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.