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4 reasons the consent argument for abortion is sociopathic

By D Bnonn Tennant

The consent argument is the most popular and vigorously-defended way for pro-abortionists to show that abortion is ethically justified—and that the abolitionist position is unreasonable. But what if their argument trades on hidden ethical concessions that, in any other situation, we’d think were psychopathic?

The basic idea of the consent argument is that abortion is justified on grounds of personal liberty and bodily autonomy. In other words, since no one is entitled to make use of your body without your consent, and especially not for extended periods, you’re entitled to take steps to prevent this kind of imposition—up to and including killing the person imposing on you.

An obvious example is some kind of aggravated assault like rape. It’s hard to imagine a woman being unjustified in killing a rapist in self-defense.

But getting from justification for killing a rapist, to justification for killing a fetus (Harry), is not as easy as pro-abortionists make out. There are at least four insurmountable hurdles between there and here, and the only way to leap these hurdles is to adopt a sociopathic attitude toward Harry.

Seriously, sociopathic? Poisoning the well much?

You might think I’m being an extremist or alarmist or something by using this term. But I’m using it according to its technical definition:

A person with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse.

You’ll note that’s actually the definition of a psychopath. I understand the terms are generally interchangeable, but that sociopath is now the more accepted one—and I think the better one because it emphasizes the social aspect of the pathology. In any case, this is what I mean when I say the consent argument ends up being sociopathic. I aim to show that if you accept that argument, then you are committed to behaving in a morally perverted, non-empathetic way toward Harry the fetus; and since you think there’s nothing wrong with your actions, you have no remorse either.

This might be hard to swallow, but I really am not trying to be an ass. If you disagree, and you’re a reasonable person who can consider the possibility of being wrong, then at least hear me out.

A slight diversion into the difference between emoting and reasoning

If you think I’m being outrageous or offensive, please let me point out a very important distinction. Being outraged or offended is not the same as being right. You might be right—but you might also be wrong. As they say, the truth can hurt. So I’d ask you to judge my discussion below not by how it makes you feel, but by how good my reasoning is.

That said, I think my position only sounds scandalous because, as a society, we have been brow-beaten into thinking that disapproving of abortion amounts to an attack on women.

But what if it doesn’t? What if the opposite is true, and approving of abortion is tantamount to treating women as sociopaths? Wouldn’t you want to know?

In my experience (I was once pro-abortion), if you put aside emotions and preconceptions to evaluate the evidence as logically as you can, it becomes obvious that the only way to justify abortion is to deny key ethical principles we all want to share. And I think that’s why pro-abortionists choose political correctness as their weapon of choice: it short-circuits real discussion, hiding how the pro-abortion position requires these terrible ethical concessions. I believe pro-abortionists are unable to show their position is reasonable, and so they have to make it politically correct instead—brow-beating abolitionists into submission through emotion and rhetoric.

Now watch closely. There is nothing up my sleeve. I want you to notice that even pointing this out, as I just have, is fodder for the pro-abortionist way of “persuading” others. When I say something like this, many of them will try to show how mean I am being. They will try to characterize me as someone who hates women and views them as nothing more than incubators. (I’m not making this up—see the comments thread on my article on LiveAction News for this exact accusation.)

But I am not trying to be mean. I’m trying to point out what’s going on so we can deal with it, without being blinded by inappropriate feelings of shame or guilt at holding a politically incorrect view. Mind you, even if I am being mean (which I’m not), that doesn’t make me wrong, does it? Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill are renowned for their mean, right witticisms.

4 reasons the consent argument ends up being sociopathic

Note that I’m taking for granted that Harry is a human being, and that human beings have a right to life. I think both those points are uncontroversial, and in any case I’ve argued for them in the above-linked articles. Pro-abortionists will often concede this, and then use the consent argument to show that it is justifiable to kill Harry anyway—so that’s the context I’m assuming.

The argument is basically that if a woman does not give consent for Harry to impose on her personal liberties and bodily autonomy by occupying her uterus for 9 months, then she is justified in taking any means necessary to prevent him from doing so—which means removing him, which means killing him.

This argument fails for at least 4 reasons:

  1. It ignores or denies implicit consent
  2. It requires the use of disproportionate force
  3. It ignores or denies our social responsibilities toward others in analagous circumstances
  4. It relies on a non-existent distinction between modes of physical imposition

1. It ignores or denies implicit consent

In nearly all cases, the woman has already given implicit consent to Harry’s imposition, by having sex in the first place. She knows that sex is what gets women pregnant. And she knows that contraceptives are not 100% effective. (Even if she somehow doesn’t know these things, we don’t take ignorance to be an excuse for not accepting the consequences of your actions if you choose to engage in other kinds of risky activities—rather, we think you should have educated yourself properly first.)

But this being the case, it seems quite impossible for her to say she consented to have sex, but did not consent to the consequences of having sex—namely Harry. That is rather like saying that she consented to go joyriding, but not to spend 9 months doing community service after she accidentally drove through a fence. We’d rightly condemn an amoral attitude like that, because it denies obvious social responsibilities.

So given the implicit consent that goes along with having sex, we can see the consent argument fails immediately, with the exception of very rare fringe cases like rape. To deny this is to take an amoral, socially-destructive attitude that could rightly be described as sociopathic. (Note that I’m not saying someone who takes this attitude is a sociopath—only that the attitude is sociopathic.)

2. It requires the use of disproportionate force

I’ve already said a woman is justified in killing a rapist. But what about a less extreme situation, such as being groped? Surely that does not justify lethal force against the perp—nasty as he may be. We’d all agree not every case of abuse or assault permits killing the perpetrator.

This raises the question: is it justifiable to kill someone causing you discomfort and inconvenience (even if severe) for nine months? Is that really a reasonable or proportionate response? If you have been kidnapped, say, and your kidnapper (Pete) has confined you somewhere but otherwise not harmed you, and you believe you will be released again in 9 months, are you justified in killing Pete to escape? It isn’t at all clear to me that it is.

Now before you disagree, think carefully about this. I know it’s natural to have a kind of bravado about these situations. We’re inclined to automatically exaggerate our own rights, and our own willingness to assert those rights in hypothetical situations. But as you may know from events in your own life, when push comes to shove we are actually much less assertive than we pretend we’d be. We tend to back down and feel the infringement on our rights is not as important as we built it up to be in our minds.

So let me ask you honestly: can you really see yourself taking a machete and hacking Pete to death in order to escape? (Most abortions involve a similar kind of physical destruction of the fetus.) Or would you think, when given the opportunity, that only a sociopath could actually go through with it?

The importance of intent

Perhaps you’re unconvinced so far. Maybe you think you would hack Pete up, and be justified about it. So let’s go further now, by talking about how intent strongly affects what kind of response is appropriate to an imposition on our rights or autonomy.

In the examples I’ve suggested so far, Pete is intentionally imposing on your body, while you have done nothing at all to bring on the imposition. But what if he were imposing unintentionally? And what if it were your intentional action that had caused his unintentional imposition? What if, through no fault of his own, he was unaware of what he was doing and helpless to prevent it, while you had caused the problem in the first place? Would you still feel justified in killing him?

Surely not. Surely someone who could do such a thing without remorse would rightly be considered sociopathic? Even in a situation where the imposition was brought about by a third party doing something awful to you, it’s obviously not right to kill Pete in response—he is as much a victim as you are. As the old saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Yet some pro-abortionists are adamant, almost vindictive, about killing Pete. I wonder if, as with the prisoner’s dilemma on the ferries in The Dark Knight, they are all talk. If Harry were another adult, or a child, thrust helplessly into the situation, would they really be able to kill him to defend their bodily autonomy and personal liberty? I think very few people really would—at least, I hope the pro-abortionists’ bark is worse than their bite, because if not they actually are sociopaths.

3. It ignores or denies our social responsibilities toward others in analagous circumstances

Although the problems I’ve discussed so far are pretty damned problematical, I think this one trumps them all. Yet it is largely glossed over by pro-abortionists.

Let me give an example. Imagine you’re in a plane, and you crash on a desert island. The only other survivor of the crash is a baby.

It seems extremely clear that although you have not consented to look after this baby—indeed, it is a significant imposition given your limited supplies and lack of preparation—you are nonetheless under an obligation to do so simply by being put into that situation. We would unequivocally condemn you if, instead of caring for the baby, you left it out in the sun to die of exposure or starvation. That is unquestionably sociopathic behavior. And we would especially condemn you if you took a machete and hacked the baby to pieces, or drowned it in the sea, arguing that you were justified in doing so because you had not consented to look after the child.

Now, if even a stranger has a responsibility to a child that cannot fend for itself, how much more does its own mother have such a duty when it is even less able to fend for itself? To deny this maternal duty seems plainly sociopathic—an ethical price so high that if you pay it to claim that abortion is “ethical”, your claim ends up saying nothing like what we take it to mean on face value.

4. It relies on a non-existent distinction between modes of physical imposition

Why is it unacceptable for a woman to be imposed on via direct physical means, such as a fetus living inside her (or Judith Jarvis Thompson’s violinist being grafted onto her), but not via indirect means, such as having to prepare meals for her child, work to provide for him, drive him from place to place, care for him when he is sick, and so on? Both are obvious impositions on her personal liberty and her bodily autonomy. (Indeed, doesn’t the latter sound very much like indentured servitude?)

You may say the difference in the case of pregnancy is that she has no other recourse. Once Harry is born she can adopt him out, or have willing family members help her, etc. But my desert island analogy seems to put paid to that idea. It’s not permissible to kill someone just because you can’t fob your responsibility off on another person.

You may say the difference in the case of post-partum children is that, by consenting to give birth, the mother implicitly consents to everything which follows—even things like terrible diseases where she will be forced to give up great personal liberties and bodily autonomy for Harry’s sake. But this response immediately backfires by conceding my previous argument #1: that by consenting to have sex, the woman implicitly consents to everything which follows, including Harry’s conception. You can’t eat your cake and still have it, too.

And in fringe cases where sex is nonconsensual, the desert island analogy comes into play again. If non-consent doesn’t justify killing a human being in a similar situation post-partum, why should it justify it in utero?

We should reject the consent argument because it makes mothers into sociopaths

I think just one of the problems I’ve raised is alone sufficient to show how the consent argument is sociopathic. But when we combine them we get an insurmountable cumulative case. Rather than justifying a woman in killing Harry, the argument actually condemns her. To kill him because she does not consent to him “occupying her body” clearly qualifies as sociopathic behavior.

In all the analogies pro-abortionists give, the perpetrator is acting maliciously (sometimes by proxy, as in the violinist argument) toward a woman who did nothing to merit his actions against her. But even if this were accurate, killing him seems a staggeringly disproportionate response—it isn’t reasonable force at all. Yet in the vast majority of pregnancies, the “perp” is in fact acting helplessly toward a woman precisely because she caused him to do so! And moreover, she is not simply “a woman” and he is not simply “a perp”—rather, she is his mother and he is her child, with all the duties and responsibilities that entails. Denying these maternal duties, far from being enlightened and freeing, seems sociopathic. And finally, since there’s no obvious moral difference between a fetus imposing on a woman’s autonomy and liberties, and a toddler doing so, the consent argument implies that a woman is justified in killing her toddler for the same reasons as having an abortion.

12 comments

  1. Julia Birch

    With regards to point one about consent; firstly, you make a big assumption that all women have access to full and accurate information about sexual activity and contraception – “we don’t take ignorance to be an excuse for not accepting the consequences of your actions […] we think you should have educated yourself properly first”. What about women who live in developing countries, or even those who live in first world countries but only have access to poor quality education on these matters?

    Secondly, a woman who is indeed in full possession of the facts and has sex may accept a small risk of pregnancy, but that is not the same thing as consenting to carry that pregnancy to term. A woman who knows she could access abortion, either legally or illegally, may reasonably be said to have accepted the risk of pregnancy but not to have consented to continuing that pregnancy as she knows there are ways to stop it.

    In your last paragraph, you state that denying what you see as maternal duties is sociopathic. Would you extend this to mothers of small children who are mentally ill and, feeling that they can’t cope, ask social services to take away the children?

  2. Inanna Sumer

    Your whole argument hinges on that last point. But if you do not recognize the difference between direct and indirect physical imposition and indirect physical imposition, why don’t you support mandatory organ/tissue/blood donation? we have an obligation to help our neighbors indirectly, do we not? why not directly, since there’s no difference? If there’s no difference, why would most people agree that it is unethical and justifiably illegal to perform medical experiments on convicted criminals, or force them to donate blood/tissue/organs? by subjecting them to imprisonment, we’re already indirectly imposing upon them, after all.

    this is where your whole argument breaks down, sorry. there is a vital distinction between direct and indirect physical imposition, and the proof is reflected in our laws and culture.

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Julia, it seems very strange to claim that women in developing countries don’t know that sex makes babies. Just because they aren’t scientifically educated doesn’t mean they’re idiots. It’s also very difficult to sustain this line of argument in the face of the competing pro-abortionist claim that women receiving abortions are usually fully educated about what they are doing. Someone who doesn’t know what sex is for isn’t in any sense educated enough to be making a decision about having an abortion.

    Your second point just begs the question against me, and I think I’ve quite adequately put it down in my post itself. And I can completely bypass it anyway since the analogy of plane crash shows that accepting risk is actually irrelevant to one’s moral duties.

    Re denying maternal duties to children who are mentally ill, I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. Is the mother choosing to hack her mentally ill child into pieces? If not, where’s the analogy?

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Inanna, my argument doesn’t hinge on direct versus indirect imposition at all. If you think it does, you need to explain why.

    Asking why I don’t support mandatory organ donation doesn’t defeat my argument. It is merely a red herring. It’s also irrelevant to my argument inasmuch as failing to undergo an invasive procedure to save someone’s life is not relevantly similar to paying someone to tear your child into pieces.

    Re convicted criminals, you’d need to explain how you think forcing them to undergo medical experiments or donate organs is similar to requiring a mother not to kill her child.

  5. Inanna Sumer

    i explained your logical inconsistencies in that facebook thread, and you ignored them. i’m not about to type it all out again here, especially since i’m on my phone and the shift button isn’t working. if you want to defend your position, you can do so there.

  6. Sarah Tennant

    “Secondly, a woman who is indeed in full possession of the facts and has sex may accept a small risk of pregnancy, but that is not the same thing as consenting to carry that pregnancy to term. A woman who knows she could access abortion, either legally or illegally, may reasonably be said to have accepted the risk of pregnancy but not to have consented to continuing that pregnancy as she knows there are ways to stop it.”

    If I agree to drive my friend’s toddler to daycare, I accept that there’s a small chance the daycare will, for some reason, be shut. The normal response would be for me to drive the toddler back to my friend’s house. But say I have no intention of doing that. I know that if the daycare is shut, I will dump the kid out on the highway and continue on my merry way. Given that I am fully prepared to do this, is it not sociopathic for me to agree to take my friend’s toddler to daycare? Surely the only non-sociopathic thing I can do in that case (aside from, you know, driving the kid back home) is to decline to take the child to daycare in the first place?

    And surely I would be considered even more sociopathic if, instead of just dumping the toddler on the highway, I sliced her into pieces because I found it physically easier than undoing her carseat?

    As Bnonn said, the plane crash analogy demonstrates that accepting risk is irrelevant to the question anyway; but taking your argument on its own terms, it doesn’t do much to dispel Bnonn’s point about the consent argument being sociopathic.

  7. Kathryn

    I will have as much sex as I want, and if I do get pregnant and wish to abort the baby, I will and nobody can stop me. I don’t care if it’s the law or some idiots want it that way; as long as it is IN my body, I have control over it.

    Come on, try it. Try and force me to have a baby I don’t want. If you won’t let me abort it, I will kill it by starving myself. I will exercise until I pass out. The more you think you have control over my body, the more I will fight back, and the only one that will be losing is YOU.

    No one can have control over my body except ME. Come on assholes, I DARE you to try and pass a law to try and control what grows inside my body. Haha.

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I pondered whether to allow this comment, Kathryn, but in the end I decided it’s important for Christians to know what they’re up against—the depth of selfishness, malice and hate in some of those they may have to deal with. Thanks for being a forthright example of that.

  9. Mike T

    DBT:

    Thanks for the above. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the consent argument and trying to use logical analogy to examine its merit (eg. the double standard of legal abortions while killers of pregnant women are charged with two homicides, the consent argument applied to abortions performed on women who lack the legal standing for consent (i.e. minors, mentally handicapped, etc.)). You bring up a good number of points I hadn’t considered — definitely a substantial weight of things to ponder.

    Thanks for sharing your insights, which are very evidently a product of careful thought and some time spent applying logic thereto. Unfortunately, I’m discouraged from even discussing the topic with those around me these days. Somehow, we’ve gotten to a place where logic and reason have simply lost all persuasive power over most individuals in society. So many people I meet with assent to every logical step and then disagree with your conclusion. Somehow, what’s right and true no longer matters. Your most persuasive, sound, honest conclusions will inevitable be met by: “No one can have control over my body except ME. Come on assholes, I DARE you to try and pass a law to try and control what grows inside my body. Haha.”

    What is logical and true and reasonable and good is completely irrelevant to those who no longer esteem those traits in the least – to those whose minds are guided solely by their minds. Thank you, nonetheless.

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    You’re welcome Mike. You’re right that discussing this is often futile. I think Christians should be aiming for institutional-level (top down) change rather grassroots (bottom up) change. The majority of people are apathetic and unable or unwilling to reason through positions, let alone act upon their beliefs. They take their cue on what to believe and how to act from cultural institutions like the media, universities, and politicians.

    As long as Christians keep giving up their power to those institutions, instead of seeing them as positions to aspire to in order to effectively minister to our culture, we’re never going to make serious changes to stop the worst holocaust in human history.

  11. Chris

    You have one major flaw in your argument – by using the word “kill”, you imply that the fetus has consciousness at all times after conception, which is false.

  12. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    No, by using the word “kill” I imply that the fetus has life at all times after conception, which is true. Unless you think that smothering a person in their sleep does not kill them, since they are not conscious?

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