Monday, January 21, 2008

The Peter Kreeft v. David Boonin CU-Boulder Abortion Debate

Judging from the turnout, the debate last Friday was a great success. The 288-seat basement auditorium was filled past capacity. The audience overflowed into the hall, where about forty chairs were set up. I’m told that spectators even crowded the stairs leading up from the basement. Not having left the auditorium until well after the debate had ended, I didn’t see the overflow. I conservatively estimated the turnout at over 400, others estimated it at 600. One fellow estimated 1,000, but that seems on the far side to me. More people arrived, but left because of the crowd.

Not bad for a cold Friday night in a college town.

The event was well-publicized. As I noted earlier, the event’s Facebook page numbered 95 RSVPs and over forty possibles. The archdiocese plugged the debate in the last Denver Catholic Register, and also posted a notice at its website.

Since Thursday, at least 25 people have come to this blog searching for information on the Kreeft-Boonin debates, which are a traveling show. Many of those visitors were local. The debate has certainly energized interest.

Peter Kreeft answered the debate question “Is abortion ever morally justifed?” in the negative, taking the pro-life side. He argued that for personhood is coextensive with human nature, enjoying all the rights thereof. He also argued that people cannot rationally deny the right to life of the unborn without denying the right to life of newborns.
Catholic News Agency summarizes:
He recounted how he once discussed abortion with "some very intelligent feminists," claiming that they had no argument justifying abortion that would not also justify infanticide. "After the argument they came up to me and said 'Congratulations, professor, you changed our mind. We didn't think you could do that'"

"'Oh, good,' I said, 'you're pro-life now?'"

"'No, we're pro-infanticide'," Kreeft finished, prompting surprised laughter from the audience. "So logical consistency can be a two-edged sword," he noted.

Kreeft presented a version of his argument that those who are uncertain about the personal state of the unborn child must refrain from abortion. Again, from the CNA summary:
Even someone unsure if the unborn child were a person, Kreeft argued, would in the absence of certainty have to refrain from an abortion. To kill someone without knowing if they are human is still homicide. To act in a rash manner that could kill someone, such as poisonously fumigating a room without being sure it was empty of people, would amount to criminal negligence. Barring certain knowledge that an unborn human is not a person, abortion similarly would be blameworthy even if the human fetus were not a person with the right to life.

Boonin noted that Kreeft's argument that any moral uncertainty about moral status of the unborn child meant all abortions were at minimum morally blameworthy could have radical implications if applied consistently. This "appeal to uncertainty," as he called it, could require one or more controversial stands: pacifism, since some soldiers are innocent conscripts and other innocents are killed in collateral damage in war; vegetarianism, since there can be doubt about whether killing an animal is blameworthy; opposition to capital punishment, because there was a possibility innocents would be executed; and finally it could require people to give all of their excess income to charity, since there was uncertainty whether spending money on luxuries deprived hungry or sick people from necessary resources.

I thought this was one of Boonin’s stronger points. Elsewhere he characterized some of Kreeft’s arguments as the often-fallacious slippery slope arguments. I believe he meant Kreeft’s allusions to the dehumanization of slaves or Jews in recent centuries. However, I think he dodged Kreeft’s postulate that justifying abortion also justified infanticide, which arguably is also a slippery slope argument.

Boonin himself proposed a thought experiment, a modified version of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “violinist needs a blood transfusion” scenario: “Suppose you walked out in the park yesterday and a doctor caught you and conked you on the head and knocked you unconscious. You wake up, and the doctor has hooked you up to a bone marrow extraction device. The bone marrow is extracted from you and pumped into me. You ask 'What's going on?' The doctor says 'Don't worry, stay hooked into Professor Boonin for the next nine months, he'll be fine. Disconnect yourself now, because of a bone marrow disease, he's going to die.'”

Boonin thought most people agreed disconnecting oneself from the ill person was morally justified.

To the objection that this situation only applies to victims of rape, and that a woman consents to a pregnancy by consenting to sexual relations, Boonin modified his example: "Before you went walking in the park yesterday, you knew for a fact that my doctor was going to come looking in the park for a bone marrow donor. Your friends warn you 'Don't go in the park, lock your door! If you go into the park, there's a chance you're going to end up getting hooked up to this crazy philosopher, and you'll have to stick around for nine months." Escaping from this modified situation, Boonin thought, was similarly morally blameless.

But here I think he exposed the flaws of this thought experiment. It entails treating all pregnancies as kidnap-rescue scenarios. I don’t know about you, but no woman I know says “Bob and I are trying to force myself to carry a fetus for nine months.” Something so ordinary and universal as pregnancy, from which all men originated, cannot find a good analogy in such an extravagant hypothetical.

The thought experiment’s treatment of pregnancy as a disease, while certainly appealing to college students, also cannot form a consistent ethic. Think of the performance contradictions involved in an obstetrics ward that delivers babies, performs lifesaving surgeries in utero, and also commits abortions.

I also wonder: What would Boonin say are the duties of the father to a fetus considered parasitic?

Further, there is rhetorical manipulation latent in Boonin’s example.

In Thomson’s version of the scenario, a “famous violinist” suffers from some unspecified fatal ailment, the treatment of which requires someone to hook up to him for nine months. Boonin replaces the unspecified treatment with a bone marrow transfer, which is invasive and very uncomfortable.

Boonin also puts himself in the place of the ailing violinist. Whatever his other physical endowments, Boonin is not the handsomest of men. Further, both he and the hypothetical violinist are a few decades removed from their fetal stage.

Describe the person needing treatment as a gurgling infant, a cute four-year-old, or an ugly autistic teenager, and I think the audience reaction, and the philosopher’s intuitional response, would change depending on their sympathies with such persons. Make the ailing patient a blood relation, a pedophile, or a doctor nearly done with the cure for that bone marrow cancer from which he suffers, and our conflicted emotions cloud the argument that is meant to dissolve pro-life objections with revulsion towards imprisonment.

Boonin made some concessions to the pro-life cause, saying that if pregnancy were less burdensome an abortion could be an immoral act. I believe I heard him after the debate endorse the typical “viability” pro-choice criterion. I wished he had included this position in his public remarks, because it means that in his ethic, at the time when pregnancy is most burdensome upon the woman, it is least permissible.

Kreeft’s response to Boonin’s arguments seemed passive. A friend in attendance called his performance “understated,” which is perhaps the better word. Since I was more interested in recording the debate than in considering its truth, I initially thought Boonin did well against Kreeft. Only upon reflection, Kreeft’s position endured while Boonin’s shrank in stature.

At one point Kreeft suggested shifting the ground from “rights” to “responsibilities.” This was a bit inconsistent, since Kreeft’s arguments from the beginning used rights-language.

However, I think that shedding “rights talk” is the correct path to take. Rights-language is often antagonistic and conflict-based. Nobody talks about a right to be hugged, or a right to hug, because those actions have not been politicized. The conflict between mother(and father) and child is precisely what needs to be abated. Rights disputes suppose human equality, rather than human unity as the more important consideration.

In an egalitarian climate, the right to life must be universalized in distortive fashion. That is why Boonin can try to separate the right to life from the right to life support. While everybody can in theory live(insofar as anyone can theoretically live), the ability to sustain that life varies from person to person. Often such variety cannot be described in terms of equality.

“Rights-talk” is a political shorthand, a second-order description of the good in question. When talking about the right to life distracts from talking about life, something has gone awry.

The aftermath of the debate, and my excitement over what is happening in Boulder’s Catholic campus ministry, will have to fill another post.

For now a few references:
Update: I have published the detailed account made from my audio recording at Google Docs, it's ~2,000 words.

A recording of the debate is available on the ArchDen website

Francis Beckwith on Boonin’s book, “A Defense of Abortion,” a review excerpted at Mirror of Justice

Peter Kreeft's essay Human Personhood begins at Conception

Ivy Catholic reports a Kreeft-Boonin debate at Yale, the video of which is viewable at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute


Randy said...

Thanks for the link to Beckwith's article. It was a good read.

Darwin said...

Based on his bone marrow argument, would Boonin argue that being told you were responsible for rearing a child was like someone bonking you on the head and then when you wake up you're locked in a room with a monkey and informed: You'll be responsible for feeding and housing the monkey for the next eighteen years, regardless of whether you can afford to do so. After that, the monkey will routinely ask you for additional money, and people will frown on you if you refuse.

Or does he argue that the "get out of child free" card of abortion then makes you morally responsible for the child for the next eighteen years?

Kevin Jones said...

"Or does he argue that the "get out of child free" card of abortion then makes you morally responsible for the child for the next eighteen years?"

Kreeft came up with the counterexample of a woman spending six months in the wilderness who discovers an eskimo baby on her doorstep.

Boonin replied by saying that baby had the right to the woman's labor, but not her body. An astute audience member asked if breastfeeding constituted "labor" or "body." Boonin admitted "body," but said it was far less invasive than uterine life support.

Other cheerful distinctions Boonin made were between "custodial" motherhood and "biological" motherhood. The first constitutes the relation of moral responsibilities, while Boonin thinks the latter is separable from moral responsibility, as in adoption.(There's a point about surrogacy in here somewhere, too)

Analytic philosophers multiply distinctions like mad.

Betsy said...

A more analogous thought experiment of Boonin's bone marrow transplant would be the following: The person walking in the park who gets conked on the head is in some way, by some actions of his, responsible for Boonin needing the 9 month bone marrow transplant in the first place. The person walking in the park is not really an uninvolved bystander. The reason Dr. Boonin, (ie. the fetus), needs a 9 month life support system is precisely because of the choices the park walker (the pregnant woman) made. In considering this, I would think that the park walker has a responsibility to the one needing life support.

Families Against said...

Hello Kevin. I too was at the debate. I’m pro-life and if I’m honest with myself, Peter Kreeft definitely lost the debate. I was so intrigued by Boonin’s arguments in this debate and his prior one with Kreeft that I purchased his book. I’m not planning on becoming pro-choice, but Boonin is forcing me to think.

Kevin Jones said, “However, I think he dodged Kreeft’s postulate that justifying abortion also justified infanticide, which arguably is also a slippery slope argument.”

You may have missed it but Boonin definitely responded to this. He said that the bone marrow case is such an argument that justifies abortion without justifying infanticide, and he’s right. The argument that you don’t have the right to use someone’s body, even with a right to life, successfully answers Kreeft’s claim.

I recorded the debate in case Matt wasn’t able to. I offered my services to him prior, but he politely declined. Does anyone know if it was video/audio recorded and if copies are available? I can probably get my recording to people if they’re interested. It’s pretty good. That’s really all I have time for right now.

Families Against said...

Yikes, my name was cutoff. It's FamiliesAgainstPP and website is

Kevin Jones said...


There is a link to the audio in the second link after the end of the main post.

I get the feeling you didn't read other parts of my post either, which addressed the dubious value of rights-talk and the rhetorical tricks involved in the bone cancer example..

Thanks for writing though.

Families Against said...

Ignore the recording comment, just saw the link to the recording at

Families Against said...

Kevin Jones said, "I get the feeling you didn't read other parts of my post either, which addressed the dubious value of rights-talk and the rhetorical tricks involved in the bone cancer example.."

You're right! I just read the rest of the post and wish I would have before posting. Anyways, I still think that Boonin's argument, essentially, 'you don't have the right to use someone else's body' defeats the argument that 'any argument that justifies abortion also justifies infanticide.' If being attached to someone justifies abortion, then infanticide wouldn't justify abortion because they're no longer attached!

Kevin Jones said...

For the sake of argument: Just because you don't have the right to my body doesn't mean I have the right to vivisect you to get you out of it.

If Boonin were honest or consistent in his argument, he'd be advocating very delicate abortion techniques that leave the unborn child intact as it is disconnected from the mother. He would advocate the vigorous investigation of late-term abortion clinics who would otherwise abandon infants whom he believes have a right to human labor and protection.

If Boonin does or does not take such a stand in his book, please let me know. I fear his argument is often used as a mere debating tactic.

Families Against said...

Kevin Jones said, "For the sake of argument: Just because you don't have the right to my body doesn't mean I have the right to vivisect you to get you out of it."

You're totally right. Maybe we're talking past each other. I'm not trying to give credibility to his argument at all. I'm just trying to say that his argument (whether right or wrong) refutes Kreeft's argument that any argument that justifies abortion, also justifies infanticide.

I'm glad to hear the same argument I came up with, from you, as I haven't heard it anywhere else. Boonin pulled a fast one on everyone the night of the debate. His analogy would be more accurate if he said, "You wake up, you're attached to me for a bone marrow extraction, how many of you think it's okay for you crush my skull?" That's a more accurate analogy for the majority of abortions today.

His book is so well written, I'd assume he'll try to deal with this, but I haven't read it yet. I'm only halfway through.

Kevin Jones said...

I think Kreeft's argument regarding infanticide could be strengthened by closely examining Boonin's distinction between the right of a dependent to be supported by one's labor and the right of a dependent to be supported by one's body.

It's obvious that many kinds of work are very physically intensive(especially, let's note, for non-college grads). Does Boonin's distinction hold up if one is in an environment where supporting oneself and an infant requires 18 hours of hard labor six or seven days a week? I don't think so.

Further, there is a case where I think we would acknowledge a young dependent has the "right" to someone else's body: in cases where physical defense is required.

Physical defense is likely to cause injury and sometimes death.

Since this duty of physical defense disproportionately falls on men, it is a more appropriate analogy to the burdens of pregnancy that fall on women. Young men are expected to intervene, even to the point of death, in the physical defense of the weak. This is expected because the natural capacities of their sex confer such a duty upon them.

(I realized this requirement for male bodily sacrifice while reading The Garbage Generation, a fierce anti-feminist polemic I hope to cover here in the near future)

It's possible that Boonin could rephrase, saying "no right to violate my bodily integrity," but that wouldn't seem to answer the objection I raise here.

Finally, I am not sure if the objection to infanticide by Boonin or his fellow travelers is much more than theoretical. Though they'd cite his argument, they wouldn't support policing late-term abortuaries. This incongruity would make Kreeft's position(or, let's be clear, my summary of his position) accurate as regards to practice.

Anonymous said...

Read Francis Beckwith's bludgeoning response to Boonin. I am amazed that Boonin still is pro-choice. Beckwith destroyed any doubt in my mind. I know Boonin is wrong and feel no need to read Boonin's books.

Mike said...

Boonin’s argument here would abolish child support laws. The basic point he is arguing is that sex brings no more responsibility than walking into a park despite a warning.
He might respond that the law does not oblige parents to donate organs. However, sex is NATURALLY ORDERED towards producing beings dependent by nature. The woman’s body is DESIGNED to house children. Her body is not designed to expel kidneys. That is the difference
That argument Boonin does not even deal with. He cannot.