How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Support Abortion

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.

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6 Comments

  1. 1

    This was a very dense post and there are some things I’d like to address where you used misleading statement to portray different groups of thoughts.

    Let’s start: when you’re talking about the conservatives wanting to remove funding from Planned Parenthood; you positioned it as being due to them practicing abortion while the reason why Planned Parenthood has come to the forefront of the media is for 1-selling body parts of discarded fetuses and 2-practicing abortions in such a way to extract the fetus outside the womb in an intact manner then killing it to harvest organs.

    Where this tape is coming from and the reason the group who shot it did it, has no relevance when it comes to the practices mentioned in the videos. The Planned Parenthood has not denied the sale of human body parts as mentioned in the video; they’ve concentrated their effort on where the video was coming from; not its content.

    If life starts at birth then the intactly extracted fetus becomes a citizen protected by the law and despite its viability as a life form.

    The term pro-life and pro-choice are becoming more and meaningless: when the most vocal pro-choice activists refer to human fetuses as body parasites and using abortion as a birth control method; there is no intelligent argument there and these people are only toxifying a very complex ethical debate.

    Fanaticism whether religious or ideological has no place in rational debate.

    In many ways I am both pro-life and pro-choice: I do consider that discarded fetuses should be treated with the same decency and respect we give any other human remains; I do believe pregnancy termination should be an available option; but I do believe that there need to be laws protecting the rights of the weakest.

    When I refer to laws protecting the weakest; I imply that the development of ex-utero artificial wombs should be a priority.

    In the case of a non-consensual conceptual the termination should be the sole right of the victim if she’s a woman; if the victim is a male victim of entrapment (or other) he should given the right to abandon any legal obligation towards the fetus.

    In the case of consensual coitus, the termination decision should be a shared decision between the parties; in the case one of the party would like to maintain her/his parental rights on the child, she/he would be able to do so. In this case the parent in favor of termination should have her/his parental rights forfeited.

    This imply that if the termination is requested by the female host, the biological father rights have to be respected and the fetus should legally be allowed to be removed and transplanted into a third party uterus be it organic or synthetic.

    There is no moral judgment here; just an ethical one.

    The last thing I’d like to highlight is your mention of the activist group called PETA, which has no respect for either human or animal life: having dealt with them on several occasions and knowing their modus operandi I can safely that an association which euthanizes 95% of the animals in its care and spends less than a 17% of its budget on helping animals has NO RIGHT to claim to be defending the animal causes. All these numbers are freely available online on the Virginia Department of Agriculture website.

    Furthermore, a lot of the cats and dogs euthanized by PETA could be happily living with human companions; but PETA seeing animal companionship as slavery therefore the group does NOTHING to try to find families to care for these animals; even more disgusting it forces the animals in its care to follow a strict vegan diet; which in the case of obligate carnivores like felines is by definition animal cruelty.

    Let’s set the record straight: PETA has a neocolonialist attitude towards animals; their stance on omnivores and carnivores shows the group’s hypocrisy.

  2. 2

    I didn’t address the recent controversy about Planned Parenthood because I felt that that issue was pretextual; the people using the video as a reason to defund the organization were opposed to it before this specific issue came up. For this reason I haven’t payed much attention to the specifics of that controversy, though my understanding was that they were negotiating shipping costs, not trying to profit off those transactions.

    I agree that potential fathers should be able to opt out of responsibilities to children they didn’t want to have, but only when family planning services are unconditionally available to the prospective mother, without any barriers to access, financial or otherwise. It could be argued that all conceptions are non-consensual, since even contraception can fail. I believe this is why some radical feminists view any act of coitus as rape, though I wouldn’t go as far as that.

  3. 3

    I’m going to have to disagree with you on both points:

    I’m going to start with the later one. By non-consensual I mean resulting of rape of entrapment, not failure of contraception.

    As for the contraception being available without barriers or access… pulling out doesn’t have a cost.

    The mention of opting out of “responsibilities to children they didn’t want to have” has only grounds for talking about children having sex; adults willingly having unprotected sex should be held accountable for their actions.

    Now when it comes to the Planned Parenthood; like I mentioned before the source of the video has no bearing on the content of the video.

    Like you said, you didn’t pay much attention to the specifics when in this case the specifics are the core of the issue.

    If someone with a criminal record films cops beating up to death an innocent homeless man, should we nullify the content of the video because of the person who filmed it or should we prosecute the cops abusing the power entitled to them?

    When the way abortions are executed is dictated by how many organs can be harvested for resale, the Plan Parenthood betrays its mission.

    It would be very simple for them to publicly apologize for selling organs and end this practice.

    Instead the Plan Parenthood used its funding to pay people to go and protest a presidential candidate calling for a moratorium of its funding pending an investigation of its practices.

    • 4

      Even practicing safe-sex can lead to unwanted pregnancies. Carrying those pregnancies to term, against the woman’s will, has implications not just for the potential mother, but for the potential life that she is carrying. The social costs of an unplanned pregnancy are, in my mind, more relevant than whether or not we are holding someone “accountable,” whatever that means. An infrastructure that provides access to reproductive health services helps the man as much as it does the woman.

      It just isn’t accurate to say that Planned Parenthood is “selling” fetal organs and tissue. Again, the money they are receiving is to cover the costs of transportation. But according to Snopes, there is a lack of oversight over how much they can charge; however, the costs of transporting the fetus can evidently get fairly expensive. If it’s true that they are overcharging for the transportation costs, a legislative change would seem to be more appropriate than cutting funding for essential services that primarily low-income people rely on. Technically, nothing they are doing is against the law.

      One point that I could have been clearer on in my piece is that I think that antinatalism is more tenable than the “pro-life” position. If it’s wrong to terminate a pregnancy, then being opposed to human conception, which very regularly leads to the death of the fetus—whether or not it is doctor-induced—and, ultimately, always leads to a death of the person, makes more sense. Though I’m not really an antinatalist.

      • 5

        I know that most so-called progressives don’t understand the meaning of accountability, but the same way being under the influence is not an excuse for killing someone while driving impaired; ejaculating or letting someone ejaculate in you when having unprotected sex is no different; it’s something that is avoidable and society shouldn’t have to pay for the consequences of foolish and selfish individuals.

        Now like I’ve said many times, pregnancy termination should be an option; I’ve neither advocated otherwise, nor have I said anything negative about people victim of a contraception malfunction.

        And just to be clear, I am not for the dismemberment of Planned Parenthood; I am for them stopping the sale of organs and tissues from aborted fetuses.

        You claim it’s not a sale but:
        1-they are receiving money from private corporations for organs and tissues
        2-they are changing the way they operate abortions by performing intact dilation and extraction instead of suction-aspiration and dilation and curettage all this in order to harvest organs that yell higher financial returns
        3-the law is very grey on that matter: when a fetuses is aborted there is no clear legislation on who the remains belong to.

        Like I mentioned before, abortions shows an explicit surrender of parental rights; that makes the fetus the moment it exits the uterus a ward of the state; that implies that fetal remains belong to the state not to the original host nor to the Planned Parenthood.

        What they do with the money they are receiving from the sale of organs and tissue is inconsequential.

        If you steal money from a homeless man and give it to me; it does not absolve or diminish the severity of your crime.

        There needs to be some severe changes in the way Planned Parenthood operates.

        You mention their lack of adequate funding; it seems to me it’s not the case as they had enough cash to pay people to go protest the rally of a presidential candidate.

        A funding issue is not an excuse for unethical conduct even if not illegal per say; no one is claiming that laws are perfect or ethical for that matter.

  4. 6

    It’s much more expensive to society if we leave someone who can’t afford medical care to fend for themselves. If someone lacks the financial means to terminate a pregnancy, the social costs of taking care of the unwanted child are much greater than the cost of the medical procedure that we are discussing. To me, that’s more relevant than the moral question of “accountability,” at least if we are agreeing that abortion is morally permissible, which we are.

    Regarding Planned Parenthood, I don’t have strong opinions about what they are doing with the fetal tissue. There are obvious social benefits of keeping the fetus intact for medical use, whatever the organization’s incentives are. If they are wrongly profiting off of these transactions, legislation that requires their charges to reflect the costs of transportation would resolve this.

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