Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A quick response to Khaya Dlanga's latest

I generally enjoy Khaya Dlanga's posts as they tend to be a breath of fresh, rational, and occasionally funny air on News24.

But in his latest column, in which he tackles the case of an Australian couple who aborted their twin foetuses because they happened to be male instead of the female that they were aiming for, he sorely disappoints.

He argues that their decision is "frivolous" - that their reasons don't carry the requisite "weight" (my words, not his) to be a reason to abort.
"To abort a child simply because they happened to be a wrong gender is beyond frivolous. If this is permitted, then where do we draw the line? If it were found, for example, that the baby would have green eyes as opposed to the blue that the parents wanted it to have, does that also mean this would be permitted?"
Perhaps their decision is frivolous? I'll have more to say about this below. However the first question we have to ask is why Mr Dlanga doesn't take the time to examine the question in the other direction? He's claims that edge cases like these lead us down a slippery slope to designer families. But what about the other slope? If we deny a woman the right to abort her pregnancy on the grounds that her reasons are frivolous "where do we draw the line" then? Who decides what counts as frivolous?

Well ... uh ... apparently ...
"This is the very reason I believe that States have the right to intervene."
Well, okay - but how can we guarantee that the state will make the kinds of choices that are in the best interest of the mother? How can we guarantee that the state wont use this kind of power to undermine the mother's right to determine what happens with and to her body? We can't, it's impossible. That is one of the the central problems. Furthermore, once we start careening down this other slippery slope, we open the floodgates to a boatload of problems that make so-called frivolous decisions to abort look tame by comparison.

Mr Dlanga goes on to say that
"What the parents have done raises a moral question; even amongst people who support abortion (even though I don't think anyone truly supports abortion because no one goes around bragging about their abortions)."
Supporting abortion - if by this he means being pro-choice - is not the same as heartily endorsing the act of abortion for fun and profit. Supporting abortion, as a pro-choicer, in no way commits one to the the notion that the act of aborting a foetus is a good thing, rather it commits one to the notion that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to see her pregnancy to term regardless of her reasons, frivolous or not.

We pro-choicers are pro-choice because we respect the rights of a woman to decide what happens with her own body as well as her right to determine her future prospects. We don't need to respect the woman who aborts her pregnancy because she (I'm hunting for a truly frivolous reason here) - say - would prefer to spend the time and money that she would have on raising a child to shop for shoes. We have to respect her right to make that choice, frivolous or not.

There is a very important parallel here between abortion and free speech - we don't need to respect what our critics say, what religious fundamentalists say, what "militant" atheists say - but we sure as hell have to respect their right to say it because we recognize that the alternative is far more dangerous.

Make sure you check out Tauriq Moosa's stellar reply to Dlanga.


  1. Well I might as well remove my post. Excellent stuff. Whose doing the ethics degree again?

  2. I enjoyed both Tauriq's and your response to Khaya Dlanga's knee-jerk reaction. But what always interests, and to some extent humours, me is the fact that often a lot of the debate overlooks the possible perspective of the aborted child(ren). What if these twins had been born? Could they have successfully competed against their older siblings knowing that they were unwanted? Could the parents have unconditionally cared and loved for the twins, while constantly reminded that they desired a single baby girl? Often vehement anti-abortionists are very quick to make the claim that every foetus should have a right to be born and experience the world, without taking into account the very real possibility that most of those worldly experiences will be painful, hungry, unloving and cruel.

    Second, what counts as frivolous? Aren't SUV's and luxury sedans frivolous? What about DVDs, CDs, perfume, silk sheets, fine china, a swimming pool, and a good wine? By aborting twins after an expensive IVF procedure, this couple are an exemplary example of the peacock effect and conspicuous consumption (as are many of the world’s affluent, including myself to some degree).

  3. @Tauriq - thanks for the compliment, it's very much appreciated.

    @BM - Thanks. I agree with you, I actually considered including a discussion of whether their being born would be a positive harm (although you'll notice the not-so-sly linking to the wikipedia entry on antinatalism...) but decided to rather focus on the broadly "political" issues raised by Dlanga's post. Great point about conspicuous consumption.

  4. The perspective in your post depends on entirely rejecting the moral status of the foetus. Strangely, the conservatives are often the ones, for all their faults in argument articulation and civility, who take most seriously the ethical nature of abortion as a tragic choice.

    What is most upsetting about abortion is exactly when the right to choose is the only right considered and the tragic choice dimension is absent. The nature of a tragic choice is that there is no right answer e.g. that others might know better. In fact to make it requires that the agent experience to the full the moral conflict involved.

    But in cases like this our unease comes from believing that those involved are not paying due respect to the stakes involved, but are rather making lifestyle choices in the same consumerist frame of mind as buying shoes.

  5. @PB - Thanks for the comment. You're right, in my post I didn't consider the moral status of the foetus, but this is because Dlanga clearly believes that abortion is appropriate and justifiable under certain conditions (namely, non-frivolity), given that he believes it's justifiable, I chose to argue from there.

    With regards to your point about the nature of the tragic choice - I think this is a good point, but I'm not sure that the conservative necessarily take it more seriously.
    Surely we protect the right of the mother to choose JUST BECAUSE it is her responsibility to make and face the tragic choice? Doesn't protecting the right to choose mean that the tragic choice is made right where it should be made, by the mother and not by government?

  6. The concern is not with the woman's right to make the choice herself, but with the form of her reasoning. We want reassurance that she is taking the choice seriously.

  7. @PB - thanks for the comment, much appreciated.

    I think I understand your concern - let me ask you this - if, as you suggest, the nature of the tragic choice is that there "is no right answer", are you then happy to say that whatever choice the mother makes is fine as long as she gives it the requisite type and amount of consideration?

    You say that we want want reassurance that she is taking the choice seriously - that makes sense, but how do we determine this? And who is it that gets to determine this? Is it the philosophers? Elected officials? Do we let the general public take a vote to determine whether or not the process by which she is "serious" enough or not? Does she fill out an affidavit?

    Isn't there a threat of a paternalism lurking here too?
    Maybe that isn't a problem, I don't know?

    Lets say that a woman decides on an abortion with no hesitation and it's perceived as being thoughtless. How do we know that she hasn't reasoned her way through exactly this situation before, hypothetically, that is? Or, when we probe her for reasons, how do we ensure that the reasons she's giving us aren't just post-hoc justifications? Or lying?

    This is a surely a dilemma and like all philosophical problems it is deeply complex. The problem is that unlike most philosophical problems, this has serious political and social ramifications. We can't just stipulate that we want reassurance that a person is going to do X before we enfranchise them to make a weighty decision (one that you've already suggested has no right or wrong answer) - we need to always keep the practical aspect in the front of our minds. We need to consider HOW this is going to be enforced, and by who.

    I want to stress that I agree with you about the nature of the choice. I just don't see how we can reassured of her "taking the choice seriously" without the process being impractical or open to manipulation.

    Perhaps there is some kind of middle ground though? Perhaps there is a role for psychological counselling or something like that?

    What are your thoughts?

  8. Doesn't anyone think the decision to HAVE a baby has more serious consequences than the decision to ABORT a baby?

  9. @Sister Y - On this I agree with you wholeheartedly. Indeed, deciding to have a child has way more serious consequences than deciding to abort, every single time - and along several different axes (ecological, economical, existential, etcetera.)

    But again I didn't bring it up because that wasn't really what Dlanga was discussing in his post.

    Also ... you and Tauriq deal with this kind of thing a lot better than I could.


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