I’ve been meaning for a few days to say something about abortion. I’ve been reluctant because the issue combines an actually-quite-subtle problem with very strongly held political positions, and it’s hard to do justice to both.
This first post won’t offer a positive resolution of the debate, but merely some preparatory criticism and analysis of some of the positions. The next will try to be more constructive.
Part of what gives me pause about this issue is the resemblance that sometimes jumps out between opposition to abortion and many of my own beliefs, like opposition to meat-eating. In both cases most people think there’s nothing wrong at all, and the bit of flesh that they’re destroying is of no importance, and then a weirdo with a placard turns up calling them a murderer.
That said, this resemblance only goes so far. It evaporates as soon as the rhetoric about ‘irresponsible sluts’ comes out, explicitly or implicitly; it evaporates as soon as the placard-wavers start explaining that nobody should be using contraception either; it evaporates when we notice that by and large they’re not too concerned with guaranteeing healthcare or social support for babies and mothers and so forth.
So probably the first thing to get clear on is that the ‘pro-life’ movement is a heap of testicles. Alongisde whatever compelling and reasonable arguments and considerations there might be about the issue, there are two big motivations with absolutely no rational weight: religion, and the need to control sexuality and punish women who have sex while foresaking their appointed maternal role. The result – seeking to ban all abortions, starting from conception, while also fighting contraception and reducing sex education – is actually fairly monstrous.
EDIT: a good indication of this from the US (where abortion is a much bigger political issue than here in Britain) is reported by the Apostate here. When children’s rights groups rank legislators according to how much their votes benefit children, pro-life legislators come out a lot worse than pro-choice ones.
However. Going back to the analogy with animal rights, there are certainly people who, say, don’t eat meat for religious reasons, or who try to have meat banned for stupid reasons like ‘it’s unhealthy and will make you fat’. And there’s pretty much every PETA ad campaign ever. And I still ask people to look past the tomfoolery and consider the issue independently of that.
So let’s take for granted that the pro-life movement (most especially through th Catholic church) is a heap of testicles, and imagine in its place, perhaps, one of those pro-life atheist lefties that do occasionally exist. Now let’s also grant that they don’t take the really silly position of defending the rights of absolutely everything that’s been conceived. If it has no differentiated organs, for instance, we can ignore it.
Let’s also assume, of course, that we are against infanticide, and in fact against treating almost any group of people as inferior and of no importance; that we’re against justifying violence against the inferior (like a small baby) on the grounds of the convenience of some superior person (like an adult).
Now those two positions aren’t particularly in conflict, and I think they’re both pretty good positions. They also cover most of the practical situations, in that most abortions are quite early in pregnancy. The problem is that it’s very hard to link them up because between them, in the later stages of pregnancy, there is a gradual and continuous change. How do you map the change from ‘no rights’ to ‘full rights’ onto a gradual and continuous change? How do you identify a non-arbitrary ‘turning point’ at which the little pile of flesh suddenly transforms?
Now one response that this has led many people to is to locate that turning point at birth, on the grounds that prior to that, the mother’s right to bodily autonomy trumps any putative foetal rights. Now I think this emphasis on autonomy and privacy is very important and necessary as a response to the paternalistic and manipulative forms of sexism and illiberalism that are so common in pro-life movements. But considered on its own merits, I have to say, it doesn’t quite seem right.
That’s because – well, either the foetus, all the way up to 40 weeks, the day before being born, has some rights or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then there’s no need to make arguments about bodily autonomy, because aborting it is just like squeezing a zit (which I think is true of early-term abortions).
But if it does, then there’s a situation where two people’s rights are in conflict, and in such a situation, we usually find ourselves trying to ‘do justice to’ both, trying to reconcile their conflicting rights, and resist any tendency to say that one simply trumps the other, that because one party has a certain right, that removes any significance from the rights of the other. At least that seems like what ought to be done.
Upshot is, the bodily autonomy argument doesn’t do very much rational work. It does very good rhetorical work in countering religious womb-meddling, but there’s little rational work to do there because religious womb-meddling has no rational leg to stand on. And when it does have work to do, in defending abortion shortly-before-birth, a lot of its persuasiveness comes from surreptitiously assuming that the question of foetal rights has already been settled – which in turns means there’s nothing left for it to do.
So ultimately we are led back to ‘when does a foetus become a person?’ This shouldn’t be surprising: it’s pretty clear that this is the most important question (though not the only important question). This post is long enough, so I’ll end it here and write another shortly trying to address the question head-on.