PZ Myers: ‘Abortion reduces to simple question.’ Really?

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PZ Myers

In a recent blog post, biologist PZ Myers argued that philosophical and scientific arguments concerning abortion are irrelevant because the matter of abortion reduces to “a simple question.” I argue, as someone who identifies as pro-choice with a background in philosophy, that the matter of abortion isn’t as simple as PZ makes it out to be.

Throughout my undergraduate studies in philosophy it became quite evident to me that arguments concerning many philosophical issues can be — and are — raised. What might appear to us to be simple or evident doesn’t appear to be so following closer examination. Concerning philosophy of religion, for example, a vast array of articles inside of and outside of jornals exist on the topics of miracles, the problem of evil, faith, and theological fatalism. Competing ethical frameworks in the domain of ethics such as utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and deontology exist which merely, in many cases, start discussions while specific issues such as suicide, euthanasia, and the death penalty are often later discussed in the light of various ethical frameworks. To note that a long-debated philosophical issue is ‘simple’ or otherwise reduces to one question — especially in the case of ethical matters — seems to be quite a foolish blunder.

An example of such a blunder can be found at biologist PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula on the Freethought Blogs network. In a less than one hundred word blog post titled “The only abortion argument that counts” [the title itself should raise an immediate red flag] including a short video, PZ Myers asserts that philosophical and scientific arguments for abortion simply do not matter because the issue of abortion reduces to “a simple question.” Apparently, on Myers’ account, all of the debates and journal articles that have been written throughout human history on the matter of abortion are irrelevant. Myers writes:

We can make all the philosophical and scientific arguments that anyone might want, but ultimately what it all reduces to is a simple question: do women have autonomous control of their bodies or not? Even if I thought embryos were conscious, aware beings writing poetry in the womb (I don’t, and they’re not), I’d have to bow out of any say in the decision the woman bearing responsibility has to make.

Why is it the case that the issue of abortion can be reduced to “a simple question?” Myers provides no justification for this claim, but rather merely asserts that it is the case – obviously ignoring quite a vast array of the philosophical and scientific arguments (although he mentions they exist in his post). Claiming that abortion reduces to “a simple question” — on the grounds of whether one thinks that women should have autonomous control of their bodies — is itself, it seems, a philosophical claim which, if it were not a mere assertion, would be backed by certain philosophical and scientific arguments (and likely may be in various philosophical journal articles on the matter of abortion).

What, anyway, of the claim of abortion reduces to “a simple question” as Myers states? This seems to be news to me as a wide array of objections and concerns contrary to a pro-choice position exist. Within the realm of people who identify as pro-choice, there are even disagreements as to when abortions would be moral – this alone shows that abortion is not a matter that reduces to “a simple question.” It can be the case, for example, that people believe women have autonomous control of their bodies but would be acting in an immoral fashion, for example, if they neglected to receive an abortion because of sheer laziness and only wanted to get an abortion in the fifth month of pregnancy.

On my blog, I frequently respond to arguments for gods and arguments rebutting positions atheists hold. Personally, I find the problem of natural evil to provide a pretty solid defeater (a reason to undermine) to Christian belief. Is, though, this problem of natural evil a simple matter or does it reduce belief in the Christian god to “a simple question?” I don’t think so. Many arguments exist — which I don’t find persuasive at all — to attempt to answer the problem of natural evil ranging from ‘this is a fallen world and the free will actions of humans are to blame for natural disasters’ to ‘we’re simply not in a position to judge whether God has reasons for permitting natural evils,’ but this doesn’t make the matter simple or otherwise reduce Christian belief to a simple question. It takes some time to answer these objections and these objections seem to be persuasive to a vast array of people.

What is ‘simple,’ anyway, in the matters of ethical issues? A matter such as ‘killing babies for the fun of it’ seems to be quite a simple matter, for starters, because it appears to go against all of our moral intuitions (or at least those of most mentally healthy adults). Killing babies for the fun of it deprives human beings of life, inflicts unnecessary suffering, would likely lead to grieving, etc. It should also be quite uncontroversial to say that killing babies for the fun of it is always wrong in every situation. Arguments stating that it would be moral to kill babies for the fun of it would likely, and should likely, not be taken seriously.

Does it appear, then, in the light of the matter of killing babies for the fun of it (or similar issues which would be considered simple), that abortion is as simple of an issue or otherwise can be reduced to a simple question? I think not. In the case of abortion, it seems not to be the case — even to the most ardent pro-choice persons — that abortion is moral in all circumstances. It seems not to be the case that the moral intuitions of mentally healthy adults point to an obvious conclusion. Arguments against the morality of abortion — although they might not be good ones — can and are taken quite seriously by philosophers and non-philosophers alike. What, then, for curious readers, can some of the serious arguments be that would not reduce the matter of abortion to a single question?

A popular argument against abortion is known as the ‘future like ours‘ (FLO) argument. FLO proponents argument that autonomous humans, similar to potential humans, both have a ‘right to a future’ that should be preserved. Another argument against abortion appeals to an agnosticism of sorts and an implementation of the precaution; persons argue that since we can’t be confident of whether abortion or depriving a potential human being of a future is moral, it is best to not abort. Arguments invoking some sort of responsibility on behalf of a woman — in which she should be morally obligated to give birth — also exist.

Personally, I don’t find any of the above counter-arguments or concerns surrounding abortion to be persuasive (although I would like for abortions to, if they must, happen quite early). I identify, then, as pro-choice. I don’t, though, see the matter of abortion to be a simple issue that be reduced to “a simple question” as Myers proposes. Beware of those who assert that long-debated matters concerning complex ethical issues — in blog posts with less than one hundred words — can be resolved by a simple question.

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