The torture-abortion nexus

Michael Cook
2 February 2015
Reproduced with Permission

Is there a necessary link between people who approve of abortion and people who approve of torture?

I can hear screams of denial. Abortion is a woman's right and has nothing to do with putting needles under fingernails. Abortion is an agonising choice by thoughtful women and has nothing to do with the agonies of waterboarding. And so on.

But how, then, are we to account for the fact that some of the world's most eminent moral philosophers who published intricate arguments for abortion in the 1990s are publishing intricate arguments for torture 20 years later?

Exhibit A is Professor Jeff McMahan, who strongly defended the use of torture in the New York Times last week. If you can kill to protect innocent people, you can torture to protect them, he argued.

McMahan is an American who was recently appointed to a prestigious chair at Oxford University in the UK. His interests centre on the ethics of killing - issues like brain death, euthanasia, just wars, and abortion. In his 2002 book The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life presents a long defence of the morality of abortion and even infanticide. This is grounded on his belief that we are embodied minds and that what happens to the body is only significant in so far as it affects our personal identity. Hence he contends that an abortion before 20 weeks is not harming anyone because (so he says) the foetus has no awareness until then.

Balancing this bleak perspective on human life, curiously, are his tender-hearted views on animal life. He is a vegetarian and believes that humans should not eat meat because killing animals deprives them of valuable future life experiences which outweigh the pleasures of eating meat.

It is not merely humans who should give up their carnivorous habits, but other animals. In an op-ed in the New York Times in 2010 he said that carnivore species should be made extinct because of the pain that they inflict upon herbivores. "It would be instrumentally good if predatory animal species were to become extinct and be replaced by new herbivorous species, provided that this could occur without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation."

But lovers of the ox and the lamb must have been disconcerted to read, again in the New York Times, that Professor McMahon supports torture. Within limits, of course. Mafia toe-cutting is out, along with the amusements of serial killers and the waterboarding used by the CIA in the bad old Bush days. But when push comes to shove, the gloves are off. "Torture can be morally justifiable, and even obligatory, when it is wholly defensive - for example, when torturing a wrongdoer would prevent him from seriously harming innocent people."

The reasoning for approving of torture has much in common with his argument for abortion and vegetarianism: "It can be morally justifiable to kill a person to prevent him from detonating a bomb that will kill innocent people, or to prevent him from killing an innocent hostage. Since being killed is generally worse than being tortured, it should therefore be justifiable to torture a person to prevent him from killing innocent people." In all these instances, McMahon balances pain against positive life experience.

Exhibit B is Frances Kamm, a stellar professor at Harvard University, in the US. One of the books that made her reputation as a ingenious moral philosopher was Creation and Abortion , published in 1992. Not one to resile from difficult conclusions, she concedes that even if the foetus is a person, abortion can be permissible. One of her arguments compares the benefits and cost to the foetus and its creator, the mother. If the foetus benefits by gaining life, it ought to bear some of the risk of being harmed or aborted. She writes, given our "strong reasons to reproduce, demanding complete security for the fetus seems unreasonable." It's not quite fair to reduce her chapters to a sentence-long grab, but perhaps this sums it up : "if the fetus will die without the woman's aid, and if she has no duty to aid it at a high cost to herself, then she may kill it if that is necessary to avoid the cost of aiding it."

So is it any surprise that Kamm pulled out the same philosophical scales in her recent book Ethics for Enemies: Terror, Torture, and War . In it she contends that torture may well be ethical. She writes, "it is sometimes permissible to torture someone, at least for a short time without permanent damage, if we would otherwise permissibly kill him". Another philosopher sums up her argument as follows:

"Her basic strategy is to say that in these situations it is permissible to kill people so as to prevent harm coming to other people, and then say that, because it is permissible to kill people so as to prevent harm coming to other people, it is permissible to torture people so as to prevent harm coming to other people - after all, they are better off tortured than killed!"

This is clearly the same voice and the same mind which argued that unborn children can be killed. If babies can be killed for "threatening" the life, or even the mere interests, of the mother, why shouldn't suspected terrorists be tortured? (To be fair to Kamm, she also argues that terrorism can sometimes be moral.)

So is there a link between abortion and torture? Most supporters of abortion will not march in demonstrations demanding torture for terrorists. Therefore it is not true to say that supporting abortion will lead the average person to support torture. But most supporters of abortion have never thought deeply about the arguments which underpin it, either. Those who have, like Jeff McMahan and Frances Kamm, recognise that supporting one necessarily leads to supporting the other.

Ivory tower arguments for torture in philosophy journals have real world consequences. McMahan relates that an American philosopher, Henry Slue, admitted that torture was not absolutely wrong in an influential article in 1978. Two CIA agents later thanked him. They were relieved to find that their day jobs were ethically justifiable.