Doctors required to lie

I’m a little late to this one, but it bears mentioning:

Doctors in South Dakota are now required to tell a woman seeking an abortion that the procedure “will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique living human being.

You can argue over ‘whole’, over ‘unique’, over ‘living’, over ‘human being’. But separate? I don’t think so. (Thanks, Jender-Parents.)

19 thoughts on “Doctors required to lie

  1. I’m not sure why separate is any less debatable than the others. I hear ‘separate’ as mereological, and while it’s not implausible that a fetus is a mereological part of the woman, it’s not obvious either. If you did think the fetus was a ‘whole, unique, living human being’ then that might well lead you to identify the woman with the mereological subtraction of the fetus from the whole.

    Of course, I don’t think this has anything at all to do with the moral issues concerning either whether it’s permissible to have an abortion or whether it’s permissible for the state to interefere in a woman having an abortion. What seems to matter, to me, is whether the fetus is a person: and it’s interesting that that one isn’t even mentioned in their attempt to prejudice matters.

  2. Ross,
    I must admit that I’m slightly fatigued and frustrated by the ‘are they/are they not’ debate about personhood and foetuses. This is because I find the debate just getting bogged down by conceptual worries about ‘person’ and not focusing on the fact that numerous women end up becoming mothers against their will and/or in social circumstances where they are severely disadvantaged as a result. By contrast, Alison Jaggar “Abortion and a Woman’s Right to Decide”, Philosophical Forum (Winter, 1975) and Jane English, “Abortion and the Concept of a Person”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 5 (1975) have very different and welcome takes on the abortion debate. [Sorry for crappy references – I don’t have time just now to find precise ones!] Very roughly: the moral permissibility of abortion hinges on our current social conditions. Insofar as they are such that women are disadvantaged by unwanted pregnancies (due to lack of adequate state provisions and/or the fact that men sometimes opt out from parenting responsibilities), potential mothers ought to have the right to make abortion decisions. After all, having to go through with an unwanted pregnancy can seriously damage a woman’s future prospects and the wellbeing of both the prospective mother and child. So, whether or not doctors are required to *lie* they probably do withhold important information that ought to be taken into consideration when making abortion decisions, and (at least some) withholding of information is likely to *mislead* prospective mothers. And I think that at least in some cases, this being one such case, misleading is as bad as telling lies.

  3. Ross, I’m not sure what you mean by the mereological sense of ‘separate’. Is it a sense in which my appendix is separate from me? If so, I agree with you that the foetus is separate but I don’t think it’s a common way to understand ‘separate’.

  4. Jender, I was thinking of ‘non-overlapping’ as being the mereological sense of separate: i.e. not sharing any parts in common. So your heart will not be separate from you – what about your appendix, given that it doesn’t do anything, what about a tumour? The answers don’t seem to be obvious either way in those cases; and likewise with a fetus, was my thinking.

    BTPS, I think three questions need to be separated: whether abortion is pro tanto impermissible, whether if so it’s permissible in certain circumstances, and whether the state should have anything to say about whether people can have abortions. I can see why social conditions etc should imapct what we say to the latter two questions; but it seems to me that whether the fetus is a person is at least partly relevant to how we answer the first. If a fetus is a person then I can’t see why it wouldn’t be pro tanto impermissible to abort one. Now, I don’t believe the antecedent; and in any case it can be pro tanto impermissible to abort a fetus and nonetheless permissible to do so in certain circumstances; and also, it might be always impermissible and still it be inappropriate for the state to interfere in a woman having an abortion – so determining personhood sure ain’t going to resolve the issues: but I think it’s got to be relevant to at least some of the issues.

  5. I don’t really get the moral significance of “separate” in a mereological sense, and it does not seem to impact at all on the question of whether a fetus is a person. E.g., whether seemingly conjoined twins are really separate in that sense doesn’t seem to bear on the morality of ending one life, both being persons, etc.

  6. I agree totally JJ (that’s why I said I didn’t think it had anything to do with the moral issues). I also don’t see what being ‘whole’ or ‘unique’ have to do with the moral issues either. I can kind of see why one might think being living or being a human being might be relevant – although I think if it turns out, as I think it does, that there are living human non-persons, then I think that they ultimately irrelevant to the moral issues as well. All I wanted to suggest was that ‘separate’ belonged with ‘unique’ and ‘whole’: it’s questionable whether they’re correctly ascribed to the fetus – but in any case, irrelevant to the moral questions at hand.

  7. Ross, the pragmatist and Marxian backgrounds of many feminist ethicists and political philosophers means that they’re interested, first and foremost, in your third question (“whether the state should have anything to say about whether people can have abortions”) and more general questions about what it takes for women to enjoy the power to make decisions about how their bodies are used. As you point out, the relation between the mother and the fetus is relevant to these questions, while the metaphysics of personhood is at best less relevant than, say, economic issues.

    This is why starting up a metaphysics of personhood/abortion discussion in feminist philosopher company usually gets you icy stares and complaints of red herrings, or the ASCII equivalent. *nods in the direction of BTPS, Jaggar, and English*
    (I’m not presuming you don’t already know this; I just suspect you don’t, based on your two comments. Apologies for coming off as patronizing!)

  8. Noumena et al, I’m really the one who started off the metaphysical discussion, so I should take the blame here. I agree totally that it’s a mistake to prioritise the metaphysical issues. I just thought the idea of foetuses as separate was hilarious and felt the need to call attention to it. In addition, though, calling attention to the interconnectedness of foetuses and women carrying them can be an important thing for feminists to do. Forced childbearing advocates love to present foetuses as if they’re floating on their own in space, and feminists like Margaret Little have done great work on the importance of taking seriously just how un-separate foetuses are. Little argues that even if foetuses are persons (which she grants for the sake of argument) their interconnection to women renders them very different from the persons we usually think about ethically and politically, who are separate beings from one another.

  9. Ross,
    Actually the views put forward by English and Jaggar aim to by-pass the need for the personhood debate even for the first question you pose. For English, even if we grant that fetuses are persons (for the sake of the argument), that does not mean abortion is impermissible. After all, (the argument goes) it’s not impermissible to kill another person for self-defense. And given adverse social conditions many prospective mothers find themselves, abortion can be seen as a kind of self-defense.

  10. But the first question was whether it was pro-tanto wrong to abort a fetus. It’s pro-tanto wrong to kill an adult person. Admittedly, it’s not wrong to kill an adult person in self-defence – that’s why it’s just pro-tanto wrong to kill them. So I don’t see why the personhood debate can be bypassed even wrt the first question – and the English argument only seems directed towards the second.

  11. But the first question was whether it was pro-tanto wrong to abort a fetus. It’s pro-tanto wrong to kill an adult person. Admittedly, it’s not wrong to kill an adult person in self-defence – that’s why it’s just pro-tanto wrong to kill them. So I don’t see why the personhood debate can be bypassed even wrt the first question – and the English argument only seems directed towards the second.

  12. Ross, a further thought re separateness. On your understanding, my heart is not separate from me because I need it to survive. (At least that’s how I understand your contrast with the appendix– correct me if I’m wrong.) Doesn’t it then follow that the foetus (at least till pretty late in pregnancy) is not separate from the woman carrying it, on this understanding?

  13. Do you need the fetus to surive in early stages of pregnancy? Wouldn’t that have to be the case for it to follow that the fetus isn’t separate?

    But really, I don’t want to come down in favour of one principle for determining what is a part of the human animal. On what I think is the most plausible metaphysic, that’s going to turn out to be purely a semantic question anyway, and so it definitely shouldn’t be taken to have any moral consequences. All I really want to commit to is that there’s at least a sense of separatness according to which it’s at least arguable that the fetus is separate form the mother. And so I think the title of this post should have been ‘Doctors required to state quesitonable, and in any case irrelevant, theses’. :-)

  14. I’m not so sure. The problem with Ross’s interpretation is that it doesn’t have the implications, moral or otherwise, for choice. Given that the legislators understood it in a way that they saw as affecting choices and moral quality, we haven’t really gotten at what they were saying. Of course, it is possible that they were wrong about their words or concepts, but we should try again, I think.

    I suspected when I first saw it that there’s something there from the original of much in anti-abortion thought; that is, the Roman Catholic Church and its use of medieval thought. I suspect that the two are separate in some way that refers either to essences or embodied essences, which might make them separable in thought if not physically. We are, after all, talking about a church that believes in one God that’s in some sense also three distinct persons.

    Now one might object that some distinction of embodied essences doesn’t cut much moral ice either, BUT you have to add in that that’s how God created the world. He created it with the mother and child separate in the sense of beings at least distinguishable in thought and that’s as good as physically separable beings as far as each having moral status.

    Does this interpretation have the doctor lying? Well, it has him parroting some lingo that he almost certainly doesn’t understand, and that’s at least a comparable failure.

  15. PS: in fact, I don’t think it is much of a stretch to call it a lie, since it represents as secular material that is in fact thoroughly religious.

  16. JJ, I think it’s worthwhile to look for a charitable interpretation that has the doctors being asked to say things that do indeed have moral import given a certain metaphysic and ethic. I guess I wasn’t inclined to charity in my interpretation: perhaps it’s cynical, but I believe this crowd are instrumentalists about speech acts: as long as it manipulates people to do what they want, it doesn’t matter if it actually made any sense or not.

    Incidentally, it’s interesting that on the issue of fetuses and persons, one of the thinkers Catholics tend to hold in the highest regard, Aquinas, thought that the soul didn’t come into being (or emodiment) with conception, but rather after (I think) 7 weeks. That one seems to have been conveniently ignored in all the anti-choice rhetoric.

  17. More to the point is why it should be anyones business. If you live in a capitalist country, or any country that allows the hoarding of money while other starve to death or get killed because of the neighborhood or because they have had malnutrition for so long or from a lack of access to medicine or medical care or police service or freeze to death, then, that country cannot say it is wrong to kill anyone ever since it intentionally kills so very many everyday with poverty. If it is a country, lie the united states that commits genocide in other intentional ways than poverty, both inside and outside of its borders and is the only country to ever use an atomic bomb then it can REALLY not try to say that it is wrong to kill.
    There is also the misconception, as Toni Morrison so vividly points out in Beloved, that there are so very many things worse than not being alive for so very many.
    Ethicists always want to sit around and mae systems that mae their own genocide moral and the right way to live but then judge others when most of the time the horrid situation is exactly the fault of those making the rules.
    If someone is pregnant and for whatever reason cannot think of having the baby as a good thing, like maybe if they were raped by a man in the house when they were 13 or becuase the neighborhood is too dangerous for even adults or because they are refused anything but slave wages or just because they plain just dont want to it is ONLY thier business, certainly not the business of some group or academic elitists or government officials who have had everything handed to them.
    They always want to act like being a fetus is so wonderful, maybe they should be thinking about lives that arent disgustingly overindulged before they judge. I wont even talk about the religious ridiculousness that so often comes along.
    Everyone wants to mind their own business when the country theyu are a citizen of is torturing during war, they want to mind their own business when people ten minutes down the street are starving, let them keep their head in their own uterus for once when it would be appropriate!

  18. 1 more thing, find a Dr that doesnt lie lol, there is a lifes work cut out for you. Why is it that Drs can intentionally kill by laziness or incompetance or greed but then people act all shocked that they are told to lie, they KILL everyday. So politicians, i.e. liars and murderers tell Drs i.e. liars and murders to lie more, hmmmm

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