The conflict over abortion is perennial here in the states, but since we are in the middle of a Republican primary race, the issue has become more salient, and people are digging in their heels. In response to conservative politicians promising to defund Planned Parenthood, many women have gone on social media, sharing their experiences to illustrate why abortion should be a personal rather than a socially-determined decision. As a male bachelor, I can neither add to nor detract from these perspectives, but this has prompted me reexamine a moral argument for abortion that I had written a few years ago. I suppose I have always been pro-choice, since I never really favored legal restrictions against the termination of a pregnancy, but I still struggled with the ethical and moral questions regarding the procedure, having been brought up with certain religious views about life. So I felt that it would be useful to articulate why I have come to accept something that to many people seems monstrous.
Even liberal-minded atheists and intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and the late Chris Hitchens have acknowledged that the issue doesn’t have a simple, “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” answer. Unless you believe that “life” (or, the right to life) begins at conception, you have to contend with the notion that there is a period between taking Plan B and committing infanticide where moral judgement gradually loses it’s precision. Since the fetus’ life is endogenous to and indivisible from the life of the mother until the moment of birth, to decide that there is a specific point during the pregnancy where the right to life begins would be capricious. But the alternative is to believe that a single-celled zygote has legal rights that take precedent over the rights of the human that is carrying it. Since neither position is satisfactory, I think these questions can only be answered on an individual basis, between the woman and those who are administering her healthcare.
But let’s look at the arguments against this view. In my original blog, I identified what I believed were the three basic premises behind any of the possible arguments for preventing a woman from terminating her pregnancy:
- God says so, which is an argument from authority
- Life is precious, which is an appeal to nonaggression
- Women are lesser beings, which just a more explicitly authoritarian position
I still think any argument against abortion will have at least one of these premises underlying it. If there are other possible reasons to categorically oppose abortion, I haven’t been able to think of them. And as much as the last point might seem like a straw-man, there are plenty of reasons to suspect that this is, for many in the pro-life movement, an undisclosed motivation, particularly for those who are aggressively opposed to Planned Parenthood or other public efforts to help women access birth control and reproductive health care, as these services are very good at reducing the demand for abortions. If I were against abortion, I would be in favor of these services as much as I am now, for this very reason. But for many—probably most—pro-lifers, this issue is at least as much about culture as it is about “life,” if not more so, and for these folks, supporting an institution that legitimizes abortion (and, perhaps equally important, the notion of promiscuity) may seem to be a bridge too far, even if it leads to a more “pro-life” outcome.
This is the main grievance that the pro-choice people have against the pro-lifers: that their “reverence for life” is often quite narrow; in some cases it doesn’t extend very far beyond passage through the cervix. Many of the loudest voices in defense of preserving life inside the uterus have been remarkably cold-blooded when talking about the lives of young children who are seeking asylum from slavery and terrorism, to give an extreme example. I’ve seen people on Facebook state that “we can’t afford” to accept seven-year-old Guatemalan refugees trying to escape a life of sex slavery and unspeakable violence; these same people would see no problem with burdening a teenage girl with the immense personal costs of supporting another human being. Yet while this complaint against some of the pro-lifers is certainly valid, it doesn’t completely do the job of defending abortion. At best, it makes it easier to eliminate some obvious hypocrites from the field of people who might be worth engaging with on the issue.
There are many people who view sexuality, specifically with respect to women, as something that is socially dangerous, something which should be guarded by society and it’s corresponding patriarchal institutions, such as the family, the church, and a conservative-controlled state. To the degree that this is the motivation for the opposition to abortion (and family planning), most of these people aren’t going to be persuaded by any consequentialist argument in favor of making these healthcare options available to women.
When, I was a teen, and used to listen to conservative talk radio, I remember listening to Michael Medved debating a spokesman for PETA. When a caller asked why animal right’s activists cared about the sanctity of animal life, but not about potential human life, the PETA spokesmen told the caller that he actually had been involved in anti-abortion protests, as well. It’s interesting, to me at least, that there aren’t more people who hold both of these positions, since they would seem to be mutual corollaries. It would stand to reason that someone who believes a zygote is deserving of political rights would extend some of these rights to more complex forms of life—like pizza rat, for instance. But for many Christians, the “value” of life is based more on abstract features that pertain to their beliefs in an afterlife than on the actual experience of life. Unlike the Buddhist, whose focus is on the elimination of suffering, the Christian’s “love of life” has little interest or investment in life’s content. (Whereas the Buddhist, being ethical, withdraws from life, the Christian, being moral, retreats from pleasure.) No amount of avoidable suffering is a sufficient excuse to stray from God’s Plan, since our bodies are merely vehicles bringing us back to Him.
Buddhists, like Christians, view celibacy and chastity as virtues, but for Buddhists this is because procreation has the negative potential consequence of creating a new, suffering being. An even starker contrast with Christian morality is the utilitarianism of moral philosophers like Peter Singer, who maintains that every action must be calculated to have the greatest social benefit. Singer’s calculus not only leads to the Buddhist’s antinatalism, but to a view that “abortion” is permissible even after childbirth. His view seems to present more of a challenge to pro-choice advocates than it does to it’s opponents. If personhood is the quality that determines the right-to-life, and self-awareness is a requirement of personhood, then an infant is no more a person than a fetus is, Singer argues. It is only the fact that an infant has the structural capacity to become a person that makes killing it seem wrong. If we reject Peter Singer’s argument, then we must adopt a different view of personhood, or drop “personhood” as the basis for the right-to-life.
As far as I’m concerned, both Singer’s position and the “life begins at conception” view represent the limits of such binary thinking on this issue. There is frankly no way to come up with a simple answer to this issue that will apply to every experience. If we accept the Christian’s view that human life is precious because it is part of God’s design, than we must also accept that spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage—which is the normal result of as much as half of all conceptions (usually without the woman’s awareness that she has conceived)—is also part of that design. If we stipulate that there are certain situations that make abortion permissible, such as when the mother’s life is at risk, or in cases of rape or incest, then we have already abandoned the notion that abortion is the same as murder.