Friday, May 01, 2009


I saw an interesting post from Lauren over at ImaginaryBuffy, that asks some questions about abortion. She doesn’t understand the “conservative/republican” position on this, despite feeling that abortion is wrong unfortunate. (UPDATE: the previous wording was a misinterpretation on my part. Please see Lauren's clarification in the comments) This question is interesting to me in light of this post of mine. This is one of the areas in which, both sides are simply not able to negotiate. For both sides, it’s all or none. Some value choice, and they see any limits on choice as morally wrong. Others value life, and anything that ends any life is equally wrong. There’s simply no negotiable middle ground. Hence, the two sides find themselves in a battle.

As for me, I have an opinion on this. I’m on one side. However, I would immediately change my opinion, and change sides, if one fact could be determined. That fact? The point at which a group of cells stops being just a group of cells and becomes a life.

Before that point, I’m pro-choice. Beyond that point, I’m pro-life.

Now, despite the fact that this is a very contentious issue there are some areas of universal agreement. For example, no one thinks that aborting a baby after it’s born is a choice that the mother is allowed to make. We all agree that after it’s born, it is life that can NOT be ended at the discretion of the mother. Additionally, no one thinks that a hysterectomy is killing unborn children. We all agree that before conception, it is entirely appropriate to give the owner of those cells the complete choice on what to do with her body.

The debate lies entirely in the grey area between conception and birth. If we could determine the point at which cells become a life, then that would be the ball game. The debate would be over. Unfortunately, we don’t know when between conception and birth it happens. If you believe it happens at conception, your pro-life. If you believe it happens at the beginning of the 3rd trimester, then you are pro-choice, but you support making 3rd trimester abortions illegal. If you think it only happens at birth, then you’re pro-choice throughout the entire pregnancy.

For me, since we can’t (yet) determine when life starts, the only thing left is to look elsewhere for guidance. On this question, I tend to look two places. Since we’re dealing with uncertainty, I have a tendency to look to risk analysis to help guide me. And the questions that I ask when thinking like this are:
  1. What are the risks associated with making abortion illegal?
  2. What are the risks associated with leaving abortion legal?
  3. Are there any hints that suggest whether it's just a bunch of cells or a life?
Here are my answers:
  1. In the worst case scenario, you’ve forced someone who’s pregnant to take on the responsibility of caring for a child that they’re not ready or capable of doing. This poor care will result in harm to that child and to the mother, possibly even death to the child and the mother.
  2. In the worst case scenario, you’ve killed someone.
  3. Yes. If you do nothing, you end up giving birth to a child, which everyone accepts is a life with rights.
IMHO, the worst case scenario when you allow abortion is worse than the worst case scenario if you make abortion illegal. Because killing someone is worse than harming two people. And definitely killing someone is worse than potentially killing two people. Additionally, since doing nothing results in a child, it seems to me that the default stance is that it’s a child.

Also, the worst case in #1 is more strongly stated than it should be. Pregnancy is a consequence of an action that was freely chosen (*). It’s really hard to describe living with a consequence of freedom as being anything other than freedom. So it’s somewhat overstated to say that we’re “forcing” anyone to care for children against their will, when they can freely choose to avoid pregnancy. Certainly we don’t consider it an imposition on the freedom of parents of born children, that we punish them when they fail to adequately care for their children. Why do we then consider it an imposition on women’s freedom to avoid childcare responsibilities if they’re pregnant?

(*) Yes, there are cases wherein the mother was raped. Clearly, in that case the mother did not freely choose. In those cases, maybe the mother should be free of the responsibility of caring for that child. Note, however, that there are more options than just abortion to alleviate such responsibilities.

Which brings me to another place I look. I am a Christian. And as such, I believe that the Bible contains a wealth of wisdom. And on this topic, there are a number of verses that are often cited to indicate what God thinks about this. I’m going to pick just one of them:
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."
Jeremiah 1:5
Many Christians use this passage to settle the issue. But I don’t think it’s that clear. First, God was talking to Jeremiah. Second, “before I formed you in the womb” could also mean before conception. There are many other verses that Christians use to demonstrate that the Bible thinks that a fetus is a life. But all of them have similar problems to the one above. Specifically that they rely on a certain interpretation of what the words imply. Now, because of my risk analysis, I tend to agree with this interpretation. But, I’ve been wrong in the past about interpreting God’s meaning, and I am pretty sure that I’ll be wrong again. It’s not that I think the Bible is wrong, but rather that what I think it means might be wrong.

My conclusion from all this is to take a somewhat unconfident stance: I *think* that life begins at conception, and as a result, I’m pro-life. But, because my opinion is not confident, I fully admit that I might be wrong. If we, at some point in the future, conclusively determine when a life starts, then as I mentioned above, before that point I will be pro-choice and beyond that point, I will be pro-life.

A clarification of my worst case scenarios:
  1. In the worst case scenario, you’ve created legal protection for something that is not a life. In other words, you’ve taken ownership rights over a woman’s body parts and given them to the body parts. There are many potential long term consequences to the one who has suffered misappropriation of rights:
    1. The mother could try to exercise an abortion on her own (e.g. coat hanger abortions), likely harming herself, possibly killing herself.
    2. The mother could be a bad mother and cause a lot of harm to the baby, up to and including killing it.
    3. The difficulty of raising a child might cause harm to the mother, up to and including killing herself.
  2. In the worst case scenario, you’ve taken away legal protection from something that is a life. In other words, you’ve taken the ownership rights of a life away from that life and given them to the mother. In this case, there is only one long term consequence to the one who has suffered misappropriation of rights: it is killed.
My conclusion is still the same. The misappropriation of rights in #2 is worse than the misappropriation of rights in #1. In #1 a person has wrongly lost rights to a body part (assuming that it’s a body part and not a life). In #2 a person has wrongly lost rights to all his/her body parts (assuming that it’s a life and not a body part). I don’t see any reason why one person’s rights to a body part should trump another person’s rights to all of his/her body parts. Additionally, the potential consequences of the misappropriation of rights are only visible in #1 because the misappropriation of rights is so complete in #2.


Lauren said...

Hi there--I wanted to clarify a couple of things. First, I don't necessarily think abortion is "wrong," I just think it's unfortunate. I wouldn't ever want to have to face the decision of whether or not to abort a child, but sometimes I do believe it's a necessary consideration. It's such a hard issue...I don't know if we'll really ever have all the answers. My father argues that if you make abortion legal, you open up the doors to euthanasia of elderly, assisted suicide, etc. I'm not sure if that's the case (it's possible), but I also haven't given those issues enough thought to really give an opinion on them. Perhaps I should make that my next controversial blog post! :) Thanks for reading.

mjh said...

Sorry for the misinterpretation. Thanks for the clarification.

Niffer said...

Ah! A topic that I feel strongly about! Sort of. However, please forgive me if my comment seems a bit jumbled. There's a lot to say on the matter and I'll try to point out only those points I thought of while reading your post. I think I agree with Lauren. I do not think abortion is "wrong" but it's definitely unfortunate.

I actually lay in the middle of your two extremes. I do not believe that life begins at conception. I don't know when it begins, though, so I definitely agree that it's a tough one.

I think the key to defining when "life begins" is to define what you consider to be life. Just like you said, at what point does the fetus stop being a growing lump of cells? Some would argue that if there's a heart beat, then there is life.

I disagree with this, but I also disagree on a larger scale. If an adult were to be in a horrible accident, or an elderly man was just dying of old age, and say they're being kept alive by a machine. Or even say that they have a heart beat but are brain-dead. That's not life to me. There has to be more than just a heart beat. In a similar light, if you think a heart beat is good enough for "life" then you would also be opposed to hunting animals. They have a heart beat, right? But as humans, we put ourselves higher than animals (most of us do, anyway), so again there must be more to life than a heart beat.

For me, I don't draw the line of whether or not abortion is right with when life begins because that definition ranges for everyone. For me, I draw the line at when a fetus will most likely be able to survive outside the mother. With technology these days I think that point is right around 22-24 weeks of gestation. I think that's my line in the sand. Before that, it's mostly up to the mother (I say mostly because even I am hesitant to define a line so definitely) and after that the baby should be able to live.

This might be a little contradictory of what I just said, but I really feel like if a woman does not want to be a mother then she has plenty of time to end the pregnancy WAY WAY WAY before this point. If the pregnancy is allowed to get ANYWHERE close to the point where the baby might survive, then the woman has had her opportunity to end the pregnancy and should go through with it.

Having said that, I do not think that it should lie completely in the mother's hands to take care of a baby she does not want. Unfortunately there is an unspoken rule tying her to the baby more than the father. What about him? I believe that if a woman gives birth to a baby she does not want, then she should put it up for adoption. There are plenty of people out there who would love a child to hold and raise as their own, but just can't for one reason or another. I say this without knowing details on what is involved in adoption, but I'm sure it's easier to put a newborn up for adoption than an older child, and if the woman doesn't want the baby, then she has a good amount of time to find someone who does before the baby is born.

I guess my point is that I do not think it's a good idea to force a woman to keep a baby she never wanted in the first place (for the worst case reasons you mentioned above), but I do think there is a point in a pregnancy where abortion should be illegal and a point in the pregnancy when it should be legal.

Oh, and I disagree with your worst case scenario. You're right that if the mother keeps the baby then it could potentially damage two people. However I think the worst case scenario is actually when a woman decides to try to end a pregnancy by herself - say with a coat hanger. That could result in two deaths.

It's an ugly topic, for sure, and I hesitated in responding because I'm not sure what those who are close to me would think if they read my thoughts on the topic, but there you go.

mjh said...

If an adult were to be in a horrible accident, or an elderly man was just dying of old age, and say they're being kept alive by a machine. Or even say that they have a heart beat but are brain-dead. That's not life to me

I would say that what I think depends on what the person who owns that life thinks. I take it for granted that we agree that a person owns their own life. If the person has any such instructions for what to do in that situation, then we follow those instructions. But if a person has no such instructions, I think it is inappropriate to make a decision that we can't rescind.

Essentially, my view is that I'm not allowed to supercede a person's rights to decide on what they own. I believe that when we end a life (either through abortion or euthanasia) we are exercising an action we have no right to exercise, because we take it away from the person who's right it is.

That's my non-Christian answer. As a Christian, I don't actually believe we own our lives. I believe that we are stewards assigned by God to direct our lives that are owned by Him. But again abortion and euthanasia then wrongly exercise a right that only belongs to God and has been delegated to His steward. And while I am the God's steward for my life, I'm not for anyone else's life.

So the question, again returns to this: when is a group of cells a life and when is it just a group of cells. For abortion, the question is when life begins. For euthanasia, the question is when does it end. I don't know the answer. And I'm hesitent to make a decision that is non-rescindable.

Having said that, I do not think that it should lie completely in the mother's hands to take care of a baby she does not want. Unfortunately there is an unspoken rule tying her to the baby more than the father. What about him?

There is an inherant asymmetry to the parental responsibility issue. And yet another reason that I find abortion to be troublesome. If the father and mother are in agreement about what to do with the baby, there is no issue. But if they disagree, a great problem arises. If the woman wishes to abort, but the man wishes to keep the baby. The man has no legal choice in the matter. Likewise if the woman wishes to keep the baby, but the man wishes to be rid of all of his parental responsibilities, again the man has no legal choice in the matter. The woman is the *only* person in the couple who has any legal ability to abrogate parental responsibility after a pregnancy has been discovered. And her decision is absolute - overriding he man's desire to care for his child.

Personally, I think that men should NOT have the ability to abrogate their responsibilities. If the man didn't want parental responsibilities, he should have done something about it before the pregnancy took place. He can *not* now decide that he doesn't want the consequence of an action. But I think that same argument applies to women.

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