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.

25 Responses to Information and Metaphysical Conclusions

  • Possibly part of your gut-level response is because of the baked-in assumption that the ultrasound/description laws are happening in a vacuum?

    The main reason I know that folks push for these laws is because women are lied to about what the fetal human is. Did my daughter’s ultrasound look like her six or so months later, at birth? Goodness, no, although the little footprint on the screen was adorable, as was the way she kept “blocking” the “camera” with her hand. The important thing is that she was clearly not a ‘mass of tissue’ and very much alive.

    Even pro-aborts tend to try to deny that a fetus is alive, rather than denying that the unborn are human. Seeing the kid move around really blows that out of the water. (Another form is to try to shift attention to the newly formed embryo, to distract from the way that most abortions do not involve humans before the woman even realizes she’s pregnant.)

  • I have not come across any pro-aborts that argue the fetus is not alive (if it’s not alive, why would it have to be aborted?). In fact, I have come across those who argue that even if it is a person, the rights of the mother (amorphous as they are) trump the right of the fetus to life.

  • Oh I have come across plenty of pro-aborts who still use the phrase “clump of cells”. In any case these laws are not directed towards pro-abort activists but women contemplating abortion. Truthful information about fetal development, including seeing an ultrasound of her child, would I think have an impact on more than a few of these women. Of course this is why pro-aborts like Catarina Dutilh Novaes fight these laws tooth and claw. I trust that I am not the only one who found her use of the term anthropomorphizing ( attributing human characteristics) in reference to a human child to be absolutely hilarious.

  • 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.

    I agree with you here, Darwin, but I maintain the that contemporary ambiguity about the unborn matters for mandating “informed consent.” In the case of identifying the banana, there’s more or less complete agreement about the fruit’s defining observable features. With the unborn and personhood itself, the situation is different. Here we see fundamental disagreement about the observable, defining features of personhood, especially with respect to the unborn. It’s likely that an ultrasound will “anthropomorphize” the fetus for those who view it, but the opposite reaction is also possible, if rare, and made more likely given the contemporary ambiguity.

    I’m all for ultrasounds before abortions being available and encouraged, and even publicly funded, but because they don’t necessarily achieve “informed consent,” could potentially achieve the opposite, and because they can inflict psychological suffering (upon someone who’s already psychologically suffering), I’d rather not see them enforced by law with no exemptions.

  • C Matt– because the “fertilized egg” is “a potential life;” “removing” the “clump of cells” is the same as not having sex in the first place….

  • Kyle,

    I agree with you here, Darwin, but I maintain the that contemporary ambiguity about the unborn matters for mandating “informed consent.” In the case of identifying the banana, there’s more or less complete agreement about the fruit’s defining observable features. With the unborn and personhood itself, the situation is different. Here we see fundamental disagreement about the observable, defining features of personhood, especially with respect to the unborn. It’s likely that an ultrasound will “anthropomorphize” the fetus for those who view it, but the opposite reaction is also possible, if rare, and made more likely given the contemporary ambiguity.

    I guess I’m having trouble following your line of reasoning here.

    I do agree that there is much disagreement in our society about what attributes point towards personhood, but if anything that seems like more of a reason to “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.” Sure, there will be the Peter Singers of the world who insist that it’s okay to “abort” up to a year or two post partum, but my hope is that when people are forced to confront the person they want to kill, they are more likely than not to change their minds.

    At first, I had taken you to be saying that it was inappropriate to require a mother to view an ultrasound before aborting because the appearance of her child was not direct evidence of his/her metaphysical nature.

    It sounds like we’re in agreement that the evidence of the senses are as much evidence as we ever get, and so while this may not result in perfectly “informed consent” it is as good a piece of evidence as any.

    Are you saying that we shouldn’t require the viewing of evidence unless we could be absolutely sure that everyone would be convinced?

  • Are you saying that we shouldn’t require the viewing of evidence unless we could be absolutely sure that everyone would be convinced?

    Not exactly. Raw data has to be interpreted and set within a framework for it to function of evidence of something. Evidence points beyond itself to come conclusion. The problem with ultrasound images here is that they don’t necessarily function as evidence because of our cultural ambiguity of what constitutes personhood. All you’re doing is showing raw date, so to speak, and not establishing the link between it and personhood that would make the imagery evidential.

  • I have to admire your patience, Darwin.

  • Substance and accidents.

  • People are understood–their worth, meaning, purpose–by way of Story. Apart from the scriptural narrative, the Christian concept of personhood would simply be nonexistent. There is no other way to ascribe to people their true identity. It’s the Story that gives us that understanding. I’ve realized for a while now that natural law, reason, and philosphy in general cannot do it. Only within the context of the Creation and God’s plan do we take on the importance we do. Only within that context do we have a script that must be followed. Faith in revelation. That’s all we have.

  • Brett,

    Yes. Anything that someone working from post-enlightenment principles calls “data” or “information” is necessarily going to be an accident. And yet, clearly to the extent that we know about substance (and I believe that we do, and I think that under his post-modern facade Kyle does at heart as well) we know it via the working of our reason on the sense experiences we have of accidents — combined with our inborn knowledge of creation.

  • Kyle,

    Not exactly. Raw data has to be interpreted and set within a framework for it to function of evidence of something. Evidence points beyond itself to come conclusion. The problem with ultrasound images here is that they don’t necessarily function as evidence because of our cultural ambiguity of what constitutes personhood. All you’re doing is showing raw date, so to speak, and not establishing the link between it and personhood that would make the imagery evidential.

    I’m not sure that your distinction between raw data and evidence holds up here.

    Unless you’re taking it that an expectant mother has no agency, if she is shown raw data, it will become evidence through her perception of it. Simply by viewing the ultrasound she will take it as evidence of something.

    Now, to be sure we cannot say with certainty what she will take it as evidence of. She might take it as evidence that it’s okay to go ahead and have an abortion, though given the concerns of the pro-abort writer you quote I think that by far the less likely of the alternatives. But at the same time, even something far more formed than “raw data” such at the ultrasound might not have the desired effect. No matter how fully formed, how reasoned, any communication is but “raw data” to the perceive, subject to interpretation in ways not desired by the one who communicates. The most compassionate pro-life woman in the world, one who had herself once had an abortion and lived to regret it, might tell her story to a woman considering abortion and end up having exactly the opposite of the effect she hoped for. We simply cannot control how others interpret what we say or what we show them. We cannot control how they turn the raw data of our communications to them, perceived through their sense, into evidence withing their own minds.

    If you find this to be an argument against ultrasounds, it is an argument against any form of communication to anyone about anything.

  • If you find this to be an argument against ultrasounds, it is an argument against any form of communication to anyone about anything.

    Except my argument isn’t against ultrasounds, but against legally requiring them with no exemptions given circumstances of heightened ambiguity and strong potential for suffering. You are right that we can’t control how people will interpret data such as ultrasound images, and this impossibility of control is a reason not to attempt such control through, say, legally required ultrasounds.

  • Except my argument isn’t against ultrasounds, but against legally requiring them with no exemptions given circumstances of heightened ambiguity and strong potential for suffering. You are right that we can’t control how people will interpret data such as ultrasound images, and this impossibility of control is a reason not to attempt such control through, say, legally required ultrasounds.

    We can’t control how a jury interprets data which might clear an innocent man accused of a capital crime either — but I would find it quite wrong to conceal the evidence as a result lest it make them feel uncomfortable for a while, or out of some odd epistemological scrupulosity.

  • [I’m re-posting this response to a comment from Kyle over on my own blog, since it keeps all the conversation in one place and I think it sums things up nicely.]

    Your first three points:
    because they don’t necessarily achieve “informed consent,” could potentially achieve the opposite, potentially give the implication that looking human means being human,
    strike me as very weak, because given a post-enlightenment (much less post-modern) understanding of sensation versus understanding this would essentially be an argument against every communicating anything to anyone even in the attempt to save an innocent person from suffering or death. (For instance, one could use the same argument to suggest concealing evidence that might keep an innocent person from being convicted of a capital crime: evidence is never unambiguous, it might be taken wrong by the jury, and it might give the mistaken impression that if this one piece of evidence were not convincing, then the accused was certainly guilty.)

    Thus, I can’t help thinking that it is your last concern that is in fact the primary concern here: because they can inflict psychological suffering (upon someone who’s already psychologically suffering)

    This would fit both with your laudable capacity for empathy and with the quoted piece which serves as your jumping-off point in the post. It also underlines a weakness which I think we would agree it is important for pro-lifers to avoid: that of acting as if the only person worth worrying about is the unborn child and ignoring the concerns of the mother.

    At the same time, it seems to me that in this case you’re applying a post-abortive mentality to the point in time before an abortion has occurred.

    Yes, a woman on the verge of having an abortion may well be suffering psychological pain, and showing her an ultrasound which makes more clear the gravity of what she is considering may make that pain more severe, but it seems to me that this needs to be weighed against that fact that at this point the pain which is realization may have the effect of helping her avoid the greater, longer pain and guilt of having caused the death of her child.

    God does not want us to suffer, and yet there are experiences which bring to us, naturally, suffering. When you put your hand on a hot stove burner, you feel pain because your body is trying to tell your brain, “Stop doing this!” When we experience pain as we do or prepare to do some evil action, this is a way in which all of nature attempts to scream out at us — to stop us before we are forever someone who has done what we are about to do.

    I was struck by this strongly recently reading Bloodlands. There’s a passage that quotes a letter that an Austrian policeman, sent to Belarus with the occupation forces in 1941, wrote home to his wife:
    “During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children and infants. I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hoards would treat just the same, if not worse.” [I’m not going to quote the rest — I don’t want to give readers nightmares. This is from page 205.]

    You can hear there, in that long dead person’s voice, the suffering. And then he overcomes the suffering, and you feel the icy touch of damnation setting in.

    If I could, by some means, reach back and require some extra moment of looking on his potential victims, some greater suffering, such that he would not fire those ten shots and acquire that familiarity — become the person who had done those acts — I would. Suffering of that kind, to that end, is the suffering of light breaking through darkness — the suffering that saves us from ourselves.

    It is a false compassion to help people hide from themselves the horror of an act they may quickly do, and spend the rest of their lives regretting.

  • Well said, Darwin.

  • Abortion can only be seen as wrong from the perspective that God is the Creator, that he has a plan for each and every one of us. That he is the giver of life and that that life is a gift to be cherished, not discarded. How can one express this to an unbeliever? I argue strongly that it cannot. One must believe it. One must have faith in God and the revelation given through Scripture. All philosophic defense and cultural sentiment has always rested on this. Apart from Christianity there is simply no defensible argument against abortion in our culture.

  • Reason is simply how people think at a particular time, and philosophy is formal thought based upon what people are then thinking. Yes, we are our own worst enemies. We must be saved from ourselves. Salvation comes to us from without. Otherwise we self-destruct. Our culture is reverting to paganism, to un-enlightenment, to the barbaric practices of the past. Nothing at all novel.

  • Correction–the Greeks began a sense of ‘natural law’ and this continued and became incorporated into Christianity. But the kind of natural law we have in mind that recognizes sacred life rests upon Christianity. It’s Christianity that transformed the thinking. Natural law would not have developed in that direction on its own and is insufficient by itself.

  • “During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children and infants. I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hoards would treat just the same, if not worse.”[I’m not going to quote the rest — I don’t want to give readers nightmares. This is from page 205.]

    “You can hear there, in that long dead person’s voice, the suffering. And then he overcomes the suffering, and you feel the icy touch of damnation setting in.

    If I could, by some means, reach back and require some extra moment of looking on his potential victims, some greater suffering, such that he would not fire those ten shots and acquire that familiarity — become the person who had done those acts — I would. Suffering of that kind, to that end, is the suffering of light breaking through darkness — the suffering that saves us from ourselves.

    It is a false compassion to help people hide from themselves the horror of an act they may quickly do, and spend the rest of their lives regretting.”

    Amen Darwin.

  • Well said Darwin.

  • We can’t control how a jury interprets data which might clear an innocent man accused of a capital crime either — but I would find it quite wrong to conceal the evidence as a result lest it make them feel uncomfortable for a while, or out of some odd epistemological scrupulosity.

    So would I. However, the aim of the trial is not to control how the jury interprets the data, but to persuade them to accept the better of two interpretations (the prosecutor’s and the defendant’s). And, as far as my argument is concerned, I’m not suggesting that anything be concealed or hidden.

  • It is a false compassion to help people hide from themselves the horror of an act they may quickly do, and spend the rest of their lives regretting.

    Yes. As others have said, well said. But does it apply to my argument? I think not. I’m not for helping people hide from themselves the horror of an act: I think the ultrasounds in question ought to be available and encouraged, though I question whether they reveal the horror of abortion.

  • However, the aim of the trial is not to control how the jury interprets the data, but to persuade them to accept the better of two interpretations (the prosecutor’s and the defendant’s). And, as far as my argument is concerned, I’m not suggesting that anything be concealed or hidden.

    The problem is, we’re dealing with a peculiar trail in which only the prosecution is allowed to make its case — the defense has been excluded. The only way we can attempt to get any information through to the jury at all is by legally requiring the prosecutor to provide certain types of information — however half-heartedly we may be sure that he will do it.

    You, I know, do not desire anything to be concealed or hidden. But let’s face it — if abortion providers are not required to show an ultrasound, almost none will ever be shown. And one thing we seem to be in agreement on is that the showing of an ultrasound will serve as a disincentive to abortion more often than not.

    If we don’t require it, it will be concealed.

    But does it apply to my argument? I think not. I’m not for helping people hide from themselves the horror of an act: I think the ultrasounds in question ought to be available and encouraged, though I question whether they reveal the horror of abortion.

    Whether they “reveal” the horror of abortion has to do with how the viewer reacts, we have no idea what will happen there. In the case of the Austrian policeman, even the visual and tactile sensation of shooting infants failed, in the end, to get through to him the horror of what he was doing — we can certainly not be sure that a fuzzy and badly done ultrasound will.

    However, if the sensation of viewing an ultrasound fails to inspire in the viewer a feeling of the horror of abortion, then there is no psychological suffering — your reason for objecting disappears. If suffering is caused, it’s because the ultrasound is conveying the information we want it to, however imperfectly.

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