Saturday, June 26, 2010

It may be inconvenient, but we can't just stop thinking about abortion

I don't have any great pearls of wisdom to offer on the subject of abortion. As someone who in general holds socially liberal views, but who was also subject to the full force of Catholic indoctrination throughout my childhood, probably the most I'll ever be able to say is that I can see both sides of the argument. But perhaps it's my very uncertainty on the issue that caused me to react with such anger to an extraordinarily provocative piece on Yahoo by Ian Dunt, in which he asserts that the debate is now over, the pro-choice side has won, and everyone should just stop talking (and presumably thinking) about it. Dream on, Ian.

Despite the seeming polarisation on abortion, there are in fact two separate dividing lines on the issue, not just one. The first is whether abortion can be regarded as morally justifiable, and the second is whether it should remain legal. A great many people would answer 'no' to the first question, but 'yes' to the second. Dunt himself offers a useful summary of why that apparent contradiction is perfectly rational -

"Society is the process of settling competing freedoms among members. For instance, the smoker wishes to smoke inside the restaurant, the non-smoker does not want to breathe his smoke. That's a debate, right there. That's a debate worth having. In the case of abortion the balance is between the woman's right to do what she wants with her own body, and the right of a foetus to live...

There are two kinds of political problems: those which can be solved, and those which cannot be solved. You deal with the second category through management, which usually takes the form of regulation and harm reduction. Drug use and prostitution are two prime examples of human behaviour which simply will not stop, will never stop, and therefore must be managed rather than banned, so we can ensure they do as little harm to society as possible. Abortion is identical. It will happen. There is nothing you can do to stop it...Back street abortions kill. They are sickening and a sign of a morally bankrupt society..."

So that's a very compelling argument for why the answer to the question "should abortion be legal?" ought to be 'yes', within certain constraints (although I would contend that there's still plenty of room for debate over what those constraints should be). But what's infuriating about Dunt's article is that he then tries to blur the distinction between that point and his other - far less compelling - arguments for why abortion itself is positively desirable in a lot of cases. That may seem a fine distinction, but it's one that really matters, because it's perfectly possible for a country that intends to keep abortion legal to nevertheless make it an objective of public policy to minimise the abortion rate by non-legislative means. Conversely, a country in which Dunt's views hold sway wouldn't care one way or the other if the number of abortions continued to soar.

Dunt's most outrageous suggestion is that a high abortion rate is a good thing in the sense that it suppresses crime, because the unwanted babies of today are the criminals of tomorrow. Yes, that may in theory be an argument in favour of abortion, but to be logically consistent about it you'd also have to favour a selective cull of unloved children and disaffected young adults. Unless, of course, you can first establish that unborn babies are qualitatively different from other human beings.

Dunt makes the familiar assertion that a foetus is not actually a human being at all, it is a "thing". That's a perfectly defensible belief to hold, but he goes much further by implying that science has settled the matter beyond dispute. How he can credibly do so is beyond me, given that most of the science seems merely to relate to whether the foetus is conscious and experiences pain. None of that actually addresses the central (and much more elusive) question of its humanity, because adult humans can also in some circumstances not be conscious or aware of pain. I doubt if even most advocates of euthanasia would argue that such adults have forfeited their right to life, unless a living will has been submitted. Dunt also seems to think it is hugely significant that a foetus is not "recognisably humanoid" (presumably he means well before the 24-week limit). Well, neither are some of the most severely disabled adults - does that make them, in Dunt's words, just a "thing" or a "bag of cells"?

He also makes this point about gender politics -

"For women to be equal to men, they must be able to approach the sexual act in the same way. They must be able to walk away from it. Men skip in and out of women's lives, dumping them with life changing consequences. Things will never be as easy for women, despite contraceptives and abortion. But we must strive to equalise the sexual experience as far as is medically and morally possible. It is the only way to secure full equality."

Up to a point, Lord Copper. The double standards sometimes cut both ways. I once spotted the female writer of an advice column using abortion to have her cake and eat it on the principle of 'responsibility'. A young pregnant woman was reassured that she was not yet a mother, and would only become one if she made the free choice not to have a termination. But a young man whose girlfriend was expecting a child was sternly informed that he was already a father, and that he'd better start thinking and acting like one. Now, it would of course have been reasonable to point out that he no longer had any choice over whether he was about to become a father, but if a foetus is just a "thing" it's impossible to justify the claim he already was one. In any case, according to the hard reality this columnist was so keen to acquaint men with, which gender is it that truly has the unequal opportunity to walk away from the sexual act? And which gender is enslaved to the potential long-term consequences (in financial terms, at a minimum) from the instant sex takes place?

Just to reiterate for the sake of clarity, I'm not trying to make an anti-abortion case. But Dunt's belief that we should essentially shut down all thought on the unresolved moral contradictions thrown up by this issue is extremely troubling. Indeed, wouldn't the lack of conscious thought reduce us at a stroke to a mere "bag of cells"?

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