On celebrating and justifying abortion
Posted on January 22, 2014
Today is 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, in which the Court decided that the right to privacy, under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion. Today is also the 41st March for Life in Washington, D.C., a direct response to Roe v. Wade that gathers thousands of religious Americans to march around the National Mall, ending at the Supreme Court, to call for the end of a woman’s right to have abortion.
In response to these two events, there have been many pro-choice Tweets and Facebook posts today celebrating the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the importance of a woman having the right and ability to choose to have an abortion.
I squirmed on the couch when, during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, cheers erupted upon every mention of a woman’s “right to choose.” A lot of pro-choice folks like to say that “no one is pro-abortion,” but when celebratory concert series and festivals are organized around the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, I can’t help but question the degree to which we have desensitized ourselves to the reality that abortion means the termination of, at the very least, a potential life, something that should never be celebrated with balloons and rock concerts.
I can understand her point. Given the nature of an abortion, and the circumstances in which most women have one, the procedure is probably not something to be celebrated with “balloons and rock concerts,” but simply accepted as an necessary, if not unfortunate, reality.
Yet, consider for a moment the woman who is raped by a stranger, or by her father. Consider the woman who might die without an abortion. Consider the woman who would be forced to carry to term a dead or dying fetus. Consider the woman who is simply not ready for a child. Or consider any other circumstance in which a woman might feel as if the setting is not right to bring a child into the world. As traumatic as some of these events are, should these women not be glad — and perhaps even celebrate at some point — that they were able to have an abortion?
More broadly, for most of human history women have not had the right or the means to control their reproductive systems. Only in the past 100 years, and especially since Roe v. Wade, has this changed. Religious conservatives have worked their hardest to ban and even criminalize abortion. Many people have devoted their lives to fending off these attacks and, so far, they have succeeded: abortion remains legal, if still largely unavailable. By consequence, the modern woman has a great many more life options before her than women of the past 10,000 years. Is this not something to celebrate?
Which brings me to the subject of justifying the right to have an abortion. Here is Held Evans again:
What frustrates me about the pro-choice movement is the lengths to which advocates go to de-humanize unborn children and sanitize the abortion procedure, reducing life to nothing more than a cluster of cells and the implications of pregnancy to little more than a choice. The word “fetus” is used instead of “child.” Efforts to encourage women to receive counseling prior to an abortion are stubbornly opposed. The argument is framed around the woman’s body exclusively, as if the fetus is inconsequential, and pro-life advocates are characterized as being “against” women’s rights.
I found this interesting because several years ago, when I was writing for Massimo Pigliucci’s excellent blog Rationally Speaking, I made a similar point:
… for political liberals at least, it seems abortion is already a women’s rights issue. We rarely hear our lawmakers or other public officials defending the legality of abortion based on the concepts of the soul or fetal personhood; instead, we hear them argue that a woman should have the right to choose. Yet … roughly half of Americans think abortion should be usually or always illegal, objecting to the practice because it is the destruction of something worth our moral concerns and/or rights. Many liberals are hesitant on this matter because of their faith, or their fear of upsetting social norms. Polling data suggests public opinion has been unchanged over the years on this issue. What can we do, then, to solve our problem?
(Note: I’ve edited some of the text from my post for brevity and clarity.)
This is a problem I continue to see: many pro-choice advocates rely almost entirely on the women’s rights argument for abortion, and never explain why abortion is a woman’s right. To be clear, I believe women should be able to make reproductive choices without interference from religious believers and politicians. But ignoring why the women’s rights argument holds merit does not help to move our log-jammed debate on abortion:
For the political right, abortion is almost always wrong because it is murder. Liberals respond that women have the right to choose what to do with their own bodies. But, then, liberals are effectively defending a woman’s right to commit murder, and thus the debate wrongly focuses on how much power we give women over their body and the fetus. Instead, what liberals must first do is defend why abortion should be a woman’s choice. I suspect liberals avoid this move for at least two reasons: first, liberals don’t often like to dig too deeply into religiously influenced issues, as debate can get contentious; and second, liberals have already won the moral case in their own minds. But open, honest debate is necessary in our open democracy. And even if you have won a debate in your own mind, you still need to convince the public you are right. So, how can a supporter of choice do that?
Well, we can do two things: find out what science tells us about the capacities of embryos and fetuses, and see if it matches our traditional philosophical understandings of what it means to be a “person” deserving of moral respect and legal rights. As I write:
Perhaps the most important matter for us to clear up is the difference between first and second-term abortions, and late-term abortions. We need to do this for two reasons. First, research shows that fetuses are unlikely to suffer pain until around 26 or 27 weeks (morehere) into the pregnancy (also around the time of viability, though we should note even viable fetuses need tremendous care). Second, only 1.4 percent of all abortions in the United States annually, occur after 21 weeks. Yes, you read correctly: roughly 99 percent of all abortions in the U.S. take place before a fetus is equipped to suffer. In fact, 90 percent of all abortions in the U.S. occur in the first 13 weeks, nowhere near the controversial 26th or 27th weeks. So while we still lack conclusive evidence about what late-term fetuses can experience, it seems we reach a point here where abortion is hardly a moral issue, as nearly all abortions performed in the U.S. happen when the fetus cannot be expected to suffer.
A person, or human being, at the very least has interests, and is usually conscious or sentient, aware of its surroundings. In turn, this person wants to be protected by rights from the state so that it can live out its life free of oppression from the state or from neighbors. But in just about every abortion performed in the U.S., the fetus isn’t conscious or sentient. So how can a fetus want freedom or rights? Even if we wanted to grant the fetus rights, why would we do so for an object which we have no reason to believe is part of our moral circle? In this vein, considering we have more moral obligation to the fully human mother than the fetus, there is no basis for society to preemptively grant the fetus rights in wanting to protect its freedom over the freedom of the mother.
The fetus has an interest in staying alive, though, right? Surely, but many things have an interest in staying alive that we do not grant moral consideration or rights. In this case, a fetus cannot even have an interest in living to its potential, for it does not even know it is living currently. But doesn’t the mother have an interest in keeping the fetus alive? Maybe – but the decision is hers at this point. When a human being loses the ability to be aware of his or her own interests, we pass responsibility over to the significant other or next of kin – to the person who has an interest in the situation. Given that the mother has rights, and that there is little to no moral tie to the fetus, the mother is then allowed to decide if the fetus has interests. The interests of the fetus are the interests of the mother.
The only, or most common, way to escape this data and analysis is to escape the grasp of science and reason-based thinking by claiming embryos and fetuses have souls — a metaphysical claim none of us are required to recognize or respect, especially as a basis for public policy. I should note, however, that even many theists who believe in the existence of souls are pro-choice for practical reasons. After all, will banning abortion truly help reduce abortion rates, or will it simply make abortion more dangerous? And what sense does it make to force a woman to bring to term a baby she doesn’t want and/or cannot support? T
Our debates on abortion will no doubt continue, as they should. Despite the fact that we are 41 years on from Roe v. Wade, there are still areas of our public policy on abortion that need to be figured out, on the basis of advances in science and applied critical thinking to our moral standards.
But, as we have these debates, we should not forget that women should have the right and ability to choose to have an abortion not simply because they are women who should have control over their own bodies, but because the potential interests of the embryo or fetus inside their bodies do not trump the interests of a fully grown, fully aware person. Nor should we forget that having the the right and the ability to choose is sometimes worth celebrating.
Happy 41st anniversary, abortion rights.