AS76: Dying with Dignity and Abortion Debate Follow-Up

In this episode I talk way too long about this article:

It’s very relevant to topics we’ve discussed recently. Apparently there are people who think you owe it to someone to stay alive in the face of terrible suffering. I’m sure if they were being tortured or something they would never want to have the choice to end their life, right?

Then, I talk about the abortion discussion from Monday with Kristine. I got a ton of comments but I’d like to have you guys focus them on a particular aspect of the arguments. Tune in and find out which!

12 thoughts on “AS76: Dying with Dignity and Abortion Debate Follow-Up”

  1. In regard to the boat analogy it seems to me that there is a justifiable reason to throw the child overboard or otherwise kill him\her.

    Let’s assume that you have made this ocean journey many times in the past and that you know exactly how much food and water and other supplies to bring along for just one person and you have done so. Then you discover the stowaway child in the middle of the trip and it is too late to turn back. Let us also assume that the child is too young or week to operate the boat on his\her own. At this point outcomes are limited. You can feed the child, in which case you both starve to death by the end of the trip. You could leave the boat with the child, in which case you drown and the child starves to death on a boat that he\she can’t navigate. Or, you could make the very difficult, but only decision that keeps one of you alive and that is to kill the child.

    The problem with the analogy is that it assumes that there are always open options, but for some women pregnancy is a death sentence. In cases like these, abortion is not only ethical, but often necessary.

    Love the show. Keep up the good work.
    Big T

  2. I am as troubled by you are by the boat analogy (but for the argument that maybe you /can/ kill the child in the boat, at least sometimes, (as horrible as that sounds), check out the short story The Cold Equations (, but there is one vital difference between the real situation and the anology – and it is vital enough that very few anologies could capture it.

    The argument goes back to the aliens and the violinist – the difference is bodily autonomy. I would argue that for the pro-choice advocate, the only way to differentiate the boat scenario from the real deal is to claim that bodily autonomy is a right that trumps the child’s right to life – a kind of right to self-defense. The child drew the short shrift by being inside the mother, and that’s all there is to it.

    I am not certain that that’s the case – it certainly could be, but you don’t hear a lot about bodily autonomy rights in other circumstances, so its status as a fundamental right would have to be argued for.

  3. Hi Thomas,

    I think the trouble with the pro-life argument is that, while a seemingly compelling case can be built using lots of little building blocks, it always fails to answer the following question: Does a woman have the right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term.

    This is the only question that matters.

    All the other arguments are too problematic. Take, for instance, the argument which touts the difference between withholding care vs. “killing” the baby.

    This argument can’t be applied, because, as you stated, a woman doesn’t have the option to “withhold care” while a baby is in the womb. Her only option is to “kill” the baby using this logic, yet to call a fetus a “baby,” or a “person” during the very early stages of a pregnancy is preposterous.

    Further, if we must accept the notion that an elective abortion is always the “murder” of a person, no matter the stage of the pregnancy, then I don’t see how we get away from viewing all non-elective, random, abortions (i.e. miscarriages) as involuntary manslaughter.

  4. I live in Australia and here abortion is legal up to around 20 weeks a few weeks short of where the baby starts responding to external stimuli and before it could survive on it’s own. After that if there is danger to the mother from the pregnancy they will attempt to keep the baby alive and deliver by c-section but after 20ish weeks the mother is basically forced to keep it to term due to the risk of brain damage etc from a very premature birth… I tend to think this is fair in most cases as 20 weeks is usually long enough to say the woman is responsible for continuing the pregnency past that point as it is generally obvious they are pregnant well before that…

  5. Hey Thomas,

    This was another great episode. It’s been really interesting to hear Kristine’s case and your commentary on it. It’s the first time I’ve heard a compelling case for the pro-life side.

    For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the issue.

    I think that the right to end a pregnancy, bodily autonomy, is not the same as the right to kill an unborn child. But, if the only way to exercise your right to bodily autonomy is to kill the child, then it is morally permissible to do so.

    The boat analogy fails, because your right not to have the child on your boat, can be upheld without killing the child. It also seems a bit disingenuous to compare the inconvenience of going back to shore to unload a trespassing child with the life altering effects of pregnancy for a woman.

    It does suggest to me however, that as our technology gets better, certain forms of abortion might become illegal. If there was a way, at little risk to the mother, to remove the unborn child from the womb, and transfer it into an incubator, then I think it would be wrong to kill the child. The child’s right to life would come into play here, because we could fulfill both that right and the woman’s right to bodily autonomy, with minimal risk to either.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts, and Kristine’s if possible, since this is an issue, that even as an atheist, I’ve gone back and forth on.

  6. 54:00 “And after the baby’s born, we wouldn’t say you have the right to kill it. It seems to be an intuition that we don’t have the right to just murder our kids after they’re born.”

    I agree with that intuition, which you seem to share. And you seem also to be saying implicitly that correct moral intuitions are the source of correct moral principles, which should be the source of laws. I would agree with all that. But if a direct moral intuition serves to tell us that infanticide is wrong, why do we have to proceed indirectly, resorting to logic and analogies, to decide whether any action is right or wrong? Why not just apply our intuition directly, case by case, when restrictions on late-term abortion are proposed, when restrictions on early-term abortion are proposed, etc.?

    I have tried to explore this at

  7. Great show! Good thoughts. Below are my thoughts on the Right to Life issue. Maybe you will find some value in them…

    Personally, I think the whole argument about abortion/the right to life is flawed. In the example, it is wrong to throw the kid overboard because he is a sentient life. The kid is aware, to think for him/herself, able to make decisions, to exist independently, able to create and contribute to his world upon his choice…

    A fetus is none of the above. It is not a sentient life yet and, while in the womb, there is no guarantee that it will ever reach a sentient state. After all, only 1 out of 3 pregnancies make it to term “naturally” (according to the last stats I heard on the subject).

    Should we declare unilaterally that sentient and possibly sentient lives should not be taken… guess what? The animals we eat are sentient. Should we declare that only human sentience should be recognized, then we are racist in the biggest and worse possible way. Should we determine that there must be a level of demonstrated IQ to qualify as sentient with right to life, to which animals we eat don’t qualify, then what about the intellectually challenged or underdeveloped human minds of the world… are we declaring they are no better than animals?

    Once a life form becomes an independent sentient life the question becomes truly tricky about choices of life and death. Fortunately, that whole argument is irrelevant to the abortion debate. In the case of abortion, sentience has not been achieved.

    Most folks should see where I am I headed and can list more examples of a level of intelligent sentience defeating the ambiguous Right to Life argument. It could even be carried to extremes of saying cancer has a right to life because it is a life form growing in a host.

    Add the simple concept of sentient life to the argument and the line of what deserves to live or die because much simpler and clear. If a life form exists as an independent sentient life form it should not be killed. If independent sentience is not achieved, then it has no will or right to have a voice over its life or death.

    The fact that animals fall into the independent sentient category and further fact of my eating them makes me a hypocrite of sorts is a label I will gladly accept until invention allows us to make meat or truly meat tasting food from non-sentient life. Therefore, until such time I believe that the qualifier of a level of intelligence must be added to the right of independent sentient life to exist.

    I hope the above makes sense and conveys the point I am trying to make. Writing on such deeper subjects is difficult for me when I am thumb typing on an iPod with such a small visible writing area. If anyone ever has any questions, comments, arguments please feel free to express such.

  8. ha! I forgot my summary… told you I suck at writing on these thumb things…. basically, if the fetus is still in it’s mothers womb, the decision to abort is between the mother, the father, and, if they believe in such, their bright and shiny god. If it is outside the womb there is the potential of choice, therefor the child has individual rights. The mindset that pro-lifers seem to have is always a question of an ultimate morality endorsed by their idea of god, religion, or society where one individual has the right to impose their will upon another individual. Even with the so-called atheist pro-lifers, they are exhibiting the same error of judgement that religious folks make in that they believe the way they think is what’s right and if you don’t think as they do then you’re, obviously, wrong. Since you are clearly wrong, then they assume they have the right to enforce their idea of right (which is clearly wrong, lol).

    Same thing with the Right to Die… a person has the right to make that choice for themselves. Any argument contrary to that is, ultimately, based from a religious mindset of forcing your beliefs on another.

    Standing against that idea seems to be what Humanists and atheists believe in and fight for…. the right of an individual to be an individual and exercise their free will upon what choices they make to their individual life.

    The above concept also applies to circumcision… allow the boy to make his own choice when he chooses to. Now if there are proven medical benefits to the procedure (which does seem to be the case) then it is arguable that it is to be done for the sake of health. Minus that possibility, as a free thinking individual, I say that it can only be a choice. Granted, it is easier if done as a baby for the pain is forgotten, but that is still forcing an individual to bend to another’s will.

  9. Having worked with critically ill neonates, many extremely premature, in pondering the issue, consider nervous system development and the ability (or inability) to feel pain, especially prior to the age of viability. Actually, even to some degree prior to age of viability, a delivered infant would exhibit signs of ‘pain’ but it could simply be reflex activity. We are animals after all and we do have a few instincts left e.g. suckling, withdrawal from painful stimuli, etc. Anacephalic infants should be proof enough of that; they often have essentially no brain development secondary to brain stem formation, but can survive sometimes on seemingly instinct alone. It would be hard to make a case for sentience in this case, would it not? It also seems that we are ‘programmed’ to react with a level of empathy, in order for survival of the species. Some more so than others… I read that studies showed that mice will often react hysterically in the presence of another suffering mouse, and is even more reactionary when there’s a familial tie. (Thanks to that research synopsis, I now cringe at the thought of mousetraps and that sticky paper stuff seems even crueler.)
    I make no judgments on others decisions, as we can see that no matter what the argument for an issue, we will never be able to consider all scenarios so that a concrete position can be certainly proposed.
    In ‘The Language Instinct’, Pinker speaks of the longest sentence, I think from Faulkner’s ‘Absolom, Absolom!’, where adding “Faulkner wrote” prior to quoting said sentence, then made this the longest sentence. Whereas, adding “Pinker said that Faulkner wrote…” trumps that sentence, then adding “Who cares that Pinker said that Faulkner wrote…” continued to add to it. The supposed sentence grows longer and longer. Convoluted in my presentation, I know, but I think it’s understandable what I’m saying??? There seems to be an inexhaustible overlay of factors that can always be thrown into the mix to muddy the waters, to which we do not, at present, have the capability of thoroughly and precisely considering prior to making decisions for ourselves, much less so for everyone else, and especially not with severity.

    “I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live.”
    A quote that’s obviously not mine, but unfortunately I don’t have the source handy. That being said, I may will to live now, but there have been times that I did not, both in a physical and an emotional context. There were slight glimmers of hope that gave me the will to continue, but I have discussed with my sons at what point they would be willing to seriously consider that I have permission, so to speak, to give up, if that’s what folks want to call it. Ultimately, it’s my decision as to when that might be, as to what’s unbearable, etc., and it’s their job to help me to be as reasonable as possible in that eventuality. No worries, I’m not knocking on death’s door, it’s just something we’ve been forced to consider.

    Anyway, it’s my first time here, commenting. I’m still trying to ascertain where the bulk of the conversation goes on, so I thought I’d start here for now and my fingers are crossed that it’s not on Facebook because, well, no. When there are multiple avenues, I imagine it’s difficult to avoid redundancy.
    I wrote a paper last year on the nervous system/pain thing I alluded to, but it’s currently hiding from me. I wasn’t going to pass it along, just peruse it for any points that may have been considered in the research.

    There’s no black and white, only grey (matter).

    1. Thanks for your thoughts.

      “I make no judgments on others decisions”

      Since the blog post concerned both the abortion of the unborn and the death-related options of the born, your statement could have implications about different kinds of decisions, the most obvious implications being:

      1. “I make no judgments on the decision of a pregnant woman considering abortion”

      2. “I make no judgments on the decision of a person considering suicide or assisted suicide for themselves”

      3. “I make no judgments on the decision of a relative or an authority of some kind considering ending the life of a third party who cannot decide for themselves, as euthanasia or in the name of euthanasia”

      Those may be the most obvious kinds of decisions, but couldn’t the principle of not making judgments be extended?

      4. “I make no judgments on the decision of a relative or an authority of some kind considering ending the life of a third party who CAN decide for themselves, yet where the relative or authority thinks they know better”

      5. “I make no judgments on the decision of someone who PREVENTS a pregnant woman from having abortion”

      6. “I make no judgments on the decision of someone who PREVENTS a relative or authority from ending the life of a third party”

      We may decide “I will never interfere” (if I understand correctly that that’s what you’re advocating), but as we can see above, non-interference may have consequences in one situation opposite to the consequences it will have in another situation. And all the consequences of any given situation can’t be equally good. So if we decide never to interfere, won’t we passively, at times, be a party to some bad consequences? Whether or not we call them judgments, is it really possible to avoid decisions affecting other people, even if we haven’t “considered all scenarios so that a concrete position can be certainly proposed”?

  10. No. You’re right about that. We make decisions of that nature constantly. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t even know who to surround ourselves with.
    That being said, I didn’t think I needed qualifiers necessarily to that extent. It was more of a disclaimer regarding issues being discussed. I’m new around here and didn’t know of wrath might lurk when sensitive issues are on the table.

    1. Thanks. That clarifies your position.

      “didn’t know [if] wrath might lurk when sensitive issues are on the table.”

      From what I have seen, wrath and insults do very frequently lurk in these internet comments sections, never more so than when the topic is abortion.

      However, the few discussions I have seen so far on this Atheistically Speaking blog have been very civil. Either this page attracts civil people, or the moderator is careful to filter out ugly comments.

      On pages where we do run into ugly comments, it’s possible to ignore them and have good discussions with the people who are looking for good discussions.

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