Abortion is a hot topic again in the US. The supreme court just overturned the Roe vs Wade verdict from 1973 which gave women a right in the whole US to be able to have an abortion. This new ruling will allow US states to pass their own abortion laws. Many are expected to restrict or outright outlaw abortions.
The debate is very emotional. Personally, I always support taking decision making away from the central government and giving it to more local authorities, even if I happen to agree with the central government. That is why I welcome this decision. That, however, has less to do with the actual topic of abortion and more with a pragmatic general scepticism of centralising power.
On the actual subject I am very pro choice. The pro choice/pro life debate is an interesting and complicated philosophical question. There are good arguments on both sides of the debate. I will try to go through the arguments and evaluate their validity. Ultimately, I believe, while it is possible to formulate a case against abortion, it is very difficult to make a fully coherent argument for that position. The closest position to a coherent argument is some version of the pro choice position.
Let me start by trying to make the most coherent argument against abortion. At the heart of the pro life argument is the assumption that human beings have fundamental rights, one of which is the right to live.
Let us for the moment assume that that is true. The argument then shifts to the question of what is a human being? The answer is, unfortunately, not fully objective. It is highly dependent on one’s world-view. One could simply define a human being as a living organism with a full human genome. Even with that definition, however, it is not clear whether abortion should be allowed or not. From conception, an embryo certainly has a human genome, but is an embryo at the beginning of a pregnancy a living organism? It seems difficult to argue that a few human cells constitute a full human being.
One could then argue that while these cells are not a full human being yet, they will become one later. Okay, but in that case we are not just giving actual human beings rights, but also potential human beings. The problem with that argument is, why start with the beginning of a pregnancy? A sperm and an ovum have the potential to become a unique human being. If potential human beings have rights, should we then not argue in favour of bringing as many ovums as possible together with sperms? Many opponents of abortion usually argue the opposite, by preaching sexual abstinence in most situations.
Leaving the problem of what is a human being aside, if one assumes that human life starts with conception, based on, for example, religious believes then it becomes possible to oppose abortion seemingly consistently. It is, however, very much worth keeping in mind that this position is weak, as it is based on an arbitrary definition of human life that is legitimate, but not shared by everyone.
Do humans, however, really have rights for simply being alive? Making rights dependent purely on the fact of life is historically an exceptional argument. It is also a concept of rights that most people today probably do not hold, including those who claim to do so.
Other than human life, there is the philosophical concept of personhood. Slaves in the US, for example, were seen as humans, but not as full persons, which is why it was considered to be legitimate to take some or even all of their rights away.
No one would defend this particular concept of personhood today. However, the problem of what is a person still matters in questions like abortion. The strict anti-abortion argument is that personhood equals human life and starts with conception. Therefore, an abortion violates the embryos fundamental right to live. It is nothing short of murder.
As we have already seen, while this view of personhood can be in itself consistent, it is weak because it is based on arbitrary assumptions. I say can be, because I actually do not believe that the advocates of this position themselves really believe it. I will get to that in a moment.
But first, we can now see a coherent argument against abortion. In order to argue this position one must believe in two things. First, human live begins with conception. Second, the pure fact of being alive gives this human being full personhood with the right to live.
A first attack to this argument could be that the embryo can be seen as an intruder into the body of the woman, and abortion therefore as self defence. Most people would agree that an intruder into one’s property can be asked to leave. And if there is a credible case that one’s life is in danger, there even is an argument to legitimately use lethal force to expel the intruder. In other words, most people would agree that in case of certain types of conflict certain people can loose their right to live. Many would even argue that by committing certain crimes, some criminals can loose their personhood, which is why they can be executed.
If our rights really come from the pure fact of being alive then how come we can take them away from anyone, even criminals? After all, criminals are human being that are alive. If this fact gives them their rights and their rights have nothing to do with how they conduct themselves, then it does not seem legitimate to ever kill a criminal. There are some consequent pacifist, like the Amish, who do not believe in self defence. But those are the exception. Most people would agree that rights can be lost when someone behaves in a certain way.
This concession is a tacit admittance that simply being alive is not sufficient to have rights, even in the eyes of most anti-abortion advocates. The ability to behave morally has something to do with it. That is why we do not grant animals the same rights as humans. They are alive, they may even be sentient, but they are not persons. They lack certain skills that are required to be a person.
If this argument is correct and we can take someone’s right to live away if he enters our property then it certainly needs to be valid for the most sacred property of all, which is one’s body.
There is one rescue for the pro life position from this, and that is to argue that this particular intruder was invited in. The embryo is a direct result of the actions of the woman having sex with someone. Therefore the embryo is not really an intruder and abortion not really self defence. Even if that were true, however, it is not clear that someone who was invited in cannot be invited out again. This is particularly true if we consider that this person was not actively invited in, but by accident.
Another clear indicator that pro life advocates do not really believe that full personhood starts with conception is that they normally do not accept that children have the full rights of adults. It is, for example, totally normal and accepted to put children on a nightly curfew. Indeed it is accepted that parents can tell their children, often up until the age of 18, which places they can visit and at what times. Children are also not allowed to enter into many types of contracts. Treating adults in the same way usually requires the conviction for a crime in a fair trial. In other words, most people believe that children only have a limited right to control their own lives, which is seen as a fundamental human right for adults.
By accepting that children have fewer rights compared to adults, there is again an implicit acknowledgement that they do not have full personhood yet. There has to be some kind of legally significant difference between children and adults. And that difference cannot be that they are not both human beings, which they are. Sure children have enough personhood to have the right to live and the right to not be physically and mentally abused, but there are limitations to their rights compared to adults.
Is it therefore believable that pro life advocates believe that we get full personhood through the fact of being alive? Why then do children don’t get all the rights of adults? The obvious answer is that children do not have the same capabilities as adults. They simply are not able to make certain decision and therefore are denied certain rights.
People who agree with this basically acknowledge that personhood is not as simple as having human genes or a “soul”. We all acknowledge that actual capabilities matter on some level when it comes to rights. Personhood is, therefore, better described as something we grow into and arguably even grow out of again later in life. At old age we find similar issues of how to deal with people who have become dement or are plugged to machines that keep them alive without being able to respond.
But if we can agree that personhood is something we grow into, then it becomes more difficult to argue that a young embryo with no conscience or self awareness should have the full personhood right to live, even if it is in strong conflict with the interests of the pregnant woman to make important decisions about her body and her life. The woman, of course, is unquestionable a full person with full self awareness. To declare an unconscious embryo as a full person strikes me to be a very weak argument. This is at the very least true at the beginning of a pregnancy. The argument for personhood then becomes stronger the more the pregnancy progresses.
In order to make the strictly anti-abortion argument more convincingly, one could argue that even though the embryo is not a full person yet, it is dangerous or even outright wrong to give humans the right to make the decision who gets to become a full person and who does not.
That, however, is not fully convincing either. I would agree that the government should never get involved in such decisions. I would also agree that there should be a bias to not terminate the pregnancy. But this bias usually exists. Unless we are dealing with some psychopathic individuals, women usually do not take the decision to abort lightly. In fact, the pro life advocates make an important point when they point out that an abortion can be traumatising for women. Abortion, therefore, is nothing that should be taken lightly. It is a very difficult decision to make. The struggle that most women go through when they have an abortion is nothing else but an expression of an inherent bias towards keeping the baby. If that bias is overruled then there are usually good reasons for that.
The pro life advocates could counter this by saying that there is no reason good enough to not allow someone to become a full person. But then again, it is difficult to make that argument coherently. We make the decision who can become a person and who cannot every day by simply abstaining from sexual activity. Whenever a fertile male and female meet, and they do not end up having sex with each other, they essentially make a decision to not give the child, that might have come out of this, a chance. Why is it acceptable to make that decision at that stage but not at the stage after having that sex? For the child it makes no difference why it is not allowed to grow into a full person, the result is the same.
To make a coherent argument against having the power to decide who becomes a person and who does not, one would need to argue for as much sexual activity as possible, possibly even advocate rape. Wait rape? Rape is a very severe crime that causes women enormous suffering. Sure it is! But isn’t the essence of the anti-abortion argument that the suffering of women can be ignored when it comes to giving a human being the chance to live?
I have, of course, never met anyone who would argue for maximising sexual activity. As mentioned earlier, a lot of the people who say they are pro life advocate the exact opposite, which is a very strict abstinence from sexual activity until a person is married.
Why insist on marriage? The reason is obvious. Marriage gives a secure environment for raising children. By insisting on marriage, there is an implicit acknowledgement that it is indeed important to control which children get a chance and which do not. It can be very bad to get children if it is not in the right circumstances in someone’s life. It can have profoundly negative impacts both for the mother as well as the child itself. It can even have a bad impact on society as a whole.
These problems, and the distress caused by them, seem to be good enough reasons for most pro life people to advocate denying potential children the right to live by not conceiving them. Yet these same people then make the argument that it is not a good enough reason to terminate a pregnancy if getting the child will have profoundly negative effects on the life of the mother. That seems very incoherent.
The anti-abortion argument seems compelling. We are saving babies and who does not like babies. At closer look however, this is an argument that is difficult to make coherently. It is difficult to argue that an early embryo is a full human being. It is even more difficult to argue that it has full personhood. Furthermore, it is not convincing to argue that life itself is what gives us rights. Almost no one seems to really believe that.
The argument that even potential persons have rights is even more messy. Opportunities of giving new humans the chance to life are ubiquitous. We pass on most of them deliberately. The people who claim to be pro life are often some of the strongest advocates of passing opportunities. Indeed, there is a universal agreement that it is important that we can control which of the very few potential human beings will win the lottery and really get to live.
These facts make the strict anti-abortion argument not fully coherent. It seems to be that it is a more reasonable position to allow abortion at the very least up to a point within a pregnancy. Where an embryo can be seen to be enough of a person to have the right to live that overrules the interests of the mother is difficult to determine objectively. It is highly dependent on someone’s world view and personal preferences. But declaring a few human cells without a conscience and self awareness at the beginning of a pregnancy to be a full person is a bit of a stretch.
I am under no illusion that this political debate will be decided by who has the most coherent arguments. The number one rule of political debate is that emotions beat rational arguments. And this debate is very emotional. We naturally have a strong attachment to our fellow human beings, which is a good thing. Still, thinking through the arguments, the strict anti-abortion position seems difficult to defend without being accused of hypocrisy. While debates are not fully dictated by rational arguments, making the right arguments might have an impact.