In his celebrated poem Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman considers a potential accusation against himself and shrugs it off with a quip:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself;
(I am large—I contain multitudes.)
Whitman was a poet rather than a logician so we find it charming when he claims that reality doesn’t apply to him. Other people, however, are not let off the hook so easily. Too many people subscribe to what I would call the Whitman Inconsistency Fallacy: the view that since a person believes both proposition A and proposition B, that A and B must therefore be compatible even if they are contradictory.
If writers of textbooks on logic ever include the Whitman Inconsistency Fallacy they’ll be able to use the arguments made by Mara Hvistendahl as prime examples. Hvistendahl is a science journalist who recently published a book arguing that the unnatural sex ratios throughout the world are the result of, among other factors, the prevalence of abortion and ultrasound technology. Since I’ve made the same claims myself, I find there is much to agree with in Hvistendahl reporting and critique.
But Hvistendahl believes it is possible to be a pro-woman feminist and an abortion rights supporter, which leads her to make a plethora of contradictory claims. To her credit, Hvistendahl is not an abortion absolutist. She believes there are certain legitimate reasons for denying a woman’s right to an abortion. Unfortunately, this praiseworthy move toward moderation only highlights the incoherence in her thinking.
Listed below are ten statements taken directly from her recent article in Salon.com. Although they are arranged in a different order, each quote is taken verbatim. In reading these claims, keep in mind that Hvistendahl accepts the truth of every one of them:
1. Women make the decision to abort because women know best how difficult it is to be female.
2. Increased autonomy does not . . . make a woman more likely to have a daughter.
3. [W]omen — and not their husbands — often make the decision to abort a female fetus . . .
4. [T]he practice of sex selection [is] a fundamentally sexist act . . .
5. Just as a woman should not be forced to abort a wanted pregnancy, she should not be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
6. Further reducing a woman’s rights would only make her more wary of having a daughter.
7. No one combating sex selection in China or India now argues that the appropriate reaction to decades of violating women’s rights is to swing in the other direction and violate them further.
8. Abortion is part of the story of how sex selection became rampant in Asia.
9. Activists and government leaders in Asia, in fact, distinguish between the right to terminate a pregnancy and the right to choose the sex of one’s baby.
10. “You can choose whether to be a parent,” explains Puneet Bedi, a gynecologist in Delhi who performs abortions — and campaigns against the sex-selective sort. “But once you choose to be a parent you cannot choose whether it’s a boy or girl, black or white, tall or short.”
As a summary of the article, we can combine these ten statements into a two-part narrative:
Woman know best how difficult it is to be female, so as their autonomy increases they—not their husbands—make the fundamentally sexist decision to abort a female fetus. Just as a woman should not be forced to abort a wanted pregnancy, she should not be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Further reducing a woman’s rights to have an abortion would only make her more wary of having a daughter. No one combating sex selection in China or India now argues that the appropriate reaction to decades of violating women’s rights is to swing in the other direction and violate them further. (Statements 1-7)
Abortion is part of the story of how sex selection became rampant in Asia. However, activists and government leaders in Asia distinguish between the right to terminate a pregnancy and the right to choose the sex of one’s baby. You can choose to be a parent but once you choose to be a parent you cannot choose whether it’s a boy or girl, black or white, tall or short. (Statements 8-10)
Even a casual reader (which apparently excludes the editors at Salon.com) can see the obvious inconsistency in these statements. Hvistendahl is making two simultaneous claims:
(A) Those who are combating sex selection in Asia believe that woman should not be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and so oppose restrictions on the right to an abortion since it will make her more wary of having a daughter.
(B) Activists and government leaders in Asia believe that if a pregnancy is unwanted because the fetus is female, the woman’s right to an abortion should be restricted, even if it makes her more wary of having a daughter.
Since Hvistendahl believes both proposition A and proposition B, she thinks that A and B must therefore be compatible. Perhaps, like Whitman, she contains multitudes.
However, there is an even more fundamental flaw in her argument. One of her core assumptions is that an abortion is not the taking of a human life:
Bans on sex-selective abortion have passed in four states — Illinois, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Arizona — and been proposed in five others this year — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, West Virginia, New York and New Jersey. These bills are filled with language intended to set a precedent for declaring a fetus equivalent to a life.
She is correct that the legislation in each of these states assumes that the fetus is a living human being (none of them are predicated on the fetus being a “person.”) Despite the fact that this science journalist makes an assertion that reveals a hopeless ignorance of basic biology, I think we should treat her statement as a belief genuinely held by an otherwise intelligent interlocutor. So she doesn’t believe a fetus is equivalent to a life. If we proceed charitably and assume she really believes what she says—a fetus is not a living human being—what consequence does this claim have on her view that sex-selective abortion is immoral?
Consider these two statements:
1. It is morally wrong to end the life of a non-living being.
2. It is morally wrong to end the life of a non-living being that has properties associated with being a female (e.g., an XX chromosome).
Since you cannot end the life of a being that is non-living, the first statement is internally incoherent. The addition of the qualifier in statement #2 neither makes it more coherent nor changes the veracity of the moral claim.
This is similar to the move made by Hvistendahl. Consider her statement:
1. A fetus [is not] equivalent to a life.
Now let’s add a qualifier that Hvistendahl believes is morally relevant:
2. A female fetus [is not] equivalent to a life.
Hvistendahl would be forced to agree that the addition of the qualifier doesn’t change her first claim. If a fetus is not “equivalent to a life,” then it doesn’t matter whether the fetus is male or female.
Yet her entire argument hinges on there being a moral distinction between a “fetus” and a “female fetus.” She believes a woman should have the right to kill a “fetus” but not a “female fetus.” Does the fact that the fetus is female make it equivalent to a life? Hvistendahl would say it does not. Then why is sex-selection abortion wrong?
Here is how Hvistendahl summarizes her argument:
Sex-selective abortion is wrong because women should account for half of the human population, and in parts of the world they now account for far less. That alone justifies moral outrage.
Laid out in syllogistic form, her argument can be outlined as follows:
Premise A: If woman should account for half of the human population, then sex-selective abortion is wrong. (If P, then Q.)
Premise B: Woman should account for half of the human population (P.)
Conclusion: Sex-selective abortion is wrong. (Therefore, Q.)
The form of her argument (modus ponens) is valid, but is it true? Does the fact that woman should account for half of the population automatically mean that sex-selective abortion is wrong? What happens if we remove the qualifier “sex-selective?”
Premise A: If woman should account for half of the human population, then abortion is wrong. (If P, then Q.)
Premise B: Woman should account for half of the human population (P.)
Conclusion: Abortion is wrong. (Therefore, Q.)
Hvistendahl would reject this form of the argument. But as we’ve previously proven, the fact that a fetus is female cannot change—according to Hvistendahl’s reasoning—the morality of the act of abortion. So why does she accept the first form of the argument but not this one? Because that is the outcome she wants. She believes that (A) a woman should have the right to an abort a fetus and that (B) a woman should not have the right to abort a fetus if she knows it is a female. Logic and consistency be damned, the two beliefs must be compatible because she wants them both to be true at the same time
Sadly, Hvistendahl has the gall to criticize others for not sharing her inconsistent and illogical reasoning:
Antiabortion advocates like Mr. [Ross] Douthat, in fact, are among the only ones who can’t seem to make the intellectual distinction between choosing to terminate a pregnancy and selecting for sex. They will soon have to catch up.
Antiabortion advocates don’t make the intellectual distinction between choosing to terminate a pregnancy and selecting for sex because there is no moral or logical reason for accepting the former and rejecting the latter. They are, in other words, intellectually consistent. Perhaps it’s Ms. Hvistendahl who has some catching up to do. I recommend she start by taking basic courses in biology and logic.