On Abortion

For the sake of an intellectual discussion, I am going to dissect the major arguments in favour of abortion and the arguments against abortion. Also, for the sake of neutrality, both positions will be represented by their self-designated nomenclature. I.e., the side in favour of legal abortion will be refered to as "Pro-Choice" as that is how they wish to define their position. They will not be designated "Anti-Life" as that is how their opposition wishes to define their position. Conversely, I will be using "Pro-Life" and not "Anti-Choice".

Pro-Choice: The basic position is that women should have the right to have a medical abortion if she wishes for any reason to terminate her pregnancy. They use the moniker "Pro-Choice" to emphasize that it is an issue of personal liberty.

Pro-Life: This side argues that medical abortions are either ethically (or morally) wrong because they result in the termination of human life and thus constitute murder. The moniker "Pro-Life" emphasizes their focus on human life.

Why Pro-Choice? There are various scenarios where abortion is considering desirable. It therefore makes sense to ensure that legal avenues exist to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Examples include but aren't limited to cases of incest, rape, and severe fetal genetic disorders.

Why Pro-Life? There are two positions I have encountered here: One is religious and therefore a moral argument (and by far the more common), and the second is secular, ethical position (very rare). The former declares that human life begins at conception when the fetus is given a soul and thus the fetus is a human being. The secularists assert that a fetus has the traits of person and should be afforded the rights of personhood from conception and treated as a protected minority. (This argument, as I've already said is rare and I will be using the former one for the rest of this discussion. If the secular argument is interesting to you, please see the Secularist Vs. Secularist: Abortion Debate at the Internet Infidels website.) Both arguments conclude that a fetus deserves status as a viable human being and must be afforded the rights and liberties given to all human beings in society.

Does a woman have the right to choose? The question of the age! This question is the one asked by the Pro-Choice community. It is designed to frame the argument in a such a way that emphasizes the unique and personal nature of pregnancy and abortion. It also shifts the focus to the woman, not to the unborn fetus. The woman in this scenario clearly has more rights than the fetus. The woman is a viable, productive member of society already and thus deserves precedence over any potential members of society. For the Pro-Life community, this question can simply be answered by 'no', as no human being has the right to murder another human being.

Is a fetus a human being? The other question of the age! To the Pro-Life community, this a resounding 'yes' and forms the backbone of their position. By framing the argument with this question, they are appealing to our communal protection instincts; Humans protect other humans (at least ones of the same community). The only time murder is OK is when it is in self-defense. Thus, abortion could only be right when the mother's life is at stake. To the Pro-Choice community, this is a non-question, or at least a non-starter. Personhood (to borrow the secular nomenclature) is confered legally and unequivacably at birth, not conception.

Up until this point I have been trying to frame both arguments in the most judicious light possible, trying to compensate (perhaps over-compensate) for my personal bias. In the next section, I will be showing the flaws in both positions, at least as conceived their their opponents.

When should abortions be legal? This question fragments the Pro-Choice community because it can be answered in a variety of ways, depending on which Pro-Choice advocate you speak to: only the first trimester; only before the third trimester; any time; only when the fetus isn't viable outside the womb. Carl Sagan argues in favour of only before the third trimester because that's when the brain-waves of a fetus start resembling those of humans and not of cats (go figure). The SCOTUS arrived at a similar barrier from a specious "viability" opinion. However viability, thanks to the "miracle" of modern science, is constantly moving back. Aren't we on a slippery slope here? If it's OK at one point, why not at all points? What's the moral difference between terminating a pregnancy the day before its due date than in the first trimester? Or even the day after it is born?

When does life begin? Pro-Life advocates have a shallow notion at best of when life begins. According to Church doctrine life begins at conception, but it wasn't always so. It used to begin at quickening. The soul apparently enters the body during conception, but this too is a modern interpretation. It used to be at birth, or at quickening, or some time after birth. Also, if the soul enters the embryo at conception, and the embryo splits to form identical twins, do the twins share a soul? Or does God dole out another after the fact? But then it didn't have one at conception, negating the notion of the soul entering at conception. There's some heady theology going on here that hasn't quite been worked out yet. Ultimately, when the soul and body merge is a moving target, just the sort of slippery slope that I expounded upon above and Pro-Life advocates hoped to avoid.

Where's the middle ground? In any conflict, resolution will only be acheived when one side concedes the other's position (elimination round!) or some middle ground is found where both communities can co-exist. As the Israel-Palenstinian conflict teaches us, this is a problem when the middle ground is what is being fought over. In the abortion debate, there appear to be two diametrically opposed viewpoints where compromise seems impossible. The Pro-Life side wants to eliminate abortion altogether while the Pro-Choice side wants to allow discretionary abortions. Arguably, Pro-Life advocates could make religous proscriptions against abortion, thus freeing up the secular world to make its own decisions. Pro-Choice advocates could meet them halfway and ensure that abortions only happen as a last resort.

Actually, both sides do do these things. It is a mortal sin to willfully kill a fetus. Planned Parenthood does not advocate only abortion, but a wide array of reproductive choices. Why is there still a conflict then? Haven't we come to our middle ground?

Religious Hypocrisy: No discussion on abortion is complete without a condemnation of hypocrisy. It is here where I think the middle ground falls out from beneath us. For the religious Pro-Life advocates, it can't actually be about saving children. If that were so, one would see more foster-children (and foster fetuses!) going into the homes of Pro-Lifers. This isn't the case. Pro-Life or Pro-Choice seems to have little bearing statistically on who adopts.

Is it a battle to save souls? I don't know. They say so, but the facts don't bear out. Many Pro-Lifers bereave the death of every fetus but belong to churches which openly support war, the death penality, corporal punishment, or abortion-doctor murder. Sorry folks, but these acts are still immoral. If you want to advocate a culture of life, then do so, but you can't do it selectively. The baby Jesus doesn't suffer the hypocrites kindly. Hellfire and damnation are promised to those who distort His words for their own cause.

What does the religious Pro-Lifer want, then? I don't know for sure, but I suspect what they want is a return to the good-old days when religion trumped science where the woman belonged in the home getting pregnant and cooking for her man. And I can't begin to know why they think this woud be a good idea. This can only be acheived by the complete and utter repudiation of the Pro-Choice argument. In other words, for at least one side of this debate, there is no middle ground, only victory or defeat.

My take: I'll end this discussion by doling out my opinion. I believe that abortion should be legal. Even further, I believe it should be illegal for the state to constrict this right in any form. It takes a woman an extra 50,000 calories per day per pregnancy to host a fetus in her womb. In the same way that we cannot legally force her to donate her organs to a needy recipient, we cannot force her to host an unwanted organism. It is not society's decision to make whether she donates her blood to the fetus. It's hers.


At 2/10/05, 10:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In eastern cultures they view the soul entering the body at birth, so interestingly it's almost as if this argument can never be clearly made because the morality of it is based on lifes greatest mystery.

I just think it's like any bad thing in life, better to make it safe and legal because it's always going to happen, and we can't stop it ever. But we can save lives by making it safe. My Mother nursed two of her friends after backroom abortions.

I think in the end, the righwingers are going to have to take from republican philosophy of less government and stay out of it.


At 2/14/05, 7:12 PM, Blogger cxjo said...

arg. if only they really believed in less government and more liberty, not the other way around. we have always been at war with eurasia.

At 2/14/05, 10:20 PM, Blogger Marek said...

Yeah, the $64,000 question is "when does the fetus become a human life?"

I have yet to hear a good answer to this. If life begins at birth, what's the difference between a baby at birth and a baby two hours before birth? Two hours after? Two days before? Two days after?

If killing a 1 hour old baby is murder, should't doing the same thing an hour earlier be too? Where is the line drawn?

I agree with you and cxjo...absent a satisfactory answer to these questions, government should stay out of the decision.

But what's the satisfactory answer?

At 2/15/05, 10:00 AM, Blogger Crinis said...

I think Dr Sagan made a fairly persuasive case that "life" begins when the brain-waves of a fetus stop looking like that of a feline and like those of a human being.

Some importance questions to ponder:
What is "life"?
What life is valuable? (Cats, dogs, Blue Orchard Bees, people, etc).
What makes human life more valuable? Is it because of our sentience?
If it is, when does sentience begin?

I think there are many good answers to the above questions, and everyone (tragically) will answer them differently. For me, it is sentience that we value so much in humans and that begins when the pre-frontal cortex (?) starts really developing (About the end of the second trimester).

At 2/15/05, 1:50 PM, Blogger cxjo said...

don't get me wrong, i still think the govt should be number 1 on the list for providing free reproductive services, supplies (pills, condoms, etc), pre-natal care, counseling, and abortions to all individuals requesting them. not to mention free basic preventive health care (as a starting point) to the population in general. but that's another topic.

At 2/15/05, 2:11 PM, Blogger cxjo said...

why is human life (and fetal life) so precious, anyway?

because we identify with it. there's a personal connection. "i was once a fetus, too... in my youth"

going on a limb: that's why so much doctor (and vet) training involves de-sensitisation... objectify the personal stuff to make it possible to cut on ppl/pets without puking every 5 minutes. vets and doctors tell the nasty-ass-est stories about their work... ugh. and laugh about it.

i say: sentience, shmentience.. they're just holding on to these ideas to touch ppl's emotions and get them to see the idea from a personalised emotionalised frame. kids don't begin to develop long term memory and permanent personality traits until much older anyway. when was the last time you heard a sound argument from a fetus against abortion?

At 3/10/05, 9:48 AM, Blogger yesyouam said...

Any argument that can be backed with something Sagan said is an automatic winner in my book.


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