Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

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.

Tags: politics
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