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Thursday, 25 October 2007

Abortion and Capital Punishment and Craig Young

An acquaintance of mine sent me a copy of this article at by Craig Young. Craig and I have a kind of knack at studying the very same topics at the same time. He wrote a PhD thesis criticising conservative Christian views on abortion around the same time I started writing my PhD thesis defending such views. With this article the timing is somewhat uncanny. One of the main burdens of Craig’s article is to argue for the conclusion that it is not inconsistent to both oppose capital punishment and support abortion "rights". Craig bases this conclusion on the contention that fetuses are not human because they lack sentience. Intriguingly I have just submitted an article for publication rebutting the claim that fetuses are not human until sentient and I have just had word that another article, where I discuss the relationship between feticide and capital punishment, has been accepted for publication. Since Craig has put his thoughts on these issues before the public, I will respond to them here.

Before getting to the nitty gritty is worth noting the deceptive slips in Craig’s post. Craig writes:

Amnesty International opposes torture, harassment organised homophobic violence and the death penalty when performed on the basis of homosexuality. Saudi Arabia demonstrates the complexity of the issue, with formal sharia law but co-existing cruising grounds and private indulgence of what is legally forbidden. However, Nigeria, Sudan, Iran, and Iraq's Mahdi Army all penalise male homosexuality, while Iran also mandates capital punishment for persistent lesbianism, Hezbollah and Hamas also believe that their version of fundamentalist Islamism, whether Shia or Sunni, has no place for homosexuality. They base this on their arguable interpretation of the Qu'ran and particular traditions of interpretation of attributed sayings of the Prophet Muhammed, although the Hanafi school of interpretation is more liberal than others….

Surely no-one could object to the above, especially given that the Christian Heritage Party, which alone supported reintroduction of the death penalty in New Zealand, died after Capillgate in 2005.

Now a couple of things to note here. Craig states that Amnesty opposes capital punishment when "performed on the basis of homosexuality." He then insinuates that only the Christian Heritage Party opposed Amnesty's stance because it supported the reintroduction of capital punishment.

This is deceptive. As Craig knows, Amnesty does not just oppose capital punishment for homosexuality, it opposes it for any crime including murder. It is this aspect of Amnesty that the Christian Heritage Party opposed. As Craig knows, the Christian Heritage Party did not support the death penalty for homosexuality, it supported it only for pre-meditated murder when there were multiple eyewitnesses. Craig is trying to conflate support for Capital Punishment per se with support for executing Gays.

Craig also seems to think that because some countries execute homosexuals it follows that people should support the abolition of the death penalty for any crime. This is a very weak argument. After all,many countries imprison homosexuals so an analogous line of argument would suggest that Craig should oppose imprisonment for any crime yet strangely he advocates imprisonment for murder later on in his article. This demonstrates Craig is quite capable of drawing distinctions between the morality of a practice and the morality of a specific application of the practice.

It is also a weak argument to suggest that because an organisation like Amnesty supports some worthy causes, such as opposition to torture, it follows it should not be subject to criticism for other causes it supports, such as abortion rights. If abortion is homicide then for every person saved by Amnesty thousands, if not millions, are killed with its tacit support.

However, what I really want to comment on is Craig’s argument for the consistency of a pro-abortion stance with an anti-death penalty stance. Craig writes:

However, the Christian Right has piped up with references to embryos and fetuses. There's a vast difference between pre-sentient potential humans and actual, flesh and blood biographical human subjects, not that that troubled Right to Life New Zealand throughout the nineties when it had Graham Capill as one of its patrons, or when Voice for Life Vice-Presidnet Annetta Moran stood on the same Christian Coalition party list as Capill in 1996. And as Amnesty International is a pluralist organisation, why should it support an essentially religious campaign against women's reproductive freedom, in any case?
Now several things are worth noting here; Craig’s key claim is that, unlike capital punishment, abortion does not kill an actual human being. This is because fetuses (up till around 28 weeks) are not sentient and hence not "biographical subjects." There is a serious problem with this argument. It presupposes that a being must be a "biographical subject" to be a human being.

Now while it is true that prior to sentience fetuses are not such subjects, neither are they such subjects for some time after sentience. In fact, for some time after birth infants are not "biographical subjects" either. This point was vigorously demonstrated by Michael Tooley in his monograph Abortion and Infanticide. Sentience is a necessary condition for being a "biographical subject" but it is not a sufficient condition.

To be a biographical subject one needs more than just sentience. One needs to have a concept of an enduring self and to have this, a certain level of cognitive development is necessary. As Tooley demonstrates, the requisite development does not take place until after birth. Hence, if Craig were consistent he would support not just abortion but also infanticide. Craig can maintain a consistent stance on the ethics of killing only if he maintains that serial killers have a right to life and newborn infants do not.

Craig’s appeal to sentience is similarly problematic. In A Defense of Abortion, David Boonin notes that those who attempt to ground humanity in the psychological development of an organism face a dilemma, "Any appeal to what a brain can do at various stages of development would seem to have to appeal to what the brain can already do. Or to what the brain has the potential to do in the future."

Either option leads to problems for a defender of the permissibility of feticide who does not also want to endorse infanticide. This is because "by any plausible measure dogs, and cats, cows and pigs, chickens and ducks or more intellectually developed than a new born infant." Suppose, then, one takes the first horn of the dilemma and appeals to what the brain can already do. However, unless one wishes to affirm that cats, dogs and chickens are human beings, "appeals to what the brain can already do" will "be unable to account for the presumed wrongness of killing toddlers or infants."

Suppose then, one takes up the second horn of the dilemma and appeals to "what the brain has the potential to do in the future". This will entail that feticide is homicide. "If [such an account] allows appeals to what the brain has the potential to do in the future, then it will have to include fetuses as soon as their brains begin to emerge, during the first few weeks of gestation." Again, Craig is forced to either grant the humanity of a fetus or deny the humanity of an infant.

Finally it is worth noting how Craig attempts to pass of his contradictory stance with some really silly inferences. He dismisses support for Capital Punishment on the grounds that the Christian Heritage Party "died after Capillgate." Similarly, in the citation above he notes that some anti-abortion groups were either associated with Capill or had people associated with Capill in them.

One wonders what this has to do with anything?

Both groups had the associations in question before it was known Capill was a criminal. There is no evidence they supported his actions or that they were complicit in his crimes. Given these facts, how is Capill remotely relevant? The only purpose reference to him serves is to encourage people to jump to unwarranted conclusions that certain people support abusing children when they do not.

However, let us suppose, contrary to fact, that these people had been complicit in Capill’s crimes. This would still tell us nothing about the permissibility of capital punishment or abortion. It would merely tell us that some people who oppose abortion are criminals. In the absence of a compelling reason for thinking that no just policy is ever supported by criminals and remember Criminals tend to vote left of centre, the correct response to Craig’s assertion is to ask "and?"

Let me illustrate the problems with Craig’s inferences by turning the tables here. Craig writes for, a few years ago it was discovered that one of Gaynz’s regular writers, Jim Peron, had been an apologist for the views of NAMBLA. Jim Peron had published paedophile erotica written by convicted child molesters, written articles agressively labelling critics of "man boy love" as "hysterics" for viewing paedophilia as abuse, sold NAMBLA material and had NAMBLA meetings in his store. His visa to NZ was denied on the basis of these facts about his character.

Now, would it be fair of me to insinuate from this association that Craig is a NAMBLA supporter or that everyone who agrees with him on abortion and capital punishment is morally suspect because Craig is associated with a group that was once associated with this man Jim Peron? Could I logically dismiss Craig’s position on abortion and capital punishment merely by pointing this fact out? Of course not!

What I need to do and have done above, is provide an argument against these positions. Similarly, if Craig is to provide a rebuttal of the stances I and others have taken on capital punishment and abortion he needs to provide arguments against those stances but as usual, Craig and the team at Gaynz have none.


  1. Why do you keep picking away at this guy who has all the reasoning ability of a steamed pudding?

  2. I suspect it is because Mr Young "researched" for his aborted PhD by using a sock puppet and emailing Madeleiene as a left wing catholic woman probing her for personal info on her miscarriage.

    He befriended Madeleine under this guise and while her guard was down and she was upset he got her to share personal info on her miscarriage with him.

    I note that this type of tactic is not new for him if you care to click on the link from his name in Matt's post.

  3. Okay yeah I knew there were things like that but so what? How does that make it interesting to argue with him?

  4. Whilst Craig Young's treatment of me and Phillipa Peck and other pro-life women was abhorrent and unethical that is less the driving factor here for us.

    You see, whilst it is patently obvious to me that Craig Young has the reasoning ability of a steamed pudding it is apparently not so obvious to other people.

    Despite numerous examples of blatently poor reasoning and statements that scream "ah.. causation?" Craig repeatedly gets published on

    Despute's complete lack of journalistic integrity, ethics and research skills some people read them and believe the things they say simply because they portray themselves as media. If its in the media it must be true, this guy must know his stuff...

    You see going after writers with the reasoning ability of steamed puddings is important as long as there are readers out there who lack discernment.


  5. So what you are saying is that even if you are shooting fish in a barrel the fish do actually need shooting?

  6. Yep. Pretty much.

    Easy targets are still targets.


  7. So you're saying that you just can't resist a Spotted Dick?

    Easy targets are still targets ;-)

  8. Anon

    The reasons I think it’s worth responding to Young’s’ arguments are twofold.

    The first reason is that many of the arguments he gives are not that uncommon. For example the claim that a fetus is not a human being because it lacks sentience is extremely common in fact I read essentially the same argument in a medical ethics text not long ago. Moreover, the attempt to dismiss certain views by noting the crimes of Graham Capill is unfortunately not that uncommon either.So responding to Young’s utilisations of these arguments serve to address the wider problem of people dismissing certain moral stances, stances I think to be correct, on the basis of erroneous arguments. If I can show the flaws in such arguments then that goes some of the way to getting people to reconsider their stance on on these issues.

    Second, while I think Young’s work is often very poor his arguments not widely recognised as being poor. Many influential people seem to support or rely on his work. Young for example was given a scholarship from the Family Planning Association to do PhD research on the abortion issue. Young was also the research officer of the Abortion Law Reform Association. Dr Margaret Sparrow cites “Dr” Craig Young as an authority in some of her international conferences. Young also seems to have appointed himself the Gay Rights movements expert critic the “religious right” and he is a prolific writer for Gaynz a newsgroup which (for reasons that baffle me) is often seen as highly credible. I have seen Young’s research positively referred to in Express and read Labour Youth magazines recommending that people read his analysis on “the religious right”. A few years ago Young was interviewed on radio as a kind of expert on Conservative Christianity. Similarly, The New Zealand Association of Rationalist Humanists (NZARH) often cite his research in their polemics against Christianity. Young is also regularly cited in Paul Litterick’s fundypost (Recently Russell Brown stated the fundypost kept him and his media colleagues well informed on issues of religion in politics). In light of the influence these groups have its worth pointing out how superficial and terrible the scholarship they rely on is.



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