November 21, 2004

A Reasonable Stance on Abortion

Abortion is clearly the most divisive and inflammatory issue in the nation. Many might find it impossible to ever put “abortion” and “reasonable stance” in the same sentence, but I’m going to give it a try. To begin, I’m going to outline both extreme positions and show why they are not reasonable guides for public policy.

The most extreme anti-abortionists want to make the procedure illegal for every woman everywhere in the United States. In their view, from the moment of conception the fertilized egg should be granted the full rights of a human such that killing the embryo is analogous to murder. Let’s analyze this more closely. At the moment an egg is fertilized it is microscopic in size and comprised of a few undifferentiated cells. Strong anti-abortionists want society to accept that destroying this entity is morally equivalent to taking a gun and shooting a full-grown adult. While it is certainly within the rights of religious people to believe this, I see no logical argument based on anything besides religion that suggests that all members of society must be forced into accepting this logic. Remember, seconds before conception the sperm and egg did not have this moral status, but from the moment they meet they are then automatically granted the full rights of personhood, despite the fact that these cells have no identity, no consciousness, no nervous system, absolutely nothing that even remotely resembles a human being. Let me repeat, while it is certainly within the rights of religious people to believe that conception marks the beginning of full personhood, and base their individual choices on this perception, from a scientific basis a fertilized egg is a potential human being, not anything remotely close to an actual person, and therefore society is within its rights to not grant it the moral status as such.

Turning to those who are strongly supportive of abortion rights they make the case that a woman has a right to control her own reproductive destiny and that her rights always supersede the rights of the unborn. This position is also unreasonable. The moment a child is born we do afford it the full rights of personhood and killing it is considered murder. Therefore, at any stage at which the unborn is close to its mature state must also be considered killing. For example, almost all would surely agree that aborting a child the day before its birth is murder, and we even know that the unborn at even six or seven months shares most of the features of a nine-month year-old, and can typically survive on its own outside of the womb. While it is one thing to argue that an embryo a few weeks old is not a person, a fetus much longer along in its development is.

So where does this get us? To begin, abortion is one of those issues that is rightly considered a morally “slippery slope.” Anti-abortionists, on one hand, have clarity and consistency on their side since they make no arbitrary delineations as to when an embryo is a person; it is from the moment of conception. However, this firm stance is fraught with its own logical contradictions. A millisecond before conception the sperm and egg have zero rights within this moral framework, but then are granted the same rights as you and I in just as short a time. In addition, equating the destruction of a microscopic clump of cells with the murder of a fully conscious human being can only be justified on religious, not scientific, grounds. In effect, the consistency of the anti-abortion side is its Achilles Heel since there is no room for compromise; it is all or nothing. On the abortion rights side, the strength of the position lies in the ability to acknowledge that an embryo does not share the same moral status of a human being, but it runs into considerable trouble trying to figure out at what point it does. In some sense this will always be arbitrary, just as most of our age delineations throughout society are arbitrary; e.g. that children become adults at 18. This arbitrariness must be acknowledged.

As to the practical policy implications, it is clear from my arguments above that abortion should be legal and women should be allowed to destroy an embryo within their body in its early stages when it does not share the features of a conscious human being. Anti-abortionists make a strong argument that we have laws protecting children against abuse by their parents and that at some point a woman must take responsibility for the child she bears. This is true; there needs to be a point during a woman’s pregnancy beyond which we as a society can reasonable claim that she has decided to allow the embryo to become a person, and therefore she now has an obligation to protect it, at least until it is born, at which point she may choose to put it up for adoption. Defining this “point” is the most difficult challenge of all for which there are no easy answers. I think reasonable people, backed by science, can agree that within the first trimester an embryo is not a full person and therefore abortion during this period should be fully left to the discretion of the woman. The last trimester, however, is a time when the fetus has grown into a person and a woman should only be allowed to have an abortion if her life is threatened. This leaves us with a gray area between these two extremes that is very difficult to assess. Clearly, women who wait months before having an abortion may do so for a variety of reasons and these need to be explored before making a final judgment.

I think what I have laid out is a line of reasoning shared by a majority of Americans, although abortion is probably an issue that will forever divide us. Those who disagree with my logic most likely cite religious concerns, which they have the right to do, but not to impose on others. For example, I may think killing animals for food goes against God because God said to care for Creation, but it would be wrong for me to try to make eating meat illegal based on this religious interpretation.

In summary, abortion should be legal and the sooner in their pregnancy that women get them, the better. This means that early detection and the availability of safe and affordable abortions is crucial. Decreasing abortions in society is a noble goal and policies which achieve this, such as free or low-cost contraception, sex education, family planning clinics, etc. are to be encouraged. In addition, many women who get abortions do so because they believe they don’t have the economic wherewithal to support a child. Therefore, policies aimed at helping lower income women care for children may be another effective way to decrease abortion rates. The pro-choice constituency must acknowledge that there are serious moral issues involved and that as a fetus develops it earns increasing rights, which at some point shy of the full nine-month term trump the rights of the woman, given her parental obligations. This is why early pregnancy detection is essential.

Side Note: The issue of partisanship crops up frequently and being that VOR bills itself as a non-partisan site some discussion is in order. To begin, my conclusions above on abortion are clearly in line with the predominant Democratic position, and therefore on this issue I am largely advocating support of the Democratic stance. This is based on reasoning and facts, which of course can be disputed, but my position is not based on ideology. On the issues of free trade and school vouchers, for example, my exercise of reasons and facts lend more support to the predominant Republican position. The point is that it is easy to dismiss arguments as partisan if you don’t agree with them, as we see time and again with respect to judicial decisions; anything that people don’t like is automatically considered a product of “activist” judges. If any of our readers find the arguments expressed on VOR at odds with their party’s position we ask that you critically examine the specifics of our arguments. We at VOR are fallible and no doubt allow biases to creep into our reasoning despite attempts to the contrary, but the quality of the discourse all around will best be served if people can state specifically where there are holes or inconsistencies in our logic, and not simply brand something they disagree with as a product of partisanship.

Jason Scorse