I’ve been wanting to write a long piece on the underlying abortion debate in the United States for a while now. It isn’t an easy subject. It not just that the arguments complex and difficult to explain, though they can be. However, throughout my years in college whenever we were tasked with choosing a topic for an assignment most professors were explicitly clear that they were sick and tired of reading about abortion and they didn’t want anyone to write papers about it anymore. So they banned the topic.
This has left me with a knee-jerk reaction that it isn’t a suitable topic for deep introspection. Since this is also going to be one of those long articles with lots of long sentences that search engine optimization detests, I suspect it won’t be a particularly popular post either. But you never know.
Despite my instructors’ certainty that everything unique and compelling that could be said on the topic has been said, America is still grappling with the subject well over a decade later. So, clearly we have not come to any real consensus. Perhaps, much to the chagrin of paper-graders everywhere, the end result of dissuading people from thinking about this issue in a rigorous and thoughtful way has resulted in people not thinking about this issue in a rigorous and thoughtful way.
That being the case, I think it’s high time I’ve had a good think about it. I’m fresh off a philosophy discussion night at my local Humanist Society and feeling my proverbial oats, so let’s give it a go.
I’m going to walk through my thinking on the subject. You can come along for the ride and then agree with me or not. Whether or not I convince you to my way of thinking isn’t so much the point as getting you to take the time to really think about what we actually know and what we don’t.
When is life ‘Life’?
Let me say, right off the bat, that I don’t want to get sidetracked into any animal rights discussions at this time by discussing the intricacies and differences between human rights and those of other animals; animal rights are an important subject … but not the subject of this blog. We’ll leave all that for another day and for our purposes here when I say things like ‘life’ and ‘consciousness’ I am limiting this discussion to humans for the time being. No offense, but when it comes to situational ethics context is very important and so we must stay focused.
The underlying crux of the debate over abortion is the problem of deciding as a society when, if ever, does the state have a right to deem an abortion unlawful and what the state’s justification is for doing so. Yes, there are edge-cases where late-term abortions are a medical necessity. These are unfortunate circumstances where difficult decisions are made by medical professionals and not much of a source of contention so we’ll put that aside. The actual philosophical question of when someone’s right to a medical procedure should be infringed upon hinges on when it may harm someone else. To answer that in the context of the vast majority of abortions, we really need to discuss what we think a someone is.
For the most part (I think) we agree that a person is a self-aware, animated, human body. Now there’s a lot of dispute on where that self-awareness and animation comes from. Is it an extramental “soul”? Is it a function of the body? These are religious questions at least until such a time as science devises a way to demonstrate it one way or another. As a matter of law it isn’t for the state to say beyond what we can demonstrate to be true. So what do we actually demonstrably know?
Some-one Needs a Some-thing
We know, indisputably, that a functioning body can become so damaged that it is incapable of sustaining animation, and likewise a functioning brain can become so damaged it becomes unable to support self-awareness. So we recognize there are conditions in which a body is incapable of being a person. In U.S. law, this is defined by viability (in the case of a fetus) and death (in the case of everyone else).
It’s important here to impress the critical point that when we say a body is animated we do not simply mean that one is autonomously walking around and talking. For example a person who is conscious but their body is otherwise so damaged that it is incapable of surviving without assistance is still alive. Yet the law recognizes that no one can be compelled to be the source of that assistance without consent. For example, you cannot be compelled by the state to have someone else hooked up to your kidneys so that you act as their dialysis machine. This is important with respect to abortion because viability is the point at which it is even medically possible for an embryo or fetus to potentially survive independent of a host. According to Roe v. Wade, until this point of viability is reached, abortion is legal.
On the other-hand we also recognize that a brain can become damaged in such a way that the body continues to function (insofar as the heart beats and the lungs respirate) but no consciousness is present. There is no ‘they’ there. With respect to the abortion discussion this is where the debate is most contentious because of religious disagreement on when an embryo or a fetus becomes a distinct entity.
We have a lot of legal precedents in end-of-life cases when a body, though whatever means, can be sustained despite the absence of consciousness. One can pre-arrange legal documents as the owner of your body for what to do with your yet-animated but consciousless not-quite-corpse; one can designate a person to handle those decisions in your absence; and if one fails to leave any instructions we have generally decided that such decisions fall to their next of kin so they might settle any lingering affairs in the same way they can decide what to do with your house since, irrespective of the existence of an afterlife, the former person won’t be needing it anymore.
Even so, we should also note here that there are limits on what postmortem requests one is allowed to make for their remains, because there does come a point where the needs of the living outweigh the bodily autonomy of the formerly-alive. If your will says you would like your ashes scattered into the ocean at Venice Beach it would be illegal to honor your wishes. California law requires ashes be scattered 500 yards away from the beach. If you insist your ashes go into the water the EPA says your remains must be in a biodegradable urn and that it be dropped off at least 3 nautical miles from shore.
I bring up all of this postmortem stuff up in the context of abortion because anti-choice advocates spend an awful lot of time and energy attempting to argue that a distinct body (insofar as the DNA of a fetus is distinct from that of the person it is gestating in) is the same thing as a distinct entity. But, we clearly recognize that a body is not the same thing as person. We have a very detailed framework for the limitations of the expressed desires of a person who has ceased to be, and I think that sheds some important light on how we should think about a body that has not and may never become one.
Anyone is perfectly free to have a religious opinion on whether the ‘youness’ of you is supernatural or not. I personally don’t believe there’s sufficient evidence to justify a belief in souls, spirits, or that anything supernatural is going on at all. But even for those who do believe such things I think we agree there is some point in development, some physical requirements of a body, that are necessary for that body to be said to be conscious. I would also say that failing those requirements there is no personhood to be had. After all, if Descartes was correct when he stated ‘I think, therefore I am’ the corollary of that is ‘I don’t think, therefore I am not’.
This corollary applies equally on both ends of a person’s existence, as we are creatures who are bound by time.
You Can’t Exist for Zero Seconds
Now, a criticism one could bring up against the point I’m trying to make is that the issues surrounding end-of-life care and postmortem remains are different than abortion because a fetus that is not-yet-a-person is a ‘potential life’ instead of one that has been actualized and run its course. But this, ultimately, is a manipulative and emotional argument. Primarily, it is a bad argument because one cannot know that a ‘potential life’ will ever be realized at all. More to the point, it doesn’t make sense to say that someone who has not begun to exist ‘has rights’ because someone who does not exist, by definition, has nothing.
If one agrees, as the facts demand, that there is a point in the construction of a body at which consciousness becomes possible, then before that point one can’t say that a body is a person because it is impossible for that body to have a consciousness. This has everything to do with what we mean when we say something exists. When we say something exists, we mean that it is manifest and observable in the universe. Up until a few years ago my house did not exist. It currently exists. At some point in the future it will cease to exist. The same is true of people.
The spiritual or supernatural argument is that, even prior to a body being capable of supporting it, some sort of consciousness exists independent of space and time that can claim ownership of that body’s parts. This is a nonsensical thing to say because manifesting in space and time is how we define what exists. In order for us to say a thing is (or was) it must be (or have been). Anything outside of space and time does not exist because that’s what existence means.
Think about it for a minute: what does it mean to say that something is outside of space and time? Suppose I were to tell you that I believe you are the owner of an Isengardian villa in Middle Earth. I then claim that Middle Earth ‘exists’ in an as yet undiscovered 6th dimension within the boundaries of the United States. You would (quite rightly) call me mad if I then began petitioning the government to insist you pay property taxes on that villa. Isengard is imagined; it does not exist.
This is the same as a ‘potential life’ or ‘potential consciousness’. They have not yet begun to exist; so they do not exist.
Now, one can claim that there is some as yet undiscovered realm of existence that is beyond our ability to detect in which all the consciousnesses that ever were or will be don’t interact with the known universe. One can personally believe that is the case as a matter of faith. One can believe, if they wish, that such consciousnesses have exclusive ownership claims to a particular body for a particular length of time as part of some sort of cosmic time-share arrangement according to the will of some celestial property manager and the terms of that ownership agreement begin at conception. But just claiming you believe that is insufficient as a justification for government policy, and without any proof it is antithetical to the liberty of others to impose the implications of that belief on someone else who quite reasonably disagrees and definitely does exist.
So, Is Abortion Moral or Immoral?
That depends on what you believe, which is the entire point. If you believe that souls exist, and that some ineffable mechanism links souls to embryos at the moment of conception, then it makes sense that you might chose not to get one. However, since that is a belief, taken on faith with no actual proof, it is certainly immoral to expect a secular government to compel or coerce someone who does not believe that to act as if it is true. It is, I think, immoral for a secular government to legislate based on a religious opinion instead of the verifiable consensus facts.
As a parting thought, consider the opposite. Is it immoral for the government to mandate abortion? Yes, of course it is. That isn’t the government’s job either. But not because abortion is immoral, as anti-abortion activists attempt to assert. It is immoral for the same reason making abortion illegal is immoral. It would equally infringe on the autonomy of the pregnant to decide what to do with their own bodies.
So, those are my thoughts on the subject. There’s a very real chance this comment section might get a little unruly. Play nice people.