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The Paradox of Abortion: Liberty or Duty?

Abortion pits freedom against societal duty.

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By Kaihua Zhou | United States

The question of abortion presents a highly complicated moral and political issue. However, placing it in a philosophical context of inequality adds greater clarity. Society generally accepts that we have a duty towards the disadvantaged. Government programs such as Affirmative Action are intended to resolve inequalities. Much of the philosophical basis for such programs are based on the work of Harvard professor John Rawls ( 1921-2002).  Rawls proposed that justice consists of two principles.  The first principle, liberty principle, asserts that justice requires that individuals deserve “basic rights and liberties”. Also, the difference principle asserts that justice requires a degree of equality.

 Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. -John Rawls

Thus, Rawls envisioned a society that maximized equality while preserving liberty.

How might these principles pertain to abortion? It is clear that governments should respect an individual’s medical and personal choices. If abortion is not a basic right, it is a right that libertarians and conservatives can respect.  With rights, though, come duties. This is the basis of Rawls’ difference principle: society has a responsibility towards the disadvantaged. While libertarians and conservatives may disagree with this specific formulation, we can agree with the overall principle. Consider Milton Friedman‘s assertion that libertarianism is “the smallest, least intrusive government consisting with a maximum freedom for each individual to follow his own ways, his own values, as long as he doesn’t interfere with anyone else doing the same.”

Does abortion benefit the least advantage? No. Moreover, abortions limit freedom. In an abortion, who possesses the advantages? While a pregnant woman did not choose her condition, she has advantages compared to her offspring. She, after all, has the choice, whether or not to have an abortion.  Through her choices, she can place herself in better circumstances.

In contrast, an unborn child does not have the capacity to choose their actions.  Consequently, they cannot change their circumstances, completely at the mercy of nature. Consider disabled fetuses. They did not choose to have imperfect genetic combinations.  Despite this, they may be aborted for this characteristic. There is clearly an inequality of power in this situation. One party has the ability to intentionally harm or benefit the other. The other has no such power.  In such a situation, one has the ability to interfere with another individual’s freedom to live. How does an abortion benefit the least advantaged, the unborn?

As a society, we seek to alleviate the suffering of the disadvantaged.  While we must respect liberty, we must honor this duty as well.



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