Thursday, October 26, 2006

More Thoughts on Abortion

Samizdata's abortion thread went strong for 4 days and now is dying down. Discussion in the comments section was remarkably civil given the topic. Since the thread was started in part at my request (I asked another commenter to explain his pro-life views from a Libertarian point of view, in part to rethink my own views on the subject), I thought I would take some time to review some of the thinking I've been doing on it.

The position I started with was that human life begins at conception, along with a full right to life. However, the mother's right to bodily integrity is also an inviolable right, and as no right to life can be exercised that demands the services or sacrifices of another, the mother's right trumps the child's right. She may abort for any reason up to actual birth.

The position I ended up with. I went into the debate expected to emerge with an opinion a bit more favorable to the pro-life side. After all, I had asked for a Libertarian justification of the pro-right position (for the record, I don't accept religious justifiations of political or moral positions). Unfortunately, the person who took up the "rights begin at conception" position was more interested in his self-image as someone who had taken the dispassionate view and reasoned his position from first principles to be bothered with answering questions, so what I got from that end, really, was a caricature of the pro-life position. In short, I'll need to have another one of these discussions with a less emotional pro-lifer before I can say I've honestly buried the position. However, caricatures can be useful too, and it's larely some reductio ad absurdum views on the pro-life argument that I wanted to discuss.

  • The eugenics objection doesn't work. Ok, I admit it, I'm a sucker for slippery slope arguments. Use them all the time myself. One case you often hear pro-lifers making is that legal abortion is tantamount to an endorsement of eugenics - you know, because in theory it allows people to abort children they simply don't want because, well, they might be the wrong sex or not likely to be tall enough, or whatever else. Without ever having really thought about it, I had always assumed this to be a decent argument. Not strong enough to overcome the woman's right to do what she will with her body, of course, but nevertheless a reasonable case. During the course of this debate, though, I had occasion to do some thinking on it, and I realize that it is, in fact, simply ridiculous after all. There is nothing in banning abortion that prevents eugenics, in fact, because once the technology is available we will presumably be able to string DNA together ourselves - no need for sex at all, really, or even direct use of a single sperm cell and single egg for fertilization. That is, given the amount of capital currently thrown at biotechnology, I can easily see "designer DNA" happening in my lifetime. Nothing about life begining at conception prevents this because stringing DNA together is just conception by another name. Fine, perhaps the pro-life position prohibits us from aborting failed such experiments, but it's hard to see what it would do about a general eugenics program, given about 30 years of advancement in medical technology. This isn't the sort of outcome my principled look at the matter would have led me to expect. After all, I had assumed that I was in an argument of body rights (those of the woman) versus the overriding sanctity of life (the pro-life position). But I realize now that the reasoned (as opposed to religious - which actually is a "sanctity of life" position) pro-life position is no such thing.

  • Development plays a role in legal status. Again, my position had always been fairly divorced from the "messiness" of the issue. I had just assumed that children were full persons at conception, but that the mother's right to bodily integrity was the overriding concern (i.e. in the legal sense it simply didn't matter that the child was a "person" - that only became a concern after birth). However, arguing this over the past couple of days I've come to see that that's unsustainable. Development plays a role - it must. This is obvious when we think about things like prohibitions on sexual relations with children. Of course, any bans on sex with children will be based on the notion that children are immature. Sexual relations with them are forbidden because they (a) are not fully sexually developed and (b) are not cognitively mature enough to give legal consent anyway. Granted, the age of consent is an arbitrary line (some people are ready for sex early, others are arguably never emotionally mature enough to handle it), but the point is that the right to give sexual consent is something that one is not born with. And of course I've only chosen this particular example because it is so stark. Any number of others would do: the right to make medical decisions for oneself, for example, doesn't accrue to children. Neither does the right to inherit property or own businesses, etc. etc. Well, then why not a right to life? Why isn't this a diminished right for a time as well? Indeed, I can think of no good reason why it is not, and several why it is. Contrary to what I had always assumed, the mere existence of combined human DNA is not a sufficient demarcation of when a right to life begins. It would, indeed, be absurd to maintain that it were. See next item.

  • DNA alone cannot be afforded legal protection - the thing we value must lie elsewhere. Over the course of the discussion, I presented as an example/thought experiment the idea that scientists have developed the ability to splice DNA together. Suppose these cells are stored in some solution in a container, and one of the scientitsts working on the project accidentally drops the container. I think it is fair to say there isn't a person on the planet who would charge the poor chap (or girl, I mean! Because we all know women are just as capa... yeah yeah) with manslaughter. It simply isn't, can not be mere DNA that we value. We can easily imagine manufacturing DNA chemcially, and this just isn't the same. No, it's something about the development into a full adult that matters. I didn't like having to face this because I'm now no longer sure what it is, exactly, that we base our right to life on - but at times in the past in my life I have supported positions that assert that it's consciousness (with all that that implies - including legal infanticide and wanton euthanasia of coma patients). I will have to consider re-adopting that position, as it seems the only rational one.

  • There doesn't seem to be anything particularly wrong with infanticide. Of course, we want to forbid it as a scheme of general respect for human life. Once a child is separate from the mother, the mother's right to bodily integrity no longer applies, and so there is nothing that trumps the child's right to life. Ergo, we can't simply kill it or even let it die of exposure. That should have been done by the mother before term if we were going to do it. However, given all the points I've made above, I can't see infanticide as full murder. Something like voluntary manslaughter, but tailored to this situation so that it does not have to be a crime of passion, would seem to be more appropriate.

Paradoxically, I've come out of the debate believing more strongly than before in my "legal life begins at birth" position, but I'm no longer as comfortable with that position as I used to be. This issue is really messy; there don't seem to be clean answers to be found anywhere. So I guess you could say I'm more pro-choice than ever, but also more willing than ever to listen to new viewpoints. YUCK! Time to go shoot some squirrels before I get the urge to pray to a crystal or tolerate Islam or something.


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