Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Speaking up for abortion

Cross posted at In a Strange Land.

I don't write about abortion often, mostly because it upsets my beloved mother, from whom I learned my feminism, but this is one thing that we disagree on. Mum, you should stop reading about now....

However, part of my reasons for not writing about abortion is that the working compromise reached in New Zealand has in effect allowed most women to access abortion when they need it. It has not quite been abortion on demand, but close enough. For people unfamiliar with New Zealand law, the Contraception Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977 allows women access to abortion on a variety of grounds, including injury to a woman's mental health. Women have to get two abortion consultants (doctors) to certify that an abortion is needed, but by-and-large, most women have been able to do so. The "two consultants" and "mental health" provisions have provided sufficient barriers to abortion to keep the right-to-lifers if not satisfied, at least at bay, and the practical effect has been to allow women to have abortions.

I have written before about why I find this compromise unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, until now, it has been a compromise that has worked. However, now it seems that the compromise should be reviewed, because a High Court judge has found that:
there is reason to doubt the lawfulness of many abortions authorised by certifying consultants. Indeed, the [Abortion Supervisory] Committee itself has stated that the law is being used more liberally than Parliament intended.

(A PDF of the judgement can be downloaded here - hat tip: No Right Turn.)

So it may well be back to the barricades on abortion. If many of the abortions carried out in New Zealand are legally questionable, then either access to abortion will be curtailed in order to comply with the law, or the law must be changed.

Julie has put together a summary of the various reactions to the judgement from feminist and progressive bloggers, and she's written a guest post at The Standard as well (kudos for the money and mouth approach, Standardistas). Rather than going over the same ground, I want to tackle the basic moral issue of abortion, and whether or not it is morally permissible. For what it's worth, I think it should be legal, no matter what. The alternative is ghastly. But even so, is abortion moral?

First up, I decline to engage in 'rights' talk. I find the concept of rights unilluminating, especially when someone slams a right down on the table like a trump card, and claims that's all there is to it. If you say that a fetus has a right to life, then I will ask you why. Why dos a fetus have a right to life? I will happily accept a second order account of the value of rights, to the effect that our societies function better if we assume some rights, such as a right not to be killed (for full human beings), or a right to freedom of speech, or a right to freedom of movement, or whatever. But that's a 'rule we live by', not a fundamental moral claim. If you make a rights claim, I will want to know the reasoning behind your claim.

That said, my answer is YES. Yes, abortion is morally permissible, because a fetus is not a full human being, and it does not have the same moral standing as full human beings. A full human being, even quite a small one, has hopes and dreams, thoughts for the future and the past, it can conceive of itself as existing in relation to itself, in relation to other people. Killing a full human being is morally impermissible, because it ends that being's future, it ends its connections with other people, it ends the existence that it values. Note the direction of connection moves from the full human being to the other people.

Fetuses demonstrably do not have these capacities (their brains aren't sufficiently developed) so ending a fetus's life is not morally impermissible. I don't know for sure when the capacities to think, to foresee, to dream, to value existence over non-existence develop, so in practice, to be on the safe side, I'm inclined to push the barrier for the moral permissibility of abortion back quite a long way, possibly even as far as the start of the third trimester of pregnancy. But that's an issue about drawing a line, and I'm inclined to draw it on the side of caution. But it's the side of caution, not impossibility.

So there's an important distinction I'm making here. A human being is not the same thing as a full human being, although in practice, most of the time, the two are indistinguishable. Just having human DNA does not make a full human being, although it is necessary. That is, the DNA content is necessary, but not sufficient, to make a full human being. What matters for being a human being is that connection to other beings, the valuing of continued existence, the hopes and dreams for the future. Once those are in place, then ending that being's existence is impermissible. Otherwise, ending the being's existence per se is not impermissible, although you might have other reasons for not ending the being's existence (such as causing pain in the process of doing so).

This may all seem incredibly hard headed and hard hearted. But if we are to do more than engage in frantic hand waving appeals to emotion, then we need to think hard about the moral status of the fetus, and think about why we think it is morally impermissible to kill human beings. If it turns out that we think that killing is wrong because it ends a human life, any human life, all we are saying is that it is wrong to kill human beings because it is wrong to kill human beings. It's meaningless. We need to dig deeper, to think about why we regard killing human beings as wrong. I'm arguing that the wrongness lies in ending the being's own sense of itself, its own future, its connections to other people that it values. However a fetus has none of this, so ending its life is not morally impermissible.

That's all that really needs to be said. If abortion is morally permissible, then the issue is how to make it safe. And that's clearly not by making it illegal, driving it underground, and exposing women to danger.

I do think there are circumstances in which abortion can be morally regrettable, but it's not so much the abortion per se, but the circumstances surrounding it. I think there is a problem if people neglect to take care with contraception, and then choose abortions, repeatedly. I can understand this happening once or twice in a person's life, but not repeatedly. At that stage, the proper question to ask is why the person has not had a vasectomy or a contraceptive implant or had their tubes tied, if they are not prepared to control their sexual behaviour. This reason I think this is important is that the beginnings of life do matter to us, children matter, families and connections with other people matter. Being careless in the matter of connections with other people is something that is properly open to moral condemnation. But you will notice here that it isn't the actual abortion that is the problem; it is being flippant and casual about the beginnings and endings of life that matters.

Beyond thinking that abortion is morally permissible, I also think that access to abortion is morally desirable. It enables women to have autonomy over their bodies, to be in control of their own destinies, instead of being subject to the capricious whims of well, fate, in this one respect at least. And that's the reason that I will be watching this closely, preparing to lobby parliamentarians of all parties, to ensure that at the very least, the current practice with respect to abortion is allowed to continue, or that even better, the law is changed so that women are able to choose abortion without having to bow down before the medical gods first.

Some other points:

I think it is at best disingenuous, and more realistically utterly deceptive, to describe a fertilised egg or an embryo as a baby. You are helping yourself to all the positive emotions in favour of babies, which we have for good evolutionary reasons, when the being that is at stake is not a baby, yet. "Fetus" is a compromise term; I will happily use "product of conception" and help myself to all the negative emotion around that term if you are going to use the term "baby".

Spare me the arguments from potential. Every five year old child who was born in this country is a potential voter, but that doesn't mean we allow them to vote. They don't get to vote until they reach the age of 18, and become actual voters. Potential X's do not have the same moral standing as actual X's, whatever those X's are.

If you really think that abortion shouldn't be allowed, then of course you will be taking steps to ensure you do not start any pregnancies yourself, so you will either be rushing out to get a vasectomy or to get other contraceptives, or if you are not prepared to do that, keeping your penis out of other people's vaginas, or not allowing a man to put his penis inside your vagina, just in case. In fact, you had better not have sex at all, given the fact that contraceptives can fail, if you aren't willing to risk pregnancy and you won't countenance abortion either.

And for FSM's sake, why is it that we never, ever, pay attention to what professional ethicists (a.k.a. philosophers) say about this topic. We spend millions of dollars paying some highly skilled people to think through knotty ethical issues, and then just sideline them when it comes to debates like this, and turn to people who hold hierarchically sanctioned positions in institutions devoted to sky fairies instead.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post Deborah. Its good to see people coming out and making a stand. Personally I believe in the end it comes down to individual women making a choice at a specific time and so I think that the choice to abort should be a freely available option

Anonymous said...

Hey Deborah- I think that despite allegedly refusing to engage in rights-based talk, you did talk about rights, and you did so very eloquently and mentioned all the core reasons of why I support giving the first and final choice to women in this matter.

I think what gets people support choice primary annoyed with rights-based talk is the assumption that rights don't have to be balanced against each other sometimes and some sort of primacy established in certain situations. Just throwing down a certain human right when someone's already indicated there's a conflict going on is essentially like saying "but look at my pair!" in poker without ever looking at what cards it's made out of ;)

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

I don't disagree with you in spirit but I think you might need to rethink your definition of a Full Human Being; there are going to be people (such as people with full Downs Syndrome, et al) who fail to qualify under this (although, I'll grant, you don't actually have to include such people; some ethicists have argued that you might well be morally permitted to 'abort' such people after birth):

'A full human being, even quite a small one, has hopes and dreams, thoughts for the future and the past, it can conceive of itself as existing in relation to itself, in relation to other people.'

Deborah said...

I think there's no question that people with Downs syndrome are full human beings. My understanding of Downs is that people with it usually have connections with other people plan for the future, have dreams about what they would like to to. But it's not up to me to make a judgement about whether or not they are full human beings. Do they fit the criteria? From my experience of people with Downs syndrom (limited), it seems to be quite clear that they meet the criteria. As is the case with any other full human being, it is morally impermissible to kill someone who has Downs syndrome.

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

Downs is just one example, though, of a range of conditions and syndromes any human can have, some of which will limit (or negate) some of the properties you list. For example, some extreme cases of Autism (more Kanner than Aspergers types) are thought to lack a sense of relation to other humans, yet I'm sure you'll agree that they are still full human beings.

All I'm saying is that your definition of a Full Human Being is, at best, incomplete and needs filling out.

Deborah said...

Sure, but this would be a blog post, not a philosophical essay. The whole notion has been fairly thoroughly explored in the philosophical literature. The Wikipedia entry is not too bad as a starting point.

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

But it's important. Under your definition certain persons won't qualify as fully human but, I suspect, you think they are still deserving of moral rights, et al. If I were a pro-lifer (and I'm not) I'd then use your definition against you, either showing that you are anti-life (Look, she thinks persons A, B and C don't deserve to live) or use the fact you'd grant exceptions to people not covered by your definition to show that, really, unborn babies are importantly similar to these exceptions.

There's going to be a national debate on this subject, given the ruling, and we've got to make sure it's phrased as properly as possible.

Even in blog posts.

(I'm not so keen on Wikipedia references, especially today, seeing that I've just pinged a third year for using them in their essay...)

Lucia Maria said...

Deborah, the "fully human" argument has been dead and buried for a long time. It is very easy to demonstrate, now that science understands DNA, that a fertilised human egg turns fully human at conception. The only difference between conception and birth is maturity.

The term you are looking for is "personhood". That is the arbitrary point where a human being obtains rights.

Anonymous said...

Lucyna- Personhood isn't arbitrary. Having delved into this field before, the best argument I've seen for defining rights is that you have a right as soon as you have the capacities to notice the consequences of not having it. So for instance, animals have a right to ethical treatment because they can feel pain and distress.

We do not know when a fetus begins to feel, think, or decide. We don't even technically know that a newborn does, although society assumes so to protect them, and I don't see a problem in that case as a newborn isn't intricately connected to the mother anymore.

Lucia Maria said...


Oh, but personhood is arbitrary. For the sole reason that rather than being based on what you are (ie, human) it is based on a criterion which allows you into the protected group. A criterion that can be changed at any point because it is only based on a set of variables.

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

Lucyna, Science has not yielded to the position that the mass of cells at conception is fully human; at best the claim is that the mass of cells is potentially human. This really should be quite compatible with your Catholicism; if the mass of cells is fully human then Nature itself (regardless of human intervention) is the biggest aborter since not every conceived potential human ever gets actualised (and if you put god-qua-creator into the mix then it seems that it is the biggest aborter).

Anonymous said...

Having said it's easy, can you demonstrate that easily, here, Lucyna? Or rather, can you demonstrate it scientifically to someone who isn't predisposed to understand a fertilised egg as already "fully human"? As far as I can see, the only way for a fertilised egg to be "fully human" is if you're using that phrase to mean something very different from the way Deborah is using it, in which case you're making a semantic argument. I do a lot of reading about conception and pregnancy in my training, and I still find no such obvious evidence for seeing an egg as "fully human" by my definition of that phrase.

The concept is intrinsically difficult to grapple with. Why do us all the disservice of proclaiming that it's easy when it's anything but?

Deborah said...

the "fully human" argument has been dead and buried for a long time

Not on the planet I live on. You'll find it's very widely accepted among professional ethicists.

That would be people trained in philosophical thinking - rigorous, analytic, reason and evidence based.

Lucia Maria said...

Um, it sounds like you lot need Basic Biology 101, or in layman speak; The Birds and the Bees for Dummies. Surely not? I learnt all this stuff about human conception and what happens on a cellular level in 5th form science. What is education coming to these days?

Lucia Maria said...

Actually, it may have been 4th form science ...

Anyway, here is a link for you all on Human Development, starting from conception.

And here is a very recent study on Science for Unborn Human Life. An objective, fact-based report describing the day-by-day development of the unborn child, with each fact sourced by a reference to the scientific and medical literature. The facts show the unborn child quickly develops the organs and systems that a newborn has. It moves like a newborn. It has senses. It can learn. The author concludes that the unborn child must be a human life and invites interested persons to consider the scientific data.

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

You know, Lucyna, you probably should have tried to get your 'arguments' from less obviously pro-life sources. It's just insulting, you know, to think we won't spot where you are getting the information from.

Deborah said...

I recommend to you, Lucyna, Applied Ethics 101. Try a little rigorous thinking, instead of handwaving theology.

Anonymous said...

Lucyna, I've just sat an exam on conception and prenatal development. I get the science. There is nothing in the text books, anywhere, that proves scientifically that humanness begins at conception. *Everyone*, religious or areligious, ultimately makes a *philosophical* judgement of when that transition to humanness actually occurs.

Anna said...

I'm finding this debate fascinating. I'm particularly interested in way ethics around the right to life transfer from the abortion issue to the lives of people with disabilities, etc. I think that we need ongoing national conversations about all this stuff, as euthanasia is bound to become a political issue again at some stage. What I wonder, though, is whether we actually need one ethical 'rule' to cover all situations? Is it helpful to use phrases like 'fully human' so that foetuses and people with disabilities get stuck in the same logical categories, or should we just start from the idea that different life situations may warrant different sets of rights?

Anonymous said...

Does the term 'sentient' have any place in this debate?
Also I passed two SPUC signs in my driving today - and was thinking if I put up a pro-choice sign on my fence how long would it be before there was a protest or cousil directive to remove it

Anonymous said...

Hi Deborah, I think your argument really is in trouble with the 'fully human' premise. You say, "A full human being, even quite a small one, has hopes and dreams, thoughts for the future and the past, it can conceive of itself as existing in relation to itself, in relation to other people." A newborn baby does not, in any sense, have these attributes. Let alone the argument from people with disabilities. If you are going to argue for the morally permissibility of abortion you need other grounds. And please don't reach for what Wikipedia or professional ethicists/philosophers say because the 'what constitutes a person' argument is far from settled and it is precisely these axamples about abortion and people with disabilites, etc which make definition of personhood practically impossible. A counter-example will always be found or else the definition will become so tricky that it no longer offers help with the question of what can we morally abort and what can we not.
Also I don't think we can retreat to the 'women's choice' argument as we don't let women choose to kill their 3 year old children. We legislate against this and we usually find it morally reprehensible. I have been offering these arguments in differnet blogs and have been told to go to the hand mirror where I will be 'eaten alive'. But I am still yet to find the argument which justifies abortion. Given most of us want to find one, what the hell is it? If we can't find it, we need to reflect very hard before this issue comes to the fore again in the political arena...