The usual disclaimer: I am not a scientist and certainly not a biologist. I liked biology only slightly more than chemistry in that I found them fascinating at a conceptual level far above the level of instruction I received, and was too uninterested in the subjects to pursue them to that level. I am a layperson in that respect. I am fairly responsible with logic though and this subject, while controversial, is of grave importance and has been on my mind, so we are going to proceed with that caution of understanding.
Before proceeding, I need to acknowledge and dismiss the religious perspective on this. Abortion is against the Word of God, no one can prove that God exists and must take it on faith, some people do not take existence on faith, without existence the Word does not matter. Be religious, and let your faith have its role in determining how you approach ethical issues – I will not deny you that. We simply are not doing it here and now because too many people disagree with the religion piece. A wall already exists and we would never get to the actual topic. Moving forward.
Therefore, on to the secular perspectives on this matter. Before we dive too far into the ethics of this, perhaps we best also address the question of why abortion happens. A pregnant woman, perhaps at the advisement of a medical professional or perhaps of her own accord, has made the decision to pursue abortion. How did we come to that point?
The scenario on which most people seem to agree is some direct, emergency threat to the mother, but let us broaden this category to all health threats – to the foetus, to the mother, direct, indirect, physical, mental, emotional…everything. I have seen anywhere from 0.05 to 7% of abortion cases reported in this area. Some cases are unambiguous to most: the pregnancy presents a lethal threat to the mother, we terminate it. Other cases involve considerable debate, such as whether a mother must forego treatment for a chronic condition that is not an immediate threat to preserve the foetus. (We will come back to all of this – just building a list of scenarios right now.)
Another frequently cited reason for abortion that seems to have considerable support is in cases of rape or incest. Fortunately, this seems to account for a small piece of the puzzle – I have not seen a figure greater than 0.5%. This scenario connects the abortion debate to the issue of sexual violence against women, and in the interest of full disclosure I will confess that my hatred of violence (particular sexual, psychological, emotional, and domestic) is what got me involved in the abortion debate originally despite that small figure.
The remaining percentage, which is considerable for those keeping a running tab, refer to some version of “not ready for a child”. It could mean that the family is financially or otherwise unable to support the child (with single mothers forming a distinct category), those who feel emotionally unprepared for motherhood, those who have children and did not want more, and other versions of, “this was not supposed to happen”. Indeed, some of the research suggests that of this group at risk for unintended pregnancy, 9 out of 10 actively used some form of contraception during the month pregnancy occurred.
I know – there’s already a lot to unpack, and this a layperson’s summarised introduction to a complex topic that American voters need to understand because how we vote on matters related to this issue and who we elect to represent us on this matter will have real consequences for tens of thousands of women each year just in the United States. I have seen figures as high as 1 in 3 American women requiring abortion services at some point (disclaimer: I don’t know where that figure originated, the point is simply that real stakes exist).
Roe v. Wade
The reason this topic has been on my mind lately is the resignation of SCOTUS Justice Kennedy, vacating a seat that the Trump administration gets to appoint, which is significant because Justice Kennedy often acted as a swing vote between the conservative and progressive perspectives. His absence strongly implies that SCOTUS will take a conservative approach to issues for the foreseeable future, and that means doom for prior decisions such as Roe v. Wade. With nearly two-thirds of Americans supporting Roe v. Wade and the implication on reproductive rights, that requires investigation.
I confess that as a young man I did not pay much attention to the detail of Roe v. Wade. In the broad strokes, I understood it to be the benchmark decision that allowed abortion rights for women. Women were not permitted to have abortions, would take to unsafe practices instead (such as the wire coat hanger), and the results were tragic to women and foetuses alike. Roe v. Wade changed that and made things safer.
Not being a legal professional, this too is a layperson interpretation of how this actually went: a Texas woman was pregnant with her third child, which she did not want. State law would allow for abortion in the case of rape, incest, or medical emergency, but none of these applied in her case. A lower district court ruled that under the 9th Amendment:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
the woman had a reasonable right to privacy regarding abortion that the Texas law could not deny. The Supreme Court in the final Roe v. Wade decision disagreed with this in favour of the application of the 14th Amendment, specifically Section 1 that:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
but that under the application of either amendment, the Texas law was unconstitutional.
The ruling was also significant in that it introduced other aspects of the abortion debate, such as the trimester approach, and the balance between the mother’s right to her body and the “right to life” of the foetus. It virtually guarantees the right to abortion in the first trimester with the state gaining more interest as the pregnancy progresses, though the provisions granted by the decision grant considerable leeway for expecting mothers and their abortion providers to make a case at any point.
States supplement this ruling with their own, with some obviously being more progressive than others. Many states have trigger laws in effect that will immediately restrict access to abortion services in the event that SCOTUS does overturn Roe v. Wade.
The Great Ethics Debate
Now let us begin to examine the arguments for (pro-choice) and against (pro-life) the legality of abortion, and I cannot stress enough that point. The positions in this ethical debate are “a woman has a right to choose” and “abortion is never okay”, with some grey area for “a woman has the right to choose in these circumstances in the middle”. A pro-abortion position does not exist where one would impose an abortion on anyone.
I think that distinction is important because the point of greatest disagreement seems to occur the closer one gets to some tipping point between “right to life and liberty” for the mother and “right to life” for the foetus. Again, if the foetus actively endangers the life of the mother, most places support termination of the pregnancy even without Roe v. Wade and I have seen in debates where this becomes something of a semantics debate (“Well, that isn’t abortion”, a pro-lifer might say, indicating a distinction between abortion and termination of pregnancy akin to the distinction between murder and killing, as in self-defence – a legal distinction).
The same is true for cases of rape and incest, where many places – such as Texas in the original Roe v. Wade case – support the termination of pregnancy in those circumstances despite objecting to abortion. It seems in evaluating these cases that one does recognise a lack of responsibility on the part of the mother for the pregnancy. One could imply from this, or from those making this explicit argument, that in the majority of other cases pregnancy was a known consequence of a freely-chosen decision, to engage in a sexual act, for which the mother now bears responsibility. Therein, one finds a strong moral objection to termination the right to life of the foetus.
At least part of this engages the scientific definitions regarding life. The zygote, which occurs at conception, is a diploid cell resulting from the fusion of two haploid gametes; a fertilised ovum. Remember, not a biologist talking here, and actual biologists are incredibly welcome to chime in at any point. The best sense I can make of all of the zygote talk is, at the moment of conception a new cell forms, and that cell contains the genetic information that is 1) undeniably human, 2) unique to that cell (that is, independent of the mother’s), and 3) meets the rudimentary definition of “alive”. It responds to stimuli, has metabolism, can reproduce – strictly speaking, that cell is a living organism.
Now that “alive” definition is a far cry from another that arises often in the abortion debate: viability. That zygote and some of the subsequent stages may meet the biological definition of alive, but it remains dependent on the host mother to survive. That is, after all, what most abortion entails – separating it from the host and death occurs. In that sense, one might regard the foetus as having the capacity for life only, and the debate begins to adopt its first real semblance of “personhood” as a criteria.
Personhood is a vital element of the debate because societal laws apply only to persons, so anything not meeting that requirement is, by extension, not subject to those protections. In a manner of speaking, that is at the heart of the Roe v. Wade decision – the mother has the protection of the 14th Amendment but the foetus does not, though the state should increasingly weight those protections as the pregnancy progresses. We are back to the trimester argument where early stage abortions are acceptable and become increasingly less so with time. That agrees with most data on abortion practices in America, where around 90% of all abortions occur during that first trimester.
Straight off the bat, we reach an impasse among many people. Those going by “alive” will reject the “viability” crowd and vice versa – I do not think I need to indicate which sides of the abortion debate tend towards which definition. What’s worse, there appears to be little to debate about that. “Alive” does meet the biological criteria for a living organism, so one cannot make much of an argument that the foetus is not alive. However, “viability” is also an unreasonable claim for the first trimester when many abortions occur, because the foetus cannot live outside the mother’s womb.
Somewhere between “alive” and “viability” is where “person” becomes important. One can establish pretty easily that if a foetus is not a person, it essentially exists as property of the mother and then absolutely she can decide as she sees fit. If the foetus is a person though, then it has distinct rights of its own and we now must weight them against those of the mother. Here the plot thickens. Here we find the true ethical and moral entanglement of the debate. It becomes (almost, but not quite) and application of the Trolley Problem.
For a more specific philosophical allegory, we might consider The Violinist, proposed in 1971 by Judith Jarvis Thomson in “A Defence of Abortion”:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.
Such an argument takes direct issue with the “right to life” aspect of the debate, indicating that while the violinist does have an undeniable right to life, that does not extend to a right to use the life of another. The host does not deny the right to life as much as deprive something to which the violinist has no right.
Yes, the foetus may be alive and it may even be potentially viable, but I have no requirement, legal, ethical, or moral, to sacrifice any aspect of my right to life to support it at this stage. By volunteering to continue as host, one is merely extending a kindness rather than acting out of obligation.
An opponent may indicate that in this analogy, however, others kidnapped the host for this purpose. If the host engaged in some activity through which an expected outcome was finding the violinist connected in this manner and the host freely made that decision, well now the obligation does exist. Why, if a woman were kidnapped and impregnated, most places would allow for termination of the pregnancy.
Rather, the attention shifts somewhat to the moral character of the mother. She chose to have sexual intercourse, for which pregnancy is a known consequence even when contraception is in use. Contraception fails, especially if not used properly – and again, 9 out of 10 women having an abortion reported that some form of contraception was in use during the month of conception. Abstinence is the only way to guarantee no pregnancy – taking action beyond that makes one responsible for any consequence that occurs.
Here, unfortunately, things do have to become political, and it all revolves the feminist ideology. First, if we do all agree to this precept and abortion is illegal, then why when rich, powerful men get a woman pregnant does no one seem to mind when they finance an abortion to “eliminate their problem”? Sure, it may outrage a great many people, but it results in no real consequence other than scornful looks. The irony that these individuals often lead the legislative charge against abortion is not lost on most.
Second, put aside the specific instance of rich, powerful men attempting to hide their shame by financing the exact practice they claim to oppose on moral grounds and entertain the general instance of men. “When a person decides to engage in sexual intercourse, the consequences of that action become their responsibility”. For women, that potentially includes nine-month gestation, regular medical procedures, labour, and a lifetime of raising a child. What does the consequence actually entail for men? Child support payments? Our system contains no remedy other than to require the father to throw money at the problem as it cannot compel parenting – and the other outcome is jail or prison time, which does have the effect of punishing the father but does even less to help the mother or child.
This begins to invite the greater discussion of feminism, and I do not want to deviate too far from the topic of abortion. I will attempt to walk this line as concisely as possible.
Society seems to impose a strict expectation on women here – do not allow yourself to become pregnant, which by extension strongly implies that women should not have sexual intercourse. Period – not even “outside of marriage”, because within the marriage it may still result in unintended pregnancy for which the couple is ill-prepared or unprepared to support a child; thus throwing us right back into the majority of abortion cases anyway. The role of sex in a woman’s life is reproduction. Full stop.
In fairness, men can face a similar chorus of “abstinence only”. I will not discredit all conservatives as encouraging abstinence for women only or for not holding men accountable when they do impregnate a woman. As with the courts though, that compulsion only goes so far. The man will not deal with pregnancy in any meaningful way (other than hopefully to provide support whenever, wherever, and however possible), will not suffer the pains of labour, and does not face the same expectation regarding the nurturing of the child once born as the woman does.
Here I must also insert that these gender expectations hurt everyone. I am not blaming men. Some women lack a nurturing instinct and probably should not be mothers; some men are amazing nurturers. These are generalisations that translate into a tradition of gender expectation imposed universally on people.
Back to the original query – what exactly are the consequences for men? In fact, even outside those rare cases of pregnancy resulting from rape we must acknowledge the rate of sexual violence perpetrated by men against women. We have the red pill community, incels, and the like – entire sub-populations of men dedicated to control and possession of women, including but not limited to sexual purposes. Even if one were to convince women to abstain from sex, that is very much like asking everyone in the United States to surrender their firearms. Look, I am completely responsible with my “gun ownership”, and I really do not understand you wanting to take that away from me with all of those aggressive folks still out there.
One cannot overlook that part of the abortion debate. Pro-life policies affect men and women very differently in that they have little impact on men and a tremendous one on women. Many women are terrified of what the overturn of Roe v. Wade may mean for them – some men are only terrified on behalf of the women. We allow abortion in cases of rape, but the process of proving rape is the cause of a pregnancy is another matter entirely. If one is not opposed to people having sex provided that they use contraception, remember that contraception itself is often under fire as something sacrilege and it not readily available to some.
Yes, my writing likely contains a strong bias. I am pro-choice based on what I know about the issue. I disagree with legislation that tells a woman what she can and cannot do with her body, regardless of how I feel about that. I belief that viability matters more than the alive part, and those early term abortions amount to little more than the safe removal of unwanted tissue. I do not agree that abortion should serve as a form of contraception, and even as a liberal I am generally more conservative when it comes to sex. I hate hookup culture and the emotional part of me wishes people would discriminate more about with whom they choose to have sex. I will not impose that worldview on others though.
The point of writing this is to try and bridge a gap of communication. Roe v. Wade is going to be under threat. The degree to which that really matters is somewhat up to debate in its own right – personally, I find that places keen to impose restrictions on abortion should Roe v. Wade fall already do everything imaginable to make abortion care inaccessible or prohibitively expensive for women. The overturn of Roe v. Wade makes that easier, but women in those areas face an uphill battle in any case right now.
What I would like people to understand is the complexity of this issue. The stakes are high and too many people have definite, narrow views on the matter. We need to be able to discuss the ramifications as fellow citizens and work out the best outcome for all, not the one that serves our worldview and impose that on everyone else.
Find a moment of pause if you have not already and really consider this issue as best possible. Consult with those who know more and actively seek out the perspectives of those on the opposing side of the debate – do not seek simply for the evidence necessary to support the view you already hold (hopefully any pro-lifers reading this feel I did an adequate job of undercutting my own pro-choice perspective with their arguments).
Let us figure out what it means to be humans to one another again.