Monday, March 10, 2008


There is perhaps no issue that suffers more from acrimonious demonization than that of abortion. The "pro-choice" side accuses their opponents of having no respect for women, and wanting to run them and abuse them as virtual slaves; in the other direction, the "pro-life" side accuses their opponents of being baby-killers who care nothing for human life, even the lives of virtual infants.

To begin, it is a mistake to think that there are only two positions on abortion, "for" and "against." There are many different kinds of abortion: they can occur at different stages of pregnancy and fetal development; the pregnancies that precede them can occur under different circumstances; abortions can be done for different reasons and with different prospects for the life and health of the mother; and they can be performed in different manners, terminating the life of the fetus/unborn child in different ways.

These variables combine to form any number of distinct cases of abortion, and it is conceivable that they will not all be morally the same. Not surprisingly, there are few people who oppose all abortions, or who approve of all abortions. Most people believe that some are acceptable, some are unacceptable, though there is much disagreement over which is which.

The controversy surrounding abortion resolves down to two related issues: does the life of a fetus/unborn child have any value, morally speaking (and if so, how much); and what obligation we have to sustain its life. Let's consider them both briefly:

There are many things that are alive, though we do not give all their lives the same moral value. Typically, we give a high level of value to the life of an adult, conscious human being. In contrast, we give very little value to the life of, say, a tick, or a single bacterium. All these things are alive, but we think it is a far greater moral mistake to kill an adult human than to kill a tick. But how much moral value should we give the life of, say, a rat? A dog? A chimpanzee? An irreversibly comatose adult? A newborn baby? An unborn fetus? This is one of the difficult moral questions that underlies the abortion debate.

The second concerns our obligation to aid and protect others. Though we have such an obligation, a variety of factors seem to influence it: the greater the suffering, the greater our obligation to give aid; we have a greater obligation to help those we are related to or who live nearby than, say, those we have never met or who live far away; we have a greater obligation to give aid to those who suffer as a result of our own actions; we have a greater obligation to give aid to those who are helpless and unable to overcome their adversity than those who can manage it themselves; the greater the sacrifice that is required of us in order to give aid, the weaker our obligation is to do so.

So, what obligation do I have to give up a lung, a kidney, a pint of blood, $1000, or $5 in order to help one of my parents, one of my friends, a child I've never met, or an animal that I've hit with my car? This is the other difficult moral question that underlies abortion.

As such, we can recognize that the abortion debate is often mischaracterized. It is not, for instance, a debate about when life begins, but a debate about whether or not the life of the fetus/unborn child has value. It is also not a debate purely about privacy, because our right to privacy is often (though not always) outweighed by our obligation to aid and protect the lives of others. Both sides believe we have a right to do whatever we want with our own bodies so long as we are not harming others; they differ over whether (and to what extent) the fetus/unborn child is an entity that we have an obligation to protect.

Abortion is an enormously complicated issue, because it derives from two more abstract moral controversies: how much value we assign to different living things in the world, and what obligation we have to make sacrifices of ourselves in order to aid and protect the lives of others. The way this issue is typically mismanaged in current political debate represents a failure to appreciate the profundity of the issue, and a failure to cultivate anything like wisdom in ourselves.

"Finally, when he tries to make big government sound reasonable and inclusive, President Obama likes to say, “We’re all in this together.” And here, too, he has another handy straw man. Anyone who questions the wisdom of his policies must be lacking in compassion. Who else would question him but those mean people who think that everybody has to go it alone and fend for themselves. “We’re all in this together” -- it has a nice ring. For everyone who loves this country, it is not only true but obvious. Yet how hollow it sounds coming from a politician who has never once lifted a hand to defend the most helpless and innocent of all human beings, the child waiting to be born. Giving up any further pretense of moderation on this issue, and in complete disregard of millions of pro-life Democrats, President Obama has chosen to pander to the most extreme elements of his party."
-- GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), September 14, 2012, addressing the Values Voter Summit.

Comment: Again, it's true that Obama frequently caricatures Republicans as having no compassion or being unwilling to help others -- for instance, by calling them "Social Darwinists" -- but it's also a caricature to say that people who aren't pro-life when it comes to abortion are hypocrites when they say "we're all in this together". Abortion is a complicated moral dilemma involving moral standing and the extent of our duty to help others. The fact that someone supports the right to abortion doesn't mean they have no concern for others. A comparable distortion from the pro-choice side is to say that it's hypocritical for people who oppose abortion to also say they support women's rights. Ryan wouldn't accept that caricature, I'm sure, so he shouldn't be content to caricature others. This is also an example of "extremists" rhetoric.

Referring to her husband, President Barack Obama, "[H]e believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care...that's what my husband stands for."
-- First Lady Michelle Obama, September 4, 2012, at the Democratic National Convention.

Comment: This is a platitude. Everyone -- Democrats and Republicans -- believes that women are capable of making choices about their own bodies and health care. But, on the issue of abortion (which is what Obama is referring to, here), people disagree whether it involves taking the life of a different person. If abortion involves killing a person (i.e., the fetus or unborn child), then the choice to have an abortion is not purely a decision about the body of whoever is having an abortion. If the fetus or unborn child is not a person, however, then the choice to have an abortion is purely a decision someone is making about their own body. (A similar platitude would be if an opponent of abortion said, "We believe children should be protected." Everyone believes that, the question is whether abortion kills a child.)

"The issue is not abortion...The issue is whether women can make up their own mind instead of some right-wing pastor, some right-wing politician telling them what to do."
-- Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, February 25, 2005.

Comment: This is a distortion of what the controversy regarding abortion is about. Dean is correct that we don't want people placing intrusive, arbitrary constraints on how other people should live their lives. But he fails to mention the other side of the debate, which is that abortion claims a human life. Opponents of abortion insist that these lives have moral value, and that preventing them from being killed is not an intrusive, arbitrary constraint, any more than laws against murder are intrusive or arbitrary.

"We have a voice now, and we're not using it, and women have so much to lose. I mean, we could lose the right to our bodies ... If you think that rape should be legal, then don't vote. But if you think that you have a right to your body, and you have a right to say what happens to you and fight off that danger of losing that, then you should vote".
-- Actress Cameron Diaz, September 29, 2004.

Comment: Diaz was making the claim that, if President George W. Bush were to be re-elected, abortion would be made illegal and women would lose all rights over their own bodies. This is exaggeration at the very least, and perhaps also a caricature as well, as she might also have been claiming that those who oppose abortion believe women should lose all rights over their own bodies.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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