The question of abortion rights has once again entered the public square in a very heated way. Recent legislation in Alabama and in other states has mobilized supporters and heartened opponents alike. Social media has been alive with coverage, memes, activism, editorials, etc. While this has always been a polarizing question, there seems to be a hardening of the two camps into predictable and rote responses to the issue.
Coleman Hughes recently wrote a compelling piece in the online journal Quillette titled “Rethinking Abortion Advocacy,” calling for a more reasoned and logical approach to advocating on the subject. He is critical of the approach both sides take — namely how each seems to want there to be a “bright line” in the identification of legal or ethical personhood.
Hughes says that this line does not exist in any empirical sense. He is correct in this conclusion, and this has damning implications for both sides of the debate.
To summarize his critique: The vast majority of people of all creeds, religions and politics find it at least ethically questionable to implement the the most extreme example of either position. The first example is late-term, partial-birth abortion.
While this practice is essentially fictional in any real-world sense, those in the anti-abortion camp use this as an extreme example of what will happen if the abortion rights crowd prevails. The anti-abortion position is that any destruction of a fertilized egg is murder and the only protection against this crime is precisely what anti-abortion activists are calling for — that abortion of a pregnancy is illegal in any and all cases, full stop.
The second polarized scenario is that, until birth (or at least 26 weeks per Roe v. Wade), a fetus is equivalent to any an organ or other part of the woman’s body, to do with as she intends. This has implications that Hughes rejects. The “my body, my choice” argument is flawed, in his opinion, because, at some point perhaps yet unknown, a fetus would develop into a human being worthy of human rights.
Hughes argues that either is a nonstarter because of our inability, in any empirical sense, to find the bright line of personhood each argument intrinsically relies upon. What we are seeking is a conceptual truth.
A thought experiment I have always found useful in questioning public policy is: What if the converse were absolute? In this case we might respond to statement “All abortions are illegal.” with “All pregnancies are illegal.”
Save the somewhat analogous example of the Peoples’ Republic of China’s one child policy, few nations have come close to this level of draconian dystopia. Imagine a country where all pregnancies — regardless of their origin, regardless of the happiness of the relationship that produced it, regardless of consent granted, regardless of how wanted and loved the child may be, regardless of how capable, ready, and willing the parents are — are forced to be aborted by the pregnant woman, under severe penalty of law. This is the stuff of Huxleyian fiction; of sci-fi movies of far-away civilizations designed to cause our repugnance. It is an untenable idea.
The opposite extreme is what is being advocated by the anti-abortion movement and, in my opinion, is equally dystopic. That a woman would be forced, under severe penalty of law, to carry a pregnancy to birth when she has been raped, the victim of incest or under clear threat of harm to herself is absolutely terrifying. This should be self-evident to every person willing to employ empathy in any real sense.
I would go further to argue, as Hughes does, that because there is no scientific line that can be found regarding the concept of personhood, we ought to do what we always do: come up with something that works.
I agree with Hughes that we must consider, in the most thoughtful of ways, how we regard liberty, the science of neonatal care, what we as a people call that conceptual “bright line” that will define humanity and use these ideas to come up with a practical way to respect our personal ideas of individual liberty, human rights and autonomy. I cannot see how either extreme achieves any of these goals and we must not succumb to recent calls to veer toward one of these dystopias.