Koukl’s Anti-Abortion Nonsense

[Note to reddit visitors from /r/prolife: I haven’t ‘run away’ from my attempt at discussion on your forum, your mods have simply decided that ye are too fragile to discuss this topic and have banned me. If you would like to continue the conversation, you’re welcome to comment below.]

I recently made the tactical error of engaging with some anti-choice folk on their Kelowna Right to Life facebook page. As this particular group seemed to laud themselves on their intellectual and academic rigor, while disparaging that of the pro-choice folk, I thought I’d see how they responded to Judith Jarvis Thompson’s seminal work, A Defense of Abortion.

The short answer to that is “poorly”. In addition to clearly either not reading or understanding the paper, they kept referring to this awful article by Greg Koukl. This article will be a dissection of Unstringing the Violinist. (If nothing else, the anti-choice people come up with some decent article titles)

In order to understand where I’m coming from, and why I feel Koukl is so ridiculous, I’m going to give a super-short summation of Thompson’s central point:

  1. For the sake of argument, everyone (including a fetus) has the right to not be killed (i.e. the right to life).
  2. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves what goes on inside their body (i.e the right to bodily autonomy).
  3. When discussion abortion, these two rights conflict.
  4. [An analogy where the right to life is treated as more important than bodily autonomy, leading to a situation where other people can use our body to keep themselves alive, regardless of whether we consent] = gives us answers that seem mistaken.
  5. Conclusion: the right to bodily autonomy is over and above the right to life.

If you watch carefully, you’ll see a trend where Koukl does not disagree with the validity of the argument, but merely attempts (over and over again) to dispute point 4, that Thompson’s analogy accurately captures the situation. This is a standard move by anti-choice people.

Koukl’s set up of the argument is pretty accurate , until we get to the section labeled “Parallels That Aren’t Parallel”, at which point he goes wildly off the rails.

First, the violinist is artificially attached to the woman. A mother’s unborn baby, however, is not surgically connected, nor was it ever “attached” to her. Instead, the baby is being produced by the mother’s own body by the natural process of reproduction.

  1. The moral distinction between ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ is meaningless. The idea that there is a relevant difference between how they became attached (in terms of the physical attachment) is neither explored nor explained. This comic sums up my opinion of this. (see also the fallacy of the appeal to nature)
  2. Koukl is simply incorrect about the biology of pregnancy: the zygote (and then fetus) is, indeed, attached to the lining of the womb. The fertilised egg isn’t attached to anything for the first 24-36 hours, and only then does it attach to the lining of the womb.

Both Thompson and McDonagh treat the child—the woman’s own daughter or son–like an invading stranger intent on doing harm. They make the mother/child union into a host/predator relationship.

Here Koukl starts inventing nonsense that has nothing to do with Thompson’s paper: there is no discussion of ‘intent’ with regards to the fetus/violinist. Aside from the fact that discussing the ‘intent’ of a microscopic clump of cells is ridiculous on its face, the ‘intent’ of the fetus is wholly irrelevant to the discussion: the question is regarding whether the right to life of the fetus trumps the right to bodily autonomy of the pregnant woman. That’s it. Everything else is a sideshow.

A child is not an invader, though, a parasite living off his mother.

On any meaningful analysis, however, that is precisely what the child is. Blood, nutrition, and oxygen are all drawn from the mother in order for the fetus to develop. While some research indicates that the relationship isn’t necessarily all take and no give, the ‘give’ is very, *very* minute (I might deal with that study with more depth in a later post, but given its irrelevance I’m unlikely to do so).

One trespasses when he’s not in his rightful place, but a baby developing in the womb belongs there.

Here, Koukl demonstrates that not only is his knowledge of biology extremely limited, but also his knowledge of the law: one trespasses when one is on private property without the consent of the owner. This ‘not in their rightful place’ malarkey is there purely to allow for the rhetorical move of ‘babies belong in wombs’. And if anyone were to object that Koukl does, indeed, understand the law? Then this is a move of deliberate deceit. I’m good with whichever of the two judgments you come to.

Thompson ignores a second important distinction. In the violinist illustration, the woman might be justified withholding life-giving treatment from the musician under these circumstances. Abortion, though, is not merely withholding treatment. It is actively taking another human being’s life through poisoning or dismemberment. A more accurate parallel with abortion would be to crush the violinist or cut him into pieces before unplugging him.

This “important distinction” indicates (yet) another major failure of the anti-choice groups to understand what abortion is and is not.

The goal of an abortion is the ending of the pregnancy.

This is what the word “termination” is referring to: to terminate the condition of pregnancy in which the woman finds herself. Ideally, the goal would be to remove the fetus fully intact. However, the independent survival of a 1-week-old fetus is not an option: it has neither a heart, nor lungs, nor a brain. It is no more capable of independent survival than my fingertip. The removal of a fetus, no matter how intact, will inevitably result in its death for about the first 20 weeks, and from then its chance of survival with medical intervention is minimal (rising to ‘pretty good’ at the 40-week mark).

What about a “late stage” abortion? Actually, they get done all the time, only because the anti-choice folk have convinced the world that “abortion” == “infanticide” it doesn’t get referred to in that way: anytime a woman needs to have a child removed via medical intervention, prior to the baby being full-term, we have an abortion. Cesarean section at 38 weeks? That’s an abortion: the pregnancy has been terminated prior to the fetus reaching full-term. Is the fetus/baby alive and well? More than likely (depending on the individual case).

The goal of an abortion is NOT the killing of the fetus.

Is this an inevitable result of the vast majority of abortions? Absolutely. Because that is the result, does that mean that it’s a goal? Absolutely not. To quote Thompson on this:

I am not arguing for the right to secure the death of the unborn child. It is easy to confuse these two things in that up to a certain point in the life of the fetus it is not able to survive outside the mother’s body; hence removing it from her body guarantees its death. But they are importantly different. I have argued that you are not morally required to spend nine months in bed, sustaining the life of that violinist, but to say this is by no means to say that if, when you unplug yourself, there is a miracle and he survives, you then have a right to turn round and slit his throat. You may detach yourself even if this costs him his life; you have no right to be guaranteed his death, by some other means, if unplugging yourself does not kill him.

This distinction seems to escape the anti-choice people, no matter how clearly it’s spelt out for them, nor how well they claim to have read Thompson’s paper.

But again, for the sake of the argument, let’s grant the personhood of the fetus, and say sure: an abortion is the intentional killing of a fetus. This point was already granted at the start of Thompson’s piece. The tension she raises is between the right to life of the fetus and the right of a woman to control what happens within her own body. Nothing in Koukl’s above quote changes that, he’s just harping on about ‘the fetus is being killed’: yes, Koukl, that has been stipulated from the start. Restating what has been stipulated does not a counterargument make.

A more accurate parallel with abortion would be to crush the violinist or cut him into pieces before unplugging him.

In philosophy, we call this an appeal to an emotion: Koukl is aiming to manipulate the emotion (disgust/pity/sadness) of the reader such that they agree with him, without thoughtfully engaging with the argument presented. Moreover, this appeal fails as a parallel because a fetus doesn’t have the pain receptors that the aforementioned violinist does, so the graphic image that Koukl is painting is, of course, a lie.

Third, the violinist illustration is not parallel to pregnancy because it equates a stranger/stranger relationship with a mother/child relationship. This is a key point and brings into focus the most dangerous presumption of the violinist illustration, also echoed in McDonagh’s thesis. Both presume it is unreasonable to expect a mother to have any obligations towards her own child.

This is the closest Koukl gets to approaching a reasonable point: it’s an absolutely fair question as to whether or not a mother has obligations to her child. With Ethics of Care, a feminist-informed version of utilitarianism, the idea of ‘duty of care’ is extremely important. The idea that designated care-givers have more duties to those under their care than random passer-bys is a relatively well-supported argument (that, imo, has strong merit).

However, a fetus is not “a child”. It isn’t someone that the woman-in-question has spent time actively nurturing or looking after, or ensuring they are well and protected when in danger: it is a clump of cells that we are, for the sake of argument, granting all the rights of personhood to. While I’m willing to grant personhood, the sense of care that people develop towards their children is cultivated over years of interaction (or even imagined interaction) and of investment of emotion and expectations. Many pregnant women neither have nor want that investment, and do not feel that way about their unwanted passenger. Many other pregnant women do feel that way about their unborn child, but for other reasons do not wish to carry the child to term, as emotionally painful as that decision may be. What the opinion of conservative society is with regards to women who wish to have an abortion is something I couldn’t care about less because this essay isn’t about the ignorant and misogynistic viewpoints of people trapped in the 19th century (with the exception of Koukl) but about the merits of Koukl’s criticism of Thompson’s argument. Koukl’s criticism here assumes far, far too much, is (again) an appeal to emotion, and essentially hinges on “women should only be permitted to do what conservative society deems is ok”, a mere appeal to tradition.

Removing a born child from the physical presence of their mother does not result in their death. Moreover, there are no good reasons to hold anything against women who wish to give their child up for adoption (for whatever reason).

As he’s done such a poor job, let’s improve Koukl’s argument so it actually fits the circumstances: let’s say that that violinist *is* the woman’s 5-year-old-child.

While both parents have a duty of care to the child, and this could absolutely be the father of the child, how does this significantly change things? A parent certainly has a duty to minimise the likelihood of harm within the home, to ensure that the child is fed and sheltered (insofar as it’s within the power of the parent to do so), and to not simply abandon the child without a thought for the child’s welfare. But how far does this obligation go?

Is a parent obligated to risk bodily harm to themselves in order to save their child? If a parent who can’t swim sees their child drowning, are they obligated to jump in to try and give them a few more seconds of life? In a dangerous tide with rocks all around, is a reasonably good swimmer obligated to jump in and try to save their child? The answer to these questions seem to be ‘no’, because I cannot think of any ethical obligation on the part of the parent to put their lives at such a risk (assuming, of course, that they were not directly responsible for the child being in that situation). When it comes to the case under discussion, these are directly analogous.

What if the parent was directly responsible for the child being in that situation? Again, the answer is ‘no’: while there will certainly be consequences for such an action, and the parent has an obligation to refrain from putting the child’s life at risk, they certainly do not bear any obligation to put themselves in harm’s way in order to mitigate that risk.

By what right of the child could such an action be demanded? The “right to life” as a negative right (which is the right that can be argued we all have) simply entails that people are obligated to refrain from actively taking steps to kill you. The “right to life” as a positive right is a much more difficult case to make, and is a far, far weaker position. If Koukl were informed on this topic, I suspect that he would have made it clear that he’s arguing for the positive right to life of the fetus, in that people (specifically the mother, because 19th century viewpoints) are obligated to ensure conditions that will contribute to the life of the fetus/child, rather than merely being obligated to refrain from harming the fetus/child. Even if we grant that, this does nothing to resolve the conflict that Thompson is presenting. Koukl is still presenting no arguments as to why the right to life of the fetus/child supersedes a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.

While we may hold such a parent in high regard for the above act (of mitigating harm to a child, not of putting the child in harm’s way), such an act is not obligated, which is to say that a child does not have the right to demand that a parent put themselves in harms way in order to potentially mitigate said harm to the child.

(Lest any anti-choice people misread the above paragraph: this does not undercut the thrust of the general argument I’m making. The argument for the right to choose an abortion hinges on the central competing rights between the mother and child; there are no competing rights in the above example)

How about organ donation? If a child is suffering from the failure of both kidneys, and a parent is the only match available, is the parent obligated to give up one of their kidneys? To risk kidney failure themselves, in addition to a not-entirely-safe surgery? To put themselves in line to need dialysis, or other complications years down the line? Again, by what right do you demand this on behalf of the child? When does this right disappear? Why is it conditioned on the parent-child relationship? Does this right not also extend to caretakers? An adopted parent? A step-parent? The babysitter? The school teacher, should such a circumstance occur while the child is in their care?

The relationship between rights and obligations is complex and nuanced, and none of the anti-choice crowd seem to have put the smallest amount of effort into filling in these complicated spaces, but merely steal the language of philosophy in order to bear the mere facade of academic argument, Koukl included.

Susan Smith Morality

At this point, Koukl wanders away from anything vaguely recognizable as “the point under discussion”, essentially waving a neon sign and blaring through a bullhorn “I do not understand what I claim to have read!”:

Susan Smith shocked the nation with the murder of her children. She believed her two young boys were an obstacle to remarriage, so she placed them in her car, fastened their seat belts, and drove them into the lake.

Smith’s crime was especially obscene because she violated the most fundamental moral obligation of all: the responsibility a mother has for her own children.

  1. No, Susan Smith violated the right to life of her children. It matters not that they were her children, or the children of someone else, her actions violated those rights. And I agree that the more vulnerable the victim and the more responsibility the caretaker has, then the more heinous the crime and the more grotesque that violation. But first and foremost: she violated their right to life.
  2. What in the hell does this have to do with anything in Thompson’s paper?

Yet wouldn’t Susan Smith be exonerated by Thompson’s and McDonagh’s logic? These children were kidnappers and interlopers, trespassing on Smith’s life, depriving her of liberty. Why not kill them? Those boys were attacking her. It was self-defense.

  1. Uh, no?
  2. What?
  3. Citation needed?
  4. What the fuck?
  5. What are you smoking?
  6. May I have some please? (but I promise neither to read academic articles nor write about them while on it, because it clearly impairs reading comprehension)

These comments by Koukl ONLY make sense if you simply do not understand the notion of competing rights, if you believe (contrary to the article that Koukl claims to have read) that the ‘right to an abortion’ == ‘the right to kill your children at any time and place’.

In the examples that Koukl lists, there are no competing rights at stake. It may well be the case that Smith was correct that her children were an obstacle to her getting married in the future, however a wide range of options were available to her beyond a) not getting married again, and b) murdering the child (and, uh, not getting married again). In terms of ethical rights, ‘the right to marriage’ does not exist (sidenote lest I be misread: one definitely has the right to equal treatment under the law, therefore if the state recognises the marriage of anyone, then it must recognise the marriage of everyone). Even if it did, those children are not actively preventing Smith from pursuing marriage, only the beliefs of the people she was dating might be, so her assumed ‘right to marriage’ was not at all in conflict with their right to life.

Seeing as Koukl (and every anti-choice advocate I’ve met who claims to have read Thompson) missed it, here is the penultimate paragraph (again), but in full :

Second, while I am arguing for the permissibility of abortion in some cases, I am not arguing for the right to secure the death of the unborn child. It is easy to confuse these two things in that up to a certain point in the life of the fetus it is not able to survive outside the mother’s body; hence removing it from her body guarantees its death. But they are importantly different. I have argued that you are not morally required to spend nine months in bed, sustaining the life of that violinist, but to say this is by no means to say that if, when you unplug yourself, there is a miracle and he survives, you then have a right to turn round and slit his throat. You may detach yourself even if this costs him his life; you have no right to be guaranteed his death, by some other means, if unplugging yourself does not kill him. There are some people who will feel dissatisfied by this feature of my argument. A woman may be utterly devastated by the thought of a child, a bit of herself, put out for adoption and never seen or heard of again. She may therefore want not merely that the child be detached from her, but more, that it die. Some opponents of abortion are inclined to regard this as beneath contempt–thereby showing insensitivity to what is surely a powerful source of despair. All the same, I agree that the desire for the child’s death is not one which anybody may gratify, should it turn out to be possible to detach the child alive. [All emboldening is mine – Brian]

Personally, I feel that this is *extremely* clearly spelt out, so I’m at a loss as to how all of these people (who insist on having read this paper) have missed this.

Before I read Thompson, I was pretty unclear as to my exact opinion on abortion. I had a sense that women had a right to what went on in their bodies, but also that a child had a right to life and that this right to life was probably higher than a mere preference, but if the mother’s life was at risk, her life superseded the child’s (i.e. my opinion was formed from the changing legal landscape in Ireland while I grew up). I also laboured under the misapprehension that the donor of the inseminating cell had a say over whether an abortion occurred, as they may have a vested interest in the future of that fetus.

While reading Thompson didn’t wipe all of that away immediately, the second or third reading certainly did, and as of that moment there has been no doubt in my mind about what the ethics of abortion are: anytime the mother wishes, Bearing in mind that ‘abortion’ means ‘ending the pregnancy’ NOT ‘murdering the child’, I see no reason to put any limits on the timing of abortion, at all: if the child survives it becomes a ward of the state, and/or is put up for adoption.

This is not to say that there is no disagreement within philosophy with regards to Thompson’s work: of course there is. But unlike the pap produced by Koukl and other anti-choice zealots, the philosophical disagreements are typically about something that Thompson *actually* wrote, rather than some blather that someone claims is an extension of her “logic” (an expression that frustrates me immensely, given how invalid those extensions are…..).

Finally, as I’ve run into several of those same anti-choice people who have insisted that Thompson really, actually believes that the fetus is a person (rather than simply allowing for this for the sake of the argument), I’ll leave the final word to her:

At this place, however, it should be remembered that we have only been pretending throughout that the fetus is a human being from the moment of conception. A very early abortion is surely not the killing of a person, and so is not dealt with by anything I have said here.

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Related posts:
Anti-Abortion Arguments, Including the Secular Ones, are Uninformed Drivel
Because Abortion needs to be explained, apparently



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