The Abortion Debate

Not content with the controversy of claiming relgion to be a transient social tool, I return once more to that tricky subject of Abortion. These are both very interesting subjects, and not entirely unrelated either: both are deeply intertwined with some of life’s most fundamental philosophical questions.

The ‘camps’ in the abortion debate are generally defined by when. That is, when is it acceptable to terminate a pregnancy: never, before X number of weeks, or at any point of pregnancy. Most people fall somewhere in the middle ground, with liberals / students / scientists leaning toward later and religious / conservative headcases favouring earlier. Roughly segregated, these are termed Pro-Choice and Pro-Life respectively.

So which is right? When is it right, if at all? What we are really being forced to ask ourselves is, when does someone become alive? This is a difficult question to answer. But starting with conception, and the teetotal adherents that say Never, is fertilisation really the point of no return? Anyone with a shred of medical understanding can recognise that a fetus is not the same as a baby, and certainly a two-week proto-fetus is little more than two layers of generic cells. If you are willing to say conception is the point at which baby killing is occuring, you are basically saying that the entirety of a person pops into being at the instant of conception. That something ‘magical’ happens when the sperm penetrates the egg and is fertilised. From that point on, that little fetus is a human being. This is a slippery slope, and clearly the conclusion of a layman, not a scientist*. The human power to ‘see’ patterns (especially of ourselves) in noise works against us here.

To put it another way, what makes the dividing egg so holy that a sperm is not? It’s half a person by this logic, and millions of them die with each attempt at conception. And as for eggs… unless you are considering banning periods, I am afraid you can’t stop them dying either. So to say never is to draw a magic line under conception. Funnily enough, it also appears to be the view most commonly held by the people that least understand the mechanics of pregnancy; someone merely shouts ‘killing babies’ and a wave of ignorance follows in their wake.

So, a fetus is not a person; that much is obvious. But it does lead to one. The question is, how and when? In the UK, an abortion is legal up until 24 weeks into the pregnancy, although it’s frowned upon past 20. This stage is deemed to be the point of no return for a number of reasons, but most of these seem to involve safety. I think this middle ground is a sensible line to take, given the fundamental difficulties in the morality and the immediate and grave consequences of ignoring it altogether. But while I think this is a good policy it is, like apatheism, not particularly helpful to philosophy.

There are rational arguments that make the case for abortion even later. Some might even say that the life of the child is still in question in the weeks prior to birth. One point of reference is the juncture where the fetus becomes able to survive independent of its mother. But I still think this is pretty arbitrary. Self-dependence is also not as clear cut as it might sound; in effect no child is born self-dependent. And medical science can bring all sorts of premature babies through.

It all stems from one very simple but tough question: what is life? We struggle to define the morality of destroying a fetus for many reasons. To us, the idea of clinical killing of a human being is abhorrent. Yet we cannot call ourselves mentally stable if we attach the same level of remorse in the death of sperm or eggs. Somewhere in between lies the genisis of life, and a difficult truth about ourselves.

I think we are avoiding the real philosophical issue because we are afraid to confront what we really are. Most people value life, the majority will place human life above all others**. This isn’t because they think humans are necessarily better, some even think the opposite. But it has to do with what makes us value life, and I think that thing is memories & communication. Memories are what gives the mind its priceless value, and with communication we are able to see that personality. The more of these things a creature has, the more we value its life. Of course these values are things we can easily project onto others regardless of the actual processes of that being, anthropomorphising inanimate or unintelligent things to varying degrees, confusing things further.

It’s debatable that a human goes beyond reflex autonomy for at least several weeks after birth. While the idea that an abortion could be done this late is repugnant and as equally slippy as the opposite extreme***, it does raise an important point. We say killing humans is terrible, but we still can’t answer the objective question why. Is it because they don’t want to die? Is it empathy; that we don’t want to die? What if a creature didn’t mind dying? Is it the distress caused by impending death? What if they never knew of it? I’ll save my deeper probing of this particular line of thought to a later post.

Needless to say, with all these profound questions at its base, there will likely be no simple answer to the Abortion debate. But one thing is clear, and that is that there are people hugely affected by the law that emerges from it, women who are in all manner of circumstances. They need a sensible middle ground to compromise for a question that may take millenia (if at all) to answer.

(*) – If you are a scientist, shame on you for being so easily fooled by a vaguely human-shaped clump of stem cells.

(**) – Even amongst those who treat animals well, the life of a child generally comes before the life of a cat or dog

(***) – Just how far do memories accumulate before a new life is protected from malicious termination?

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