As a steadfast pro-choicer since as long as I can remember, I have recently made myself read and listen to as many pro-life arguments as possible. Let me cover these arguments and my rebuttals here and if anyone has anything to add or subtract, make yourself heard.
Now, I’m probably not going to say anything new here. Let’s not beat around the bush. I’m pro-choice firstly because I’m a young woman who realises that with one small mistake, I might bring my already unstable life to crash down all around me like the wrath of God. All because of a moment’s blindness to reality. I’m lucky to live in an era where I can fix that mistake relatively painlessly, few questions asked.
What conservatives (as a whole) tend to fight for is individual liberty and individual responsibility. While I agree with them to a certain extent – the choices you make throughout your life are likely to affect your chances of prosperity – I draw the line when they bring down the merciless gavel of justice against anybody who makes that split-second mistake, be it due to a technical issue or temporary madness. I like the right’s cold, factual approach to debates but there should be space in politics for some lenience, or the acknowledgement of human error. When it comes to pregnancy, it stems from the most human sin of all: the need for sexual release – the near impossibility of infallible abstinence! Especially with our access to such a variety of birth control methods.
If you like to fight for individual liberty, you will obviously include female individuals in that.
Pro-lifers will say: and what about the child? And I will predictably retort, it’s not a child yet. You do not count as part of our society until you are physically a member of our society. George Carlin made a good point: if a foetus is a person, why is it not counted by the census? It’s as yet unconfirmed. What a bureaucratic hassle that would be if we had to count and recount all the foetuses who didn’t make it past month three.
Anti-abortionists will say, who are you to decide when life enters the body? Well, pro-choicers say that’s irrelevant! Life is in everything! It’s a future person, sure, but for the time being it is a prototype made of human DNA. The life of the pregnant woman has definitely begun: that is one thing we can all agree on.
There’s your classic abortion debate in a nutshell. Now let’s look a bit deeper.
1. Politics based on personal morals
I find it confusing to say the least when a conservative hardliner debates coolly against the welfare state, minimum wage, free tuition, and so on, and then suddenly lapses into an emotionally charged depiction of the poor, poor babies that are being murdered by cruel doctors and ruthless women. I mean, it’s a fair enough point, but don’t claim to be driven purely by fact if you want to deny people low income benefits and paid maternal leave in the interest of the economy (which may well be legitimate arguments), and then morally bully them into keeping an unwanted child because of your personal squeamishness at the idea of aborting it. Maybe if widespread poverty and other economic issues were alleviated, be it through more or NO government interference, we may be more open to discussing these conceptual issues of arrested foetal development.
This is often rebutted by the ubiquitous “just shouldn’t have done it without protection”: the notoriously merciless conservative philosophy of living straight, working hard, maintaining core values. They say everyone has the opportunity to live their life right. Unfortunately, in that unprotected sex scenario, there are two culprits, and only one has to bear the burden for it. This is an injustice imposed upon us by Nature herself, though through a joint effort with human medicine she has also given us a few ways out.
Now, I do believe in imposing a time limit to abortions. Scientists agree that the foetus is unable to feel pain until the third trimester. Even then, it is possible to administer anesthesia before the procedure. So finding a “humane” method is not the issue. The issue lies in the fact that yes, some of our behaviour appears to be innate, so there is a stage in our development when we are more than just a prototype with an instructions handbook in our DNA (notably when grooves appear on the brain’s surface) but actually a tiny version of our future self. Before 12 weeks, “the neural circuits responsible for conscious awareness have yet to develop.”
So for God’s sake, we’re willing to compromise, but at least let us opt out early! Conscious awareness is, in my opinion (and that of Descartes himself, I believe), what outlines true humanity, not arms and legs, a heartbeat, neural synapses or imperceptible, reflexive movements. It seems to me that the average 8-week-old being in the womb, while technically alive, is not yet consciously human.
Now some of you may be about to bring up the mentally ill. A foetus in the early stages of its development is not only physically incomplete, but it has the mental capacities of a vegetable. It is not yet afraid or even conscious of death. The reason we don’t like to euthanise adults is because often, there is a chance they may recover. Once a conscious life has entered the world, we have to hold on to it. (I don’t, however, have much beef with euthanasia if there is no chance of recovery – cf. the ending of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.) Abortion will not, as some crazed anti-abortionists like to say, lead to legalised infanticide as it is, by definition, the removal (and of course, termination) of a foetus from inside the womb. It is true that even after birth, the child is dependent and will die if left to its own devices – therefore it is still not “viable” – however, literally any other human can care for it once it is born whereas while it grows inside a woman’s body, she is its sole possible means of support. Therefore that particular viability argument is not valid. (I will grant you that I don’t agree with late term abortions when the baby is already capable of surviving outside the womb. Why not just let it live at this point?)
I sincerely believe in prioritising the life and well-being of a fully developed person with ambitions, hopes, desires and fears over that of a future person with future ambitions, hopes, desires and fears. The latter does not empirically exist, whereas the former already does. Moral values can differ, and mine are just as valid as those of someone who is convinced that abortion is wrong. Seeing as there’s no way to objectively prove whose morals are better, the option ought to be left open with space for compromise as mentioned above.
You may argue, but what if someone fancies that there’s nothing morally wrong with murder? Surely there’s no need to prove that that is wrong; it just is. Well, yes, the immorality of murder is axiomatic – but abortion has never been. We are so divided on the matter that it can not be so simple as to make it illegal and be done with it. In a room of 100 people, we can reasonably expect at least 99 of them to think murder is wrong (disregarding the capital punishment debate). However, only 50% or so would think abortion is wrong, nowadays at least. Clearly among the general population abortion is not considered on the same level as homicide. When it comes to murder, theft, or rape, there is never any debate about whether the perpetrator deserves some form of punishment – there are only disagreements on the severity thereof. With abortion, we can’t even agree if it’s a crime or not, so perhaps neither side should be so convinced of their opinion.
2. The utilitarian argument
A first, collectivistic utilitarian argument may be used against abortion. If a population is in decline, such as after a war, society might do better to encourage the survival of any baby, wanted or unwanted, in order to ensure life’s continued existence.
A second, more individualistic utilitarian argument serves in favour of pro-choice. It weighs the simple values of pleasure vs pain. The pain of the developing baby during an abortion is a variable to be considered, but can be ruled out if the abortion is done within a time limit or under anaesthetic.
In a nutshell, utilitarianism argues that the end justifies the means. If the financial and emotional happiness of a family or lone woman depends on not having this baby, so be it aborted. If the fate of humanity depends on as many women as possible having babies, so be it born.
As is the case with many issues in a utilitarian system, the rightness or wrongness of the act in question turns mainly not on the effects of the act on the agent, nor on the being(s) directly affected by the act, but on the less direct effects on the community at large. The issue of abortion, stripped of the language of “rights” and emotional sway over “murdering babies”, actually becomes one of the desirability of increasing or decreasing the population. (As explained by Utilitarian.org)
And this is not even to mention the amount of misery that stems from unwanted births. There have been studies to show that even the mother’s mental state when denied abortion may damage the child’s future physical and mental health. Of course, you can also expect many unwanted babies to be given up for adoption as soon as they are born, or be destined to living with neglectful, uncaring parents. All this makes for more tragedy than was originally necessary if the pregnancy had been cut short.
It really depends on what value you prioritise – that of the individual, or that of the collective.
And it’s not just us heartless humans!
3. Animals kill their babies all the time
Biology and the study of nature would show that infanticide is a widespread tendency in the wild, often due to lack of resources. A female will sometimes eat her newborn in desperate situations, or ignore it if she is too young to be a mother. Clearly these fresh babies are not always the priority, and inexperienced or unready mothers often abandon their young (and would probably have terminated the pregnancy had they had the science and facilities).
Abortion is, undeniably, a cruel part of nature which we can try to gloss over with sweet ethical nothings but can never hope to eradicate, for us animals will always inevitably seek control over their bodies and the contents thereof. A mother has always had sovereignty over her offspring in the wild, and only in our human culture has the governing power taken on the decisive role. This is in fact highly unnatural and oppressive towards women, and no matter how feminist that sounds, the argument stands strong. It is impossible to dissociate the foetus from the woman; a society where external influences try to prevent her from doing what she thinks is best for herself (and lead her to seek illegal, often fatal options) can reasonably be defined as oppressive. The simplest example of this dates back to Roman times (taken from BBC.co.uk):
The Romans and Greeks weren’t much concerned with protecting the unborn, and when they did object to abortion it was often because the father didn’t want to be deprived of a child that he felt entitled to.
We may have moved on from this patriarchal stance by insisting that it is the future child who is entitled to its life, but either way, it is at the expense of the mother’s mental wellbeing.
4. “The loss of an innocent”
I hear that abortion is likened to infanticide, the murder of a being too young yet to have committed any crimes or even thought sinful thoughts. To me, this is again a hypocritical position. Why does the right protect and care for these unborn beings so much – but once they are expelled into the real world, happily leave them to their own devices or possibly even kill them if they act up. It comes back to the religious concept of purity and sin. An innocent being like this foetus deserves to live, whereas a guilty adult may well be put to death. It’s not OK to kill an unwanted baby in the womb but to send an 18-year-old to be shot at in a war, often started by criminals themselves, is somehow not as objectionable.
I personally love the complexity of the mind, the combination of good and evil in every one of us that we develop over a lifetime of using the brain that was bestowed upon us in the womb. That, to me, is more precious than the brain itself, which is but a raw tool until it begins to be used. Innocence is just a word. The foetus is not innocent or guilty of anything; it is simply under construction. It is a bigger tragedy when a historical building is torn down than when construction plans are cancelled for a new one.
5. MURDER! MURDER!!!
Have I hammered in the point enough? This is really the concept that makes pro-lifers lose their logical minds, due to faded moral values that are so easily contradicted by long established laws. Murder concerns fully developed, legitimate humans who are part of the national census, not future humans who may not even survive being born. According to the CPS, here is what legally constitutes murder (emphasis by me):
Subject to three exceptions (see Voluntary Manslaughter below) the crime of murder is committed, where a person:
- of sound mind and discretion (i.e. sane);
- unlawfully kills (i.e. not self-defence or other justified killing);
- any reasonable creature (human being);
- in being (born alive and breathing through its own lungs) – Rance v Mid-Downs Health Authority (1991) 1 All ER 801 and AG Ref No 3 of 1994 (1997) 3 All ER 936;
So we must change the law to include foetuses, yes? Instate a law that could potentially administer capital punishment on a doctor or woman who “commits” an abortion?
What is the saddest part of death? It is the loved ones who must stay behind and mourn. If we are to coldly distance ourselves from the moral question of the soul, we may concede that a death is only a tragic loss because 1., the victim had friends and family who will mourn and suffer greatly and 2. because the victim had made their mark on their surroundings and lived a life full of tangible experiences, and had the will to live on. That is the true tragedy… to think of my aunt talking excitedly of her plans to travel, to buy that expensive coat she’d always dreamed of, to visit her grandchildren – struck down suddenly, viciously, by cancer. A foetus has none of these things; what pro-lifers are fighting for is its potential value, its future contribution to society, all hypothetical, not yet existent.
Ultimately, the abortion debate is a question of ethics vs. convenience. It is hard to change someone’s deep inner feelings of repulsion and injustice but it is even harder to make a woman change her mind about an unwanted pregnancy. I know that for the sane pro-lifers, it’s not just about letting others do whatever the hell they please, because in their opinion these foetuses need someone to stand up for their rights. Therefore the argument will probably never be settled, but I think that the reality of back-alley abortions is too harsh, unacceptable by any and all. I believe this simple fact proves that abortions will always be an unfortunate reality. Criminalising a woman who seeks one is just silly, because no correlation can be made between terminating a pregnancy and committing cold-blooded murder. She is not a menace to society and the loss of her foetus will have no impact on anyone but herself and potentially her lover.
6. Final thoughts
After writing this and thinking through all of the logical pro-life arguments, I can happily concede that abortions should ideally be kept to a minimum, and certainly never encouraged. Perhaps by making them difficult to obtain, we can make couples think it through more before making the big mistake. I also agree that today’s #shoutyourabortions movement is raving lunacy on the part of third wave feminists who really have nothing better to do.
One opposing position that really grabbed me was the argument given by pro-life first wave feminists who basically said that trivialising the life inside a woman is to trivialise the woman herself – knowing that one can impregnate her and easily get out of it scot-free. There is a multitude of feminist pro-life arguments that are worth reading, notably one that states that the feminist movement has had to adapt itself to a “wombless, male world” by proudly detaching a woman from her baby in order for her to secure opportunities in a cold, business-driven society. Another good way of seeing it is this: if abortion became a form of contraception, and millions were carried out every day, what karmic effect would that have on humanity? Even to me, a stony, heartless pro-choice gal, that seems sort of scary.
Ultimately, it’s a face-off between those who believe any potential human life is worth supporting, and those who just don’t care. Realistically, a terminated pregnancy isn’t going to change anything at all for anyone but the parents. The arguments Jack gives are almost impossible to refute unless one admits that they simple don’t give a damn. In the grand scheme of things, and seeing how far medicine has come, it would be a sad day to see termination become an acceptable form of contraception – but it is hard for me personally to see abortion as anything other than a truly personal matter. I think most women would agree. Eradicating abortion completely would require creating a society where a pregnant young woman need not fear judgement from her peers, where birthing a child does not have a negative impact on her reputation or career. Minimising it would necessitate returning to the religious values of abstinence before marriage, or at least making it a legal requirement to use contraception.
On a final note, we must try to understand each other. The pro-choice camp is not composed of some deranged infanticidal maniacs that the right must subdue in the name of millions of unborn babies. Both sides constitute a significant part of the population that just need to communicate a bit better, which is the whole idea of this blog. In fact, reading Jack’s article (see previous post) made it all the more difficult for me to formulate my own pro-choice arguments because all it came down to was flaunting my lack of empathy for the unborn. Ah well!