Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Coathanger Argument

Regardless of your position on abortion, it seems to me that this argument is just bad. Is it a good reason not to make something illegal that people will break the law and harm themselves in so doing?

I think we can put this one in the applied ethics wing of the gallery of worst arguments of all time.

Frank Beckwith also rebuts this effectively.

16 comments:

Dan said...

Not to miss seeing the forest for the tree, as I do realize there is an overarching point trying to be made in this article, but the following is a terrible argument: "Women from a household where there was a family income of less than $11,000 had the same rate of abortion as those making $25,000 or more. These numbers show that financial status does not pose a significant deterrent to obtaining an abortion."

Even when adjusted for inflation (~16k and ~37k), the very impoverished (2009 FPL for a family of 4 is 22k) and the poor are hardly sufficient to represent the entire socioeconomic spectrum.

Gordon Knight said...

"Is it a good reason not to make something illegal that people will break the law and harm themselves in so doing?"

Well, yes it is. Whenever you consider any policy you have to consider the consequences. women dying in back alleys is a consequence, so it needs to be considered.

Prohbition was a bad idea, even if liquor is an evil. Marijuana prohibition is insane, even if smoking pot is seriously bad for your health.

Blue Devil Knight said...

The 'worst arguments of all time' rhetoric (perhaps inspired by Craig) is played out.

Andrew T. said...

"Coat hangers in back alleys" is shorthand for "Your proposed law would try to regulate from afar what people do to their own bodies, and whenever government tries stuff like that, it usually turns out really badly, with a ton of unintended consequences. Proceed with caution, if at all."

(For example: suppressing the private worship of Jesus generally hasn't worked out that well for the regimes that have tried it.)

Finney said...

"Well, yes it is. Whenever you consider any policy you have to consider the consequences. women dying in back alleys is a consequence, so it needs to be considered."

In that case, perhaps we shouldn't have incorporated the 14th amendment which gave rights to African Americans, since it was greatly ineffectively applied in its time, and (in fact) a great many people were lynched as a result of its creation.

Finney said...

Call the principle that we should avoid doing things that have unwanted consequences P1.

I think, if anything, the reasoning behind P1 could've been applied to prevent the right to privacy from being incorporated into politics. There's no such phrase in any of the amendments of the constitution. When it was implemented, it had absolutely nothing to do with abortion, and no one expected, or wished, that it would be used to justify the procedure.

Gordon Knight said...

Well, I don't know anyone who thinks the 14th ammendment has had overall bad consequences. The example is ludicrous.

You can argue that consequences are not ALL that matter--there are also principles of justice. But to say that we should not consider consequences in making policy decisions is crazy--its like Kant refusing to lie to save another person's life.

Now if you could prove that abortion is really equivalent to machine gunning down orphanages, then you would have a good justice based case that would counter the appeal to consequences. But I have yet to hear a plausible argument to that conclusion--even most anti abortion people don't accept it, since many believe abortion is acceptable in cases of rape (and no one thinks a rape victim has the right to take her baby and throw it in a trashcan).

Finney said...

"Well, I don't know anyone who thinks the 14th ammendment has had overall bad consequences. The example is ludicrous."

Overall, the consequences were that rights protected from the federal government were applied on the state level, and pre-existing rights extended to African Americans. This took over a century. At the time of its creation, the amendment was ineffectively applied, no one listened to it, and slavery still existed throughout the southern states. We think that the amendment was a good one because it was just, and because over time the consequences compensated for the backlash.

This example is perfectly analogous to a reduction of abortion protections. There will be backlash, and for a long time it will be ineffectively applied perhaps. Alot of people will perform abortions even if it is banned, but over time such practices will be discouraged and the culture will catch up to the law. If the hundreds lynched because of the amendment and the ensuing racial hatred is not a valid reason to oppose the amendment, then the fact that some women will still perform abortions and that many will die as a result of it is not a valid reason to oppose an abortion reduction act or ban.

Preston said...

"At the time of its creation, the amendment was ineffectively applied, no one listened to it, and slavery still existed throughout the southern states. We think that the amendment was a good one because it was just, and because over time the consequences compensated for the backlash."
Ok, Finney, now you have the right idea. The "coathanger argument" is founded upon the idea that the overall, long-range consequences would be worse. You are strawmanning the argument--the claim is not that, if we make abortion illegal, a few women will die next week from back alley abortions. It is that women will die from back alley abortions indefinitely into the future.
Now your claim that eventually the culture would catch up to the law is an empirical one, one that I (at the moment, without much evidence) disagree with. If I remember correctly, I read that abortion rates throughout history and culture remain at a somewhat fixed percentage. If accurate, (and I'm not positive of that), then your argument doesn't fly. But at least now we are not talking past each other--we are arguing about the consequences.

If you believe abortion is wrong on principle NO MATTER WHAT, that's ok, but you just have to keep in mind that in that case you have a different conception of moral reasons than most pro-choicers.

Best,
P

Finney said...

Hey Preston,
I see your point. If the consequences of an abortion ban were indefinitely negative, then it doesn't fit the analogy of the 14th amendment. But the time-scale we're talking about with the 14th amendment is over a century. I think that the culture of america would eventually catch up to the moral principle over time, and given the right sort of propganda, people would be discouraged from doing it and be given alternative options. Perhaps technology will make it easier to prevent pregnancy.

Perhaps I can take a modified point. Even if women do die indefinitely from performing abortions, the number of people saved (assuming that pro-lifers are right) far exceeds the number of people killed from a ban on abortion. This point departs from use of the analogy.

Gordon Knight said...

"assuming the pro-lifers are thinks that, e.g. Plan B is murder. An equally tiny minority insist that rape victims ought not to be allowed abortion. For most people who consider the abortion question, the coathanger argument is a legitimate consideration. Its obviously not the only one, but it is not totally irrelevant and I am a little surprised to see Victor indicate he thinks it is irrelevant

Consider an example from another issue: it is perfectly coherent for someone to hold that (1) active euthanasia is morally justified in some circumstances and yet also hold (2) it would be wrong to make such euthanasia legal for reasons of unintended consequences. We have to distinguish the question of whether and under what circumstances abortion is immoral and the question whether and under what circumstances abortion ought to be legal.

Andrew T. said...

Finney's example (the 14th Amendment) is silly, because I specifically confined my discussion of unintended consequences to laws that "would try to regulate from afar what people do to their own bodies," like prohibition (and, of course, abortion).

Since the 14th Amendment doesn't do that, it doesn't run the risk of unintended consequences any more so than any other piece of legislation. So this response is rather wide of the mark.

Victor Reppert said...

I think probably there will be plenty of regular doctors who will just break the law if abortion is outlawed, leaving the states with an enforcement nightmare. The back-alley abortionists won't be needed.

Finney said...

Gordon,
I'm not sure how you replied to my argument, if you did at all.

Andrew,
That you confined your discussion to only laws that are about our own body doesn't make my analogy irrelevant; it only puts it in a different light as you did.

Finney said...

So only laws that restrict what we do to our own bodies run the risk of unintended consequences?

Andrew T. said...

Finney: Not "only," but disproportionately so, and I think lawyers left, right and center would agree with me on that score.