I believe, however, that the flaw in the present legislative scheme goes much deeper than that. In essence, what it does is assert that the woman’s capacity to reproduce is not to be subject to her own control. It is to be subject to the control of the state. She may not choose whether to exercise her existing capacity or not to exercise it. This is not, in my view, just a matter of interfering with her right to liberty in the sense (already discussed) of her right to personal autonomy in decision-making, it is a direct interference with her physical “person” as well. She is truly being treated as a means — a means to an end which she does not desire but over which she has no control. She is the passive recipient of a decision made by others as to whether her body is to be used to nurture a new life. Can there be anything that comports less with human dignity and self-respect? How can a woman in this position have any sense of security with respect to her person? I believe that s. 251 of the Criminal Code deprives the pregnant woman of her right to security of the person as well as her right to liberty. – R. v. Morgentaler
Can people have a human right not to exist? This potential right has to be distinguished from the right to die or the right to end your life. In fact, what I’m talking about here is a right not to be born. Can a potential or prospective person have a right that forces her potential parents not to act in such a way that she comes into existence?
It’s common to hear people claim that, in some circumstances, it’s in a person’s interest for her parents to not act in such a way that leads to her conception and birth. And when there’s an interest there’s possibly a right as well. The specific circumstances people often refer to are, for example, the likelihood of genetic defects in the parents that would lead to a life of suffering for the potential child. Indeed, it’s uncontroversial that we can cause harm to a child by bringing about her existence, and when there is harm, there’s often also a right to be protected against such harm.
Less common these days is for people to argue that those who are “burdened” in non-genetic ways – such as the poor – should also not procreate owing to the risk that their children would find themselves leading similarly dismal lives.
So, if prospective parents are in a position to know or to be told that their potential children will lead a life not worth living because of genetic reasons, should they respect the so-called right to non-existence of these potential children? This right – if it exists – imposes a duty on prospective parents not to beget miserable children.
(A short parenthesis: suppose there is such a right not to exist, does that right not imply the existence of the “mirror-right”, namely a right of prospective children to exist when their lives will be very rewarding? In other words, do people have a duty to procreate in some circumstances? Most human rights imply their mirror-right: the right to free association implies the right to leave associations or to not associate at all; the right to free speech implies the right to remain silent; freedom of religion implies freedom from religion etc.
However, the presence of a mirror-right doesn’t always seem to be a necessary corollary of a right. The right to a free trial or the right to be free from discrimination don’t seem to imply any mirror-rights. If we assume, temporarily, that there is a right not to exist, we don’t need to assume that the mirror-right should also exist, if only because there are some serious problems with the possible right to exist, as I’ve argued elsewhere).
Back to the main point of the argument. If you want to defend the right to non-existence you have to distinguish between two cases:
- a right to non-existence belonging to a possible future child, and
- a right to non-existence belonging to a future child.
Case 1 is a right of potential children before conception, and this right would – if we agree that it exists – justify (forced) sterilization and such. Which is already one indication that such a right does not or should not exist. Case 2 is a right of a fetus not to be born, and is a right that would justify some types of abortion.
If we accept the right to non-existence in case 1, we won’t impose harm on children – because they never leave the stage of potential being – but we may impose harm on parents’ procreation rights, privacy rights, physical integrity rights etc. If we accept the right in case 2, we will impose harm on parents if we have to force them to have an abortion in order to protect the fetus’ right to non-existence.
In either case, however, we are dealing with “people” who can’t possibly claim their right to non-existence for themselves, either because they don’t (yet) exist, or because they exist in a form in which they can claim rights. Hence, when we act to realize the right to non-existence, we always act on behalf of the wellbeing of others, potential others even. Given the many problems linked to paternalism, the burden of proof must be very high before we engage in such actions. For instance, it should be abundantly clear that “a life of unbearable suffering” will indeed be unbearable: a life of poverty and illiteracy would still be valuable enough and would not trigger the right to non-existence of the potential children of the poor and illiterate. Hence it would also fail to trigger paternalistic actions such as forced sterilization or forced abortion. On the other hand, a life of constant physical pain brought about by genetic facts could perhaps be of sufficiently low value to trigger the right and the corresponding paternalistic actions, although I personally find it repugnant to consider forced abortion or forced sterilization.
Also, the fact that the bearers of the right in question can’t possibly claim it themselves – either because they’re still a fetus or because they are as yet potential human beings (some, by the way, would claim that a fetus is also no more than a potential human being) – could indicate that it’s impossible to talk about a right in this case. However, some children and comatose patients also can’t claim their rights, but that’s no reason to state that they don’t have any. Maybe it would be better to frame the issue, not in terms of rights, but in terms of the duties that parents have when considering a decision to procreate. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect my promises given to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.
- Brazilian Woman Forced to Carry Fetus Without a Brain (womensrights.change.org)
- shall we end humanity right here, right now? (3quarksdaily.com)
- Should This Be the Last Generation? (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Hundreds of Uzbek Women Report Forced Sterilization (womensrights.change.org)
- Finnis and Singer debate moral status of embryo at Princeton (exlaodicea.wordpress.com)
Wire clothes hangers, because of their use in performing illegal or self-induced abortions (by unfolding and inserting one in the uterus), have become a symbol of pro-choice protests.
This is the original poster from communist Poland:
Here’s an interesting dilemma:
On March 14, Bei Bei Shuai will have spent one full year in jail in Marion County, Indiana. Her crime? The prosecutor calls it attempted feticide and murder. What it really is: attempting suicide while pregnant.
In December 2010 Shuai was running a Chinese restaurant in Indianapolis with her boyfriend, Zhiliang Guan, by whom she was eight months pregnant. Just before Christmas, he informed her that he was married and had another family, to which he was returning. When Shuai begged him to stay, he threw money at her and left her weeping on her knees in a parking lot. Despairing, she took rat poison and wrote a letter in Mandarin saying she was killing herself and would “take this baby with me to Hades”; friends got her to the hospital just in time to save her life. Eight days later her baby, Angel, was delivered by Caesarean section and died of a cerebral hemorrhage within four days. Three months later, the newly elected prosecutor, Terry Curry—a Democrat—brought charges, claiming that the rat poison that almost killed Shuai had killed her baby. If convicted, she faces forty-five to sixty-five years in prison. (source)
The important things to consider are:
- Bei Bei Shuai survived her suicide attempt. No dilemma if she hadn’t, or perhaps a different dilemma. The dilemma we’re considering here is whether Bei Bei Shuai is culpable and this is interesting only because she survived.
- The issue here is not the legality or morality of suicide as such.
- The poor woman was eight months pregnant; had she been two or three months pregnant this would have been akin to abortion, and while abortion is certainly controversial and perhaps even a dilemma, it’s not the dilemma we’re interested in here. Our dilemma is not akin to abortion because most proponents of abortion accept a time limit and abortions at 8 months are generally not accepted, not even by most abortion proponents.
- Time limits on abortion could give way if the child is suffering and has no chance of a decent life. But that is not the case here.
More moral dilemmas here.
Residential picketing is a common form of protest. First you identify someone you don’t like – say an abortion doctor, a bank CEO or a pedophile. Then you find out where she lives, show up with a group of protesters at her home, and stage a long running protest just outside of it. Maybe your group shouts insults or curses every time she goes in or out. Maybe you stay at night as well.
The general rule is that you are allowed to do this. You’re in a public space and you can speak freely, even if your speech is insulting. However, this type of residential picketing can in some cases go so far as to violate the rights of the person who is picketed. Her freedom of movement, her right to privacy and her freedom of residence may suffer. She may feel intimidated, a feeling that forces her to stay at home or away from home. See may feel under siege and no longer safe in the privacy of her home. She may even believe that it’s necessary to move.
The protesters should accept some types of limitation of residential picketing rights when this picketing violates other rights. For example, if they are forced to respect a buffer zone around the residence, then they can still disseminate their message. Their alternatives are much easier and less costly than the alternatives for the person who is picketed. However, they know full well that their message will have a much stronger media impact if it produces some controversy, and harassing someone by keeping her a virtual hostage under siege in her own house is bound to be controversial. Hence they’re not likely to scale down the protest and respect a buffer zone.
The point is that free speech rights are not automatically prior or superior to other rights, especially not if those speech rights are used in such a way that they must violate other rights and that alternative uses are rejected. There’s no hierarchy among human rights and all rights are equivalent. That means that when rights are in conflict with each other, the decision to favor one or the other must take into account the respective costs to one or the other. In this case, the cost to privacy, freedom of movement etc. of allowing free speech is clearly higher than the cost we impose on free speech when we want to protect privacy, movement and residence rights. The protesters can still express themselves outside a buffer zone and in myriad other ways. The person who is picketed can also move to another house, but that is much more costly and possibly futile (given a certain level of persistence among the protesters). The right to free speech does not include a right to maximum impact speech.
Self-ownership, or the property of your own person, is a metaphor for the right to exclusive control of your own body and life. It captures some important intuitions: for example, that you should have a right to end your life as they see fit, that no one should be enslaved and that you generally have a right to decide what to do with your own life. As such it supports the idea of personal autonomy. For some, it also supports the right to abortion and it invalidates taxation.
Others even believe that self-ownership implies a right to sell your own body and life, just as you have a right to sell your other property. If that’s the case, then you have a right to sell yourself into slavery.
However, if self-ownership is understood as merely a metaphor for autonomy then there can’t be a right to sell yourself into slavery. Autonomy, or any other value for that matter, can’t be made to include the seeds of its own destruction. In other words, autonomy can’t include the right to autonomously abdicate your autonomy. Take this quote from Mill:
The ground for thus limiting his power of voluntarily disposing of his own lot is apparent, and is very clearly seen in this extreme case. … [B]y selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it beyond that single act. He, therefore, defeats in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself. (source)
If you insist that values or rights should be made to include their own negation, you’ll end up in Absurdistan. Democracies, for example, should then include the possibility to vote democracy away. Freedom should include the freedom to create totalitarian government. Tolerance should include tolerance of intolerance and of the forces intent on destroying tolerance. I don’t think we want to go there.
So, autonomy must include certain limits if it’s not to collapse under its own weight. This means that it’s legitimate to deny the moral value of – and perhaps even to forbid – autonomous actions that forfeit autonomy. Just like democracy is limited and suppresses anti-democratic movements and votes, and just like tolerance is limited and excludes tolerance of intolerance.
More on self-ownership here.
Gendercide has a number of harmful consequences that aren’t limited to selective abortion and infanticide, but I hadn’t heard of this one yet:
When Munni arrived in this fertile, sugarcane-growing region of north India as a young bride years ago, little did she imagine she would be forced into having sex and bearing children with her husband’s two brothers who had failed to find wives.
“My husband and his parents said I had to share myself with his brothers”, said the woman in her mid-40s, dressed in a yellow sari, sitting in a village community centre in Baghpat district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
“They took me whenever they wanted – day or night. When I resisted, they beat me with anything at hand”, said Munni, who had managed to leave her home after three months only on the pretext of visiting a doctor. …
Social workers say decades of aborting female babies in a deeply patriarchal culture has led to a decline in the population of women in some parts of India, like Baghpat, and in turn has resulted in rising incidents of rape, human trafficking and the emergence of “wife-sharing” among brothers. (source)
I used to believe that the shortage of women resulting from gendercide could in the longer term have a silver lining, in the sense that it could improve women’s bargaining positions relative to men and could therefore also improve their wellbeing and the protection of their rights. But it seems I have to change my mind. More on gendercide here. More absurd human rights violations.
The poor suffer certain specific violations of their right to privacy, and it’s fair to say that in general poverty means less privacy. Being poor often means having substandard housing. Without a proper house, or without a house at all, it’s much more difficult to be private. Furthermore, poverty often implies that people live together in “extended families”, perhaps even with others who aren’t family at all, strictly speaking. And this also reduces privacy in several ways (most obviously the intimate side of privacy).
In addition, being poor means being dependent on government welfare. But in order to benefit from welfare payments, tax credits, subsidies etc. the poor have to prove that they are indeed poor. Hence they have to divulge personal information to the government, and the government has a right to check this information. Some governments even have the right to do home searches in pursuit of welfare fraud.
If you view abortion as an aspect of privacy, then there’s an additional way in which poverty hurts privacy: the poor, because they have less access to birth control, will want to engage in abortion more often, and will therefore have their privacy violated by anti-abortion laws. Because the poor use public transportation more often, they are more likely to be tracked by police surveillance systems. They represent a disproportionate part of the prison population, and prison life obviously isn’t good for privacy. The poor are also more likely to be illegal immigrants, and therefore subject to control by the competent government agencies.
On the other hand, being poor allows people to avoid some types of privacy invasion: they use the internet less and hence are less at risk of internet related privacy violations; the poorest of the poor are less likely to take credit (credit means telling the bank about your income, spending, previous credit scores etc.) or to enroll in fidelity schemes (in which the use of a fidelity card tells the shop what you consume). Perhaps they won’t be taxed as much – or at all – and therefore don’t have to divulge private information to the tax authorities.
Still, on balance poverty is likely to have an adverse effect on privacy. Some even say that the poor are targeted by the government and that they are discriminated in their right to privacy simply because of their poverty. For instance, the way in which governments do home searches in pursuit of welfare fraud would be unthinkable if it were directed at other purposes and other social classes. It seems that the poor don’t only lose their privacy but also their right to privacy.
And poverty often also means the forfeiture of other, non-privacy rights. Simply begging or being homeless can still land you in jail and can get you kicked out of public places. In most countries, the days are gone when poor people were sterilized against their will, excluded from the vote, their children taken away from them etc. But in many parts of the world, poor children are still discouraged from going to school and forced into labor or warfare. Healthcare for the poor is still a problem, even in some developed countries, making it less likely that their health rights are respected. So don’t tell me poverty isn’t a human rights issue.
Here are some interesting numbers on the way Americans think about certain human rights issues:
Assisted suicide is, unfortunately, still condemned by a small majority. Official homicide, on the contrary, is believed to be a good thing according to a large majority. (However, it has been shown that approval rates drop sharply when the alternative to capital punishment is life without parole). Pornography, which according to some is a free speech issue, is rejected by a two-thirds majority. And abortion, according to some a violation of the right to life, is condemned by a small majority. Homosexuality is now accepted by a small majority.
More human rights facts here.
The right to privacy has become increasingly important and contested. Here are just a few examples of areas in which violations of privacy have become more common over the last decades:
- Public safety: many governments claim that the war on terror requires the following limitations of the right to privacy (just as it requires limitations of other rights):
- Transportation and road safety:
- Criminal justice:
- Commerce: sales tracking using fidelity cards or credit cards
Since it’s always good to cite the Universal Declaration when talking about human rights, here’s the article about privacy (#12):
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Types of privacy
Privacy is what is called a cluster concept: it covers many different things, things which may seem unrelated at first sight. So, before I go on, here’s a short and tentative typology of different kinds of “privacies” (I’ll mention later what they have in common):
- Domestic privacy. People have a right to remain secluded and alone in their homes, to keep what happens in their homes and houses to themselves, and to repel intrusion. That’s mostly what is protected by the Fourth Amendment in the US. Issues related to obscenity or pornography laws for example also fall under this type of privacy.
- Personal privacy. People have a right to keep their thoughts, opinions, or feelings to themselves. The secrecy of postal communication for example falls under this type, as does the secret ballot.
- Physical (or intimate) privacy. People have a right not to expose their bodies, as well as a right to repel physical intrusion into their bodies. Abortion and some security checks belong here.
- Informational privacy. People have a right to control what happens to information about themselves (or their families), and to limit involuntary distribution or disclosure of such information. Information here means facts, whether embarrassing or not, rather than opinions. The latter are part of libel law. Information about sexual orientation or salaries is an example of informational privacy.
- Relational privacy. People have a right to keep some of the details about their relationships to themselves. This includes whom they have what type of sexual intercourse with. Sodomy laws violate this kind of privacy, as do laws regulating the use of contraceptives. People also have a right to decide without interference on the type of relationship that suites them best. This covers laws regulating interracial marriages, same-sex marriages etc.
(There’s also the concept of private property, but I think this can be separated from privacy issues, although private property of a home is obviously a necessary condition for domestic privacy, for example).
All these types of privacy have something in common: they are all about independence. Privacy protects an individual’s interest in making independent decisions about her life, family, home, lifestyle, relationships, behavior and communication. All these types of privacy are also about the restriction of access or intrusion. Privacy gives an individual the right to deny access or intrusion by others, more specifically access to or intrusion in her body, her home, her relationships, her mind and certain facts about her life. It’s a right to be let alone.
Justification of privacy
Privacy is justified because it restricts access. Some restrictions of access are necessary for personal identity. There is no “I”, no person, no individual without a border between me and the rest of the world. Such a border is an absolute requirement for the basic human need of personhood and individuality. If people have unlimited access to each other, then there simply won’t be any separate people left. People understood as separate entities require some level of privacy protection. The exact level of privacy and the justified intrusions into people’s private lives are not yet determined by this argument, but the need for some level of privacy and some limitations of intrusions is clear. Other justifications of privacy could be based on the interest people have in intimacy, close personal relationships etc. It’s clear that a world without privacy or even without strong privacy rights would be a horrible world indeed.
Objections to privacy
Some argue that there’s nothing special about privacy and that the concept doesn’t merit an independent existence, let alone legal protection. The many different interests protected by privacy can indeed be protected by other means, such as a right to private property, liberty, bodily security and integrity, or independence.
However, I’m not sure that this is true for all the interests protected by a right to privacy. And an independent notion of privacy gives at least an added protection, partly because of the strong roots of the notion in common language and belief.
Some go even a step further and consider privacy to be detrimental rather than merely superfluous. Marx, for example, viewed privacy as a symptom of an atomized and selfish society, intent on protecting the material self-interest of the haves faced with a possible revolt of the have-nots.
Some feminists as well have forcefully argued that privacy is detrimental to women because of its use as a shield to protect male domination, superiority and abuse. However, it’s not because a right can be abused that it loses all meaning. There wouldn’t be any rights left if that were the case. The challenge is to avoid intrusion in people’s private lives that go too far, while at the same time allowing intrusion that counters abusive private actions. The right to privacy is therefore not an absolute right. But it is a right, and feminists should remember that intrusions into the private sphere can also be detrimental to women (e.g. abortion legislation, forced sterilization etc.).
- The Fourth Amendment: It Has Got to be About More than Privacy (reason.com)
- Q&A: How Do You Define ‘Privacy Harm’? (blogs.wsj.com)
The human sex ratio is approximately 1:1. In many countries, however, and especially in China and India, there are a lot more men than women. The most important cause of this are social and cultural pressures in favor of boys. It’s estimated that there are about 100 million fewer women and girls than there should be. The term “gendercide” has been coined to explain these “missing women”. Sex selective abortions, maternal mortality resulting from substandard healthcare systems, violence against women and girls and other forms of gender discrimination combine to create this gendercide.
Sex selective abortions in some of the richer states of Northern India are creating ratios of just 300 girls for every 1000 boys. This phenomenon is most common among richer families, who can afford to find out the sex of their fetus and pay for an abortion. In poorer families, the problem tends to be neglect of girls and sometimes infanticide. It’s against the law in India to tell expectant parents the sex of their fetus, but the law is poorly enforced.
In China, the one-child policy is aggravating the effect.
Here are a few maps showing skewed sex ratios (the current world wide sex ratio is 107 boys to 100 girls):
About 6.2% of potential female births are aborted in India because ultrasound reveals the sex. That’s 480,000/year, which is more than the number of girls born in the UK each year. The estimates suggest that Indian families desire two boys and a girl (source). And things seem to be getting worse, as is evident from the sex ratio:
Pro-life activists have propagated the narrative that the relatively free abortion rules in the U.S. are somehow a conspiracy to eliminate African-Americans. The organization that funded the billboard depicted above states that after the civil rights era, racists went “underground,” and that today “abortion is the tool they use to stealthily target blacks for extermination”; ” the black community is being targeted by abortionists for the purpose of ethnic cleansing” etc. (source).
In the U.S., black women do in fact have more abortions, but it’s a mighty leap to suggest that this should be explained by a genocidal conspiracy. And even if we would agree that there is a conspiracy at work, it’s an awfully unsuccessful one: fertility rates among black women remain higher than the national average and have inched up in recent years (source).
One piece of “evidence” for the conspiracy thesis is the location of abortion clinics: most are supposedly strategically located in black neighborhoods. However, that claim is incorrect.
It’s odd that those who are alleging racism are the ones being racist here: the conspiracy theory only holds if black women are either callous about their unborn children, or malleable tools in the hands of racist and coercive abortion doctors.
Also odd is the fact that most pro-lifers don’t seem all that worried about other, perhaps more real threats to black children – gun violence, incarceration rates and poverty – or about the general effects of racism on life prospects. If you want to worry about discrimination, racism or genocide, there’s lots of other places where you’ll have no difficulty finding it. And if you want to worry about abortion, maybe it’s good to focus on contraception, sex education, poverty and family stability instead of leaping to the most extreme and unlikely explanations. But perhaps you’re not interested in what you want to explain and only in how you explain it.
By the way, there’s a related and far more serious problem: sex-selective abortion, rather than race selective. But not in the US, fortunately. If you’re looking for the real abortion scandal, there you have it.
- What A Horrible Doctor Can Teach Us About Abortion In America [Roe Vs. World] (jezebel.com)
- Anti-abortion push gains momentum (politico.com)
- Abortion foes upbeat; see chance for tougher curbs (sfgate.com)
I know, this is no substitute for philosophical discussion, but it has the appeal – as well as the lack of nuance – of a good caricature:
(source, click image to enlarge)
I’ve added some numbers and linked them to some less “cartoonish” but also less humorous descriptions:
- This reflects the belief in involuntary and automatic systems (market, invisible hand…). More here and here.
- Reflects the value absolutism of libertarianism and the refusal to get into the “dirty” business of reconciling and balancing different values. More here and here.
- More on privatization here.
- More on big government and gun rights.
- More on the undeserving poor and on Heinlein.
- More on hypocrisy.
- More on some of the extreme consequences of libertarian logic is here.
- More on taxation.
- More on justice and merit.
- More on the libertarian view of the free market is here.
- More on abortion.
- More on the war on drugs, police abuse, and war.
- More on libertarianism and discrimination is here.
- 24 Types of Libertarians vs. 24 Types of Authoritarians (neatorama.com)
Can people have a right to life. In fact, what I’m talking about here is a right to be conceived and/or born, not a right to continue your life after you’re born.? If there is such a right then it has to be distinguished from the
The supposed right to exist is sometimes used to invalidate abortion, and indeed we should distinguish between two possible meanings of the right to exist: the right to exist of a fetus and the right to exist of a merely potential or possible human being (e.g. a human being as the potential child of parents considering conception). I personally would argue that neither a fetus nor a potential human being have a right to exist.
- A fetus doesn’t have a right to exist in the sense in which we understand that right here, not because we are allowed to “terminate” it at will, but because it is already an existing human being (life for me starts at conception, which doesn’t mean that I rule out abortion completely). However, other people who are more willing to tolerate abortion often equate a fetus with a mere potential human being and for them the distinction I make here may seem to be irrelevant.
- Potential human beings, as I understand them (see above), don’t have a right to exist either, in my opinion. If you want to argue the opposite, you would have to claim that all or most possible human beings (given some exceptions) should be born, and that’s physically and biologically impossible. All combinations of sperm and egg should then exist, but once a sperm fertilizes an egg it can’t fertilize another egg. Protecting the right to exist would also mean outlawing spontaneous abortions and male masturbation*, and that’s wildly counterintuitive. It would also mean a correlative obligation to procreate, which is also counterintuitive.
More about human rights and sex is here.
* Congratulations readers, you’re the first people to discover the link between masturbation and human rights!
In June 1964, a woman was found dead from an illegal abortion on a Norwich, Connecticut motel room floor. She was identified by her sister as Gerri Santoro, a mother of two facing her third pregnancy. Santoro and her two daughters had been victims of an abusive husband/father. Santoro was just 28 years old, and was 6.5 months pregnant with her secret lover’s baby. He took her to the motel, and fled when the self-induced abortion went wrong, abandoning dying Santoro behind. (He was arrested but served only a year for manslaughter). (source)
Well, possessing and carrying firearms certainly isn’t a human right since it’s not mentioned in any global human rights treaty or declaration. Neither is it a right that’s demanded by the majority of people in the world. It seems to be an exclusive preoccupation of many in the U.S., where the Second Amendment to the Constitution declares:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. (source)
Guns and violence
Whether or not this is an example for other countries to follow, or whether or not this is a good thing for the U.S., are questions worth pondering. The fact that Americans kill one another at a much higher rate than do residents of comparable western European nations, and that this gap persists despite a roughly 40 percent drop in the US homicide rate in the last 15 years or so, is a first indication the answer to those questions is likely to be negative. Gun rights in the U.S. has led to widespread gun possession:
The United States has the largest number of guns in private hands of any country in the world with 60 million people owning a combined arsenal of over 200 million firearms. (source)
And it so happens that this widespread possession is correlated with high crime rates. However, this correlation between gun ownership and violence doesn’t have to be causal. Both numbers can have a third factor causing them both, such as high levels of endemic aggression. Reducing the number of guns would then perhaps fail to reduce the levels of violence. However, I don’t believe in such a third factor and there is proof of a causal link between guns and aggression:
Do guns make men more aggressive? Looks like the answer is “Yes, unless they handle guns a lot.” … We tested whether interacting with a gun increased testosterone levels and later aggressive behavior. Thirty male college students provided a saliva sample (for testosterone assay), interacted with either a gun or a children’s toy for 15 min, and then provided another saliva sample. Next, subjects added as much hot sauce as they wanted to a cup of water they believed another subject would have to drink. Males who interacted with the gun showed significantly greater increases in testosterone and added more hot sauce to the water than did those who interacted with the children’s toy. Moreover, increases in testosterone partially mediated the effects of interacting with the gun on this aggressive behavior. (source)
On the other side of the argument, you have people claiming that more guns mean less crime. Gun possession is supposed to have a deterrent effect on criminals. At first sight, that sounds convincing: when potential criminals know that there’s a high probability that their potential victims carry or possess guns, they may think twice before deciding to rob someone. Still, how does this square with the correlation mentioned above? Why is there so much crime in the U.S. if gun ownership deters crime? The only explanation is that crime rates would be even higher in the U.S. without gun rights:
Because … while we hear about the murders and accidents, we don’t often hear about the crimes stopped because would-be victims showed a gun and scared criminals away. Those thwarted crimes and lives saved usually aren’t reported to police (sometimes for fear the gun will be confiscated), and when they are reported, the media tend to ignore them. No bang, no news. It is quite clear that we have not seen any massive increase in crime, even though we have shifted from a situation where about 10 states allowed nearly every law-abiding adult to get a concealed carry license to a situation where 40 states do. So the fears of gun control proponents certainly have not materialized. (source)
The argument is that while guns may be dangerous and lead to murders and violence, gun ownership for self-defense purposes often prevents violent crime and thereby saves lives. Gun rights activists claim that on balance the gain is larger than the loss. Moreover, they argue that other rights can also cost lives (free speech for nazis can lead to authoritarian rule, rights ensuring that people have a fair trial can result in criminals escaping jail sentence etc.).
Supposing all this is true, the question is then what on earth is wrong with the American psyche that even a supposedly massive deterrent effect still produces crime rates that are higher than in other comparable countries that don’t have the same deterrent? I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with Americans, and hence this deterrent effect is probably largely imaginary (as are other deterrent effects).
I should also mention that the “more guns, less crime” narrative that claims that the number of lives saved by guns is larger than the number lost, often relies heavily on some seriously flawed research by the notorious John R. Lott (read more about this guy’s methods here and here). If you see or hear anyone defending gun rights and using Lott’s work, you can safely move on.
However, even if it’s not clear that a consequentialist or utilitarian defense of gun rights can work (that in other words gun rights produce overall higher utility levels that gun prohibition or gun control), it’s still possible to make a rights-based case for gun rights. You can argue that people have a right to the means of self-defense, whatever the overall balance of violence. I personally think that this is the strongest of the arguments in favor of gun rights. If you can connect gun rights to existing human rights such as the right to life and the right to physical security, you can make a strong case.
For decades, liberals have insisted that the Constitution assumes—even if it does not explicitly spell out—a right to bodily autonomy. This right, long disputed by conservatives, is a basis for arguments in favor of abortion rights and gay rights. Liberals who support gun rights find a similar implied right to own weapons: after all, they say, what is the right to bear arms but the ability to protect your body from criminals as well as the government? The right to bear arms gives you a mechanism to protect your bodily autonomy from attack. (source)
This link to abortion is an interesting one. Both abortion and gun rights can be defended on the basis of bodily autonomy, self-determination and self-defense. But then again, it’s rarely the same people who defend abortion rights and gun rights. On the contrary, gun rights activists are often decidedly against abortion. There’s an interesting story here about a campaign against abortion in black families.
“BLACK CHILDREN ARE AN ENDANGERED SPECIES,” the billboards proclaim. Posted in dozens of locations in Atlanta’s black neighborhoods, they direct readers to a Web site that denounces abortion as a racist conspiracy. Through them, the pro-life movement is sending a message that it cares about the lives of black people. But does it?
The Web site plays every race card in the deck. It says “abortion is the tool [racists] use to stealthily target blacks for extermination.” It calls on readers to “expose the insidiousness of the pro-abortion agenda and its real target: the black community.” It touts the support of “Dr. King,” a niece of Martin Luther King Jr. “I know for sure that the black community is being targeted by abortionists for the purpose of ethnic cleansing,” she asserts.
What’s the basis for these charges? The campaign points to eugenic ideas and influences in the early birth-control movement. But its chief evidence is abortion rates. “Abortions in the black community occur at 3x the rate of those among the white population and 2x that of all other races combined,” the site points out. “The truth screams loud and clear—we are killing our very future.”
The numbers are provocative. But there’s something odd about the billboards. The child who appears beside the text is fully born. Abortion doesn’t kill such children. What kills them, all too often, is shooting. If you wanted to save living, breathing, fully born children from a tool of extermination that is literally targeting blacks, the first problem you would focus on is guns. They are killing the present, not just the future. But the sponsors of the “endangered species” ads don’t support gun control. They oppose it. … Maybe that’s why blacks, unlike whites, strongly favor gun control. (source)
This example of how gun control can help the black minority in the U.S. is often countered with another example of how it has been used to work against blacks. Gun control does indeed have a history as a tool for subjugation of blacks.
After the Civil War, the defeated Southern states aimed to preserve slavery in fact if not in law. The states enacted Black Codes which barred the black freedmen from exercising basic civil rights, including the right to bear arms. Mississippi’s provision was typical: No freedman “shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition.” (source)
Gun control left the freedman defenseless against the KKK and unable to form militias to resist white terrorism. However, I fail to see how a very specific and largely closed period in American history can justify rights more than 100 years later, especially if there are contemporary examples pointing the other way.
A final self-defense argument against gun control is the possible revolution against a dictatorial government. The “people” may need firearms to rise up when government becomes tyrannical. Now, I know that there’s currently a lot of right-wing anti-Obama hysteria and paranoia doing the rounds about a supposed dictatorial plot. However, I think it’s very unlikely that any U.S. government can ever achieve tyranny, even if it very much wanted to. And suppose it did, how can you be so foolish to believe that handguns would allow the people to defeat the superior firepower of the U.S. government?
Regardless of your position on the Second Amendment, whether the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms is “fundamental” to “our scheme of ordered liberty” is severely questionable. Certainly other countries are able to have something that we would call “ordered liberty” without ironclad protection of firearms ownership rights. And while historically there may have been instances where the ability of the citizenry to safeguard or expand “ordered liberty” via ownership of firearms, the restrictions that are allowed on the Second Amendment under Heller ensure that the government’s advantage in firepower will be insurmountable in such hypothetical circumstances nowadays. (source)
What I personally would favor is not prohibition but extensive gun control, including bans on gun possession by felons or minors etc., bans on the open or concealed carry of guns in certain places such as schools etc. I can understand why some people think they need a gun for self-defense. The question is, however, if restrictions on gun rights will still be possible after the recent Supreme Court case, McDonald v. City of Chicago.
The argument that gun control laws don’t work and don’t bring down the number of crimes isn’t necessarily correct. You would have to measure against the counterfactual, which is very difficult: without gun control laws, crime would perhaps have gone up, so a failure to reduce crime isn’t necessarily a failure of gun control laws. Maybe they simply reduced the growth in crime rates. Also, failure to bring down crime rates may be not the fault of gun control laws but of the way they are designed or enforced. And anyway, there is evidence that gun control laws do bring down crime rates.
Public support for gun rights in the U.S. is on the increase, at least among those parts of the population that don’t bear the brunt of gun violence, i.e. whites:
Whites said by a plurality of 50 percent to 44 percent that it was more important to protect the right to own guns than to control gun ownership. But an overwhelming majority of blacks, 72 percent to 20 percent, said it was more important to control gun ownership.
Here are a few maps that show the adoption of laws in the U.S. that allow people to carry concealed weapons. Concealed-carry laws have become much more permissive. There’s another map here with a state-by-state detail of the laws on open carry and concealed carry.
More on the second amendment here.
Although I’m ambivalent on the issue of abortion, this strikes me as absurd:
The cruelty of Nicaragua’s extreme abortion ban is undeniable in the case of Amelia (an alias), a 27-year-old woman with cancer. Passed in 2006, the law criminalizes abortion, even if the woman’s life or health is at risk. Amelia, who has a 10-year-old daughter, needs to have an abortion so she can undergo treatment for the cancer, which may have metastasized in her brain, lungs and breasts…
From a statement from … organizations [advocating on behalf of Amelia]: Even though the treating physicians concluded that the patient requires an abortion to initiate chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment, the young woman has been hospitalized since January 29th without being able to receive an abortion and therefore, without receiving any kind of treatment to stop the cancer.
Under these circumstances, Amelia is in imminent danger of losing her life, given the impossibility of accessing an abortion. Under current Nicaraguan law, women in need of therapeutic abortions to save their life or protect their health are in fact, sentenced to death. Additionally, in this case, her minor daughter would be orphaned. (source)
The Economist has a front page story this week on “gendercide”, the millions of girls missing in the world, especially in India and China. Perhaps as many as 100 million girls have disappeared in the last decades because of
- selective abortions encouraged by new medical technology (ultrasounds and fertility technology)
- childhood neglect of girls (nutritional, educational neglect and neglect in health care)
- prejudice, preference for male offspring and
- population policies such as the “one child policy” in China.
I’ve written about this several times before (see here, here and here), and even called it a “boomerang human rights violation“: the skewed sex ratios that result from gendercide (in some areas of China, 130 boys are being born for every 100 girls) are coming back to haunt the men that are responsible (although many mothers probably aren’t without fault either). Because of their relative scarcity, women have found an unlikely source of power. They have a competitive advantage in the marriage market, and can demand more in marriage negotiations, or at least be more selective when choosing a mate.
In my view, the word “gendercide” is somewhat overwrought because, contrary to genocide, the word that inspired the neologism of gendercide, there’s no centralized plan to exterminate women. Femicide would be a better term since it’s obviously only one of two genders that’s targeted, but it still sounds like a government organized campaign of extermination. Gendercide is the result of a combination of causes:
- individual choices based on
- plain prejudice against girls
- cultural and legal traditions, or
- economic incentives that have been formed by historical prejudice.
Perhaps girls still need a dowry, and poor parents may find it difficult to save enough and hence prefer a boy. Or perhaps they prefer a boy because the law of their country or tribe – inspired by age-old prejudice – says that only boys can inherit land or the family business. Again, the parents may prefer a boy for this reason, not because they dislike girls. Or perhaps tradition holds that girls marry off into their husbands families, and parents simply want to be sure to have someone in their home to care for them when they are old (“raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden”, is a Hindu saying).
The consequences of gendercide are mixed. It’s obviously horrible to the girls that are aborted or neglected to death. But, as in the “boomerang” case cited above, gendercide may ultimately empower women. However, the skewed sex ratios also spell trouble: the presence of armies of men who can’t find wives and have children (“bare branches” or “guanggun” they are called in China) may result in more sexual violence, depression, suicide, human trafficking etc. It’s estimated that in 10 years time, one in five young Chinese men won’t be able to find a bride. On the other hand, a shortage of women will encourage immigration, and immigration may help some women escape poverty, and perhaps will also result in more intercultural tolerance.
Economic development won’t stop it. In China and India, the regions with the worst sex ratios are wealthy ones, with educated populations. Even in some population strata in the U.S. sex ratios are skewed. When people escape poverty, fertility rates drop, and when families have fewer children, the need to select for sex only becomes more important in order to realize their son preference. In poor societies with high fertility rates, families are almost destined to have a boy at some point. Female children will suffer relative neglect and may die more often and more rapidly (skewing the sex ratios), but selective abortions aren’t much of a risk: families don’t really feel the need to limit the number of children (on the contrary often, because children are a workforce), and ultrasound technology for sex determination of fetuses isn’t as readily available as in rich countries or regions. When families want few children – as they do in more developed regions – or are forced by the government to limit their number of children (as in China), they will abort female fetuses in pursuit of a son.
Ultimately, only a cultural change will help. The son preference has to die out. Education probably will help, as it always does. Ending pernicious policies such as the one child policy will also help, but then overpopulation hysterics will have to be dealt with. This policy didn’t help stop population growth anyway. Other East Asian countries reduced population pressure as much as China without brutal policies.
Old customs and discriminating laws should also be abolished. Think of the dowry system, or inheritance rights. Stigmatizing abortion, especially sex selective abortion, will also help.
From The Washington Post, a story about a bizarre reaction to an odd proposal:
The House of Delegates [of Virginia] is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a bill that would protect Virginians from attempts by employers or insurance companies to implant microchips in their bodies against their will. It might also save humanity from the antichrist, some supporters think.
Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg), the bill’s sponsor, said that privacy issues are the chief concern behind his attempt to criminalize the involuntary implantation of microchips. But he also said he shared concerns that the devices could someday be used as the “mark of the beast” described in the Book of Revelation.
“My understanding — I’m not a theologian — but there’s a prophecy in the Bible that says you’ll have to receive a mark, or you can neither buy nor sell things in end times,” Cole said. “Some people think these computer chips might be that mark.”
Cole said that the growing use of microchips could allow employers, insurers or the government to track people against their will and that implanting a foreign object into a human being could also have adverse health effects. “I just think you should have the right to control your own body,” Cole said.
Microchips, which use radio frequency identification, have been used in pets to identify and track them. Proponents suggest that such chips could be invaluable in making people’s medical records portable and secure and in helping to identify and find missing children. Others have urged they be used with Alzheimer’s disease patients.
But the growing use of microchips has collided with the Book of Revelation. The biblical passage in question is in Chapter 13 and describes the rise of a satanic figure known as “the Beast”: “He causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”
David Neff, editor of the magazine Christianity Today, said that some fundamentalist Christians believe that bar codes and implanted microchips could be used by a totalitarian government to control commerce — a sign of the coming end of the world.
“This is part of a larger attempt to constantly read current history in the light of the symbolic language of the Book of Revelation,” he said.
While the chip story is indeed slightly odd and suspect – people should be in control over what happens to their bodies, and they shouldn’t have microchips implanted in them because these chips could potentially be used to track them and invade their privacy – it’s absolutely nonsensical to interpret it in the light of the Apocalypse. That will only serve to drown legitimate criticism of such proposals. It’s also weird that Christians suddenly start to worry about individual self-determination, when their opposition to euthanasia, assisted suicide, suicide in general, and abortion rests on complete disrespect for it. Human rights have enough enemies, no need to go and add the Beast.
(Thanks to Eva Declercq for unwittingly suggesting this topic).
The politics of the body, or “body politics”, is a concept, originally used by early feminists I believe, to describe government policies or laws and cultural or social practices used by society to regulate and control the human body. Feminists focus on the female body but the case can be made that society controls both the female and the male body, obviously not always in the same way. The concept is also used to describe the opposite: the struggle against the social and political powers that try to control the body and the act of reclaiming bodily self-control, or corporal self-determination. Body politics has therefore a positive and a negative meaning: it’s both subordination and emancipation.
Corporal self-determination is obviously an important value. People should, in general, be able to do with their body what they want, free from interference by the state, by individuals or by groups in society.
Here are some examples of body politics:
Whether or not you believe that abortion should be allowed, you have to accept that legal prohibition and moral dissuasion of abortion are examples of body politics. In both cases, women who want an abortion lose their power to decide autonomously what to do with their bodies; society imposes rules on what individuals are allowed to do with their bodies; and power – legal or moral – is used to enforce these rules. You may believe that these rules are necessary in order to protect an overriding value that trumps the value of self-determination, in this case probably the value of the life of the unborn infant, or perhaps even the right to self-determination of the unborn infant. But you can’t dispute that you engage in body politics.
Similarly, legislation or social taboos prohibiting the free trade of organs (see also here) impose restrictions on the things people can do with their bodies. However, the analogy with abortion isn’t perfect, because proponents of restrictions can arguably claim that the sale of organs isn’t an expression of self-determination but of the lack of it: it’s typically poor people who are driven to the extreme of organ sale as a means to stay alive, while the richer you are the easier it is to get an abortion. Organ sale is then not an expression of the freedom to do with your body what you like, without paternalistic interference, but an expression of necessity and lack of freedom. Whatever the merits of this argument, restrictions on organ trade are clearly an example of body politics.
Capital punishment, corporal punishment, imprisonment
The state uses power in order to enforce or enact criminal punishment, and this is often power directed against the body of the convicted criminal and eliminating the criminal’s corporal self-determination (see here and here). There’s also the quasi-institutional practice of prison rape.
Sex trafficking and slavery, sexual violence, arranged marriages
Cultural norms regarding the acceptability of sexual violence (e.g. rape as a form of punishment, or female genital mutilation), of arranged marriages (which can be labeled a form of sexual violence), of the sale of children or wives for the purpose of prostitution are also examples of body politics. The women and children in question obviously lose their corporal self-determination.
Gender discrimination, the inferior treatment of women, and the imposition of gender roles, whether legally sanctioned or not, are other examples, although with a twist. Gender discrimination can remove the power of corporal self-determination of the women who fall victim to it – e.g. in the case of gender discrimination as expressed in sexual violence or in rules restricting the freedom of movement of women. But it doesn’t have to. For example, gender discrimination in wages (the wage gap) doesn’t affect corporal self-determination.
The body politics inherent in gender discrimination is more evident in the origins of discrimination than in the results. Gender roles, which often result in gender discrimination, are based on certain convictions regarding the physical inferiority of women (e.g. their lack of physical strength), or on the belief that the female body is made for specific tasks, and is perhaps even better than the male body for these tasks.
Likewise, rules that discriminate against women and restrict the things they can do, are generally based on dubious theories regarding the nature of the female body. Women are said to promote carnal lust, and their equal participation in life would have disrupting and destructive consequences.
Similarly, legislation or social taboos against homosexual relationships remove corporal self-determination and are based on certain beliefs about the nature of the human body.
Clearly, this isn’t a complete list of all possible cases of body politics, but it can serve the purpose of illustration (other examples could include rules prohibiting interracial marriage, bestiality taboos, legislation against assisted suicide etc.). What is also clear is that every case isn’t equally detrimental for self-determination. Some cases can even be justifiable from a liberal perspective. Self-determination, after all, isn’t the only value, and neither is it a value that necessarily trumps other values.
Perhaps it’s useful to put these examples of body politics in a drawing:
In already mentioned in my previous, theoretical post on assisted suicide and euthanasia, that class discrimination is one of the problems arising from the policies of many countries: by outlawing the practice of assisted suicide, against sound moral arguments, they force people to go abroad to find an expensive solution in more liberal countries (such as Switzerland). Poor people wanting to exercise their right to self-determination, are stuck with the “cheap and dirty” solutions or with no solution at all if they are incapacitated and can’t take matters into their own hands.
The UK government seems particularly eager to deny people the right to decide on their own lives. Here’s a story highlighting the absurdity of UK policies regarding assisted suicide (although most other countries aren’t performing any better):
Dr Michael Irwin, 78, a former GP said today he hoped to be prosecuted for helping a terminally ill man to have an assisted suicide. … He wanted to highlight the “hypocrisy” of a system where the wealthy could pay to travel to Switzerland’s Dignitas clinic for euthanasia but the poor could not.
He will be questioned by police today after writing a cheque for £1,500 towards the cost of 58-year-old Raymond Cutkelvin‘s procedure at Dignitas. Cutkelvin, of Hackney in east London, was diagnosed with an inoperable tumour of the pancreas in 2006 and died the following year at the clinic. His partner of 28 years, Alan Cutkelvin Rees, 57, accompanied him to Switzerland and has since been arrested on suspicion of aiding a suicide.
Irwin … would welcome a criminal trial. He said: “I’m 78, I’m a humanist, I want to try to make the world a better place and I hope that a trial might make that closer to utopia.” Irwin said he would give police all the details of the role he played in Cutkelvin’s death. “I shall be very open about having helped a man who was dying from advanced cancer of the pancreas, that in February 2007 he and his partner and I and two other people went to Zurich, to Dignitas, at that time.”
He said the couple were struggling financially, and he had paid a third of the total cost of the journey. “I think it is the height of hypocrisy in this country where if you have the money, you are terminally ill and you want to go to Switzerland, you can do so. Those who can’t afford it do not make that journey.” (source)
What next? A fine for British Airways for “aiding and abetting”? And this kind of class discrimination isn’t limited to assisted suicide:
It reminds me of one of the common arguments over abortion laws. Women in countries like Portugal (which has restrictive abortion laws) or states like South Dakota (where virtually no clinics provide the service) often need to travel far distances to obtain the service. Which means the rich are able, and the poor aren’t. (source)
This isn’t a defense of abortion – I’m generally reluctant to accept abortion rights. But I can see the negative consequences of banning abortion. Discrimination of the poor is one result. Health risks for the mother is another (see here and here).
More posts in this series on absurd human rights violations are here.
You can see from the graph below that the numbers of abortions, compared to 15 years ago, are down: from 35 abortions per 1,000 women to 29. This reduction took place all over the world, albeit not in equal measure everywhere. Unintended pregnancies have also fallen, from 69 per 1,000 women in 1995 to 55 per 1,000 in 2008, as contraception use has increased.
The graph also shows that most abortions in Africa and Latin America, and half of abortions worldwide, are unsafe (carried out by an unskilled practitioner in unhygienic conditions) and therefore a possible violation of the right to health of women.
Something which isn’t evident from this graph: almost half of the world’s women live in countries where abortion is severely restricted by law (a number that has hardly changed over time). These laws do not prevent abortion, which you can see from the numbers for Latin America, where abortion is practically outlawed. The numbers there are as high as anywhere else, if not higher. Moreover, as abortion is illegal there, most abortions are unsafe.
More on abortion.
After a first attempt, I kinda got the taste for this. So here are a few more “improved” signs:
(source of the original)
I can understand that for some people the right to life is negated by abortion. And if you really believe that Obama is a Soviet-style “socialist”, then it’s clear he’s the negation of liberty. But welfare the opposite of the pursuit of happiness? Sorry, me no understand. How can the absence of welfare possible contribute to the pursuit of happiness? Is hunger, poverty, lack of healthcare and education part of the pursuit of happiness? And is the effort to do something about these problems the end of happiness?
Here’s another one:
(source of the original)
Some confusion about the meaning of “spreading” here, it seems. And, to be fair to the teabaggers, this next remix (hopefully) shows the conceit inherent in all political protesting, not just the tea-party type:
(source of the original which included the comment: “You have worked hard for you money. Why does the government think they have the right to take your money and bail out failed businesses, mortgages and more???”)
Some more data following two earlier posts on the subject of gendercide (see here and here). The word gendercide describes the results of sex-selective abortions that take place on a massive scale in some countries, particularly India and China. These abortions have led to the “disappearance” of perhaps more than 100 million girls and women (or about 1 million a year). Evidence of this can be found in the abnormal sex-ratios in both countries:
The sex ratio at birth was only 893 female births per 1,000 male births in China and India and 885 in South Korea (as compared to 980 for Kenya and South Africa and 952 for Cambodia and Mexico). … In India, the juvenile sex ratio (often defined as the sex ratio among children aged 0-6 years) has been falling … over the last 3-4 decades – from 964 females per 1,000 males in 1971 to 927 in 2001. … In China, too, the problem has become more acute over time. A study based on a survey of over 5 million children in China found that among children born between 1985 and 1989, there were 926 female births for 1,000 male births. But, among children born between 2000 and 2004, the number had fallen to 806. Thus, in both countries, the situation appears to be worsening. (source)
The main reason for these gendercides seems to be a strong cultural preference for male offspring. This makes it difficult to do something about it. Cultures change very slowly. Outlawing sex-selective abortions and prenatal ultrasounds doesn’t seem to work very well. It has been tried in both China and India, but the sex-ratios don’t seem to improve much.
It might seem that improving literacy and schooling among women might reduce the parental preference for sons. However, here, too, the evidence is not encouraging. There is disturbing evidence from India which points to a worsening of the juvenile sex ratio with increased female education and literacy. Why the perverse effect? A possible explanation has to do with the negative effect of female literacy on fertility. Educated women tend to have fewer children than less-educated women, and, in the context of a strong son-preference culture, the lower levels of fertility lead to greater pressure on couples to have boys instead of girls. This relationship between fertility decline and lower juvenile sex ratios has also been observed in South Korea and China. (source)
The only successful counter-measures are those that tackle gender discrimination at the root. There will no longer be parental preference for male children when man and women are considered equal human beings.
It is important to recognize that one (although not the only) reason for son preference is that, historically, inheritance laws in both countries have favored sons over daughters. While both countries now do not restrict women’s access to parental property, customary practices which consider sons the natural heirs of land are still prevalent in much of rural China and India. India only recently (in 2004) removed the discriminatory provisions of earlier legislation and allowed parents to bequeath their property to their daughters.
What is needed in both countries to combat the scourge of low juvenile sex ratios is a package of interventions that includes stricter enforcement of equal inheritance laws, economic incentives for parents to have daughters and educate them, and an educational curriculum at the primary and middle school levels that highlights the importance of equal treatment of boys and girls in the family. Even with such a package, it will take years for attitudes to change and for the practice of prenatal sex selection and neglect of the girl child to end. (source)
More on gender discrimination.
Question 1: if you knew a woman who was pregnant, who had 8 kids already, three who were deaf, two who were blind, one mentally retarded, and she had syphilis, would you recommend that she have an abortion? Read the next question before looking at the response for this one.
Question 2: it is time to elect a new world leader, and only your vote counts. Here are the facts about the three candidates.
Candidate A: associates with crooked politicians, and consults with an astrologist. He’s had two mistresses. He also chain smokes and drinks 8 to 10 martinis a day.
Candidate B: he was kicked out of office twice, sleeps until noon, used opium in college and drinks a quart of whiskey every evening.
Candidate C: he is a decorated war hero, he’s a vegetarian, doesn’t smoke, only drinks an occasional beer and never cheated on his wife.
Which of these candidates would be your choice? Decide first … no peeking, then scroll down for the response.
Candidate A is Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Candidate B is Winston Churchill.
Candidate C is Hitler.
I often have the impression that people transform the right to free expression into a duty to free expression. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. For example, Muslims in western countries are often told that they should distance themselves from the more violent members of their religion. We require them to speak out against Muslim terrorism.
Another example: politicians, especially in the U.S., are required to speak out on a number of subjects, e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, their faith in God etc. As if it would be a disaster to elect a politician who happens to doubt about abortion. After all, many people do (myself included).
A somewhat exaggerated view on democratic transparency is undoubtedly a small part of the explanation for this. Democracy can’t function without public knowledge of politicians’ opinions, or without some sense of what our fellow citizens believe (part of democracy is group formation, and group formation is based on discussion and persuasion; and you can’t persuade someone if you don’t know what he or she believes).
But the most important cause of this “duty of expression” is, I think, the manichean nature of contemporary politics. Every issue is painted in black and white, good and evil, for or against. Much of the blame for this lies with former President Bush and his style of politics, although of course he wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last. We force people to express themselves on issues so that we can see if they are with us or against us. And if someone expresses him or herself in a nuanced way we automatically assume that he or she takes a position opposite from our own. For example, if Muslims reject Islamic terrorism but at the same time point to the situation in Palestine, we assume that they really think terrorism is OK, or justifiable given certain circumstances. We can’t accept muddled or nuanced middle ground positions, or positions which change according to the circumstances. Gray isn’t an option.
Clarity, simplicity and certainty are important human objectives, but often they aren’t appropriate in thinking. Of course, sometimes manicheism is the only possible position: you either believe in the holocaust or you don’t; there’s no middle ground, and those who don’t believe in it are either stupid or evil. But when it comes to political or moral opinions (rather than facts), those who really think about them often find themselves occupying a gray, complex and uncertain position.
I suspect that the difficulty to let go of manicheism and to accept uncertainty and nuance has something to do with the nature of democratic politics. It’s hard to vote for nuance, and easy to vote for or against a clear and simple proposition. And simple propositions get more attention, sell better and make it easier to mobilize large constituencies (see the cartoon below). But then again, when we look at political reality, manicheism is much more common in autocratic societies. The public debate on issues which is made possible by democratic societies forces nuance to appear.
(source, click on the image to enlarge)
The difficulty to let go of manicheism also has something to do with the fear of the other extreme: the paralysis that follows from endless nuancing and thinking. Politics is a realm where decisions have to be taken, contrary to philosophy where thinking is unending in principle.
However, it doesn’t follow from this that decisiveness has to be manicheism. Decisions can be based on nuanced thinking. The risk of paralysis is averted by the realization that our decisions, often taken under the pressure of urgency, are necessary yet provisional, based on the best thinking available at the time, and open to revision when time has improved our thinking.
I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. At some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature. Barack Obama (source)
Indeed, the views seem to be irreconcilable. But, on closer inspection, they’re rather less than one would assume. Take the pro-choice side: few people really believe that women should have a right to choose in all circumstances. Same for the pro-life side: only a few nutters believe that every fetus has a right to life. Most pro-lifers are ready to permit abortion under some circumstances. And most pro-choicers agree that a woman’s right to self-determination doesn’t go as far as allowing all abortions under all circumstances.
So neither side believes in an absolute right. Hence, as Ronald Dworkin observed, the argument on abortion isn’t between two completely different and incompatible world views. It’s merely a disagreement on matters of scale and extent. Both parties value the interests of both the fetus and the mother. They just balance these interests differently.
If we tone down the rhetoric of soundbites and slogans, we would see that pro-choicers aren’t anti-life, and pro-lifers aren’t anti-woman, and we would be able to discuss how to appropriately balance the interests involved. Rather than demonizing the other side and blocking all serious discussion, we would perhaps be able to have them agree to a balancing of interests that is closer to ours. Personally, I believe that there are too many abortions, and that the interests of the fetus (Dworkin wouldn’t agree that a fetus has interests, by the way) aren’t given enough weight in many cases.
I think that’s what Obama means by his “common ground” approach to the issue. Let’s hope that all parties are able to see that such a common ground is indeed possible, or that at least the two grounds can be moved closer to each other. I’m skeptical, however, especially regarding the pro-lifers: it’s hard to give up the view that abortion is a discussion between people who are either for life or against it. And such a view, by definition, doesn’t allow a middle ground. They would do good to admit that they aren’t so absolutely pro-life, and that the others aren’t so absolutely anti.
As the topic of abortion is back in the news, with the horrible killing of – indeed, terrorist attack on – Dr. Tiller*, maybe it’s useful to link back to one of my older posts on abortion (where I also explain why I believe this is a human rights issue). My position is basically anti-abortion, but I do regret the disdain of many pro-lifers for the rights of the mother. They don’t seem to understand that the rights of the mother should sometimes take precedence (for example when the health or the life of the mother are at risk) and that a tragic choice between mother and fetus should sometimes be decided in favor of the mother. They prefer the simplicity of moral idealism and ignore the tragic nature of a lot of morality in real life.
And neither do they seem to care about the consequences of criminalization of abortion. This quote says it well, I think:
When imagining a future abortion black market and the inherent dangers such a market would introduce to mothers and fetuses alike, I find myself worrying. I worry that it might make matters worse. The life of the mother is sacred, too, and in a black market the most desperate mothers – and especially the poor and the young mothers – would be at a much higher risk then they are now. This hardly seems just. E.D. Kain
We can see what this means in countries where abortion is illegal:
Abortion is illegal in Tanzania (except to save the mother’s life or health), so women and girls turn to amateurs, who may dose them with herbs or other concoctions, pummel their bellies or insert objects vaginally. Infections, bleeding and punctures of the uterus or bowel can result, and can be fatal. Doctors treating women after these bungled attempts sometimes have no choice but to remove the uterus…
Worldwide, there are 19 million unsafe abortions a year, and they kill 70,000 women (accounting for 13 percent of maternal deaths), mostly in poor countries like Tanzania where abortion is illegal, according to the World Health Organization. More than two million women a year suffer serious complications. According to Unicef, unsafe abortions cause 4 percent of deaths among pregnant women in Africa, 6 percent in Asia and 12 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. (source)
The rights of the mother that have to show up in the equation aren’t necessarily limited to health and survival. The right to self-determination of the mother, or her right to decide without government interference what to do with her own body, is perhaps, in some cases, also important enough to override the right to life of the unborn child.
More on abortion and maternal mortality.
In the margins of the most recent case of political violence against an abortion doctor in the U.S., some people claimed that the media was in part to blame. The doctor in question was indeed publicly vilified on many occasions, and during many years, by certain conservative and pro-life pundits, on television and elsewhere. Especially Fox’s Bill O’Reilly was targeted as having some responsibility. His frequent outbursts against the doctor may have incited the attacker to eventually commit murder. Singling out this one doctor may have made him into an icon of abortion, and putting him squarely in the public eye may have made him the focus of a movement with a history of violence.
Of course, there’s nothing new to discussions about speech that openly calls for violent acts against political, religious or ideological opponents. For example, it was claimed that the infamous Muhammad Cartoons were directly responsible for violent acts against Muslims and/or violent reactions by Muslims. Another example is Radio Mille Collines, the Rwandan radio allegedly responsible for calling on Hutus to go out and murder Tutsi. Part of the debate around hate speech has to do with speech that is perceived to be incitement to violence.
(source; the guy in this picture, Paul Hill, actually murdered a doctor in 1994)
I generally believe that some circumstances allow for limitations of the right to free speech, although I also believe that this right is of such importance that limitations must be exceptional and carefully considered. I invite you to read my general argument here. Basically, for me this is a problem of contradictory human rights, and of balancing rights so as to avoid the greater harm. In the case I’m discussing in this post, the right to free speech has to be balanced against the right to life and physical security of the people who are the targets of speech (e.g. abortion doctors and others).
The important thing to consider, in my view, is the causal relationship between speech which calls for violence, and the actual subsequent violence itself. Without such a causal relationship, the argument in favor of limitations can’t get anywhere. However, such causal relationships never easy to establish. How do we know to what extent a perpetrator of a violent act was influenced by others calling upon him to act? And that this influence was the main and overriding cause of his actions? In some cases, this causal relationship may be more convincing than in other cases. Mille Collines is probably easier to label as an accomplice in crime than Bill O’Reilly, whatever you think of the content and the style of O’Reilly’s rants. But even in the most obvious cases there is a very large grey area. Human motivation is very complex, influenced by many different things, some of which can go back very far in the past.
However, it’s one thing to determine, after the fact, that someone who said something was partly responsible for acts of violence committed by others. It’s quite another thing to use this responsibility as a justification for limiting speech and thereby preventing future acts of violence. Even if we can, beyond some measure of doubt, agree that there is a causal link between certain violent words and violent acts, this is always and necessarily after the fact, and without much use for the future.
Human affairs are unpredictable. They aren’t in any way like the laws of gravity or the laws determining the movements of objects in space. Previous causal relationships in human affairs can seldom if ever be distilled into laws of behavior. Even if we agree that there was a causal link between certain violent words and violent acts which we observed in the past (and that’s already quite difficult, given the numerous possible causes of human behavior and the difficulty of separating them from each other), this in no way justifies preventive anti-speech measures. Using previous causal relationships between speech and acts as precedents in order to limit similar speech which we feel can produce similar acts, means, in fact, assuming a causal relationship between speech and acts that haven’t even happened yet. And this is, evidently, even more difficult than determining causal relationships between speech and acts which have happened.
If we return to our example, this means that we would limit what O’Reilly can say in the future about abortion doctors. First we assume that Dr. Tiller, the doctor whose murder started this discussion, was murdered in part at least because of what O’Reilly said, and then we assume that if O’Reilly continues to say similar things about other doctors that these too will be murdered. That’s two very tentative assumptions.
I’m personally convinced that incitement to violence can indeed make violence more likely, that free speech can be one of the causes (but never the only cause) of violent acts, and that those who speak or write in public have to take this risk into consideration if they want to live responsible lives. However, I’m not (yet) convinced that it’s possible to find a way to limit freedom of speech so that we can avoid violent consequences, and without doing more harm than we (hope to) prevent. I don’t see how a law limiting incendiary speech can do justice to the crucial differences between cases. Such a law would most likely be overkill and, in addition, create a chilling effect. However, this shouldn’t stop us from calling on all public figures to cut out the hate. Hate and vilification boost the ratings, but they never do any good.
(source; I found the “what part of…” very appropriate given the current events)
The attack on Dr. Tiller is widely referred to as “terrorism” in the blogosphere. Agree or not, it is easy to image an ongoing terrorist campaign run by fringe pro-lifers to shut down abortion clinics. … Should something like that come to pass, I wonder how “War on Terror hawks” would react. My admittedly flawed term is meant to reference folks who believe the executive branch possesses broad unchecked powers to combat terrorism, including the designation of American citizens as enemy combatants, the indefinite detention of terror suspects, wiretapping phones without warrants, [and] “enhanced interrogation techniques“. Would these predominantly conservative officials, commentators and writers be comfortable if President Obama declared two or three extremist pro-lifers as “enemy combatants”? Should Pres. Obama have the prerogative to order the waterboarding of these uncharged, untried detainees? Should he be able to listen in on phone conversations originating from evangelical churches where suspected abortion extremists hang out? Conor Friedersdorf (source)
My personal views on abortion are here.
(source, the poster says “less births, better births, to develop China vigorously”)
A bias in favor of male offspring has left China with 32 million more boys under the age of 20 than girls, creating an imminent generation of excess men.
China’s one-child policy and a traditional preference for boys results in couples’ decisions to abort female fetuses. Hence the imbalance.
The trend toward more male than female children intensified steadily after 1986, as ultrasound tests and abortion became more available. Sex-selective abortion accounts for almost all the excess males. … the disparity was widest among children ages 1 to 4, a sign that the greatest imbalances among the adult population lie ahead.
The abortion rate in America is at its lowest level for 30 years, according to a new study by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research group. Since a peak in the early 1980s, the rate has dropped steadily: there are now less than 20 abortions for every 1,000 women. Fewer teenagers are having abortions, thanks to higher contraceptive use. Teenagers accounted for 17% of all abortions in 2004, down from a third in 1974. White women, who are on average richer, have fewer abortions than those from minority ethnic groups. In 2004, whites had 10.5 abortions for every 1,000 women, compared with 28 for Hispanics and 50 for blacks. (source)
I don’t label myself “conservative” or “religious” and I regularly take non-conservative positions in this blog. However, in this post, I want to defend the pro-life position which is traditionally considered to be typical of religious conservatives. To be more precise, I want to defend the following two statements:
- Abortion is a human rights issue, because human beings have a right to life. And fetuses should be considered as human beings. Human life starts from conception and not after birth or after a certain number of weeks of pregnancy, a number which is more or less arbitrary and changes according to scientific progress.
- Therefore, respect for the right to life implies restrictions on abortion.
The argument for abortion usually goes likes this:
- A fetus can only be called a human being or a human life and hence enjoy the protection offered by the right to life (which is a right for human beings exclusively), after a certain number of weeks of pregnancy. This is based on the fact that a fetus is not viable until after a certain number of weeks.
- Therefore, abortion is permitted before the pregnancy reaches this number of weeks. Abortion within this timeframe cannot be called murder because a fetus is not a human being or a human life at this stage of development.
Different aspects of this pro-abortion argument strike me as odd:
- First of all the viability claim; not the claim that life is only viable after a certain number of weeks – this is scientifically undisputed – but the claim that viability as such determines the existence of human life. One can imagine many situations in which life needs special protections and circumstances or surroundings (such as the womb) in order to be viable, but in none of these does life cease to be called life.
- Secondly, even if we admit – and I don’t – that fetuses aren’t human beings, why would it follow from this that they should not enjoy any protection? Do only human beings deserve protection?
I therefore welcome laws restricting abortion. But as with all criminalization, laws never completely abolish a practice. There will always be abortions, and when abortion is a crime, the conditions in which abortions take place are often detrimental for the mother (so-called “back-alley abortions”). Here’s a graph showing the influence of abortion restrictions on maternal mortality:
If a pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, it is acceptable to give priority to the mother. In the system of human rights, there’s often a need to balance rights against each other, in this case the right to life of the mother and the same right of the fetus.
The priority for the mother can be based on several different considerations:
- life means more to the mother than to the fetus, and hence the (possibility of) loss of life is more distressful to the mother
- or the mother may be responsible for the care of other children, and these children will suffer as well if the mother loses her life
Such a balancing act is required in many cases:
- abortion requested by very young girls; hese young girls would lose their right to education if they are forced to become mothers
- unviable or severely deformed fetuses
I don’t claim to have a solution to all possible conflicts of rights; I just point out that there are conflicts, and that the rights of the fetus are not always or automatically preponderant. Often there’s a conflict between two similarly important matters, and talk about the sanctity of life will not always bring us closer to a solution of the conflict.
Here’s an overview of the different abortion laws in the world:
This is a post on the logic of religious terrorism.Those who listen to the daily news, and that’s about all of us, know it very well: God is not dead, whether you like it or not. Many of the major news stories are about religious conflict: Islamic terrorism, Muhammad cartoons, the Pope insulting other religions…
It seems that God is directing world affairs, or at least the God in the minds of the numerous religiously inspired actors who initiate the world events that reach our news programs. In many cases, these events are violent and bloody. God is alive, and He’s kicking, of course not personally but through His representatives on earth. And of course He’s kicking the unbelievers or the believers of a rival God.
So it is not uncommon to hear complaints about the pernicious effects of religion. I want to argue that it is not religion as such which should be blamed for religiously inspired suffering, but the status of religious beliefs in the minds of those causing the suffering. There is an enormous difference between the action patterns of those who think that their religious beliefs are their personal opinions and those who think that their beliefs are exact images of the Truth.
Opinions are, by nature, non-despotic: they cannot be forced on you. The truth can. No one can escape the truth. The laws of physics for example have a despotic character. You have to accept them. Opinions can be accepted or rejected, depending on the force of the arguments for or against, on your personal disposition, your intellectual powers of understanding etc. Another characteristic of opinions is that they are part of a contradictory world of different opinions. An opinion exists only as long as its contrary also exists. If the latter ceases to exist, then the former becomes what we may call some form of truth, at least to the extent that we may give this label to an opinion that is the object of a worldwide consensus. The laws of physics for example have attained this level of consensus and therefore can be labeled “truth” rather than “opinion”. Religion obviously has not.
Truth implies consensus. Who dares to resist the truth? Only a fool or a moron. Truth eliminates debate because no one contradicts the truth. As long as someone who is neither a fool nor a moron contradicts the truth and gives good reasons for doing so, we have not yet attained the level of truth and remain in the world of opinion. This world is one of plurality and contradiction; the world of truth is one of uniformity. Only when everyone is convinced and no good reasons or arguments against are left can we claim to have something like the truth. Even when some opinions are predominant, they remain mere opinions as long as good arguments against are available, or, in other words, as long as contradictory opinions based on good arguments—and not mere prejudices—are available.
As everyone who expresses an opinion, I also would like to see my opinions elevated to the status of truth. But that depends on many things: the force of my arguments, the disposition of my readers etc. It is not a result that I can determine or even predict. If I would force this elevation—on the condition that I would have the power to do so—then I would not be acting democratically. Democratic politics does not take place in the world of truth or the world of uniformity and despotism. Opinions are the fabric of democracy.
Democracy is the game of different and contradictory opinions, some of which become temporarily predominant because they are backed by the better arguments or the arguments that can convince a majority, on the condition that we speak about a perfect democracy unhindered by manipulation. The predominant opinions then inform government policy, but non-predominant ones continue to exist and continue to make their case in an effort to become predominant themselves. If these other opinions no longer exist, then it is not opinion but truth that informs government policy. Which can and does happen, even in the case of perfectly democratic governments. But it is not typical of a democracy and not its essence. One can even say that the job of a democracy is finished when it happens.
For example, the fight against inflation is no longer an opinion. There are no longer good arguments for the opposite policy and everyone is convinced that it is a good policy. Hence, there is no democratic debate for or against the fight against inflation. The policies of all governments, including democracies, are inspired by this truth, but this has nothing to do with democracy. Democracy can only enter the stage when different actors present different and contradictory opinions, for example opinions regarding abortion. There is intense debate about this subject. The predominance and hence also government policy shifts from one side to the other and back again.
But what we see in the example of abortion and in many other examples in the field of religion, is that democracy does not only stop when an opinion is elevated to the level of truth. It also stops when contradictory opinions continue to exist but are no longer argued. Proponents and opponents of abortion have practically stopped to give reasons and arguments. They just throw citations from the Bible or general and vague claims of rights at one another. In fact, their opinions have not been elevated to the level of truth but have rather descended to the level of prejudices or “feelings” or beliefs. Democracy requires opinions, not something more or less. Opinions are based on arguments and reasons, not on evidence, proof, certainty, prejudices, feelings or beliefs. Democracy only has a function when there can be debate and there can only be debate when there are opinions, not when there is more or less, not when everything is either truth or belief. Of course, beliefs should not be excluded from democratic politics, just as truth should not be excluded. Beliefs can be a powerful force behind debates. They can inspire thinking and discussion, but they will never be the essence of democracy. If there is nothing more than beliefs, then there is no democracy.
So truth can enter democracy—democratic governments would be literally stupid not to allow this—but it will never be its essence. When truth becomes the essence of politics, democracy dies. This can happen when people forget that what they believe is not an opinion but the truth, and this often happens in the case of religious beliefs. People become unable or unwilling to see that other, contradictory opinions based on good arguments continue to exist, and try to transform politics from a space of discussion into a machine for the application of the truth. Other opinions are suppressed and violence is used against people who hold them, because these other opinions are not recognized as valid opinions based on arguments. Instead, they are seen as mistakes or errors or even lies because they contradict the beliefs of those who believe to posses the truth. And who would not admit action against errors or lies?
This unwarranted renaming of opinions into truths and the subsequent actions against opinions that are not in fact errors or lies but real opinions based on sound arguments, not only destroys debate and democracy but destroys the very lives of many people. Politics becomes a tool to transform reality, to shape the world according to some theory or utopia considered to be the true teaching. Islamic fundamentalism is a typical example of this approach. The adherents of this ideology are convinced that they possess the truth and are unable or unwilling to recognize the views of others as valid opinions based on sound arguments. Everything outside of their worldview is false and needs to be corrected or destroyed.
If you see yourself as the carrier of truth rather than one who holds a particularly well argued opinion, then you have to suppress other views. You are morally obliged to act against mistakes and lies. Allowing someone to lie or to live a life of mistakes is immoral. This person is not someone who happens to hold another opinion based on arguments that according to you are less successful, and who has to be respected for this. He or she is clearly stupid or even of bad faith, and has to be re-educated in order to access the truth. Democratic argumentation and discussion will not help in these cases because argumentation requires a target that is either sensitive to good arguments and hence not stupid, or of good faith. And in any case, truth does not need arguments. It is self-evident and, if not, merely requires explanation. But explanation does not help either when the target is stupid or of bad faith. Force is then the only means left. This is the fatal logic that drives people who believe to be the holders of truth away from democracy and in the arms of tyranny and terrorism.
All this does not mean that democratic politics cannot or should not be based on strong beliefs. Participants must believe that their opinions are valid and that they have good reasons for believing in these opinions, and they can act according to these opinions. Democratic action can be inspired by beliefs and theory, and even should be if it wants to be intelligent and something more than pure activism. But it should never forget that others may be inspired differently and have sound reasons to follow other opinions. Action inspired by theory has to take place within the democratic game of competing opinions and should not replace this game by the effort to impose something that is mistaken for the truth and that is in fact merely one opinion in a setting of many competing opinions.