On Abortion I: The Act In Itself

On Abortion I: The Act in Itself

To begin, I unequivocally believe that abortion should be a right and not in a purely civil liberties view in which, if one has the means, they may do so. If a right is to be meaningful, it has to be stated within a context within which it may be realized. Abortion must be made affordable or provided free for all who may seek it if the right to elect for an abortion if one chooses is to be meaningful. In other words, I do not support abortion rights only to a libertarian or liberal extent but in a definitively positive rights sense. This first post is about the act of abortion, stripped of context. I am not one to wish to engage in ontological argument, because it universalizes meaning and removes the ambiguity of real life, but I will do so here because the understanding of abortion in our society is ontological in many ways. Another problem with ontological argument is it appears to be cold and distant in such a way as to appear dismissive at times. I will elaborate in later posts as to what I view as the more convincing arguments for the right to abortion, at least in a more affective sense, not in a logical sense. What is important to remember is that affect, logic, and rhetoric are all produced from each other and can’t be uniquely isolated for ethics and politics and for this reason I will approach these issues subsequently as well as what religious liberty means in regards to this. Again, for now, I will limit this to ontological issues.

Once, my brother, who is prolife, asked me, “This won’t happen, but, if I could unequivocally prove to you that a fetus is an individual human life, would that make you prolife?” Here is my attempt to answer that:

The permissibility of abortion is an issue of which people feel unilaterally drawn to one end. Many believe, however, that the view one holds is limited to how one defines the fetus. I.e. prochoice people believe the fetus is part of the woman’s body and not a life in itself and prolife people believe that the fetus is a human life unto itself. (Now in views of each other prolife people think women who get abortions are “baby-killers” and prochoice people think prolife people are misogynists bent on taking women’s freedom.) My response to this is that a fetus cannot be unambiguously defined as a life or not a life. Yes, a fetus is a necessary precursor to a child obviously. Also, it IS part of a woman’s* body, within it, attached to it, supplied from it. It is also, genetically not wholly distinct from the mother as the fetus has two genomes, the nuclear genome and the mitochondrial genome. 23 of its 46 chromosomes come from the woman carrying the fetus and its entire mitochondrial genome is entirely the woman’s. Now, I am not wishing to essentialize motherhood to genes here and do not wish to establish that, to a certain extent mothers “own” their children because of their genes, but it is an illustrative point in showing how fetus and mother are intimately intertwined in such a way that indicates a fetus is not wholly its own while still in the uterus. So no, a fetus is not unambiguously another human life.

But what if I’m wrong and it is?

The Libertarian Argument

 Judith Jarvis Thomson wrote a very famous essay called “A Defense of Abortion” performing a thought experiment reframing a comparable circumstance to a pregnancy as a, say, famous violinist who is ill and needs a surrogate cardiovascular system attached unwittingly to a person in such a way that he or she could not detach him- or herself from the famous violinist for 9 months or do anything that would kill the violinist over the course of the 9 months (such as taking a poison that would kill the violinist but his or her own body could handle, much like a mifepristone abortion). This should sound familiar to you: it’s dialysis, except the machine is a human body. Obviously, in this case, the violinist unambiguously has his or her own life. That is, unless you want to enter into a messy argument on the fungible way in which life is defined. So, this situation is more like a pregnancy resulting from rape or abuse, minus the actual trauma of such an awful event (not a mild consideration in the least in how a pregnancy is interpreted for a rape or abuse victim deciding whether or not to terminate the pregnancy). The thought experiment is isolated to the individual act of deciding what to do in regards to whether or not one can detach oneself from the violinist.

Now, there are some strong ideological suppositions imposed here on this thought experiment. The primary one, which is why the violinist is not an arbitrary but very intentional selection, surrounds majoritarianism. The violinist holds a very special skill that would be lost to the public if he or she were to die. In this case, even in lieu of the public good, can a person be made by the public to surrender one’s bodily autonomy to this end?  To return to the grounding of the abortion as a public debate, even if a baby is its own human life, has a right to its life if it were independent, can the public or the state intervene to make someone not remove a fetus unwittingly attached to her body (e.g. in a forced pregnancy or rape scenario)? A rigorously libertarian view would say no. One cannot be forced to support something in one’s personal life that one did not agree to support in this view even if the fetus being born is considered a public good in addition to having its own right to life. Now for prolife libertarians who may buy that in the exact circumstance of this thought experiment, one could remove oneself from the body of the violinist, but that still does not mean that abortion is permitted. In this view, detaching oneself and letting the violinist die is distinct from actively killing a person as an abortion is perceived. This is similar to saying that one cannot be forced to feed a person who will starve otherwise but one also is not allowed to actively kill someone. Now, there is a clear issue with this. Negligence and indifference are clearly NOT distinct from active violence to the victim (besides, perhaps, the psychological impact of perceived malice) and the difference for the perpetrator is only psychological and, in the negligence case, this difference is permissive in such a way that would allow him or her to kill when otherwise he or she would not be willing to do so. So in some sense, structurally, this is more insidious. So here’s where this gets messy for the left.

A Left Response

 Socialists do not hold positive and negative rights as distinct, which is why many tendencies of socialist political views advocate both rigorous negative rights and positive rights. One’s right to life means both  that one has a right not to be murdered by a malicious hand , but also means that one has a right to be provided the circumstances of survival (food, healthcare, etc.) if one does not independently have access to those resources. So, if a fetus is a life, how can socialists and other positive rights proponents support abortion rights when they have an EVEN MORE rigorous stance on what constitutes obligations to life than pro-capitalists do? Well, one would be right to say this can get sticky.

First, absolutely, the left should be suspicious of such a libertarian-sounding argument as Thomson’s. Common to many feminists (particularly from liberal and radical schools)  in arguing for abortion rights is to say “I have a right to do what I want with my own body, independent of what you think is in my body.” I would say: that’s true to a certain extent, but this needs to be parceled out a little more. To start with some verbal gymnastics: what left-feminists (radical, socialist, Marxist, cultural, etc.) argue for is autonomy, not liberty per se in the face of society. This is not distinct from the rest of the left. Liberal leftists, for example, in the face authoritarian government, racist populism, and/or the effects of a neoliberal global economy, argue very much for cultural, geographic, and economic rights to autonomy for indigenous peoples. Democratic socialists and the labor left both argue that better economic conditions and the time necessary to enjoy these economic benefits are necessary to create the conditions of realization and not exploitative dependency so that liberal rights are meaningful, real parts of people’s lives. Autonomy goes a step further than liberty in meaning. Autonomy means the conditions under which one’s own or a group’s defined space, places, and means are meaningful enough so as to allow that the conditions under which one makes decisions are not coerced. (Obviously this means that there is no such thing as perfect autonomy, and, therefore, no such thing as perfect agency. ) Liberty is ultimately meaningless to lived experience because this means that one can always be a victim of circumstances without recourse. For example, one may have a right to work, but if there is no work, that does not mean anything. So they may be arguing they are free to do what they want or need, but more distinctly they are arguing they should be free to be able to do what they want or need, which means their bodies may not be forced to carry a pregnancy if they do not wish to do so because pregnancy can be a hindrance, or even oppressive in some circumstances (such as hardening the tie to an abusive relationship because of financial circumstances).

Second, bodily autonomy is a first and foremost rights issue. So despite the fact that Thomson’s argument is excessively libertarian there is some use if we consider that bodily autonomy even to the extent of abortion may be reasonable without buying the excessive “I get to do what I want” logic of libertarianism that some leftists lazily buy despite thinking that there should be some social controls on what people do with money or property for various reasons. Now, this being said, I still do not think the argument is sufficient† as I believe as long as there is not malicious or systemic or repeated targeting of the dialysis-person or a population that perhaps there is an obligation to keep the violinist alive. But as there are many circumstances and restrictions on bodily autonomy associated, this is by no means unambiguous, if we believe in bodily autonomy. This gives us the supposition that, though I may not have established that abortion is permissible, it is not impermissible unambiguously so either.

Pulling the Plug: Exceptions to Preserving Life  

 So despite the fact that the primary argument against the permissibility of abortion is that it takes a life, there are exceptions to taking a life that most find reasonably acceptable. “Pulling the plug” or removing life-support from someone who is in a vegetative state is not without controversy obviously, the Terri Schiavo case for example. However, here’s the reason people support the right to remove life-support by those with the power of attorney: the person is, as they say, brain-dead. In a similar way, though with some complexities which I will address, a fetus, at least before a certain point in pregnancy, is not sentient. Being brain-dead is lack of sentience as well.

The difference is this: being brain-dead is the same as being irreversibly not sentient, whereas a fetus has the potential for becoming sentient. So, true, the permissibility to remove life-support does not automaticallyestablish that abortion is permissible, but it does open the door. The pro-life movement adeptly recognized this when they jumped on the “Save Terri Schiavo” train. Given that the case for abortion may need to be more rigorously proven it can be thoroughly said that if pulling the plug is impermissible it very well may be true that abortion is impermissible. However, there is a reason for the phrase “s/he’s a vegetable now”.

A plant is very much in fact living yet we do not question (except when wider ecological, economic, and wildlife issues are at stake) the right to kill a plant. Ultimately the “experience” of life of someone in a vegetative state is no different: physiologically living, yet not experiencing anything, hence “vegetative”. This does not mean the act of removing life-support is the same thing; emotional attachment, anxiety over the slightest of slight hopes that the person has a possibility of awakening, very ambiguous and ambivalent stages of grieving, etc. However, the different experience of removing life support and the different meaning of doing so does not make it unjustified. Ultimately the ability to perceive and the right to determine life-course have been removed meaning no change in the “personhood” before and after removing life-support beyond legal considerations of proxy.

But the fetus…

In the case of someone removing life-support from a loved one, ultimately they have been compensated partially by getting to experience life which is why it may be justified to remove life-support while still not permitting abortion. However, let’s temporarily presume that a fetus does not experience anything before birth. Would not a parent be permitted to remove life support from the brain-dead newborn? In both cases, the aborted fetus and brain-dead newborn have been equally “robbed” of experience and the right to life so far as we mean sentient life. What makes them appreciably different as far as experience goes?

But the potential for experience…

 True. The living fetus has potential for experience whereas the brain-dead newborn does not. However, any living fetus (if defined as a zygote to birth) hardly has more than a 40% chance of being born alive when a pregnancy is not intentionally terminated. So by potential we really do mean potential not guarantee. This might not be super meaningful to some but is an important distinction as many perceive the fetus as innocent perfection that will come into this world. This is a place where I have nothing more to say than that. But, if a fetus is aborted before a certain point (of which will always be argued), experience is not being interfered with.

On Singer and the Interests Argument

Peter Singer argues the justification for abortion is that a fetus cannot lay claim to interests which is true, because perception is necessary for interests. However, not to divest someone from the consistency of his or her ideological viewpoints, I have a bit of a bone to pick with this one. He extends justification to very early infanticide. However, given the infant’s ability to perceive albeit limited, though perhaps not contemplate in any meaningful way does confer onto it interest. I.e. it may not be a moral agent, but is a moral agent (a la Tom Regan). Also, many animals particularly non-mammalian species might have a similar lack of claiming interest so I find his blanket prohibition on killing of sentient animals inconsistent with justifying infanticide as an infant has a vested interest however autonomic in not experience pain and being fed.


*I only chose this language to not sound stilted with the use of “female”. I do not wish to erase trans men, fertile intersex people, and genderqueer females who might experience pregnancy or trans women or infertile cisgender women whose womanhood cannot be defined by pregnancy.

†By“sufficient” I mean consistent and holds for the whole of the situation described. I do not mean that the ethics of an act can be wholly determined stripped of context as these are not the “real” experiences in which people make decisions.

I know that arguments about soul and religion are part of this, but this is not part of this specific portion of argument and will be approached in a later post on religion, society, and abortion. Furthermore, timescales on comparative permissibility (e.g. late term vs. early) of abortion are not part of this but will be saved for later. Also, what I perceive as the positive societal good of the choice being available to pregnant people will be approached in a more distributed way amongst other posts. For this one, it was only about the permissibility of the “act in itself”.


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