1) Abortion, the interminable debate
Contrary to what some believe, abortion policy does not vary just a little from state in the U.S.; it is not ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ in a simple fashion. Most people assume, for instance, that if a woman is 3 weeks late on her menstrual cycle, then she can terminate her pregnancy…because abortion is legal, after all….isn’t it? But is she happens to live in North Dakota, she’s one week too late: the state house passed a law last year prohibiting any abortion 6 weeks or more after a woman’s last menstrual cycle. And many of us were dismayed by the tastelessness and crassness of a debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump last year, when Trump claimed that Hillary’s position (and by implication, the ‘pro-choice position generally) was that, “even on the operating table,” if a woman came in to deliver her baby, “she could change her mind at the last second,” and have an abortion. He painted a truly vivid picture: of a basinet and a nurse waiting to care for the newborn on the left, and an doctor with a scalpel and a plastic bag on the right, and the woman in the middle of labour, still able to decide whether or not she will abort or give birth. Pro-choice folks everywhere were quick to point out the next day that this literally never (as in we have no specific cases) has happened, but they were wrong about one thing: 9 states, including Alaska and Mississippi, have no restrictions whatsoever on when a pregnancy can be terminated. As tasteless as Trump’s debate strategy may have been, it is theoretically possible in these states to abort in the late third trimester. This New York Times graphic breaks down U.S. abortion laws by state; it’s a bit dated, being from 4.5 years ago, but it’s the only source I found that puts it all in one easy-to-read graph:
Question: is anyone surprised to find out that in some parts of America you can have an abortion at 9 months, and in other places are restricted at just 6 weeks? This is because the famous Roe vs. Wade supreme court decision specified 24 weeks, and thus every state, depending on it’s politics, tends to push the restriction backwards and forwards.
At the heart of this debate are two completely deductively valid arguments. On the pro-choice side, there is this one:
Premise 1: All women should have the right to make decisions regarding their own body, including medical procedures.
Premise 2: Whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term is a medical decision about a woman’s body, and thus it should be made by her and her alone.
Premise 3: Access to legal and safe pregnancy termination is obviously essential for a woman to be able to make decisions about whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term.
Conclusion: Abortion must be safe and legal, or else we are violating women’s rights.
As covered in the first unit, in a deductive argument, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. If one were to disagree with the above argument, Premise 2 is clearly the one that the average Pro-life position disagrees with, as we see in their own deductively valid argument:
Premise 1: All people are equal under the law, entitled to not have their basic rights violated.
Premise 2: A fetus is a person.
Premise 3: An abortion terminates a fetus’ life, and thus is a violation of it’s basic rights.
Conclusion: Abortion violates the rights of the unborn child, AKA fetus, and thus should be legal.
This debate is, as presented here, unsolvable. There are 4 short readings for this unit, two pro-choice and two pro-life. We have basically different philosophical premises. Question: how might, in theory, science weigh in on this debate? Thus far, the primary way it has weighed in is to designate 24 to 26 weeks as the time when most fetsuses can survive outside the womb (with an incubator), and thus about half of U.S. states prohibit abortion after this time. It has been suggested that perhaps cranial activity or a heartbeat could designate the start of life, but this, of course, happens at different times for different pregnancies.
In the readings, Peter Singer argues that from a utilitarian perspective, we should all obviously be Pro-choice, because in terms of human suffering, the suffering of the unborn child is not as significant as the millions of women, all adults with lives, families, hopes and dreams, who would die attempting to undergo illegal abortions. Indeed, without language, without any sense of what he or she wants, even a most developed third trimester fetus, at 8 months, arguably doesn’t suffer much in simply not being allowed to live at all. Many would argue that abortion is simply a fact of feminism, in some sense: every society that has a concerted movement for women’s equality and women’s rights has legalized abortion.
This would be my question to the pro-life side: What do you want? If what you want is a modern, secular (meaning separatin of church and state) country, where abortion just happens to be illegal because at least 51% of people think it should be, can you not see that that has never exited, and for good reason? We cannot change biology; we cannot change human sexuality. Many women would argue that if you want to allow women equal access to politics, careers, money, and power, the ability to choose whether or not to be pregnant is simply part of that process.
To the pro-choice side, I would ask this: how exactly do we decide when, as a pregnancy develops, to restrict access to abortion? Surely there is a difference between taking the morning after pill, and aborting at 8.5 months, when the fetus probably would not even require an incubator to survive, but in it’s most extreme form, pro-choicers advocate for the right to abortion at any point in the pregnancy. Surely we are all smart enough to understand the philosophical position, even we disagree, that terminating a pregnancy in the third trimester is not a medical decision that involves only the woman’s body. How do we decide when another body is involved?
The real question is truly this: in a society where this argument will continue, and we will each develop our own sense of right and wrong regarding it, how do we make the laws?
2) Abortion, the Catholic argument, as a structure…
A very conservative Catholic friend of mine introduced me to a style of argument regarding abortion that fascinated me. It is basically thus:
Premise 1: The abortion debate is interminable. It is a valid philosophical belief, widespread and no-doubt persistent, that life begins at birth, that a pregnancy is essentially a medical condition, and thus abortion should be legal. It is equally philosophically valid to believe, however, that life begins at conception, which leads to the opposite conclusion. Indeed, every single scientific attempt to create consensus around when, in the middle, life begins, has failed.
Premise 2: When democracies contain large constituencies that have an unsolvable philosophical disagreement, where no compromise is possible, the right thing to do is to put it to a vote.
Conclusion: We should allow states, and possibly even counties and cities, to vote on their own abortion policy.
That’s not a bad argument.
This is a fascinating strategy: he’s basically saying, “We’re not right, you’re not right; none of us will change out minds. Therefore, let’s just vote on it.” Instead, the supreme court decided.
For the pro-choice side, access to abortion has taken on a moral weight similar to the end of racial segregation. Many southern U.S. states had populations that, if they were allowed to vote on it, would have preferred to have kept racial segregation, but the federal government said no: segregated schools, parks, and other public institutions is so wrong, that it simply doesn’t matter whether most people in a given state want it back: they’re not allowed to.
If this Catholic argument won the day, at least 20 U.S. states would probably outlaw abortion tomorrow. What might be some other issues where this style of thinking–that Democracy doesn’t work, because smaller communities might do something too wrong for the country to allow–exists? What are issues where we shouldn’t vote, because ‘the people’ are just too unpredictable? How do we decide which issues to pick and choose? Are there any that should be rolled back, in your opinion; in other words, are there issues where you think that a city, state, or county ought to be allowed to make it’s own policy?
A few suggestions: gun control; Texas already has armed teachers in 170 school districts; should states be allowed to set their own ‘armed teacher’ policy, or should the country decide for everyone? Nutrition: should cities be allowed to try radical solutions to health problems, such as banning all sugary sodas? Screen time: Should cities or counties be allowed to restrict, or even ban, portable electronic devices in order to create their own desired type of society? Smoking: should this one be rolled back, perhaps? Right now, even a small bar, run by smokers who exclusively employ smokers as bartenders and tend to attract smokers as clients, is not allowed to allow smoking inside their bar.
What are your own issues? How radical should we allow local municipalities to be?