Whose Body? A Look at Abortion

I realized I do not post enough divisive and political material on this blog, and as departure, I would like to write a little post on the moral case of abortion. More than any other political matter, abortion is perhaps the number one wedge issue in American politics. The election of Donald Trump, a man who broke from GOP orthodoxy in many other instances, was still able to win the votes of 80% of Evangelical Christians. I have to believe this voting bloc was almost exclusively motived by a desire to put a republican, any republican, into office in order to appoint the supreme court justices necessary to repeal 1973’s Roe v. Wade. Abortion is a very active bioethical issue, and the consequences of the debate are, quite literately, life or death.

I remember arriving early at my campus’ chapel before a service a few years ago. In talking to one of the other students, she mentioned that she was required to write a paper defending an argument for her German class. After asking her what she argued, she responded that she defended the pro-life position. “How did your argument go?” I asked in innocence. She provided me with the following argument:

P1 Death is the cessation of a beating heart.
P2 Inducing death to a non-consenting party is murder.
P3 An abortion stops a beating heart of a non-consenting party.
C Therefore, abortion is murder.

What my co-parisoner presented is a valid argument, meaning that the conclusion logically follows from the premises. However, this is not necessarily a sound argument, which would mean that the premises and conclusion are true. For example, I would take objection to premise 2: inducing death is not necessarily murder. Euthanasia can involve a non-consenting party, and I would not consider that murder.

Consider the “Famous Violinist” argument proposed by Judith Jarvis Thompson. She writes of a thought experiment where, due to some medical mishap, you have your bloodstream hooked up to that of a famous violinist. If you unplug yourself from the violinist’s body, they will die. Suppose that it will take one year for the organ transplant to take place, are you morally required to stay plugged into the blood circulation of the violinist? Most people seem think that do not have a moral duty to remain plugged into the system, even though it is certain that, should they unplug, the violinist will die.

Most people intuitively believe that in this case, you would not be required to stay plugged into the violinist: the violinist’s life or death is not as important as your supposed right to bodily autonomy. Some philosophers will reject Thomson’s thought experiment by distinguishing between killing and letting die. Unplugging from the violinist is “Letting Die,” but abortion is a medical procedure that involves gory details. I don’t find this distinction all that useful; letting the violinist die of sepsis would ultimately be a very unpleasant faith to induce, just as much as the procedure of a late-term abortion. This is a distinction without a difference, and as I mentioned earlier, I can imagine cases in which it is not murder to actively euthanize people in certain conditions (that is, of course, another issue).

Another objection to Thomson’s defense is that her case seems to imply a pregnancy through rape. If one is having consensual sex, shouldn’t one accept the risk and responsibility of a pregnancy? The common response is to flesh out the bodily-autonomy argument provided in the initial experiment, which is the bedrock for most pro-choice activism in the West:

P1 A person has the fundamental right to make decisions about their own body.
P2 A pregnancy is a feature of one’s own body.
C Therefore, one has the right to decide whether to carry or terminate a pregnancy.

Or more simply put, “My body, my choice.” This is a good, concise argument, but I do not believe it is really sufficent to settle the debate. In fact, part of the problem of the pro-life and pro-choice debate is how both sides are effectively making the same argument about bodily autonomy. Many pro-life supporters would consider framing their arguments like this:

P1 All persons have a fundamental right to life.
P2 Implied in a fundamental right to life is the right from being killed.
P3 A fetus is a person.
C Therefore, abortion violates the fundamental right to life of an unborn person.

Both parties believe their argument hinges on a fundamental right to autonomy, but they cannot agree as to when this right begins. Some will attack premise 3 of the pro-life argument, stating that a fetus is not a person, as a fetus does not have the level of social conditioning and self-awareness to be considered a person (even if the fetus is a homo sapian). The problem then becomes, when exactly does a fetus become a person? The line is not clear at all.

Let me present an unpopular view: the best argument for the permissibility of abortion is a utilitarian argument, not a right-based argument. There is no universally, or even majority, answer as to when personhood begins, or to what one’s fundamental rights are (not legal rights, but human rights). Rather, I would consider consequences of an unwanted pregnancy:

P1 Pregnancy & the act of birthing has a tremendous physical, financial, and lifestyle effect on a person.
P2 The fetus is a sentient being, but has a fraction of the awareness of the person carrying them.
P3 An unwanted pregnancy & act of birthing has a much greater negative effect on the pregnant person than the fetus.
P4 It is morally permissibility to inflict pain on a creature if it is the only step necessary to relieve yourself of a much greater and irreversible pain.
P5 Abortion will relieve an unwanted pregnancy & act of birthing, while causing pain and killing a being with very minor sentience.
C Abortion to relieve an unwanted pregnancy is morally permissible.

As some have pointed out, giving up children to adopting is an alternative to parenthood, but abortion is the only alternative to pregnancy after one has already conceived. Of course some might claim, as I cited earlier, that consensual sex carries with it an implicit responsibility for any children. And while I can imagine how some would find that vision attractive, I maintain that the volume of pain and stress from an unwanted pregnancy alone overwhelms any appeal to the pain of a barely-sentient fetus. “This violates the ‘Natural Order’ of things!” I could imagine one saying. Yes, it does. And so does using antiseptics, vaccines, and cesarian sections. Actually, maybe this is the natural order of things: chimpanzees use sticks to remove ants from logs, beavers build dams, and human beings control their pregnancies with a variety of contraceptives and surgical practices.

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