Monday, March 19, 2012

What's the abortion debate about?

Opinions on abortion tend to coincide with views on other issues so much that abortion becomes deeply tied to personal and political identity. For pro-choice advocates, the pro-lifers are easily depicted as backward religious conservatives: sexist relics of a patriarchal past who still wish to force state power onto the bodies of women. For pro-life advocates, the pro-choicers are easily depicted as irresponsible and immoral seculars: representatives of a generation who would rather murder innocent infants than take responsibility for their own selfish behaviour.

All this is silly, and confuses the debate. At its heart the abortion issue is very simple.

When does life begin?
Both sides agree that new born infants are human beings with the human right to life. Neither side accepts that a baby could be killed for any reason. The pro-life people simply grant that right to the foetus right back to conception. Pro-choice people see the right to life beginning either at birth or at some stage during the pregnancy.

That's what the abortion debate is about. When does an individual develop the unassailable right to life? All this other stuff about religion and identity, about patriarchy and women's rights over their own bodies, is irrelevant. Figure out when the human right to life begins and the debate is over.

The only alternative way of explaining it that I can think of is that one might argue that a foetus does have a right to life, but that the mother's rights supercede it somehow. In the end there may be no clear-cut answer and governments may settle on awkward compromises that will satisfy neither lobby with their moralistic and identity-driven rhetoric.


  1. To expand on the superceding rights of the mother, it is in a way similar to organ donation. A healthy, matching potential donor of a kidney can't be forced to donate a kidney to a sick person, even though the donating person would most likely take no significant harm from it. Even if the sick person dies if he doesn't get the kidney.

    Similarly, a woman cannot be forced to lend her womb to the completely dependent fetus, even if denying her body to the fetus kills it.

  2. Thanks Vidar, that is an interesting way of putting it.

    I think some people might argue that there is a moral difference between letting someone die and actually killing someone. A conjoined twin would not, I guess, be usually allowed to simply kill the attached sibling, though nobody would be expected to somehow surgically attach a dying individual to their bodies to keep them alive. So I think we come back, to some extent, to exploring whether or not the foetus has human rights.

    The very fact that we are talking about it like this is a relief to me! So often the debate is framed in deeply personal terms, with either side trying to demonise the other. It becomes about WHO is immoral, not what is right.

  3. When people talk about abortion I always want to ask them this; what if men could become pregnant? If pregnancy was something men could experience, I think abortion would be normal. I mean, God forbid something as potentially inconvenient as pregnancy disrupting the lives of the rulers of this world. The fact that pregnancy is something that only happens to women is the reason why they have to ask permission from all of society for an abortion if they want or even need one. If men could become pregnant, I doubt that asking for permission to terminate pregnancy would be even considered let alone sought. Readily available abortions, no questions asked would probably be just a reality. Perhaps if men could get pregnant, effective contraception would have become commercially available much sooner than it did, even in Catholic conservative Ireland. Anyway, we'll never know but it's just a thought.

  4. You're buying here into the idea of it being about women's rights, but I don't really agree with that. When women say they have a right to their own bodies, few (some, perhaps) pro-life folk would disagree. It's their right over the foetus that is debated. They would say that a woman can do whatever she feels like with her own body, but add that a foetus is someone else's body, and does not fall under her authority. Like most people would agree that a conjoined twin could not declare control over his brother's body too, even if they share organs, and kill the sibling.

    So we come back again to whether or not the foetus is a human being with human rights. If not, abortion is just a medical procedure. If so, abortion is a killing. As Vidar added, there could be an alternative way of looking at it where they both have rights but the rights of one supercede that of the other.

    All that said, you might be right that a conservative society would have long authorised abortion if it was happening to men! But if so, the moral debate would still continue: does the foetus have rights or not? Perhaps feminists in that alter reality would be campaigning on behalf of the innocent unborn instead!


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