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How we talk about Abortion

I've been bothered by a lot of the arguments made in support of abortion. I support abortion rights, and am very comfortable with my stance, it's just the arguments and characterisations I hear on the topic really irk me. It being my instinct, when I sense controversy, to wade into the middle of it and plant a flag, I won't avoid that here.

First, my position history on the issue.

  • Up through middle school, I had an unjustified position against abortion, considering it taking of life.
  • When I started to develop philosophically at that age, I developed the position that human life is worth protecting, that there doesn't seem to be a solid age at which a decent line should be drawn before which human life is significant, and to go with protecting human life beginning at conception.
  • From middle school to college, I kept that anti-abortion stance, considering it murder, but started to shift my notion of morally significant human life towards the features that make humanity distinct, namely cognition. I concluded that human life that is defective that never develops a brain, as well as human life that has lost brain function, is not morally significant. With this shift, I began to feel gravity to shift my stance away from conception, the brain not having formed yet, but I could not find a hard line to draw so I left it at conception.
  • In college, I eventually became sexually active with my first girlfriend (was actually sexually active with my first-and-so-far-only boyfriend before this, but it naturally didn't come up). As she was on the pill, we once had an awkward conversation on abortion when she poked at the difference between my intuitions and position and our practice, which I was unaware actually involved some potential automatic abortion of recently-fertilised eggs. I didn't feel guilt here, but I was uncomfortable; it didn't change our practice though. In retrospect, the legal position I preferred was a fence (borrowed term for Chalakic moral practice) for the muddy ground that was hard to quantify/embed-into-law, although at the time I didn't have that vocabulary or concept.
  • Over my years in late college and early afterwards, I decided that it would be acceptable and appropriate to move the lines from conception to sometime around when reasonable brain development occurs. This would allow for a better accomodation of the social costs of failing to allow abortion (poor family planning, inadequate finances, dealing with rape, and a general preference for letting people control their lives as they wish) without any moral issues from a human that does not have a mind in any meaningful sense yet. I recognised that this was wading out into muddy waters, but failing to do so seemed to pose a greater harm.
  • I kept a stance of wanting abortion banned in the third trimester while keeping it legal in the first two for many years; up to and through most of the ten years I spent at Carnegie Mellon. As I developed my socialism, I came to incorporate it into the (very broad) list of services that I believe the state should provide, free of charge, to every citizen on demand. I felt the end of the second trimester was kind of arbitrary and only roughly lined up with brain development, but that it was a good compromise between the interest of protecting human sentience and recognising the social and autonomy interests that would be harmed in a ban.
  • Over the last few years, I have come to a position that while I still recognise a harm in last-trimester abortion, sentience is not a binary proposition; it's something that develops slowly. I have shifted my position to where I would only see abortion banned once labour has started (and would prefer to have it treated roughly like manslaughter in that rare case).
  • I am comfortable with Roe v Wade as it stands, and my position is close enough to the (current) legal norms in the United States that I am eager to defend them as they see fit, and apart from supporting bans on partial-birth abortion, I am not too fussy about getting my labour-based line in the sand installed into law.
That's my current stance.

I am bothered by these arguments made on what I've come to feel as my side:

  • It's nobody's business but the woman what happens with her body - Not so. It is within the realm of society, through the state, to regulate anything it sees fit to regulate. If somehow some moral issues come up with prostate exams or treatment of testicular cancer, the state might have a role in regulating them too. The reason I feel this should not be regulated is simply and only that I don't think the fetus generally is morally significant because its brain has not developed enough yet, and up until birth is imminent, even when the brain is developing the fetus has not yet had the experiences needed to become meaningfully a person. Thought experiment: If humans developed differently and fetuses had conversational capacity late in pregnancy but before birth, I would certainly want to ban abortion once they could meaningfully converse (except when the would-be-mother's health is at stake). Hands-off-women's-bodies is not a principle I'd recognise, it's just that with real humans, there is not adequate justification to intervene.
  • Opposing abortion is anti-woman - Also not so. I was not any more anti-woman when I opposed abortion than I am now. I just was considering the personhood of fetuses differently; younger me still had three sisters, took women's studies classes, still was more comfortable interacting with women than men (probably because I have three sisters and no brothers), still cared about general autonomy of people (maybe even moreso than now, as I was a libertarian), it just was balanced against a strong interest that I no longer apply. Besides, there are plenty of anti-abortion women. I argue with them now. Calling them anti-woman is absurd.
  • Men shouldn't have positions on this - Also not so. Disqualification arguments are not acceptable. However, I do have some sympathy for this when the institutions we have are so gender-unbalanced, but I suspect were a number of Michelle Bachmanns there deciding policy on this, things would not be that different. Probably. It's still worth changing the gender (and racial) mixes in politics, but that's a separate issue and mostly (not entirely) tangental to this issue.
I am nervous about criticising these bad arguments too loudly though; the problem with the abortion debate is that it easily reaches an impasse, based on when we begin to recognise interests of developing human life. People could draw one or more lines at various points, from conception to brain development to labour to birth to sometime after birth. Various societies have explored all these options. Various philosophies have taken various stances on this (as I mentioned in an earlier post, Saint Augustine believed in progressive ensoulment, like the ancient Greeks did, and so he had multiple thresholds rather than the now-common-among-Abrahamists full-rights-at-conception stance). These bad arguments are artificially strong and fall apart at any significant probing, but they're not designed to be probed because most people who would challenge them are ideological foes and are more likely to be shunned than conversed with. Being artificially strong, they shore up the uncertainty that might otherwise attach to the complicated arguments for (or against, if we look at their bad-argument counterparts on the other side) abortion-accepting policy.

When I'm at a rally and hear some chants that seem really off to me on this issue, I generally will remain silent. I would love to nudge people for better arguments, but that doesn't seem to be the time, and I recognise that most of the things that go on signs or get put into rallying cries are generally pretty stupid. Rallies are not the time for careful dialogue or reasonable/nuanced stances, unfortunately. And maybe rallies are needed if practical results are to be achieved that I want as much as the people I'm marching with. It still bothers me to be part of a crowd saying such things, because I want to be able to take both the ends seriously (which I do) and the discourse seriously in anything I take part in, and that latter thing only rarely works.



It's nobody's business but the woman what happens with her body.

I am with you that this point doesn't belong in an ultimate position on abortion, but these arguments have value anyway. They serve to combat the nasty sexism-driven arguments against abortion (men imposing their own value systems without regard for woman's health/welfare), which seem to be a lot of what's keeping the issue tense. I'd disagree with the argument if used against a non-sexism-based point.

Opposing abortion is anti-woman

Perhaps "neglectful"? You list a bunch of ways in which you weren't sexist, but there are other issues at play too. What would younger-you have said about aborting pregnancies from rape? (A human's life gets unwillingly destroyed either way!) "Anti-woman" may be an extreme/inflammatory phrasing, but philosophising about murder from on top of Mt. Male Privilege without considering associated issues is intolerably neglectful, even if unintentionally so.

Men shouldn't have positions on this - Also not so. Disqualification arguments are not acceptable.

Totally with you.

Rallies are not the time for careful dialogue or reasonable/nuanced stances, unfortunately.

Also if you were to object people would argue back, and whether or not they find flaws in your position, it'd still make the rally of split minds. Rallies are for presenting unified human emotion, not carefully refined views (which I don't think is unfortunate :P).
Regarding the anti-woman point, what associated issues are you talking about that would make philosophising neglectful?

I don't recall what I thought about issue from rape. I would guess I found it troubling but considered the deference due to human life to override any concern less strong than the health of the would-be-mother (that being a kind of self-defense/necessity matter), but I can't say that for sure because it was a fairly long time ago now.

I may have written about this, but ifso it's probably in one of my old philosophy chapbooks, which are quite disorganised.

Edited at 2012-06-16 06:31 am (UTC)
well, the rape one was the only one on my mind there. similar problems comes up if, say the woman is too young/infirm to safely give birth, or (more fuzzily) if it's known the child will have a debilitating mental illness.

the idea is that pro-life arguments that are backed up solely by "keep the baby alive" tend to stay around by blatantly ignoring the other valuables at risk, most of which are the mother's welfare.
I think people can reasonably handle these things if they think enough about them regardless of their gender, if that's the direction their positions are going. I don't think the "Mount Male Privilege" perspective helps a lot, particularly given that there are plenty of women who are anti-abortion and they're as involved in the discussions over these matters as anyone else. At the time there were a fair number of feminists who were anti-abortion (as well as not-sex-positive feminists; I have no idea if that's still the case, having lost contact with that community).
I think people can reasonably handle these things if they think enough about them regardless of their gender, if that's the direction their positions are going.

Yes. But I think many people don't think hard enough, and that's what these types of arguments are trying to combat. They are not cut out for philosophical exchanges, because the people they are being used against are not cut out for philosophy.

I don't think the "Mount Male Privilege" perspective helps a lot, particularly given that there are plenty of women

Well, mount privilege in general. Male in most cases. I suspect most pro-life women would suddenly turn out to be hypocrites if their never-been-inconveniently-pregnant-yet privilege suddenly evaporated.
I think you're being unduly dismissive of a group of people's ethics to presume that most people would toss it to the wind if it were ever tested.
was that re: the second bit there? if so, perhaps; but the main point stands. i agree that it isn't right to say "pro-life is anti-woman" in general, but in many specific cases it seems to hold.
It reminds me a bit of the "no atheists in foxholes" argument; "oh, you're not really serious about your beliefs, but mine are natural"
"even though it's true, it's arrogant and unproductive to say"?

you are probably right here, but this point is rather different from how it's written in the second bullet.
No, I just think it's flat-out wrong, *and* it's not taking differences of perspective seriously.
I think one of the big privileges involved in being able to not examine one's abortion opinion too closely is likely to be class privilege, actually -- if accidentally getting pregnant is going to be basically okay because you can afford to feed another mouth (/pay for daycare/not have to work) and can afford to pay for whatever medical complications come up during pregnancy, it's going to feel a lot less immediate. (Cynical me also says that the higher classes can afford to pay for an abortion even when it's illegal.)
Good point.
It's nobody's business but the woman what happens with her body

A different phrasing of this, which I find much more agreeable, is "nobody should ever be forced to donate organs to another person."
When you asked on Twitter if we ever find arguments for a view we hold reprehensible, abortion was the one that came to mind.

I think a lot of these arguments are consequences of strawmanning. I think for a lot of pro-choice people, it's so axiomatic that the fetus isn't a real person yet that they don't really believe that that's the underpinning of the conservative viewpoint. Instead they seem to think that conservatives oppose abortion because they are misogynists and/or are anti-sex.

The argument that bothers me most is the "what about rape" argument. If the fetus is really a person, then it doesn't matter if the mom was raped; the fetus still has rights. And if the fetus ISN'T really a person, then we shouldn't really care what the mom's reasons for wanting an abortion are.

Another of the arguments that grates on me is the "Against abortion? Don't have one" bumpersticker. To a conservative that's just like saying "Against murder? Don't murder people." It's nonsensical. If something is grossly immoral, the solution isn't to just refrain from doing it yourself. How would we feel about "Against invading Iraq? Don't join the army." That just doesn't cut it.

I think there IS a useful argument in there about recognizing that there are moral gray areas where there isn't widespread consensus about the right thing to do, and that there is value in leaving those gray areas to personal conscience instead of law. But that's not the argument "Don't have one" puts forth.

On a side note, I used to be a lot more conflicted about abortion before I had a baby. I'm a vegetarian and try to practice ahimsa. I'm not comfortable with the idea of taking life, even if it's not conscious/sentient life. After going through pregnancy, though, I am completely appalled by the idea that a woman might ever be coerced into going through that experience against her will. I'd have to be very damn sure the fetus deserved rights to be willing to force women to go through that against their will.

Edited at 2012-06-16 07:03 pm (UTC)
I was nervous about touching this issue; I was still chewing on the events of a march for abortion rights that I attended not terribly long ago and how complicated that felt for me, but also comparing it to some of my experiences in occupy and differences between discourse and philosophy.

Interesting that you mention ahimsa; I never thought about that angle before. I hope that my remaining reservation about abortion (that is, drawing the line at the beginning of labour rather than birth itself), if ever implemented, would provide adequate time for people to decide before then if they wish to abort.

Maybe the strawmanning is so tempting because the passions run so strong on both sides of the issue, but it's so hard to create/defend a rationale for personhood; people need more solid passional/factual ground than what's really available?
I feel really uncomfortable with the idea of abortion right up to the beginning of labor, but I really don't know where I'd draw the line. Viability seems too early. However, I don't spend too much time worrying about it because this is exceedingly rare. 90% of abortions occur in the first trimester; nobody goes around carrying a baby for seven months and then goes "Gee willikers, I wonder if I should abort this thing?"

I'm not sure about passions running strong on both sides. My US Government class, 15 years ago or so now, used abortion as the best example of an issue where a small minority people feel extremely strongly in one direction or the other, but most people are actually pretty ambivalent.