08 July 2007

Abortion #3: Moderates on Abortion

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
Friday, June 22, 2007

Moderates on abortion don’t support the state always criminalizing abortion (the pro-life position) or always allowing it (the pro-choice position). Instead moderates assert that the state should sometimes permit abortion and sometimes not, depending on factors such as fetal development, the reason for an abortion, or the method by which an abortion is performed. Despite its popularity, this position makes about as much sense as driving in the middle of the road.

Some moderates think that abortion should be permitted only up to a certain point in fetal development. Despite the fact that the Constitution doesn’t mention viability (the point at which the fetus can survive outside the woman), the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to an abortion until viability, which occurs somewhere between 20-29 weeks. However, it is unclear why the fetus’s ability to survive outside the woman’s body with the help of sophisticated medical technology makes the fetus suddenly become important or abruptly gain the right to be inside a woman’s body. Viability is simply a political compromise that Court members wrote into the Constitution.

Other development points that are sometimes cited are when the embryo can no longer split into twins (2 weeks), when various organs appear (for example, the heart appears at 2 weeks and lungs at 5 weeks), the onset of brain waves (8 weeks), and when the woman can first feel the fetus move (18 weeks). None of these are relevant. The onset of brain waves, movement, and organs is not relevant because they don’t signal the creation of the individual in question. The body and the life it contains begin sometime after fertilization. The capacity to twin is relevant from a religious perspective because only after that point is there a specific soul that enters the human body. But this capacity is beside the point. Imagine that persons reproduced not by the sperm-and-egg method but by amoeba-like splitting. It would still be wrong to shoot a person who might have split on the basis that we wouldn’t know which of the resulting two persons she would have become.

Other moderates think that abortion should be permitted only for some types of pregnancies. These moderates usually say that abortion should be permitted only in cases in which the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, involves a defective fetus (for example, it will develop into a neurologically impaired or retarded child), or threatens the woman’s life. This moderate position is seen in the widely held view that abortion should not be used as birth control.

The issue is whether the fetus has a right to be inside the woman. If the fetus has this right, then abortion is wrong, at least in those cases in which it doesn’t threaten a woman’s life or health. If the fetus does not have this right, then the woman is free to forcibly remove it just as she may forcibly remove a trespasser. Usually, we think that someone has a right to be in a woman’s body only if she was invited in (by analogy, consider when a male has a right to be inside a woman). In many cases of pregnancy, the fetus was not invited in. For example, when pregnancy results from failed contraception, the fetus was no more invited into the body than was a burglar who breaks into a woman’s house through a defective lock.

Some sloppy thinkers respond that the woman took the risk of the fetus coming in by having sex, but taking a risk that something will happen does not mean that a person consents to it. Anyone jogging at midnight in Detroit risks getting beaten up or worse, but the jogger surely has not consented to it.

In addition, that a fetus is defective is relevant only if you think that mildly retarded or neurologically impaired human beings have less demanding rights than the rest of us.

A third type of moderate focuses on the abortion method. On this account, methods in which the physicians kill the fetus are wrong, whereas methods in which the physicians merely remove the fetus and allow it to die are permissible. Killing would include methods like D&C and D&E whereby physicians cut up or tear apart fetuses; letting die might include RU-486 (the abortion pill) whereby the embryo is detached from the woman. Again, it’s hard to see how this is relevant. If abortion removes a fetus that has no right to be inside the woman and that inevitably results in the fetus’s death, the method by which this is done seems beside the point.

There are then only two respectable positions on abortion: the state should always permit it or should always ban it (perhaps with an exception for when the fetus endangers the woman’s life). It’s worth noting that the latter position has some startling implications.

First, if the pro-life position is correct, then the law should be changed so that women who pay for abortions and physicians who perform them should be charged with first-degree murder. After all, they purposely killed an innocent human being and lack any standard defense (for example, they weren’t insane and didn’t act defensively). Physicians who currently perform abortions might be guilty of crimes against humanity and the fact that they thought what they were doing was right and were following the law is no more a defense than were similar claims by Nazi defendants at Nuremberg. With 1.3 million abortions a year, roughly 20% of pregnancies being aborted, and 2% of women 15-44 having had an abortion (2000 and 2002 figures), the pro-life position sees the U.S. as awash in murderers.

Second, the pro-life position entails that persons like James Kopp who assassinate abortion-doctors are heroes. After all, they took out those who were making a living killing innocent human lives. On the pro-life account, such assassins are similar to World War II resistance members who shot Nazi executioners who made a living slaughtering Jews and others in death camps like Auschwitz.

If you think these implications are absurd, then you’re pro-choice.

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