Confucius and Abortion
Sam Crane has an interesting post up at Useless Tree on the subject of Confucianism and abortion. Sam raises a number of thoughtful questions, and his post has led me to think a bit more about this issue. I haven’t reached any conclusions at all, but it has led me to ask a few questions myself about how to frame a discussion of this issue.
Sam starts by wondering what a Confucian would think of this statement from the Vatican: “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.” He suspects that the Confucian would reject it, given that the fundamental foundation of “personhood” (and the dignity it carries with it) doesn’t lie in the mere existence of biological human life (as appears to be the case for the Pope), but rather in a form of relationally-based and achieved social integration. So, as Sam puts it, for the Confucian “the key ethical question would not be when biological life begins but when social life begins.” As a result, the abortion debate, if it turned on personhood concerns, would be framed and analyzed in a different way.
If we frame the debate in this way, as suggesting that abortion permissibility rides on the answer to the question of “when personhood begins” then abortion for the Confucian may not seem particularly problematic, because the fetus will not be a person – at the very least not a full-fledged robust one. The reason for this is clear: a fetus is not capable of social interaction.
So when does this begin? As Sam notes, “social life” begins with an entity’s presence or significance being illustrated through integration into ritual (li). This could be through the caring role of a mother attending to a newborn via a number of rituals from breastfeeding to diaper changing. Interestingly, however, Sam adds that it could start earlier, in the placing of “that first hazy sonogram on the refrigerator door in anticipation of a new child”. Although I find this point intriguing, on the whole it does seem to be the case that in the classic sense a fetus (or even a baby) is not going to be capable of “full” social interaction. So even if it has some degree of personhood, it’s not a robust sense of personhood. So from this point of view, it seems that a fairly liberal view on abortion will be consistent with Confucian thought. Of course, as Sam points out, situational factors will also be important at this point, and it won’t be a “yes or no” blanket answer to the permissibility of abortion.
But I wonder if a more conservative case can be made out, just to play devil’s advocate. At the very least, what would be the obstacles to a prima facie permissible stance on abortion by Confucians? I’ll list out a few thoughts, starting with the not-so-controversial and then working up to the very controversial (if not certifiably nuts). These are just some loose thoughts — some reflections on what might be usable to construct roadblocks to an accepted abortion decision in some given situation.
1.Intentionality matters. So, it could be that a mother who already has six children would need to put those children at risk if she decided to have another child, and so as a result abortion might seem to be a way of assuring the well being of one’s current progeny. That said, it is clear that such a mother could have nothing but selfish motives about the way in which she goes about the abortion decision. The mother might “treat abortion as a birth control device” and put little forethought into not getting pregnant in the first place. This seems problematic to me, on Confucian grounds. In such a circumstance, I wonder if the vicious motivation of the mother extends now outward to the action, making it impermissible (at the very least, it might be that “yi” or appropriateness has an action-guiding and action-assessing component which would come apart in this circumstance; the “objective features” may open up abortion as a proper action, but the intentional features may assess it as impermissible).
2. The fact that intentionality matters (that one should think about the right things, or feel the right things) for a Confucian, I think, is buttressed in some way by Sam’s discussion of incorporating the fetus into ritual. When one puts up the first sonogram onto the refrigerator, it could be that one has attributed human personhood or significance to the fetus (at least to some degree). One is taking part in a ritual performance that bestows human significance on the fetus. As a result, it seems that ritual generates obligation: one is under a prima facie obligation to care for the fetus, or for the fetus to factor into the weight of one’s deliberations in a way that recognizes this status (to some degree). For example, and thinking of Rosalind Hursthouse here, to think of possibly aborting a fetus and attaching to the value of the fetus (in deliberation) a similar weight that one might attribute to getting a haircut would be a sign of lack of virtue (insensitivity and callousness). As a consequence, having an abortion would not be appropriate (yi).
3. Furthermore, as another issue stemming from (2), the question might arise whether it matters if the mother herself has incorporated the fetus into these rituals. After all, if rituals can generate obligations, the question would remain: what if I don’t perform the rituals? Am I then off scot free, so to speak? If I don’t hang up the sonogram, does it matter how I “feel” about the fetus, or what weight I give it in my deliberations? It may not –matter for the Confucian: perhaps all that matters is that one’s local community does so in a generalized way to create the prima facie obligation for care towards the fetus. In other words, a person can run afoul of the correct rituals (li).
4. Another issue stemming from (2) might be that the longer the pregnancy continues, the more prima facie impermissible the abortion will become, given the fact that the fetus is (or should be, seen from a societal level) integrated into more and more rituals that attribute human significance to the fetus. On this level, Confucian thought may line up well with our pre-theoretical intuitions about how abortion becomes more and more ethically problematic (prima facie) as a pregnancy develops, even if it is the case that the fetus is not “socially interacting” any more at month 8 than it is at month 2.
5. It may be the case that the mother is under a prima facie obligation not to harm her body, this being a gift from her ancestors. The mother has a prima facie obligation to her parents and ancestors not to abuse her body, and the abortion might even be seen as a rejection of the continuation of the ancestral line. Having children may be one’s responsibility, and so abortion would run up against this.
6. Traditional abortion foes suggest that either (a) capacity for personhood or (b) actual personhood make abortion not permissible. One can see a possible Confucian argument for (a); perhaps it is this itself that is being recognized through the slowly developing rituals mentioned above.
7. But I wonder – and this is way out there, so bear with me – whether a possible reading of (b) could be given. Here’s what I mean: although it is typically understood that “ren” is an achievement term, or that personhood is something an individual has to strive for (and doesn’t just have from the get-go), perhaps it is too narrow to suggest that the achievement of ren is always an achievement of a single individual. Instead, perhaps it is always, on some level, a relational achievement. Moreover, perhaps it is an achievement whose burden within the relationship shifts as time progresses from one party to another. Perhaps, for the fetus, personhood is conferred upon it by its parents (say) through the way in which it (the fetus) allows the parents to fulfill certain role relations (motherhood, fatherhood) via participation in the rituals discussed above. So the fetus is a person when it is treated in such a way that allows the parents to (via parenting rituals) be ren. As the child grows, being a good/ren parent may require the active participation of the child, and as a result, for the child to “be ren” would require a more active role on the part of the child him/herself. As the child gets older and takes on more roles, “being ren” will require more and more active participation on the part of that single individual (whereas the fetus can be passive). In any case, if this were in any way workable (I’m really way on there on a limb here in #7) – then the fetus would be a person, and as a result abortion would not be permissible at all (given the stipulation that abortion would not be permissible if the fetus is a person, and I’m not suggesting that this framing is the right one to use, but just here for the sake of argument).
Well, just some half-baked thoughts between grading papers. Alright, I admit it, #7 is really out there. But what fun would a blog post be if it didn’t include something crazy? J