All around me people have been demonstrating about abortion. Always those motivated to demonstrate embrace the most radical positions.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center finds that most Americans are not happy with an absolutist position either for or against abortion. But non-absolutists rarely ever state their case. Let me try to do that. My argument is that either the pro or anti side, taken to its logical consequences, is unpalatable, leaving the reasonable person to search for a position in between.
The radical anti-abortion side begins (and ends) with the proposition that a fertilized egg is a human life, which, of course, it is. The question, though, is whether the embryo is a person. That is not a question of biology but of law, which means it is not a question of fact but of social rules that are a matter of public decision.
Either the absolutist pro or absolutist anti side, taken to its logical consequences, is unpalatable, leaving the reasonable person to search for a position in between.
If people decide that an embryo is a person, then to kill one is murder. That means that for a physician to remove a human embryo the size of a pea, or a walnut, or a baseball, is a homicide. Are we willing to condemn that physician as a murderer, and send him to prison? Are we willing to prosecute the woman who had the abortion as an accessory to murder, and put her in prison, too? If not, why not? That is where the logic leads.
Then the issue of rape. If an embryo is a person with rights, an embryo sired by a rapist has the same right to live as any other. We may sympathize with the mother’s intense feelings of violation and disgust, but our principle, by this reasoning, cannot allow her to carry the day. In Pew’s survey, only 15% of Americans are willing to take this position. But given the original assumption, it is entirely logical.
Furthermore, if an embryo is a person, then abortion clinics are murder centers. Maybe the people who blow them up are not so evil. They are breaking the law, to be sure, but a law that allows murder centers would be a wicked law, would it not?
Give them this: the radical anti-abortion people are philosophically consistent. But they are promoting a regime that Americans will never agree to, because it would be too harsh.
The radical pro-abortion regime is easier to live with, at least if you are outside the womb. Its supporters begin (and end) with the proposition that the issue is solely about “choice” — about a woman’s control of her body. “It’s my body, not yours, so get your hands off!” That implies that the fetus’ body has no rights. Its interests are excluded from the discussion. And that leads to the question of late-term abortions, in which a live fetus that could survive on its own is cut apart in the mother’s womb in preparation for removal.
Are we willing to condemn that physician as a murderer, and send him to prison? Are we willing to prosecute the woman who had the abortion as an accessory to murder, and put her in prison, too?
That doctors don’t do this very often is an important fact, but under the radical pro-abortion regime, it is allowed. For most people, the prospect of killing a viable fetus is deeply troubling. This does seem very much like murder — and murder is not something the law allows as a matter of “choice.” Of Americans surveyed by Pew, only 19% said the law should allow such a thing.
Seventy-five percent of those surveyed told Pew that abortions should be allowed in some cases but not others. They don’t agree on what those cases are, and probably most of them haven’t thought it through. But I think they are following a kind of common sense.
Rhetorically, both absolutist positions are arguments from analogy. The anti-abortion radical takes the principle, “It’s wrong to kill a person,” and applies it to a clump of cells that looks nothing like a person. The pro-abortion radical takes the principle, “A woman should have unquestioned control of her own body,” and applies it to a situation that involves two bodies. Each is taking a principle from somewhere else, where it makes total sense, and applying it to a case in which it makes partial sense only. It’s like two people in a bed, each trying to stretch a blanket over the kid between them. Neither blanket fits: the kid needs his own.
What is needed in America is a regime that fits the reality of biology and human culture. In our culture, when you become a parent, you’re signing up for a couple of decades of rituals and duties: baby showers, bottles, toys, birthday parties, Christmas presents, school lunches, show and tell, sleepovers, field trips, bicycles, summer camp, soccer, drivers’ license, senior prom, college admission, babysitting the grandchildren — on and on. Parenthood is long and hard; sex is quick and fun. To most couples having a roll in the hay, pregnancy is an unwanted accident. To say to them, “Sorry, but this is what you signed up for,” is to embrace a world of grief and heartache, illegal abortions, abandoned babies, bad marriages, and single mothers. To unwilling parents it is a massive unfairness.
The justice who wrote Roe v. Wade came up with a reasonable policy, as far as it goes, though there isn’t much of the Constitution in it.
People today will not accept those choices. Nor will they accept a world in which they are forced to bring to term a fetus with severe handicap, or one sired by a rapist or a one night stand.
A culture that puts so much weight on parents needs to rely on volunteers. As libertarians, that is our brand, too: we are the party of volunteers, not conscripts. For at least one trimester, abortion should be entirely up to the woman, because it gives her a chance to opt out. One last chance.
After that, the question gets dicey. At what point should a fetus gain rights? Second trimester? Viability? And full rights, or limited rights? What if the amniocentesis finds something bad? Maybe such questions still should be left entirely to the woman and her doctor. With reasonable women and reasonable doctors that would work. Then again, I had a friend who was a devotee of amphetamines, and for years had a physician who freely prescribed him diet pills. That wasn’t so terrible, but when you’re dealing with taking a life rather than taking pills, the law may need to be more careful.
I have read Roe v. Wade. The justice who wrote it came up with a reasonable policy, as far as it goes, though there isn’t much of the Constitution in it. If Roe falls, and the question of abortion goes back to the state legislatures, Americans might look at how other countries decide these things. They face the same issues as we do, and for most of them the value of human life, and of women’s autonomy, is not so different from what it is here. Most of them allow abortions, but within limits.
My final thought is that abortion is a distraction from the real business of government. In the American system, voters have binary choices: up or down, Republican or Democrat, yes or no. Our votes matter only in the aggregate, but for them to matter even there, we should be thinking about the central things that government does. In the United States, the central things it does are tax, borrow, and spend trillions of dollars, mainly on social welfare, education, and preparation for war. The more that Americans focus on abortion, the more that they let those other matters pass by, unexamined.