Friday, September 16, 2005

Abortion And Rape

It has always struck me that one of the biggest problems for the mainstream pro-life movement is their position when it comes to abortion after rape. It seems difficult for them to find a position on the issue consistent with the values they claim to espouse. Here is why.

In the last post I mentioned two big arguments of the pro-life movement: The supremacy of the right to life over other rights (like dignity and autonomy), and the (at least partial) responsibility of the woman for her pregnancy. The scenario where a woman is raped creates a tension between these arguments.

The mainstream position seems to be that rape is an exception to the general rule that abortion is always wrong. Why is this? It is true that an unwanted pregnancy can feel much worse if caused by rape. The feeling of violation can be extended throughout the pregnancy, and the woman might be torn between giving the child up for adoption (which can be a heart-breaking experience in itself) and keeping the child around, a constant reminder of the terrible act. So the consequences for the mother are likely to be worse.

But looking at the situation honestly, has the sole fact that the consequences are worse ever motivated the mainstream pro-life movement to make exceptions? A young teenage girl can be terrified of what is happening, completely unable to cope emotionally, and this tends not to change the judgement that 'abortion is murder'. Only if the woman's life is in danger will an exception otherwise be made, and that is an extension of the idea of the right to life. So if not the extent of the consequences, then what motivates the exception in the case of rape?

Well, it is the second principle above, that normally the mother gives up some of her rights by dint of being responsible for the pregnancy. Here of course there is no responsibility so the principle is applied to give an exception. The major problem for pro-lifers is that adopting this contradicts the idea that the right to life trumps all other rights. If this were truly taken seriously, it would not matter that the pregnancy was no fault of the mother. In order for this to matter, the fault of the mother must be the deciding factor above the life of the child. Acknowledging that the rights of the mother have some part to play means accepting that the whole thing must be considered on a case by case basis, and not purely on the basis that there is a child who must not be killed.

So what is the alternative? Some go further than the above and argue that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape. It avoids the above problem of compromising the life of the baby for the sake of the mother. However, it appears an incredibly uncompassionate response. It also jettisons the principle of the fault of the woman by not needing any fault on her part to require her to carry the baby. It means that even an unarguable victim is forced to undergo the further consequences of an unwanted pregnancy without fault, rather than being given the chance to prevent these consequences. I do not believe it to be too emotive to suggest that in a way this compounds the rape - enforcing a violation of bodily sanctity on one who is completely blameless.

To summarise: To make an exception for abortion after rape compromises on the absolute supremacy of the right to life, and to make no exception compromises on the requirement for fault on the mother's part. So, if this is true does this mean the pro-life ideal is inherently flawed? Not necessarily. It just means that to achieve consistency, only one of these principles can be maintained.

If the supremacy of the right to life is maintained, then no exception is made for rape. The woman is denied a means to end the violation of her person started by the rapist. I consisder this horrible, but at least it is consistent.

If the fault of the woman is considered paramount, an exception can be made for rape. However, with the absolute supremacy of the sanctity of life removed, a balancing exercise must take place. If other rights can override it, then why not in some cases without rape? Could the distress and suffering incurred not outweigh the right to life even without rape involved? Insisting that rape is still the only exception begs the question of 'why?'. Why, if the right to life can be displaced? Logical consistency requires weighing up other situations to see if they too could justify abortion.

While this balancing exercise can be difficult, it can be a consistent position. However, it requires leaving behind the absolutist approach to abortion and adopting one of relativism, anathema to the mainstream pro-life movement. It also begs the question of who is to judge. The courts? The doctors?

Might it not be better leaving it up to individual conscience after all?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Abortion And Autonomy

In the last post I noted that the problem with abortion is weighing up the different interests: Most obviously, the right to life of the foetus and the right to autonomy and choice of the woman. While I put forward one way people use to weigh up the situation (pre-existing attitudes to sex) I suggested that this was a poor way to consider the situation. Now I will explain one of the main reasons that I am pro-choice.

Looking at the two major competing interests as stated above, it is easy to quickly conclude that the right to life must trump all else, as superior and more important. This is one reason people argue the pro-life viewpoint. Another is the idea that the woman is (in cases other than rape) at least in part to blame for the pregnancy while the foetus is blameless. Therefore the benefit of the moral doubt must go to the foetus. In a way this suggests that as a punishment for consenting for sex, the woman gives up some rights over her autonomy. She has no right to complain as she could have prevented the whole situation from coming about.

These arguments should be kept in mind as I present my analogy, and I will come back to them. For the record, when I became a fully fledged liberal and attempted to apply the idea that people should have autonomy over their bodies and choices to my beliefs, abortion was one of the three main sticking areas (along with prostitution and drugs) which caused me a lot of trouble. It was a long time before I was able to put myself on one side of the fence on the issue, and it was only when I came up with my analogy that I was able to see the issue clearly.

The Driving Analogy:

A couple enjoy driving around in their new sports car. They are not going anywhere in it, just taking it around the roads at reasonably high speeds, the wind in their hair. There is of course always a risk while driving, but they are competent drivers and only think of the feeling of being on the open road.

One day, something terrible happens. They do not see a pedestrian until it is too late, and although they swerve to avoid him they hit him and the car crashes, knocking them both out.

When the woman of the couple wakes up she is in a hospital. Around her are doctors trying to reassure her, and as she becomes more lucid she realises that something feels wrong. Looking down, she sees many tubes attached to all different parts of her body. All of them lead across to an adjacent table, and on it lies the pedestrian they had hit. Before she can struggle and rip the tubes out, the doctors hold her and soothe her, telling her to relax.

Once she is awake, they explain to her what happened. Paramedics arrived at the scene of the crash and took the three injured people to hospital. It quickly became clear that the pedestrian was in bad shape. His organs were damaged, unable to perform their functions to keep him alive. He was also losing a lot of blood.

However, they realised that there was a way to save him. Using all their skill and technology they were able to hook him up to the woman, whose blood type matched his. By using the sustaining power of her almost undamaged body, they were able to keep him alive, and he is slowly starting to recover, by leeching nutrients from the woman's blood and using her organs.

This disturbs the woman much, but she is glad that the man is at least alive. However, she is shocked to learn that estimates suggest that the man will need to be hooked up to her, unconscious, for nearly nine months before he will be able to survive alone (and even then he will need constant care for some time). The woman is horrified at the idea of having him hooked up to her in this way for such a long period of time.

As time goes on she feels worse and worse as she can constantly feel the way her life is being leeched for the man's purposes. Her emotions go beyond her control and what she can do is restricted. She also finds out that unhooking him so he can live on his own is likely to be a very painful, exhausting and embarrassing procedure.

She starts to consider the possibility of refusing to continue her existance like this, removing the tubes and so letting the man die. As she considers this, she recieves guidance from two sources. One side call themselves pro-life, and insist that it would be murder to do so. They tell her that it is her own fault that she is in this situation, so she is obliged to let the man continue to leech her life force and undergo the final operation. The other side is pro-choice, and tell her that she has autonomy over her body, and so it remains her choice as to whether she removes the tubes or allows the man to stay like that. They say that no-one has the right to force her to remain like that.


The question, of course, is which of the two sides would you agree was in the right? I will not patronise by going through the analogy explaining every line of it. Needless to say, the driving is sex, the crash is getting pregnant, and the pedestrian is the foetus growing in the womb. I would like to explain how this can help to shed some light on the issue of abortion.

Earlier I said that it can be easy to immediately conclude that the right to life is more important than anything else. I would say that the analogy might help to dispense with this particular gut feeling. While the right to life is important, I would argue that it is not enough to completely void the rights of others to autonomy and personal dignity. Other analogies could be given like this: A criminal threatens to kill a man unless his girlfriend allows him to have sex with her. While many would do it for their lovers, it would seem ludicrous to expect an absolute obligation to consent to sex to protect someone else's right to life. In the original analogy, the woman has to put up with much indignity and sacrifice some of her autonomy to keep the man alive - often pregnancy requires similar sacrifices. The point is that just because a life might be at stake, does not null and void all competing rights.

Secondly, it was suggested that some pro-lifers think the woman's choice should be nullified as punishment for partly causing the situation. If the response to this was not already clear, I would hope that the analogy would help to make it so. While it may be legitimate to associate blame with the act, the point is that the 'punishment' or consequences are wildly out of proportion with the infraction committed. It is like shoplifting in a country which executes theives. Even though the consequences might be foreseeable, it is not right to say that the consequences are fair because they are to blame. Our natural sense of justice (and empathy, I would hasten to add) requires that we only enforce consequences / punishment on people if it is proportional to the wrong done. In the analogy, while perhaps the driving was an unnecessary risk, the terrible consequences for the woman are out of proportion. Similarly the consequences of pregnancy on autonomy and dignity are far out of proportion to the 'wrong' of sex, particularly given the natural urges and societal pressures involved.

As such, it is argued that the analogy suggests that the decision must in the end be with the one whose dignity and autonomy is compromised. It is her sacrifice to make, not for someone else to force her to do so. The analogy made me firmly pro-choice, and remains my favourite way to explain my position.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Abortion And Sex

Of all the hot-button moral issues out there, abortion is quite possibly the most sensitive, and most disputed. When all other arguments have been uneasily reconciled, there will always bile and vitriole on this one. There are huge swathes of people on either side of the issue who will budge no inch, angrily defending their point of view. Then there are those in the middle, carefully drawing out a compromise which can never be reached. Other questions like stem cell research and cloning rest on this one. And it will never be settled, not really. Perhaps that is for the best.

A lot has been said about abortion, and so it is extremely difficult to say much that has not been said before. However, here is what I feel I have to offer to the everlasting debate.

In this post I will explain some thoughts on the motivations of those on either side. While no argument should be assessed based on the merits of its proponents (which would be an argumentum ad hominem), it is useful to examine them nevertheless. It seems to me that the vast majority of people on both sides either care about both the mother and the foetus, or would do so were it not for an attitude (call it a prejudice) developed due to this issue. Only a very minor fringe would otherwise act with complete disregard for a woman's autonomy or the wellbeing of something which can look and appear so human. So, given this groundpoint, what makes a person come down on one side or the other, to weigh up the interests and make their decision?

I would like to stress that many base their opinion on logical reasoning, personal experience and general gut feeling on the issue. Others are pushed one way or another by religious leaders, parents, friends etc. But I would argue that a fundamental factor which has helped to split opinion on this down traditional liberal / conservative lines is the attitude people have to another issue: SEX.

To the extent that I accuse either side here, I accuse them fairly equally. Those that come in with a sex-positive, free love kind of attitude are far more likely to be pro-choice. The reason is obvious. Not to mince words, but it is much easier to advocate the positive aspects of sex while downplaying the risks and consequences. While screening and a degree of care can minimise the risks of STDs, and treatment is generally uncontroversial, it is more difficult to talk away the risk of pregnancy. Firstly, because it potentially involves another, innocent third party (the potential child) rather than the willing participants. Secondly because it always has been, and always will be a real possibility. Short of extreme measures infeasible for many, the risk of pregnancy will never go away. By having abortion as a way of clearing up any 'accidents', the problem is solved. Sex can be relatively simple and without too many negative consequences. In short, promoting abortion fits a pro-sex agenda.

What of the other side? Those that come in with a sex-negative, restrictive and prudish kind of attitude are far more likely to be pro-life. For many of them, people need to be warned off any kind of sexual activity before marriage. Particularly in the USA, where anti-abortion activists have much influence, a lot of the reason for this attitude is based not on fear of consequences, but on religious teaching (which, ironically, I would argue probably originated from fear of consequences, but has now been merely cristalised into dogma). It is very hard to sell this reasoning to youth, and abortion becomes the logical way around this. By equating abortion with murder, many are (perhaps only subconsciously) trying to scare young people off sex. 'Look at the possible consequences', they are saying. 'If you dabble then you may have to choose between raising a baby or being a murderer.' It is a clever method of control. In short, condemning abortion fits an anti-sex agenda.

Again, there are many, especially outside of the USA, with good, sound reasons for their opinions on abortion. I like to think I am one of them, and I will explain my opinion in my next post. For now though, I am trying to point out that a lot of the arguing either way is actually based on an attitude to sex rather than to abortion itself. I just hope that eventually more people can learn to block that out and look instead to the issue itself, with its own, much more important, facets.