Pro-Life and Pro-Choice
The first thing to do is look at the big picture. What is this debate really about?
"It's about bodily sovereignty.
Women should have control
over their own bodies."
Yes, absolutely. Everyone should have this sovereignty.
But the problem is, there are two people involved in this question - not just one. If the mother were the only person whose rights were in question, then the slogan of "My Body, My Choice" would be the only argument ever necessary, and we could simply shut down the debate immediately after putting that slogan on the table.
But she's not. There is someone else whose rights are in jeopardy too.
"So you want to criminalize abortion,
throw women and abortion providers
in jail, make women your incubators,
and own women as property, is that it?"
No, and this is an example of the hyperbole that plagues both sides in this debate. If we want to be mature adults, and really solve problems, then we have to be willing to avoid such reactions, and maintain a rational approach.
"But if fetuses are "people", then it
stands to reason that women are not."
How do you come to that conclusion?
"Because if you're going to call a fetus
a person, then that would mean that the
mother can't abort, right? Which means
that she doesn't have control over her
own body, and she is therefore property
of the patriarchal state."
You're looking at this whole thing as binary, and binaryism is one of the key problems in not just this subject, but many other issues as well.
Binaryism is the attitude that everything has to be "all or nothing." Black and white. Zero and One.
Translated into the pro-life pro-choice debate, binaryism shows up as the belief that we have only two choices. Either we:
-recognize the humanity of the fetus, and treat pregnant mothers as objects/property
-we recognize the sovereignty of pregnant mothers, and treat fetuses as objects/property.
ALL of one, and NOTHING for the other.
"Someone" has to be property.
Why does it have to be that way? Why should it be binary?
"Because any time you defend
the fetus, you are BY DEFINITION
stepping on the rights of the
True. But at the same time, any time you abort someone, you are by definition stepping on their rights, are you not?
The right to not be killed is, after all, a very important right.
No matter what you do, someone's rights are going to be violated. There is literally no way for everyone to win on this topic. It's always going to be a trade-off. We're always going to have to put someone's rights over someone else's.
And therefore, we believe the fairest approach is one that balances the two. We seek a balance between the rights of the preborn, and the rights of the people carrying them.
Our position is to find that balance.
"Oh please! This whole argument
of yours rests on the idea that
"fetuses are people", and they
absolutely are not people!"
"So and so aren't people" is a very old argument, with a very long and infamous history.
If you identify as "pro-choice", then it's fairly safe to say you probably also identify as "progressive" or "liberal" - someone who believes in inclusion, and struggles for social acceptance and dignity for the weak and vulnerable among us.
Chances are, you look back with pride at all of the prior struggles for recognition of the rights of the vulnerable and different. You see these struggles as valid, and side with those waging them.
There have been many debates, throughout history, on the question of "who is a person", and "who deserves rights." We can even say that it's one of the defining dialectics in human civilization. Again and again and again, we get faced with the same question:
"Are so-and-so persons? Even though they're different from us?"
"Do they deserve rights? Even though they're too weak to secure such rights on their own?"
And every time we face such a debate, there are always two sides - the same two sides, appearing perennially:
-One side answers "Yes."
-The other side answers "No."
And this is the second reason why abortion is such a weird issue: It's the only issue on which the "progressive" side has explicitly sided with the "No's".
For every other struggle, the "Left" is always on the "Yes" side:
-legal status (i.e. convicts)
On every issue, in every time period, the "progressive" side of politics is, and has always been, on the "Yes" side - the side of "Yes, they're people, Yes, let's recognize their rights."
But when it comes to developmental stage, it flips, suddenly and rather inexplicably, to "No."
Even on the issue of animal rights, it's similar, but not quite as weird. Because again, many people who identify as "progressive" will answer "No" on animals. The hypocrisy does stink. However, at least it's not seen as a qualification for being progressive. Progressives are not expected to answer "No" for animals. Most still do (for now, out of habit and inertia), but it's not a requirement in order to be accepted in the progressive "tribe."
But for the preborn, it's a requirement. You must answer "No" if you want to be accepted in lefty progressive circles. You are expected to dehumanize them.
But it gets even worse. Defenders of the "No" are employing the exact same talking points as their counterparts in previous generations, for previous debates. All of the same horrific talking points used by 19th century slave-holders are now making the rounds again, whenever animals or the preborn are mentioned.
You'll find progressives saying things like:
-The don't have souls /consciousness /sentience.
-They're not really "alive" - not in the same way as us.
-They're mine / they belong to me.
-They don't matter.
-They're just things.
-They have no rights, and they deserve no rights.
-I don't care about them.
-I can do whatever I want to them.
-We can destroy them en mass, and slaughter them all, with no ethical qualms.
-They have no intrinsic value.
-They only have value if I decide to grant it to them.
-Whatever value they have is only because one of us saw fit to grace them with it, and if we don't see any value in them, they can be thrown away like garbage.
-If you don't believe in it, don't do it - but it's MY CHOICE to treat them this way, so leave me alone!
-It's a "personal choice."
-It's settled law already.
-You'll never change it, so just give up.
-You're a crazy radical and I'm not talking to you.
-Leave me alone!
Isn't this weird? How did it get like this? How did the "Left" - the side that's always been about fighting for the most vulnerable among us - switch over to the side of dehumanization and objectification?
How is it that we have people who would have been abolitionists, if they'd lived in the 1800's, fighting against slave-holders, now commandeering the very same talking-points of those very same slave-holders, and not even realizing the irony?
"Oh please! You're comparing
little clumps of cells to
grown-ass people! These struggles
are not even remotely similar!
There's no comparison! And it's
downright offensive, honestly! Don't
you dare compare the struggles and
oppression of MY people, and MY
ancestors, to... to... a little clump of
Do you think you're the first to say that?
The same argument was used during the Civil Rights movement. When racists attempted to justify their desire to continue oppressing colored people, Civil Rights activists pointed out the fact that some of their (the racists') own ancestors - the Irish, Italians, and Polish immigrants - were treated as less-than-human, up until quite recently.
And can you guess what the response was, from the racists?
"Don't you dare compare the struggles of MY people, MY Irish/Italian/Polish ancestors, to... to... to... negroes!"
Whenever you think you're being "clever" in your attempts to justify bigotry, please be aware: You're not.
Every argument you can come up with, for dehumanizing and objectifying the weak, vulnerable, and different among us, has already been used, many times, by many bigots, over the course of many debates. In every debate about "who deserves rights and who doesn't", every otherization argument has already been deployed.
And scorned by History.
So it's time to ask yourself: Whose company do you want to be in?
In every single one of these arguments, every single one, without exception, the side arguing "Yes, they deserve rights" turned out to be the correct side, while the side arguing "No, they don't deserve any rights", turned out to be shamed and despised for All Time.
So if you are taking the side of "No, they don't have rights", then you need to find a way to explain why this time, of all times, it will be different.
"It's different because fetuses
are anatomically different."
Anatomically different? Smaller? Well the same is true of animals. And our society is finally starting to recognize the rights of animals. We've got a lot of ground to cover, of course, but at least we're starting. The concept that animals have rights, at least some rights, is a concept that very few people reject. Very few people think the amount of ethical consideration to which animals are entitled is precisely zero. Some do, and those people are dipshits. But most agree that animals have some rights. So what about humans in development?
Feminism and progressivism are about expanding the circle to cover more beings under its protection. That's what it's always been about.
The pattern of history tells us that the side arguing in favor of rights is always the correct side.
Given dehumanization's abysmal track record, those claiming the preborn "aren't people" need to come up with a reason why this time, of all times, it will be different.
If you don't want the circle to expand, then you're not a feminist or progressive. Not in principle, anyway. You're just a person who wants society to respect YOU and YOUR rights - and the rights of whatever groups YOU belong to - but this isn't really a moral stand. It's just self-interest. Which isn't the spirit of progress.
Questions addressed here:
"Is abortion acceptable?"
"Even if it's bad, should it still be legal?"
"Should there be any restrictions on it?"
"If so, what are they?"
Before deciding what the correct answers are, we first need to be clear on some larger moral principles:
1. Benign Sovereignty (also known as bodily autonomy):
Everyone has the innate right to sovereignty over their own self, as long as they are benign to others. This sovereignty includes autonomy over one's body. No one may make decisions about your body except you.
Benign Sovereignty is a natural law principle, meaning that it's true regardless of what society believes. Natural law is woven into the fabric of reality, and exists as truth, no matter what codes have (or haven't) been proclaimed by "legislators.'
Here it is, formalized in the Law of the Earth:
All human rights
are derived from one:
The right to Benign Sovereignty.
Everyone is entitled to
sovereignty (full freedom of choice)
as long as they are benign (not doing harm).
A sovereign being
may make any choice,
perform any action,
or refrain from any action,
as long as they are not infringing
upon the rights of anyone else.
Benign sovereignty can be extrapolated into a series of specific rights, which are enumerated in the Bill of Human Rights. First among them is the right to Physical Integrity:
To be physically Whole,
free from all forms of assault,
unless violating the rights of another;
free from non-consensual sexual contact;
and free from non-consensual anatomical alteration,
except in cases of diagnosed medical emergency
in which consent cannot be discerned.
In other words, your body is yours, and you get to decide what to do with it, and nobody has the right to harm you or make changes to your body without your permission.
"So if women have bodily autonomy / sovereignty, does that mean abortion is always legal to do?"
Not so fast. We aren't just talking about one body - we're talking about two. A fetus is not an organ of the body carrying them - they are a distinct body, with a distinct brain, a distinct nervous system, and a distinct mind (and possibly soul).
What about their bodily autonomy?
"But womens' rights are paramount!"
A woman who is aborted will never vote.
She'll never earn as much money as a man.
She'll never get to serve in the army.
She'll never get to explore her sexuality.
She'll never get to march in an LGBT pride parade.
She'll never get to say "yes" or "no" to a sexual advance.
She'll never get to walk down an alley at night without feeling afraid.
She'll never get to break the glass ceiling.
The logic behind the slogan of "My Body, My Choice" breaks down (with regards to abortion) when we realize that there are two bodies in question, and only one of them is the person chanting the slogan.
"So you're not pro-choice?"
We are absolutely pro-choice. But we believe in respecting everyone's right to choose - including that of partially developed people.
"Nonsense! Fetuses aren't people! They don't deserve the same rights as born persons!"
That may be true. Not the same rights. But... some rights? Some ethical consideration? Not necessarily the same as a born person, but still greater than zero?
Does it have to be binary? All or nothing?
"I don't buy that. Fetuses are NOTHING. They don't count - AT ALL. Until they're born, they have as much value as the gum stuck to the bottom of my shoe!"
If you believe that, then you aren't on the side of moral progress, and you should not call yourself "progressive."
Progress is about expanding the Circle of Rights to include more types of living beings - and progressives are people who want to do this.
Are you progressive?
2. The Circle of Rights
In recent centuries, one defining aspect of human progress has been the gradual incorporation of more and more types of living beings into the ethical sphere. In other words, as history progresses, our society recognizes an ever-expanding range of Life as holding ethical weight.
A long time ago, only kings and "nobles" were considered to have rights, and everyone else existed only to serve the upper classes. But then the common folk rose up to demand rights, and got them.
Then the sphere expanded to include women.
And other races.
And other nationalities.
And other religions.
And other sexual orientations.
One by one, more living beings became "worthy of rights." (Note: they were always worthy of rights, but society-at-large was just too ignorant to recognize it).
Today, animal rights are the emerging frontier in humanity's journey toward a compassionate society. Great strides are now being made in every aspect of human relationships with animals. People are recognizing that living beings whom they didn't believe had feelings and consciousness, indeed have feelings and consciousness. And with these, of course, come rights - i.e. entitlements to ethical consideration.
If you believe that animals deserve ethical consideration (and we do), then it logically follows that partially developed humans do too.
After all, if consciousness is the deciding factor in determining whether an entity has rights (and if so, what rights they have, and how much those rights weigh against the rights of others), then any being with consciousness must be entitled to some degree of ethical consideration.
Consciousness = Entitlement to Ethical Consideration.
Write that down.
"OK, maybe fetuses deserve some rights, or "ethical consideration", but what about the mother? Doesn't the one set of rights contradict the other set?"
Yes, and that's why no one should take a black-and-white position on this. There is a lot of nuance here, if we really want to be accurate.
3. Non-Binary Value
First, everyone should be able to agree, no matter which label you identify with, that a developing fetus deserves some degree of ethical consideration. Even if you believe the rights of the pregnant mother are more important than those of the fetus, you can't say the latter amount to zero. It can't be completely binary. They're not rocks. They're living beings, and we can't just ignore that.
As you may have deduced, principles #1 and #2 appear to contradict each other. A pregnant woman has the right to bodily autonomy... but this runs up against, and often clashes with, the rights of the living being she's carrying.
Clearly a fetus is not the same being as the mother - they are two distinct beings. They have two distinct bodies, nervous systems, brains, and minds.
What about the partially-developed person inside?
Does he/she have the right to bodily autonomy as well?
If "choice" is what's important, then what about his/hers.
And it seems that we have an ethical dilemma on our hands. We have two sets of rights that conflict. So what do we do?
Even if we can't arbitrate the answer just yet, we can still acknowledge that some sort of compromise is in order. The values of the two sets of rights are not binary. In other words, the answer is not going to be "all of one and none of the other." It's not going to be 0 and 1. Neither "all for the pregnant woman", nor "all for the fetus." It will be some sort of mixture.
Most people, even adamant pro-choicers, acknowledge that there's something wrong with electively aborting a baby 1 day before the due date, "just because."
Birth is not a binary line dividing consciousness from non-consciousness. Being born does not magically bestow consciousness. A late-term fetus has a fully functioning nervous system, and is capable of perception.
And likewise, most people acknowledge that there's something wrong with telling a teenage girl who was raped by an alcoholic family member that she can't abort the zygote, 1 day after fertilization, and will go to prison for 99 years if she tries.
Most people - the vast majority - acknowledge that there is a spectrum here.
4. The Spectrum of Consciousness
The answer (or at least part of it) is that the ethical weight of a being is determined by how far along that being's consciousness has developed. The more conscious (and the more complex the mind), the more ethical consideration they deserve.
This is the reason why a cow holds more ethical weight than a gnat. It's not because the cow is physically bigger, but rather because she/he is more complex, and thus has a more intense and intricate experience of the world.
Likewise, the spectrum applies to a fetus in development. The further along they are, the more consciousness they have - and thus, the more entitled to ethical consideration. A fully-developed fetus at the end of gestation clearly has more consciousness than one in the middle of gestation, who in turn has more than one in the beginning.
Because there's a spectrum of how conscious a fetus is, there's also a spectrum of ethical weight. And this means that the ethics of abortion change with the degree of fetal development.
A single-celled organism, even if its species is human, does not have the same perceptive ability as a person (or a fetus) with a developed nervous system. Even if a single-celled person holds ethical weight (due to species membership), the ability to feel pain and suffering has not yet developed (at least not to the extent of someone with a nervous system).
The line between conscious and non-conscious is difficult to place. There is no absolute distinction. Consciousness, in this case, is not 0 vs. 1, like a computer. It's a continuum. So a fetus in an intermediate or early stage of development may have some level of consciousness. Or they might not. Be we can't be sure. And since we're not sure, it's probably better to err on the side of caution, and assume that they do indeed have some form of consciousness. So, even an early stage fetus deserves some ethical consideration, even if it's just a little bit.
5. Variance in the weight of rights
Not all rights are equal. Some rights are more important than others. For instance, the right to freedom is more important than the right to a library card. The right to drive a car is less important than the right to not be hit by one - regardless of "who's" the driver and "who's" the pedestrian. The "who" is not what matters. What matters is the type of rights in question.
And the most important right of all is Life. Without that one, you can't exercise any others.
As we stated in principle #1, the only time one being's agency (i.e. free will) can be lawfully overruled is if it conflicts with the rights of another. And since there is more than one living being involved in an abortion, we have a conflict between the agency of two beings, so no matter what we do, SOMEONE's agency is going to be overruled.
So what can we do?
We can look at the things each being wants to use their agency for.
The partially-developed person in the womb would use their agency to stay alive. The big person carrying him/her would use it to do something other than stay alive.
No matter what that other thing is, can it ever be as important as life itself?
"That makes sense."
For this reason, the truth leans toward the side of Life. Life should be the general rule, and abortion should be the exception - not the other way around.
"But some abortions are medically necessary. If the pregnancy continues, it would jeopardize the life of the mother. In those cases, doesn't the mother have just as strong (and possibly stronger) of a claim than the fetus?"
Yes. Medically necessary abortions are different from elective ones. They have a different ethical nature, and should be treated differently by law.
In summary, each side of the debate has a strong claim. Generally speaking, the type of rights applicable to the fetus are more weighty than the type applicable to the woman carrying him/her, because Life is more important than any life choice. But the ethical weight of fetuses themselves may be less than that of a fully born person. We still have a spectrum to deal with here.
So now we've got some principles to work with. These will be our foundations as we work out the details - which we'll begin now.
1. Medically-necessary abortions belong to the category of Self-Defense, and are therefore ethical.
When a pregnancy endangers the life/health of the mother, then the type of right that applies is no longer merely that of autonomy and agency, but rather life itself, which puts it on par with the right applicable to the fetus.
Since the fetus threatens the life of the mother, the mother has the right to self-defense.