April, as usual, provided much to talk about.
In my homeland of Canada, large-scale tragedy struck twice as the Humboldt Broncos junior-A hockey team bus collided with a semi-trailer at the beginning of the month, leaving 15 dead, most of them teens. As a hockey player, myself, this hit close to home. Towards the end of the month, a van in Toronto plowed through a crowd of pedestrians, killing ten, injuring over a dozen others.
Otherwise, Donald Trump launched a military strike on Syria. Post Malone released his new album, beerbongs & bentleys. The NHL playoffs began. And several other things.
For this post, I want to share my thoughts on a Canadian university abortion debate and the Alfie Evans scenario. As you can tell, both items concern serious bioethical issues.
1. Laurier Abortion Debate Review
I’m not quite sure how to best sum up how I felt about the debate in short. If it were a true debate, it was one-sided. If this were marketed more as a conversation, then maybe this would’ve been a more leveled “discussion”. But, really, only one position stood by the end.
The debate in question was held at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, on the topic of “Abortion: Whose Body? Whose Choice?” and featured Oriyana Hrycyshyn, representing the pro-life position, and Dr. Fraser Fellows, a pro-choice physician who performs abortions.
The event was emceed by Lindsay Shepherd who you’ll remember was a while ago essentially a victim of opinion-policing by that very school after she had shown in her class a video of Dr. Jordan Peterson concerning the usage of gender pronouns. The school had threatened her with disciplinary action. She made a clear point to say before this debate started that it was good to see both sides of any contentious topic, rather than hide in an echo chamber. The abortionist, Dr. Fellows, himself said that he was disappointed that Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau had effectively muted the conversation and, through the ideology-filtration in his Summer Jobs Grant Program application procedure, stifled the freedoms and rights of pro-life groups and individuals.
While I appreciate that this debate, if nothing else, was an attempt to facilitate any form of back-and-forth, any form of legitimately constructive conversation, however, I would’ve loved to see a bit more of a rational push-back from Dr. Fellows.
His opening arguments weren’t arguments at all but merely affirmations of cultural norms and societal “consensus” on the ethicality of abortion. (To be fair, he admitted at the start that he wasn’t good at debates, which is honest and appreciable.) I would’ve liked to have heard a since-therefore statement, a conclusion preceded by a premise, a logic for us to follow. Aside from various appeals, what we got was (paraphrased) “here is what society thinks of it, and I agree”. I think underlying his position is the grounding assumption that society is the only known, or the best, determinant reference-point for ethical behavior. (He does go on to clarify during Q&A.) Either way, this is vacuous reasoning and question-begging.
Hrycyshyn, on the other hand, used her time to the fullest to give the pro-life stance. Her argument essentially followed a straightforward human rights contention: Since science has determined the fetus to be a living human being and that all human beings deserve human rights, therefore, the pre-born deserve human rights. She defined terms, cited her scientific sources, explained the historic concept of human rights, and intentionally displayed a video of a live abortion procedure (which Dr. Fellows confirmed to be completely accurate of what it actually looks like). Oriyana’s statements were much more thorough, though she wasn’t able to complete her speech in time.
The interest for me, whatever I could salvage from this event, was in the cross-fire and question-and-answer session. I paid specific attention to the questions volleyed at Dr. Fellows and his answers. A couple points stood out to me.
He used his rebuttal time to make these points: prior to the gestational age of 23 weeks and 6 days, we shouldn’t be attempting to prevent abortions; society has decreed abortion to be a necessary procedure; abortion is not particularly good; and not enough is being done to serve women so as to make abortion unnecessary.
A couple quick thoughts–to say that abortion is necessary (even up to a certain point) is unsupported if the alternatives aren’t even considered. Dr. Fellows suggests that we should take more preventative action like more education, contraception accessibility, and psychological empowerment. I don’t necessarily disagree here though contraception is pretty darn accessible. But, solutions for after impregnation, like adoption services, aren’t even given a look. What exactly are we trying to accomplish? You can’t pin the issue on financial instability (that’s only a representative minority of abortions) or those emotionally devastating cases of abuse (can’t allow one to pay the price for another’s crime). How about trying for a mindset that temporary struggle will be worth the while if it means saving a life (which has no price tag)? How about putting in place a support system to foster parental responsibility? I don’t know, if we’re talking about trying to improve society, surely we think of ideas other than “more contraception” and “more education”.
Secondly, societal decree cannot and must not be binding in terms of the morality of one’s actions. If it is, then we’re ultimately appealing to a sort cultural relativism which, let’s face it, has failed us miserably. (This last point lead Dr. Fellows to give a response to an audience which I consider to be the low-point of the debate.)
I thought Oriyana’s line of questioning during her rebuttal period to be okay, though, I know what I would’ve done to improve it. For example, instead of trying to get the doctor to say that the fetus is a human–he knows this, but his contention is that the mother can choose what to do with that human as an outcome of her control over her bodily functions–I would instead try to engage him directly on the human rights issue, the basis for that distribution/judgment, and build a common understanding that the deprivation of rights, or a hierarchy of motherly rights over pre-born rights, is necessarily discriminatory. In fact, I wonder if she was at times using the word ‘human’ when really she meant to use the word ‘person’, perhaps nervously (which is understandable as this was her first debate). Because Dr. Fellows said once (and repeats at a later point) that he doesn’t believe the fetus to be a person as per Canadian legislation, and so it’d make sense to me to challenge on the personhood front and less the humanity front. Only at the very end of Oriyana’s rebuttal time do we hear Dr. Fellows say that the fetus is a “fully dependent”, “in uterine human being” subject to the mother’s ultimate choice, as Oriyana runs out of time. It’s difficult in such a short allotted time-frame to really get those answers and build a case, but that’s why I think she should’ve taken a more direct, almost short-circuited approach.
That said, Dr. Fraser Fellows’ positioning and the reasoning provided were far from satisfactory or coherent. His response, for example, to the question concerning society as a measure of personal rights (recalling African-American slavery) highlights the inadequacy of his ethical worldview to properly identify and resolve society’s brokenness and moral deficiency. That he can’t recognize the inconsistency in the fetal dependency argument (consider newborn dependency), or the robbing of choice from the pre-born and simultaneous elevation of decisional supremacy of the mother, shows the necessarily prejudicial consequence of such a worldview. That he can’t even identify the root cause for the moral bankruptcy of the American slave trade, but maintains the rule of society (as if it couldn’t know any better), exactly demonstrates this insufficiency. Or, perhaps, he just didn’t want to say upfront that, yes, African-Americans were denied rights based on skin color and if we’re applying a consistent ethic, yes, it would also be wrong to deny rights based on any other physical distinctive like age or level of dependency or location or ability.
If I had to pinpoint where exactly his errors were coming from, it would have to be (a) the assumption of society as referential for ethical values, and (b) his misinterpretation (or redefining) every question or counter-objection as a question of who decides rather than what decides human rights. And this is possibly resultant of the way the debate thesis is phrased (whose body? whose choice?). Of course, from the pro-life side, you have to drive home the point that if the fetus is another human being of equal value, then one has no right or place to overthrow the pre-born’s rights as they have their own body (what about the pre-born’s right to choose?). And any argumentation to the dependency or lack of cognitive ability of the fetus can be easily defeated by a simple description of a newborn baby’s status.
Oriyana Hrycyshyn did her part diligently. Dr. Fraser Fellows couldn’t quite catch on.
2. Alfie Evans: Charlie Gard’s Eventual Follow-Up
Hearing about this whole thing, I began to think, ‘surely, surely this will make them see.’
I’ve found it hard to really reach the pro-choice community on the issue of assisted dying without appealing to the basic value all human beings share, which to some is a highly religious notion. The appeal of personal choice and autonomy over personal matters is simply too great at times (for some). And the appeal of ending a “meaningless” life of suffering, to boot, makes the pro-life message, at times, difficult to market on an emotional level. The pro-life and -choice worldviews are truly distinguished by their heralding values (or priorities).
One of the common arguments against any sort of legalized euthanasia, which I still like to use, is that once you legalize one form (say, assisted dying for consenting adults with terminal physical illnesses), eventually, those criteria will expand to allow other groups as the culturally accepted forms of euthanasia changes. As we’ve seen in areas like Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, assisted death has become a legal commodity for minors and people with mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. The point is to show that once we determine X life form isn’t worth living (any quality-of-life defect), then there’s no objective barrier keeping us from dubbing other lives unworthy of living. Because the line being drawn is necessarily prejudicial and subjective, by definition.
The pro-choice side insists that this is just a slippery slope fallacy.
For example, I was once in a Facebook debate with someone who was pro-choice. This person was pretty liberal and was a defender of Canadian Bill C-14 (assisted dying bill) and the Ontario bill which detailed that kids identifying on the LGBTQ+ spectrum are to be protected from parental disapproval/dissent/punishment (essentially… I’d encourage people to read both bills for themselves). I engaged this person on the matter of assisted dying. I cited the above argument that there is a necessary danger being posed to those, for example, with disabilities once we introduce assisted dying to society because there is an implicit message being sent that there are certain lifeforms that aren’t worthy of living. Assisted dying law validates this belief. And if we say one life is unworthy, who’s to say, consistently, that other lives aren’t worth living as well? If one form of suffering robs life of meaning, why don’t other forms of suffering? This person’s response to me was that this is the tired, fallacious slippery slope argument. She supported this objection by saying (without citing sources of any kind) that there is rigorous testing to ensure that those in Canada applying for assisted dying are mentally capable of consent. And so long as one’s personal decision is personal and doesn’t affect others or cause suffering to others, then it’s not our job to get in the way. They decide for themselves and that is their right.
As long as people can consent, it’s okay, right?
Of course, if consent is the cornerstone of your moral ethic, then the Alfie Evans case must be a sure red-flag. It reminds all of us of the Charlie Gard incident where the hospital essentially told the parents that there was no way to treat Charlie of his terminal illness, therefore, there was nothing to do but remove life support. This was the case for little Alfie. Only, Alfie not only had a terminal illness but was in a permanent vegetative state (much of his brain is without function). It seems that the argument from authorities, concerning Alfie’s treatment, wasn’t just that they can’t attempt to save him but that they shouldn’t because of his quality of living (or lack thereof). Whatever one thinks of socialized medicine, surely it’s apparent not only the lack of ethical consistency but that this was a deliberate act of involuntary-passive euthanasia.
As long as it doesn’t cause suffering to others, then any personal decision must remain personal, right?
Well, what about self-harm? What about suicide? Just because it’s something you do directly to yourself, in privacy, it doesn’t mean the act won’t affect others.
By committing suicide, you are immediately depriving the world, your friends and your family of yourself. You have loved ones, people that care you. Suicide takes something—someone—away from them.
It always matters where we draw the line.
I don’t mean to sound blunt or insensitive towards anyone’s personal struggle. What I’m attempting to communicate is that I do not buy that personal, private decisions, thoughts and actions are of no moral and spiritual consequence. It always affects others. There is always an outcome. But I daren’t say that the outcome alone makes an act right or wrong, lest I become a consequentialist (which I am not).
If we believe in equal rights, it must be predicated on a notion of true equality of value among human beings. If we hold this to be true, then even to harm oneself (or permit the deliberate destruction of life) is a violation.
If we believe that there is simple, basic, intrinsic value to the human being, merely by one’s being and existence, then to end one’s own life is a violation. If we believe that human life is precious, then to deprive anyone of their life is wrong.
Consent can’t be the ultimate moral check for actions. It is a belief anchored in the idea that we own ourselves, that our bodies are our own. Which is true in a sense, but that alone offers no objective basis to any moral reasoning. Our desires are the rudder of the moral vessel, certainly, but what map are we following and what exactly is our destination?
(I’m not saying we should criminalize suicide or self-harm. My suggestion, if anything, is that our government should take appropriate measures to ensure that all people are protected in proportion to the severity of the act. Keep in mind, also, concerning assisted dying and other things, that for me the issue of legality is secondary. The most important question is the moral one, always.)
Back to the issue of the Alfie Evans, it seems that this is just another step down that slippery slope. It’s another step between permissiveness towards value-judging/life-ending and the logical conclusion of life unworthy of life. It’s gruesome. It’s haunting. It’s tragic.
What I’ve found is that it’s hard to get anywhere in these types of conversations about euthanasia and assisted death without getting into the nitty-gritty of worldview assumptions and moral foundations. It’s almost like there’s no common ground we can build except at where we draw our most critically foundational lines. Beneath human rights, beneath human equality, beneath the Golden Rule, beneath common sense, what holds morality in place? What gives any truth and objectivity to morals?
I’m afraid that to get to the question of when, if ever, life becomes meaningless, when suicide becomes justified, when life becomes empty of value, we must engage in the most religious of questions.
Do you agree or disagree? Feel free to comment below and let me know what your thoughts are!
(P.s.: I apologize for how late this post is. 😥 Better late then never!)