Sunday, October 09, 2005

Counterfactuals In The Abortion Debate

Abortion is and will probably remain the most contentious moral issue in America. Just recently, Bill Bennett’s remarks on the subject sparked rightful condemnation and it is obvious that the religious right is uncomfortable with Katherine Miers because they are not convinced that she will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. I have already laid out what I believe to be a reasonable stance on the issue, but now I turn to a discussion of the central claim made by anti-abortion groups.

Those in the anti-abortion movement commonly cite the 25 million abortions performed in America since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision as evidence of mass murder; the implication that if abortion had not been legalized there would now be 25 million more Americans than there are today. For a number of reasons this logic is wrong.

To begin, many women who have abortions do go on to have children– children they likely would not have had if they had been forced to go through with earlier pregnancies. The logic is simple: many women choose to have abortions because they do not feel ready to raise a child, whether emotionally or financially, or because they are not part of a committed relationship, and the right to abortion allows them to put off having children until they are. For this subset of women (I don’t claim to have precise numbers) abortions result in children coming into this world who are planned, instead of those who are unplanned, while the total number of children brought into the world over their lifetimes is unchanged. I personally know a number of people for whom this situation applies– the children they have today are ones they would not have if they had carried earlier pregnancies to term.

There is another subset of women who if they had been forced to carry their pregnancies to term they would’ve likely taken birth control much more seriously in the future (perhaps even taking the extreme measure of having their tubes tied), given the responsibilities and demands of parenthood that would’ve been thrust upon them. In some sense, these women, who do in an indirect way use abortion as a form of birth control, would be forced to take their sexual lives more seriously and plan accordingly if abortion were not legal and easily accessible. Again, however, had abortion been illegal it is likely that these women would not have actually had as many children as the number of abortions might imply.

There is another subset of women for whom abortions would have been sought out regardless of the legality, and therefore, we can assume that not only would these pregnancies not have been brought to term, but these women would’ve been subjected to significantly increased health risks and turmoil.

There is another group of women for whom abortion was necessary on medical grounds, or those who chose to terminate a pregnancy when it was discovered that their future child would suffer from severe disabilities. In addition, there are those whose pregnancies were the result of incest or rape. For all of these women, it is almost universally agreed that these abortions were necessary and/or justified.

Finally, while it is true that many women who don’t fall into any of these categories may have opted to put their baby up for adoption if they had chosen to go through with the pregnancy, the fact is that already there are many more babies (and children) in need of adoption than there are people willing to adopt. For every American woman who gets pregnant and chooses to put her baby up for adoption, there is one less child in some other part of the world (or country) who is more likely to live its life in an orphanage. (Unfortunately, it really is this type of zero-sum scenario; however, I am not in any way making a case against adoption as an alternative to abortion- just simply stating the facts).

It is not difficult to understand why many millions of Americans are vehemently opposed to abortion; if one truly believes that from the moment of conception the rights of the future human being trump all other rights then millions of abortions will seem like an immense injustice. However, to call this position the “pro-life” position is wrong because this position is only pro-life in the narrowest sense. A woman’s reproductive decisions are entangled within a large web of present and future consequences that affect the lives of people across generations in very complex ways; for this reason the number of abortions does not equate in a one-to-one ratio with the number of people “missing” in society. Nor does such a narrow view take any account of the quality of life of both women and children.

In summary, despite the many inconsistencies in the anti-abortion position, if one’s personal morality leads one to oppose abortion under all circumstances that is certainly a valid position for a person to take in a free society. However, as a matter of policy this reasoning is too simplistic and does not account for all the moral issues involved.



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