Why I Can’t Get Excited About Abortion Debates

There’s really no nice way to have a discussion about abortion, it is perhaps the ultimate dinner party ruiner, no? This is why I tend not to bring up the topic much with anyone. Ever. That said, it’s come up a few times on this blog now, so I figure it’s worth me saying something now. First I should let you know that I’ve kind of been disgusted with this debate and how it has devolved to polar extremes – and also with the idea that I therefore can sound serious and intelligent by making up a middle position on an issue with little middle ground. Anyway, here I’d like be a contrarian and to present what I see as a major flaw in pro-life arguments. I don’t know if this will be seen as constructive criticism or an evil attack worthy of hate-mail. That’s okay, I usually don’t read my mail.

Much of what is written about abortion – particular from Christian perspectives – has to do with the idea of whether or not a fetus is a person, the thinking being that if it is a person then, no matter what else, it has rights and is deserving of protection. If it is not, then it has none and therefore abortion is a health matter like any other, between a woman and her doctor and no one else’s concern. Overwhelmingly what I tend to see is an argument that goes something like this: a fetus is a person because this, this, and this, therefore it must be protected because it is a human life and no other concerns about it or its mother matter.

The assumption here is that if the fetus is a person, it is the obligation of a woman to not harm it and rather carry it to term, at which point if she really does not want it, she can adopt it out to someone else. What sticks out here is how casually this obligation is treated since it does involve months of the fetus developing inside the woman. The pro-life reply would be, it does not matter, it is another life. Here’s a different scenario that doesn’t involve pregnancy: suppose I have some kind of illness that damages my kidneys and I now require a new kidney. If someone else was found who would be an ideal match, should that person be obligated under force of law to donate their kidney to save my life? This kidney could be donated with minimal risk to the donor who would then go on to live a full healthy life with one kidney. Remember, this is being done to protect a human life, no matter how inconveniencing this is to the kidney donor, doesn’t this person have an obligation to save my life – even if it interrupts the integrity of their body? Let’s keep in mind that in law there are plenty of instances where passively allowing something to happen is more or less equal to causing it to happen. Those who are selfish with their kidneys are on a par with abortion doctors by this metric.

It is interesting to note here that concern about organ donation even extends to the dead at the expense of the living! In Ontario there was even opposition to attempts made to create “negative option” donor cards where the deceased would, by default, donate their organs – never mind the living! We are not even prepared to make it the default option for organs to be donated – a case where it was totally possible to opt out. And who cares, you’d be dead! But NOOOOOO we can’t even take dead people’s organs without their active consent. We place less of an obligation on someone to commit to using their dead body to helping preserve life than the pro-life movement would have us put on woman to use her living body to preserve life. The assumption that I often hear in legal debates is that the right to life supersedes other rights such as liberty or security of person if there is a conflict – but in practice when dealing with medical procedures – it is not the case at all. If the argument is that preserving life must override the right to security of person, then why is this standard not applied to organ donation – even for dead people who technically don’t have any rights whatsoever?

Even if one can make a convincing case regarding the personhood of a fetus (this runs into intuitive problems with a thought experiment Andrew Sullivan devised: you are at a fertility clinic and a fire breaks out, you only have time to save either 1] 100 fertilized embryos or 2] a five year-old child – what do you do?), this alone is not sufficient grounds to suggest that abortion must be outlawed, given that others who are incontrovertibly human do not enjoy the right to violate another human’s security of person, even in order to effect life-saving care. Whatever the merits of the arguments for personhood, they are not sufficient to make the case that legal measures need to be effected to ban abortion.

One of the objections I imagine might be that a pregnant woman, in cases other than rape, made choices to effect the very existence of a fetus and therefore has some kind of additional responsibility that overrides her security of person. I know of no law and no proposal for a law though to require that a driver who causes a car accident must be obligated to donate blood to help the victims. I imagine that such a law would be roundly condemned and fiercely opposed.

From what I have read and watched (including perusing Ian’s quotes post), so much is said about how a fetus is a life, and little or nothing is said about why a pregnant woman is, if not the only category of person, one of only a handful whose security of person must be violated to save another life.

I don’t predict this will be a popular post, so go ahead, tell me where I’m wrong, I can take it.