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Premises Of Post-Objectivism


A Reply to William Thomas on Abortion

Copyright Nicholas Dykes

In his thoughtful and stimulating yet highly condensed article in Navigator titled Debate Topic: Abortion, available at http://ios.org/debates/DebAbor1.asp, William Thomas touched briefly on many issues. But the problem with condensing is that it can leave the reader in suspense over unanswered questions. For example, William wrote: the 'right to life' of an infant ... amounts to little more than an entitlement not to be harmed or killed by force. One immediately wanted to ask: 'How does that differ from an adult's right to life?' Isn't the adult right precisely 'an entitlement not to be harmed or killed by force?' Yet William was in the midst of telling us that adult and infant rights are different.

Similarly, he wrote we cannot extend this right... The reader immediately wanted to know what persons constituted this 'we' and how they came by the authority to grant or withhold rights. Earlier, William wrote it makes sense to ban... Again, one wondered who was doing the banning, and by what authority. One could ask many such questions.

However, while reading William's essay, the topic which mostly arose in my mind was that of context. Objectivism sets great store by this concept, and few would question its importance. But before discussing its role in abortion, I need to spell out some reservations about the idea of context itself, for it is sometimes misused.

For example, it is a commonplace amongst Objectivists to observe that "knowledge is contextual." This is true in the sense that all items of knowledge are hierarchical and have a proper place in the scheme of things. Yet quite plainly the principles of logic and mathematics, and most matters of fact, are not contextual in the sense of "depending on context." The Law of Identity, 2+2=4, and "Bill Clinton is President of the US" are items of knowledge which are true independent of context. In ethics, too, many principles and facts are not contextual in the latter sense. "Justice is a virtue;" "it is wrong to rob the corner store;" and "Objectivism espouses egoism and individualism" are true regardless of context.

Yet there are other areas where context comes to the fore. It would seem therefore that we need some extra terminology to help us identify where context is important and where not. Chris M. Sciabarra may have provided this. He wrote recently of "context sensitive" tenets of Objectivism (Books for Rand Studies, Full Context, Vol. 11, # 4, March/April 1999, p. 10). While I don't agree with his 'dialectical' interpretation of Rand, it does appear that his phrasing here is most apt. "Honesty is a virtue," or "honesty is the best policy in business" are objectively true tenets, yet honesty has context-sensitive aspects: one may lie to a thief about the location of the company safe.

Turning to abortion, this is clearly an issue in which the above distinction is highly relevant. A woman's right to abort is an objective fact in a rational morality, but such matters as the point at which a foetus becomes a viable human being reveal significant context-sensitive elements.

As to actually making decisions about abortion, I assume that most Objectivists would agree that if abortion is a woman's right, then it is also her responsibility. It is the mother-to-be, and she alone, who should make the decision. The issue is a moral one, and we can all have our opinion, but the decision belongs solely to the woman in question.

I assume, too, that Objectivists - as individualists, who hold the moral and the practical to be the same thing - would agree that the woman's decision should be practical; i.e. based on, and guided by, her own particular circumstances and values; i.e. on her context.

A clear grasp of the fact that it is her decision, and that it should be a practical one, would seem to be vital for the woman who has to decide. Abortion for most women involves strong and conflicting emotions: a fraught, possibly degrading experience; potential danger to her health, even to her life; and perhaps lifelong psychological scars. Further, her decision is not necessarily clear cut. What may be straightforward for a rape victim or a teenager, can be a painful dilemma for a happily-married career woman who isn't ready to be a mother; or for a woman desperate for a child who is informed that a foetal scan indicates Downs Syndrome; or for one whose husband may not want another child while she does. All this is perfectly obvious, but such intimate, distressing, and contextually important details are often overlooked in ethical or legal debates.

As to the timing of abortion, a woman's right, and consequent responsibility, must in my opinion extend to full term. I know of someone, for example, whose husband deserted her and her three children when she was heavily pregnant with a fourth. I would maintain that it was her moral right to abort - if she so chose - regardless of the 'viability' of the foetus. It was a case where context ruled.

I think we need also to confront the fact that the issue of viability may not automatically end with parturition. While amniocentesis and scanning make the occurrence less likely, there are still "monsters" born, for instance. Personally, I would not condemn a mother who, say, upon delivery of an infant with neither eyes, fingers nor genitals, chose not to commit herself to a lifetime of caring for such a tragic error of nature. Infanticide was a contextual matter in earlier times. However abominable to contemplate, I see no reason why a mother in such circumstances should be governed by the sensibilities of ethicists or others who bear no responsibility - whatever takes place.

In a philosophy of individualism one has to recognise that some individuals face agonising decisions. But no matter what their anguish, nor our own revulsion, we must accept that responsibility for deciding is theirs and theirs alone. They are the ones who will have to live with the mental and physical consequences, whatever they choose to do.

Much of the trouble with distasteful and/or morally ambiguous matters such as abortion starts when other people interfere. We should rather recognise the basic fact of individual responsibility and focus our attention elsewhere.

I conclude that abortion is an individual responsibility and that whatever kind of law one believes in - be it state-made, customary, or religious - abortion should not be placed in its remit.

See also:
A guide to individualist abortion resources


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