Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in American politics today. Of the many different positions and arguments expounded, none can truly hold up to logical scrutiny, in my opinion.
My contention is that, all definitions of human life will be arbitrary, and when taken to their logical ends, will fall apart.
Before we analyze the different arguments, we need to differentiate them into two different types. The Abortion debate includes two different kinds of arguments, “Burden” arguments, and “Life” arguments.
Let’s first analyze the “Burden” arguments. The central contention of these arguments is that the foetus is simply an unwanted burden, and thus, to do away with it by way of abortion is not in an immoral choice. An often cited comparison is to a tumor. Obviously, we all recognize that tumors must be removed by whatever procedure is deemed necessary by the relevant medical professionals. So why do people not recognize the same when it comes to abortion? There are two reasons.
Firstly, the argument of personal responsibility—if a couple has engaged in consensual sex, without protection, then the fault lies with them—the child/foetus, cannot be unwanted. The basic premise here is that if one does not wish to have a child, then one should not engage in sex without protection. The proponents of these arguments are more sympathetic to exceptions in cases of rape and incest.
Secondly, and more importantly, a “sanctity of life” assumption–the assumed principle here, is that even ceding the “unwanted and burdensome” nature, human life has certain sanctity and mere convenience cannot supersede it. For this reason, it is irrelevant to pro-lifers whether or not the child will be born in abject poverty and will lead an incredibly hard life, if brought to term. To them, the economic status of the family, or the mother, is once again, a question of convenience, and as previously stated, in their view, convenience cannot supersede the sanctity of human life.
Obviously, the underlying premise here is that, a fertilized embryo is a human life, which brings us to the interesting part of this debate; the “Life” arguments. Pro-Choicers and Pro-Lifers alike have tried their hand at defining the point where life beings. They’re all wrong. Here’s why:
There are 3 main arguments that are presented in the context of the “Life” debate.
Firstly, the argument of life beginning at conception; the basic belief here, is that once an embryo has been formed, it is a potential human life, and thus, inviolable “sanctity of life” applies. The central contention is that a fertilized embryo, if left to its natural processes, will turn into a full-fledged human life. This gives it certain value, and elevates it morally compared to what pro-choicers will often phrase it as; “a bundle of cells”.
The problem with this argument is that it’s correct, but only half so. It is certainly true that a human embryo left to its natural process will turn into a human being—most of the time. According to www.americanpregancy.org, the miscarriage rate among health women is 15-20%. So this means that in approximately 80% of cases, a fertilized embryo, barring uncommon or rare complications, will become an indisputable human life.
What this argument fails to realize, is that men, left to their natural processes, will wind up impregnating women, with success rates similar to or better than a pregnancy being brought to term. The ultimate evolutionary goal, of human males, is to impregnate as many females as possible. Logically, it follows then, that male sperm must also have the same “potential life” value that a fertilized embryo has. Therefore, male sperm must also have “sanctity of life”. This is a logical quandary for those who oppose abortion. To be philosophically consistent, a Pro-Lifer must also call male masturbation murder. There’s just one problem—no one actually believes that.
Secondly, the arguments of heartbeat, brain waves, sentience, et al; the basic belief can be surmised as follows: a particular element of human life, which is so crucial to human survival such as independent heart function, brain activity, etc. that humans cannot naturally survive without it, should be the considered the point of life beginning. The problem that all of these arguments run up against, is that they are an arbitrary standard which can also be applied to already born humans. For example, the heartbeat argument followed to its logical conclusion would mean that all humans who have pacemakers implanted are not technically alive, since their hearts cannot, left to their natural processes, function.
The brain wave and sentience argument can be rebutted with a simple thought experiment: Imagine a patient named X. X is going to be in a coma for 9 months. He won’t have any brain waves for that duration. You are the doctor, and you are aware that if left for 9 months, X will wake up. He will have no memories of his past life upon waking upon, and it will be impossible for him to remember.
Do you kill X? The obvious answer is no, and this quite succinctly demonstrates why the arguments of arbitrary standard all fall apart when subject to scrutiny.
Finally, let’s address the argument of viability—the core premise of this argument, is that the foetus is an entity that cannot exist on its own, and must parasitically use the physical body of the mother, in order to survive. This therefore means that the child is unviable in the real world, and is thus not a human life.
The issue with the viability is twofold.
One, it fails to recognize that for a foetus to be a parasitic organism, the host cannot have willingly let it take root. If you were impregnated because you had consensual sex without protection, then it is the fault of the couple, no one else. If the pregnancy was due to failure of protection, rape or incest, then quite obviously, the pregnancy is not by choice, however, these are a minority of pregnancies (according to a 1996 study, about 5% of pregnancies in the U.S are caused by rape) in the United States, and are therefore the exception, not the rule.
Two, a child already born must also indirectly use the physical body and labour of a parent to survive.
Imagine a child, who once born, is placed in a room. The parents of the child go in and out of the room, but they never interact with the child. For all intents and purposes, they behave as if the child does not exist. Will the child survive?
Obviously not, because a child needs others to use their physical bodies to care for it, in order to survive. A child needs to fed, bathed, mentally stimulated, etc. This can all only be done, if there is someone to do it. In other words, the baby must indirectly use the physical body of the parent or guardian in order to survive. The actual location of the baby is irrelevant, because the only activity occurring is the child using the physical body of another, directly or indirectly. The counterpoint maybe raised that, with children raising a child, there is an element of choice, which supposedly is missing from pregnancies. To those who would raise this, I would refer you to the facts I presented just a few paragraphs above.
The question now arises, as to what exactly we should do when it comes to the issue of abortion. In my view, we must look to find the position which will result in the most social good overall. The position which will result in the least number of babies being born in abject poverty, and the least number of possible viable children being killed in the womb (In 2013, Lyla Stensrud was born at 21 weeks and lived; the cut-off for abortion in many U.S states I s 24 weeks). What that position is however, we can’t know until we have a serious reformation in the Abortion debate. Currently, both left and right, are more interested in lobbing ad-hominem attacks than actually defining life in the best way possible. Until that is the case, we can’t come to a logical consensus on this issue.