they’d not address or even flag.
Greasely brought up Judith Thompson’s violinist analogy. I’d only first come across it last year, so I was excited to hear a professional philosopher mention it.
She says, imagine that you are kidnapped in the night one day, and your kidneys are forcibly plugged in to the kidneys of a famous ailing unconscious violinist who needs your own kidneys in order to survive for the next nine months.
I’d hoped Greasley would point to some of its weaknesses. She did, even using the precise word I like — disanalogy. She correctly noted that refusing to come to the violinist’s aid to offer your body itself is very different from killing the violinist to free yourself of an equivalent obligation. But she did not cover my problem.
My objection is to a deeper part of the premise. It is not really valid as an analogy for its purpose, because in the hypothetical as framed, you are not responsible for bringing the violinist into existence, in full knowledge that by its nature that existence is entirely reliant on your kidneys. Someone “forcibly plugged” your organs together at night unbeknownst to you. You had no agency there, as opposed to consensual sex.
We’re not angiosperms. We do not wear gametes on our sleeves, such that a sudden gust of wind in just the right direction might brush up our genitals against a partner’s, and the half a second of contact sets your body into an irreversible course towards begetting the next generation.
If you’re doing it right, sex will require you to consciously opt in at several sequential decision points, over the course of minutes at least, throughout fully aware that a child’s potential existence, entirely dependent on you, for months at a minimum, years as an ideal, is quite possible. As Bachiochi would have pointed out had she been present, the entire mechanics of the process, even the neurochemistry, is designed for that outcome; your pleasure is a mere byproduct, free as you are to pursue it. It should also go without saying, people may not be pursuing carnal pleasure for its own sake alone. Physical intimacy is known to foster healthy, content lives.
Maybe it is time to retire the violinist analogy from abortion debates altogether.
Bachiochi for her part, of course, did dwell on the choices involved in sex. But she focused on the differences between the two sides:
…as it turns out, for women, sex is far more pleasurable in commitment. …Because for sex to be pleasurable for women, there needs to be kind of a vulnerability, where a woman is relaxed enough to enjoy sex. …I think women enjoy sex better in marriage when they can be more vulnerable.
‘As it turns out’ implies settled fact. That Klein did not challenge the notion makes it seem even more so. It is anything but. To many Times readers it might seem like a fact because it is one of the things we sort of ‘just know’. And I’m not casting doubt on the possibility that in smallish surveys as well as their most private conversations that is what men and women say. It may or may not emerge as a ‘fact’ in that one sense, if we held very large worldwide surveys. The unfounded leap is in implying that this preference is genetically hard-coded.
This is a policy debate. We make policy for both current and future generations. We try to balance societies as they ought to be with a knowledge of what they have been like. If we enter a certain sex preference into the debate, it is relevant to settle whether the difference is biologically innate. If it isn’t, perhaps the solution to the problems it causes is to try and minimize them at the source rather than with a policy choice which has other great costs.
What source? Social conditioning.
It’s odd. Some of the same people who are likely to argue that women’s choice of attire is socially conditioned or culturally determined (because women are easily brainwashed by their culture, usually not shared with the speaker) are often also people who insist that men and women are very different in every way because we can clearly observe different behavior and preferences, with no reference to conditioning.
There is in fact something to it, the brain part of brainwashing. There has been a wealth of research on the subject, much of it in an area this newsletter keeps returning to — the brains of toddlers. They are the world’s most complex and advanced learning systems, observing all around them with more focused attention than any adult ever managed and constantly busy figuring what the world is and how it works. Not only are parents, if you have them, at its center, every other person you see and hear is a default authority on the subject your brain is trying to ace.
Little baby girls catch snatches of conversations that imply that ‘pink is for girls’, often after they understand the syllable ‘pink’ but before they know what the word ‘girl’ means. Little boys try to deepen their voices to match expectations of their gender a good while before puberty will enlarge their vocal apparatus to make that happen naturally. Most heart-breakingly, young girls everywhere will often hear people muttering within their earshot that girlsare just not ‘as good at X as boys are naturally’.
Young brains take much of what they hear as truths that describe the rules of the world. Of course, many a rebellious 14-year-old will actively defy what she begins to recognize as conventional expectations, but not before having contributed to any number of both anecdotal or empirical observations that go on to confirm and reinforce people’s ideas of what little girls ‘prefer’. In areas like maths, the choice to reverse course may have already been cognitively foreclosed by a cumulative track of early childhood voluntary choices.
The genetic side of things is not as easy to lay out in a narrative because for the most part it doesn’t unfold over one lifetime, but over thousands of generations. As such, we cannot directly observe it but make educated conjectures. Not to mention, unlike conditioning, the hypothesized evolutionary driving mechanisms would be very different for each predilection from color to maths.
The important thing is, as in a growing number of areas, on this question, science says you cannot pick sides. We know beyond any doubt that verbal and visual cues of our early days shape what we become. Just the same, it is virtually impossible to tease apart with ethical scientific methods what part of our preferences are ‘innate’ and what part are molded by early childhood. Consensus is now gathering around the idea that nature and nurture are deeply twined. They co-evolve.
Oddly, this also did not come up in Klein’s conversation last year with another brilliant philosopher, Amia Srinivasan, even though ‘where our desires come from’ was a recurring theme there.
This is the sort of question where today’s polarized world struggles to appreciate the role of science. It isn’t the job of science to tell you whether to align yourself with the liberal or the conservative position. And so you end up with public hearings and townhalls where each side comes arms with studies that support their ingrained political belief, yells at the other side about ‘facts’ every chance they get and, at the end of some hours hosted at the taxpayer’s expense, returns home to tweet and keep the stalemate intact.
Which is why it is important to not leave it out of elite conversations with a far reach, especially when someone suggests that the question of whether women ‘prefer’ sex within marriage is relevant to deciding moral bearings for a state policy on abortion.
Lastly, that other thought experiment Greasely used:
The hospital is burning down very quickly. You’ve got to get out of there. And on your way out, you have a choice. You can grab and rescue and take with you either five embryos or one whole baby. Now, you pose that question to everybody. And unless the person is nuts, they’re going to say, of course, you take the baby.
I should take care to point out that I’ve plucked the quote from the middle of a very delicate and rapidly winding conversation. The reason they’re discussing this thought experiment is as means to assess the general population’s intuitions on whether fetuses are legal personssubjects of the constitution’s protections. By this point they’ve already talked about the validity of various moral intuitions regarding the value of human life, the practicality of preventing every single miscarriage and much else, so that hospital fire hypothetical serves a fleeting purpose in that context.
That said, I found the pleonastic “whole baby” a bit too leading. The embryos are just as whole as they need to be! And then, there was no data on what proportion of people answer it one way or the other. For me, the answer doesn’t jump quite as immediate and obvious as she implies. The first thought I demur at is as to the viability of the embryos. For the purposes of the debate, I have to assume they mean the embryos, after being saved from the fire, through some new technological advance, are going to develop just as they would have in the absence of the fire. That makes it just as hard as the original Trolley Problem. Of course, as always, I leave open the possibility that I’m nuts, as she says.
I should probably explain that I’m one of those people who, when presented with many of the variations of the Trolley Problem say, ‘I won’t touch that lever’, regardless of the outcome. In my moral framework, it is impossible to have all the information I need to make a call in a rational way. In which case, pulling the lever directly attaches me to the responsibility for the consequence in a way that leaving it alone doesn’t for the alternative outcome. You can word the problem in a way that it is my responsibility either way, but I reframe that formulation as coercion. Which changes my moral calculus. If I’m deciding the fate of others under duress and in less time than I’d like, I’m not bound by the moral standard I’d like to hold myself to, so I’d pull the lever (in its common original versions). All of that is simply to say, Gedankenexperimenten might be all very well in particle physics, but offer no useful guidance for policy making on thorny issues.
This specific policy issue is thornier than most. Even at that, the moral questions that arise after the moment of conception are arguably the lighter half. Days after the above interviews, the Times turned to moral arguments in play before the decision to conceive in the backdrop of global problems like climate change. That is the subject of part 2.
Made you look! I wonder, would more subscribers prefer if those names were links to the papers she meant? Don’t worry. When I’m doing the citing, they always will be. Also, here’s Akerlof and Yellen.
Before writing this, I did not realize abortion was specifically on her mind when she came up with it.
If I ever succumb to supporting a language-policing law, that is the one verbal template I’d ban within five meters of anyone under 17.