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Objectivism on Patients versus Fetuses

In Leonard Peikoff’s latest podcast (no. 81), he fields a question about a sadistic therapist who manipulates his emotionally fragile and vulnerable patient into committing suicide. Peikoff concludes that this is a form of homicide. Nothing to disagree with strongly here, if you you realize that, by virtue of nature of the doctor-patient relationship and the context, the therapist is a cause of the patient’s death. Peikoff reasons that he has contractually obligated himself to do what he can to help her achieve a happy life. That

the context is that he has accepted a relationship, knowing that she is not able to function normally on her [own]. That he has agreed to sustain her, to help her, to make her strong enough to live. And that’s why she’s there, putting herself at his mercy in total trust to reveal

things that are bothering her. If he schemes to drive her to death, he “is the agent of her death, even if she chose it,” since he knows she is highly suggestible and he took advantage of it in a relationship in which she trusted and relied on him to help her. Thus, he views the therapist as a cause of her death.

But note that similar reasoning could apply to a pregnant woman with respect to the unborn fetus inside her, and of course to children. After all, hasn’t a pregnant mom voluntarily entered into a relationship in which the fetus is not able to function normally on its own? As I wrote here:

the libertarian could argue that the parent has various positive obligations to his or her children, such as the obligation to feed, shelter, educate, etc. The idea here is that libertarianism does not oppose “positive rights”; it simply insists that they be voluntarily incurred. One way to do this is by contract; another is by trespassing against someone’s property. Now, if you pass by a drowning man in a lake you have no enforceable (legal) obligation to try to rescue him; but if you push someone in a lake you have a positive obligation to try to rescue him. If you don’t you could be liable for homicide. Likewise, if your voluntary actions bring into being an infant with natural needs for shelter, food, care, it is akin to throwing someone into a lake. In both cases you create a situation where another human is in dire need of help and without which he will die. By creating this situation of need you incur an obligation to provide for those needs.

But the Objectivist doesn’t see it this way at all. Seems inconsistent to me.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Robert Taylor September 29, 2009, 8:14 am

    The problem with your line of thought is the fallacy of the “stolen concept”. You are assuming that a fetus is a human being…it clearly is not. It is a format for a human indeed…but it is not an individual human person no matter how much emotionalism is expressed about it.

    • Stephan Kinsella September 29, 2009, 10:38 am

      As my friend Rob Wicks said, “You could make the same argument against patents. An idea is not an invention, it is the format for an invention.”

  • Heinz Schmitz September 29, 2009, 8:27 am

    Objectivists don’t see it this way because life is a process of self-sustaining, self-generated action. The fetus does not sustain itself, the mother does and thereby the mother is the only living entity here. Nature/God realizes this and regularly, and naturally disposes of fetuses by the millions every year.
    The difference between the womb and the outside world is quite literally the difference between day and night to the child. When a child is born a torrent of activity is unleashed within the child’s mind. The brain at that point begins to integrate percepts. After a number of months, the child forms its first concept. All of this activity is explained by the emergence of the child from the womb.

  • iawai September 29, 2009, 10:12 am

    Robert: Your “clearly” isn’t so clear. Reasonable persons can differ, so why not let them? I, personally, can’t a zygote with its own, unique, human DNA the label of homo sapiens. Further, I’m not going to require you to adopt this definition of life, partly because I recognize that the answer to ‘what is human’ is so spectacularly UNclear.

    Heinz: Are you suggesting that since all Humans would naturally die, they are not alive to begin with? Of course not every zygote can muster the resources to survive gestation – but neither can infants, nor even power-weak adults. Do all adults then not have life simply because of the fact that some lack the power to continue their own lives?

    Further, to place the ‘life-line’ at birth denies scientific facts of prenatal action and observation. What of the activity of learning to kick while still in the womb? Or being able to observe the densely insulated sonic vibrations from the outside world enough to have a predilection to a parent’s voice?

    I can buy the argument that a woman is under no obligation to cater to a growth within her, whatever it may be, but to justify that argument by stipulating that the growth isn’t human is doing nothing but caressing the fragile ego of the arguer into believing that he is not advocating the killing of human life. Much like a doctor trying to escape his duties to a bothersome patient will start to argue that the patient isn’t human anymore – just a biological body devoid of some characteristic chosen by the doctor as exemplifying this non-humanness.

  • iawai September 29, 2009, 10:13 am

    “can’t deny a zygote”

  • Robert Taylor September 29, 2009, 10:55 am

    “Patents” are created by a thoughtful, integrated, focused individual(s). Really, really, really non-thoughtful analogy as ideas only relate to individuals…not fetuses, zygotes, eggs, sperm, etc.

  • Heinz Schmitz September 29, 2009, 11:27 am

    >>Are you suggesting that since all Humans would naturally die, they are not alive to begin with?

    Reply: Fetuses perish despite any efforts on our part, and they do so in huge numbers. This is perfectly natural, and if you believe in God, this is evidently part of his intelligent design making him the biggest abortionist ever. Throughout most of history, a premature baby was a dead baby. With human intervention now this has changed, but with human intervention we can also create life from skin cells. As far as a kicking baby goes, such a one would garner more difficulties and dangers if trying to abort – this is nature’s way of telling you not to do so.

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