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Some people argue that a 15 year old should be required by their parents to have an abortion because they also can't get an ear piercing or attend an R rated movie without their parents permission. Is that a good argument?

May 2, 2013

Response from Allen Stairs on May 4, 2013
Not sure who these people are, but the argument seems odd, and I'm not sure it's phrased to capture what you're really asking. As written, the question, is about whether parents should be able to require their (pregnant) children to have abortions. The supposed reason for saying yes is that for things like ear piercing, the child needs permission. That would be a strange argument. The fact that some things require permission doesn't tell us that other things can be required.

If this is really what's at issue, the obvious reply is to offer a related but different argument: parents can require their children to do things they don't want to do. Therefore, parents can require children to have abortions. Now we see a different problem: the fact that parents can require their children to do some things doesn't tell us what the limits are. Take the ear-piercing case. It's one thing to say that a minor child needs permission for an ear-piercing. It would be another to say that a parent should be able to force an unwilling child to get his/her ears pierced. That doesn't seem obvious. It would seem even less obvious if multiple piercing were at issue, or, say genital piercings. I'm not a lawyer, but I rather doubt that the courts would look kindly on parents who tried to force an unwilling child to have a genital piercing.

We'll come back to that in a moment, but I have a suspicion the argument at issue is really this: since minors need permission for, e.g., an ear piercing, shouldn't we conclude that they should also need permission for an abortion? After all, the argument might go, an abortion is a much less trivial thing than a piercing.

That's not a silly argument, but there's an obvious question in the neighborhood. If we doubt that parents should be able to force their children to have extreme piercings, might we not also doubt that parents should be able to force their daughters to go through with pregnancies?

To ask the question is not to answer it. It's just to point out that there's no quick way to settle the limits or parental authority. There's no simple moral argument that settle the matter, and there's also no simple legal argument. All of which is to say that arguing from the cases of piercing or R-rated movies isn't enough.
Response from Stephen Maitzen on May 4, 2013
I agree with Prof. Stairs: even if we fix the argument's conflation of permissions and requirements, the analogies to piercings and 'R'-rated movies aren't close enough to abortion. We need to compare procedures that are of roughly equal invasiveness and seriousness.

So imagine that the 15-year-old daughter needs a tonsillectomy but doesn't want one (maybe she's terrified of even routine surgery, or she's joined a religion that forbids undergoing surgery). Do her parents have the right to force the tonsillectomy on her against her will? I expect that many will answer yes.

Now instead imagine that she's pregnant, and her parents judge that an abortion is in her best interests, but she doesn't want one (maybe she thinks having a baby at age 15 is in her best interests, or she's joined a religion that forbids abortion). Do her parents have the right to force the abortion on her against her will? I expect that many who answered yes to the first question will answer no to this question, including some who say that they regard abortion as morally unproblematic surgery. Your original question is filed under "Abortion," and I think the issue of parental authority has interesting implications for the ethics of abortion in particular.


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