Monday, September 10, 2012

The Republic of Virtuestan

The time is now or perhaps a little bit in the future. The place is the Republic of Virtuestan. Virtuestan prides itself on the high level of its moral codes which have been embedded into the republic’s laws.

In this country lives a family, Jeremy Crystal and his four small children.  They live in a small house in an idyllic rural community where the brook runs through the valley ringed by hills dotted with trees of just the right height. 

Three years ago tragedy befell the Crystal family: Jeremy’s beloved wife Maggie committed suicide after having been raped by the town Virtue Magistrate.

Jeremy is a construction worker who toils from dawn to dusk to support his children – acting as both father and mother to them the rest of his waking hours.

One morning at 3 AM Jeremy is awakened by a loud knocking at the door.  Jeremy opens the door and sees two uniformed police officers.  They tell Jeremy that he has to go with them immediately.  He asks “What have I done?”  The officers respond, “This has nothing to do with anything that you have done.”  Jeremy replies, “Then why are you taking me away?”  The officers explain to him that there is an individual who needs a liver transplant and that Jeremy has been identified as the person with the best genetic match to this individual.  They are taking Jeremy directly to the hospital where a lobe of his liver will be removed and transplanted into the recipient.

Jeremy protests, “I provide the sole support to my four children. My wife is dead and there is no one else to care for my children.  I have diabetes and have had a heart attack.  I have been advised that I have a significant risk of dying from any major surgical procedure.  While I sympathize with someone who needs a liver transplant, my first responsibility is to my existing children and myself.”  The commanding officer replies, “Under Virtuestan’s Tissue and Organ Eminent Domain law the state has the right to seize the tissues or organs of any resident in order to protect the life of a citizen.  In this case the republic has determined that your risk of dying from the procedure is less than the risk of the recipient’s dying should he not receive a lobe of your liver.  I am afraid that you have no choice in the matter.”

Jeremy, in shock, inquires, “May I ask who is the designated recipient?”  The commanding officer replies, “The recipient is the son of the former town Virtue Magistrate. The former Virtue Magistrate, following the incident with your wife, left Virtuestan and is now an official in the neighboring state of Religionstan.  He has not provided any support for his son and has not responded to our attempts to contact him.  The mother of the intended liver recipient also cannot be found.  I am telling you this because it has some practical implications.  Under Virtuestan’s law of Individual Medical Responsibility you will be responsible for all of your own medical expenses.  Since the recipient has no available parents, but will have a lobe of your liver, you will also be responsible for all of his medical expenses as well as becoming his guardian and being fully responsible for him after the surgery.”

Jeremy, furiously responds, “While I bear no animus to the son of the man who is responsible for the rape and death of my beloved wife Maggie, surely my responsibility is to my own children and not to him.  I cannot afford to risk my own life, assume the financial responsibility for a procedure I do not want, and assume the care and financial responsibility for another person at a time that I can barely support my own children and myself.  If I go through this procedure and then die, my children will be rendered orphans; if I survive the surgery, I will go bankrupt and my children and I will be homeless.  Surely, I have the right to decide whether I want to donate the use of my organs or tissues to another person.”

The commanding officer responds as he handcuffs Jeremy, “I completely sympathize with your situation but in Virtuestan innocent life comes first.”


The anti-abortion forces in the US argue that abortion should be banned because upon conception the unborn should have the same rights as those who already have been born.  This is the basis of the so-called Personhood Amendment which Republicans have attempted to pass in some states and have pledged to pass as an amendment to the US Constitution. 

This approach equates the life of an embryo consisting of a few cells, with no nervous system whatsoever, with the life of a mature sentient woman.  The proposed amendment would criminalize the many forms of contraception that impede implantation of a fertilized egg.  Intrauterine devices (IUDs) work this way.  In addition, oral contraceptives while intended to prevent ovulation - should ovulation and fertilization nevertheless occur - also may impede implantation of a fertilized egg.  Thus, the Personhood Amendment would lead to the criminalization of both IUDs and oral contraceptives.  Similarly, in vitro fertilization which has enabled large numbers of infertile women to bear their own children, involves the creation of more embryos than may be eventually used.  Thus, under the Personhood Amendment in vitro fertilization would similarly be criminalized and disposal of excess frozen embryos would constitute mass murder. Also, under such an amendment the state could investigate women for every miscarriage to determine whether some indiscretion on their part (for example, overly vigorous exercise, watching an exciting movie, laughing too hard, or less than optimal nutrition) may have contributed to the miscarriage.  Should a jury be convinced to find this to be the case, the woman in question would be convicted of manslaughter or even murder.

In fact the anti-abortion forces do more than just equate the life of an embryo or fetus with the life of a fully viable sentient woman.  They wish to compel the woman to use her tissues and organs to sustain the life of the embryo or fetus.  To be consistent in their views, the anti-abortion proponents ought to support enactment of Virtuestan’s Tissue and Organ Eminent Domain law. 

Those who wish to ban abortion wish to force pregnant women against their will to use their tissues and organs to sustain the life of an embryo or fetus.  As should be clear from the above discussion, the argument - that the life of a non-independently viable embryo or fetus is equivalent to the life of a fully viable sentient human being - is quite dubious and would lead to outcomes not acceptable to most people.  However, if anti-abortion proponents would have the government force a woman to use her organs to sustain the life of an embryo or fetus which is not independently viable, one would think that these anti-abortion proponents should certainly agree that their own organs and tissues should be similarly available at the demand of the state to sustain the life of an otherwise viable and fully sentient human being.

Odd, I have never heard these anti-abortion proponents demand that, as in Virtuestan, the state should have forcible control over the use of their organs – only over the organs of pregnant women.


  1. what do you FEEL about late term abortion when the fetus is viable? Your comments reside in the realm of feelings, certainly not evidence

  2. Anon: perhaps then, the limit for legal abortion should be at six months into the pregnancy, since a 6-month-old fetus has everything that it takes to be a fully-formed human, but it doesn't before that. People who are brain-dead are considered less than fully human, because it's deemed permissible to take them off life support, remove their organs, and then bury or creamte them.