Surfing the Slippery Slope of the Abortion Debate

UPDATE: The irritatingly sober Blaize Kaye, mentor and mitrailleur of all fuzzy thinking has written a brilliant post, which raises points I did not. Look there before. You probably won’t need to read mine anyway.

When people strap on boots of “moralising” and start raging through the territory of ethical debate, many things get crushed in the process. Spurned by emotion, people often overlook arguments that have refuted their own ones or, more importantly, improved on them. I’m an advocate of clarity and openness in the academic world, especially in philosophy; this is not an attempt to tell “laypeople” – for I am also a laypeople – to shut their traps about moral philosophy. Indeed, in many instances it is philosophers making boring noises about moral philosophy that should quiet down. Nevertheless, with that disclaimer out the way, I want to point to an instance where muddled-thinking, combined with the tightly worn boots of moralising, are seen in full display. Columnist Khaya Dlanga, at, has made some silly noises regarding abortion that deserves scrutiny.

Dlanga highlights an Australian couple that “aborted their twin sons because they wanted a girl.” There is no hyperlink, so I think it must be this. Dlanga continues: “The mother got pregnant again using in vitro fertilisation (IVF), but had an abortion after learning she was carrying twin boys… They are busy appealing to the state of Victoria for special permission to use IVF to pick their baby’s gender.”

Dlagna laments, being mildly diplomatic: “Some people understand the couple’s plight, some don’t. I understand the couple’s plight but I find it unacceptable that they would do such a thing. One cannot replace a lost child in the first place.”

I don’t want to focus on my views, since some of you should be able to fathom what they are given my advocacy for antinatalism and adoption (for political reasons, the two are entwined for me). But let me begin by saying I don’t understand the couple’s “plight”. If theirs is a “plight” then anyone picking a nice wardrobe is having a “great disaster”. We are making nonsense of these terms.

Their plight is they didn’t have a child that matches the sex of the mother. How awful. So they are wasting resources to obtain something that will go well with the rest of their house (which already, by the way, includes three children: Desk, Chair and Wallpaper are probably their names. Or perhaps, Armani, Marks and Spencer). But let’s leave the couple’s idiocy and look at Dlanga’s argument. What should be apparent is that, whilst I agree with Dlanga that there is a reason to berate this couple, his arguments for doing so are unhelpful, myopic and terribly confused and juvenile.

Dlanga is correct that they cannot replace their lost daughter and this emotional Days of Our Life BS is no argument for ending a life. The dead child is by definition dead. They need to move on. (By the way I don’t think “closure” is possible, having experienced a recent death of a close loved one and dealt with it in others for years. Closure is a buzzword that people who watch Oprah mentally masturbate to as if it stops the flood of grief and horror over losing someone. There are degrees of grief, I think, not a complete absence of it. Saying you have closure means you’re lying. The problem is people who think they can’t move on until they have this mysterious thing called closure. That is a nonsense assumption which maybe I’ll write about at another point but it is on full display here methinks)

The problem is Dlanga starts using the boots of morality to slide down the very boring Slippery Slope.

To abort a child simply because they happened to be a wrong gender is beyond frivolous. If this is permitted, then where do we draw the line? If it were found, for example, that the baby would have green eyes as opposed to the blue that the parents wanted it to have, does that also mean this would be permitted?

Don’t be fooled. When people write or say “where do we draw the line?” in these arguments, they are not making a point but a rhetorical flourish. This is merely an exclamation of outrage. It’s no different than yelling “will someone please think of the children”.

“Where” we draw the line is answered by “how”. We draw the line reasonably, we use evidence, verification, debate. We look critically at arguments for change or amendment. What we don’t do is throw up our hands because one case, defended by a stupidly backward couple who are pumping out babies like a factory shop, happens to be slightly problematic. It’s not even problematic. It merely requires an attitude of deliberation that is not willing to allow emotions to sway thinking, like idiotic assumptions that they can replace their dead daughter, nor an attitude that thinks we should kill anything that doesn’t match the furniture.

Dlanga’s slippery slope exclamation is a smokescreen that has no substance to his argument. Now we come to very confused and unjustified parts.

What the parents have done (1) raises a moral question; even amongst people who support abortion (even though (2) I don’t think anyone truly supports abortion because no one goes around bragging about their abortions).

(1) I support abortion and I see abortion being raised as a moral issue all the time, even amongst those of us who support it. The more interesting discussions get more complicated, passing over my head – but they are there. Dlanga makes it seem as though there is no more argument for those who support abortion. Of course there is. The problem is with those who think an argument is finished, they have the right answer and so on. Even if I support your conclusion, it’s the arguments you have for supporting that conclusion that is more important. (2) This is a meaningless claim. Men can’t have abortions, so how can they be expected to “brag” about abortions? And “men” fit in with the category “anyone”. Secondly, I support euthanasia and infanticide and antinatalism, but I wouldn’t “brag” about it. Support doesn’t come from bragging but from having justifications, hopefully good ones. Dlanga makes a silly point here that doesn’t even make sense.

A word of advice to writers: Try avoid words like “all”, “anyone”, “everyone”, and so on, because they are will in most cases lead to you being knocked down as with Dlanga forgetting “men” in the category “anyone”.

Some say that (1) it is about choice. This goes beyond choice. It crosses the lines of the ridiculous. This couple do not lack in children. They have three. They would have had five with the twins.

Some say that it is okay for the family to (2) design the kind of family they want. This is the very reason I believe that States have the right to intervene. We cannot allow families to suddenly start designing the kinds of families they want as this may affect  (3) the gender ratio balance of generations to come.

Oh dear. There is so much waffling here, it’s hard to believe he’s a columnist. Truly terrible writing and bad thinking.

(1) Who says that there is a relation between “choice” and “ridiculous”? Where do these two contestations meet? Choice is about liberty for the citizens, in a state. Ridiculous is a perception of their actions. Certain people living in non-liberal states would look on our ideas of choice in areas of reproduction and free speech as “ridiculous”. It is a not an argument, but another rhetorical flourish. I would support him if he just argued why he thinks it’s ridiculous, but in this paragraph he lines it up weirdly with choice. I can’t see why.

If it’s not about choice then what is it about? Perhaps it relates to his idea (2) of how far we allow choice and freedom of choice. But here he confused the case made for abortion with the case to design families. These are two separate issues, as he has outlined them. If Person X wants to have a family with perfect smiles, blue eyes and blonde hair – and pays for it, etc. – then so what? People want all sorts of things when they start families and now science can give them a higher yield in favour of these estimations.

The only major difference between how people created families in the past and creating “designer” families now is the ability to do so. Yes, this might raise some interesting ethical questions but none that Dlanga has highlighted. Wanting to create your ideal family is different from aborting children because you are failing to do that. In this instance, we might agree with Dlanga but that is not his argument here. He has said: “Some say that it is okay for the family to design the kind of family they want. This is the very reason I believe that States have the right to intervene.” The two sentences go into one another. If he kept them separate and stuck to a clearly-defined argument, instead of stamping madly with his moralising boots, we might have something clearer (though I doubt it).

He also says by designing families we will upset the “gender ratio balance of generations to come.” The what?! The gender or sex ratio. Right. And this is apparently bad. Notice there seems to be the assumption that if we didn’t design – if nasty Mr Science didn’t interfere – nature would adjust her wonderful, cancer-giving, Earthquake mauling, self. Firstly, there is the assumption that continuing the species is a good or important thing (which in many instances I think is nonsense). Secondly, there is the assumption that nature will “balance” herself out – maybe she will, maybe not. Dlanga needs to give evidence that designer families will upset the ratio, not just assert it. There are just as good reasons to think the opposite, but equally with no evidence at hand. (This is not to say there isn’t. It is merely using the same argument to prove that you can say whatever you want because there is no evidence presented. “That which can be asserted without evidence,” says Christopher Hitchens, “can be dismissed without evidence.”

Touching on the morality of abortion leads nowhere because it will lead us to a religious debate which often leads to nowhere but insults.

Again, one of those boring, unfounded assertions. The more interesting discussions, as I’ve said, are between like-minded advocates – but then my favourite is between my opposition in these discussions.. But, even when we are opposing one another, I have had engaging discussions with professors who opposed abortion according to one moral system and I defended it according to another. There was no religion involved here. If Dlanga just Googled abortion he might have founded informative debates between people not based on religious grounds. (For example, Roth’s “A Secular Case Against Abortion” in a debate with atheist Richard Carrier.)

I think to say (1) its [sic] choice is a [sic] beyond extreme, to abort simply because you want a daughter is a frivolous reason. This is a slap in the face to thousands of women worldwide who are unable to conceive, who undergo an often painful IVF procedure and never manage to conceive anyway. Yet this couple went through the procedure and managed to fall pregnant but decided, nah, (2) we don’t like this one.

I’m going to start backwards. “Nah, we don’t like this one” is exactly what people who do have offspring – with or without IVF – say to the millions of orphans in the world.* Because these orphans are not biologically related. So I have no sympathy for those “poor” couples who can’t get pregnant. So it is irrelevant to me. Coming back to (1) then, he again says something about “choice” and “extreme” and “frivolous”, making no connection between the terms. As I said, it is a bad reason to abort but that’s not the point here. Dlanga wants “States” to intervene. He doesn’t say how or why, just that it might solve the crisis of frivolity he sees at the heart of this case.

As much as I am of a liberal predisposition, this goes way too far. Some things should be kept old school even if we have the technology to make them new school. Gender selection should be natural; it should not be something we play a hand in.

Ah, I knew the natural card was lurking around, when I picked up on messing with the “gender ratio” above. Why should gender selection be natural, Mr Dlanga? What so great about the natural? Natural is a description, not a moral authority. We are natural, what we do is natural. Science is an enhanced articulation of our comprehension of reality, a formidable tool to alter it toward our needs and the best method of engaging with reality. There is nothing unnatural about it (I don’t know what unnatural even means anymore), since we are natural. We are animals, sharing an ancestor with chimps and daffodils.

Once again, Dlanga plays two different cards at the same time: he makes the point that complete freedom of choice is dangerous (which to some degree might be true though I don’t fully agree) but then says something arbitrary and indeed unjustified: “gender selection should be natural”. He doesn’t tell us why, he merely hints at something to do with the population of future generations. But that, as I said, is a separate case for why this couple’s argument to have an abortion is wrong.

Dlanga doesn’t stick to his argument, goes off on tangents and makes silly and unjustified claims. A bald assertion here, a nudge in the eye of science there and voila! An incoherent balls-up of a column. Awful stuff and very disappointing. I would fail him completely



*by one UNICEF estimate, it was 163 million in 2007.

(PS: There are so few enlightening columnists in South African media. What a pity. Thank goodness for the Daily Maverick. And the M&G Thought “Leader” needs to be overthrown by an intellectual coup.)

One thought on “Surfing the Slippery Slope of the Abortion Debate

  1. Pingback: Logical sledgehammers can miss their targets

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