A Question for “Rational Baby Killers,” or Ayn Rand on Abortion
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine gave birth to her first child. Actually, she did not “give birth” so much as her child was wrested from her. She was diagnosed with toxemia, endangering both her own life and that of the fetus; her daughter was therefore delivered by emergency caesarean section, six weeks premature. Mother and baby are now, thankfully, doing well.
In recent weeks, there has been a rash of stories from the United States detailing the giddy passage, in various states, of bills that allow abortion up to (or beyond) the moment of natural birth, bills that in some cases (e.g., Vermont, Illinois) expressly strike the concept of fetal rights from the law books altogether. This latter move is extremely significant, as divesting the fetus, at every stage of development, of all moral status — rights are essentially a moral, not a legal, endowment — has far-ranging and easily predictable implications for future advances in the culture of death. If the fetus has no moral or legal status whatsoever, i.e., if the developing baby is no different, for legal or medical purposes, than a tumor or a pimple, then there can be no grounds for objecting to any abortion, for any reason: no paternal claims, no parental consent for minors, no questions of the baby’s ability to experience pain or to survive without the mother’s support. Nothing.
In fact, once the baby is divested of any legal or moral status, which is to say of any tenuous acknowledgment that it is a human life in any sense, let alone a living person, even referring to the pregnant woman as a “mother” becomes illogical. Pregnancy ceases to be mankind’s richest metaphor for the cycle of life and the human connection to eternity, and becomes a symbol of Inconvenience — a mere medical predicament, like a polyp; or, to be more precise as to causes, like a sexually-transmitted disease. Furthermore, removing this mere unwanted growth becomes as unproblematic and morally neutral as removing a wart from your nose. Thus, re-categorizing the fetus as a non-human growth — essentially a hostile foreign entity — will, in practice, lead very quickly (and intentionally) to a subsequent step, namely the designation of certain types of fetuses as intrinsically undesirable or “failed”; which will thereafter, especially under today’s ubiquitous socialized health care presuppositions, lead to mandates that such failed fetuses be “discontinued,” i.e., exterminated.
And this last outcome, far from being fearmongering on my part, has already been demonstrated in many “civilized” nations, such as Iceland and The Netherlands, where, to take the most infamous example, Down Syndrome has been all but “eradicated” — meaning simply that every pregnant woman is tested for this developmental problem, and any fetus found to have (i.e., suspected of having) Down Syndrome summarily killed.
Like many people these days, including some of my readers I suspect, I got my first taste of philosophy as a teenager, from reading Ayn Rand. Unlike most of those teenagers, however, my interest was never in her enormously popular novels — unreadable to me, then and now — but rather her essays. Her assertive tone, iconoclastic radicalism, and apparent certainty about everything, appealed to the insecure outsider in me, meaning to the emotional neediness of a lonely “loser” in desperate need of equal measures of intellectual stimulation and the moral vindication and protection of a Super-Parent. (This, I believe, is always Rand’s main appeal, and the reason she wins most of her admirers among the very young — the same reason, in fact, that communism is most appealing to the young, namely the understandable but dangerous youthful combination of unbridled enthusiasm for answers and complete ignorance of the questions. Rand not only attracts people mired in that immature form of inquisitiveness; she was such a person, and she never outgrew it.)
One topic on which Rand’s thinking always left me cold — in a most salubrious way, since disillusionment is the first step in recognizing that our parents are not gods — was abortion. A staunch supporter of “a woman’s right to choose,” Rand (who was married but childless) tried to tie her pro-death stance to her “virtue of selfishness” ethic, with its special brand of what she called “objectivism” and “rational self-interest” — terms I use with scare quotes because, once I began to study serious philosophy more deeply as a young man, I quickly realized how fundamentally subjectivist her “objectivism” was, and how irrational and infantile her concept of “rational self-interest.”
Rand’s case for abortion (all subsequent quotations may be found at this link) was grounded in her defense of property rights, and specifically her (correct) belief that property rights begin with the concept of self-ownership. A woman owns her own body, she reasoned, and hence a fetus can have no right to be there, living off the woman parasitically, as it were. Thus, she argued, a woman has “sole discretion” over the choice of whether to kill her unborn fetus, which “has no rights” — exactly as today’s progressive vanguard insists.
Her argument is so brutal in its amorality that a vested interest in its conclusion seems the most likely explanation for her promotion of such illogic. In short, I would be very surprised if Rand did not feel a personal emotional need to persuade herself that unrestricted abortion was consistent with her moral philosophy.
First of all, as a general point of logic that she conveniently ignores, a fetus is not an intruder. In almost every case, its presence is a direct result of actions undertaken voluntarily by the owner of the host body — actions which were unquestionably undertaken in full knowledge of this potential outcome. Thus, to argue that the fetus may be terminated by its host if it is undesired is no different in principle from saying that if I invite someone to my house and tell him he may bring a friend, but he brings a friend I don’t like, then I may simply kill the friend.
And even in those quite rare cases in which the fetus is not present through the woman’s voluntary action, i.e., cases of rape, it is still illegitimate to classify the fetus as an intruder, since at no point, obviously, did a baby choose to be conceived and implant itself in the woman’s womb. Rather, the intruder here is the rapist, who is in no way at issue in the choice to kill the fetus, since obviously the typical rapist has no desire to cause a pregnancy, and would presumably also wish to deny life to any resulting fetus.
If someone brings an unknown man into my home while I am sleeping and embeds his feet in concrete in my basement, the fact that I did not wish either the home invader or the trapped guest to enter my home in the first place gives me no moral authority to murder the man embedded in my foundation. After all, he did not ask to be trapped in my home any more than I asked for him to be trapped there.
So Rand’s “self-ownership” argument for abortion is untenable from the word go, which leaves her back where all other killers-of-convenience are left on this issue, namely with the fuzzy, implausible claim that a living human fetus is neither human nor alive.
And so that is exactly where, in a hopeless grasping at something vaguely resembling logic, she chooses to go:
An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn).
Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?
This is a stellar example of Rand’s appeal, as noted above. So much blunt assertiveness (“nothing other than,” “Who can conceivably?,” “the right to dictate,” “her own body”), the perfect tone for the young, who are always more susceptible to the fire of righteous certitude than to the inconvenient intellectual discipline required of making sense. For here we have two paragraphs, the first comprised of four sentences, the last three of which are mere reiterations of one another, and all of them fatally vulnerable to the most obvious question in the book — Why? — and the second paragraph a circular argument so silly that I wouldn’t waste my students’ time offering it in my writing classes as an example of circularity.
“An embryo has no rights,” she claims emphatically, and yet the only reason offered for this hugely controversial assertion is that “Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being.” What does she mean by a “potential” vs. an “actual” being here? Clearly, no reasonable person is claiming that a woman’s unfertilized egg, or a man’s unfertilizing sperm, have rights — and yet these would seem to be the only items which could properly be described as “potential” beings in the intended sense, i.e., the proximate material causes of the coming-into-being of a living fetus.
Once the egg has been fertilized by the sperm, and conception has occurred, there is an “actual being,” a human embryo, which is alive and developing.
To argue, as Rand does here, that the embryo itself — and by extension the later-developing fetus — is only a “potential being,” and therefore completely without rights in the sense in which the concept of rights is applicable to “actual” beings, seems to me to be an egregious example of equivocation. For her use of the language of potency and act implies that a baby, once born, is an “actual being,” as opposed to a human fetus, which is merely a “potential being.” But in what sense is a baby “actual”? Is it a fully developed human being? In other words, has it actualized the potential of a member of its species? Surely Rand would agree that a baby is not actualized in this sense. An infant is at a very early stage of development toward anything that we might call an “actual being,” in the sense of a fully-developed person, i.e., a mature, rational (and wise?) adult. Hence, if we are speaking of “potential” in the sense of “at an incomplete stage of development,” then the human infant is only a little further along than the developing fetus. For example, while it can breathe and swallow food outside of the mother’s womb, it is still dependent upon other humans for all normal human operations beyond mere involuntary bodily functions.
If, then, we are speaking of potential in the sense of “still developing,” then surely infanticide is also justified by Rand’s argument from “potential” vs. “actual” being. In fact, the same argument would justify the denial of rights, including the right to life, to all humans who can reasonably be judged potential in this sense, regardless of age.
The equivocation is revealed most directly in the paragraph’s final sentence, when she tries to cover for the intrinsic incoherence and absurd implications of her argument by sneaking in the other, more pertinent sense of “potential” and “actual” being: “The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn).”
But we have already established, using Rand’s own quasi-Aristotelian terminology, that a human embryo is actual in the sense of living, as opposed to the mere potential for life inhering in both egg and sperm prior to fertilization. So an embryo is not the “not-yet-living” in the relevant sense. That would be the egg or sperm. An embryo or fetus is only “potential” in the other relevant sense, namely that of the not-yet-fully-developed, i.e., the same sense of potential that may also be ascribed to the born infant or the growing child.
Rand’s parenthetical insertion of the alternative phrase “or the unborn” at the end of this sentence shows just how much of a muddle she has gotten herself into; even she recognizes that her argument has failed, and so she throws in a disjunction that makes nonsense of the whole argument, in a desperate attempt to “cover all bases.” In fact, the insertion destroys any coherence the argument may have had, since “or the unborn” is an attempt to have her cake and eat it too, a concession of sorts to those who reject the claim that the fetus is “not-yet-living” — a claim which no reasonable reader could help but reject, since a fetus quite obviously is living (breathing, eating, growing, self-moving, sensing, etc.). Thus, the final sentence of that argument (which is not really an argument but a bald assertion), if we could flesh it out in Rand’s defense, would mean: “The living take precedence over the not-yet-living — or if the fetus is living, then the born take precedence over the unborn.”
The problem (one of many) with that is that her whole case is grounded in the assertion that an unborn fetus is merely potential being, not actual, which implies that it is potential life, not actual; and yet now she seems to be allowing that the fetus may be alive (and therefore actual in the relevant sense), and yet maintaining that even in that case it “has no rights.” So we’re back to my initial question (which Rand has tried to avoid by shouting aggressively at the reader, as is her wont): Why?
(As is typical of her writing style, she attempts to mask her illogic in vociferousness, as in proclamations such as this: “To equate a potential with an actual, is vicious; to advocate the sacrifice of the latter to the former, is unspeakable.” In other words, it is a vice to “equate” an unborn fetus with a living human being from the point of view of the right to life, and “unspeakable” to suggest a pregnant woman ought to accept responsibility for the child she has produced.)
As for the second paragraph of Rand’s argument, above, after asserting that a pregnant woman has the sole moral right to decide whether to kill a human fetus which is living in her body as a direct result (in almost all cases) of her own voluntary choices and actions, she then pretends to support this angry outburst against any human life she finds inconvenient with this: “Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?”
Oh, I don’t know…maybe the man with whom she took the voluntary actions required to produce that living human fetus? Or maybe the voiceless but very-much-alive human being — the “actual being,” in the sense of “living-and-in-development” — whose own “bodily functions” are to be terminated by the woman thinking only of her own convenience, and lost in a haze of callous “logic” about her life “taking precedence” over another life, even if that other life was actualized in part through her potency (her egg), and is currently dependent for its continued growth and development on her mercy and humanity.
All of which leads me back to my friend with her six-week-premature daughter. That daughter was supposed to have six more weeks of what Rand would call “potential” being, prior to being “actualized.” But it turns out that she had to be “actualized” much earlier than anticipated. So what are we to make of the status of that fetus which became an infant so far ahead of schedule. On Rand’s standards — the same standards all the infanticidal progressives of today are relying on — that fetus was not “actual,” in the sense of being a human life with any moral rights, in the middle of its eighth month of “potentiality.” But then, against expectations, it suddenly found itself outside of its mother’s womb.
What was it then? Was it actual? At what moment, exactly, did it traverse the boundary between potential and actual being? How did this happen, by which I mean what exactly was the defining change that actualized the merely potential being at that instant?
If you want to see just how flimsy “Mrs. Logic’s” logic was on this issue, and just how desperate she was to maintain a position without any rational force at all, get a load of this follow-up — an argument I have seen in various forms from weak-minded, public-school-indoctrinated university freshmen, but never from anyone with pretenses of being a philosopher:
The question of abortion involves much more than the termination of a pregnancy: it is a question of the entire life of the parents. As I have said before, parenthood is an enormous responsibility; it is an impossible responsibility for young people who are ambitious and struggling, but poor; particularly if they are intelligent and conscientious enough not to abandon their child on a doorstep nor to surrender it to adoption. For such young people, pregnancy is a death sentence: parenthood would force them to give up their future, and condemn them to a life of hopeless drudgery, of slavery to a child’s physical and financial needs. The situation of an unwed mother, abandoned by her lover, is even worse.
Parenthood is “impossible” for people who are “ambitious and struggling, but poor.” (Yes, I think we have found you out, Alisa Rosenbaum!)
Really? — I guess that nullifies the existence of the billions of actual poor people who have raised children successfully enough over the course of human history, and who in many cases found their greatest fulfillment in life precisely from so doing, from giving their children a better chance at happiness than they themselves had.
And is there even a category of irrationality for the claim that aborting the fetus they voluntarily created is evidence of the “parents” being “intelligent and conscientious enough not to abandon their child on a doorstep nor to surrender it to adoption”? Apparently if you are pregnant with a human fetus which you yourself actively and consciously took action to produce, you have no choice upon regretting the result of your action but to abandon the baby on a doorstep, or — oh, the horror! — to “surrender” it to adoption, i.e., to allow the child to be raised by parents who are (ghastly creatures!) dying for the chance to raise a child.
For poor young couples “conscientious” enough to know they should kill their fetus rather than submit the ugly thing to being raised in a loving home by someone else, denying them the moral right to kill it is “a death sentence,” as it would “condemn them to a life of hopeless drudgery,” even “slavery to a child’s needs.” (That is, to their own child’s needs.) If this argument isn’t evidence of something bordering on moral insanity — not being allowed to kill one’s own fetus is a death sentence, because having a child is a form of slavery — I don’t know what argument is.
Rand likes to throw the word “responsibility” around a lot in this context, much as she loves to tell us how “rational” all her random emotional urges are. Yes, parenthood is a big responsibility. So is choosing to have sexual intercourse, given that — as would be obvious to anyone not blinded by an emotionally-addled dread of the idea of motherhood — the reason there is such a thing as sexual intercourse is that humans are animals which produce their offspring this way. Rand, like all emotional infants who enter into these topics, blithely ignores the most obvious problem with her argument, which she tries to obscure (from herself most of all) with her nonsense about slavery and death sentences: No one (or rather only a proportionally tiny number) is forced to do the thing humans do to reproduce. Hence, if they voluntarily do this thing, using the “unwanted responsibility” argument for abortion is pure childish whining: I didn’t ask for this! If you were an adult, and made a choice, then yes you did ask for it, although you may also have chosen to pretend there was no risk of such an outcome, for the sake of your irresponsible pleasure-seeking.
But a mature adult cannot get out of a responsibility that results from his own choices by claiming that it isn’t the result he intended. If that were the case, then every drunk driver could absolve himself by saying he didn’t intend to kill anyone; every person who vowed to stay with a spouse “in sickness and in health” could renege, guilt-free, when his wife was diagnosed with cancer, on the grounds that he didn’t really expect sickness to become an issue. Mature adults cannot escape from voluntarily chosen responsibilities this way. More importantly, mature adults do not want to escape from responsibilities this way. Mature adults do not live for their own immediate pleasure on the basis of sophistical escape hatches, phony moral arguments to save themselves from facing the consequences of their own actions and choices.
In short, Rand, like all who make the kind of arguments-from-self-absorption that she tries to make in defense of unlimited abortion and the non-being of human fetuses, was an emotional infant, and the very opposite of a mature, responsible adult. Certainly the opposite of a rational thinker.
Ayn Rand had her personal reasons, I presume, for wanting to believe that abortion should be legal and completely at the woman’s discretion. And she had her intellectual reasons — emotional reasons masquerading as intellectual ones, to be precise — for needing to persuade herself that an aborted fetus has no rights, because it has no life. Like all who make such claims, her argument founders on the rocks of common sense and basic adult decency.