Even before the historic Roe v. Wade ruling, abortion has been a topic of contention for ages. So, it is not a surprise that on May 8th this year, just a week ago, Alabama pivoted on a controversial abortion bill. Alabama and Georgia are both involved in implementing legislation that would ban or criminalize abortions state-wide. Alabama’s bill would have banned any abortion for any reason other than to protect the life of the mother. Georgia’s bill, which is in the process of appeal, would ban all abortions full stop. The social climates of these two states make clear that abortion must be approached seriously and objectively. Those who care at all about the laws governing them or anyone else must decide their position on this issue, clear of ideology or personal demagoguery.
The biggest issue with these abortion bills- legally speaking- is that they violate the precedent set by Roe v. Wade. Under this ruling, no state is constitutionally able to ban abortion. When appealed, barring any attempt at judicial activism, the Georgia and Alabama bills will likely be overturned. But what is legal and illegal is not particularly relevant in this decision. Legality and morality have never been and will never be necessarily linked. Separate from legality, there are robust arguments on both sides of the abortion debate.
Strength of Arguments
Some arguments are only robust in their own side’s context. For example, a pro-life argument is that fetuses are children, and abortion is therefore infanticide. Logical, yes, but what if you don’t consider a fetus a life, much less a child. These hypothetical people would scarcely be coming from the same book, much less the same page. The question of the morality of abortion is less important than the question of whether the fetus or zygote is a person in the first place. What needs to be removed completely from the conversation are the arguments from emotion, personal experience, womanhood or motherhood, and most viciously, arguments from religion. Removing these arguments allows the conversation to continue productively.
Important philosophical and scientific questions must be addressed. Is the life of a fetus (if determined to be a life) equal to that of an adult or of a postnatal child? Should consciousness be a factor in the worth of a life? Is the potentiality of life on the same level as actual life? Without these questions of value, the answer– whatever it may be– to whether or not a fetus is a life, is meaningless.
Taking a Side
I’ve written on the subject of abortion before, but I’ve never taken up a real position or argued a real point. And that writing depressed me enough– which is understandable. Abortion, no matter who is speaking, can be unanimously called soul–draining. But considering the way legislative bodies are leaning, my former weak-willed suggestion of conversational modification is no longer good enough. Now is the time for me to swallow my pride and take up a real position.
Although I’m determined to convince you of my own opinion on abortion, I will forever resist the party line distinction. I also refuse to assign myself the “Pro-life” or “Pro-choice” label. Pro-life? Excuse me? What life? When? What’s the context? And don’t start me on the linguistic manipulation perfectly exemplified in the Pro-choice label. That is of course what both of these labels are. They are at their core nothing short of hollow and reductionist cop-outs. So, I find that it is evident that abortion is a tragedy, but in some circumstances, it can be the more moral option.
What Makes a Person?
With everything known about genetics, embryology, and neurology, it’s undeniable that a fetus is a life entirely separate from that of the mother. Its DNA is distinct, it has its own heartbeat, and its brain waves are recordable independently. However, this biological determination doesn’t determine personhood. The brilliant late columnist and philosopher Christopher Hitchens said he believed that considering the embryology, a fetus is at the very least a “candidate person”. This is a way to illustrate that a fetus is at least something other than a clump of cells. However, this ignores that a candidate anything, is still not yet anything. If a runner almost wins first place, they still came in second.
The truth is that this “candidate person” will, short of some tragedy or outside interference, surely become not just a candidate, but a full-fledged person. Indeed, the better metaphor would be a runner who is guaranteed to win first place provided he isn’t hit by a boulder. The question of this is again, an assignment of value. Having both life and humanness directly mean personhood. Both of these things, a fetus possesses. The next step is to determine how it is we will react, what we will do, and how we value this person.
People Have Varying Value
Now is not the time for flighty emotionality, though it’s understandable why such a conversation inspires an emotional reaction. Personhood is not enough to dismiss so-called “pro-choice” arguments. As people- rather, as beings capable of advanced thought- we implicitly assign varying worth to things. We assign worth to tasks, places, objects, and naturally, to people. The fact we all have to grapple with is that people are not as we may have been told, all equal. In the context of existentialism or god, sure, we are all equally worthy or worthless, but that has never been truly true. Legally and morally, we assign different worth to different people depending on a variety of factors.
Military medics actually happen to be a very good example of one type of value rank. A system called “Triage” ranks the urgency of medical concerns. For a quick example, say a blast goes off and military medics are present. They will assist first those who have serious injuries, like if someone had been impaled with debris. The scale deescalates until last, it would be people who are maybe scraped up a little or those who have died. For at least that time, some people are valued over others. Take for instance a scenario in which a member of the military and a member of the foreign civilian population are inflicted with the same injury. There is one open seat in the car which will get one of them to a hospital for medical treatment. The one left behind will not survive.
It’s clear in this scenario that the military would take one of their own. The civilian is no less deserving, objectively speaking, of care than the military officer. But the implicit assignment of value is still there. Humans value those not just closest to us, but those who benefit us. This is why we value family over an unnamed stranger on the street. It’s at its core, simple selfishness. Fortunately, it’s what we evolved for.
A common argument in favor of morality (or at least not immorality) of abortion rests on the fact that up to a point, the fetus is dependent upon the mother to survive. The rebuttal to this is often something like “Well so do infants, so what?”. But this is a strawman of epic proportions. The people making the former argument are obviously referring to the specific role a mother plays in the development and survival of her child. To argue differently is to argue incorrectly. So my question is why should this matter? What impact does this have on worth? I say none. Dependence, even at the expense of someone else isn’t diagnostic of depletion in value.
Exceptions to the Norm
A factor in how we perceive value is the way a fetus may negatively affect a mother. This can range from petty to life-threatening. The way we gauge the morality of abortion is directly correlated to this. The closer to conception a fetus is aborted, the better. Abortion to save the life of the mother is better than an abortion used as birth control. This is the same with rape and incest.
Something to remember is that although a fetus is determined to be a person, this person hasn’t ever achieved consciousness. This “consciousness” argument, without that important ever, falls completely flat. Without that distinction between not just being unconscious, but never have even had consciousness, the obvious counterpoint will stop it in its tracks. Take a person in a coma, dependant on other people to keep them alive, who will become continuous given time and resources. It seems wrong to pull the plug just because it inconveniences someone to take care of them, or even because they’re a drain on some important resource. But this ignores the implicit assumption that this person has previously experienced consciousness. The comparison fails to consider that those who have been conscious in the past matter in this conversation.
It is worse to end a life who has experienced “living” than it is to end a life which has not. Fetuses, in the same way, they are undeniably people, are also undeniably unconscious. The moral excusability of abortion hinges on this discrepancy. What I think is evident, is that this does not apply to all cases of abortion. Abortions that would save the life of the mother apply, along with abortions as a result of rape or incest. What it doesn’t apply to is people using abortion as “Plan C”, gender-based abortions, and abortions out of anger or spite at a significant other. But the complexity begins when we must decide between two immoralities. Is it worse to bring a child into a horrible life, or to end the life before it begins?
The anti-natalists have some interesting thoughts on this. They believe, rather extremely, that having a child is immoral. This is because the only thing a life can guarantee is suffering and death. This argument actually pans out logically, although it’s not practical in any sense. We can use a similar line of reason to decrypt the above question. It’s worse to subject a person to a life which will be filled with abuse, poverty, ache, and consciousness? Consciousness, which carries with it the biological drive of self-preservation. Or is it worse to end the life without consciousness?
These two are equally immoral options. What separates their morality is ultimately how it affects others. If it would pain the mother to have an abortion, but not to bring a child into a bad situation, it’s better to have the child as it causes less pain for the mother. There is also an added factor of there being hope for improvement. However, if bringing a child into a bad world causes the mother pain, and she believes there is no hope for change, abortion becomes the less immoral option.
Abortion is a sad subject, and a cataclysm wherever it happens. But there are other tragedies that exist, and it is our job as moral agents to judge which tragedies are worse. So, to prevent abortion, there are strategies communities can implement. Crisis pregnancy centers which provide counseling, birth control, and healthcare are effective measures. Sexual education that is medically sound and encourages protection and consent is imperative. Hospitals need to make their sexual assault care centers more known so emergency birth control can be administered before pregnancy occurs, and so the perpetrator can be prosecuted. These are the only ways we can effectively hope to escape the moral dilemma abortion forces us into.
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