Saturday, November 27, 2010

On Abortion

The following piece elaborates on thoughts penned in earlier editorials on the key issue of abortion rights.

The Right to Abortion:

A couple of my conservative friends have pointed out that, whenever I cite Thomas Jefferson's proclamation of the right all human beings have to life (usually as I champion health care reform), I make an assertion that could conceivably be used to support an anti-abortion position. I would like to clarify this misconception right now:

I respect the opinions of those who believe that the unborn are alive, and would never question their right to conduct their personal lives in accordance with that conviction. That said, there isn't any scientific proof that fetuses are "alive"; indeed, from a scientific standpoint, the very definition of what constitutes "life" (apart from the obvious criterion of having emerged successfully from your mother's womb) is sketchy at best. Consequently there is only one question that needs to be asked by any government which is focused on (a) guaranteeing its citizens as much freedom as possible while (b) keeping in mind the need to preserve justice, security, and social order:

What policy toward abortion creates the proper balance between the vital freedoms each individual possesses - i.e., those that allow every man and woman to live his or her life however he or she chooses without governmental interference - and the rights of others to be protected from harm?

The answer, as I see it, is to leave the matter of whether to have an abortion to the discretion of each woman who is forced to make that decision. Pregnancy is a matter of profound significance to a woman, due not only to the ramifications having a child will have on the course of her entire life (even if she puts her child up for adoption), but also to the enormous degree to which it will compromise her sovereignty over her physical body.

There are few civil libertarians who would disagree that, under normal circumstances, a matter of such a deeply personal magnitude should be left solely in the hands of the individuals forced to make those choices. The only reason some have deemed this situation to be an exception to that general rule is because they feel the stakes involve not only the rights of adults, but also of unborn children who equally deserve the designation of "human."

This is a point-of-view that should be respected. At the same time, because the opinions on whether an unborn child is alive are so diverse that they wind up being fundamentally irreconcilable, it behooves us to keep in mind the proper relationship between merely hypothetical rights (i.e., those belonging to unborn children) and rights possessed by entities whose humanity is undeniable (i.e., those belonging to pregnant women). When put in those terms, the resolution to this conundrum becomes almost self-evident:

While the criteria upon which human rights are allotted may or may not apply to fetuses, they are without a doubt applicable to pregnant women. As such, it is illogical and undemocratic to claim that the power regarding if and when an abortion should take place belongs in the hands of anyone other than those whose bodies and lives are impacted by that decision.

The Need for Civility in Debating Abortion:

The following is an excerpt from the memoirs of Barry Goldwater, a libertarian ideologue whose presidential campaign in 1964 launched the modern conservative movement and cemented his status as its founding father:

The Moral Majority and most in the New Right oppose abortion. I oppose abortion. Yet in a pluralistic society the issue is not ours to decide alone. If abortion is both a political and moral issue, as the Moral Majority indicates in pursuing both levels of activity, then it has already lost the political battle and perhaps the national religious fight as well. There is too wide and complex a range of opinion for us to reach a national consensus on issues of morality. The truth is - and no one in the country appears to have the courage to say it - that the American people want it both ways on abortion. Most people are privately horrified by it, but they are either victims of peer pressure or favor it only in limited circumstances.

The Moral Majority has no more right to dictate its moral and political beliefs to the country than does any other group, political or religious. The same is true of pro-choice abortion and other groups. They are free to persuade us because this land is blessed with liberty, but not to assign religious or political absolutes - complete right or wrong.

My wife believed that each woman had the moral and legal right to choose for herself whether she was capable of continuing her pregnancy and then raising the child. I disagreed with her. That's as it is, and must be, in a free and pluralistic America.

With the exception of two sentences (that beginning with "The truth is..." and ending with " limited circumstances."), I agree with all of the thoughts expressed above. It is unfortunate that Goldwater had to mar what would have otherwise been a perfect summary of a true libertarian position with one of his characteristic gross oversimplifications.

That said, his larger point about respecting dissenting points-of-view goes a long way toward why I have referred to opponents of abortion rights as being "anti-abortion" instead of using their preferred self-designation, "pro-life." While normally I would not quibble with the right of an ideological faction to affix to itself whatever label it chooses, I acutely resent the implication that those of us who support a woman's right to choose are "anti-life." Just as pro-choicers should respect the honorable intentions of those who are anti-abortion, so too do those who are anti-abortion need to accept that the pro-choice community isn't composed of "anti-life" infanticidal degenerates, but of people who have come to a different set of conclusions on a profoundly difficult question.

For an excellent scientific look at this issue, see:

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