Wednesday, January 19, 2011


One of the most common questions people ask me is whether I think abortion should be legal. Although I’ve recently read some great argumentation on both sides of the debate, it has either been too simplistic or too long to pass off as my own opinion. I will try and be concise with my opinion, but will answer any more nuanced arguments or questions any of you may have. Some of my positions have recently changed, so I’d be curious to know what those of you think who I’ve debated with previously.

I believe that a pregnant woman should have sole discretion and absolute authority in determining whether to abort a fetus or to carry it to term. This right is derivative of the fact that no other person beside the mother and no current technology can provide life to a growing fetus. The right to control one’s own bodily resources holds, even if we consider a zygote a full human, as I will attempt to show. Although this caveat will make more sense later, this paradigm does not justify partial-birth abortions, and I do support laws banning that practice.

Although I do not believe that a zygote should be considered a full-blown human, my position on abortion is not contingent upon this definition. For purposes of my explanation, I will consider zygotes as humans, possessing all rights and privileges that any other human has.

Living in Chicago, I am frequently asked for money by beggars. I often don’t carry much cash (after having been mugged), but I usually give any spare coins I have in my pockets. I take it for granted, however, that I am not legally required to give, no matter how desperately the person asking me needs the money. Even if, for example, I alone had the power to save the life of a fellow human being, I would submit that only a terrible law would mandate that I actually do so. If my freedom to withhold spare change is guaranteed, it should go without saying that my right to keep both of my kidneys—and let’s face it, almost any of us could save a life right now by donating our extra kidney—goes without saying. We can argue all day about whether it’s moral or ethical to refrain from giving, but no brightline of ethicalness exists which should suddenly trump legal rights. What if, for example, you could save 100 lives by killing an innocent person and sharing out their organs to those who need them? Should it be legal to do so? What number of lives would justify such a killing?

I would submit that the freedom to deny an unborn child the right to life is equally absolute as the right to keep both kidneys.

I have heard many compelling arguments which attempt to define the rights of a child based on the intentions and responsibility the mother showed in beginning the pregnancy. A woman who is raped, for example, would have more rights to abort than a woman who willingly practiced unprotected sex. A full gamut of responsibilities and regulations may exist based on the intentions of the mother, the actions she took, and her level of knowledge about the risks she was taking. Although these arguments make logical and legal sense to me, I personally think they are too fraught and complex to be useful or practicable.

In keeping with my philosophy of radical choice, I think that the woman should also have the unabridged right to determine whether the life within her should legally be protected as a human or not. If a woman is planning on carrying a fetus to term, someone who purposely causes her to lose her pregnancy could be responsible for manslaughter. That, ultimately, should be her choice, however, and not merely a function of statute.

If I woman decides that she no longer wants to carry a child at a point when it could survive without her, she should only have the right to induce parturition or have a C-section. If the child can and does survive after separation, she would have no more right to kill it than she would to kill you or me. If giving birth or even having a C-section would prove an unreasonable danger to the mother, more radical abortive procedures would be justified under the same laws that allow for killing another person in the name of self-defense. Again, even considering the fetus fully human does not change this.

I don’t mean to imply in any way that discussing rights is somehow simplistic or clean. Should fathers have a legal right to veto an abortion, since the baby is genetically half his? What about the state’s vested interest in having more children? Although I firmly believe that a woman’s right to control what she does with her own body is a more fundamental right than either of these, I can understand how others—especially those who believe that a fetus has an immortal soul—might weigh another set of rights above a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. I ask only 2 points of consideration from those who want to discuss abortion:

First, allow each person to define their own advocacy. It’s rhetorically effective to demonize your opponent and define for them what they believe—“you are pro-life because you hate women” or “you enjoy killing babies so you’re pro-choice”—but it’s not accurate or helpful in any way. Just because it’s harder to actually engage your opponent than it is to make things up about what you assume they believe, it doesn’t make it honest or responsible to do so.

Second, try to define exactly what you think should be done on a policy level, and be ready to discuss the implications from the extreme cases. If you believe that every fetus deserves the right to be born, do you believe that we should mandate that all fetuses in IVF clinic freezers be implanted in women so they have the chance to be born? How, if at all, do the circumstances surrounding conception define the rights of women or fetuses? What are the disadvantages of allowing unfettered and absolute access to abortions? Should pro-life medical professionals be exempt from performing abortions? What about when the life of the mother is in serious danger?

As with almost any topic, 1000 words doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what could be said. I’ve promised myself that I’d only spend 2 train rides on this topic, however, so I’m going to leave it at this. Cheers.

No comments: