In Defense of Abortion

In this month’s Canadian federal election, abortion was not an issue. However, whenever election time roles around in North America, the issue of abortion tends to garner at least a little bit more conversation than normal, even if it is not a specific policy issue. Social conservatives will want to elect politicians who may one day make it a policy issue again, if and when they get enough people in office to be able to make an effective policy run. Pro-choice citizens, on the other hand, are made nervous by the prospect of that happening, and thus are libel to remain slightly weary even when the leader of the conservative party clearly states that he has no interest in bringing abortion back to the table, as Canadian Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper has done. Given that the Harper’s new term will see the appointment of multiple new Canadian Supreme Court justices, some may be wondering if abortion could be the subject of further political discussion some time down the road.

In this post I will argue on behalf of the legality of abortion. I will consider the issues from the stance of the unborn fetus, the parents, and society. In addition to considering the issue from a qualitative experiential perspective, I will also reflect on the notion of the fundamental right to life and freedom from unprovoked harm from others. Lastly, I will consider the issue of abortion in the case of rape. I will not, however, consider abortion from the perspective of religion. While I am perfectly willing to consider moral arguments from religious texts, I will not give the arguments any special priority simply because they came from the Bible, the Qur’an, or some other religious text.

From the perspective of the unborn fetus:

There is absolutely no reason to believe that the unborn fetus will experience any sense of loss. Like anyone else, once you’re dead you’re dead (Note: an obvious rebuttal will be, Well then why don’t we just legalize murder? I will address this issue in the section on society). We have no reason to believe that the person will suffer after they die. We cannot disqualify the possibility, but we have no reason to believe such that any suffering will happen. We can be pretty certain, however, that accidental parents will suffer if they are forced to bring an unwanted child into the world. Given that the state of the fetus’ neural development at the time of the first trimester is extremely impoverished, whether it has any conscious experience of the abortion at all seems to be highly doubtful. I’ve heard of pro-life organizations showing video footage of a fetus dodging out of the way of an abortion probe. Even if it were doing this, this is by no means proof of conscious experience. There are plenty of simple forms of life that will reflexively recoil when poked. And even if, for the sake or argument, we assume that the infant is consciously fearful, on what reasonable grounds do we prioritize an infants momentary fear over the 9 months of unwanted pregnancy of the mother, and the disruption to the life of both parents and their families?

The parents’ perspective:

Obviously, the parents do not want the child. The pregnancy was an accident. I have often heard pro-lifers speak against abortion as if they were talking about gambling: if you can’t afford to have a baby, then you can’t afford to have sex. I’ve even heard an analogy to crime be made: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. I personally do not view child birth as something that should ever be treated as a sort of punishment or a simple consequence of an accident. We have the ability to terminate a pregnancy in a manner that is relatively quick and easy. There is no reason to believe that the infant will experience any sense of loss, but there is every reason to believe that the parents will suffer if unable to terminate the pregnancy. Why would we prioritize potential suffering for which there is no evidence for belief over the completely anticipable and surely real suffering of the parents, among others?

Another point is that of the right to control one’s own body. If the woman does not want this infant, then this infant is an unwanted parasite on the body. It is bringing discomfort, sickness, interfering with the woman’s life, and is very demanding of resources. Why should the woman not be able to defend itself against this? A set of rebuttals to this point may be: Well, why should we have social welfare programs? And, Why shouldn’t wealthy people be able to kill of poorer people whom take in the tax dollars of the wealthy? A few replies. Firstly, we can be confident that poorer people do experience suffering; the same cannot be said of an unborn fetus. Secondly, these poorer people are likely to be a part of social networks, so killing them off also hurts their family, friends, work associates, and so on. An unborn fetus is not a part of any of these social networks. Thirdly, the wealthy depend on the poor. The wealthy need the poor to work in their organizations, to work in society to keep society running, and so on. Fourth, if the wealthy are not going to help protect the health, safety, and so on of the poor, how can they expect the poor to not revolt? Moral considerations run both ways. If the wealthy are going to let the poor waste away with a complete lack of regard for their well-being, the poor can hardly be expected to respect the humanity of those who so callously dehumanize them. More importantly, who would question their desire to defend their health and safety and those of their kin? In my view, morality is first and foremost about people having a genuine respect for the well-being of other sentient agents. We have no reason to believe that early trimester fetuses fall into this category, but we have every reason to believe that accidental parents and the poor do.

From the perspective of society:

Allowing abortion poses no threat to society the way that allowing murder would. When a fetus is aborted, there is no reason to believe that it suffers, that social networks of the fetus will be disrupted (there aren’t any), and risky precedents need not be set by allowing abortion. If we allow the core of ethics to be the genuine respect for the well-being of other sentient agents, what negative consequences would abortion pose? It’s not like it would serve as some sort of justification for murder. Unlike the case of abortion, allowing murder would create a permanent sense of angst in society over the unjustified killing of oneself, one’s kin, and one’s associates. Allowing murder could create an air of angst-ridden societal instability.

The closest thing that abortion brings about to the disruption of social networks is that some people will not want the mother to abort the fetus. Perhaps the grandmother wants a grandchild. Should the mother be obligated to satisfy someone else’s desire for their infant, though? I don’t see why they should.

The rights of the parents and society versus that of the unborn fetus:

When one argues against abortion, they are prioritizing the supposed feelings and rights of the infant over the well-being of the parents and society generally. When someone says that abortion is not allowable, they are saying that the (for all practical purposes) non-existent feelings of the fetus are more important than the real feelings of the parents and society. In a society in which we are able to terminate unwanted pregnancies, if we tell people that abortion is not an option, we are telling them that they will have to accept some unnecessary risk for their sexual behaviour. Why should we do this? Why should we actively oppose people’s ability to have consensual sexual pleasure, and to punish the unlucky people, out of consideration for the (for all practical purposes) non-existent feelings of fetus, and out of consideration for the loss of life that the fetus will never know about anyway? Why should we prioritize unfelt feelings and unexperienced loss over the happiness and freedom from suffering of those who will experience such positive and negative emotional states?

But, It’s not about feelings; It’s about one’s fundamental RIGHT TO LIFE:

I suspect that my arguments have failed to impress many people on the other side of the ideological divide. For many of these people, disagreement may stem from traditional religious beliefs – e.g., that God creates every human soul, every human soul is special, and it is a sin of the highest order for anyone other than God to deliberately end innocent life. As an agnostic atheist, I do not personally buy into this line or argument, though I can empathize with its weight to some degree. As the point of this posting is not to engage in theological epistemology, I won’t be addressing this sort of case.

However, other pro-lifers will argue that, like many pro-choicers, I’m fundamentally missing the point. This isn’t about experienced feelings of loss, pain or what have you, it’s about the fundamental right to life. Indeed, the right to life and safety from unprovoked harm from others are fundamental tenets of libertarian philosophy.

Really, this is the crux of the impasse for some; which should get the ultimate priority: considerations of experience (e.g., absent versus present; desirable versus aversive; who is the experiencer) or the fundamental right to life of each life form in existence? As I’m sure is clear, I personally prioritize considerations of experience over considerations of fundamental rights to life. I believe that life itself can be good, bad, or neutral, but what makes it so is how that life is experienced by the liver and how it affects the experience of others. Now, of course, I cannot prove that I am right for believing and feeling as I do; neither can those on the other side of the divide. Whether one prioritizes experience or right to life, one is making a value judgment which ultimately cannot be proven. In taking a side on this issue, one is taking an ethical position that is akin to religious faith – though, here, the belief is with respect to the moral fabric of the universe, not the physical or ontological.

A brief statement on abortion in the case of rape:

Some pro-life proponents are willing to allow for abortion in the case of rape. I personally do not see how they can do this. While it certainly is very unfortunate that a woman has been raped, I hardly see how this affects the fetus’ fundamental right to life, its innocence, or its divine preciousness. While I certainly stand on the side of allowing abortion in the case of rape, as I do with simple consensual sex accidental pregnancies, I hardly see how a pro-lifer could make such a distinction.


3 thoughts on “In Defense of Abortion

  1. i agree that there are good scientific reasons to think that there is no fetal consciousness until late second/early third trimester, before which the overwhelming majority of abortions are performed. but the best anti-choice argument i’ve heard claims that the badness of killing comes from depriving a person of their future, and that loss need not be experienced. if a piano drops and squishes me dead, i’ve lost my future and that’s what makes my death a bad thing; even though the piano kills me so quickly i don’t *experience* any of that, i’ve still suffered the loss. similarly for the aborted fetus, the argument goes. (but i do have a standing capacity for experience, plus a set of values, memories, goals, etc., that it seems to me are crucial to my future having a value; since the fetus lacks these things, perhaps the analogy fails.)

    i’ve always been puzzled by the slogan that abortion is wrong ‘except in cases of rape and incest’–what’s up with that last part? perhaps they’re considering the fact that most incest is rape; but then the addition is redundant. suppose sane consenting adult siblings decided to procreate. yucky, but it could happen. suppose then that they decide to abort for some reason. why is it suddenly permissible for them to do so, but not for non-siblings? perhaps the argument is that the sibling fetus is the result of a sinful coupling. but what about all the cases of pregnancy from sex outside wedlock? presumably those are sinful couplings to the religious-minded; why then isn’t abortion permissible in those cases? and the anti-choicer can’t really argue that abortion is permitted here because of the potential for serious birth defects, etc., since they typically don’t buy that reasoning in the non-incest case. the incest exception is possibly in the end just another example of shit people say without actually thinking through what they mean by it.

  2. Like you I’m not religious. I’m progressive on most issues except on abortion. No pregnancy is ‘accidental’ unless there’s insanity or ill-information involved. The fetus doesn’t appear in a womb due to some chance bombardment of atoms. We are not bonobos that communicate and do everything through sex. Sex for humans has weight, importance and consequence, and we’re experiencing some of the social destabilizing results of not treating it as such.
    As for your arguments….
    If self-awareness is the line in the sand, why is infanticide ever a crime? Or euthenizing the mentally ill or comatose? Why is destroying chimps and gorillas not murder?
    A fetus is a parasite? Why should we not consider all kids parasites? Some are definitely a discomfort to their parents, even more so considering it’s 18 years vs 9 months. Women are designed to be pregnant. In fact it is their entire reason for being from a biological standpoint.
    Childbirth can be painless, which is not the same for rearing a child. If it were not for advanced medicine, abortion would be more painful and detrimental than natural childbirth. Why not use modern medicine to prevent pregnancy in the 1st place? If not tube tying then at least a IUD or those injections that last a year instead of relying on condoms and pull-out method.
    A fetus has no social connections? Then why are the feelings and opinions of the father conveniently and completely ignored across the board?

    Few pro-lifers advocate abortion for incest and rape…that’s mostly a political give for take.

    for me a second old fetus is already an old person dying naturally in the past is present is future notion of natural reality, that is until someone knowingly interrupts that progress

  3. Things can be argued in all sorts of ways. Each of us, your whole life could have been scooped out and cut to pieces before you were born if your mother decided it was in her best interest. When I put it like that, abortion doesn’t seem like such a good thing. The problem is abortion out of convenience – that is the problem. With so much of what we do, we dispose of what we don’t like, “I don’t want that, take it back.” Its all about convenience for us. “It’s not convenient, I don’t want it.” Me, me, me, me…

    I’m not about to talk about religion. I’ve had a number of sacred experiences in my life and continue to have them. Things that were amazing and clearly part of something I cannot comprehend – things that go beyond logic… In those moments I feel part of divinity – I think people from all walks of life have that sense, no matter what we believe. Some things are sacred. Our generation has little room for “sacred.” We are selfish and greedy and we turn our backs on the most valuable aspects of life.

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