I’ve been prepping up to teach abortion in my ethics class. Teaching abortion is either really fun to teach, or really disastrous. It’s one of those topics that can get into really heated discussions, which is the best in a philosophy class, but it can easily turn into bad arguments where no one is having a dialogue and they just want to aim for the jugular.
I’m going to start with something different this semester by providing flaws in the “typical” pro-life camp and the “typical” pro-choice camp. What are these “typical” arguments?
First, let me show the flaws in the pro-life camp. Usually, pro-lifers say that abortion is wrong except in cases of rape, incest, and when the mother’s health is in trouble. I want to say that that’s an inconsistent philosophy. This seems to suggest that abortion is wrong because it’s taking a life away. But what I don’t understand is that in cases of RIM (rape, incest, and when the Mother’s health is in danger), then it’s ok to take that life. Why is it ok to take a life in one instance but not in another? The usual reply is: “Because in the first case, the mother is taking a risk of having sex. She could’ve chosen to have sex or not. In the second case, she didn’t have a choice. She was forced to have sex.” This doesn’t follow. First of all, this seems to work only in cases of rape. There have been documented cases where incest was with consent, what shall we say of those cases? Secondly, I find it odd that if the argument turn’s into whether the mother had a choice of having sex or not, it seems that the focus is on the mother’s actions and not on the fetus itself. What this means is that you’re blaming the mother for having sex, but you’re not blaming her for getting raped. Nowhere in that whole argument is there a mention of the fetus, which is what the whole abortion debate comes down to.
Thus, I think that if one is going to be consistent, one must say that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape. I mentioned in a previous post that Sarah Palin had this view, and I find her views consistent.
Ok, now what’s the “typical” pro-choice view, and what’s wrong with it? I’ve gotten most of this argument from a philosophical forum.
Pro-choice is based upon the principle that the women should decide the outcome of their pregnancies. Basically, this means that each woman decides who and who is not, a person. When applied to other situations, this means that whoever is more powerful (or has the legal right) gets to decide who, and who is not, a person. Just as a mother has the right to decide that the fetus is not a person, so too would the master over his slave (where the slave lives in the master’s house) and the sovereign over the subject (where the subject lives in the sovereign’s state). Now, I can imagine a pro-choicer reply, “But because it’s the mother’s body, she can choose if something within her body is valuable or not. Since we all value different things, it makes sense that each individual can value something, and another individual won’t value it. However, Doris Gordon, a libertarian pro-life advocate, has offered a thought experiment:
Doris Gordon, “Abortion and Rights: Applying Libertarian Principles Correctly”: Imagine two pregnant women debating prenatal personhood. One says that her fetus was a person at conception. The other says hers will not be a person until birth. Both fetuses were conceived the same day. As the women debate, a drunk driver hits them, killing both fetuses. What wrong has the driver committed? If it is a mother’s choice whether her fetus is a person, then to be consistent, we would have to say that the death of one fetus is a homicide but the death of the other is only, say, destruction of property. This is absurd, of course, for the two fetuses were, objectively, the same kind of being when alive.
This begets the question: what objective criterion is there to differentiate between “just a fetus” and “my child” beside purely subjective values? Is there objective criterion? If one allows this distinction to be subjective, just as a master’s arbitrary control over his slave is subjective, then one is committed to an ethical subjectivism. If one does not see the distinction, then to speak of the same object with two senses is contradictory. This is the essence of the intellectual bankruptcy of pro-choice advocates.
Thus, it seems that pro-life, to be consistent, is asking way too much where it leads them that abortion is wrong no matter what. Pro-choice seems to be asking too few where it leads them to the point of ethical relativism. So what’s the solution. I propose three solutions:
- To be consistent, we must say that abortion is morally wrong, no matter what. There are philosophers out there who have this view. John T. Noonan is one of them, and Sarah Palin is another example. Now while this view is consistent, I think a lot of people wouldn’t want this view. Now I’m not suggesting to abandon this view, but do recognize that it is off the periphery.
- To be consistent, we must say that abortion is morally permissible, no matter what. Again, there are philosophers out there who have this view. But again, this is also in the periphery.
- I think a middle approach would be to find some standard, and say that this standard–regardless if the situation came from rape or from accidental pregnancy–is the criteria. For example, the Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade made the standard viability. Thus, if the fetus is not viable–regardless if the situation came from rape or accidental pregnancy–then abortion is permissible. If the fetus is viable, then abortion is wrong. Other standards I’ve heard is when the fetus has a heartbeat. Thus, if the fetus does not have a heartbeat–regardless if the situation came about from rape or from accidental pregnancy–then abortion is permissible. Otherwise, it’s not. Other standards I’ve heard is having a brain, being able to feel pain, able to display emotionality, or the point where it has “human characteristics.”
The problem, however, is which standard should we take? I think that the abortion debate should be focused on that. If we start from that, we can gain some commonality (namely, that there should be some standard), and then we can continue to find out what that standard should be. But if we are already disagreeing about the permissibility of abortion because of rape or accidental pregnancy, then we can’t start the dialogue. Also, it’s because the “typcial” pro-choice and “typical” pro-life arguments are inconsistent. I think the only way out is the middle ground, which would be the third solution. Now, I’m not going to pretend to say which standard we should provide. I’ll let doctors and philosophers who are experts in the abortion debate figure that out.