When I was blogging regularly a year or so ago one of my friends told me that I should be more aggressive and opinionated. In honour of that wish, I’ve decided to write an article where I sound off on some of the Pro-Choice arguments I see that strike me as total bullshit.
Cynicism engaged. Let’s begin!
“But You’re Not Being Forced To Have An Abortion”
One fantastically stupid argument which I have seen bandied around is that the pro-life position should give up because: “They’re not being forced to get abortions. Give us the freedom to have them and them the freedom not to. That’s the fair solution.”
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a pro-life advocate for one short second. What’s the most basic way you could summarise their position? My best attempt is: “Abortion is murder”. Therefore what this argument is basically saying, from their point of view, is: “You’re not being forced to murder anyone. Give us the freedom to murder; you will have the freedom not to”. If I put this forward as a justification for legalising murder you would laugh at me. Since that’s what abortion means for a pro-life person, why should they not laugh at you if you use it too? I’m baffled that anyone could consider this to be even obliquely compelling.
Consider this analogy: If a law was passed permitting the sale of a perfume which one section of the population thought was very good but another section found utterly repulsive, you would not deny the second group’s right to argue it should be banned. Of course the analogy breaks down a bit at this point: it’s only perfume so you might well argue that the anti-perfume group will just have to get over it—bad smells are unpleasant but in the grand scheme of things they don’t tend to be morally unbearable. Murder, however, is on a totally different level of seriousness. The right to life is so foundational a moral principle that you cannot tell people to just get over it. “Accept that you have no business in opposing murder” is not an argument that is going to fly.
But perhaps I’m being a bit unfair.
Perhaps people who make this argument have an especially liberal political philosophy—liberal in the traditional sense of wide-ranging individual freedom and small government involvement in society. I also hold the belief that this would be the ideal society in an ideal world (of course, we don’t live in an ideal world so the matter becomes much more complex—but we don’t need to get into that now). Nonetheless, I think it would be incredibly unusual to find someone who would argue that there should be no laws or rules at all. And I would also bet that the first rule people would agree should be preserved is “You aren’t allowed to murder people”. It’s the foundational rule for practically every contemporary concept of society. The suggestion that people should just sit by uncomplaining as what they strongly believe to be murders are being carried out–vindicated by the laws of society–is simply absurd.
Therefore we have two options regarding people who make the “You’re not being forced to have abortions” argument. Either: (a), they have a particularly unusual anarchic political philosophy; or (b), they have not put a single second of genuine thought into the argument which they’re making and how it sounds to the people on the receiving end of it.
I’m a bit of a cynic: I’m going to assume the second option is true.
I think this problem highlights how we should be asking very different questions. In fact, I believe that the issue we should be wondering about is the complete opposite of the “You’re not being forced to have one” line of thought. The question which I find myself asking is: “Why do people who are anti-abortion and live in a country where it is legal not fight to abolish it more vehemently?” I think this is a much more thought-provoking question to wonder about.
My Motivations and Goals in Writing this Article
Let’s take a short break to talk about why I’m writing this article. A lot of it comes from reading Pro-Choice messages on Facebook and hearing about a few of the rallies that have gone on in Dublin recently. Of course, people on my newsfeed who post political views on Facebook are a small subset of Facebook users and an even smaller subset of people in general. Nonetheless, it seems to me that debate which fully acknowledges the valid points of the pro-life argument is surprisingly rare among young Irish people, both online and off. This lack in turn means that bad arguments from the pro-choice side escape unquestioned; they need only be mildly intuitive to be touted as valid. This worries me.
Even more worrying is the vehemence with which many of these posts are written. Outrage and anger can be reasonable products of reasonable thought; left unchecked, however, they run a high risk of spelling its end. It reminds me of the Europeans crossing the Atlantic on a crusade to convert the ignorant heathens; to save the primitives from themselves. Righteousness and fervour are not solely the province of religion and they are almost always the enemy of fair-minded thought. Rallying slogans of “them against us” replace considered thought. I find this unsettling, no matter what form it may take.
[[I am fully aware that I am probably being hypocritical in this regard!! Unfortunately—although we all like to use it in such a way—hypocrisy does not necessarily mean that a person is wrong. I have consoled myself with the fact that you don’t see a lot of people saying what I am saying. In that much at least I hope that I’m adding to the debate in a constructive manner.]]
A Woman’s Bodily Autonomy
Another bad argument is to claim that the main issue regarding abortion is a woman’s bodily autonomy (a woman’s right to make her own decisions regarding her own body). In this regard Pro-Life is better named than Pro-Choice. The issue is about life, not about choice at all.***
Let’s look at autonomy in the case of abortion. Nobody denies that a woman has autonomy over her own body. But what about a foetus’ autonomy over its own body?? If both have autonomy you have to take both into account—you can’t simply ignore one party in an ethical dilemma. And surely abortion directly contravenes the foetus’ bodily autonomy in the most dramatic way possible?
If you say that abortion is about a woman’s bodily autonomy then you have already excluded the foetus as being of any consequence. You’ve taken two steps in your thinking and we need to return to the first. Let’s use this Pro-Choice poster as an example:
“When it’s your body it’s your right to decide.” But isn’t the foetus’ body rather involved as well? That body is not yours; I don’t see how you could possibly have autonomy over it. The argument has already decided something in the background: it’s decided that the foetus and its bodily autonomy aren’t significant at all.
Therefore the question of the woman’s autonomy is secondary and the question of the foetus’ is primary. The argument that a woman’s bodily autonomy justifies abortion is based on the preceding premise that the foetus does not have any, or only has it to an insignificant degree. This is the premise which is being debated. This is the issue which is controversial. This is what we need to be thinking about. What is a foetus and what rights does it have? The question is about the foetus, not about the mother. Endless proselytising about the mother’s bodily autonomy is a waste of time; it is a cacophonous and pointless banging of heads which obscures the genuine points of debate.
Perhaps you believe that a woman’s autonomy completely overrides the foetus’. Perhaps you believe the foetus’ doesn’t have any at all. Either way the thing in question is the status of the foetus. The only situation I can think of where bodily autonomy is the primary question is one where you believe that autonomy always trumps a genuine right to life. And that’s a pretty dubious claim.
***[[There are four main principles when looking at bioethical issues: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice (essentially personal choice; doing good; not doing harm; and giving people what is due to them). I think our basic contemporary liberal morality is summed up by autonomy and non-maleficence: “Do what you want so long as you don’t hurt anyone.” It’s a phrase you hear quite often. I find it a pretty narrow vision of morality; there’s a big difference between passively avoiding harm and actively doing good. It’s the difference between saying “don’t abuse group X” and “respect group X”. A morality which incorporates all four principles is better than one which excludes some.
Yet even if you reduce the debate to autonomy alone, the first thing you must address is the autonomy of the foetus, not the autonomy of the mother. The ontology of the foetus (what a foetus is) is the topic for dispute, not anything else. Is the foetus a person? Does it have rights? Does it have bodily autonomy too?]]***
“We Have to Make Abortions Safe and Legal”
Let’s look at the argument which uses “Women will have abortions whether they’re safe or legal or not” as a justification for legalisation. If they’re going to have them anyway, we should help them have them in the safest way possible. When you look at it like that it seems pretty practical and reasonable. But then people also commit fraud all the time; should we make that safe and legal too?
The idea behind this argument is to protect and safeguard women, and that’s a wonderful thing. But consider the fraud example: we believe fraud is wrong, so when a woman commits fraud it would not be just to make it a safe and legal enterprise. It’s nothing to do with her being female, it’s do with fraud being an injustice. If you believe abortion is wrong, then it would not be just to make it a safe and legal enterprise either. Likewise, this isn’t anti-woman at all; it’s because then an abortion is an injustice.
The argument for safety seems reasonable when you have already decided that there is nothing wrong with abortion. If they’re not doing anything wrong then failing to support them is grossly unjust. However, if they are doing something wrong, then not supporting them actually means that justice is being upheld. The circumstances of abortion are often tragic and you should certainly be sympathetic. But sympathy and justice, for better or for worse, are very different things.
If fraud is wrong we cannot justly condone it. Likewise, whether or not we legally support women who have abortions will be based on whether or not we believe abortion to be wrong. It doesn’t prove which is the case; it just tells us what we should do when we have decided. It cannot justify legalisation on its own; it is a secondary argument.
I read an article in the Guardian which put forward this argument and claimed that to refuse women access to abortion is misogynistic. He said we wouldn’t deny access to abortion to men. I thought this was a facile argument. Pro-Life is not about misogyny, it’s about justice; it’s not about being unfair to women, it’s about being fair to foetuses. Justice doesn’t change if you’re male or female.
The idea that men would be allowed to have abortions although women are not is made-up nonsense based on wishful thinking and emotional manipulation. It generalises, caricatures and reduces the Pro-Life position to misogyny: “All opposition to abortion is motivated by misogyny. Remove misogyny and you remove opposition to abortion.” Step one: take something people don’t like. Step two: substitute it in for something you don’t want them to like either. Step three: profit. Take your empty rabble-rousing rhetoric elsewhere.
A Few Final Thoughts
1. The issue of abortion to save the mother’s life is highly topical in Ireland today. If both mother and child will otherwise die unless an abortion is performed–thereby saving the mother–then I fully agree that this is ok. It should be a last resort but it’s still ok. If there is a choice between saving the mother and saving the child I honestly don’t know which one you should choose.
2. The idea that men should have no opinion on abortion as it is only a women’s issue is just outright rubbish. Perhaps we should replace all the judges in the criminal justice courts with convicted criminals while we’re at it?
3. For people who are unsure about abortion and whether or not it should be legalised I would like to share this idea. The question here is risk. When you throw a bottle in the air there is a risk that you will drop the bottle and it will break. If you decide to throw it in the air anyway, then you are probably willing to accept the possibility of it breaking. If you are unsure if abortion is right or wrong, this means you believe there is a risk that abortion entails murder. A bottle breaking isn’t too serious but a murder happening certainly is. A bottle breaking is usually an acceptable risk to take; the possibility of a murder should never be.
Basically to legalise abortion you have to be certain that it is not murder or that it is but is still acceptable. If you are unsure, you should default to the position that it should not be legal. If you think you’re unsure but still believe it should be legalised, you’re probably a lot more decided than you think.
4. Finally I present to you what I think is an interesting thought experiment regarding abortion:
- Imagine that I was shrunk down to microscopic size and placed in your body. Would it be ok for you to abort me?
- If I would be there for 9 months without noticeable effect, would you do so?
- If I would be there for 9 months and mirrored the effects of pregnancy, would you do so?
- Imagine I was placed in your body because you drank a banana smoothie. You know that people who are accidentally shrunk to microscopic size often get trapped in banana smoothies. You know that drinking the smoothie carries a small chance that you will be implanted with one, but it’s deliciousness outweighs the risk. Unfortunately, this time the odds were not in your favour and you were implanted. How does this situation affect your answers?
- Imagine I was kidnapped and shrunk by an evil scientist. He then kidnapped you and in a horrific and excruciating procedure he implanted me within your body. How does this situation affect your answers?
It’s pretty basic I know, but I think it can help us think about the importance we attribute to different factors in abortion, such as the differences between a foetus and an adult, the experience of pregnancy, the relationship between bodily autonomy and rights to life, and situations involving rape. I’m not trying to pass on any message with this thought experiment; my agenda is clarity.