My Take on Abortion

I've been meaning to author an extensive post on abortion...and this is finally it. I've touched on the topic in the past in several posts of mine and more extensively on Facebook. Unfortunately, the Facebook post was deleted and I didn't feel like typing a large piece again.

I hold the pro-choice position on abortion. This doesn't mean that I "like" abortion (do pro-choice people like abortions? I think not.) This means that I think that abortions are acceptable and I agree with the right of a female to have an abortion; I support the females. This position is different than pro-life people who support the rights, but don't agree with the pro-choice stance on abortion. I feel that I need to make this distinction because pro-choice people have told me that I "like" abortions.

Is abortion murder? Are potential human beings human beings?

Another common argument from pro-lifers is that abortion is "killing babies." It's quite easy to dismiss the "killing babies" argument when abortions happen very early. Michael Shermer, in his book "The Science of Good and Evil" discusses about how we can use science to inform morality. He writes

[S]ince virtually no abortions are performed after the second trimester, and before there is no scientific evidence that the fetus is a thinking human individual, it is reasonable for us to provisionally agree that abortion is not murder and to offer our provisional assent that abortions within the first two trimesters are not immoral because the evidence confirms that during this time the fetus is not a fully functioning human being. Therefore, although one may oppose abortion on a personal level, there is no scientific justification to shift the abortion issue from a personal and moral one to a social and political one (Shermer 204-205).

We see here that life doesn't begin at conception. It's important to note that human beings aren't human beings before they are human beings. Developing cells are simply potential human beings who don't have the mechanism for thought, will feel no pain, etc. The main thrust of the pro-life position is that these potential human beings are human beings that have a right to life or a "future like ours," but we can see clearly that potential human beings aren't human beings; fertilized eggs simply represent potential, not actual human beings.

Fetuses, even with some degree of life, are distinct from human beings. Fetuses are dependent on the mother to live and must reside within a body to live. The pro-life person may argue that babies also must depend on mothers to live, but there is a key difference: a month-old baby can survive with the aid of any mother/caregiver and is not isolated to a specific body. Human beings are separate individuals and don't gain this quality of autonomy by being fully dependent on being inside of a specific woman.

Joyce Arthur notes that potential human beings aren't even stable,
Zygotes, blastocysts, and embryos have a high failure rate, which throws cold water on the anti-choice claim that every fertilized egg is sacred. Scientists estimate that 55 to 65% of all conceptions are spontaneously aborted in the first few days or weeks of a pregnancy, usually without the woman ever knowing she was pregnant. It's called "fetal wastage." Another 10 to 15% of pregnancies are miscarried in the months to come. Fetal wastage occurs because early embryonic forms have a high defect rate—most early miscarriages are caused by genetic defects in the fertilized egg.
Shermer writes,
A human is a member of the species Homo Sapiens. A person is a member of a social group or society with legal rights and responsibilities and with moral values. Even if one could justify a fetus as being a human, that still does not make it a person. What makes it a person is the granting of legal rights and responsibilities and moral value by the rules governing that society (206).
Potential humans don't even have legal rights to life. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, says that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Potential human beings, as previously noted, aren't human beings...and they certainly aren't born yet. The 14th amendment to the US Constitution gives American citizenship to those who are born or naturalized in the United States. If potential human beings were human beings, all fertilized eggs would need to be counted in censuses and would enjoy the general freedoms that citizens of countries would have. If you regard potential human beings as human beings, would you say that potential human beings have the right to freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, etc? Since potential human beings literally can't physically exercise these freedoms, they can't be said to have them*. Potential human beings are obviously in a different position/category in respect to human beings.

Michael Shermer writes,
[F]rom a scientific perspective, life is a continuum from sperm, to egg, to zygote, to blastocyst, to embryo, to fetus, to newborn infant. Neither egg nor sperm is a human individual, nor is the zygote or blastocyst because they might split to become twins or develop into less than one individual and naturally abort. The eight-week-old fetus fetus has recognizable human features...but neuronal synaptic connections are still being made, so thinking is not possible. Only after eight weeks do embryos begin to show primitive response movements, but between eight and twenty-four weeks (six months) the fetus could not exist on its own because some critical organs...do not mature before than time. For example, air sac development sufficient for gas exchange does not occur until at least twenty-three weeks after gestation, and often later.

Not until twenty-eight weeks, at 77 percent of full-term development, does the fetus acquire sufficient neocortical complexity to exhibit some of the cognitive capacity to exhibit... cognitive capacities typically found in newborns. [...] In other words, the capacity for human thought does not exist until just weeks before birth (204).
Right now, I could be having unprotected sex and impregnating women. I'm denying the life to potential human beings. Should I be arrested for murder or preventing human beings from being born? Of course not. This is a simple reductio of a part of the pro-life position. Stepping on an acorn isn't killing a tree - it's preventing a future tree from being formed. You also wouldn't consider stepping on an acorn to be killing a tree...so why call abortions killing?

It's very clear that a potential human being is not a human being, this abortion is not considered murder. If you still want to believe that it is, the evidence simply is not on your side (unless you have some that I'm not aware of). We shouldn't honestly take an important position that is contrary to the evidence or without evidence when evidence is clearly pointing in one direction.

The woman's choice is more important than the "rights" of the potential human.

The woman's right to choose and right to her life is more important than the "right to life" or a "future like ours" that many pro-lifers claim. A woman is a developed human being that is fully autonomous who is able to make choices about her life and her body. Women may, of course, pierce their bodies, get tattoos, wear what they want, eat what they want, smoke cigarettes, etc...so why can't she choose to abort a potential human being that is completely dependent on her specific body?

If a women was raped and would have a child, many pro-lifers would "permit" the woman to have an abortion and support this abortion. If a woman would die because she would give birth, many pro-lifers would clearly support the woman's choice. This clearly shows that the "right to life" is negotiable, but maybe because a good reason were accompanied with the action...but why ought a reason be coupled with the abortion that would be accepted? What if her reason were "I can't afford to have a child?" What if her reason were "I am too young and can't possibly give birth?" Would the pro-lifer then say, "Well, your reason isn't good enough! Don't have an abortion, that's immoral!" This doesn't seem to be a justified position at all. Reason or not, the woman who is pregnant should be ultimately able to decide what she wants to do with her body.

The issue of sex is often a barrier to the plausibility of abortion. Pro-lifers might say, "Well, you chose to have sex, so now you should give birth to the child!" Why is this? Is sex a contract that forces a woman to have a child if she becomes pregnant? If I had sex with all of the women who read this blog -- a completely lawful action -- and we took measures to prevent pregnancy [or not], should they feel obligated and required to have the child? I think not. This attitude seems to punish and burden the women for her choices to have sex and is something akin to, "Well, you got pregnant and didn't want to be! Too bad! Your fault! Deal with it!"

Imagine that I visited a beach, put sunscreen on [or didn't], and got a sunburn. I don't want to have the burden of dealing with the sunburn, so I go to my doctor and get a prescription to ebb my pain. Should I be forced to deal with the sunburn and "wait or out" or do you think that I should be able to put a quick end to my sunburn by using a prescription? I feel that this analogy is very close to the above situation of arriving at pregnancy. We shouldn't have to incur responsibility and deal with a state of our body that we don't want to deal with if we aren't breaking the law. I have no obligation to wait out my sunburn and the woman has no obligation to have the child.

Another reason (although women don't really need one) to have an abortion is knowledge that the potential child would live a terrible life either due to factors of low income, a missing father, a birth defect, etc.

It's very important that women have the right to have an abortion...and to take away that right would be a HUGE step backward in the history of womens' rights. Women should have reproductive freedom and we all should be able to do what we want with our own bodies provided that we're not breaking the law (We can't go running around naked, for example).

Unfortunately, as usual, religion often provides a tremendous barrier to critical thinking. The position of the Catholic Church is "no abortions, no matter what!" Pro-Life centers claim, "every life is precious!" Some Catholics would prefer that women die even if the potential human being would also die because abortion is immoral...even if abortion would save the life of the mother. Some Catholics, such as Knights of Columbus members, go to Planned Parenthood and pray the rosary and harass women. Beliefs do have consequences.

If we're going to hold a stalwart position of being pro-life (or really any important position), we should care about reading the arguments against our positions...and this should be the case will all important positions. I'm concerned about being right and have my beliefs reflect reality as much a possible. We should all be willing to modify our beliefs when new information comes in...and I'm quite ready to revise my pro-choice position if someone convinces me that my position is flawed.

* In this case and some others, pro-lifers may say, "What about people in comas or those who are already born and are unable to act?" This is a special exception to the rule because these people are considered to be human beings and are no longer potential human beings.