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31 May 2013

Judith Thomson's Violinist Argument for Abortion Rights

By Diana Hsieh

On Sunday's Philosophy in Action Radio, I'll discuss Judith Thomson's classic "violinist" argument in favor of abortion rights. It's an engaging and accessible article which has been widely read and reprinted. If you've never read it -- or you've not read it in a while -- you might want to read or re-read it before Sunday's broadcast. You can do so here: Judith Jarvis Thomson: A Defense of Abortion.

Here's the introduction to whet your appetite.

Most opposition to abortion relies on the premise that the fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception. The premise is argued for, but, as I think, not well. Take, for example, the most common argument. We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth into childhood is continuous; then it is said that to draw a line, to choose a point in this development and say "before this point the thing is not a person, after this point it is a person" is to make an arbitrary choice, a choice for which in the nature of things no good reason can be given. It is concluded that the fetus is. or anyway that we had better say it is, a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak trees, and it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are. Arguments of this form are sometimes called "slippery slope arguments"--the phrase is perhaps self-explanatory--and it is dismaying that opponents of abortion rely on them so heavily and uncritically.

I am inclined to agree, however, that the prospects for "drawing a line" in the development of the fetus look dim. I am inclined to think also that we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth. Indeed, it comes as a surprise when one first learns how early in its life it begins to acquire human characteristics. By the tenth week, for example, it already has a face, arms and less, fingers and toes; it has internal organs, and brain activity is detectable. On the other hand, I think that the premise is false, that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree. But I shall not discuss any of this. For it seems to me to be of great interest to ask what happens if, for the sake of argument, we allow the premise. How, precisely, are we supposed to get from there to the conclusion that abortion is morally impermissible? Opponents of abortion commonly spend most of their time establishing that the fetus is a person, and hardly anytime explaining the step from there to the impermissibility of abortion. Perhaps they think the step too simple and obvious to require much comment. Or perhaps instead they are simply being economical in argument. Many of those who defend abortion rely on the premise that the fetus is not a person, but only a bit of tissue that will become a person at birth; and why pay out more arguments than you have to? Whatever the explanation, I suggest that the step they take is neither easy nor obvious, that it calls for closer examination than it is commonly given, and that when we do give it this closer examination we shall feel inclined to reject it.

I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. How does the argument go from here? Something like this, I take it. Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happen in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person's right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother's right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.

It sounds plausible. But now let me ask you to imagine this. You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

In this case, of course, you were kidnapped, you didn't volunteer for the operation that plugged the violinist into your kidneys. Can those who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned make an exception for a pregnancy due to rape? Certainly. They can say that persons have a right to life only if they didn't come into existence because of rape; or they can say that all persons have a right to life, but that some have less of a right to life than others, in particular, that those who came into existence because of rape have less. But these statements have a rather unpleasant sound. Surely the question of whether you have a right to life at all, or how much of it you have, shouldn't turn on the question of whether or not you are a product of a rape. And in fact the people who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned do not make this distinction, and hence do not make an exception in case of rape.

Nor do they make an exception for a case in which the mother has to spend the nine months of her pregnancy in bed. They would agree that would be a great pity, and hard on the mother; but all the same, all persons have a right to life, the fetus is a person, and so on. I suspect, in fact, that they would not make an exception for a case in which, miraculously enough, the pregnancy went on for nine years, or even the rest of the mother's life.

Some won't even make an exception for a case in which continuation of the pregnancy is likely to shorten the mother's life, they regard abortion as impermissible even to save the mother's life. Such cases are nowadays very rare, and many opponents of abortion do not accept this extreme view. All the same, it is a good place to begin: a number of points of interest come out in respect to it.

Again, you can read the whole article here: A Defense of Abortion by Judith Thomson. Then... please join us on Sunday morning for the live broadcast of Philosophy in Action Radio -- or listen to the podcast later.

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20 May 2013

Arranged Marriages: Philosophy in Action Podcast

By Diana Hsieh

On Sunday's Philosophy in Action Radio, I answered a question on arranged marriages that might be of interest. The question was:

Are arranged marriages legally and socially valid? A coworker of mine in his early 20s grew up in India. His parents have arranged his marriage to a young woman who also now lives in the US. He appreciates that his parents selected a wife for him: he doesn't want to spend the time or take the risk of finding a wife himself. Should such a marriage be considered legally valid? Is it just a marriage of convenience? Is the practice of arranged marriages immoral and/or impractical?

My Answer, In Brief: Arranged marriages are legally and socially valid marriages. However, the institution of arranged marriages is a deeply immoral one: the choice of a spouse is too important to leave to others, and if a person isn't competent or interested to decide for himself, then he shouldn't marry.

Download or Listen to My Full Answer:

Tags: Adult Children, Children, Ethics, Family, Independence, Independence, Marriage, Parenting, Relationships
To comment on this question or my answer, visit its comment thread.

A podcast of the full episode – where I answered questions on individualism versus anti-social atomism, poor communication from the boss, visibility of disabled children, arranged marriages, and more – is available here: Episode of 19 May 2013.

You can automatically download podcasts of Philosophy in Action Radio by subscribing to Philosophy in Action's Podcast RSS Feed:
About Philosophy in Action Radio

Philosophy in Action Radio applies rational principles to the challenges of real life in live internet radio shows on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. For information on upcoming shows, visit the Episodes on Tap. For podcasts of past shows, visit the Show Archives.

Philosophy in Action's NewsletterPhilosophy in Action's Facebook PagePhilosophy in Action's Twitter StreamPhilosophy in Action's RSS FeedPhilosophy in Action's YouTube Channel

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13 May 2013

Infanticide After Abortion: Philosophy in Action Podcast

By Diana Hsieh

On Sunday's Philosophy in Action Radio, I answered a question on infanticide after abortion. The question was:

Is killing a baby born after an abortion a form of murder? Kermit Gosnell is currently on trial for murder, due to accusations that he killed infants who were delivered in abortions at his clinic. If the facts are as reported, should he be convicted of murder? What should be done when a baby is born alive during an abortion? What are the likely cultural and political implications of this trial?

My Answer, In Brief: According to the testimony at the trial, Kermit Gosnell did not merely perform abortions: he killed born babies, i.e. persons with a right to life. A person who does that is guilty of murder, and he should be prosecuted and punished.

Download or Listen to My Full Answer:

Tags: Abortion, Children, Crime, Ethics, Infanticide, Law, Politics, Pregnancy, Rights

Links:
To comment on this question or my answer, visit its comment thread.

A podcast of the full episode – where I answered questions on taxes versus slavery, infanticide after abortion, emergency medical care, and more – is available here: Episode of 12 May 2013.

You can automatically download podcasts of Philosophy in Action Radio by subscribing to Philosophy in Action's Podcast RSS Feed:
About Philosophy in Action Radio

Philosophy in Action Radio applies rational principles to the challenges of real life in live internet radio shows on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. For information on upcoming shows, visit the Episodes on Tap. For podcasts of past shows, visit the Show Archives.

Philosophy in Action's NewsletterPhilosophy in Action's Facebook PagePhilosophy in Action's Twitter StreamPhilosophy in Action's RSS FeedPhilosophy in Action's YouTube Channel

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09 May 2013

Concern for the Rights of Rights-Violators: Philosophy in Action Podcast

By Diana Hsieh

On Sunday's Philosophy in Action Radio, I answered a question on concern for the rights of rights-violators. The question was:

Is it wrong to be indifferent to the rights-violations of people who advocate rights-violations? Some celebrities actively promote the violation of rights by lending their support to political groups. For example, former American Idol contestant Krista Branch has actively campaigned against gay marriage on behalf of Focus on the Family. However, in a recent interview, Branch complained that people were pirating her songs. I know that Branch's intellectual property rights should be respected, and I would never pirate her music. Yet I can't feel any sympathy for her, given that she advocates violating other people's rights. I'm of the opinion that people who advocate for the use of force against others should not be spared from the consequences of the kind of culture that creates. Is that wrong? Am I being malevolent? Should I defend her rights, even though she advocates violating my rights?

My Answer, In Brief: Even the rights of people who advocate rights-violations should be respected, but rational people should crusade for the principle and innocent people being harmed by rights-violations, not for those mixed cases.

Download or Listen to My Full Answer:

Tags: Activism, Celebrities, Judgment, Justice, Moral Wrongs, Politics, Rights
To comment on this question or my answer, visit its comment thread.

A podcast of the full episode – where I answered questions on personality and sense of life, helping a self-destructive friend, concern for the rights of rights-violators, and more – is available here: Episode of 5 May 2013.

You can automatically download podcasts of Philosophy in Action Radio by subscribing to Philosophy in Action's Podcast RSS Feed:
About Philosophy in Action Radio

Philosophy in Action Radio applies rational principles to the challenges of real life in live internet radio shows on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. For information on upcoming shows, visit the Episodes on Tap. For podcasts of past shows, visit the Show Archives.

Philosophy in Action's NewsletterPhilosophy in Action's Facebook PagePhilosophy in Action's Twitter StreamPhilosophy in Action's RSS FeedPhilosophy in Action's YouTube Channel

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07 May 2013

CSG at the Colorado Supreme Court Tomorrow

By Diana Hsieh

I'm thrilled and excited to announce that the Coalition for Secular Government's lawsuit on campaign finance will be heard by the Colorado Supreme Court tomorrow at 10 am. The hearing will concern the four questions about the relevant law that our judge in federal court -- Judge Kane -- asked the Colorado Supreme Court to answer.

I'll be there, of course. If you'd like to attend, the hearing will be at the Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center at 1300 Broadway, Denver on Wednesday, May 8th. The hearing starts at 10 am, but you might want to arrive a bit early, as it's the first case of the day. It's scheduled to last just 30 minutes.

If you've not followed the case, check out the following write-up from the Center for Competitive Politics, the legal advocacy non-profit that has made this challenge to Colorado's speech-stifling campaign finance laws possible.

Colorado's Opportunity to Protect First Amendment Rights

By Tyler Martinez

May the government ban the publication of books if they contain only one sentence of express advocacy, such as "Vote for Smith"?

At the oral argument for Citizens United v. FEC, the federal government argued that campaign finance laws could ban a corporation, presumably including book publishers, from producing a book with even one sentence of express advocacy. The government's stance was so shocking that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered another set of briefings and arguments on that issue, and today we have the famous decision upholding the right of corporations to make independent expenditures.

This May, a similar question will be heard by the Colorado Supreme Court in Coalition for Secular Government v. Gessler. This case centers around a small nonprofit, run by Diana Hsieh, a doctor of philosophy, who wanted to discuss a secular understanding of the principles of life, liberty, and property. To do this, Dr. Hsieh formed a nonprofit corporation, which she named the Coalition for Secular Government (CSG). CSG commissioned a paper discussing its philosophy regarding human personhood, written by Dr. Hsieh and her friend Ari Armstrong. On behalf of CSG, Dr. Hsieh and Mr. Armstrong raised money from their friends to help pay for the costs of writing and publishing the paper. They also ran some Facebook ads and made flyers to let people know about the paper.

The paper is 32 pages long, with 176 endnotes. It makes philosophical arguments concerning the complex public policy debate surrounding the definition of personhood. The paper used a proposed Colorado ballot measure as a backdrop for its discussion on the issue. The paper concludes with a single sentence of express advocacy: "If you believe that 'human life has value,' the only moral choice is to vote against Amendment 62."

This one sentence of express advocacy meant that CSG may be forced to register as a issue committee with the state of Colorado. The state's own briefing in the case has admitted that, but for this single sentence, the paper would go entirely unregulated by the Colorado government. While Colorado does not ban books, it does demand burdensome reporting and disclosure. Registration requires reporting the names and addresses of people who give more than $20 to help a cause--even if it is free help with Web design by a family member. Registration also requires documenting which post office an organization uses, and from which Office Depot it purchases printer paper.

The costs of failing to file these extensive reports, or not filing properly, can be extreme. One day, Dr. Hsieh's house flooded and she was a day late with CSG's required report. She then faced a $50 per day fine. Fortunately, this fine was waived, but only after needing to plead with the Secretary of State's office. Even normal, non-flood-related compliance with Colorado's byzantine filing system frustrated Dr. Hsieh and left her in constant fear of fines or lawsuits, just because she wanted to weigh in with her philosophical views.

This is not the first time the registering and reporting burdens required of issue committees has come up in Colorado. In the 2010 case of Sampson v. Buescher, a small group of residents outside of Parker, Colorado, came together to fight being annexed into the City of Parker. These individuals had raised less than $1,000 for their cause when their opposition challenged the failure of the neighbors to register as an issue committee.

In assessing the homeowners' challenge, the Tenth Circuit concluded that Colorado's issue committee disclosure and reporting requirements "substantial[ly]" burdened the homeowners' First Amendment rights. The court relied on Citizens United and held that: "[t]he First Amendment does not permit laws that force speakers to retain a campaign finance attorney, conduct demographic marketing research, or seek declaratory rulings before discussing the most salient political issues of our day."

Unfortunately, the state of Colorado failed to heed the Tenth Circuit, and CSG had to call the legal team at the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) for help. The CCP legal team filed a complaint alleging that, even though CSG plans to raise no more than $3,500 for updating and publishing their public policy paper, the state of Colorado appears to demand that CSG register as an issue committee. Once registered, CSG will again face all of the burdens of reporting their friends and allies, naming where they bought envelopes, and facing lawsuits and fines from the state for making even the slightest mistake.

Interestingly, CSG's case was initially brought before a federal court. But Colorado law is so ambiguous that the federal judge had to ask the Colorado Supreme Court just what the Colorado law means. As a result, CCP will be before the Colorado Supreme Court this May 8 arguing the merits of registering lengthy policy papers with only one sentence of express advocacy.

As the Citizens United Court noted, it does violence to freedom of speech when a citizen must hire an attorney just to be sure how to speak. Hopefully, the Colorado Supreme Court will agree with that principle.

For more, check out my prior blogging on campaign finance regulations.

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