25 Jun 5 Reasons Why Our Abortion Debate Cannot Be Resolved. And How To Settle It.
We are very confused about what we value and how we support it. Get some clarity, or we’ll keep seesawing based on political expediencies.
Why are we spinning our wheels in the abortion debate? Why can’t we decide what’s right or wrong?
Everyone espouses single-point arguments – I must have control of my own body; or abortion is murder; or it is a right based on the constitution, etc.
All these are too simple and incomplete, and don’t do justice to a complex and nuanced issue – the kind we are not equipped to deal with. But without nuanced arguments and complex solutions, no argument is ever convincing enough to enough of us, and end up spinning our wheels.
Let me explain.
There are three main types of arguments for the issue of abortion: Legal, moral, and political.
1. Legal arguments are the wrong way to go
The pro-abortion legal argument is that there is a legal right to women’s autonomy and to privacy, and outlawing abortion would violate that for women. And, on the other side, it is the claim that abortion is murder, and therefore a crime subject to legal repercussions.
But it seems to me that solving these issues with legal arguments is the wrong way to go. Here’s why:
Laws are not meant to be the highest level of reasoning for any dispute.
In fact, it seems that law is the lowest bar possible. It is the floor that catches the leftovers from our ethical judgments. Making an argument purely legal is the way to making it political, simplistic (single-point), and suboptimal. Unfortunately, the rule of law becomes the rule of the lowest common denominator when it is divorced from the underlying ethics. It keeps the peace, until it doesn’t.
For example, it is not illegal to use loopholes to evade taxes. The loopholes are, in fact, written into the law, amazingly, by those who benefit from them. But is it moral to do so? I say no, though others disagree: if the law allows it, go ahead and do it.
I was discussing this with a friend, and his view was: “You are setting too high a standard for people, you can’t be serious”. But are they suggesting a low standard? Or should we rather lift our laws to meet the moral standards?
In discussing a case with a lawyer once, I offered that the demand from the other side was “unfair”. His answer: “This is not about fairness; it is about the law”. There you have it.
Morality and legality can be at opposite ends. (Usually, this happens because our lack of clarity and alignment on values allows politics to take the lead, and it becomes a battle of mind-control on all sides.) Which one comes first and which one to follow?
Laws should emerge from the underlying arguments of morality and fairness, not the other way around.
I hope we agree that laws should emerge from the underlying arguments of morality and fairness. If we hope to live in an ethical society, the ethics must define laws, not the laws dictate ethics.
2. We Are Not Really Valuing Life.
MORALITY AND VALUES
An argument from morality means that abortion should be illegal because it is immoral.
From here, things get complicated. Because morality is just a tapestry of our values. And values are such a slippery concept: They can vary in time and geography, obviously. It is no longer moral to buy slaves, or to burn witches alive, or to beat children senseless. Our values evolve as our understanding of humans and nature develops. And that is how it should be: Laws should follow evolving ethics that represent the best of our current understanding of nature and nurture.
Still, which values? We can honor many – honesty, integrity, loyalty, truth, peace, courage, life – but when they are in conflict, what do we do?
We prioritize values – high to low, even if we don’t realize we are doing that!
WHOSE LIFE EXACTLY?
In the case of abortion, we say it should be illegal, because our highest value is human life. Not women’s rights, not the baby’s future, not the father’s responsibilities or fairness, not the overall good to society. So we decide as a society that we value that embryo’s life above all else. That’s OK if we all agree on that, except right now we don’t.
Let’s go deeper.
Do we really value life above all else or are we just claiming the argument for other benefit?
For example: We outlaw murder, of course, and we consider it unethical. Yet, we send our kids to war to kill strangers, guns ablaze, drowning in our patriotic roar. And when they do kill or get killed, we won’t call this murder, we call it heroism, and we reward it with medals.
So, we value heroism higher than life, correct? How hypocritical can we be? Our values are really context dependent? On what criteria exactly?
THE SCARLET LETTER – OUR DISREGARD FOR CHILDRENS’ EMOTIONAL STRENGTH
The specific abortion vs life argument also falls apart upon closer examination: If we really value life, we need to support the entire life of the new person we are forcing into existence, right? We should provide for it emotionally, with love, education, money, resources. But we don’t. In reality we act as if life ends at birth! The irony.
We turn over babies to women who don’t want them! How cruel and unethical can we be?
Yet birth is the easier part – the real work is in the thirty years after birth. Who takes care of the next thirty years? We turn over these babies to women who don’t want them. We brand their souls with that scarlet letter of ‘undesirable’, and they carry the burden and the trauma scars for life. Never loved enough, accepted enough, wanted enough, to reach their full potential. That’s as cruel and unethical as I can imagine.
Have you ever looked into the eyes of a child feeling unloved? I have. It is chilling to the bone. It is the deepest sadness. There to stay.
You don’t want to be the child that was not wanted. Or the one adopted into an abusive family (because we don’t control that process either).
DO WE CARE ABOUT LIFE OR JUST BIRTHS?
So, we are not valuing life – we are valuing births. Not sure why (another long story). But it is tragic.
At least, let’s be clear and transparent about what we value.
We are not valuing life – we are valuing births. As if life ends at birth.
Let’s tell ourselves that we don’t really care about the life these kids will lead. We want to just drop them someplace and wish them good luck. Having the courage of that honesty is a basic condition of being ethical.
Or, alternatively, let’s put together a plan to support these kids after birth, and make them whole. Isn’t that obvious?
3. We Don’t Understand The Beginning Of Life Yet
Then, they say that abortion is murder because life begins at conception or shortly after.
But how do we know this? Scientists cannot even define life exactly yet. Is it a fertilized egg? Is it a few cells that can grow in a lab? Is it fetal heartbeat? Is it an organism that can metabolize, reproduce, and survive independently? What do you suggest by ‘life’?
Most states, and most scholars today, set up laws based on viability of the embryo, i.e. the ability to survive and thrive outside the womb. [Good overview of the viability issue here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/12/01/what-is-viability/]
[Some people believe that the term “fetal heartbeat” was used by lawmakers not only to elicit a visceral response about “heartbeats,” but also in an attempt to redefine viability …
In reality, … viability means that a fetus is able to survive outside the uterus and generally isn’t possible for another 18 weeks after detection of embryonic cardiac activity (around 24 weeks of pregnancy) (2), and only then, with intensive care.]
So, until we are clear what we mean by life, and we know when it begins, this argument should not be used. Ethics requires clarity, not the kind of muddled thinking we now accept.
4. Where Are The Fathers?
Finally, and crucially, morality also includes the requirement that our decisions are fair. In this case, it should be fair to all involved. Women, children, men, society.
So, how come the burden of abortion decisions falls on women? Women are heroes or criminals.
There is a man intimately, irrevocably involved in each pregnancy. And DNA tells us who.
Why is the father nowhere in the abortion debate? Seriously.
If you insist that a woman must carry a baby she does not want, then isn’t it fair that the father must share the responsibility? The father is nowhere in the abortion debate. That is not fair, not ethical, and our leaders are misguided or unethical, or both.
Abortion is not a women’s issue. It is also a men’s issue, and a social issue, and a child’s quality of life issue.
Maybe we should have all men have vasectomies, until they are ready to be responsible for a new life. A pregnancy caused by “no vasectomy” should also be a crime. Extreme, I know, but I am tired of the unfairness.
A pregnancy caused by “no vasectomy” should then also be a crime.
What I am saying is that before we make laws, we need to get clear what values we prioritize and how we support those decisions over time.
5. Politics Drives The Debate
Because of all these inconsistencies, the other side’s arguments are not convincing enough. When that happens, people cannot make proper decisions.
Therefore, the topic becomes ripe for political exploitation – and I mean that in the worst possible way: Extreme self-interest, and relentless short-termism. (Next election). No human vision, just political survival. Life, fairness, or the law are not driving this. Political expediency is.
We are a long way from being consistent, transparent, and clear about our ethical priorities. We should demand this from our leaders — political or religious — and of ourselves.
On something as important as the quality of life of children, women, and men, we have a lot more thinking to do.
What are your value priorities [supporting life after birth; fathers’ responsibilities, women’s rights; …] , and how exactly, do you propose that we support them?
Get clear, honest, and consistent!