Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Some preliminary thoughts on abortion

I suspect this debate has as much emotion and commitment to a preferred outcome as it does to reason. Still, some remarks are in order. The pro-abortionists argue for liberty and the anti-abortionists for life. Where is the debate to begin. I think both can be addressed and no preferential order needs to be chosen ahead of time. We can discuss both choice and life issues and see how they relate to each other.

Liberty is a reasonable good. All things being equal freedom seems a desirable state. So the pro-abortion argument goes: a woman has right over her own body and the choice to keep any fetus she conceives, or not, should be hers to make as it affects her life currently and in the future if she chooses to keep her child. More so, a fetus cannot make moral demands on the mother to keep it alive.

There are a couple of difficulties with this view. A fetus is not making demands, it is in a situation not of its own making, and requires such nourishment as part of normal development. It is not in a state of illness, nor is it asking for others to bear the cost for negative decisions it made previously.

Continuing with the liberty argument, it seems reasonable to allow adults to make many choices that affect their life. Food they eat, clothes they wear, where they live, how they entertain themselves. But liberties are not absolute. One should not have the freedom to spend other people's money, use their goods without permission, threaten their lives and property in the course of seeking one's own welfare and pleasure. So the question is whether, after conception, the mother should have unrestrained liberty and treat the fetus like a food preference or an item of clothing—to be kept or removed; or have her liberty constrained because the fetus is (or is similar to) the property or life of another.

If the fetus can be considered property, the question is whose property? If we consider it is owned by the mother then it would seem that it is also owned by the father. The physical cost of the child during gestation is not as costly on the father as it is on the mother, but if the fetus is joint owned by the father it can hardly be disposed of without his permission.

The above may read harshly to anti-abortionists but I have tried to assess the possible arguments that may arise. I make no defence that a fetus is in fact property, but for those who deny that the issue is one of life, the property consideration still needs to be faced. And I use the word fetus rather than child so that the argument is no pre-empted by disputed language. Of course it is usual for an expectant mother to refer to her "child" or "baby" even still in the womb.

This brings us to the anti-abortion contention that the issue is one of life: the fetus is in fact a person. This indeed is the crux of the issue. If the anti-abortionists are correct about this then the liberty arguments are null. One does not have the freedom to kill an innocent person to maximise his own freedom, inside or outside the womb.

In this argument over life there are several terms to define. We are not arguing whether the fetus is human: a human in contrast to a non-human such as a chicken or a flower. The fetus is clearly human. It is produced by humans and has a full complement of the human genome. Nor are we arguing whether the fetus is living. If it weren't living it would be dead, or an inanimate object like a pebble. What we are arguing is whether the fetus is a person. Cadavers are human, but not living. They are not persons (in this sense). Elephants are living but not human. They are not persons. Children and adults are humans and living. They are also considered persons. The question that needs to be answered is, What makes personhood? Is being human and living equivalent to personhood? If so then personhood starts at conception. If there is more to personhood than humanness and life we must identify it. When does a conceptus become a person? This is a question even liberty proponents must answer. One cannot be pro-choice for murder.

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