Comment Rescue: Cultural Merits of Abortion
In response to a statement in Dan Scotto’s recent post about the (as we now know, false) accusation that Planned Parenthood was implicated in the sale of fetal tissue recovered from abortions, I commented in relevant part (correcting a spelling error) as follows. Note that I begin by quoting Dan’s (edited) OP, which in turn is predicated upon an assumption that the reader is familiar with the moral arguments for and against permitting abortions based on the ambiguous temporal point in which “personhood” manifests in a gestating fetus.
More troubling is that if more developed fetal tissue is worth more money on the market, then Planned Parenthood is incentivized to delay abortions. Even if you are pro-choice, surely there is a line somewhere between when the fetus is merely a clump of cells and when the fetus is a living human. (Most pro-lifers believe that the line is at conception.) The further along in the pregnancy a woman gets, the closer we are to that line. Stated differently, even if you believe that there is no distinction between 7 days, 7 weeks, and 7 months, simple intuition should lead us to assume that it is possible that we’re doing something worse by aborting a fetus at 7 months than at 7 weeks. (The alternative–that it is worse to abort at 7 weeks than 7 months–is illogical.) [edited for clarity] Thus, because this is an area of intense ambiguity, if abortion is legal, it seems prudent to err on the side of caution and encourage abortions to be earlier in the term, so that we are less likely to be committing murder.
If I “believe that there is no distinction between 7 days, 7 weeks, and 7 months,” then no, my intuition will not be that “we’re doing something worse by aborting a fetus at 7 months than at 7 weeks” because my belief is that “there is no distinction between … 7 weeks, and 7 months.” Aborting at 7 weeks and aborting at 7 months are equivalent; one equivalent cannot be worse than the other as a matter of logic.
Now, the fact is my intuition is uneasy with such a statement, so the antecedent assumption must be false: intuitively, there is a distinction between 7 days, 7 weeks, and 7 months. I personally am at a loss to logically articulate what that difference might be. One human being does not owe another extraordinary efforts to preserve life; perhaps one wishes to extend such efforts and we might find such a desire and such efforts morally praiseworthy. Moreover, to fail to that which is praiseworthy is not the equivalent of acting contemptibly. The potential for a fetus to survive viably outside the womb is irrelevant to these propositions.
That leaves me with the intuitive notion that somehow the relationship of mother to a gestating (potential) child in her womb is different than, say, the relationship of a person in critical care who needs my rare type of bone marrow transplanted in order to survive an otherwise certainly-fatal illness. Most people would agree that I don’t owe that person my bone marrow.
Why, then, do we disagree that the mother of a (potential) child seven months into gestation owes that (potential) child two additional months of biological life support, life support which comes at the cost to her of substantial pain, restricted mobility, dietary restrictions, difficulty eliminating and sleeping, and so on? If she wants to bring the child to term and give birth, of course we may praise her for doing so, but it’s a different thing to say she is morally obligated to do so.
The contrary intuition, driven by the fact that it’s a relationship between mother and child, doesn’t square with logic, my response is that there is something cultural and subjective happening that skews intuition away from logic. Culturally, we assign a high value to the mother-child relationship; most of us are products of nurturing, loving mother-child relationships and those of us who have not had the benefit of such relationships likely keenly feel that absence as compared with more fortunate peers. But that’s not something that necessarily transcends the culture: it is simply not the case that all mother-child relationships are loving and nurturing and to imply that they all should be, at minimum, imposes our modern, western ideals upon people who, perhaps for very good reason, do not wish to share them.
Writ differently, we still come back to a basic difference in values between people, even within our own culture: some value life as an inherent good with a higher value than the competing good of individual autonomy; others make the converse valuation. We may shade those valuations by bringing in other axes of analysis: we may value the life of an infant, who has not yet made any morally significant decisions, differently than that of a convicted murderer; we may value the freedom of a woman more, less, or equally to that of a man, and so on.
But ultimately, we’re looking at a comparison of competing goods. We can all agree that in the abstract, life is a good to be pursued, and autonomy is also a good to be pursued. As a society, we aren’t very skilled at balancing competing goods against one another.
Now, this comment gets at the issue of the mortality of abortion, which in turn implicates whether abortion ought to be legal. Which is one of the difficult questions we confront in this age and in this culture. Which, I think, is what this is imbroglio really all about. For the record, I have been pro-choice since my college years, but have also insisted upon recognizing the good faith of a pro-life position grounded upon moral caution since that same time.
In any event, I think there is intellectual profit to be had in segregating cultural biases from rational analyses, even in, and perhaps particularly in, a discussion of an issue as contentious as abortion. I suspect it can be very difficult for anyone to see when one’s own culture is at play when making moral judgments, because of course when I (and people who agree with me) pass moral judgments I’m obviously being rational and objective, while those other people (who disagree with me) are being totally culturally subjective and irrational. And I also think that we as a community here need to move past some of the meta-issues with respect to Dan’s post and get back to substantive issues.
So have at it.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California and the managing editor of Ordinary Times. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.
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