Information and Metaphysical Conclusions
I was struck by Kyle’s post on Friday “Abortion, Rational Decision-Making, and Informed Consent“, but it took me a while thinking it over to come to an explanation of exactly what I find wrong about it. Kyle is addressing the issue of “informed consent” laws which require a woman seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound of her baby or read an explanation of fetal development at the stage of pregnancy her child is at. He is concerned, however, that such laws miss the real moral point:
Catarina Dutilh Novaes explains her worry about some new laws requiring physicians to show a woman an ultrasound of the fetus and describe its status, organs and present activity before performing an abortion. She writes: “It does not take a lot of brain power to realize that what is construed here as ‘informed decision’ is in fact yet another maneuver to prevent abortions from taking place by ‘anthropomorphizing’ the fetus” and “it is of striking cruelty to submit a woman to this additional layer of emotional charge at such a difficult moment.” She’s right, I suspect, about the underlying motivation behind the laws and the suffering their practice would impose. If the legislators and activists pushing these laws recognize the suffering they may inflict, they clearly see it as justified, weighing, as they do, the vital status of the nascent life as greater than the emotional status of the expectant mother.
There’s something to this. The information the physician is legally required to communicate by these new laws informs in a very limited way: it doesn’t provide evidence of personhood or a right to life or any such metaphysical or moral reality. The sight and description of the fetus may give the appearance of a human life worthy of respect, but, as pro-lifers note, appearance is not indicative of moral worth. An embryo doesn’t look like a human being, but that appearance doesn’t signify anything moral or metaphysical about it.
The woman, for having this information, is not in any better position to make a rational, ethical decision. It may cause her to “see” the nascent life as human, but it doesn’t offer her a rational basis for such a perception. Her consent is no more informed after seeing and hearing the physical status of the life within her, and so these new “informed consent” laws don’t achieve what they are supposedly designed to do.
There are places conducive to informing people about the nascent life’s stages of development and about what exactly, scientifically speaking, abortion does to that life. A high school health class, for example. There, the scientific information about the unborn life and abortion can be more thoroughly considered, and once fully understood, serve in other settings as a reference point for metaphysical and moral considerations. Consent to abortion should be informed, but the information these new laws require to be communicated does not on its own result in informed consent or provide an additional basis for a rational, ethical decision. Why? Because, by itself, appearance is not ethically relevant and can also be misleading.
Now on the basic point, I agree with Kyle: appearance is not moral worth. A person is not worthy of human dignity simply because someone looks at him or her and sees similarity. To say that would be to suggest the converse: that when someone looks at another and sees simply “other” he is justified in not treating that person with human dignity. For instance, one could imagine (though I think it is the far less likely option) a situation in which a woman is leaning against abortion because she thinks that the child inside her will look “just like a baby”, she sees a fuzzy ultrasound of something that still looks like a tadpole on an umbilical cord, and she thinks, “Oh, that’s all? It must not be a baby yet. I’ll abort.” Clearly, in this case, the information would have led to the wrong conclusion. An appearance of similarity or dissimilarity does not a person make.
At the same time, the suggestion that informed consent laws are a bad idea just rubs me the wrong way, not just from a pragmatic point of view but from a moral one, and when I have this kind of conflict between instinct and reason, I tend to poke at the issue until I come up with a reason why it is that the apparently reasonable explanation seems wrong to me.
Having gone through this poking exercise, I realized that the issue is that Kyle’s argument seems to imply that there are two sets of information — information which relates to personhood, and information which relates to other qualities (appearance, sound, texture, etc.) — and that informed consent laws are problematic because they require that people be provided with the latter type of information (information about appearance) when the relevant question is one of personhood, and thus only information relating to whether the being in question is a person would be applicable to the decision being made.
This seems reasonable for a moment until you try to think what information is actually in the first set, the set of information which relates to personhood. And here lies the paradox: there is none.
As beings who are both physical and rational, we understand the metaphysical concept of “person”, but the inputs which we can receive from the outside world (things which we might be informed of as “facts” via “informed consent”) are all sensory inputs. We reach the conclusion metaphysical, “This other being is a person, just as I am a person,” based on sensory information, not metaphysical information.
Famously, in the movie Juno the main character is persuaded not to have an abortion when her pro-life classmate tells her that her baby has fingernails. This detail is what humanizes the baby in Juno’s mind and causes her to decide not to abort the baby. Responding to this example, Kyle says:
The scene in Juno shows the effectiveness of giving a description of the fetus in order to humanize it, and it’s good that she chose to keep the baby, but she didn’t exactly make an informed ethical decision. Whether or not her baby had fingernails is irrelevant to the morality of abortion. It doesn’t follow that because the baby had fingernails that it was a human being with a right to life that the law should protect, but acting as though this information about fingernails led to “informed consent” implies that it does.
At the literal level, of course, the attribute “having fingernails” is not something that makes a being a person. We would not say, “Man is an animal with fingernails.” Nor, if a human being through some genetic deformity was born without fingernails would be conclude that that member of our species was not a “person” because he lacked fingernails.
And yet, it is invariably through these surface level details that information comes into our minds and allows us, eventually, to form enough of an understanding of something that we are able to form metaphysical conclusions about it.
Picture, if you will, that at this moment I were to head down to the local coffee shop, and there I found Kyle sitting at a table with a banana.
“Darwin,” Kyle informs me. “This banana is actually a person. It’s an intelligent space alien.”
My first reaction, after ordering a triple espresso, would doubtless to be respond, “It doesn’t look like an alien. It looks like a banana.”
My statement would have been about appearance, and yet, it would be completely normal for me to form the metaphysical conclusion that the banana was not a person based on this appearance combined with my experience of other similarly looking fruits. If a moment later, the thing-that-looked-like-a-banana were to rise in the air and trace in glowing letters a refutation of Derrida’s claim that apartheid in South Africa was a consequence of phonetic writing which, “by isolating and hypostasizing being, … corrupts it into a quasi-ontological segregation” — I would rapidly revise my conclusions since this would be behavior far more in keeping with my experience of persons than with my experience of bananas.
The fact is that we will invariably reach the metaphysical conclusion “this is a person” based on a grouping of non-metaphysical sensory inputs. A materialist approach would to be say that this means that metaphysical conclusions never follow from “the data” and thus should be abandoned. Since there is no specific, observable characteristic which I can say “this is what makes something a person”, this approach would reject personhood as a useful concept.
I would argue, instead, that it is precisely because we are beings able to perceive metaphysical realities through our sense of reason that we are able to take in a number of pieces of sensory “information” about something outside of ourselves and use those pieces of information to reach a metaphysical conclusion. In the case of deciding whether the unborn child is a “person” in the moral sense, pieces of information which might be key would be: member of our species (human), has unique DNA different from mother than father, heart is beating, eyes have formed, moves spontaneously, etc. None of these pieces of information is metaphysical in import, and yet, from the combination of them all, many people would form the conclusion that the creature in question is “a human being”.
Further, there is simply a visceral reaction to seeing someone. Recall the New York Times piece on “twin reduction” that was going around a few weeks ago:
One of Stone’s patients, a New York woman, was certain that she wanted to reduce from twins to a singleton. Her husband yielded because she would be the one carrying the pregnancy and would stay at home to raise them. They came up with a compromise. “I asked not to see any of the ultrasounds,” he said. “I didn’t want to have that image, the image of two. I didn’t want to torture myself. And I didn’t go in for the procedure either, because less is more for me.” His wife was relieved that her husband remained in the waiting room; she, too, didn’t want to deal with his feelings.
Kyle’s is right in saying that appearance itself is not evidence of personhood, but he is wrong in saying that this means that an ultrasound would not form a piece of “information” which would lead to a more “informed consent” in regards to abortion. In the end, no piece of information is in and of itself evidence of personhood. And yet, it is through these incomplete clues, these pieces of information which do not themselves indicate personhood, that we know that anyone at all is a person — indeed, that anyone at all exists.