Thursday, December 31, 2009

Abortion (Part 1) by Mary Ann Warren

I'm blogging my way through every essay in The Blackwell Companion to Ethics. Today, I deal with the cheery topic of abortion, following the article by Mary Ann Warren.

In Part 1 I look at some background issues, consequentialist arguments in favour of abortion, and arguments based on the right to choose. In Part 2 I will look at the issue of foetal personhood.

Abortion: The Trick is to Ask the Right Question

We've all been there. One moment the dinner party is going well; the guests seem satisfied with the spread; the wine glasses are perpetually full; life is good. But then something terrible happens. The conversation switches from the superficial and light-hearted to the prickly and controversial. You are talking about abortion.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, I recommend you follow Warren's lead: structure the discussion by asking the right questions. The questions can be divided into two main groups (a) the moral group and (b) the legal group.

In the moral group we find questions like the following: should women have the right to abort unwanted pregnancies? Does the foetus have a right to life that should be protected?

In the legal group we find questions like the following: should abortion be made illegal? Should doctors or women who avail of abortion be held liable for murder or for some other offence? Should abortion be made legal? Should the state have an obligation to ensure that women have access to safe abortions?

The groups of questions certainly overlap, but there are important distinctions. Just because we find something to be morally opprobrious does not mean we should bring the full weight of the law to bear on its resolution; and just because we permit something does not mean the state should encourage it. This distinction was at the heart of one of Chris Matthews recent "interviews".

A History Lesson: How the Debate has Changed
Warren begins her article with a brief history lesson on abortion, just to illustrate how the public debate has changed. I have not done any research to verify her historical claims so caution is recommended.

Warren says that abortion was only made into a criminal offence in the latter half of the 19th C in industrialised nations. At that time, proponents of the ban used medical arguments to support their arguments, i.e. they argued that abortion was medically unsafe.

Medical arguments against abortion dissolved in the 20th C when it was turned into a safe medical procedure. As a result, the arguments against abortion shifted away from concerns about the physical safety of women towards the moral status of the foetus.

Those in favour of a right to choose abortion have responded to this shift with three arguments:
  1. Abortion should be permitted because prohibition leads to disastrous consequences (disastrous consequences argument).
  2. There is a moral right to choose abortion (rights argument).
  3. A foetus is not a person and so has no moral status (non-personhood argument).
Warren looks at each of these arguments in turn.

The Disastrous Consequences Argument
This argument has two main components. First, it is argued that a lack of reproductive autonomy is detrimental to women's welfare. In societies where women do not have access to contraception or abortion they are reduced to a form of chattelhood. Second, population control is essential to the future sustainability of biological and social systems.

Now you may say that we have alternative means of contraception available to us (pills, IUDs, condoms and so forth) and that these are preferable to abortion (although some Catholics would disagree). This may be true, but abortion is a fallback if these other methods fail.

The pro-lifers have an obvious riposte to these arguments. They will say that heterosexual sex is a voluntary option. If our goals are birth control and population control, then we can simply ask women to refrain from sexual activity. They can strengthen their argument by pointing out that sex may be physically harmful (cervical cancer, HIV and other STIs) or even psychologically harmful (feelings of guilt, exploitation, worthlessness).

There are obvious pro-choice responses to these arguments. Celibacy is impossible (women are always vulnerable to rape), undesirable (who would want to live a life devoid of sexual pleasure), and psychologically harmful (stunted emotional development etc.).

The Rights Argument
A right is an entitlement or power that is available to a person thanks to a legal document or, more controversially, due to some inherent natural order. The basic moral rights are the right to life, right to self-determination, right to bodily integrity, and right to ownership of property.

A prohibition on abortion infringes women's basic moral rights. First, it infringes their right to life. This is shown by the UN statistics on the number of women who seek out and die from unsafe abortions in countries where abortion is not legalised. Likewise, there are actual deaths resulting from involuntary childbirth.

Second, it infringes their right to self-determination and bodily integrity. Pregnancy is not simply an inconvenience. It is arduous, potentially risky and disrupts lifestyle choices (work, education etc). Also, as a parent, one has duties to discharge towards the child that last a lifetime. This is only partially relieved by the prospect of giving up the child for adoption.

There is of course a white elephant lurking in the room: the rights of the unborn. Could it be that the foetus has a right to life that trumps the woman's rights? I will look at this in more depth in Part 2 when I cover the whole topic of foetal personhood, but a couple of things can be said about the purported rights of the foetus.

First, there could be an equivalence between the rights of the mother and the rights of the unborn. In such a situation, it is difficult to say who should win out. Second, as pointed out by Judith Jarvis Thomson in her famous 1971 article, just because the foetus has a right to live does not mean the mother should be forced to carry it to term.

Thomsom illustrated this argument with a thought experiment. She asked you to imagine that you woke up one morning to find a famous violinist was "plugged-in" to your body. Doctors inform you that he has some kidney-related disease and is using your kidneys to clean his blood. You are told the arrangement will only last nine months, by then he will be cured.

Thomson argued that such an arrangement would be preposterous, as would be any law that forced you to maintain the surgical link. In no aspect of human life, apart from pregnancy, would we ever force someone else to sacrifice their rights simply to preserve the life of another. But then why should we treat pregnancy any differently?

No comments:

Post a Comment