Abortion Sense and Nonsense

First the pro-life nonsense. I think it’s nonsense to think personhood begins at conception. A 5-day old embryo composed out of undifferentiated, pluripotent cells is not a complete person like you and me. A 2-month-old fetus, even with its complete set of rudimentary organs, is not a complete person like you and me.

Now for the pro-choice nonsense. A commenter here said recently that aborting a fetus is no more problematic than excising a tumor. But wait, a tumor is a bunch of cells that grow erratically and prevent the healthy functioning of organs, ultimately causing death, while a fetus is something that eventually turns into a full, human baby. No difference? To my mind, that’s just weird. Talk to people who have had abortions and I don’t think you will hear anyone talking about removing a tumor.

So abortion is not the murder of a person, and it’s not the excision of a tumor. So what (the hell) is it? I think it’s hard to let your mind settle down in a grey area. A fetus is a bunch of cells in the process of becoming a baby. Of course. We can all agree on that. But unfortunately, there’s nothing more to the truth. You can add, at will, and decide to classify a fetus as a full person, or subtract, at will, and make it out to be a tumor. But all there is to the truth is that a fetus is a baby-in-the-making. The critical question is how we should treat such a thing.

The problem is, that’s a very hard question. A baby-in-the-making is not exactly like anything else we’re familiar with. Hence the motivation to make it more…or less.

Some philosophers have tried to resolve the abortion question without making it about the treatment of this odd entity. In a famous article, Judith Thomson says “let’s pretend.”  Suppose the fetus were a person. Would that make abortion impermissible? She asks us to imagine a bonafide person (a famous violinist) getting hooked up to us for 9 months of life support. Would it really be wrong to cut the cord and go your own way? Surely not, she says.

This is an ingenious argument, but it doesn’t speak directly to the real world problem of an unwanted pregnancy. If I am pregnant and don’t want to be, I want to know what to do about my pregnant state. I can’t possibly start my soul-searching with Thomsons’s “let’s pretend.”

To my mind, Don Marquis has the most compelling pro-life argument around. Whatever a fetus is or isn’t, it does have a future of value, he points out. If you terminate a pregnancy, you take away that entire future. But again, there’s a problem with the attempt to minimize the importance of what a fetus actually is.

Suppose there were witches who could turn rocks into people. A witch tells me she will be turning a particular rock in my backyard into a handsome prince. Would it really be wrong of me to pulverize the rock, and take away its princely future? Surely not, and that’s because the rock isn’t the sort of thing that can be entitled to its future. Is a baby-in-the-making, unlike a rock, entitled to its future? It’s not clear. Marquis doesn’t, then, succeed in making it beside the point what a fetus actually is.

For a pregnant woman, the question really is, “what may I do to this baby-in-the-making that I’ve unintentionally conceived?” And the problem is that a baby-in-the-making is a thing we don’t have rules for. Deciding what may or may not be done to a fetus is like resolving other hard questions. What may or may not be done to a corpse, a painting, a spider, a 500 year old tree? These are all questions on which reasonable people will disagree, as the saying goes.

And that’s the crux of the matter. Where there is no single right answer, government has no business legislating. Some will think a baby-in-the making should be honored and allowed to grow into a baby. I don’t find that the least bit unreasonable. But some will say a baby-in-the-making (especially at the earliest stages) doesn’t have to be honored in that way. A woman can give precedence to her own wellbeing. Again, not unreasonable.

There are two reasonable views you can have about a baby-in-the-making. And so this is a case where we really must let each woman go her own way. And of course, it’s important, because it would be terribly unfair for anyone to have to go through with a pregnancy—think of the discomforts and inconveniences, the pain of childbirth, and the problem of keeping or giving up an unwanted child—because of somebody else’s views about babies-in-the-making, instead of her own.

Abortion is one of the things that hangs in the balance in the coming US election. The side that keeps choice in each woman’s hands—and that would be Obama-Biden—needs to win for lots of reasons, but this is one of the important ones.  (So please excuse the length!)

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