Remember junior high? For some of you, it’s only a couple of years ago, for others many, many more. Many. More. Where was I? Remember English class and public speaking? I think we had to do two speeches during the ‘semester’. For the expository speech, I did contact lens cleaning. Pro tip, once your contacts are out, cleaned, and in their case, you can’t really see. Including note cards. And no, I didn’t think to bring a pair of glasses. Not quite naked in front of the auditorium, but bad enough. I don’t recall what I choose for the other speech, but it was of the ‘confrontational’ (I think they called it ‘persuasive’) variety. Now what topics did one have to do in speech or debate class, always? That’s right, you were assured to get at least 10 speeches on abortion and 10 on gun control. To the point of the topics becoming tired, trite, and cliched. So of course, I’m going to write about abortion!
How did it come about that I wanted to put some thoughts down about a topic that, at best is mired in trite cliches and at worst can turn friends into enemies, if hopefully only for a short time? Well, as with most things in life, it can be traced back to cacti. I was working outside, doing some much delayed yard work, uprooting about 100 chollas. If there’s a parallel construction to the Hate Birds, The Birds that Hate in the plant world, it’s these little bastards. They will stick on anything, refuse to be removed without sticking to the object removing them (i.e. fingers) or, if successfully removed, jump immediately and with malice aforethought onto the nearest pant leg or boot and subsequently to the nearest exposed body part capable of producing blood. Truly Hate Plants, the Plants that Hate. Anyway. As is my wont while doing relatively thoughtless (except keeping the base reptilian mind focused on the task of not backing your bulbous ass into one of the bastards you haven’t uprooted yet, or kicking a ‘pod’ up from the back of your boot to the fleshiest part of your thigh) physical labor, my mind was wandering. Sometimes it’s on work issues I haven’t sorted out yet, but often, I’m thinking about some political, philosophical, or economic, issue; replaying arguments for or against, creating an internal dialogue. I try not to talk out loud to myself when doing this. I mostly succeed. Mostly. Sometimes, I’m recreating a discussion or fight I’ve had in the real world about a given topic: Did I lay out the arguments well? Did I listen and try to address their arguments in good faith? Did they present the best arguments in support of their position, or can I make better arguments that will in turn strengthen my position if I can address them, or cause a re-evaluation of my thoughts? On this day, that’s exactly what I was doing. I was recreating a specific argument I’d had recently (Late September 2020 – no longer recent when I got around to writing this…) on the topic of abortion.
A bit more background. I’m not sure how we got on the topic, but there was no discussion. Any and all questioning of the basic premise that abortion was a sacrosanct right devolved into accusations that one must be an idiot trapped 2000 years ago and rooted completely in unsophisticated religious reasoning. My attempts to introduce the concept of a non-religious based objection to abortion were immediately curtailed with “Bullshit!! The only reason anyone objects to abortion is because they are religious zealots, not sophisticates like me!”; okay, the last clause is not a direct quote – the first part is almost verbatim – but that was the general attitude. Sophisticated, rational people are pro-choice, pro-life people are superstitious, unsophisticated, and simply reciting doctrinaire religious dictates, not rational thought. There was no penetrating that wall – any attempt I made to question the premise of abortion rights was immediately met with (before I could get more than 2 words in) “superstitious, unsophisticated, religious freak! I thought you were smarter!” It ended with me, to my chagrin, accusing him of arguing in bad faith and being a disingenuous cunte. Not really to my chagrin, he deserved it. However correct, from my perspective, the accusation of cuntitude was, it meant that I was not able to layout the issues and arguments, not the least of which would clarify where I come down on the issue to myself. So there I was, surrounded by a field of hateful, destructive Hate Plants, trying to reconstruct the arguments as they should have played out. Hopefully it won’t be as cliched as the topic can become.
As a disclaimer, I’m going to address this from a non-religious POV, as that was my intent in the original… ‘discussion’. There can be further debate as whether that’s even possible and I’ll touch on that briefly, but as a non-religious person myself and as one who doesn’t really know at the end of the day where I come down on abortion, I think that’s the most fruitful course for me. I won’t claim to answer the question for myself, let alone anyone else.
The question of whether one can truly address the issue from a non-religious POV has at least 2 layers, one very superficial and one considerably deeper. The ‘shallow’ layer is the proposition that, if one opposes abortion, it is merely because your church has told you to. That is, I think, the idea that most people who dismiss opposition to abortion as religious non-sense hold to. It’s almost certainly the position the person I was talking with held and was largely reactionary against dominant western religious traditions (hence the accusation of pro-lifers being ignorant bigots stuck 2000 years in the past); I wish we could have talked more to ferret that out, but alas, not to be. In any case, in general, I’m not very interested in that argument – or if one wants to be more generous, the more post-modernist argument that you are embedded in religious social institutions that ‘force’ you to some sort of false consciousness of being pro-life; I don’t find it compelling and it trivializes the very real ethical considerations and how they arise – HOW did those religious traditions arise and become dominant? If we consider humans and their institutions in an evolutionary context, they were not simply spake from on high, but must have developed over time. Which leads to the second, deeper layer, a question of the origin of rights, and in our case, specifically the right to life. There are two broad areas of thinking on the origin of rights, deontological and consequentionalist, or broadly, ‘natural law’ vs. utilitarian. The question becomes is the deontological view fundamentally a religious view (“endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”) or natural law/the nature of human existence? In some ways the origin of right to life in man’s nature simply pushes the question back one step and is not totally satisfactory. It’s possible that, if one takes a pro-life position based on the existence of a right to life, they are fundamentally taking a religious position since accepting that proposition requires, in some sense, ascribing a fundamental value, a divinity/sovereignty, to individuals, and the origin of that fundamental value must be rooted in a faith based tradition, whether one acknowledges it or not. It’s difficult to conceptualize, at least to me, that, in a natural world where life requires death, and where a baby antelope can be eaten alive by a lion without a moral dimension, that man, as just another animal, obtains some additional moral stature because we can think about it. In any case, that discussion would take a much longer tract than this one is already becoming, so I’ll just leave it as a premise; Both pro-life and pro-choice take it as axiomatic that there is a right to life, the question becomes how absolute that right is or when it manifests and, maybe ultimately, whether one takes a deontological or utilitarian view of the nature of rights.
Well, that setup was much longer than I anticipated. The actual discussion of pro-life vs pro-choice maybe somewhat anticlimactic.
On the pro-choice side, I think there are 4 major arguments for abortion rights, two of which are related and fall into the utilitarian basket, one of which is at least superficially in the natural rights camp, and one that is perhaps neither. On the pro-life side there are two broad arguments, one utilitarian, one based in “natural rights”. I’ll step through the pro-choice arguments and interleave the pro-life position as appropriate rather than break them into separate blocks.
The two utilitarian arguments for abortion “rights” are broadly population control and the burden a baby can put on a mother and society. China’s one-child policy is a concrete manifestation of the first, and the foundation of Planned Parenthood a manifestation of both. I don’t think it’s a secret that Sanger was trying to control the populations of minorities and undesirables that would burden society through abortion. For me, as a natural rights guy, this is one of the most pernicious aspects of a utilitarian view of rights. These positions completely by-pass the question of what is a human life and whether that construct is worthy of protection; It jumps straight to what the greatest aggregate value is, never mind whether those professing that value are actually capable of making that analysis or whether long term utility is being properly weighted against the short term utility. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to recognize that such a conceptualization of rights can (easily?) lead to the atrocities of 20th century, whether one argues that there is greater utility in the elimination of an ethnic class (Nazis, yes I went there), intellectuals (Cambodia), kulaks/wreckers/hoarder (Soviet Union), anyone who doesn’t tow the lion (China), or the unborn. If one can make a convincing argument that a large group of people will be better off in the long run through the violation of another group or an individual, the utilitarian concept of rights can’t mount a convincing defense, it has too weak a view of what rights are. Indeed, the population control argument will by necessity involve a further violation since there will undoubtedly be some who don’t want to terminate a ‘socially undesirable’ pregnancy.
The equivalent pro-life utilitarian argument against abortion is that you’re removing tremendous human potential from the pool of human activity; You are undoubtedly going to abort the next Einstein. As you may have guessed, I personally don’t find either of these arguments convincing enough to have force of law. They pre-suppose that society has the ‘right’ to someone’s productivity or to eliminate that which it sees as a drag on productivity. I think the idea that human life is worthy of protection regardless of what perceived cost (or benefit) that existence might have on the greater social structure is the fundamental question that needs answering, and in a way the question of abortion is irrelevant there. If one comes down on the side of a human right to life by whatever means, the abortion question comes down, as it always seems to, to when is life life.
A child being a burden on the woman (on the individual level, where the woman sees the fetus as burdensome, not where society/state impose that view externally), both in terms of carrying to term and in caring for an infant, is, again, in some ways irrelevant. If we accept as axiomatic on both sides, that humans have a right to life, if a fetus is life, the burden placed on the woman (or man for that matter) is a practical matter, not one of principle, or that tells us whether abortion should be legal or not. I think this leads naturally into the superficially natural rights defense of abortion rights, the famous “My body, my choice”.
At the surface, this appears to be the strongest argument in favor of abortion rights. A woman is, for evolutionary reasons, burdened with carrying a child for 9 months and preventing a woman from opting out of that burden can be seen as a violation of her natural rights. However, I think this is only superficially a natural rights defense of abortion rights in that it is blind to everything that precedes the decision to abort a pregnancy. It presupposes that the fetus somehow magically appeared, uninvited (the rape issue is an interesting one that I’m not sure how to address, so I’ll be lazy and ignore it – and it’s also one of those life-boat ethics questions) and is therefore imposing a burden on the woman that she can choose to accept or not. However, pregnancy does not magically occur (pax virgin Mary!), it is the direct, foreseeable consequence of action taken by a woman and a man. So, in this sense, abortion rights are less about the right of the woman to choose what to do with her body, and more about the privilege of a woman (and man) to avoid the consequence of and responsibility for an action they voluntarily took in the past. In a biological or evolutionary sense, the only purpose sexual activity is to reproduce and the production of a child is the foreseeable consequence of that activity. Now I know as practical matter (though the knowledge may be largely theoretical in my case) that humans engage in a sexual activity for many reasons beyond reproduction, but I would postulate that our proclivity for non-reproductive sex is a result of our ancestors being the horniest bastards that were most likely to successfully reproduce. So while we are evolutionary programmed to engage in lot’s of sex, the fundamental biological nature of sex is reproduction. So when we engage in it, one of the ‘consequences’ is the production of a child. That’s why I think this only superficially a natural rights defense of abortion rights; it ignores that the fetus is the result of actions that have, as their basic reason to exist, the production of that fetus. So preventing abortion is less a violation of a woman’s right to choose, and more an acknowledgement that an individual took action that produced a human life (see below) and they do not have a right to terminate that life that they voluntarily produced. Actions have consequences and you can’t avoid those consequences for convenience, especially as avoiding those consequences means violating someone else’s right to life (the pro-life response to this sort of argument).
That brings us to the final defense of abortion rights, one that is neither utilitarian nor deontological. “The fetus is not really a life so abortion is no different than removing a tonsil, a wart, or having a hair cut.” For me, this the strongest arguments in favor of abortion rights. I don’t think a newly merged egg and sperm, basking in the afterglow with perhaps a lit smoke, really constitutes a human life, worthy of the protections of a right to life, beyond potentiality. Of course, most would agree that at 10 years old, a human child has achieved that status. And so we enter into a sort of biological Zeno’s paradox; when does the merged genetic material achieve that status? In that sense the pro-life answer here is much more logically consistent – there’s no ambiguity, human life begins at conception so there’s no need to struggle with the question. But that apparent logical consistency is not necessarily the hall mark of a correct argument and the life begins at conception argument does, I think, require a fundamentally religious POV, that there’s some divinity (the soul) that is attached to the cells immediately. But without some sort of religious grounding, and I’m trying to avoid that, I find it difficult to justify the position that 2 newly merged cells constitute a full human life with all the rights and privileges that obtain. But it absolutely will become that. At some point. So the argument becomes one of when does that transition occur. And there probably will never be an agreement on that, so compromises must be made, but care must be taken to ensure that the compromise doesn’t fall too far into a utilitarian area where actual human life is discarded for convenience. This is probably where I fall in the policy arena, and I probably draw the line much earlier than others might to avoid being too close to that line of humanity.
So in conclusion (no, honest). I think it is possible to have a non-religious defense of the pro-life position, one based in natural rights. In a sense, that pushes the question back to the origin of rights and it may be that, depending on what one defines as religious, that accepting a right to life is fundamentally a religious proposition, so my non-religious defense maybe a religious one, even if I don’t accept a particular religious metaphysics. Looking back, that’s a lot of words to say “I don’t know”. I’m in favor of abortion rights from conception to …. ? a couple of months? But I can see the logic of an argument extending the proscription back to conception. I think my position (and the extension to conception as well, though that’s more difficult) is non-religious since I don’t base it on some sort of ab-initio declarative statement from the divine (what I think most people are visualizing when they talk about religious objections to abortion).
It seemed much easier in Junior High.