Putting the case against abortion under the microscope
In April last year, a 10-year old girl gave birth to a baby boy in a hospital in Rio Branco in Brazil. She had been repeatedly raped by her father. In Texas, laws have been recently approved that ban abortion for anyone whose pregnancy is more than six weeks. Many people do not even know they are pregnant within six weeks, especially 10-year olds. The new law makes no exception for the age of the mother, for rape, incest, mental health issues, lack of mental capacity to understand the impact of pregnancy or any of the hundreds of rules that inevitably lead to the most appalling outcomes for either the mother or the baby.
The Pro-Life movement argues that life is sacrosanct. Aborting a foetus is tantamount to murder, which is prohibited by law. It is the government’s duty to protect the innocent. In the argument about whether a mother’s right to determine her own future is irrelevant. The movement is vicious in its defence of the rights of the baby, devising ever-more clever ways that effectively frustrate what they see as death by abortion.
The Pro-Life movement is silent, however, when it comes to protecting other lives. I have never once heard of even a suggestion about effective ways to prevent death by shooting. Gun laws in the US are so ineffective at preventing death by shooting that around 5,000 people were shot dead in the same month that the 10-year old girl gave birth in Brazil.
You can tell a person’s beliefs not by what they say, but by what they do.
To the Pro-Life movement, life is supreme. Unborn babies take precedent over the mother’s wellbeing. They promote laws that prevent abortions. To the Gun-Rights movement, the unfettered right to own guns is supreme. They promote laws that enable murder. In most states where de-facto outlawing of abortion is being pursued, their laws are influenced by the Pro-Life movement and the Gun-Rights movement.
Life is sacrosanct applies is promoted where it comes to limiting mother’s rights to their determine her own future, but rejected when it comes to limiting a person’s right to own guns.
In reality, the Pro-Life movement is not a movement for life because its focus on “for life” is limited to a single situation, abortion. It would be more accurate to refer to it as an Anti-Abortion movement.
Quality of Life
To most people, life is sacrosanct. This partly explains the attraction of the argument of the Anti-Abortion movement. Over the coming years, I believe we are about to enter a huge period of reflection on the dividing line between the quality of life and quantity of life. It undermines the concept of life as sacrosanct, as being the only game in town, with the concept of promoting a better quality of life for people who are alive. It is not a new argument. It has been influential in many ways for centuries. Doctors have had to decide for years about whether to prolong the life of a terminally sick or elderly patient. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors in India had inadequate equipment to save everyone, so they had to choose who to save — whose lives they felt were more worthy of being saved.
The issue of quality of life is central to the discussion about abortion. It is just a discussion few people have been willing to air aloud. In reality, the question for abortion is whether a mother has the right to determine her own destiny or whether the baby’s right to life is supreme. It is an unsavoury discussion that pits quality of life over quantity. But it is no less unsavoury than creating laws that force a traumatised child to have a baby against her, or her parents will.
There is one aspect of this evaluation that the Anti-Abortion movement refuses to discuss. They refuse to engage in the discussion because it undermines the validity of their arguments. The question is: at what point does an unborn baby become human?
In Roe v Wade, the 1970’s Supreme Court decided that abortion was acceptable until the point at which the baby was capable of living outside the mother. This was interpreted as preventing abortions after around 24 weeks. Medical advances have tweaked the understanding of when a baby might be viable, with the 24-week limit being nudged downwards by a couple of weeks or so. Modern Conservative states reject the ruling. They have introduced laws that determine the point at which an unborn foetus has rights at 6 weeks. They have set a course for the current Supreme Court to decide on whether Roe v Wade is still valid in today’s worlds of Rights and Wrongs. In Conservative circles, this limit was reduced from 24 weeks to 21 weeks, then to 15 weeks, then to 10 weeks and now to six weeks. It does not take a talented mathematician to forecast where future limits are heading.
In reality, this is an argument about whether abortions should ever be legalised. Here are two ideas that undermine the justification against abortion.
How Sacrosanct is sacrosanct?
There is clearly a dividing line between not alive and fully alive, between being a matching sperm and egg and being human.
When someone is alive, almost everyone would argue for life. This support drops off quite quickly when people have to give up some of their personal luxuries to put their support into practice. But that talks more to their self-interest than to their affirmation of life.
The first question for anti-abortionists is whether life has such a primacy that we need not just to protect life, but to make it wherever we can.
If so, here are some of the unpalatable implications of what we would need to do. People would need to be compelled to get pregnant at every opportunity. Along with abortions, all forms of contraceptives and family planning would need to be banned, probably even if it prejudiced the mother’s health. We would need to force marriage on teenage girls to maximise the number of children they can give birth to. We would need to force everyone of child-bearing age to procreate, regardless of their ability to support or raise their children. If we were treating all God’s creatures with equal respect, our males would be equally compelled to fully participate in parenting, withdrawing their rights to determine their own destiny if they refuse or fail to step up to the plate.
This culture was prevalent during the Dark Ages. It is still prevalent in parts of the world, with many people subscribe to this way of thinking. Less so on the responsibilities of males, but completely comfortable with limiting their women’s choices. For anyone who subscribes to the supremacy of life without any regard to the quality of life, this is the life you seek for yourself, those you love and those you don’t. Perhaps those who genuinely aspire to such a selfless purpose might start living by these principles before imposing them on everyone else.
To everyone else, quality of life matters too.
When Does a Foetus Become a Person?
For those who believe everyone should be compelled to procreate, the point at which a foetus becomes a person is irrelevant. For everyone else, it is a critical question.
An unfertilised egg is not a person. Immediately after a sperm enters an egg, none of the cells has started to divide. There are virtually no signatures of humanity. No consciousness, no body, no organs, no blood flows. At that point, the egg has not even attached to the womb so is not capable of nourishment. The fertilised egg is little more than the potential of what it is about to become. It is not yet human by any discernable measure. So at what point after a sperm fertilises an egg does the foetus become a human?
Because the issue is so politically charged, let us consider the question with an analogy.
Modern technology allows us to feed a vast array of different materials into a machine which is configured with carefully designed hardware and a carefully crafted program. The 3D printer can mould the material into almost any shape. One of the many exciting shapes it can build is a house.
Feed-in the material, program the printer, hook it up to an electricity supply and it is good to go. With no further input, it creates a house. At what point do the raw inputs become a self-contained house? It is certainly not a house before it has started printing anything. It is just a blob of input material hooked up to a strange-looking computer with a nozzle primed to spray input material onto the floor in a very precise way.
As time progresses, the spray starts to form a shape. In time, it becomes the base layer of a house. But it is hardly recognisable as a house unless you know what is coming. With each added layer, the floors and walls start to take shape. When the base layer is complete and the walls are, say, 5% high, it is still not a house. Why?
A house is a house when it has clearly defined characteristics. It needs to be able to provide refuge, shelter and comfort to its occupant. At just 5% completion, it is completely unable to fulfil any of its purposes. This is probably true, too, at 10%. The low walls may provide some minimal protection against small creatures but nowhere near enough to call it home.
As the house grows, it gets closer to its full functionality. There comes a point where it can be used as a house, even if it does not yet deliver everything it promises.
In the case of a foetus, Roe v Wade determined the point at which a foetus becomes human as the point at which it develops feeling and consciousness, the point at which the embryo could be viable if delivered. Until then, the foetus could not survive outside the womb. These were the minimum characteristics required for an individual to acquire its own independent legal rights. Until then, the foetus was more potential human than human.
Six weeks is the point at which the anti-abortion laws seek to reset the cut-off. That is the point at which they deem the foetus to acquire human rights. At this point, there is absolutely no possibility of the foetus surviving delivery. The foetus has no feeling and no consciousness. Its body and organs are still so unformed that they are not able to process food, they are not able to coordinate physical movement. It is still vastly more potential than actual. The argument that a six-week foetus is human is based on the detection of a heartbeat alone. It is a particularly weak point at which to set the bar because there are so few of the other characteristics that collectively define what it means to be human.
There are a number of reasons to conclude that the argument to prevent abortion at six weeks is not about protecting any individual human. There can be no good reason for a partially formed foetus to have more effective protection against abortion than it has against being shot. There is no good reason that a partially developed foetus should have more effective rights to life than newly delivered babies, or toddlers, or school children, or anyone else have not to be shot.
It is entirely valid for some people to believe they should procreate at every opportunity. It is entirely valid for some people to believe they should not abort their unborn foetus after 3 weeks, six weeks, or whenever. It is less valid for them to impose their views on people who do not share their views. We have a general principle that enshrines basic human rights in law to everyone. It includes both the right to life and the freedom to pursue happiness. When the rights conflict, we need to examine the underlying issues very carefully. In today’s US, the weight of opinion favours a more even-handed approach to abortion and gun control. The weight of political power is driving laws in the opposite direction.
These are the main arguments of the Anti-Abortion movement. Because the Anti-Abortion movement refuses to engage with anything relating to the quality of life, this examination barely touches on the most compelling point in favour of abortion which relates to every woman’s right to pursue happiness freely, without interference or coercion.
The Pro-Life movement’s primary objective is to deny almost all abortions to almost all people, even for children as young as ten years old. They aggressively represent many people’s views, wilfully dismissing the opposing views of many more. They seek to impose their worldview on everyone, with arguments that are inconsistent even with their own beliefs elsewhere.
Regardless of what it chooses to call itself, It should be described as the Anti-Abortion movement because it is so focused on stopping abortion and so indifferent to the rest of life.
If you found this article interesting, check out some of my other articles on the gently provocative Animating Vision website.
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