Saturday, October 21, 2006

Thoughs on Abortion

In a discussion on a thread on Samizdata the issue of Libertarian pro-lifers came up. The main editor has promised to seed a thread sometime in the near future (probably tomorrow) to let us flesh out this discussion in the comments section. In preparation for that, I thought I would outline my own thoughts on the matter. Abortion is a complex issue, so this is no easy matter.

One commenter, in fact, said something that I very much agree with - namely that it's always important to break a moral issue down into its component parts. Precision is important, and one should be wary of people who try to package issues together on the basis of mere relatedness. Abortion definitely fits the category of an issue which is actually several separate issues infelicitously thrown together. As far as I can tell, these are the components of the debate in the US:

Roe v. Wade. I'm sorry but I have to insist that the legal appropriateness of Roe v. Wade is a separate issue from the ethics of abortion per se. Whatever side of the debate you happen to find yourself on (and as will become clear, I'm absolutely solid pro-choice), I don't think the legal reasoning of Roe v. Wade is defensible. I'll let Justice White, who wrote a dissenting opinion on the case, do my talking for me:

I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court's judgment. The Court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant mothers and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes. The upshot is that the people and the legislatures of the 50 States are constitutionally disentitled to weigh the relative importance of the continued existence and development of the fetus, on the one hand, against a spectrum of possible impacts on the mother, on the other hand. As an exercise of raw judicial power, the Court perhaps has authority to do what it does today; but, in my view, its judgment is an improvident and extravagant exercise of the power of judicial review that the Constitution extends to this Court.

The Court apparently values the convenience of the pregnant mother more than the continued existence and development of the life or potential life that she carries. Regardless of whether I might agree with that marshaling of values, I can in no event join the Court's judgment because I find no constitutional warrant for imposing such an order of priorities on the people and legislatures of the States. In a sensitive area such as this, involving as it does issues over which reasonable men may easily and heatedly differ, I cannot accept the Court's exercise of its clear power of choice by interposing a constitutional barrier to state efforts to protect human life and by investing mothers and doctors with the constitutionally protected right to exterminate it. This issue, for the most part, should be left with the people and to the political processes the people have devised to govern their affairs.

Right. There is simply nothing in the Constitution that covers this. Therefore, it should have been left up to state legislatures, which would, in time, have legalized abortion I am sure.

The negative effects of allowing the Court to legislate in this fashion are difficult to overstate. Others have made the arguments well, so I will simply leave it at that.

Does being alive imply a right to life?. This is the crux of my opposition to abortion restrictions. Justice White can't find a constitutional basis for placing the convenience of the mother over the life of the foetus, but I believe I can find an ethical one. I am personally content with the idea that life begins at conception. I can't think of a better point from which to define it, actually. Anything else is simply arbitrary, and I do not believe that what amounts to accusations of murder can be based on anything so arbitrary. True, a baby at this point is just a "jumble of cells," but it is nevertheless a potential human with a unique DNA sequence. It came into existence when this sequence was formed - no two ways about it. The only possible alternative definition that I could see would be "viability." Can the foetus survive (with medical assistance, of course) outside its mother? But there are legal side-effects of a "viability" definition. For example, are invalids and coma patients thereby legally dead? Etc.

At the risk of sounding cold-hearted, my conclusion on this branch of the issues is that being a human life and having an unqualified right to life are not the same thing. A foetus is undoubtedly alive from the moment of conception, and undoubtedly human. But I do not recognize a right to life that depends upon the consent and effort of another. The woman still owns her body and may do with it what she sees fit. If she does not wish - for whatever reason - to be an incubator, then I see no reason to obligate her to be one. We can, of course, pass personal judgments on women who are irresponsible enough to use abortion as birth control. Certainly there is something creepy about people who are sanguine about late-term abortions for convenience - or abortions for convenience at all. But I do not believe that legal distinctions should be made on feelings. In similar situations, we would not require people to become medical servants of others. For example, suppose that someone has AB- (an extremely rare type) blood and begins donating to a hemophiliac. Let's say this is happening in a small town, and other donors are either unavailable or unknown. Now, imagine that our donor gets a foreign job offer and will not be able to continue his donations. Should he be required to turn down the offer to keep this other person alive? Well, certainly it would be a nice thing to do. And indeed, I beleive that people are justified in shunning him if he decides to take the offer. Taking the offer and leaving the hemophiliac in a difficult situation does seem irresponsible and cold. Nevertheless, I can't think of a persuasive justification for making him stay. The hemophiliac has already benefited greatly from his help, after all, may not have lived to this point without it. In this isolated incident, it seems OK to override our belief in the man's right to control his own destiny and require him to stay, but such a decision would have undesireable consequences across the rest of society.

If we are committed to a society of individual rights and property ownership, then it seems to me that property begins with bodily integrity. If people are not absolute owners of their own bodies, then the basis for other rights will be critically weakened. The body is the most obvious and concrete definition of an individual. It must be inviolable. Just as we are justified in using force to remove an invited guest who refuses to leave from our property, as cruel as it may sound, I believe that the same applies to a human foetus.

Moral opposition to the practice of abortion is not inconsistent with a pro-choice legal position. As with many things in life, I think that grassroots activism is the proper way to oppose abortion. One thing that annoys me is when pro-choicers complain at being confronted with images of aborted foetuses. This strikes me as cowardly. Certainly they (we) have a right to their (our) opinions, but I do not believe that anyone has the right to avoid confronting the consequences of the positions he holds. Part of being a responsible adult, in fact, is accepting these consequences. The link will have long ago gone out of scope, but the IDS ran a staff editorial about two years ago arguing that pro-lifers should be banned from bringing grotesque pictures to their rallies on campus. I have exactly the opposite opinion. Free speech issues aside (and this most definitely is a free-speech issue as there is no right not to be confronted with uncomfortable images), I don't think anyone should hold pro-choice opinions if he cannot stomach the sight of aborted foetuses. The pictures of aborted foetuses cut right to the heart of the issue, in fact. If you are put off by such a picture to the point where you want to suspend Constitutional liberties to get it out of your face, then perhaps you need to rethink what you suppose your position on abortion to be. And, let's be honest, such images are offputting. And that fact is something that definittely should figure into your calculations before you decide to go through with an abortion. Likewise, I salute pro-lifers like current 9th District Libertarian candidate Eric Schansberg who take responsibility for their position by adopting children. If you really believe in the sanctity of unborn life, then it seems only natural that you will consider it a moral duty to promote the adoption agencies that provide an alternative to abortion for the difficult cases. In general, I think Libertarians should contribute to charity (because people do screw up, after all - it does no good to simply point the finger from the moral high ground in cases of real social problems) - and those that are pro-life should obviously contribute to this one.

Religion should be left out of public debates. I think one thing that confuses the issue for a lot of people is religion. Religion is - no two ways about it - a piss-poor basis for public policy. People who oppose abortion for religious reasons need to shut the hell up. It's fine for them to use their religion as a basis for deciding whether or not to have an abortion themselves (indeed, if they truly believe in their religion then this is something they should do), but we cannot make laws based on subjective revelations. The United States is not the Kingdom of Heaven. God will make whatever laws he sees fite there (assuming there is such a place). And this will work out, because God will be manifestly present to all citizens. Here on Earth, however, it is not readily apparent that God even exists, much less what He wants people to do. If you think you have the answers to these questions, then by all means act on them - but do not require the rest of us to conform to views of the world that we cannot even begin to substantiate. One reason that I will not be voting for Eric Schansberg in this election (actually, the main reason is that I forgot to register!) is that he thinks it's OK to cite his religious beliefs as a basis for opposition to abortion. It is not.

Pro-lifers really are pro-lifers. Another pet peeve of mine on this issue is the insistence by a lot of the pro-choice crowd that the term "pro-life" is propaganda. It is not. It is, in fact, an accurate description of the position of the people who so label themselves. They believe that the foetus' right to life trumps the right of the mother to control her body. In other words, preserving life is the entire crux of the matter for them. If such a position cannot be described as "pro-life," then I'm really not sure what can. Another pet peeve of mine are these bumper stickers that say "Against abortion? Don't have one!" Obviously, the debate is not so simple, and I do not think anything is gained by resorting to such platitudes. If abortion is murder to you becuase you think that the right to life trumps the right to bodily integrity, then obviously you will not be able to simply stand aside and allow murder to take place. It's as if we were to say "Against slavery? Don't own one!" Slavery is obviously not a "live-and-let-live" issue, and neither is abortion. Like it or not, those of us on the pro-choice side are going to have to confront and talk to those on the pro-life side. Hand-waving dismissals of their position are inadequate - and disingenuous besides.

Feminists may not simultaneously claim that men are not allowed to have opinions on abortion but that they are required to pay child support. It's not that I am unsympathetic to claims that abortion should be entirely a woman's issue. They are, after all, the ones who have the babies. It's just that I think that once you insist that men take responsibility for the children they father, you have admitted that there is a male component to the issue. If women are allowed to terminate pregancies for convenience without any input from men, then why are not men allowed to terminate fatherhood for convenience withoutany input from women? So feminists need to make up their minds. Either men are allowed to vote on this issue, and we can have a child support system, or men are not allowed to vote on this issue, and there will be no enforcement of child support payments.

This will have only scratched the surface of the issue. I have not, for example, even touched on the practical implications of abortion policy - such as any social side-effects that it may have (it is often claimed that the sudden availability of abortions in 1973 is responsible for the general drop in crime roughly 20 years later). This debate has been going on for over 50 years now (33 since Roe), and it will go on, I suspect, for the rest of my lifetime. I support a woman's absolute right to choose - for whatever reason (including "convenience"), in whatever stage of the pregnancy. But I recognize that the issue is complicated. We have a long fight ahead of us - not one I look forward to or enjoy, particularly, but one I am ready for.


At 7:47 PM, Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Hey Joshua!
Thanks for your thoughts on abortion. In public and on my webapge, I tried to be careful to refer both to my religious beliefs and what science says about when life begins. They both point to similar conclusions in terms of public policy but speak to different audiences. In particular, I understand that people have various allergies to religion. But the reference to science is meant to put them at ease. Any thoughts on how to appeal to each group? Reply to me at to make sure I get your response. Thanks! eric


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