to choose

Intensive Care Unit - by U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Shane T. McCoy. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing about social issues isn’t the most fun thing in the world, but sometimes I just feel like clarifying ideas around what seem like lopsided topics.

“Abortion rights” were one of the sacred tenets of my youth, and I would still push for an intelligent application of these now (as for instance is needed in Northern Ireland, where women are denied recourse to termination of pregnancy, and suffer what I consider an appalling injustice).

The way these have been framed by some feminist abortion campaigners has been very unfortunate at times though, indeed somewhat desperate, beyond all common sense.

To my mind it is absurd to think that a fertilised egg is a “person” (though obviously it may become one eventually), or that a seven month old fetus is nothing but a redundant organ that the mother may do what she wants with, as if only one being were involved.

On the one side we have had (usually religious) protesters trying to prevent all terminations, and on the other have been radical feminists demanding that a fetus of any age should be legally abortable at the sole discretion of the mother, as if it were her absolute property, and did not in any way count as a human life. Sometimes it is pointed out that the fetus is entirely dependent upon the mother, and it is asserted that only the mother’s bodily autonomy needs to be morally considered.

Taken to their logical conclusions, the two positions would lead to every mother that unavoidably miscarries being charged with accidental manslaughter, or the parents of every new-born being able to kill their baby, thanks to its total dependence upon them.

There is I think, if you do not take the absolute position of every fertilised egg being a human life, a line to be drawn somewhere, after which the personhood of the fetus needs to be considered. Beyond a certain point a pregnant woman carrying a fetus cannot be said to be autonomous, anymore than a parent can be said to be independent of their child. It might not be nice if you don’t want it, it might be terrifying, but that’s how human life works. In general no one gets to walk away from their child without someone else taking care of it, not without consequences, and I have never met a mother who felt that their child, the person, didn’t exist before birth.

This is the glaring piece of dogma in feminist thinking on the subject, as often expressed. The need to, at all costs, deny the fetus any “rights” or personhood. And this is where the “pro-choice” argument runs out. Not in principle, if on the right side of a line (which may admittedly be to an extent arbitrary), but in absolutist assertion.

The radical feminist argument only sees a woman. Her autonomy. Her right to choose. The “pro-life” argument only sees the killing of a human person without consequence. When the former asks the latter how they can call themselves “pro-life” when they don’t care about the lives of the unwanted babies, they fail to see that what they are concerned with is preventing a killing, not quality of life. When the latter call doctors who perform abortions “murderers”, they fail to see the absurdity of everything after fertilisation being considered a person, and how this can alter some moral priorities.

Let’s switch to another scenario where there is an unconscious, entirely dependent life. Someone on life support in a coma. This person has no choice, and their selfhood is nascent (though might, under the right conditions, awaken). This person, who is unconscious, dependent, and in no way able to survive without the “umbilical cord” of artificial life support, has no choice. They may indeed be a burden on someone else’s autonomy. Does their lack of choice and consciousness deprive them of personhood? Does it absolve the carers of responsibility? Does it give them the right to choose against the unconsciously vulnerable? To transfer not just agency, but essential worth?

These are the sort of moral questions that abortion may raise. It is not just a question of “a woman’s right to choose”, unless you consider every fetus to be entirely null in terms of personhood.

A tiny person, in a coma, on biological life support. Or not.

I have no intention of telling anybody what they should judge on the issue, but to pretend that it isn’t an issue, a question, is facile and disingenuous. When we seek to erase or bury these questions, we ultimately make it more difficult to determine where the ethical “line” is, because we are denying the existence of the line at all, any shades of grey, any messy, lifelike, inconvenient detail.

That doesn’t help us attain moral maturity.


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