Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Addressing the Coathanger Argument

A bioethicist says it more articulately than I:

Regarding premise (b) During appears to think that if passing a law results in the death of large numbers of women then to pass such a law is to kill these women. This is false. It is an empirical fact that building motorways results in innocent people dying, yet it does not follow that a person who builds a road kills innocent people. It is also a fact that by allowing people to swim at beaches some people will drown yet in permitting people to swim at beaches the government cannot be said to have drowned these people. Even if it could be demonstrated that restricting feticide results in women dying it does not follow that such restrictions kill women.

During fails to distinguish between an action that foreseeably results in a person's death and an action that causes that person's death. Suppose that Parliament were to criminalise feticide and this led to a chain of events one of which was the death of a woman due to septic abortion. Somewhere in this chain, between the act of the legislature and the death of the woman, are the free actions of various people who choose to ignore or breach these laws. Parliament does not perform these actions; in fact they are done in defiance of Parliament's will and hence without Parliament's consent. Such actions include the choice of a woman to violate the law and procure an abortion and the choice of an abortionist to perform an abortion and to violate hygiene and safety standards. The death and injury that occurs is caused by these actions. It is the abortionist's decision, acting as an agent of the woman, to perform unsafe surgery that causes the injury to occur. These facts make it evident that Parliament does not cause such deaths. The actions of the woman and abortionist are un-coerced. They are free, voluntary actions and as such not caused by someone else. It follows immediately that they were not caused by the state. If they were not caused by the state, then the effects that follow from them were not caused by the state either. The suggestion that one causes the free (and hence uncaused) reactions of others to decisions one makes is far fetched.

The failure to distinguish caused and foreseen effects is illustrated well by Augustine. In contending with the consequentialists of his day, Augustine proposed the following example. Suppose a man approaches a woman and tells her that he will kill himself if she refuses to have sex with him. Does that mean that she is a murderer if she refuses?[5]

In other words: Don't want to die of an illegal abortion?