16 June 2005

Abortion: Is there a third position?

I'm always a bit dumbfounded when I come across an issue for which there doesn't seem to be a middle ground--any room for discussion or compromise. We're all born with the same senses, similar experiences, and the capacity to reason. So how can people disagree so completely on certain issues. Is it because one or the other side (or possibly both) are affected by deeply held illusions or biases that prevent them from seeing the truth?

Abortion is perhaps the paradigmatic example of such an issue. Americans are sharply divided between those who see abortion as the murder of an innocent life and those who see it as an unfortunate, yet necessary, form of birth-control.

My feeling is that both sides on this issue actually present poor arguments and that those on both sides are acting in bad faith. That is to say that they themselves, if they thought about it long and hard, would find themselves unable to fully accept the implications of their position.

The Pro-choice Position

Let's start with those who say that abortion should be legal. Pro-choice advocates make the seemingly reasonable claim that women have an inalienable right to determine the circumstances of their lives. Abortion is a personal choice that shouldn't be made by the government. A further argument is often made that legislative efforts to ban or partially ban abortion jeopardize women's health and prevent physicians from making decisions that reflect their best medical judgment. Virtually all pro-choice advocates admit that abortion is not the ideal form of birth control but claim that it is sometimes necessary when other birth control methods fail. One of the more emotional arguments made by pro-choicers is that it is inhuman to ban abortion when pregnancy results from rape or incest, or when continuing the pregnancy threatens the woman's health.


The pro-choice advocates intentionally sidestep the issue of whether the fetus is a human life. This awkward question is somehow deemed not worth answering or as trivial. But nothing could be further from the truth. Pro-life advocates are absolutely right--any decision on abortion, for or against, must be based on the more fundamental question regarding the nature of a fetus. The pro-choice position only makes sense if the choice is truly about the mother herself and not about a third party. As is often pointed out, the pro-choice position, when taken to extremes, leads to some ludicrous conclusions. Is a fetus not a human life immediately prior to birth? What happens if labor is induced? Is the child, born earlier than expected, not human? Does it instantly transform into a human being the second it exits the womb?

Economic arguments, being secondary in this case, have considerably less force. To the common argument that abortion keeps unwanted children from being born into the world, abortion advocates point to waiting lists for orphans (an argument that can't be applied worldwide).

The Pro-life Position

Those who oppose abortion generally believe that human life begins at conception. Abortion is therefore tantamount to murder, which we all condemn. Murder, as aggression directed towards an innocent human being (the fetus), is not within the sphere of individual prerogative. Abortion is therefore related to other practices that seem to devalue life, such as euthanasia. A secondary argument is that the acceptance of abortion encourages mistaken attitudes about sex, parenthood, and responsibility.

The pro-life position is almost always based on a religious convictions such as Christianity. In Christianity, human beings are endowed with souls and are thereby qualitatively distinct from the soul-less remainder of creation. Pro-life advocates generally claim that a human life begins the instant an egg is fertilized by a sperm.


Although the pro-life position is generally based on religious faith, we should assume that there are some wise and spiritual people of the faith who are able to fully appreciate the inherent sanctity of life in an experiential (versus purely intellectual) sense. If this is the case, and if abortion is truly murder, we'd expect them to react to abortion as they would to any other death. Yet this is clearly never the case. When a culture of fertilize cells is tossed out in a fertility lab, no Christians run over screaming at the deaths of the tiny humans. The parents, having successfully (or unsuccessfully) used the eggs they want, feel no remorse at seeing the additional fertilized eggs die. One can go from cemetery to cemetery and never see a funeral or wake for the dead cells. This discussion may sound humorous and sarcastic but it really isn't meant to be so at all. If people really believe something, we expect their actions to conform to their believe. But this never happens.

Single fertilized cells are clearly very different from us. I'm sure they don't think or feel or have emotions like we do (they don't have brains or central nervous systems after all). But there may be an extremely subtle sense in which they are sentient since they are alive. But here once more we find a huge discrepancy between pro-life belief and action. If pro-life advocates are so attuned to every living thing, no matter how small, we'd expect them to all be vegetarians. With their deep compassion for the smallest living matter, they probably woudn't merely skip going to barbecues--they'd be living like the Jains in India, sweeping before themselves as they walk lest they step on a bug. But we don't find this extremely well-developed compassion. To the contrary, it is often these same pro-lifers who are downing six-packs and laughing as they watch bombs rain down on foreign cities. In other words, they seem to have a lack of empathy for other fully formed human beings, making us wonder how they have developed such compassion for miniature life forms.

The Real Problem with Both Positions

The problem with both pro-life and pro-choice is that both positions are derived from beliefs that aren't very heart-felt. In other words, no one really believes what they say they believe. No pro-choice person (unless they're a callous murderer) would slice up a newborn baby without any remorse simply because it had been born a day early. So it doesn't make sense to do this when the baby's still in the womb. By the same token, nobody really believes that a single tiny cell is a human being.

If this is the case, how can we explain the tenacity with which both sides adhere to their position? Perhaps the biggest reason is simply group-think. Christians who go to church are told how to think on the issue. Liberals, on the other hand, adopt their position, urged on by feminists who claim that the pro-life lobby is trying to control women's bodies.

One aspect of the debate that is often overlooked, however, is the extent to which the two positions are the same. Both groups claim that human life begins in a single instant; that there's a sharp divide between matter and human life.

Does this makes sense? If we reflect at all on other life, we certainly find this isn't true. The pollinated flowers of a tree don't instantly gain tree-hood the second the tree is pollinated. Rather, there's a long process of development that occurs over time. Rather than bursting forth from nothingness, the tree springs forth from the natural material world as a result of properties that were already inherent within matter itself. In other words, there's an inherent continuity between life and matter.

This is an extremely commonsense observation yet it's vehemently denied by everyone. How can we explain this? I think part of the reason is that modern humans have a fear of nature, a fear of realizing that we don't stand apart from the universe but are merely a part of it. And this is ultimately related to our fear of death. We would like to think that we're made of some different soul-stuff that exists eternally, apart from the dead matter around us. The truth is that matter isn't really so dead, and our lives are bound up with it.

My Position

For this reason, I think a more sensible approach to abortion would be to acknowledge that a pro-life position is preferable, while remaining aware of the tremendous demands of such a position. But if we really aren't able to become non-violent, pacifist vegetarians, for consistency's sake, we should probably adopt a more mixed position. As the fetus develops, it becomes more human-like, and we find it naturally repugnant to kill this life form that's in the process of becoming one of us. In terms of the legal system, we could place more stringent requirements on abortion at successive stages, being as lenient regarding the killing of stem cells as we are regarding the killing of mosquitos, but as strict on late-term abortions as we are on the murder of infants.

Other blogs that discuss abortion include:

12th Harmonic
Democracy for Virginia
Hammer and Nail
Land of the Free, Home of the Brave
La Shawn Barber's Corner
Lawyers, Guns and Money
Mouse Words
Pinko Feminist Hellcat
Redwood Dragon


The One True Tami said...

No pro-choice person (unless they're a callous murderer) would slice up a newborn baby without any remorse simply because it had been born a day early. So it doesn't make sense to do this when the baby's still in the womb. By the same token, nobody really believes that a single tiny cell is a human being.

Just to let you know, I *have* thought about this. I personally am pro-choice, working with the idea that a fetus less than 18 weeks developed is not yet a viable human being. It could not survive outside the womb. Maybe it's an arbitrary cut-off date, but it's what I work with when thinking about this kind of choice.

denisdekat said...

Having and abortion is not a good experience for the women who have to go through with it.

I tend to believe that we need to go deeper than abortion, and talk contraception and sex education first (I am not saying to ignore the abortion issue).

I think that it would be good if we focused on prevention in realistic ways (not by preaching abstenance).

Glen Dean said...

the one true tami,
Have you ever looked at an ultrasound of a baby at 18 weeks? Looks like a human being to me. Also, since you used 18 weeks, surely you will agree that 3rd trimester abortions are barbaric. I can see how a rational person could believe it was okay early in the pregnancy, but I can't see how anyone could justify late-term abortion. That is just sick.

Deleted said...

There's room for any number of positions on abortion, as long as the right to one is preserved. My view is that it's best to leave it to the conscience of the women involved and their doctors. People who are sincerely appalled can practice abstinence or use birth control and generally mind their own business. End of problem.

Faith in the ability of humans to make good decisions and a strong reluctance to use violence against those whose decisions upset us emotionally is a conservative tradition. It is one I am proud to uphold.

The emotional blackmail, gooey sentimentality and hyperbolic accusations of those to whom the concept of innocent life -- their own concept and one that is infinitely rigid or flexible at need -- has made discussion of this very difficult, of course. The iron nanny state they want and their appetite for detecting moral relativism in anyone but themselves makes it hard for me to take them seriously.

Glen Dean said...

Harry, it is okay to have your position, but whether one has that "right" should be decided by state legislatures. There is no way that a rational, common sense person can point to anywhere in the constitution where abortion rights are mentioned. Roe v. Wade is the poster child of judicial activism.

Deleted said...

There are plenty of ways to point to Constitutional support for abortion. It goes to self-determination, and privacy -- which is not explicitly mentioned either. Nevertheless, interpretations of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 9th, 12th, 14th and 22nd have all been found to support it.

The Amendments, regarding what the state may do to people, have, with one unfortunate exception, worked to increase liberty and reduce the power of the state over individuals. Throughout our history of jurisprudence, an increasingly expansive view of liberty has become enshrined.

Federalism does not permit laws that are unconstitutional. For example: no state could pass a law reinstituting slavery. Even the activist judges of the New Right couldn't pull that off.

Sanshinseon said...

I'm with Harry -- one of the primary issues in this virulent debate is -- is this any of the government's business? Shouldn't at least early-term abortions be a matter for a woman, her family, the man involved, her doctor and her religious advisor to sort out in privacy? With the pregnant woman herself holding the ultimate vote. THAT is the true American Way handed down from the Sage Jefferson -- and those who seek to make it automatically a decision of the Police and Judges are quite un-American, in my view.

Sky Niangua said...

To me Pro-choice is far more than the issues of murder or whether it is right or wrong or finding when 'life' begins. Those are personal beliefs.
Pro-choice..with the focus on the word 'choice'...means that all women are protected. One for having an abortion safely and legally and for the other to know she will never be forced into having an abortion. Choice leaves the difficutl decision with the individual woman, her family and her doctor. I trust women in this private decision. I do not cast stones at them or judge them because I do not walk in anyone elses shoes and think with my own mind.

Glen Dean said...

Harry, it takes some "creativity" to find anything in the constitution to support abortion "rights". In other words, it aint there.

Kathy said...

I've got to take issue here. You write that "The pro-choice advocates intentionally sidestep the issue of whether the fetus is a human life."

That's simply not true and the generalization weakens your argument. There's no agreement across pro-choice adherents but that certainly doesn't mean we sidestep the issue.

Later, you write: "The problem with both pro-life and pro-choice is that both positions are derived from beliefs that aren't very heart-felt." Again, I disagree. My beliefs about balancing the rights of a woman against the potential life of an early pregnancy are deeply rooted. My position on forcing a woman to carry to term a severely deformed fetus with no hope of living outside the womb because the problem wasn't discovered until the 7th month is heart-felt.

Don't presume that folks on either side are adopting knee-jerk extremist positions that aren't well thought out or deeply held simply because there are wingnuts and moonbats using the issue as a political tool. It's really not that simple. And to tell the truth, it's a little insulting to be told that my positions, reached after much soul searching, are simply a response to alarmist feminists (another offensive generalization - thanks).

I appreciate your effort to step back and take a fresh look at this issue. But I sure would appreciate a less dismissive approach to folks on both sides of this debate.

Karlo said...

Your points are well-taken. I would still say that "pro-choice" advocates often side-step the issue, posed by the pro-life lobby, of whether a fetus is a human life. The very phrase "pro-choice" itself suggests that the key issue is "choice" or "freedom." This position is often repeated in pro-choice rhetoric which tells us that any attempt to thoughtfully delve into the topic represents an attack on women. But your criticism is well-taken. I need to tone down my rhetoric at times.

Kathy said...


It's taken me forever to get back to you on this - sorry.

Here's the deal. Most pro-choice advocates see a fetus as potential life and agree that viability outside the womb is the determining factor. But we don't really want to debate the question of "when life begins" because for us the issue is the equivalence of fetal rights with women's rights. And I'm not going to get side tracked arguing about whether an embryo is a human with rights.

This is about freedom - mine. The idea that a cell group, an embryo, has the same rights that I do is the basis for declaring that my rights and freedoms can be abrogated in favor of fetal rights. So I do think this is about freedom. It's not rhetoric - it's the issue.

Of course, for the anti-abortion crowd the issue is the question of when life begins and the assumption is that if it's in the womb then my womb isn't mine anymore - it's public territory. That's why viability makes sense as the determinant on when life begins. It eliminates the need to choose which life - mine or a fetal life - gets priority under the law. It's also why we don't debate when life begins - in the same way the anti-abortion crowd won't debate it. Both sides are generally immovable on this.

On another note, I do want to point out that, clearly, if we're proposing that abortion is acceptable, we don't think that we're murderers. We don't think we're killing human beings. We do, however, know that we're ending the potential for a unique human life and that's why it's so hard to choose. Because you can respect and hope for and even love the potential before it exists.

My .02.