Tuesday, June 19, 2012

My new thoughts on abortion

Part I: My first flip-flop

About a year ago, I wrote a post using science to justify a moderately pro-life stance. My argument was that the question of when life began was not a moral question, but a scientific one. After quoting Jefferson’s Declaration, I wrote that “if the rights of all created men are to be defended, it is necessary for the government to define when a man is created.” I argued that science, unlike partisanship or religion, was a neutral tiebreaker for making that determination. After consulting scientific definitions of life, I concluded that a fetus undeniably meets all of those definitions after the first trimester; therefore, I deduced that abortion should be legal before then, but illegal after that time.

Today, I see major flaws in that argument. I now recognize that it is impossible to reduce an issue with as many moral implications as abortion law to scientific study. Science can be used to help form our own individual beliefs if we so choose, but there is no evading the reality that abortion is an inherently moral issue. Science and morality do not operate on like terms, because words have different connotations in different contexts. The scientific definition of life is not the same as the political definition, just as the political definition of “force” is not the same as the scientific definition. As such, it doesn’t matter when life scientifically begins, because that definition was not the one referred to in our Declaration or constitution. Words used in a philosophical context are not bound by their scientific definitions. And unlike a science textbook, a philosophy certainly has no consensus about when life begins; that is a highly subjective, opinionated definition.

This week, I wrote an entry called “Governing Morality”, in which I argued that government should not be in the business of enforcing those opinions on everyone. Laws restricting abortion, like all law, requires the use or threat of force on other people. In the abstract, wielding that force is wrong. It can only be justified if there is almost universal consensus that the ends pursued by the governance justify the means employed by it. Everyone agrees that people have a right to life, but not everyone agrees on when life begins; murder is universally held as wrong, but abortion is not universally held to be murder. The morality of abortion is highly subjective. Therefore, to prevent a woman from having an abortion is to forcibly impose your hotly contested personal opinion about when life begins on one who disagrees with it. It is authoritarianism, and in principle, I believe it to be wrong.

In this way, my approach to the issue of abortion has flip-flopped. A year ago, I felt that science could serve as an objective arbiter on a moral issue, and used that cop out to justify the use of force on the many who have moral qualms with the scientific definition. Now, I feel that science is irrelevant to the discussion, and recognize that there is no universal, one-size-fits-all way of determining when life begins. My personal beliefs on abortion have not changed, but my tolerance of disagreeing beliefs has increased. The factors I considered in forming an opinion then are not the same as the factors I consider now.

Part II: Policy implications

But applying this change in approach to policy is tricky, because it does not negate the necessity of drawing a line somewhere. If a mother wishes to shoot her healthy child in the head the moment after it is born, we cannot tolerate that disagreement in opinion. There is a nearly universal consensus (excluding Peter Singer…) that infanticide is murder. Where that consensus begins is where tolerance becomes a larger sin than the force and coercion of law enforcement, and where the ends may justify the means. The trick is determining where that universal consensus begins. First term abortion is clearly a subjective and polarizing issue; post-birth infanticide is clearly not. The turning point between the two is anything but clear.

In searching for that point, two things become apparent to me. Firstly, just as science cannot tell us an objective answer to this question, neither can math. Listing a slew of pregnancy date cutoffs with their corresponding poll numbers (which naturally vary based on the wording of the poll) is not very helpful to forming policy. As I said in my earlier post, there is no magic number. Drawing this line is itself a subjective moral decision, varying based on how tolerant each of us is willing to be, and how heavily we weigh the forced oppression of others as a moral wrong.* All I can offer on such matters is my own humble opinion, by identifying which combination of tolerance and governance I personally am most comfortable with.

Secondly, it seems silly to choose any one date on such a dicey and inexact timeline as the absolute cutoff point. There exists no 60 second window after which abortion is a mortal sin, and before which it’s perfectly okay. This is why strict, arbitrary, across-the-board cutoffs at birth, inception, or various trimesters are so problematic. If you can’t kill your kid the hour after it’s born, is it really any better to kill it the hour before its born? If abortion is okay on the last day of the 13th week, is it really any worse on the first day of the 14th week? Most people don’t think so. It seems some sort of scaling mechanism might be in order. What about an initial deadline, followed small grace period charging a steep fine? Just as with air pollution and the carbon tax, imposing a cost on the undesirable activity forces economization. The added cost may cause those considering an abortion at the margin to reconsider, while the proceeds of the fines could go to fund reproductive health awareness programs. Or, if there are concerns about this restricting poor people disproportionately, perhaps substitute community service for the fine?

Admittedly, these solutions are messy, hastily constructed, and problematic. It’s impossible to make everybody happy, but compromises like this risk making nobody happy. The law lends itself to black and white, easily definable and easily enforceable distinctions, and to do it any other way is a major headache. But that doesn’t mean the convenient solution is the most just. A little creativity should be able to avoid establishing one hard and fast deadline.

If I really had to use dates, I would pencil in a line around the end of the second trimester. If I were charged with drafting legislation to my state’s Congress about where the specific line must be drawn, I would make the initial deadline the end of the 24th week, with certain exceptions being allowed up to an extended deadline of 26 weeks. My reasons for this are varied. I have limited scientific knowledge of how tiny little cell clusters turn into cute little babies. But do know my moral opposition to killing gets progressively stronger the closer the former becomes to the latter. And according to this chart, after the 24th week the fetus has a 50% chance of survival, with viability being very likely during the entire third trimester.

I also have limited statistical knowledge of how many abortions are desired after certain dates, and therefore of how many would need to be forcibly prevented by the state. But I do know that according to this Ezra Klein interview with an abortion doctor, less than 1% of all abortions occur after 13 weeks. And lastly, I have limited knowledge of the opinions of 300 million Americans. But I do know that according to this Gallup Poll taken in June 2011, 79% of even pro-choice respondents felt abortion in the third trimester should be illegal. That puts the overall percentage of Americans who oppose third trimester abortion at around 90%, a figure approaching the universal consensus I’d need to justify the oppression of the rest.

Part III: Response to defenders of third-term abortion legality

Even so, the number of people who support third-trimester abortion is far greater than the number of people who support murder. As such, some may say that by banning any abortion at all, I’m being inconsistent with my uber-tolerant libertarian philosophy. Some libertarians agree with them. Did I not just finish a blog entry denouncing moral imperialism? Yet in some important ways, I feel abortion is different from the other moral majority issues I’ve cited. Unlike most modern political debates, it is not a question of what rights people have; rather, it is a question of who those rights apply to. Unlike homosexuality, drug use or money management, third trimester abortion is not an issue of each person doing as they please with their own bodies and their own property. It is an issue of doing as one pleases with what may or may not be someone else’s body. Unlike those issues, it is not a victimless crime. Restricting liberty is never ideal, but it’s not always the greatest possible wrong.

Ardent pro-choice advocates argue that restricting even one of the choices available to women at any time is a greater moral offense than killing a fetus the day before it is born. I find their argument unconvincing. One strategy is to cite isolated worst-case-scenarios involving desperate teen mothers and helpless victims, and then to conflate the exception with the rule. The classic example is when the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy. Of course abortion should be legal in such situations, just as it’s legal to kill an adult who poses an immediate threat to your life. Most state laws banning third-trimester abortion have built in exceptions for this scenario. But in any other scenario, abortion is not a need; it is a want. Cases of rape or incest don’t change that. Yes, both are awful. Yes, I feel terrible for rape victims. But no, that does not make it okay to wait until the child is viable to abort. In either case, the victim should still know they are pregnant long before the fetus becomes a viable child.** All women have a right to choose. They just don’t have a right to take as long as they please on the decision, because doing so kills a living human being.

Some argue that late-term abortion restrictions disproportionately harm women at the extremes of the reproductive age who aren’t expecting pregnancy. Perhaps that’s true; as someone who will never be pregnant, I can never know exactly how long it might take to tell under those circumstances. But it's irrelevant, because it has nothing to do with the rights of the child, and when those rights originate. Some argue that any abortion restriction disproportionately restricts poor women who don’t have access to medical resources or education. That may also be true, but it is also irrelevant. The education level of the agent has no effect on the morality of the agent’s decisions, and legally ignorance is no excuse for any other crime. It is not ideal that poor women know less about their options and may take longer to know what to do or where to go, and it's not ideal that old or very young women aren't expecting pregnancy have a truncated decision making window. It is less ideal that living human children be killed due to that delay. Lastly, some argue that certain mental and physical handicaps in the fetus may not become apparent until the third trimester. That is certainly true. So be it. There is nothing oppressive about being unable to kill your child simply because you found out its retarded. Who among us would walk up to a handicapped person and tell them to their face that they have less value than other people? Mental or physical handicaps do not decrease the rights of adults; why should they decrease the rights of the unborn? The vast majority of people rightfully reject these justifications.

When life begins is a highly subjective moral issue with wide-ranging opinions. I do not believe government should force such opinions on others when it can be avoided. But unfortunately, if government is to defend the right to life for anyone, it must define when life begins for everyone. While no consensus can be built about when life begins, almost everyone can agree that life has begun by the start of the third trimester when the fetus is most likely viable. To about 90% of Americans, the ends of saving that viable child’s life during the third trimester justify the means of forcibly preventing a medical transaction between doctor and patient. That's high enough for me to satisfy the universal morality principle. The start of the third trimester is as early a line as I can draw while still respecting the individual's right to choose; it's as late a line as I can draw while still respecting the individual right to life.


  1. Footnotes:

    *This is the benefit of states’ rights on such issues: the line drawn needn’t be one size fits all. This minimizes the number of people who are oppressed and maximizes the legitimacy of the government’s actions. Let it be perfectly clear that for all the policy opinions I propose in this post, I advocate them on the state level, not the national level.

    ** There are exceptions; the doctor in the Klein interview gives the example of a 12-year old who was molested, and was too confused and terrified to tell her parents until it became obvious. This is a legitimate objection; perhaps my law could be amended for the very young or similar cases, especially if a 12 year old’s life might be endangered by the birth. But in the vast majority of rape pregnancies, the mother has months to make her decision before the third trimester comes around. I’ve already said that no date makes sense as a one-size-fits-all cutoff, but that doesn’t mean we can’t propose one-size-fits-most legislation.

    1. I'm old enough to be your grandmother at least. Here is what I think you need to know as a young man.

      If a man chooses to be against a woman's right to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy, every time he asks a girl or woman to have sex with him, he is asking her to risk for his pleasure the possibility of becoming completely and permanently physically or mentally disabled, perhaps permanently paralyzed, or of dying because of medically unforeseeable consequences in late pregnancy or childbirth if she gets pregnant. However, he is not risking anything comparable for her in return. That is the reality of consenting heterosexual sex, whether he believes he love her or not.

      A large percentage of rape victims contemplate suicide whether or not they become pregnant by rape. Approximately 50% of women who are impregnated by rape choose abortion. When any girl or woman becomes pregnant, during pregnancy, fetal cells and isolated chromosomes leak across the placenta into the girl's or woman's bloodstream. This leakage vastly increases as the pregnancy continues and especially in late pregnancy and childbirth. A girl or woman who has given birth is likely to have many chromosomes from the man in her blood even 25 years later. Some could be beneficial, providing resistance to some diseases, but others could be dangerous, providing liability to even fatal diseases. So if a girl or woman continues a rape pregnancy and gives birth, that rapist can continue to threaten her right in her bloodstream for the rest of her life.

      What is important is to help victims pregnant by rape to make an early decision, and that means making it easier for them to tell others about rape, by not trying to make rape embryos seem like persons rather than the rape weapons they actually are.

      I also think late-term abortion needs to be restricted, and the states do have the right to restrict it. But you have to ask yourself these questions. What about when the fetus is dead? Should a girl or woman have to be its living coffin until the pregnancy comes to term? What about when the pregnancy threatens the woman with serious permanent physical or psychological injury? What about when the fetus has a fatal disease and will die within a short time after birth? What about when the fetus is so deformed that it has no brain? Are legislators really the best qualified people to decide under which circumstances late-term abortion should be allowed? Will they be aware of all the varied horrible circumstances in which late-term abortion might be contemplated by the woman and her doctor?

      Well, these are just a few of the things young people ought to contemplate as they confront adulthood. Good luck!

  2. Thank you for your thoughts! I agree women face larger risks than men from sex, that's just the reality of biology. You accurately described some of that biology in your first two paragraphs. Perhaps that's why women seem to be less gung-ho about promiscuity with lots of different partners, and why society has a double standard regarding whether it's okay for each gender to be promiscuous. But I would also point out that between AIDS, other STD's, and child support, men face risks as well. It's not a free ride, so to speak.

    Regarding late-term abortion, I would not consider removing a fetus which is already dead to be abortion. The whole reason late-term abortion is wrong is because you're killing a human being; if it's already dead, there's nothing wrong about it, and of course it should be legal. I've already discussed how when the woman's life is in danger, abortion should be permitted. And I've already discussed deformities; I do not believe them to be an excuse. Deformed children are still children, and after the third trimester, they still have a right to life. Those matters are entirely separate from the timeline of when life begins, and when it is or isn't okay to kill something. What if it's discovered that an infant has a deformed brain 2 weeks after birth? Would killing it then be okay? What if it's disease that's going to kill it soon is discovered at the age of 5 months? Would infanticide be justified then? Of course not. There is a distinction between something dying, and something being killed. If a human child has a fatal disease, than that disease will kill it; humans will not.