Last week, the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, signed a piece of legislation, aimed at restricting abortion, into law. The new law aims to prohibit abortion even if a conception is a result of rape and makes executing an abortion a class A felony: garnering the person who does the deed a sentence of up to 99 years in prison. Naturally this law has reignited the easily flammable pro-choice vs. pro-life debate. This argument has had its flames fanned ever since the 1820s, when the US adopted Britain’s anti-abortion legislation and made the law its own. You would think that owing to the longevity of such a debate its intellectual rigor would have also matured with age. However, this is not the case. The “debate” has deteriorated into a sloganized shit show.
In an attempt to re-intellectualise and get rid of the stink from this debate, I’d like to explain my advocacy for pro-choice. I feel, arrogantly, that I could put some meat to the bones of the pro-choice position that’s often prone to argument by soundbite.
Pro-choicers tend to think slogans, such as “my body, my choice,” when voiced to a significant volume, will be sufficient in persuading those who disagree to their side. This idea is needlessly combative and is far from adequate in contending with the issue that’s most contentious in the debate: is a fetus part of a woman’s body, or is a fetus an entity belonging all to itself?
At first glance the premise “my body, my choice” makes sense and is ethically troublesome to contend with. A person should have the freedom to peruse what they like with their own body. It is your right to donate blood or tattoo your skin. Your skin protects no other nervous system apart from your own; it belongs to you. Your choice to tattoo your own skin is not effecting anyone else (apart from a controlling and enraged parent). But, does a fetus come under the category of something owned by the mother? Not really. We know that a fetus has the potential to become self-aware and claim ownership over it’s own body; whereas skin never will.
Abortion is not as simple as deciding whether to donate an organ or tattoo one’s skin. We do not mentalise about how our organ may feel on getting a new owner, or if our skin likes the choice of tattoo. Our organs are part of us, and therefore, their ethical worries are by definition homogenous to our own. If a fetus was really analogous to any other body part, then the fact of abortion would not be nearly as contentious. Hence the “my body, my choice” argument doesn’t adequately promote the pro-choice position.
The converse pro-life argument, which concludes that life or human agency begins at conception, also fails to hold much water. Anti-abortion advocates tend to believe that a zygote is alive, is human and is biologically whole (unlike what they see as just a collection of cells amounting to a single sperm or ovum). They believe that science has shown this to be true. Yet, biologists hold fire on stating a dividing line between what is life and what isn’t. Life and the acquisition of personhood is, rather, a continuous sequence of events without a neat and discrete stage where life and self-awareness begin. The sunrise is not like turning on a light, instead the sun rises in a progressive manner, without a point at which one can say, “that bit there, that was the sunrise;” and so too it is with life.
Drawing a line in the sand about when life begins, whether it be at conception or at a later stage, proposes only a mirage of objective clarity regarding the moment at when a cluster of cells becomes a human. The line we draw, whether that be by the pro-life or pro-choice brigade, is largely an arbitrary one. The moment at which an egg becomes fertilised, which consequently creates a unique genome, is biologically noteworthy, but doesn’t illuminate much about whether a zygote is an autonomous person or not. Likewise, a fetus the hour before birth will have a different hormonal map in comparison to a delivered fetus; yet, again, the fetus’ capacity to suffer, be aware and be an autonomous person hasn’t just suddenly come to be – those capacities were likely there weeks ago. Thus, the arbitrary line we construe pertaining to abortion will always be one of a blurred compromise.
Those who are considering an abortion are not, as some pro-life advocates would say they are, deciding on whether to commit infanticide or not. Rather, the choice for many women is often between bringing a fetus to term now or at a later date, when they feel better prepared to provide for a child.
Megan Nolan, writing in the Independent, gives a quaint articulation of this point: “When asked if I want children I always say that I would want them “if I had limitless wealth” which is perhaps just another way of saying if everything in my life and the world was different. I adore children. Essentially, I do want children, I just don’t want them in the world I live in now.”
A decision to bring to birth a fetus when the mother feels better prepared to provide will likely increase the child’s chances of living a happy life, which is in stark contrast with the opposing choice: to have a child, even if the mother knows her circumstance is only likely to cause the baby, or even herself, suffering. The choice to abort a fetus, contrary to the beliefs of the pro-life movement, is rarely made without deliberating the ethical implications of such a choice, and a decision is rarely taken through the lens of the one-dimensional “my body, my choice” reasoning. Instead, women acknowledge that a fetus has the possibility of becoming more than a simple cluster of cells only belonging to them.
Legally obliging women to bring a fetus to term, regardless of circumstance, will only further increase the number unsafe abortions. Initially, before Roe vs. Wade legalised abortion across the states, illegal abortions were rife and were often performed under appalling conditions. The World Health Organisation has data to suggest that unsafe abortions cause around 7 million hospital admissions per year in the developing world. The demand for abortion appears to remain regardless of the safety or legality of the procedure. Condemning abortion could have the butterfly effect of creating a black market for the procedure, which would likely put many more women in danger; a decision that pro-life advocates would have to ethically weigh against the gains that would supposedly come from criminalising abortion.
There is a doubtless bundle of ethical costs associated with the decision to simply outlaw all forms of abortion. Of course, there are also costs to aborting a fetus. Chief among them is the ending of all possibilities for a fetus who could have become a conscious and flourishing child, with the prospect of a living out a happy future. Aborting this prospect comes at a steep ethical cost.
The error that the pro-life conclusion makes, however, is attributing an ultimate value – unsurpassable by anything – to the potential of a fetus to become an autonomous life in and of itself. This is folly, as every decision has both ethical benefits and drawbacks. No belief is sacred and impervious to ethical costs; whether that be a women’s bodily autonomy or a fetus’s right to live out its potential.
Both a women’s right to bodily autonomy and a fetus’s right to potential life can be simultaneously maintained. Germany and Denmark, for instance, already achieve this compromise of rights: making it legal to seek an abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy. This allows women a reasonable amount of time to think about and seek an abortion, whist also not trespassing on the period of when its thought a fetus begins its journey to consciousness. It’s a blurred line, but I doubt it can be anything else. In the meantime, let’s not assume that women aren’t weighing the ethical costs associated with something that, by the time everything is all said and done, is souley their decision.