Sunday, April 10, 2016

Abortion: Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, or a Third Option?

Update: After running into the problem of a lot of people apparently misunderstanding the point of this post, I figure it's prudent to state explicitly up front what I'm trying to say:

There is a difference between having laws written a certain way for pragmatic reasons, and having solid moral grounding for those laws. Canada is a country that has legal abortion on request up to birth, and I agree that, pragmatically, this law probably gives the best outcomes, and other countries should adopt it. However, it's not a morally sound law. Pretending, legally, that a foetus is effectively just a hunk of flesh up until the moment of birth, when it suddenly gains full rights as a human, is pragmatically useful, but it's not at all how people actually feel about the issue, and this includes Pro-Choice people. So I'm arguing here that the Pro-Choice stance is not a good one to use as a basis for this law, and that what I call the Pro-Quality-of-Life stance is a more honest position about how people actually feel about abortion, and allows for a better justification for a pragmatic abortion law like Canada has.

Abortion tends to be a very sensitive topic for most people, and not surprisingly so. After all, it touches on questions of human life, the obligations of the state to protect lives, and the rights of people to choose what happens to their own bodies.

But while it can be a difficult topic to discuss, I feel that too many people turn it into a false dichotomy under the labels Pro-Life and Pro Choice, and then refuse to acknowledge and discuss the nuances that make it a non-trivial issue.

What I want to discuss here is why I think both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice are overly simplistic stances on abortion, and propose some ideas towards what I think is a more reasonable position, which for want of a better name, I call Pro-Quality-of-Life.

The Complications of a Pro-Life Stance

Inevitably, many people who take a Pro Life stance on abortion do so for religious reasons. If you hold a belief that humans have this thing called a soul, and that it enters the human body at some point, then it's not at all unreasonable to base your stance on abortion around that idea. If you believe that the killing of a soul is what makes murder such a bad thing, then it's going to follow that you will equate abortion with murder once you consider the soul to be present.

For the most part, I'm going to ignore religious justifications for abortion positions because, quite frankly, they belong in modern ethical discussions as much as witches and demons do. However, the reality is that religion actually plays a big role in many present day human rights debates, such as abortion, contraception, euthanasia and gay rights. To actually bring about social change we have to take these religious justifications into account, but for the purposes of just trying to sort through the actual moral issues surrounding abortion, I'm going to assume that the people with faith-based justifications have already stormed away in anger, and I can just stick to reason and evidence-based discussion here.

The interesting thing about the Pro-Life stance is that it can be a fairly reasonable stance without any appeal to religion. There is a genuine problem in having to set hard cutoffs along the continuum from conception to birth, deciding when a fetus is now deserving of rights as a person. Despite the complications that the "moment of conception" is far more complicated and fuzzily defined, and that a viable fetus can be born up to several months premature and still become a human being, there is still an issue here to resolve.

Perhaps it's a little like the arbitrary nature of 18 being recognized as legal adulthood. We understand that a switch isn't magically flipped at this age, and that people can mature at different rates, but the fact remains that the human brain develops its various abilities of reasoning and introspection over time and most people have developed them sufficiently enough around this age that it's acceptable to hold them accountable for their actions. Everyone is different, but for the sake of a smoothly running society it's efficient to just set an age and base the law around it.

So we need to set a similar point in fetal development, and decide that after that point a fetus will have the rights of a human. Now, even then, it's still not so simple, because even if a fetus is a viable human being, it's still not independent of the mother, and so when there are complications and the mother's life is at risk, it can still be reasonable to sacrifice the life of the fetus for the sake of the mother.

But one thing we should recognize here is that starting as a zygote, becoming an embryo, become a fetus, then becoming a human, are all stages along a path from "potential human being" to "actual human being", and that while many things can go wrong along the way, the fact that it is a potential human being that we're considering aborting should not be dismissed lightly. In determining what age of the fetus is a reasonable cutoff for abortion to be reasonable, often comparisons to other animals are made, looking at what structures have formed in the fetus. Arguments have been made that abortion could be reasonable at up to 6 months due to the fact that the parts of the brain that are uniquely human and not found in other primates don't form until that point.

This is a line of reasoning that we should treat with some degree of suspicion, for the simple fact that we give human beings special status in the law compared to all other animals. We generally treat crimes committed against humans much differently to those against other animals, and award a much wider set of rights (and responsibilities) to humans than other animals. So comparisons to other animals can be useful at times, but we must be very careful when we do it.

The fact that we legally recognize humans in a special way that we don't with other animals might mean that we need to recognize "potential humans" in a special way. Or it might not. But it shouldn't be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant.

Everyone is Actually Pro-Life

Now, the main argument of the Pro-Choice stance is that a woman should have the right to choose what happens to her own body. Neither the government or anyone else should be able to force her to carry a child to term if she doesn't want to.

The big problem here is that Pro-Choice people don't actually believe that.

Ask any Pro-Choice person when they think is a reasonable cut-off date for allowing abortion. Maybe it's three months. Maybe it's six months. Almost certainly it won't be the moment before giving birth. I think you'll find few, if any, people who would support abortion if a mother decides 10 minutes before going into labor that she's changed her mind and wants out. Would it be reasonable at that point to kill the fetus (it's still technically a fetus!) simply because the mother changed her mind?

Assuming you don't support abortion until the moment of birth, then that means you support the idea that, at some point during pregnancy, the mother no longer has a right to choose. You agree that after some point, if the mother changes her mind, she shouldn't be allowed to abort the fetus. And that of course means that to some degree you agree that it is in fact reasonable for the state to tell a woman what she can do with her body.

There is certainly a lot of discussion that should be had about a woman's right to choose, but throwing around the idea that no one should be able to tell a woman what she can do with her body is just not helpful, and an attempt to oversimplify a complicated issue. We frequently accept the idea that the government can impose its will on people's bodies under certain circumstances. Placing a person in prison is exactly this. And saying that the government can forbid abortion after a certain point in fetal development is another, and one that everyone actually seems to accept in practice, regardless of their Pro-Life or Pro-Choice stance (with exceptions such as protecting the life of the mother of course).

Pro-Choice People Are Often Not Really Pro-Choice

Let's look at some of the details of the Pro-Choice stance, because the are several categories of choice that are typically looked at:
  • Having an abortion to protect the life of the mother
  • Having an abortion due to rape or some form of forced pregnancy
  • Having an abortion due to changing your mind
The first two categories here tend to be the least controversial. Even many Pro-Life people will agree that if a mother's life is in danger, or if she was made pregnant through no choice of her own, there should be a right to have an abortion.

The interesting case is the pure choice one. This is the case where a woman falls pregnant through not using contraception, failure of contraception, or simply changing her mind once pregnant. Effectively, the Pro-Choice stance is that a woman can fall pregnant, decide that she doesn't really want the child after all (for whatever reason), and have an abortion.

But to properly evaluate exactly what rights should be considered reasonable here, we must also look at what rights we consider reasonable for the man in this situation. Pregnancy issues are complicated by the fact that the woman is the one who must carry the child to term, but legally we put responsibilities on both the man and the woman.

So what happens when a couple falls pregnant and the man decides he doesn't want the child? Most people would certainly agree that the man has no right to force the woman to have an abortion, but what about the right to give up all responsibility for the child? Should a man effectively be able to have the legal stance of not being able to stop the child from being born, but not having any legal obligation to that child because he doesn't want it?

Many people say no. They will argue that the man needs to take responsibility for his actions, and even that "he should have thought about that before having sex". But consider that if we intend to take that stance, then why shouldn't the same argument be applied to women? If a man should be expected to think about the consequences before having sex, then why shouldn't a woman also? Surely no Pro-Choice person believes that a man is capable of thinking ahead, but a woman isn't.

So there is a genuine problem here that if a man can't legally walk away from pregnancy because he changes his mind, then a woman probably shouldn't be able to either. And conversely, if a woman can change her mind after falling pregnant, then a man should have similar rights as well.

It's because of this problem that I think you could make a plausible argument that abortion should be acceptable to protect the life of the mother or if it was involuntary (e.g. rape), but if the pregnancy was entirely of the mother's free choice, then she should be expected to take responsibility for it and not be allowed to abort the fetus just because she changed her mind. This isn't my actual position, but I think you could make a reasonable case for it.


In reality, we want to protect mothers and their children from deadbeat fathers who leave them without support. So in practice we tend not to let men walk away from pregnancies without requiring some kind of child support payments. This can be unfair in some cases, but in general we're saying that the welfare of the child is more important than the rights of the parents. I certainly agree that if a child is going to be born then its quality of life should be the priority. But where possible, it's better to not have a child unless you really want it.

And that leads to the general principle that I tend to use when thinking about abortion issues: an unwanted child results in bad outcomes for everyone.

Far too many people have children that they didn't really want or weren't ready for. People will have a child in the hopes of strengthening a failing relationship. People have children when they're not in a sufficiently financially stable position to take care of them.

The human population is hardly in decline. We have all sorts of resource and environmental crises to deal with precisely because there are far too many of us and we keep overbreeding. So if any would-be parent isn't 100% behind the idea of having their child, then forcing them to have it isn't doing anyone any favours. It's no good for the parents, it's a potentially shitty life for the child, and society doesn't need more unloved children to deal with.

So I tend to argue for the Pro-Quality-of-Life stance. When we need to decide on particulars of abortion laws, err on the side of avoiding unwanted births. Life for life's sake doesn't do anyone any favours. Raising a child is a big responsibility and we should respect those parents who take it seriously and do it well. We shouldn't demonize or stigmatize those who realize they aren't ready for the commitment, and as much as is reasonable, we should tailor our laws towards supporting wanted children, and minimizing unwanted children.

In practice, this stance will tend to be quite similar to Pro-Choice in outcome, but the reasoning is different. Pro-Life focuses on the rights of the fetus. Pro-Choice focuses on the rights of the pregnant woman. Pro-Quality-of-Life focuses on the overall best outcomes for children, mothers, fathers, and society as a whole.

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