In recent weeks, well, months really, I have been re-examining my beliefs around abortion. Historically, I have been pro-choice. Very pro-choice. I thought pro-lifers were a bunch of religious nutjobs – righteous, pretentious and judgemental.
That may not be an unfair description of many religious opponents of abortion, but I now appreciate that there is a non-religious argument against the moral acceptability of abortion. I write this post not to convince anyone of the validity of that argument. Indeed, I do not seek to sway anyone with this post. This post is an attempt to solidify my own understanding of the complex issues surrounding abortion and to reach some sort of position on where I stand. As such, I would be most appreciative if readers could point out fallacies in my arguments, make refutations, and provide other supporting arguments for both sides of the debate.
I shall only consider the purely optional, voluntary cases. That is, those where the foetus is, to the best medical knowledge, perfectly healthy and the mother is in no physical danger from the pregnancy itself. I would argue that it is this case in which the moral acceptability is most in question. If it can be proved to be acceptable here, then it would be hard to find a situation in which you could successfully argue that it is unacceptable.1
I don’t know how many abortions that fit this category are performed each year in Australia. I don’t think that it matters how many occur for the context of this discussion. The frequency of an action has no real impact on the moral acceptability of individual cases of said action.
The heart of the dilemma seems to revolve around what rights are assigned to the foetus.
If one does not believe that a foetus is human, then abortion is acceptable. If one does not believe that a foetus is capable of thought or reason, then maybe abortion is acceptable. If one does not believe that the existence of a foetus has intrinsic value, then abortion is acceptable. I do not know if a foetus possesses any of these traits.
I am willing to accept that foetus’ do not possess these traits when we are talking about a small handful of cells.
On the other hand, if one does take this position, then there needs to be a point in time at which the growing embryo/foetus/baby suddenly becomes human and worthy of protection under our laws. How can we arbitrarily define a point in time at which a foetus becomes worthy of this protection?
I can see no easy way. I have heard some argue that a foetus is unaware and unintelligent and thus not worthy. But much the same could be said of infants, the mentally disabled, the severely psychologically ill, and the comatose. How many are willing to argue that it is not wrong for another being to decide the fate of these individuals?
A possible counter to that position would be that the foetus is inside the mother, these other examples are free-standing individuals. Many would argue that the parasitic nature of the foetus grants the mother the right to determine its fate. Whilst I will not argue that the power to choose the fate of the foetus lies anywhere but with the mother, I am not convinced that the mother has the right to determine its fate. Merely having the power to do so does not grant the moral right to do so.2
We must decide on a point somewhere on the timeline from formation of the sperm and egg through to the natural death of the individual to impart the protections that none would deny to a newborn infant.
I know of no simple way to determine this. We understand so little of the formation of the human mind, and agreement on when a foetus becomes ‘human’ seems a long way off. I would argue that in the absence of enough understanding to truly determine when humanity is imparted in the foetus, we are best advised to take a cautious approach to the determination. Far better to set the limit overly earlier than to set it overly late.
I argue that once you are aware of the pregnancy, once it can be confirmed, once there is a moderate chance of the foetus surviving to term, then one must treat the foetus as if it were a human. I believe this is most commonly around the 8-12 week mark (corrections appreciated).
Another reason I believe this is not an inappropriate point to choose is that many people react to miscarriages around this time as if a human life has been lost. How can we say that when the baby is wanted it is an horrific tragedy to lose it and then, when the baby is undesired, turn around and say we do not view such a thing as human?
Another tack to consider is that of responsibility, choice, and consequence.
In the Western world, there is no need to get pregnant if you do not want to. Contraceptive pills, condoms, and numerous other birth-control measures exist to enable us to enjoy a promiscuous lifestyle without fear of bringing a child in to this life when we are ill-prepared to care for one. Though none are perfect, solid success rates are obtainable with proper use and multiple forms (with proper use of both the oral contraceptive pill and the male condom, failure rates can fall substantially below 0.1%). People know the risk of pregnancy exists when they have sex. As such, they must face the consequences of their actions and not shirk it. If they are truly concerned about becoming pregnant they can choose to abstain.
One could argue that the failure rates of contraceptives are not well-known. I would say that this is not an argument for the moral acceptability of abortion, it is instead an argument for government support of an education program.
Abortions, for voluntary reasons, need not occur. It is easy enough for a person to avoid pregnancy in the first instance – a lack of responsibility and caution should not be sufficient reason for someone to avoid the consequences of their actions.
Many have argued that the child’s quality of life will be less than it could be and that the parent’s lives would be ruined.
I argue that the child’s quality of life being less than it would have been had the mother and father been more careful is blatantly untrue. The aborted foetus is not recreated when next the mother falls pregnant. That foetus, that child is having its life cut short before it has even experienced it.
If one could guarantee that the child’s life is going to be a wholly negative experience and that that child would rather not live than live a negative experience, then the abortion would be acceptable. But one can not guarantee these things. There may be an increased likelihood that the child’s life is more negative on balance than it may otherwise have been, but that does not mean that it lacks positive parts. Nor does it mean that the child’s life cannot turn out to be a positive experience for the child and those the child encounters.
As for the destruction of the life of the parents, they must face the consequences of their actions. Especially when one considers that there is substantial support available through charities and the government – and often the parent’s family and friends. In the most untenable of cases, adoption may be considered. Though far from ideal, adoption is surely preferable to oblivion.
There are still many more arguments both for and against the moral acceptability of abortion. I recognise that the above argument applies only to a small section of the abortions that are performed annually. I have totally avoided the more difficult cases of rape, genetic illness of the foetus and medical risk to the mother. I have more than likely overlooked numerous considerations.
My position on abortion remains unclear to me. I am leaning towards viewing it as morally unacceptable (in the strict, textbook clean scenario above), but that does not sit easily with me. Both options are unpalatable. I know not where to stand.
As such, I would greatly welcome any input others have on this topic.
As an aside, even if abortion is morally unacceptable, I do not believe that we should criminalise the act. I believe that it should remain legal. Criminalising abortion would simply drive people to backyard clinics, a result that is undesirable for all concerned. It seems to me that state regulation of abortion can provide for the least bad outcome.
Of course, if abortion is morally acceptable, then remaining legal but regulated is also the optimal course of action.
2: On a side track, are fathers responsible for their child once it is born? Do they have an obligation to protect and provide? Do they have a duty to nurture and love?
I would argue that they most certainly do. Indeed, much of society is quick to condemn the deadbeat dad. Personally, I have naught but disdain and contempt for those parents who would abandon their children. They are your responsibility. It is your duty and obligation to be there, to provide, to protect, and to love to the utmost of your ability.
If a moral requirement exists for the father to raise the child, then one must accept that the father must also have some input into the decision to abort the foetus. It is, after all, as much his actions that have resulted in the foetus, and as much his responsibility to face the consequences to the best of his ability. I would argue that both the mother and the father should be required to consent to a non-medically based abortion. There is no law forcing a mother to raise their child once it is born. Adoption is an option, as is leaving the child with the father and disappearing into the night.
Even if society were to agree that the father’s desires are equally important with the mother’s the question still remains, is abortion morally acceptable?(return)