The worship of suffering

I chanced upon this post at “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. Go read the post. Then read the comments. Then read this quote

I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.
—Mother Teresa

Does it make sense?

Abortion, Female Foeticide and Rights

The fundamental issue in the abotion debate is (or should be) “Does a fetus have rights?”. Answering this question requires an understanding of the question of rights.

What are rights? Why are they necessary? Where do they come from? Is it possible to protect everyones rights? If not whose rights get precedence? Who decides? By what standard?

The concept “right” – as in right vs wrong (not the political concept of rights) – arises because man has the capacity of choice and alternatives to choose from. To judge whether a particular choice is right or wrong, he needs to evaluate the consequences of the choice with respect to a purpose. To evaluate consequences, he needs knowledge and reason. To compare the consequences of different choices, he needs a standard. A normal human has all of these attributes. He is born with the capacity to choose, to think, to gain knowledge. As a living being, he has an ultimate purpose of sustaining his life (man’s life is his ultimate purpose because without it he can have no other values or purposes). The laws of reality provide him with a standard, a way to determine whether the consequences of his choices help to serve his purpose. The concept “right” thus applies to living beings with a capacity of choice and thought.

This means it is right for man to think, to understand the world around him and gain knowledge, to systematize this knowledge to form principles, to apply these principles to his life to pursue his ultimate purpose. It is wrong for man to evade thought, to evade the evidence of his senses, to form ideas that contradict his knowledge, to act against his principles, to refuse in any way to see reality for what it is. To translate his thoughts into actions, man needs freedom to act on his judgements. The only thing that can curtail this freedom is the use of force by other men. Since man lives in a society of men, each of whom needs this same freedom, it is right for man to organize a system that protects him from force. This organization is government. The means it uses to achieve this purpose are laws and rights. Rights – the political concept of rights – are a sanction of the human need for freedom to translate thoughts into action. The rights of individuals cannot conflict with each other. Maintaining the rights of one individual requires no positive action from anyone else. Everyones rights can be maintained in peace as long as no man initiates the use of force. A man (and any group of men) who initiates force is a criminal. A government that initiates force is just a group of criminals who have happened to seize power. The sole purpose of government is to protect all its members from force. Any other actions that it undertakes are a violation of someones freedom to act. Just as it is right for man to form an organisation to protect his rights, it is wrong for man to institute or sanction a government that violates someones rights.

Rights are the conditions that are required for every man’s survival – a legal recognition that man must be free to act on his thoughts. They arise from the nature of man. They are not granted by society. Their recognition is the result of voluntary action on the part of individuals. Rights of individuals do not conflict. Conflicts arise only when men do not respect the rights of others or demand rights that cannot exist without violating others rights. The protection of rights and the resolution of conflict between men (not between rights) is achieved by implementing appropriate objective laws.

Once the nature of rights is understood, it is easy to resolve the issue of abortion. A fetus is a living human entity. But it lacks the capacity of choice and thought. Without this capacity the question of political rights is moot. Even the moral concept of right (on which the political concept of rights depends) does not apply to a fetus. Granting the “right to life” to a fetus is synonymous with violating the freedom of the mother. This position – called pro life – by its supporters, is deeply anti life. By violating the freedom of the mother, it destroys the conditions required for her survival.

It has been argued that a principled protection of a woman’s right to an abortion is impractical in a country where female foeticide is a serious problem. More widely, it is argued that the principled protection of everyones rights is utopic, idealistic, impractical and perhaps even undesirable. (For example, many would argue that a person “right” to food or a child’s “right” to education take precedence over a millionaire’s right to invest his money as he sees fit.)

Consider the causes of female foeticide. The fundamental cause is a belief that the male gender is superior to the female gender (Factors like the practice of dowry are not fundamental. They are also a result of this belief.)

This belief is totally irrational (and in more ways than one), especially in a modern industrial society where a drive to succeed and intellectual capacity are the only relevant factors in shaping any individual’s life. Biologically most males are physically stronger than most females and this meant that the genders had different roles in pre-industrial societies. Today even that is irrelevant. Man does not and cannot depend on physical strength in an industrial society. More importantly, individual differences are far more relevant than biological factors in today’s world. Judging a person on the basis of gender is just plain wrong.

Given the prevalence of this belief and its many victims – unlucky children of both genders in the miserable societies where it is prevalent – the question arises “What is to be done?”.

The parents who hold the irrational beliefs are no ones concerns. Their actions too are no ones concern as long as they do not violate anyones rights. Their irrational actions will bring them well-deserved problems. In fact the only subjects of concern can be the children born in these societies. Any rational parent who does not hold these beliefs should make every possible attempt to get out such societies. As for the children, it is an unalterable fact that a childs life will be influenced by its parents and the culture in general. No one can change that fact. Trying to correct the situation by laws that violate people’s rights can only result in the birth of unwanted girls – unwanted by their parents who will not treat them fairly and forced by the state which cannot take responsibility for their upbringing. Trying to provide economic incentives (taken from taxation) is even worse. Since wealth is produced by rational effort, taxing that wealth to change the behavior of irrational men is to penalize the rational to sustain the irrational.

The answer to the question “What is to be done about female foeticide (substitute any other irrational evil here)?” is:

Educate anyone willing to listen to reason. Help any deserving victim within your means. More importantly, do not advocate laws or political action that violates anyones rights (including the rights of the irrational – freedom is meaningless if rationality is enforced). Social problems cannot be solved by political shortcuts. Work for a culture of rights and reason. Do not hesitate to condemn irrationality. Do not feel any sympathy for the well-deserved problems that people face through their irrational behavior. Most importantly, do not lose sight of your own goals and purposes. A rational society and culture are important to personal goals. But they are not the ends.


To anyone who made it this far, I strongly recommend investigating the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

The Times’ Response to the Mehta Abortion Case

In the space of the two days after their initial response (which I labeled Intellectual Cowardice), The Times of India has come out with some articles whose substance helps explain their initial response. There could have been two principled stands to take.

a) A woman has an absolute right to her body and no one else may properly interfere with it for any purposes whatsoever.

b) A fetus has an absolute right to life and no one may properly take any action that violates it, irrespective of any risk to the mother or the potential child.

The Times does not take any of these stands. In fact, in the world of moral relativism that it inhabits (and has helped create), it would not even understand any of these stands. It does not think of anything as absolute, not even the right to life. In its world view, everything must be judged within a context and invariably the means of judgement is “a democratic consensus” and the context is “good of the society”. Both the stands above would be termed dogmatic, impractical and dangerous.

As evidence consider:

“There are valid concerns that in a country like India where female foeticide is a real problem, any further relaxation of abortion laws could be misused. However, that argument must not hold reasonable reforms to the MTP Act to ransom. There is a separate law — the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Tests Act — to address the issue of female foeticide. Its enforcement is poor; government would do well to get its act together in that area.”

“Ethicists, social scientists, lawmakers and medical specialists should discuss such issues on a common platform until a consensus is reached. A new and liberal abortion law is urgently required but we need to be careful as it may be abused to perform female foeticide. The medical profession in the past has refused to accept collective responsibility for this genocide and has a poor record in ensuring ethical conduct of doctors. It does not have any credibility and has failed to self-regulate. All future laws must be transparent and have built-in checks and mechanisms to curb female foeticide, while accommodating late abortions of grossly abnormal foetuses.”

“It [The current law] allows termination of the pregnancy even beyond the 20th week, if there is a threat to the mother’s life. However, it does not extend that provision to cases where the child’s health after birth might be under adverse risk. It was this lacuna that the Mehtas were challenging as their unborn child runs the risk of being born with congenital heart ailments.”

(emphasis mine)

In the world view that The Times exemplifies, laws and rights are optimization parameters, that are to be continuously tweaked to achieve the common good. This case then was only a sad but inevitable occurrence that highlighted the need for some more tweaking. Their initial reponse was not intellectual cowardice. It was not intellectual at all. It arose from a rejection of principles as being applicable to life. Since principles are derived by an application of the intellect, it showed a rejection of the intellect, an abdication of the role that a newspaper is expected to play in public discourse.

The Mehta Case and Intellectual Cowardice

In all the detailed coverage that The Times of India gave to the case of the Mehta Couple’s rejected abortion plea, this is what the newspaper had to show as its view:

Times View:For the Mehtas, this is a very difficult time, and our heart goes out to them. It’ll be everyone’s prayer that the child is born without any serious complications and grows up healthy. If the baby is normal, the Mehtas must not be blamed for seeking abortion—after all, they approached the court on the basis of medical evidence that suggested a congenital heart block. At least they had the courage and the honesty to take the legal route instead of aborting illegally. The Mehtas, for their part, must put the legal battle behind them and focus on what’s ahead. There have been cases where children have been born out of extremely complicated pregnancies and gone on to lead normal lives. Also, advances in medical science bring new hope every day.”

This is the same newspaper that began its lead article with

This was a court battle that had everything: law, medicine, ethics, religion—and human drama.”
(Emphasis in original)

I wanted to comment, but anything I could say should be obvious.

Mehta Couple’s Abortion Case

The Bombay High Court today dismissed the Mehta couple’s plea to permit an abortion of their 25 week old fetus diagnosed with heart problems. (More information here). This sad case has raised a debate about the law regarding termination of pregnancy. It has been said that the law (which only permits abortion upto the 20th week of pregnancy or if the mother’s life is in danger) is out of date and needs to change with medical advances. Yet the issue here is not the extent of advancement or reliability of medical procedures. The issue is whether a fetus has the right to life.

The concept of rights arises from the fact that man (by his nature) needs to act on his own independent judgement if he is to survive. Rights can only pertain to beings that have a purpose and the capacity to exercise judgement. The right to life is the right to act independently, free from physical force from other men. A fetus is not independent. It depends on the mother for its sustenance. It cannot exercise or even form judgement. It does not have a purpose. Judgement and purpose are concepts that depend on the capacity of choice. A fetus is incapable of choice. As Ayn Rand noted

“An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn).”

The current law regarding abortion (like most of India’s laws) protects no ones rights. Neither the rights of the mother to her own body (as illustrated by this case) nor the alleged right of the fetus (since its life can be terminated in the case of a risk to the life of the mother). Properly defined, there can be no conflict (such as the one implied by the law) between the rights of individuals. Every man has an inalienable and absolute right to life. These rights are not a gift from the state and it is not upto the state to arbitrarily try to balance them. Nor do laws that protect these rights need to change with the times or with advancements in technology if they are properly framed. What needs to change is the lack of understanding about the source of rights and the role of the state in protecting them.

I have a more detailed post on this topic here.

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