Abortion

This will be a long post. This is your final warning. This is also not, incidentally, a complete overview of my thoughts on the subject. But I wanted to have a basic, preliminary post to point people to when the topic comes up, so I don’t have to rehash my basic positions over and over and over again.

Why I am not pro-life

I am not pro-life simply because I am not pro-life. Life is too broad and complicated and messy a thing to be simply pro- or anti-. For example, I am decidedly not pro-life when it comes to viruses and bacteria: I fully support the efforts of scientists and doctors in eradicated as many species of this form of life as possible.

Moreover, I am not even pro-life when it comes to alive humans. I believe that physician-assisted suicide should be legal. No, it isn’t a pleasant thing. Yes, we should work towards a world where the health issues which prompt such a decision, such a necessity, are a thing of the past. But until that time, I think that death with dignity is not only a necessity, it is a right. (Moreover, in places where it is legal, like Oregon, we have seen none of the horrors which its detractors have been wont to predict.)

There are also instances where I could consider sacrificing my own life to be ethical, or where someone else’s sacrifice of their life would be ethical. There are instances where, I think, armed conflict is justified. So there is simply no way I could ever claim to be “pro-life.”

People will, no doubt, object that I am taking a context-specific phrase and interpreting it outside its context. This is, I am sad to say, a tad bit of nonsense. Pro-life advocates say that because a fetus is alive, or perhaps, because a fetus is a live potential human being, is sufficient reason to support its right to life. I have demonstrated that I think life is good and the exercize of a right to life is good are context-dependent propositions. Hence, the mere fact of life, even the mere fact of human life, is simply not sufficient to determine an absolute position.

Why I support a woman’s right to choose

There are two main reasons. One is pragmatic, one is philosophical.

I’ll deal with the pragmatic first. Let’s take for granted the idea that there is some situation in which abortion is ethical and should be legal. Pick whatever context you feel most comfortable with: the life of the mother, the mother is a rape victim, whatever. Now, the question is: who gets to decide if an abortion is allowed? Suppose the life of the mother is at risk. Should it be the decision of some government official? Her doctor? A hospital ethics board? And how will they make that decision? Suppose her doctor estimates that she has a 65% chance of death. Is that enough to justify an abortion? If not, where do we draw the line? Is the fetuses chance at life worth a 72% risk of the death of the mother, is a 73% risk too much? What if it is lower that 50%? Suppose the mother has a 75% chance of survival. That still means that 1-in-4 women in this situation die from pregnancy. Who gets to decide if that is a risk worth taking? How will they decide it?

These are important pragmatic issues, because all pregnancies carry a certain amount of risk. Less in the developed world, certainly, but the WHO estimates that 1000 women die from childbirth-related complications every day. Anti-abortion people must be able to answer the question of who determines what amount of risk is acceptable, and how they determine it. I don’t think this is a decision the government can ethically make. It is, essentially, placing government officials in charge of determining how careful citizens are allowed to be with their own lives and bodies. It is placing the government in charge of the lives of its citizens. Moreover, there is no usable metric for deciding this. Suppose the government decides that anything over a 15% risk of mortality is acceptable for abortion. Now suppose a woman has a 14.3% chance of dying. Is there really a material difference in risk here? Enough to justify the government being able to tell the woman in question that she is not allowed to protect her own life? That her right to self-protection and self-defense is abrogated? Nonsense. And the same arguments work similarly for ceding these decisions to a doctor or an ethics board. The only pragmatic answer is that the woman must make the choice. And similar arguments also hold for other situations — who gets to decide, for example, if an instance of rape or incest is traumatic enough to warrant an abortion (how does one even begin to measure such a thing.)

These pragmatic issues are sufficient for me to say that I unequivocally support a woman’s right to choose. But even if these matters could, somehow, be resolved (they couldn’t, in this world), I still would be “pro-choice” (alas, even I must sometimes simplify.) This is because I do not believe that anyone’s life trumps another person’s bodily autonomy. We do not require that people donate organs, even after death, despite the number of live, fully-functioning human beings who die every day due to organ donor shortage. Why on earth, then, should we feel morally obliged to require a woman to donate her entire body to another being, which is not even a fully-formed conscious human?

There’s an odd, and completely fallacious, rebuttal to this argument, which claims that the distinction is consent: we cannot require people to become organ donors against their consent, but women (presumably through merely the act of having sex) are aware of the possibility of pregnancy and thus have consented to this. But even if this weren’t sheer nonsense (and it is), would not then women who use condoms and birth control thereby be explicitly demonstrating an absence of consent, a denial of consent, to pregnancy? This is what exposes this argument for the utter nonsense it is: a fetus which does not yet exist cannot ask a woman’s consent to be born by her (even a fetus which does exist cannot ask for this consent.) There is no person, no being, which is asking her consent. In fact, the biological processes preceding pregnancy are doing so quite explicitly without asking her consent. She is therefore unable to do so.

The fact of the matter is quite plain: no one other than the woman is capable of making this choice, and, moreover, it would be unethical of us to require a woman to sacrifice her bodily autonomy for the chance that a fetus will someday be a human being. There is simply no other option.

EDITED TO ADD: I realize that throughout this piece I incorrectly assumed that someone who is pregnant is necessarily a woman. This is false: some men can and do get pregnant. I apologize, and will go through the full piece to correct this as soon as I have time.

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