Paije Richardson's dreams of a new life were crushed tonight as the public voted him from the X Factor final rounds. On Dec 9, the fate of another young hopeful will be decided by the people’s choice. But this time it will be a life and death choice. A couple have allegedly given the life of their baby over to popular vote; they are considering having an abortion and have created a public poll which will decide whether they have an abortion or not (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1330860/Should-abortion--decide-U-S-couple-set-website-unborn-child.html)
The abortion vote has been described as “spine-chilling.” The baby is 17 weeks gestation and a healthy boy called “Wiggles.” One pro-lifer was outraged:
'This is shocking.The first thing that came to my mind when I heard of this was the Roman Colosseum, when the mob picked who lived and who died. They are talking about a baby that is 17 weeks old, it has a beating heart, its brain is working and nerve endings throughout its body'
Deciding human life by vote is shocking, but is it wrong?
An Argument in Favour…
Here is one crude argument why it is not wrong. If abortion is available on demand, then any reason suffices to ground a right for abortion. One could have an abortion if one was raped, became unintentionally pregnant, or because the public voted for it.
Consequentialists or utilitarians hold that what matters is the consequences of actions. On these ethical theories, how or why abortion occurs does not matter, apart from their consequences. Either abortion is wrong because a fetus dies or it is permissible because a fetus is not a being with moral status. It would not be more wrong for at least crude consequentialists and utilitarians for a couple to have an abortion because the public voted for it than it would be for any other reason, such as rape, career pressure or the desire for a holiday.
Most people claim not to be consequentialists or utilitarians. They will be concerned with the motivations and reasons of this couple. Virue ethicists are concerned with people's characters, deontologists such as Kantians are concerned with their motivations. So what are their reasons?
Mrs Arnold “fears the pressure of juggling motherhood and a career could cause her to have a nervous breakdown.”
She wrote: 'I'm not convinced that I want to change the status quo. I feel that as I age I've actually gotten more selfish and set in my ways.
'I'm afraid that I will eventually regret starting a family and "settling down", as they say.
'I fear that the constant pressure to be the perfect wife and mother while maintaining a full-time job will eventually cause my brain to implode and lead to a nervous breakdown.'
This couple have apparently desperately wanted to become pregnant: they have suffered two miscarriages in the past ten months - the first at 16 weeks and the second at five weeks. Despite falling pregnant for the third time, the couple are now getting cold feet at the prospect of a life time of parenthood, “unsure whether to proceed because they have put off having a child for so long.”
Mr Arnold said: 'We've put off having a kid for so long that I worry there is stagnation in our desire to do so.
'At first we put it off to finish our childhood, and then I decided mine was not going to end without a push.
'By that time Alisha had just gotten a new job and was getting settled, so we put it off longer.
'Now, nearly ten years after our marriage the prospect of being in my 50s when a kid graduates childhood is a bit unnerving.'
If one did have finely balanced reasons for and against having a child, it would be reasonable to ask the advice of a friend. What about a popular vote? The Arnolds state: 'Voting is such an integral part of the American identity. We vote on everything from the best singer on American Idol to who the next leader of the free world will be.
'Wouldn't it be nice to voice your opinion and have it actually make a difference in the real world? Why not vote on whether to continue or abort an actual pregnancy?'
Utilitarians would surely approve. The utility generated by satisfying these “external preferences” would be a reason in favour of the vote. Indeed, the Arnolds appeal sympathetic to utilitarianism: they want to 'make a difference in the real world'.
If it would be reasonable to either have an abortion or not have one, then the reasons are finely balanced. If the decision were finely balanced, employing some other mechanism which provides external utility is not merely permissible but desirable in virtue of the external utility it provides. If you could reasonably wash your car or read a book, there is nothing wrong with giving the decision over to someone else if they enjoy making the decision for you. The X Factor without the public vote would virtually worthless.
There are two objections to this line of argument. Firstly, the difference between voting for President and voting on the Arnold’s abortion is that we are all a part of a democracy and should vote for our leader who represents us. Yet the Arnold’s abortion is their affair and one which they should take responsibility for. There is a blurring of the public and private, in a rather perverse manner. It is a failure to take responsibility and a failure to act autonomously that is their problem, the objection goes. As one blogger wrote, voting for abortion,
'If you're dumb enough to let random strangers on the internet decide the fate of your family, then you are certainly not mature enough to be parents. You need professional help.'
To be an autonomous person, or an autonomous couple, is to take the responsibility for one’s own decisions. John Stuart Mill, the champion of liberty and autonomy, famously argued that the one freedom we do not have is the freedom to become slaves to another’s will. That is the very antithesis of freedom. The Arnolds, by placing a decision about their lives and their family’s lives, are slaves to the will of a majority.
However the Arnolds are evidently intelligent people. They are not going to necessarily abide by the vote …
'It's kind of like Congress. They might vote for something, but the president has the final veto.
'If it's overwhelming one way or the other, that will carry a lot more weight.'
The second objection is that, although the Arnolds have reasons, those reasons are not strong enough to favour abortion, or deferral to a vote. That is, based on the reasons that they provide, they should have the baby. Their reasons are not good enough to warrant an abortion or, a fortiori, a vote. After all, they have wanted a baby, suffered two miscarriages in one year, have good jobs, and the only reasons they give are selfishness and their older age. But older age is a consequence of delaying child-rearing to establish financial security and is still perfectly compatible with having family successfully. There is nothing wrong with being in your 50s when your children are 20. My own father was 53 when I was born. Aren’t they just being superficial, selfish and narcissistic? Aren’t they just the epitome of the consumerist, materialist modern American who puts themselves ahead of family, children, fundamental values and even life itself?
Here the distinction between law and ethics is important. Ethics is about what people have good reason to do; law is about what people should be compelled to do. It is very difficult for us to evaluate the quality of other people’s reasons and their strength. It may be that the Arnolds have more reason to have the baby. But from a perspective of law and public policy, whether they can have an abortion, or whether they should be compelled to raise a child, should not be determined by some external scrutiny of their reasons because we do not have the public or external means to adequately evaluate their reasons. People can have an abortion for all sorts of reasons, including because they want to have a holiday in the Bahamas. That is the price of liberty – people will make bad or wrong choices. But this is far preferable overall to a system where the state required us to justify our choices and the quality of their reasons and some individual, committee or body was charged with evaluating whether these were good enough to have or not have a family.
The Arnolds may be making the ethically wrong choice, and we should then criticise them, but they should be free to make such a choice. Perhaps that is what they are seeking to demonstrate.
For my own part, I personally believe we have a reason to have children who expect to have good lives: the goodness of the life of a future person. I think abortion is wrong not because it kills a being of moral status but because it deprives the world of being with a valuable life. I believe one must have a good reason to have an abortion.
How strong is this reason to have children? It is not overriding and must be weighed against our other reasons. We can have reasons related to other children or our own lives, or our commitments to the world. But we must be able to cite these for our decisions to be justifiable. The point of being a rational and good person is being able to act on the basis of good reasons and to weigh competing reasons to decide overall what to do.
Somebody who decided to have an abortion just because a coin came up heads would be acting wrongly. The famous novel, Dice Man, tells the story of a man who lives his life by assigning options to a die and follows the throw of a die. It becomes a life of disintegration and incoherence, not a human life.
So, ethics requires that abortion should be for good reason; but from a legal perspective, abortion should be available for any reason.
So much for the arguments … what is really going on?
One thing I have learnt in practical ethics is that there are the arguments and then the rest: the emotions, the real motivations, the politics. What is really going on?
The couple could, of course, really be uncertain and genuinely concerned for people to make a difference …
Or it could be an attention-seeking stunt.
The couple are both in the IT industry and keen bloggers. This is a good way to get hits.
Usually when the competing explanations are incompetence or conspiracy, incompetence is the best explanation. But let’s explore the conspiracy theory in this case.
The Arnolds told U.S. website Gawker: 'We are taking this very seriously. It's definitely not a pro-life campaign, we believe in a woman's right to choose.’ However, on her Facebook page, Mrs Arnold, a methodist, it states she is a fan of right-wing commentator Glenn Beck.
Mr Arnold, a non-practicing Catholic, has made comments in the past in support of former US President George W Bush, who is pro-life. The abortion vote will run right up to 2 days before the legal limit in that state (20 weeks) for an abortion. It is hard to see how one could be organized in 2 days. The couple have had two miscarriages within a year then backflip on their desire to have a child. Their stated reasons are precisely those which would be roundly criticized by prolifers: selfishness, superficiality, failure to grow up and immaturity. This is a calculated extreme version of abortion on demand.
So far, the latest results have favoured abortion, with 43.71 percent voting to keep the baby and 56.29 percent wanting the couple to have an abortion. But the couple have retained the right to veto the final result. It will be interesting to see if they do have abortion if the people decide they want one. My prediction is that they won’t. Just as it is difficult to evaluate the quality of another person’s reasons, it is difficult to ever know their real motivations.
Questions for Students
- Is abortion wrong?
- For which reasons is abortion permissible?
- Is the X- Factor Abortion wrong?
- Should people's motivations matter when considering whether they should be allowed to have an abortion?
- When should other people be allowed to decide for us?
- How would you vote? Why?