The Impossible Conversation: The Abortion Divide
When it comes to Abortion, there is no single reality. There is little I can say to convince those who disagree with me, but at least I can present my arguments
Recently I wrote a tweet in which I said that many friends of my generation have had an abortion. I was being disingenuous. Actually, the vast majority of my female friends have had an abortion at some time in their lives, and without exception, each them has said to me that it saved their life. None expressed regrets.
Even though I am a man, I think I can see why. The thought of an unwanted organism growing inside my own body seems, frankly, repugnant. It is not novel to say so, but I suspect that if men became pregnant there would be fewer debates about abortion. (Note: I say ‘fewer’ rather than ‘no’ because apparently there is no gender gap when it comes to current opposition to abortion.)
That notion came to mind reading one of the responses to my tweet, by a man who smugly pointed out that “Many parents with many kids enjoy many good life opportunities and have a pretty good mental health.” Had I wished to engage in a twitter debate, which I try never to do, I would have suggested he consider the following thought experiment: Unbeknownst to you, someone signs you up with an adoption agency, and pays the non-refundable fee for you to adopt. You get a letter in the mail saying the child you never asked for will arrive in a few months, giving you time to prepare the rest of your life for your new responsibility. I wonder how that guy would feel now about his new life opportunities and mental health.
If it isn’t clear by now—and while I would prefer science to make abortion completely unnecessary—I have no fundamental moral dilemma with the availability of abortion on demand, at least up to some agreed upon time that allows women to learn they are pregnant, and spend enough time thinking about their decision so that they can clearly imagine all the alternatives, given their evolving situation. To me, the conscious desires of an adult woman trump the possible awareness of an organism with with no experience, and little, if any, consciousness. And for those who are concerned about ending an emerging consciousness, as one of my twitter responders was, I would say that if you eat meat you have already tacitly accepted such an ending, since there is no general agreement on the degree of animal consciousness.
I also think the notion of an embryo or a fetus as a human being, on par with those who are making decisions about its fate, is false, and I would argue that the legal institutions of our society already essentially agree with me. An embryo/fetus is not a human being. It has the potential to become a human being. Fetus’s don’t have birth certificates because they are not yet born. They don’t have social security numbers because they aren’t regarded as having the potential to work, get taxed, or be a dependent on anyone’s taxes. They cannot give or get legal consent to anything, because they don’t have the capability of giving or getting it. I am not making a value judgement here. Just stating facts.
Many years ago, I gave a lecture at a prominent medical school in Chicago, and was given a tour afterwards of the in-vitro fertilization programs there, where I watched cells proceed from unfertilized to fertilized, to zygote stage and beyond, and what kept coming back to me was the realization that as I watched all this, there was no ‘special moment’ that I could identify where a life began. It was all a gradual process, each step of which seemed as essential and remarkable as the step before. I knew down the road there was the possibility of these cells growing into a human being, but there was no humanity I could observe, and certainly no ‘moment’ of creation that I could discern. This had a profound impact upon my thinking.
Indeed, there’s the rub. Throughout zygote, embryo, and fetal development there are a host of key hurdles to be passed that are essential to the development of a viable fully functioning human being. As my friend Steven Pinker has emphasized to me, the continuity of biology clashes with the societal requirement to choose a clear bright line before which abortion should be legal—somewhere between conception and birth. There is no single instant when what begins, and remains for some time, as an emerging cluster of cells suddenly clearly becomes a recognizably viable human being.
The problem of tying abortion to fetal viability is that science and medicine will, I expect, continue to push that time forward, eventually allowing most or all of the normal 9 month gestation period to take place outside the womb. This may resolve concerns for some women who might feel comfortable giving up their fetuses for eventual adoption early enough so that no one else is the wiser, but it won’t resolve problem for all women. That is why, if pressed, I would favor a time chosen not by the biological status of a fetus, but rather chosen to give a reasonably clear period for pregnant women to learn they are pregnant, which might take up to 8-12 weeks, and then adding some number of additional weeks to allow them to make an informed decision about whether they need to terminate that pregnancy, and then, in individual cases perhaps longer to accommodate mental health issues.
Many people who are against terminating a pregnancy argue that they know people, maybe even their parents, who had considered this, but had gone through with their pregnancies and had wonderful children and families and felt redeemed or even blessed by the experience All that is fine, but does that justify forbidding others from making a different choice?
More often, the reason given for limiting choice is that given by those who feel a fetus, or even an embryo, is human, and thus view terminating a pregnancy as akin to murder. Precisely because they view murder as abhorrent they therefore want to make abortion illegal. However, and this is a key point, reasonable people of sound mind, who also view murder as abhorrent don’t view a fetus as a human being and thus do not view terminating a pregnancy as murder. Different scientific arguments can be and have been, rallied by either side of the debate. Because there is not universal agreement, or indeed even majority agreement, on this question, I don’t see a basis for people who feel abortion is murder to require that their moral code be imposed on all people. “All people’ includes a vast number of reasonable, rational, individuals who disagree on the meaning of human, and thus the moral implications of pregnancy termination.
I view the situation as having some analogies with the conundrum of vaccination during our Covid-19 pandemic. Some choose to get vaccinated and other not to be vaccinated. People on either side of this issue generally have completely different views of what is morally correct, or which choice presents the fewest risks of adversely affecting their own futures and the futures of those around them. Those individuals who refuse to get vaccinated do not want the state telling them what to do with their bodies, even if it risks their own lives, or the lives of others they may be in contact with. Now, do those who do get vaccinated ( and I am one of that group) have the right to legally force others to be vaccinated against their will? I don’t think so. Inducements can be created to encourage vaccination. Similarly, state governments, if they view (for some reason) that they have compelling interests in reducing the rate of pregnancy terminations, can provide inducements to encourage women to carry full term. But they don’t have a right, it seems to me, to impose what is de facto a morally ambiguous decision on everyone.
Having said all this, I cannot say with confidence that the current apparent Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade, namely to send the issue back to the states, is irrational or obviously in error.
I say this in spite of the fact that I don’t particularly respect the literalist ‘intent of the framers’ kind of legal thinking, since the framers simply didn’t know a great deal that we now know, and therefore never pondered important questions we need to ponder. Abortion may never have been discussed by the framers of the Constitution, but neither were cell phones or blood pressure medication.
As a physicist, appeal to past authority isn’t something of great value to me. Moreover, I find the effort to read the minds of these long dead, and by modern standards, ignorant individuals, reminiscent of rabbinical debates that form the basis of the Talmud. Those are sometimes amusing to read, but they seem to me to have been a remarkable waste of intellectual energy by otherwise intelligent individuals who shouldn’t have been debating things like whether a chicken should be categorized as meat in determining holy dietary laws.
Nevertheless, it makes sense to assume it should be elected representatives who decide issues of birth, life, death, and beyond. But it is also clear that the US isn’t anything like a representative democracy, much less, lately, a functioning one. As has been the case often of late, some other group needs to step up to bat when some of states enact loony legislation, and the Supreme Court is where the buck stops.
As far as the states are concerned, numerous respondents have reminded me that a Supreme Court decision won’t outlaw abortion. It will merely throw the question back to the states. But there again, I have never understood why the states should have this kind of power in the first place. Other countries, including Catholic countries, have made abortion legal on the basis of national referenda. The separate states agreed to be a part of a union, and issues of life and death seem to be important enough that they should be resolved nationally, not regionally. I realize that the US Constitution endows the states with these rights and responsibilities. But that doesn’t mean that I think it makes sense. As a precedent for national action one only has to consider Supreme Court cases on the teaching of Evolution in Public Schools, where legislation in some of the more backward states had to be overridden.
Finally, even if abortion is outlawed in some states, it won’t stop women who need to terminate their pregnancies, it will just make the process more unsafe, and put those with fewer resources at a greater disadvantage.
I have tried to put my views in context here, in the interests of full disclosure, so that you can see where I am coming from in order to understand why I am making the arguments I am. Ultimately I see no compelling interest for the state to regulate the internal biological workings of adult humans without allowing them to can make reasonably informed decisions about those workings. I also don’t see a clear rationale for the state to impose one particular moral choice on the whole population when the (scientific and philosophical) jury is still out.
I realize, from experience, that the people who disagree with me on this issue are likely to feel like I am from another planet. They will have a hard time fathoming any of my arguments. I understand that because try as I might, I have difficulty fathoming many of their arguments either.
Perhaps science will come to the rescue, as it often does. I remember when the Catholic Church was opposed to in-vitro fertilization because they argued that babies that weren’t created the old fashioned way wouldn’t have souls. That argument ended when the first ‘test tube’ babies were born, and were just like everyone else. ‘Morning-after’ pills have helped obviate some of the debate. Now, if science could provide a way to combine otherwise innocuous ingredients that could be obtained without a prescription to produce impacts that are indistinguishable from, say. a natural miscarriage, that might mute, or moot, much of the rest of the debate.
Some or all of my discussion may seem jarring, or naive, but I think if we are to move forward we need to be willing to undertake frank and hopefully rational public discussions, not cloaked in religious or moral regalia, not emotion-laden and without fear of offense. I have exposed some of the issues that I think need to be raised, and I think we all have to be willing to listen to others’ arguments and try and understand them, even if that merely produces rational counterarguments instead of consensus. Even that would be progress.
If we can’t do that, we can return to our own echo chambers and expect that endless abortion legislative ping-pong will dominate the national agenda for the foreseeable future.