The Abortion Issue

No doubt you’ll all have heard about the killing of George Tiller, a Kansas abortion doctor, by an anti-abortion nutcase who’d targetted his clinic several times. The death was entirely preventable, it seems, and left right and centre, anti-abortion movements have been trying to distance themselves from the killer, even though it seems Operation Rescue had a significant part to play, albeit unwittingly.

So I’ve been thinking about abortion a little more since it happened, and reconsidering my position on the subject. I do this regularly on various issues, I see it as an important part of an evolving humanist ethic. For a long time I’ve said that although given the choice, I hope I wouldn’t choose an abortion, I recognise that I’ll never be in that position, and I could only hope that such a decision would be made jointly between my partner and I.

Liberals of all kinds seem to the come to a similar (pro-choice) conclusion from very different directions. Many feminists, for example, argue that abortion should be legal and protected because a woman has a right to choose, and noone else should be involved in that decision, but I disagree, that begs the question completely by asserting that women have a right to choose in an argument for giving women the right to choose. Not only that but I’m not so sure that women have an inalienable right to choose, I can choose to go and kill a guy on the street but I wouldn’t expect the state to respect such a decision. The answer to whether women have that right lies in the science of where life begins, when an embryo stops being part of a woman and when it has a life of its own.

Richard Dawkins also approaches the argument by saying (amongst other things) that God is the greatest abortionist because so many pregnancies are terminated naturally before the mother even knows about it. I know he’s specifically targetting a religious argument, but again I reject it, it would be like me saying “plenty of people die of AIDS so it’s ok to infect lots of people with AIDS.” Again, a better argument needs constructing.

Here’s a little thought experiment which does it for me. Say I woke up one morning and a guy was attached via a load of tubes to my blood supply. In effect I was acting as a life support machine for him, he was using my kidneys, my liver etc etc. Would I not be perfectly within my rights to cut the tubes and let him die? I think so. The same is true during a pregnancy. Whilst the embryo is fully dependent on the mother, the mother should be able to withdraw such support.

There are a couple of complications with this view. First of all, there is the issue that the mother has done something to incur the pregnancy (had sex). If I’d signed a contract with this guy I wouldn’t be within my rights to cut the tubes, I’d have made a prior commitment that I’d be morally obliged to maintain. But the mother hasn’t agreed to a pregnancy. She’s had sex, which only sometimes leads to pregnancy, particularly if they’ve used contraception and there’s been a complication. This is difficult to put into my thought experiment but obviously I don’t endorse the use of abortions as a form of contraception, and I’m sure noone in their right mind would either. If a couple decided to have a baby, and then decided to have an abortion, then I would consider that inappropriate, but it’s difficult to police that issue.

Sec0ndly, what about late term abortions, which is what Tiller specialised in, where the baby can survive outside the womb? I’m not too hot on the science at this point, but if there’s a way they can end the pregnancy and have both the mother and baby survive the process, obviously I would be in favour of it. As far as I know late term abortions are only carried out when the life of the mother is in danger. It’s dangerous to start prioritising lives and I’m not in the habit of doing it, but in those circumstances I think it is necessary to put the life of the mother ahead of that of the baby.

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10 Responses to The Abortion Issue

  1. Kate says:

    You are right, late term abortions currently only happen here in the U.K. when the mother’s life is deemed in danger, in fact that’s the case for most abortions. You still cannot get an abortion on demand in the this country, it has to be signed off by 2 docs who are willing to say it will impact on the mother’s health negatively if she continues the pregnancy, or the social health of her current children. Health includes mental health, and this is where most doctors place abortion request reasons. Just wanted to check you are aware of the legal issues regarding abortion in Britain.
    I disagree though that women shouldn’t have the inalienable right to choose when it comes to abortion. It is the woman’s issue. She will have to go through with it, or the pregnancy, and only she can decide if the father will be involved, by telling him and so on.

  2. grammarking says:

    Hey Kate, good to see a fellow AHS blogger, I’ll have to add you to my blogroll.

    I’m not saying women don’t have a right to choose. Maybe inalienable was the wrong word, inherent or automatic may have been better. What I’m saying is that the right to choose is dependent on the moral issue at hand, I don’t have the right to choose to go out and kill anyone else, and I reject that it is only the woman’s issue, someone has to act on behalf of the baby too! I have a problem with rights-based morality anyway but that’s a different issue. But, as I went on to say, whilst the embryo is physically dependent on the mother, it’s the mother’s right to withdraw that support.

    I think issues like this are often best judged on a case by case basis.

  3. PaoloV says:

    I was recently arguing with a creationist about abortion and I was a little surprised that I had never really addressed the issue myself before (because it has never been an issue I have needed to deal with). It is a tricky situation, but I am pleased to see that my rationale corresponds almost word-for-word with yours.

    Well said.

  4. grammarking says:

    Cheers Paolo. It seems to be the consensus that Christians tend to be pro-life and atheists are pro-choice, but it honestly wouldn’t take much to change my mind. I would be opposed to liberalising the laws on late term abortions, for example, whereas a lot of people usually on ‘our side’ like feminists, would see that as a given right.

  5. Clare says:

    I think there are two major issues that come up when addressing the abortion issue.

    1. When does the joining of two cells become a life in a very real and legal sense?

    2. Can you justify forcing an individual, i.e. a woman, to do something with their body against their will? When asked about abortion, the animal rights law expert Gary Francione pointed out that assuming you grant person status from conception onwards that still leaves you in the position of a right-holder existing inside the body of another right-holder. As you demonstrated in your example.

  6. grammarking says:

    Two very valid points, but there’s the same issue (point 2) when the child is born, surely? Can you force a woman (or I suppose at that stage a couple) to look after a child against their will? And yet if a child’s parents neglected it or killed it, then you would fully expect the law to put them behind bars.

    For me I think you can reduce your two issues into one (ie point number one). As soon as an embryo becomes a real and legal life (and we can only answer that question through scientific evidence, an answer that should be reviewed constantly as the evidence changes), after that point it is clearly morally wrong to kill it, unless it comes to a straight choice between the mother and the child. Before that point, I see it as the mother’s business.

  7. H. says:

    Some more thoughts:
    – The idea to “experiment” on analog situations is very important, because people usually are prejudiced in favour of the child and put the mother’s interests behind.
    – Imagine if you cause an accident, and somebody is injured. You can save his/her life by giving up some of your personal freedom and quality of life (inclding health). Make thought experiments about what you think can be expected, and what not. E.g. I suppose most people would say you couldn’t be forced to stay in bed for several months => so you shouldn’t require a pregnant woman to stay in bed if that’s necessary to carry the pregnancy to term – she has the right to loose the baby. Or: Most people would say you cannot be forced to give one of your organs to your ‘victim’ => ergo you can’t force a woman to have the baby if that means her health is damaged (eg. for a myopic woman not only a natural birth but also a pregnacy+caesarean section can mean blindness). You can try, of course, also the trickier questions – how much inconvenience can be forced upon you? Vomiting for 2-3 months? Lost job/career opportunities? Being kicked in your kidneys for weeks? – You may be happy with these for a desired child’s sake, but if you have no choice…?

    – I think it’s a bad idea to say that a couple who has taken care of contraception is somehow less wrong in having an abortion than a couple who haven’t. After all, saying you have to bear the consequences of having sex implies that having a child is basically a punishment…
    Also, I find it a rather stupid idea that irresponsible people should be forced to become parents.

    – After being born, a child does depend on care, but not on its mother – someone else could take care as well. This explains why we feel it is wrong to kill an already born baby: if the mother doesn’t want to take care, there’s adoption.

    – Also, if you ban abortion, it’s basically more to the male fetuses’ advantage – as to the females, you’re diminishing their rights.

    – And finally, don’t forget that there still is a however slight chance that a woman’s health is permanently damaged or that she dies in childbirth _even_if_everything_seems_fine_ (even today it’s something like 8-10 mothers’ deaths per 10000 births in the most developed countries).

    PS: Excuse my language – I’m not a native speaker…

  8. H. says:

    – Also, withdrawing your support is not the same as killing, and having an abortion does not equal with going amok and killing anyone. It’s rather like killing someone who assaults you by accident.

  9. grammarking says:

    Excellent thoughts, thanks for sharing them, and your language is perfect so don’t worry about that. I especially like changing the thought experiment to an accident, that introduces the idea that the parents have partial responsibility.

    Your second point on how much inconvenience can be forced on you is an excellent one but each case will be different, so I think that’s a good argument in favour of looking at this on a case by case basis, which is why I think I’ll always oppose a blanket ban.

  10. Tychy says:

    i think that the question of when the foetus graduates as a human being is something of a distraction (because there is no hope of ever answering this question)… being a foetus is, i’m afraid, a condition of total dependence – in this day and age, people seem oddly squeamish about accepting this – and for the state to challenge that dependence, by insisting upon the birth of an unwanted child, is nightmarish, a travesty of nature…

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