Sunday, May 02, 2004

An Alternative Perspective on the Issue of Abortion Rights

Be warned, I'm about to talk about abortion. If you're like me, you've probably already stopped reading this. There's few topics that are simultaneously so divisive and, yet, so utterly tedious to discuss. It's a topic that's guaranteed to frustrate, aggravate and irritate with next to no gain.

The topic of abortion suffers from what I call the Polarity Principle. This is a social principle where emotionally charged debates tend to polarize into extreme, diametric positions with very few people holding points in the middle. The reason this happens is that mid-point perspectives tend to come under attack from either extreme. Once a debate begins to suffer from this sort of polarization, it can be next to impossible to try to bring it back towards the middle.

I've long been uncomfortable with this particular debate because the positions are so exceedingly polarized. On the one side, you have people insisting that an undifferentiated clump of cells (or, for that matter, a single cell) is legally and morally identical to a fully developed human being. On the other side, you have people who claim that humanity is only conferred upon an individual by the cutting of an umbilical cord.

Not only do I find both of these extremes to be untenable, but there's also a divide over what, precisely the debate is about. Some phrase the debate in terms of life – is the fetus a living organism or is it more like a growth, a symbiote or even a parasite. Then there is the subtly distinct question of whether it is a human being and what, precisely, it means to call something human. There's the even more subtle question of personhood and whether that's something different from humanity and, if it is, whether it is a critical distinction. Finally, this is a debate that inextricably gets bound up with women's rights and those rights supercede fetal rights. In short, it gets ugly.

I will be the first to admit that I don't consider these to be easy questions and that one of the things that has frustrated me about this debate is that too many of those who hold opinions seem to have a glib sort of certainty about their position. From my personal perspective, I think that if you have no doubts about where you stand on the issue of abortion rights, there's a good chance that you haven't really thought about it enough.

My own tentative position has been to frame the question in terms of personhood with the question being at what point does a potential person become an actual person. My own motivation has been to make my position coherent with my stance on euthanasia. I don't believe that a person who has effectively lost all ability to think and perceive is, in fact, a person anymore and that there is no moral consequence to bringing bodily functions to a cessation once that is the case. By like extension, I don't consider a fetus that has not yet developed a sense of cognition to be an actual person with like consideration to the moral ramifications of ending said fetus's life.

It is a massive understatement to say that there's two major problems with this stance: one practical and one political.

The practical problem is how does one, in fact, determine whether or not a fetus has the ability to think? Even if we had some sort of intrauterine MRI that could sniff out signs of neural activity in a developing fetus, there is no precise point where the brain flips on. Neural development, like all organic development, is gradual and non-discrete (meaning that there's no abrupt points of transition). Even the presence of neural activity would not be a sure sign because mere activity isn't necessarily the same as organized neural activity. A stance that uses cognitive development as a benchmark for legal rights is, thus, a stance staked upon a ground of shifting sands. Any standard you chose would be all to likely to either exclude fetuses that should be protected or include fetuses that should not. Since developmental times vary from fetus to fetus, any such standard would most likely end up doing both!

The political problem is that the very basis of my thesis – that there's a moral equivalence with the issue of euthanasia – is, itself, a controversial position. Society has reached a point where we have grudgingly allowed "do not resuscitate" instructions as well living wills that can forbid the use of life support machines. There are only a few locations, in the world, where it is legal to actually direct that someone's life should be put to an end due to an irrecoverable condition. Even where it is legal, there are strong challenges to the laws that allow for the practice. Given this, it does not seem likely that such as a standard as the one that I've outlined would be able to gain much in the way of public support.

A recent case in the news has made me wonder if there's a better way to approach this question. Melissa Ann Rowland was pregnant, with twins, when she went into labor. She went to the hospital and showed every indication that she intended to have the children. There were unexpected complications in the pregnancy. As a consequence of this, he doctors told her that she would need to have a cesarean section in order to ensure the safety of the twins. She refused (allegedly because she didn't want a scar). Because of this decision, one of the twins was stillborn.

Like most people, I found this to be a disturbing case. As I've already noted, I don't see any significant difference between children immediately before birth and immediately after birth beyond the incidental fact of which side of the womb they're on. On the other hand, however, a C-section is not a trivial procedure.

When it comes to cases like this, I find it helpful to rephrase the problem with an equivalent scenario. Let us suppose that I have a kidney and you need my kidney in order to survive. For whatever reason, I am the only available donor and, if I refuse the transplant, there is absolutely no question that you will die. Let us further suppose that I refuse. We may even suppose that my reasons for refusal are trivial (perhaps I don't want the scar). Can I be compelled to provide my kidney to you?

I think that it's obvious that you could condemn me for my actions. I don't think that anyone would deny that a moral charge of selfishness would stick to me. You, and everyone else, could tell me that I'm a bad person, even an evil person. Never the less, I think that it is clear that even in the interests of saving another person's life, neither you nor the government should be allowed to compel me to undergo such an operation. This is not because society or the government esteems me about you not, certainly, is it because they deny your humanity. It is because we recognize that while it may be noble to risks one's life in order to preserve another's, circumscribing my freedoms to the point where I am compelled to so would be to set foot on a dangerously slippery slope.

Modern practices have removed much of the danger of childbirth. There was a time when there was nothing uncommon about a women dying in labor. Today, the norm is for it to be a relatively safe process with a fraction of the pain and potential consequence. Be that as it may, there is no such thing as a riskless pregnancy. Any pregnancy has to potential to end in disaster and even death. I would submit that forcing a woman to undergo labor whether she will or nil is not, in any way, fundamentally different than forcing a given person to undergo surgery in order to save the life of another. While we may choose to deplore a person for failing to make what we would consider to be a moral choice, forcing such a choice upon a person against the interests of their own health is a very basic violation of the personal autonomy that we cherish as a culture.

Framed in these terms, the abortion debate is not about women's rights versus fetal rights. It is a question of human rights. We may well choose to suppose that a fetus may qualify as a human being with human rights but so long as we do not grant the fetus rights above and beyond the woman who carries it, I do not think that it would be appropriate to deny her the protections that would apply in any other equivalent case.

I will be the first to admit that this is not the only way to look at this question. One could, I suppose, argue that the act of abortion goes beyond simply allowing someone to die in order to preserve the rights of another. It could be claimed that abortion is an active decision where a life is ended. It could be said that I am not allowed to kill someone in order to prevent myself from undergoing a surgical process and that, therefore, one should not be allowed to kill a fetus in order to prevent labor. I am under no illusion that I'm offering a golden key that will resolve this debate once and for all. I do, however, think that this may be a better way to frame the question. Certainly, the traditional parameters of the debate have yielded little beyond ill will and invective.

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