Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Abortion, Vampires, and Yoga: Some randomly-strung-together thoughts

I am sitting in the campus cafeteria right now, preparing to teach my medical ethics class, which meets in slightly under an hour. The topic we are covering today is abortion. Yes, a very divisive topic in this country, as most of you probably are aware. In addition to running my students through the usual pro- and anti-abortion arguments, I have also come up with what I think is a creative way to think about this issue. Specifically, I am going to get my students to think about this issue by thinking about vampires.

Vampires? What do vampires have to do with abortion? Stay with me, I'm getting there. As with all interesting things in life, we need to start at the beginning. To begin with, the standard secular anti-abortion argument (I say "secular" because I don't see any need to bring God into the picture; things are messy enough as they are) goes something like this:

(1) The fetus is a person from the moment of conception.
(2) A person has a right to life.
(3) Any action which deliberately terminates a person’s life infringes upon a person’s right to life.
(4) Since abortion deliberately terminates the life of the fetus, and the fetus is a person, abortion infringes upon the fetus’ right to life.
(5) Therefore, assuming that it is wrong to infringe upon somebody’s right to life, abortion is wrong, and may not be performed.

The standard strategy for somebody who disagrees with this argument is to challenge (1), and argue that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. Many of you are probably familiar with how these arguments go, so I won't belabor this here. But the general idea is that if one can provide compelling proof that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception, then the whole anti-abortion argument falls apart, and abortion is permissible, at least during the period of time when the fetus has not yet become a person. 

But this strategy is not so satisfactory, not least because it tends to entangle both parties in these messy debates about what counts as a person and what doesn't, and when the fetus acquires the characteristics that qualify it as a person. A bolder, and in my opinion, more effective strategy is to question whether terminating somebody's life always constitutes violating that person's right to life. In other words, to adopt this latter strategy is to argue that there might be certain circumstances in which deliberating terminating a person's life does not amount to violating that person's right to life. Several philosophers (notably Judith Jarvis Thomson in her seminal paper "A Defense of Abortion") have adopted this strategy to justify abortion in at least some cases. The general idea is to show that there are at least certain cases of abortion (such as, for instance, cases in which the woman's life is endangered by the pregnancy) which do not violate the fetus' right to life, because having a right to life does not entitle one to being kept alive at any cost. Therefore, at least in such cases, abortion is permissible. 

All of this is quite abstract. But I think there is an interesting way to show that terminating somebody's life does not necessary amount to violating that person's right to life. Think about vampires. You don't have to be a Twilight fan to agree that vampires are persons. They seem to exhibit all of the cognitive and reflective abilities that human persons possess. Indeed, we might even think of vampires as persons with very special dietary needs! Suppose somebody believes that vampires should never be killed, because they are persons, and we need to respect their rights as persons. They might argue this way: 

(1) A vampire is a person from the moment of conception (i.e. from the moment they first became vampires).
(2) A person has a right to life.
(3) Any action which deliberately terminates a person’s life infringes upon a person’s right to life.

(4) Since killing a vampire deliberately terminates the life of the vampire, and the vampire is a person, killing a vampire infringes upon the vampire’ right to life.                          
(5) Therefore, assuming that it is wrong to infringe upon somebody’s right to life, killing a vampire is wrong, and may not be performed.
      I think that most of us would surely disagree with this argument. We would say that even if vampires are persons, there have to be at least certain situations in which killing a vampire is the right thing to do (for example, if a vampire is trying to have me for dinner!). If you have been paying attention :-), you will also notice that this argument is exactly the same in form and structure to the anti-abortion argument at the beginning of this post. Which goes to show that simply being a person does not entitle one to not be killed. Simply because a fetus is a person does not automatically make aborting it wrong. To be fair, it doesn't automatically make aborting it right either. But this goes to show that rights are not magic bullets that the anti-abortionist (or anybody else) can just use to prove whatever they want to prove.
Whatever your individual views on abortion might be, I hope you find the above discussion edifying and useful in some way or other. But what has any of this to do with yoga? Well, practically anything in life can be related to yoga, and this is no exception. We can think about yoga in relation to vampires. If vampires really do exist, would they need to practice yoga? If everything we know about vampires is correct, vampires never grow old and die. So it seems that they wouldn't need to practice yoga for the health benefits; they just need to make sure they drink enough blood! But maybe some vampires might decide to practice yoga anyway, because like humans, vampires also have worries, and practicing yoga would also enable them to have greater equanimity in the face of stressful situations and life's many worries ("Where is my next vial of blood going to come from?")
Here's another question to think about: If a vampire starts practicing yoga, would he or she need to give up drinking blood in order to practice ahimsa? After all (unless there's a synthetic substitute for blood, like in the HBO series True Blood), vampires need blood in order to live, and the only way for them to get this blood is by killing humans (or by turning these humans into vampires in the course of drinking their blood...). 

Should there also be classes that are exclusively for vampires? And maybe yoga DVDs made exclusively for vampires (the latest Rodney Yee video to hit the shelves: "Yoga for Vampires and Other Undead Citizens")? This seems to make sense, because if vampires and humans are in the same class, vampires might get too tempted by the sight of human flesh and the prospect of human blood... 

But this would mean that some vampires would need to be trained as yoga teachers. And some human yoga teacher would need to train them (Rodney Yee? Hmm...). Wouldn't this be putting that teacher at great personal risk to life and limb? 
Well, I don;t have any answers to these questions. But I'll leave you with them, and see if you have any interesting answers to them. Remember, this is not a laughing matter. If you have taken Philosophy 101, you would know that just because something has never happened before does not mean that it will not happen in the future: Just because there are no vampires around today (at least not any that we are aware of) does not mean that there will be no vampires in the future. We need to be prepared for all possible contingencies.


  1. spoken like a true philosopher...brought back memories of my philosophy classes, discussing that TV's are alive and we are all zombies....lovely. the power of logical argument.

  2. I've never taken philosophy classes before, so thanks for the PHIL 101 lesson! Vampires probably don't need yoga because they already have super-human powers. Or if they do, they'd have to develop their own version.

  3. Love Rodney Yee as the teacher-trainer of Vampire Yogis, ha, ha, ha.

  4. Glad you enjoyed the discussion and arguments, Esther :-)

    Interesting, Yyogini. But vampires might still need yoga, because the goal of yoga is not supposed to be the acquiring of superhuman powers (although these are very cool to have). I wonder what a vampire version of yoga would look like?

    Cathrine, yes, I think Rodney Yee would be a good teacher-trainer of vampire yogis; he might even become a vampire himself in the process :-)

  5. Hahaha, this is such a great post - I love how you relate any and all topics back to yoga with your philosophical wit :)

    I agree with the reasoning that there are situations where abortion is a valid option, and your arguments could just as well be applied to the issues around euthanasia. Like most of the big questions in life, there never is a simple black and white answer.

  6. Nobel - FYI - I included a little yoga magic in my blog today.

  7. savasanaaddict, yes, there is no black and white absolute answer to such big questions. But the cool thing about philosophy is that it gives us some tools to navigate our way towards a reasonable answer when we deal with such difficult questions.

    Cathrine, yes, I totally enjoyed your latest post. My next post makes reference to it.

  8. very poor argument to compare a precious baby to a demon or vampire...you have lost your way