I think I’ve read and had enough of them, on both sides, to sum up the main positions of both sides. I’ll argue from the pro-choice point of view and include the pro-life(tm) rebuttals that I know of (and used to give).
1. The Life/Personhood Argument
Pro-life argument: It’s human, and it’s alive, and that’s enough for it to have the right to live.
Response: It is human and alive, but it is not a “person.”
Counterargument A: But it has a soul!
Response to A: We can’t prove whether it has a soul or not. Laws should not be based on religion.
Counterargument B: But it might grow up to cure cancer!
Response to B: If you have go have sex with someone you don’t like during a full moon, you or she might get pregnant with a kid that will grow up to cure cancer. It’s possible! But I don’t recommend it. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. It’s hard for us to accept that limiting the number of human lives could be a good thing, because once someone is here, we’d feel terrible thinking they shouldn’t have been born. And yet, we can’t strive to have as much human life as possible. It’s destructive to exceed a certain population, on several levels. Innumerable potential human beings were never conceived, or never implanted, or were never born, human beings that could have been your bestest friend or great inventors or serial killers. It’s difficult for the human psyche to accept, but it’s necessary. Non-spontaneous abortion is not necessary, but given these facts, it cannot be proven wrong on the basis of depriving us of one more human life.
Counterargument C: What defines a person? Is a human in a vegetative state not a person? Is a chimpanzee a person?
Response to C: (I think I first saw this sort of response by Jill at Feministe, but I can’t find the link so far.)Even if it is difficult to define, people don’t act like they really believe that a very early-stage fetus is as much of a person as you or me. More fertilized eggs die than are implanted, but we don’t mourn this. The ones that are implanted still have a fairly high rate of spontaneous (natural) abortion, many of which are not even noticed. If we were to consistently apply the belief that every fertilized human egg is a person with all the same rights as other people, we would have to check menstrual fluid for dead bodies and investigate women who had miscarriages, and maybe even require fertile women to adhere to dietary and other guidelines in order to avoid hurting a person that might be living in them without them even knowing it yet. It would end up violating the rights to privacy and bodily autonomy of women, which we turn to next.
Pro-lifers(tm) will have to take argument #2 (which they very often ignore) into account in some way unless they are willing to argue that all killing of human beings is to be avoided no matter what the extenuating circumstances or competing rights. In that case, they would have to be anti-war, anti-death penalty, anti-euthanasia, anti-murdering abortion providers, anti-poverty, pro-free and accessible comprehensive sex ed, birth control (though possibly not the hormonal kind) and STD tests, pro-HPV vaccine, and maybe even in favor of legal abortion, since, as we’ll see in argument #3, outlawing abortion has pretty much nothing to do with reducing the number of human deaths. On the other hand, if a pro-lifer(tm) thought some killing was okay and it depends on the circumstances, they would have to deal with argument #2 to say why it doesn’t make the cut.
Pro-choicers will probably need to rely on some form of argument #2 if they want to argue that late-term abortion, when the fetus is more person-like, is not immoral. However, even if they do find late-term abortion to be immoral, they can still argue that it should be legal by argument #3.
2. The Bodily Autonomy Argument
We do not force people to give their bodily organs to others, even if others would die without them. We should not force women to give the use of their body to a fetus, even if the fetus will die without it. Roderick T. Long wrote a really fancy form of this argument, that explains how it can be consistent to believe that women have a right to abort fetuses but not to abandon newborns (via RadGeek). Here’s a quote from it:
Counterargument A: Except in the case of rape, the woman chose to put herself at risk for pregnancy by having sex. She shouldn’t have had sex if she wasn’t ok with getting pregnant. Since she had sex, she has the responsibility to house the fetus; she has forfeited the above right.
Response to A: We do things that involve risks all the time, but that doesn’t mean we forfeit the right to respond if the risky thing does happen. For instance, if I have surgery and a doctor does something wrong, I can sue, even though I knew that was possible. If I drive and get in a wreck, I can go to the hospital, even though I knew that was possible. Abortion should not be used as birth control, for both the woman’s and the fetus’s sakes, but it should be considered an option for addressing an unwanted pregnancy. Counterargument A is circular. If abortion is not an option, a person shouldn’t have sex unless they are willing to get pregnant. But if abortion is an option, then a very small chance of getting pregnant, like that afforded by birth control, is acceptable. You can’t prove abortion wrong by stipulating that it’s wrong and therefore not an option that a person should take into account. Finally, note that this pro-life argument is based on the responsibility of a woman who engages in sex, NOT on the life of the fetus, and therefore abortions in the case of rape would be allowed unless this argument was combined with #1.
Long’s essay notes: <blockquote>The “parental obligations” objection to abortion, like the refusal to recognize rape in marriage, appears to stem from a traditional attitude that refuses to acknowledge women as autonomous individuals, and regards their bodies as mere resources to be used by family members.</blockquote>
Counterargument B: The difference between not requiring someone to give blood or a kidney and requiring someone to use their body for a fetus is that in the first case, the other person would die by an act of omission, while in the second case, the fetus would die by an act of comission, because you have to actually do something to have an abortion.
Response to B: Does that make a difference, given that the results are the same – a dead person? In fact, you could also argue that it’s the first case that is worse, since the dead person would be one who is universally recognized to be a “person” with the right to life, whereas the fetus’s status and rights are debated. I think whether or not the omission/comission difference changes the rules is a matter of opinion. Should matters of opinion like that be legislated on? Remember, our choices for legislation are asymmetrical: one tells a pregnant woman what she has to do: stay pregnant. The other tells a pregnant woman that she can choose to stay pregnant or choose to have an abortion. We are not entertaining any laws that will force anyone to have abortions (I am of course against laws like the one in China.) So, should we make the opinion of some the law for all, or should we let each person act in accordance with their own opinion?
Long’s essay provides a stronger response to this counterargument, because he’s a philosophy professor and better at this than me. So if you don’t buy mine, check out his.
Pro-lifers who do not accept an extreme pro-life position like the one I outlined at the end of argument #1 will have to consider argument #2, as I said. Then they have three choices: they can overrule argument #2 altogether by supporting laws forcing everyone to be organ donors, they can accept the argument by supporting the legality of abortion, or they can try to find a distinction between organ donation and pregnancy that makes the first optional and the second, once begun, compulsory. Then they will have to proceed to argument #3 and argue that this is not only the moral thing to do, but would also make a good law.
3. The Pragmatic Argument
As we can see by looking at countries where abortion is outlawed or at the past in the US, outlawing abortion – as well as making it more difficult to get – does not make abortions go away. Rather, it makes abortions more dangerous. Which would you prefer: having fetuses die, or having fetuses plus the women carrying them die?
Counterargument A: But they shouldn’t have had sex in the first place.
Response to A: When someone should or shouldn’t have sex is a matter of opinion and none of the government’s business, but even if it were ruled that they shouldn’t have had sex in the first place, it would be a little late for talking about that. They’re pregnant, they want an abortion, and they’re going to try to have one any way they can. Will you let them do it the safe way, or do you want them to be punished with possible injury and/or death (in addition to whatever legal consequences may be in place if they are caught)?
Counterargument B: But the state shouldn’t condone abortion by making it legal.
Response to B: The law is different from morality. We need it to have the right effect on society, not to read like a Bible. What good would it do if we had laws that matched your morality exactly, but that nobody followed? That’s the lesson we learned from Prohibition.
Again, pro-lifers(tm) must combine this argument with another argument that explains why abortion is wrong in the first place; only after it has been deemed immoral can one begin to argue why it should also be illegal. Since the law is different from morality, both types of arguments are needed for the pro-life(tm) side. Alternatively, pro-lifers(tm) could argue only that legal abortion is bad for society in some pragmatic way, but to the contrary, non-coercive abortion is usually considered to be beneficial to society in a practical sense (due to the reason above, population control, and reduction of crime and poverty) even by those who object to it on moral grounds. On the other hand, one can be pro-choice based on argument #3 even while believing that abortion is immoral.
In each of the three main arguments (and let me know if I missed anything), there is a little hint of the pro-life(tm) stance being more about sex, responsibility, and punishment than about fetal life. First, there’s the way they don’t take their belief that the fetus is a person to its logical conclusions that its death should be treated the same as any other human death – with an investigation, obituary, and funeral, as well as charges of manslaughter, negligence, or murder for the woman if it is determined by the investigation that something she did contributed to the death. If that doesn’t all make perfect sense for the pro-lifers(tm), what makes them pro-life(tm)?
Next, we see the idea that when a woman has heterosexual sex, she is basically entering into a contract with any resulting fetuses, even if she shows that she doesn’t want to get pregnant by using birth control. We hear talk of irresponsibility and of accepting the consequences of your actions (those were the things that made me really angry about pro-choicers when I was pro-life(tm)). We hear the phrase “shouldn’t have had sex in the first place,” which usually contains the incorrect assumption that all women who have abortions are unmarried and/or teenagers (will you tell a married couple to stop having sex once they can’t support any more children?). Behind that phrase we see the idea that if you do something these people (that is, whoever says this – not all pro-lifers(tm)) deem immoral (have premarital sex), you deserve the punishment of having an unwanted pregnancy. They rarely say this overtly and so I can’t say who thinks this way and who doesn’t, but I believe that it is at play in some pro-life(tm) stances, along with the idea, familiar from abstinence-only sex education, that if you don’t give help to people who break your rules of morality, you’ll convince more people to follow your rules, and as for the ones who break them anyway, well, sucks for them. The fact that the plights of these rule-breakers can be bad for society is ignored, and later blamed on their inherent worthlessness rather than on the policies that shaped their circumstances.
This becomes even more clear in the last argument, in which pro-lifers(tm) make giving the impression that abortion is wrong a bigger priority than saving lives. This is comparable to the way abstinence-only sex education proponents, who overlap with pro-lifers(tm), prefer to send kids the message that premarital sex is unacceptable rather than give them a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies when they do have sex (and many of them do, no matter what), which ironically creates a higher demand for abortion. Both of these approaches rely on the assumption that when authority figures give people ways to cope with the risk of pregnancy, those people hear “Have all the sex you want!” and on the assumption that when authority figures don’t give people ways to cope with the risk of pregnancy, those people decide not to have sex. These assumptions have not proven true. These approaches also put the government in the business of telling people when not to have sex, which is none of its business.
This “tough on sex” approach does not work and is not fair. It’s also sexist, as it is pitched harder at females than at males, and affects their health more directly. The way a woman’s uterus is treated differently than anyone’s kidney could be seen as very sexist, in effect saying that a uterus is not the exclusive property of a woman, which chips away at women’s ownership of their own bodies, a right that worldwide sexism often tries to revoke in many different ways. I think arguments based on sex, responsibility, and punishment are based in religion, which doesn’t belong in our laws, and hate, which I also don’t much care for. I consider arguments based on fetal life, that is, based on what most pro-lifers(tm) claim (and I think believe) is their top priority, to be much more respectable and appropriate to the law, and yet there are major problems with them, as I discussed at the end of argument #1.
What would happen if Roe v. Wade were overturned (a distinct possibility if McCain is elected and gets to appoint new Supreme Court justices)? The decision on the legality of abortion would be up to the states rather than the federal government. Some states (via Feministe) have laws ready to outlaw it whenever this may happen. We can reasonably assume that blue states would legalize abortion and red states would outlaw it. Thus, women who wanted abortions and lived in red states would travel to blue states to get abortions. Obstacles to this would be the cost of travel and possibly of missing work, and the possibility of laws aimed at keeping this from happening. I would bet that rich red-staters would find it relatively easy to get around these obstacles, while poor red-staters would have a harder time. Thus I would predict a result of nothing changing except more poor people in red states either having unsafe abortions or having unwanted children that they would probably have difficulty supporting. Sound like a good outcome? The poor and the red-staters often have a harder time than others even now (via Feministe), but this scenario underscores the classism that would result from anti-abortion policies: as usual, the poor would be disproportionately affected.
In accordance with my new policy, I’ll be following this up with a post on coerced sterilization and abortion – the other side of reproductive rights.