It’s fair to say that the past few weeks have been grim ones for pro-choice activists, Texas Senator Wendy Davis’s 11-hour notwithstanding. Last week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich gave the thumbs up to what is arguably the most restrictive set of abortion laws in the country; in addition to effectively closing most of the state’s abortion clinics and interfering with rape counseling, the bill potentially paves the way for some forms of birth control to be redefined as abortion. Wisconsin followed suit, although that state's version of the law has since been temporarily blocked. And the Texas bill isn’t dead yet.
That being the case, I think it is high time to highlight some of the best pro-choice arguments out there — particularly those that are intended as rebuttals to the pro-life crowd.
1. “What Does the Bible Say About Abortion? Not Much,” by Bob Seidensticker
As in the case of same-sex marriage, religious conservatives who oppose abortion tend to point to Biblical evidence that doesn’t actually exist. But whereas those who oppose homosexuality can find some (extremely tenuous) backing in Leviticus, anyone who would use the Bible to condemn abortion must contend with the fact that it actually describes induced miscarriage in cases of adultery.
Also, the United States isn’t a theocracy.
2. “The Annotated Guide to Protecting Women from Abortion,” by Katie J.M. Baker
There has been a lot of talk lately about “protecting women” by closing abortion clinics. To begin with, on this issue, I’m afraid I must side with the libertarians; the mere fact that something poses a possible danger to an individual’s health is not sufficient reason to ban (or effectively ban) it. Educate me about the risks by all means, and certainly takes steps to make the procedure safer, but at the end of the day, I am capable of making decisions about my own well-being, thanks. The debate only becomes more bizarre (not to mention paternalistic) when it begins to focus on protecting women’s “consciences”; if our consciences require so much governmental coddling, they’re not really consciences at all, are they?
Besides, the facts just don’t bear it out; as Baker points out, far more women die due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth than due to complications of abortion, but surely it would be absurd (not to mention self-defeating) to ban pregnancy as a result. The reality is, the fatality rates of both pregnancy and abortion are low enough (at least in developed countries) that the decision of whether to chance it is best left to the woman’s discretion. Less than .3% of legal abortions in the United States result in complications requiring hospitalization, let alone in death. To put that in perspective, assuming you live in a developed country, you have a one in three chance of being injured in a car crash at some point in your life, so I hope none of you are driving or using public transportation.
3. “My Proposal for a Bill Banning Male Masturbation in Texas,” by Charles Clymer
Despite what some of the comments on Clymer’s piece claim, this article is obviously intended as satire. It does, however, raise an important point; those who argue that an embryo or fetus is a full human being because it can feel pain and engages in “purposeful movement” are setting the bar for personhood pretty low.
Here are a few other things that can feel pain and move purposefully: chicken, pigs, and cows. Yet relatively few of us, myself included, would consider ourselves guilty of cannibalism when we’re cheerfully chomping down on them.
You would be hard-pressed to find any pro-choice advocate who would deny that an embryo is biologically human; what is at issue is whether biological personhood is synonymous with ethical and legal personhood, and all of the rights and responsibilities that that entails.
4. “Is Heaven Populated Chiefly by the Souls of Embryos?” by Ronald Bailey
Bailey wrote this piece with an eye towards stem cell research, but it is equally applicable to questions surrounding abortion. Like Clymer, Bailey suggests that we intuitively understand that while embryos may be biologically human, they are not full human persons, but he does so by pointing to the fact that the majority of pregnancies (60 to 80%, according to Bailey’s sources) end either in the failure of the fertilized egg to implant or in very early miscarriage. About half of these embryos are otherwise viable, and yet, as Ronald Bailey points out, there has been no massive outcry against this veritable epidemic of “deaths” from the pro-life/anti-stem cell crowd as one might expect there to be if the embryos were, in fact, morally equivalent to a full human being.
Inconsistency alone does not negate the pro-life position, of course, but it is worth wondering whether there is a reason for the deafening silence surrounding this issue. Perhaps common sense dictates that these early deaths — and the majority of abortions are, after all, performed during the first nine weeks of pregnancy — really aren’t deaths at all? Bailey’s argument is not one that extends to late-term abortions, of course, but it is one that demands a response from anyone who would consider abortion at any and all stages of pregnancy immoral.
5. “The Contraception Objection to Marquis' Future-Like-Ours Argument,” by Max Lewis
Lewis rightfully points out that Marquis’s “Why Abortion is Immoral” runs into problems when it comes to drawing the line over what constitutes a potential life. If a woman fails to have (heterosexual) sex while ovulating, is she preventing that egg from developing into a full-fledged human life? For that matter, if a man fails to have (heterosexual) sex every time the opportunity arises, is he guilty of the same?
Of course, one could argue that a fertilized egg is already on its way to becoming human in a way that sperm and eggs separately are not, and in fact, this is similar to the position Don Marquis takes. On the other hand, it is hardly outside the natural course of things for sex during ovulation to lead to pregnancy if contraception isn’t used, which would seem to imply that birth control, at least at certain times of the month, is immoral. The Catholic Church has, of course, been saying precisely that for years, but given that 99% of women who have had sex have also used contraception at one time or another, you’d be hard-pressed to find many who agree with that position.
Marquis himself foresaw the contraception objection and attempted to forestall it by arguing that in the case of contraception there is “no non-arbitrarily determinant subject of harm in the case of successful contraception” — any sperm cell, he argues, could fertilize an egg, so it is impossible to single out a single entity being deprived of what Marquis terms “a future like ours.” But at the risk of waxing too philosophical, this move hinges on one’s larger view of the universe — specifically, whether or not the laws that govern it are deterministic.
To quote Lewis: “If the laws of nature are deterministic and they govern the movement of sperms, then, given the proper technology, we should be able to determine exactly which sperm would have combined with the ovum. Just because we do not have technology to track the deterministic movement of sperms, it does not follow that in principle there is no way of doing this. Thus, neither the identifiability nor the determinacy replies that Marquis offers are successful.”
The argument that consent to sex is equivalent to consent to pregnancy crops up most often as a rebuttal to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion.” Critics claim that Thomson’s famous analogy, which involves being kidnapped and hooked up to an unconscious violinist, only really applies to cases of rape — although I would hasten to add that this not something to dismiss lightly, given that many pro-life activists oppose abortion even in cases of rape.
That said, it is telling, I would argue, that so few of the objections to Thomson bother to address the second half of her essay, in which she argues that consent cannot reasonably be inferred if the person supposedly giving it is taking active measures to reduce the riskiness of his/her actions — say, by using birth control, as the majority of women seeking abortions do.
Imagine what the world would be like if every time you acted in a way that involved some degree of risk you were told that you had no choice but to see the consequences of that action through to the bitter end. The above post points out that under most circumstances, we feel that consent can be retracted if circumstances take an undesirable turn — for example, when you decide you’d rather not have sex after all and your partner honors your wishes instead of raping you.
One might also point out that it is virtually impossible to avoid some kinds of risks; as an American woman, I am aware that I have a roughly 20% chance of being raped at some point in my life. Should I be using oral contraceptives or an IUD just in case I am raped and become pregnant? But I also know that no form of birth control is entirely effective. Perhaps I should have a hysterectomy just to be on the safe side.