Posted By fidesquaerens on January 25, 2013
Over at FB, I started a good discussion when I posted the following: Sometimes I wish the world realized that pro-choice is not a synonym for pro-abortion, nor does pro-life mean just anti-abortion. I generally think abortions are immoral but am very much pro-choice.
That was the whole thing. I knew it might start an intense discussion and was a little nervous about posting it. I’m actually very pleased because the discussion was respectful but honest about the real disagreements going on here. Which is really the best kind of discussion. Some people raised some good points, but they’re the kind of things I haven’t figured out how to answer briefly. So I thought I’d make a blog post out of some of the concerns they raised.
First, someone asked what I meant by pro-life and pro-choice. I tend to assume everyone knows the terms, not because you’re uninformed or anything if you don’t but simply because most people writing about this topic take it for granted. It’s worth trying to define them, though, because the terms are more nuanced than a lot of people think. Myself included.
Let’s start with pro-life. I said that’s not just being anti-abortion, and I stand by that. At its best it encompasses a whole slew of moral positions: anti-capital punishment, anti-euthanasia, anti-stem cell research, anti-in vitro fertilization, and the list goes on. Some people want to see it pushed even further. For instance, earlier this week I discussed the Vatican spokesman’s statement about gun control, and pointed out it was connected to that same respect for human life. Things like healthcare and aid for the poor also fall under this umbrella. The common thread here is that pro-life people are for policies that encourage a respect for the value of human life, and against policies that take away from that respect.
It’s important to realize that pro-life philosophies aren’t about saving as many human lives as possible, but about following principles that respect life. For instance, Libby Anne recently argued – persuasively IMO – that if you want to reduce abortions, contraceptive is your best tool. Even if certain kinds of contraception kill the occasional fetus inadvertently, they lower conception rates (and with them abortion rates) so much, it still works out in contraception’s favor. I happen to agree with her. But many pro-lifers won’t, because they’re concerned with a principle that respects human life more than saving actual human lives. When you do anything that you know could kill a human, that’s a problem for pro-lifers.
(To be clear, I’m not defending the pro-life movement, or criticizing it. I’m just trying to explain how I understand it.)
There’s another level here, too. The pro-life party, if we just go by their name, is about preserving human life and in particular the dignity of human life. But you may remember back in the Republican primaries, when Herman Cain tried to balance his anti-government zeal with his anti-abortion zeal… and ended up saying abortion was wrong but that the government shouldn’t interfere. He claimed this made him “100% pro-life,” but this was definitely controversial. Many conservatives said, if you were fine with legal abortion as a political stance (whether or not you thought it was good morally), that wasn’t pro-life. So in at least some political circles, pro-life means being opposed to legal abortion – wanting to make getting an abortion illegal.
The pro-choice position is a little simpler to describe. In my experience it’s really not about whether you think abortion is ever a moral choice or not. Rather, if you’re pro-choice that means you think the decision whether to have an abortion should be the woman’s choice. Usually this stems from an emphasis, ironically, on human dignity – but the mother’s human dignity. Pro-choicers are not okay with the government stipulating that women have to continue being pregnant if they conceive. They’re also not okay with women’s choice on this matter being taken away from them. Put simply, that means no government restrictions on abortion. I’m one of those people who (in general) thinks abortion is immoral, but who also thinks government restriction on abortion is seriously wrong. And I’ve always been comfortable with the pro-choice label and uncomfortable with pro-life, particularly in the political sense of being pro-government restrictions.
All of which brings me to my own political position here. Lindy pointed out that “we don’t live in a black and white world,” and she’s absolutely right. That’s why I said generally. I get that there are circumstances where an abortion is actually the right thing to do. I don’t actually limit this to rape, incest, and where the mother’s life is in danger, though those would certainly justify an abortion morally, IMO. I think there are other situations, stemming from economics or even a mother’s desire not to have to go through pregnancy. It depends on the situation, how developed the pregnancy is and how serious the other factors. But I certainly can imagine situations where a woman might choose not to continue a pregnancy, and that would be the moral thing to do.
Faith and Kristen both disagreed with my basic position that abortion was immoral. I’d really only given the cliff-notes version – that text was barely longer than a tweet! – so I’d like to elaborate a little. Explain where I’m coming from and when (and why) I think abortion is immoral. But let me be absolutely clear: this is a moral position, not a political one. Just because I think abortion is sometimes immoral, that doesn’t mean I want the government outlawing it.
Now, on to my assertion that I thought abortion was “generally immoral.” This is what most people commented on. I want to make two things clear up front: when I say generally, that’s not just hedging (I do think personal circumstances can overwhelm this idea that in general abortion is immoral), and this isn’t based on some religions belief about the soul. It’s based on an idea I see a lot in Aristotle, that potentiality has some value and should be nurtured, even though it’s not in the same league as actuality.
So to start: I believe a fertilized egg is alive. So are the bugs we routinely exterminate, so whether something is alive or not isn’t what matters. The real question is whether it’s a human. I don’t think it is, certainly not in the days after conception. I explained this in an earlier post on Aristotle and human goodness:
Incidentally, this is why I believe homo sapiens fetuses aren’t human from conception on. Aristotle has this whole long argument that I’ll spare you, but the upshot is that what makes humans unique – what makes us human – is our ability to be rational. He’s not thinking the Spock route. Rather, it’s being influenced by our emotions in the right degree, so we’re not cold and heartless but also not so swept away by emotions we do stupid things. If anything, it’s about the Kirk route in the Spock-Kirk-McCoy triad. The main point is that you’re not just acting on instinct and can make an actual decision. Aristotle thinks this is what sets us apart from other animals. It’s what makes us human. So you’re not human if you don’t have the capacity for this kind of choosing. A blastocyst of cells, simply because it has human DNA, is not yet able to make a decision, so I don’t consider it a human and I don’t consider killing it murder. (I do think morality requires we value and nurture it, but I don’t think that it’s the law’s job to make us do that.)
A human woman’s egg, once fertilized, is its own life. It has human DNA. But if we look at its actuality – its state of development at that point in time, the traits it actually has – it’s not human. Just like an acorn is not an oak. To me, murder means killing a human unjustifiably. So if a fertilized egg isn’t human, there’s no way killing it can be murder. But that’s really only half the story, because actual traits aren’t the only thing with worth. People on the pro-choice side often underestimate the importance of potential. Even on FB yesterday, one person said that a fetus was “only potential,” and that’s a comment I hear often enough from students who want to say abortion isn’t murder. (I agree with them on that point, but think they end up going too far in its cause.) But in other contexts we do value potential. Look at the way parents mourn a miscarriage or the death of a born child. They’re not just crying over the thing that was destroyed but over the fact that it won’t grow into something more. They’re mourning lost potential.
A blastocyst of human cells has less actual value – less capacities, less biological complexity – than the insects we routinely exterminate. But it has much, much more potential value. This can be overridden by other concerns (and not just the usual rape/incest/mother’s life triad), but it is a moral concern. It’s why I think contraception access is so important. If you prevent a pregnancy from happening, there’s no actual or potential value being destroyed because it never existed. It’s also why I think if an abortion is going to happen, it’s best to have it as early as possible, before the fetus develops actual traits. The further along the pregnancy develops, the more reason you need to justify an abortion. (And to be clear: I’m talking morality here, not some sort of legal hoop to jump through.)
I also think that if you’re sexually active, you need to think through what you’d do if you got pregnant beforehand, so you can act quickly if necessary and won’t be making a decision under duress. If you’re supposed to arrange for a designated driver and leave your keys at home before going out, as the PSA’s I saw growing up argued, you certainly need to think through the possible consequences of sex before you have it. This is a major problem in some corners of America: people are told that sex is sinful and so they get the message it’s something that has to “just happen” if it’s going to happen at all – planning for its consequences just makes it that much worse. And this is a completely wrongheaded approach to sexuality.
So to recap: I believe abortion has a moral cost, because it involves the destruction of both actual and potential good qualities. I also believe this cost gets higher and higher as the pregnancy continues. But if there are other considerations like if you can’t afford a child or simply can’t accommodate a pregnancy, I think in many cases that would justify an abortion morally.
There’s another aspect in all this we need to consider: the difference between a right to life and a right to what it takes to sustain that life. This becomes clearer if we step away from the politics of abortion, so let’s think about a different situation. Say you discover a man living in your basement. He insists that there’s nowhere else for him to go, and if you kick him out (now in the middle of winter) he’ll die. Let’s also suppose, for whatever reason, he’s right about this. It still seems odd to say he has a right to use your basement. But there’s a real parallel with the abortion debates here. Abortion, at least in early cases, is about denying a fetus the right to use your body. If you’re going to say that’s murder, that’s basically the same as saying if you threw the homeless man out of your house, that’s the same as shoving a steak-knife into his chest and killing him intentionally. And there does seem to be a difference.
I don’t think this example shows that abortion is morally neutral, but it does show that a “right to life” won’t get you where you want to go on this one. There are some situations where if you insisted on throwing the man out of your house, we’d consider you indecent. It would be evidence of a character flaw. For instance, if the man turned out to be your son, or whether the man only wants to wait out the storm for a few hours rather than live in your house until spring, or if your house is big enough you will barely notice him there. These details matter quite a bit. Coming at it from a rights perspective, the man can’t simply say he has a right to live and that obligates you to let him stay. But coming at it from a character perspective, we might say that in some situations, any decent person would do the magnanimous thing and let him stay.
I think I could have been clearer in my reply, if I hadn’t been typing it on my cell phone while riding the bus. That doesn’t really lend itself to nuanced discussion. If you’ll allow me to rephrase it, here’s what I meant. Abortion always carries with it a moral cost. In many situations this cost is outweighed by other costs – the imposition of pregnancy on the mother, whether you can properly support a child, health risks, all sorts of things. I also think the parents’ age and level of sex education matters. Did they know how contraception works, have access to it? If you were intentionally having unprotected sex, or if you weren’t careful enough with contraception, I think this makes you more responsible for continuing the pregnancy than if you used contraception responsibly and it failed, or if you really didn’t have access for some reason. That’s what I meant when I said abortion in general is immoral – that absent special cases like this and without getting into the specific justifications I’ve mentioned, it’s immoral. But those special cases can actually be relatively common. And when they occur, they would morally justify an abortion.
At some level, it’s not my business. This isn’t the kind of thing I can lay out a rule – if your contraception fails on accident, you are justified in abortion up to 14 weeks or whatever. I think the key is to develop good characters and trust them. Certainly, it’s not the kind of thing I’d want to make illegal, for a whole host of reasons. A few: it won’t actually prevent abortions for pragmatic reasons; it is a governmental overreach; it violates women’s autonomy; and the factors going into whether abortion is justified are simply too complex to be effectively regulated by the law. I think our better approach is to develop good characters and trust women to make the right kind of choice.
That’s my $.02, at least, and I hope it gives people a better idea what I meant in my original comment over on FB.
This whole topic makes me want to get back to those ten questions for pro-choice people I never finished blogging about, incidentally. Maybe I should get back to that.