All credit to Professor Regina Rini for her attempt (“A foetus or a child?”, May 27) to go beyond the sterile conventions of most debate about abortion. But I am not convinced that her reframing will in fact take us much further.
There is one basic unclarity that affects the argument. We should attend, she says, to the “extrinsic” properties of the foetus in determining our ethical account of its claims. But these apparently include both a fact about the foetus that is surely part of its definition (“being located within the body of another human being”) and certain facts about the context in which a pregnancy is (the attitudes of parents).
Relying primarily on the latter point would leave us dangerously exposed to an argument that the moral (not just legal) claim of some classes of “human beings” (Professor Rini, along with Mary Anne Warren, whom she cites, is apparently content to designate the foetus in these terms) is substantially dependent on the agreement of others to accord them that moral status. I doubt whether we would settle happily with the proposition that, for example, a refugee’s moral claim depends simply on the relative welcomingness of a host country.
So we are taken back to the first point, about the foetus’s location in another body, in order to establish that this class of human beings is so physically a distinct that qualifications of its moral standing can be argued in way that would not hold with other human beings. That is not an empty argument; but it simply revives the familiar stand-off about what degree of dependence is thought to disqualify a human organism from the status we should otherwise accord it. To call the foetus’s location in another body an “extrinsic” property here is puzzling, since this would only make sense if we were supposing the foetus to be in the first place a discrete subject brought into relation with another discrete subject, rather than a definitely dependent organism. And that is exactly the point on which the debate has always stalled – whether a radically dependent organism can properly be called a subject with a moral claim at least analogous to that of a more obviously independent entity. The core belief of those who have moral cruples about abortion is that it can, though there may then be a good deal of diversion about what follows in terms of legislation or social policy in a culturally and religiously diverse environment.
The absolutist and intimidatory tone of so much American pro-life rhetoric, its often thinly veiled misogyny and its insistence on the legal enshrining of a conviction that has not persuaded the majority of the population has not to encourage careful argument about the dependence question— or indeed about the challenges around the moral grounding of parental obligations raised by Professor Rini, which deserve fuller discussion. But the appeal to extrinsic properties as she sets it out will prove either too much (the foetus as independent human subject contingently related to another body) or too little (the existence of some sorts of human being whose rights are subject to the attitudes of others ) to help untie the knot.
Reading Regina Rini’s brief attempt to sketch a pro-choice position in debates about abortion, I was struck by the suspect role of desire in the suggested ethical framework. The extrinsic property of “being anticipated by adults eager to be its parents” is cited as one way in which a foetus is afforded child status. Many parents who bring children into the world do not experience eagerness so much as a sense of duty, which is an explicitly moral concept. Eagerness is more at home in the lexicon of desire, and arguably these “eager” parents haven’t really made a conscious moral decision.
Rini also makes an unelucidated reference to instances “when a woman does not give her consent to being bodily occupied”, this time as an example of an extrinsic property contributing to the moral status of the conceived thing, to serve as a counterpoint to the eagerness property described above. I gather she is making a general reference to unwanted pregnancy, rather than rape specifically. If simply failing to want to be pregnant amounts to a lack of consent and therefore a non-child in utero, it seems no reproductive responsibility whatsoever lies in consenting to sex. Alarmingly, in this account, desire is the sole criterion of morality.
It seems that the notion of “extrinsic properties” is a sleight of hand, ushering in desire to answer a moral question. Most of us know that often the right thing to do is not the same as what we want to do. As unjust as the burden of biological constraints on women seems to be, I don’t think it’s fair on our daughters to sell them such a flimsy account of reproductive ethics. It’s as though, in the name of levelling the playing field, we’re telling the girls that, for them, morality is a fluffy thing that bends to their will. As a mother, and as a philosophically minded human being, I’m very concerned.
Rob Hoveman (Letters, May 27) reproaches Cécile Fabre for denigrating Kim Philby, in her shrewd and enriching book Spying Through a Glass Darkly, by making the “absurd” mistake of comparing his motives for treachery adversely to those of Oleg Gordievsky. “Philby”, Hoveman tells us, “became a Soviet spy because he thought the Soviet Union was based on morally superior principles to those of the West.” He was therefore no worse than Gordievsky, for he acted “out of moral considerations, albeit flawed ones”.
What evidence does Hoveman have for this tale of moral idealism, other than the artful misdirection in Philby’s self-exculpatory, bamboozling memoirs? Philby was an arch-realist, a materialist, a sensualist, with no time for visionary principles and no affinity for economic equalitarianism. Countless young people were attracted in the 1930s by the notion that parliamentary democracies were antiquated, rotten and corrupt, and that the dictatorship of the proletariat was preferable to fascist totalitarianism; but only a handful chose to work as Soviet penetration agents.
In Philby’s case, primitive masculine vanity was the driving motive. As he showed throughout his four marriages, he enjoyed deceit, felt gratified by a successful betrayal and took powerful pleasure in fooling people. His daily hoodwinking performances at SIS, his hoard of secret and privileged knowledge, gave him a glorious sense of superiority. An aggressive temperament found purposive discipline in a career of high-tension subterfuge. He proved himself, to his own satisfaction, a stunning exception to the complaint of his pro-Soviet Cambridge tutor Maurice Dobb that “conventional intellectuals” [were] without any spunk”. It is purblind and unnatural to think that moral principles had any part in his behaviour.
I am sorry Diarmuid Hanifin is so upset by my reference to the geographical British Isles (Letters, June 3). He must be complaining to every atlas, dictionary and history book I have come across. Has he a preferred name for a certain well-known archipelago off the coast of Europe?
In my forthcoming sceptical history of the Celts, I note how successful Ireland was in moving on from the “mobilizing rhetoric” of its colonial past to the confidence and pride of an independent state. If I must gaze from my window in long-oppressed Wales at something called the Irish Sea, Hanifin can surely handle the British Isles without tears.
Lord Fairfax’s reputation
NH Keeble (Letters, May 27) takes issue with my poem, “On the Lord General Fairfax’s Coat at Leeds Castle, Maidstone” (May 13), arguing that Thomas, Lord Fairfax is “grievously misrepresented” in it. The poem is from The Kentish Rebelliona forthcoming book-length sequence that reimagines the Kentish revolt against parliament in the Second English Civil War, culminating in the Battle of Maidstone of 1648, in which Fairfax and his subduing parliamentary force were victorious. The Kentish Rebellion attempts to portray voices from both sides of the conflict. “On the Lord General Fairfax…” is one of a number of poems written from the perspective of Kentish grievance – in this case a grievance imagined to have endured the 370-odd years since the fall of Maidstone.
Mick Imlah’s method
In an interview with Nicholas Jenkins, first published in Oxford Poetry in 1983 and reprinted in the posthumous Selected Prose (2015), Mick Imlah provided future scholars of his work with a valuable clue as to how they might approach his notes and working papers (NB, May 27): “I don’t like sending things out for public display with holes or patches . So I refise, much too much. In the quest for polish or evenness you can rewrite the life out of a thing. Revision – mine anyway – tends to substitute the elaborate for the simple; trying to turn everything into a flashy ‘good bit’.”
I wonder if the posthumously published “Solomon” (Selected Poems, 2010), with its narrator’s Marlovian desire “to make monumental sense / Of all I’d known … span the pearly start / And purple end of chromatography”, in some way captures what Alan Hollinghurst called Imlah’s “almost unworldly investment in getting it” right”? It certainly bears out a comment Imlah made about the poems in his first collection, Birthmarks (1988): “to write verse effectively I think you have to be practically unconscious with inspiration”. The poem is an extraordinary achievement, even by the standards of this remarkable poet.
Marple Bridge, Greater Manchester
The Queen’s opinions
Nicola Shulman’s able review of two books about the Queen (May 27) suggests that she has not shown any social or political preferences for the seven decades. I well remember seeing the Queen on television when she opened for Theresa May’s government in 2017. May had switched over to wanting us to leave the European Union after the referendum. The Queen wore a hat of mid-blue with tiny yellow flowers, not in a ring, but scattered over the front. I don’t think I was the only person who felt that this was a hinted representation of the EU flag.
Witton Gilbert, Durham
The end of the ‘Iliad’
In her review of James I. Porter’s new book on Homer (May 6), Barbara Graziosi comments on my late father, Jasper Griffin. Professor Graziosi sums him up as “an expansive Oxford don and author of The Art of Snobbery“. I’m not sure what the adjective means, or why the second point is relevant here (both sound rather lazy and cheap, but I would hate to oversimplify); none of that would have bothered him, but I think he would have wanted to point out that, contrary to the review’s claim, the Eliad does not end with “the women of Troy”, those fashionable favorites, but with directions from King Priam, and the funeral of Hector, who receives the last word. The last woman to speak is not a future slave, but Helen: a woman of Troy only in a very special sense, and not really part of a community of nurturers.
The invention of the blues
Brian Morton (May 20) asserts that the blues is “a Scottish invention”. My understanding is that the genre originated in the Deep South around the 1860s among African Americans, from roots in African American work songs and spirituals. What is the evidence for a Scottish origin?
San Francisco CA
‘My Fair Lady’
Adam Mars-Jones, reviewing My Fair Lady (which he accuses of “laziness”), refers to “that clangingly American ‘stories’ in a show set in London, a solecism that sticks out like a sore skyscraper” (Arts, May 27).
Mars-Jones should be more cautious about accusing others of laziness. According to the New English Dictionary on Historical Principlescommonly known as the Oxford English Dictionarywhile the spelling “storey” may be an Americanism, the word “story” to mean floors in a building goes back to Chaucer’s time, and was alive and well in the nineteenth century (citations from Shelley, Dickens and Ruskin).
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