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McDonagh's review of Defending Life in APSA's Law & Politics

(Update: My response to the review can be found here)

Northeastern University political and legal theorist Eileen McDonagh, author of Breaking the Abortion Deadlock: From Choice to Consent (Oxford University Press, 1996), recently reviewed my book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007). The review was published online by the Law & Politics section of the American Political Science Association. You can find it here.

I will be working on a reply over the next couple of days. In the meantime, I'd like to get your take on Professor McDonagh's review.

Comments (20)


I finished reading Defending Life about three weeks ago. Defending Life is an important book that articulates a lot of convincing arguments (people should read it). Eileen McDonagh writes, “The key issue, therefore, is what justifies the fetus’s massive transformation of a woman’s body?” It seems that a better way to put it would be “Is the specific use (how the unborn uses the mother's body) of the mother's body (by the unborn) too much?” or “Since the unborn uses the mother's body in these specific ways, should we say that elective abortion should be allowed?” McDonagh writes, “Once born, for example, no state in the country requires a biological parent to donate even a pint of blood to a needy child, much less organs or other body parts.” She hasn’t convinced me.

One interesting thing about the review is that it concedes the entire point that unborn children are fully human beings with all the rights of full human beings. These people know that they are committing murder in the name of autonomy. I always wonder whether it is a good sign or bad when the mask of Hell comes off.

"The key issue, therefore, is what justifies the fetus’s massive transformation of a woman’s body?"

This is a maliciously stupid question, as though the child were intentionally trying to make her life miserable. The transformation of her body is as nothing compared to that of the child's should she have him aborted. Talk about incommensurables.

She makes an accusation against you: ...he claims that I compare "pregnancy to rape", when, in fact, what I compare is nonconsensual pregnancy to rape

So, uh, she's comparing pregnancy to rape. She apparently thinks tacking on "nonconsensual" makes them the same thing.

..My position is that nonconsensual pregnancy is a prima facie wrong.

But the baby is not "wrong." She won't be aborting a pregnancy but a baby. What's hiding behind both previous statements is the old consent canard, that the woman's possession of it is to be held in such reverence that the value of the baby's life is determined by it, and must result in an apology for women’s right to self defense in relation to a fetus whose presence and impact, if a woman does not consent to the fetus’s presence and impact, justifies the use of deadly force to stop the way a fetus transforms a woman’s body from a nonpregnant to a pregnant condition.

Self-defense justified as murder of the innocent, a life-threatening attack no longer a necessary element. This is a terrible moral disease, and I'm sure you'll do fine rebutting her, knowing in advance that she will not be convinced.

You should also demolish the Judith Jarvis Thompson attached-violinist analogy just for fun. It's hard to believe a thinking person could take such an analogy seriously.

I asked Zippy's same question back when Naomi Wolfe made that same admission years ago now. Y'all probably remember her article. How great it would be if pro-aborts could join the pro-lifers lighting candles outside abortion clinics, _not_ because the pro-aborts want an end to abortion, but to give women a chance to make "tikkun" for having killed their babies. And then feel fine with going back and doing it again, of course. Made the hair on the back of my neck rise, that's for sure.

I don't think it will score points with the regnant Zeitgeist of Consent, but I don't think there is such a thing as a "non-consensual pregnancy" that is distinct from non-consensual sex. Consenting to sex implies consent to possible pregnancy. If you don't know what makes babies, then (almost by definition) you are not consenting to sex; otherwise, you are consenting to some risk of pregnancy.

But even forgetting that, the self-defense argument doesn't hold weight for the simple reason that self-defense requires proportion. Killing an "offender" doesn't seem proportionate to the risk, say, of stretch-marks.

It is a view that corresponds quite well with the American people. Most people think abortion is killing a person, and most think a woman should not have to fear punishment for doing so, including a staggering number of people who call themselves pro-life.

I guess I haven't followed the pro-choice arguments for some time, as this is really the first I've ever heard of the "self-defense" argument. I think the most disturbing thing for me about it is the way that it makes carrying a pregnancy to term to be a non-obligatory act of altruism. In that case, abortion becomes virtually the default position, and women who choose to carry the pregnancy to term do so only out of the goodness of their heart. There is no moral obligation upon a pregnant woman to her unborn child.

The quote from Thomson that "the needs of the fetus are too great to require a woman to meet those needs as a condition for being moral" is really hard to make sense of. By what moral principle does the degree of neediness of another person render meeting those needs as non-obligatory? And at what degree of need is it no longer obligatory? After the child is born he or she requires round-the-clock care for quite some time (we currently have a 5-month-old who is still awfully needy!), and still imposes quite a great burden on its mother or other caregiver. Is that need so great that it goes beyond any moral obligation or duty to provide it? I'd sure like to see the pro-choicers define the point at which the needs of another person become so great as the meeting of those needs become non-obligatory. Or come to think of it, maybe I wouldn't. The implications of that thinking for issues like end-of-life care or even for the care of handicapped persons is rather frightening.

McDonagh's position seems to be that the onus is on the pro-life side to demonstrate that there is a moral obligation on the pregnant woman to her child. But why should that be the case? It seems to me that there is clearly a moral obligation to help others in need, and who is more needy than an unborn child? And if there is no moral obligation to care for the needs of our own offspring (or at least beyond some ill-defined point X), then what moral obligation is there?

Frank--A quick thought. What would she think of a pregnant woman who chooses an abortion not because of the imposition of the fetus during pregnancy but the imposition of the infant after birth? Would she be willing to say that an abortion for the former is moral but an abortion for the latter is immoral? Its not a stretch to imagine a woman saying that she does not at all feel imposed upon by the pregnancy-- she's not so much concerned about what the fetus is doing to her body but what the child will do to her "lifestyle." (Perhaps she wants to experience the "joys of pregnancy" without the burdens of parenthood.) But then it would seem to be only a short leap to defending infanticide. If she can morally kill a fetus because of anticipated burdens--psychological and physical-- after birth, why can't she kill an infant for actual burdens--psychological and physical--after birth. What if she wants to have the experience of childbirth but not the experience of parenting.

At the very least her argument would require her to defend the morality and legality of very late term abortions. If "consent to the burdens of pregnancy' is the bottom line, if the pregant woman's consent trumps all, then once she removes the consent, there simply can be no moral objections to removing the burden--even immediately before birth.

Finally, notice how she invites us, just like Thompson, to view an unborn baby as a parasite. Gil Meilaender called our attention to this in an essay a long time ago, and it seems to not phase them a bit.

The self-defense arg. has been around for a really long time. Probably somebody else can say how far back it goes. Isn't it (please don't quote me on this) one strand in a Talmudic argument?

Re. what Keith says, I think that psychologically speaking, the dirty little open secret of abortion is that _most_ abortions are committed because of the problems the child will cause after birth. I think people should admit this. Frankly, it's one reason I find it almost impossible, emotionally, to carry on arguments with philosophers about this subject, because we're all supposed to pretend it isn't so in this sort of academic politeness that makes me crazy. I think it's safe to say that the _vast majority_ of women who have abortions wouldn't do so if the baby simply disappeared by magic after nine months, never to be thought of again. Pro-aborts will even justify abortion over adoption by talking about the psychological trauma to the mother of giving the child up for adoption, worrying about what has happened to the child afterwards, and so forth. Or think of that horrible article some years ago in some major magazine by this so-called "pro-choice" father who staged an "intervention" with his fifteen-year-old daughter to get her pseudo-consent to an abortion he was clearly forcing her into. (She even said, "I guess I don't have any choice.") And why? Because she said she wanted to keep the child and would be a good mother, and he felt as if she had sentenced him and her mother to an "eighteen-year imprisonment." Words to that effect. He would never have been so upset if the baby just went quietly away after nine months. It would just have been some sort of odd health condition his daughter was in for less than a year and then all over. Babies are murdered because they are babies and hence a lot of trouble. We ought to face it and admit it. I think somebody like McDonagh is beneath contempt for pretending it ain't so.

I shouldn't get involved in this, but willing to risk great amounts of abuse, let's get started:

First, McDonagh is completely wrong to give up the personhood standard. All the pro-choice arguments are drastically less convincing once you grant legal rights as persons.

In many ways I consider Thompson's argument one of last resort since it is an argument based on an instinctive sense of bodily integrity. Even if that is a valid moral quality, and Lydia's opposition to coerced organ donation suggests that it might be, it is one thing to say that there is no moral requirement to sustain the life of a person who is connected against my will, it is another to say that they can be connected for a significant period of time and then be disconnected. Consent is granted by default after a period of time.

Third, there are some implications that the woman has an obligation beyond giving birth, she should be required to raise the child. This would be radically consistent, if she has a moral and legal obligation to provide for the needs of the fetus nothing except the autonomy of the baby causes those obligations to disappear after birth. Since autonomy by your standard doesn't signify anything important, no adoptions should be permitted.

"However, as Beckwith argues, at the time the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, “it was not yet known that the child from conception is a separate, distinct human organism” (p.27). If there had been such a view at that time, Beckwith contends that the unborn fetus would have been explicitly included in the Fourteenth Amendment."

I am almost positive that sentence is incorrect; the history of abortion law just doesn’t support it.

"All the pro-choice arguments are drastically less convincing once you grant legal rights as persons."

Is it just a question of which arguments are most convincing, or of which ones are sound? Maybe she concedes the point because she finds the arguments persuasive, and at least has enough integrity to not argue against a superior position just because the outcome of that position is less favorable to her cause.

"Since autonomy by your standard doesn't signify anything important, no adoptions should be permitted."

How does anything in this argument proscribe adoption? Surely one way of caring for the needs of a child is to ensure that they are placed in a suitable environment, perhaps a more suitable environment than the mother herself can provide if she doesn't feel that she is up to the task of raising the child herself.

I think Thompson's "arg." plays on an illict implication of double effect. "Disconnecting." If she had talked instead about cutting off the violinist's head--a direct act of active killing--it would not only have been a more accurate analogy but would have made it harder for people to defend killing the violinist.

A woman is in a sense responsible for her newborn child, but I cannot see how logically her responsibility to look after the child's best interests implies that she must not place the child for adoption. It may be objectively best for the child to be adopted, and the mother may be able to see this. This is especially evident when the child has not bonded to the mother post-birth and hence will not be traumatized emotionally by being adopted. It's much less plausible when we are talking (as for some odd reason we seem often to have been a hundred years ago) about a 9-year-old child. But to return to the newborn, I cannot see how the fact of unchosen obligations (which the mother does have to her biological child) implies that the mother cannot discharge these by placing the child with a loving and competent adoption agency who will place the child with loving and competent adoptive parents, or even by arranging an adoption with such parents herself if she knows them. Certainly there is no comparison whatsoever--and it would be insane to suggest that there is--between doing so and having the child rent limb from limb!

Ah, I see John and I are thinking along the same lines.

(I'm off to see Fr. Rob Johansen of Thrownback Blog in action on the pro-life issue right here in my own town.)

Is it just a question of which arguments are most convincing, or of which ones are sound?

Maybe she does find the arguments persuasive but she does not explain why, she only notices that the legal currents have shifted towards that position and says, “Well, it wasn’t that important anyway.” She doesn’t seem to know or care if it is a superior position; she just grants the point and tries to make do. On the other hand, the only argument I consider to have a slim chance of making that case (i.e. at conception) is the future-like-ours argument.

How does anything in this argument proscribe adoption?

Because the facts of the situation are unchanged from when it was a fetus if autonomy is not allowed to matter. The baby is needy, just as it was when it was a fetus. The mother has an obligation to provide for those needs. The difference is that when it was a fetus, it did not have autonomy and only the woman could provide for it. You either have to grant some importance to autonomy or admit that the woman is obligated to raise the child.

If she had talked instead about cutting off the violinist's head--a direct act of active killing--it would not only have been a more accurate analogy but would have made it harder for people to defend killing the violinist.

Yeah, but I think Plan B does act as a way of disconnecting rather than direct killing.

The mother has an obligation to provide for those needs.
No fair reading the W4 archives.
and only the woman could provide for it.

You seem to have left that part out, Step2. Since it isn't true that only the mother can provide for the child after the child is born, it is possible for her to seek someone else to adopt the child. That simply isn't possible prior to birth.

Perhaps it would be a good idea for you to try to create a valid argument for your conclusion, Step2, that pro-lifers are bound either to give up their pro-life position or to say that adoption is morally wrong. Then we can find the false premises.

Plan B actively squeezes the child off from his oxygen source. Perhaps smothering the violinist, or putting a plastic bag over his head, would work here.

Mind you, I don't mean to be unclear. I think it's immoral to hook the woman up to the violinist _and_ immoral to disconnect him afterwards. Two wrongs don't make a right, etc.

There are almost too many problems with the violinist analogy to list them all. First of all, having lived with my wife through three pregnancies now (and feel free you moms to add your own comment to this), being pregnant generally speaking is nowhere near as intrusive as having an adult attached to you. But the analogy only considers the woman's perspective. What about the violinist, who is just as inconvenienced by the whole situation? Why should it be the violinist who is sacrificed for the woman as opposed to, say, vice-versa, or the more preferable situation where they both get to survive? The analogy doesn't consider things from the violinist's perspective at all, which is a rather curious feature of it I think, though it's consistent with the pro-choice position which only considers the perspective of the mother but not the child. It's also a time-limited phenemenon. Even granted the ridiculous analogy, would anyone really say the violinist should be killed in order to spare both the woman and the violinist a few months of inconvenience? Thomson's take, according to McDonagh, is that "his connection to you is so intrusive that it necessitates a destruction of your privacy and liberty, since he must accompany you everywhere for a prolonged period of time." This "prolonged period of time" is not more than 40-42 weeks or so, and in a normal pregnancy it's only the last trimester when things start to get quite uncomfortable. So it's not a "destruction" of the woman's privacy and liberty, just a temporary curtailing of it. Is killing another person for the sake of saving oneself 12 weeks of inconvenience really morally justifiable?

But the whole self-defense angle is what really gets me. In the case of pregnancy, the changes that take place in the woman's body are the things that it's designed to do in order to nurture the life within. That's how women's bodies are equipped. There's no possible way to view this as some sort of attack on the woman's body. It's just nature taking its course. As I understand it (though I'm no doctor or anything) there are harmful effects to the body caused by the artificial termination of the pregnancy. It's abortion that is an attack on the woman's body (not to mention the child's), not pregnancy.

I suppose it would be futile to point out to McDonagh that she herself was once the beneficiary of her own mother's sheer altruism in not killing her before she was born even though McDonagh "destroyed" her own mother's liberty for a "prolonged period of time." I wonder if she ever thought to say "thanks, mom, for not killing me!"

What I wonder is if McDonagh even read your book. I will admit, I have not. But, I did read your article reply for the Ludwig Von Moses' institute from 2003.
First, I will say that I think parents SHOULD be forced to donate organs in some cases. Revisit your heart defect analogy in your review of Boonin's book, but make it a liver defect. I would force a parent in that case to donate a liver lobe, since they should not have reproduced unless they were ready to take on the obligation.
What you need to do is to use child support laws to dismantle key bases of her case.
McDonagh misses a key difference between the unborn child and a mentally incompetent rapist, at least in non-rape pregnancies.
She confuses causing body use with CAUSING THE NEED for body use. One did not cause the mentally incompetent rapist's mental illness. The mother caused the baby's existence AND need to be in her body.
I do not know if McDonagh believes in child support laws. She cannot without believing the father caused the child's need. If she does, she would have to concede that the mother caused the need for body use in a much different sense than merely being in the same area with a mentally incompetent rapist (you covered this in Boonin's article).
Did you include in your book the portion from your article about why consenting to sex IS the same as consenting to pregnancy. Astoundingly, she did not even address this!
Her statistics about how often sex causes pregnancy are irrelevant. The fact that speeding only causes fatal car accidents a tiny percentage of the time does not absolve the speeder from responsibility. Sure, the majority of acts do not result in pregnancy, but that is to allow sex to be used for relationship bonding AS WELL, NOT INSTEAD OF. The purpose of the relationship bonding is to support effective reproduction. So, they are not separable in any sense (except for radical medical technology, which has no teleologic significance).
I should add that if procreation is seen as a side-effect of sex and car crashing is to driving, fathers who can prove they had a vasectomy and used a condom could use the "duty of due care" defense and avoid child support obligations.
You also explained the pro-life view of personhood in your review of Boonin's work. She does not address that either.
To answer her organ donation argument, use child support analogies again. Most would find it quite correct to say that the father is responsible for the child's need for money but wrong to say he is responsible for some random disease. Also add that if parents used the duty of due care defense, they are not responsible for some random disease, anymore than they are for any other attack on the child (the side-effect, fundamental purpose distinction.).
Add a breastfeeding analogy. Hypothetical culture A has technology for sustaining the comatose, but no baby formula. She has sex protected by tubal ligation and a female condom. She goes comatose. Unknown to her, she became pregnant. She wakes right after the baby is born. Mary is the only woman available for 9 months who can breastfeed. Most would agree that she would be morally obliged to breastfeed, even for 9 months. Remember, breastfeeding can be painful and stressful on a woman's body. The breast milk would dry up far earlier than nine months. So, breastfeeding is not like urination, as someone once tried to equate it with.
For consistency, McDonagh would have to say Mary can let the baby die.
I know this is only a rough draft, but I really wanted you to see some of my ideas.

Sorry, Add that MARY was the mother.

If you win the argument of personhood for the the fetus, the debate is over.

At no time, does the fetus insert themselves into the womb on their own accord. It is either consensual or nonconsensual.In the consensual act, the woman fully knew the consequences of her actions and can in no way hold the fetus responsible for an act they did not commit. In the nonconsensual act, the fetus once again is not the instigator of the action against the woman, but the perpetrator is. Therefore, if the fetus is given personhood, the prochoice side loses their current argument of self-defense.

It is obvious that Frank is making the case for personhood by receiving reviews such as these.

Congrats Frank

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