Some Thoughts on Abortion

Some Thoughts on Abortion January 3, 2019

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.

Pro-choice protest sign in Dublin, Ireland. 2012. Image Credit: William Murphy via Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 2.0)

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.

About Jack Matirko
Jack Matirko is an activist, blogger, and podcaster focussing on issues of church and state separation. He runs Patheos' Satanic Blog For Infernal Use Only (patheos.com/blogs/infernal), co-hosts the Naked Diner Podcast (patreon.com/nakeddiner), and is a member of The Satanic Temple-Arizona Chapter. His opinions are his own. To contribute to his work please consider becoming a patron of his podcast. You can read more about the author here.
"Are you sure an endorsement from the Alt-Right is what you want?"

Penn Jillette’s Sunday School talks Hail ..."
"It better be on netflix. I mean, if they're gonna stream conspiracy theory 'documentaries' that ..."

Penn Jillette’s Sunday School talks Hail ..."
"North half but not quite close enough to Oregon huh? I've heard tell it will ..."

Penn Jillette’s Sunday School talks Hail ..."
"And as I predicted, the movie is not showing anywhere in my neck of the ..."

Penn Jillette’s Sunday School talks Hail ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ellen Mottley Tannenbaum

    My thoughts on abortion? We have to clearly define what aspect we are talking about. Whether abortion at any stage is moral or ethical is an entirely separate issue from whether any woman who makes the difficult decision that she needs one should have access to a medically safe procedure. The moral
    and ethical issue belongs in churches and academia and remains a personal opinion no matter what rationale one reaches it by. Women have been having abortions since the day it was figured out that sex plus a slipped period or two equals a baby on its way. Legislating against providing the option does not mean they are not going to happen. It just moves them to the back alley, or dangerous attempts at self- or amateur induction, or forces women to find doctors willing to call them D&Cs (which women of privilege can always do). Leaders of the religious right have admitted to hijacking the issue back in the 70’s as a blatant political move to shore up their influence in politics. I would draw the line of legality of abortion at the point where a fetus could survive on its own with normal TLC from adults but without a lot of medical intervention; very few women wait until that stage to decide they want one.

  • Elizabeth A. Root

    I just finished reading Life’s Work by Dr. Willie Parker, an on/gyn who gave up his happy life in Hawaii living in a penthouse with ocean views to become an itinerant abortion provider in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, because otherwise there might not be anybody. His opinions are informed by being raised as the poor, black son of a usually single mother. He started out as very conservative Christian, but has come to believe that it is his duty as a Christian, and as a doctor with a real understanding of the realities of procreation, to give women control over their fertility. Parker tells us incidentally, that a large number of abortions after the first trimester are performed on grief-stricken women who wanted the fetus/baby who has died in utero.

    A friend of mine was telling me that he is opposed to abortion because he thinks the baby/fetus is a human being. I don’t think it is until it’s born, and never as important as it’s mother who already lived in a web of human relationships and responsibilities. I would be willing to respect his opinion and that of his allies, but I tell him that I don’t grant moral standing to discuss abortion to:
    people who condemn contraception (realistically the best way to prevent abortion); and;
    people who believe that a woman should not get an abortion even if the fetus/ baby is non-viable, which is much more dangerous than abortion — for that matter, the longer a woman is pregnant, the more dangerous her situation is even if she wants to give birth, and;
    People who think that a woman should continue a pregnancy that is likely to kill or serious injure her — very often without producing a live infant, and;
    People who can discuss a fetus/baby at great length while ignoring the fact that a woman is necessarily involved in a pregnancy, and;
    People who want to forbid abortions and contraception because children are God’s way of punishing self-centered hedonists —including married people people —who are tacky enough to engage in sex and shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it, and;
    People who lie through their teeth about the various issues, such as safety, the impossibility of a rape victim becoming pregnant, (my personal favorite) that the only difference between a fetus at one month and a fetus at nine months is weight gain, etc.

    I know my friend isn’t as extreme as all this, but it does cut down severely on his allies.

  • Here two question on legality, or whether or not abortion should ever be restricted:

    Is it ok to ban sex-selective abortion, as many women’s rights activists in India request. In some countries, a female fetus is more likely to be aborted than a male one (due to a cultural preference for sons), and some feminists want to ban sex-selective abortions. (In India and China, it is prohibited by law to tell prospective parents the sex of the baby.) However, many American liberals consider *any* abortion restrictions to be sick attempts to hurt women. Thus, due to the mutual exclusivity of these approaches from those who champion the same thing, I wonder what your thoughts are on banning sex-selective abortion.

    Another issue came up months back with a state that banned abortion in the case of a fetus that has Down’s Syndrome, and pro-lifers used anti-ableist arguments and allied with disabilities advocates to support the law. (According to an old Religion and Ethics Newsweekly report, it is often exaggerated how bad it is for those with Down’s, and some disability advocates feel abortion is pushed too hard.) What are your thoughts here?

    Here is a question on the morality of abortion: Another issue is how, when insisting that a fetus is a person, pro-lifers compare themselves to slavery opponents, pointing out that black people were formerly not considered people, but it was still the right thing to “impose” the humanity of black people onto them. (This argument is a bit more personal for me, as I am part African-American.)

    I know that among some adherents to religions such as Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism that value ahimsa (noninjury), abortion is considered problematic and a cause of bad karma, because it messes with the cycle of rebirth and is seen to cause injury to a senitent being. (Jains are the most extreme, as they avoid even squishing bugs.) However, they recognize that in some cases, abortion is the lesser of the evils.

    There is also opposition of abortion among some Quakers, who see it as violence.

    I do think abortion opponents should be allowed to promote alternatives, even as peace activists are allowed to promote nonviolent solutions to conflict. (I think that restricting pro-lifers could lead to restricting war opponents.)

  • Karen the rock whisperer

    I am really uncomfortable with the idea of abortion, and before my husband had a vasectomy I was mentally prepared to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. But, not wanting children for a host of reasons, we might have been the most birth control paranoid coup!e ever. If I missed even one pill, we used condoms+spermicide for the rest of my cycle. In the end, I never had to decide to continue an unwanted pregnancy.

    Personal discomfort is a crappy foundation for deciding the legality of abortion, however. I am comfortable with the notion that abortions might be banned at the point of viability, if and only if: they are never banned when the health of the mother is at stake; we figure out what viability really means (for example, premature babies born at Famous Nationally Known Hospital might have a better chance of surviving than those born at Small Rural Hospital, which might be one metric for viability); and if there’s a good chance of a good life for babies given away at birth. That’s ALL babies, not just the healthy blue-eyed, soon to be blonde-haired, infant that my parents adopted. I’m all too aware that my white, able privileges were manifesting themselves before I was born.

    Until we have those safeguards in place and working well, I favor legalizing all abortions. Full stop. I really don’t think I would have had one…but I can’t know an alternative to my own past for certain. Politically, it shouldn’t matter. An honorable citizen does their country no favors by encouraging legislation that only supports their own personal situation.

  • From my perspective, no, I’m not in favor of bans on abortion prior to viability for any reason. Traits of the fetus that we are able to discern prior to viability don’t change the rights of the pregnant as a matter of law. I would say that there’s a need for robust social programs for pregnant women who do feel coerced by family to chose one way or another and need a safe place to go in the same way there are organizations to help abuse victims escape bad situations. But ultimately I think it remains a personal decision. As to the slavery comparison, the pro-life argument is misguided. If anything, forcing someone to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term is enslaving them by demanding they use their body in ways they don’t want it to be used without compensation. As I noted in a previous article reviewing the book ‘Caliban and the Witch’ I think abortion regulations (not counting medical safety regulations etc) are, in the end, the state socializing the property of women (their bodies) in the interest of maintaining a labor force. (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/infernal/2018/06/caliban-and-the-witch-autonomy-and-sexuality/) This perspective would apply to abortion bans as much as it would something like China’s 1-child policy. It isn’t up to the state to question a woman’s motivations for terminating, or keeping, a pregnancy. Full stop.

  • HematitePersuasion

    Disagree.

    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…

    The crux is whether a conceptus is a person, with the unalienable rights accorded such, or just a lump of cells. You seem to recognize this later in the article, but the question of the State’s authority to regulate abortion seems very much a side-issue, not the central issue.

  • lady_black

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think sex is a good reason for aborting (of course, barring some sex-linked genetic problem), I would rather not wade in the weeds of whether a woman’s reason is “good enough.” That begs the question, good enough for whom?
    Here’s the problem. There are far worse outcomes than being aborted for gender preference. Humans historically and up to this time have relied on three strategies for dealing with unwanted reproduction. Contraception, abortion, and infanticide/abandonment. Where the first two are made more difficult, expect to see more of the third. This is my go-to pragmatic answer to the issue of making judgment calls on the reasons women give for seeking abortion. It is what it is.

  • San_Ban

    The state’s authority to regulate other medical care isn’t the same as the authority to dictate who may or may not consent to such care. I see the crux of the matter as not the status (and claimed rights) of the conceptus, but the status and rights of the pregnant person.

  • HematitePersuasion

    Point taken.