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Abortion: All roads lead to ick
Generally speaking, neither liberals nor conservatives are honest about abortion. That’s because there are only two logically coherent positions on the issue.
Written by Noah Carl.
Generally speaking, neither liberals nor conservatives are honest about abortion. That’s because there are only two logically coherent positions on the issue: a) abortion involves killing an innocent person and should be banned in all cases, or b) abortion involves killing a non-person and should be allowed in all cases, including up to several weeks after birth.1
Yet there are few conservatives willing to bite the bullet and say it should be banned in all cases, and even fewer liberals who’re willing to say it should be allowed in all cases – including after birth. Here are some recent polling data from Pew Research:
As you can see in the final row, the great majority of both Democrats and Republicans hold the view that “abortion should be legal in some cases, illegal in others.” More than 60% of Republicans say it should be legal if the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life, and more than half say it should be legal if the pregnancy is the result of rape.
Turning to Democrats, although 30% say it should be “legal in all cases, no exceptions,” the questionnaire did not specifically mention the most controversial case, namely “after-birth abortion.” Moreover, only 13% of Democrats say “stage of pregnancy should not factor into legality.”
What these data show is that few people take their arguments all the way to their logical conclusions. They try to stake out what seems like a “reasonable” position without really thinking it through.
Let’s start with the typical conservative stance: abortion should be banned unless the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or is the result of rape. Should you be able to kill an innocent child if your life is threatened? Obviously not. Should you be able to kill an innocent child if you were raped? Again, obviously not.
Suppose a woman becomes pregnant, has the child, and raises it until the age of five. She then discovers she needs a heart transplant, and the child is the only match. Should she be able to kill the child to save her own life? Obviously not. Yet if you believe a fetus has the same moral status as a five-year-old, the situation is identical to the one where a woman’s life is threatened by her pregnancy.
The only case where it makes sense to allow abortion is when both the mother and the child would die without one.
Again, suppose a woman becomes pregnant, has the child, and raises it until the age of five. However, the child was conceived through rape, and the woman finds being its mother too much to bear. Should she be able to kill the child? Obviously not. Yet if you believe a fetus has the same moral status as a five-year-old, the situation is identical to the one where a pregnant woman is carrying her rapist’s child.
If a fetus really is a person, it shouldn’t matter whether the mother’s life is threatened or the child was conceived through rape.2 So at least half of conservatives hold a view that doesn’t make much sense.
Now let’s consider the typical liberal stance: abortion should be allowed up to a certain number of weeks or all the way up to birth if the mother’s life is threatened. We’ve already seen that the mother’s life being threatened is irrelevant since the fetus is not morally blameworthy for her predicament.
It’s either wrong to kill a fetus, or it isn’t. If it isn’t wrong to kill a fetus all the way up to birth when the mother’s life is threatened, then it isn’t wrong to kill a fetus all the way up to birth full stop.
Some liberals argue that the development of the nervous system, or the development of the capacity to feel pain, are morally relevant cut-offs. But why should they be? Wasps have a nervous system, but most of us don’t have qualms about stepping on them. And even if late-term fetuses can feel pain, that’s irrelevant because abortions are performed under anesthetic.
A few liberals argue that birth is the morally relevant cut-off. But why? There’s no morally relevant sense in which a neonate differs from a pre-term fetus. A child does not acquire any new capacities simply by leaving their mother’s womb. Rather, it develops them gradually over the first few weeks of life. Exactly when the child acquires “personhood” is a matter of debate, but it’s certainly not before birth.
Like their counterparts on the right, most liberals hold a view that doesn’t really make sense.
Why, then, do so many people hold such views? One obvious reason is that the two logically coherent positions are morally repugnant: forcing a woman to bear her rapist’s child or consciously ending a newborn’s life just seems wrong. This leads to what Jon Haidt calls “moral dumbfounding,” defined as “the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of a judgment without supporting reasons.”
Another reason is that the underlying dispositions that motivate people’s stances on abortion don’t necessarily align with their stated justifications.
Interestingly, there are only a handful of places with either very permissive or very restrictive laws: the vast majority of countries allow abortion in some cases and forbid it in others. Of course, this partly reflects the need for compromise between disparate factions of the population. But it also suggests a lack of joined-up thinking on the issue.
While the two logically coherent positions clearly aren’t reconcilable, the debate would be more productive if people were honest about the implications of their views.
There may be hypothetical cases where abortion would be allowed under a) and forbidden under b). For example, if an evil genius tells a pregnant woman: “Have an abortion or I’ll kill everyone on earth.” I will ignore such cases in this article.
Another case is where the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life and is the result of rape. Here, it is more reasonable to argue that abortion is justified even if the fetus is a person since it’s not the mother’s “fault” that her life is threatened.