Sunday, June 29, 2008


Maybe it's just because it gives the fundies another opportunity to exert their disproportionate influence in this country. Maybe it's simply the reminder of how misogynistic we still are. Maybe it's because rhetoric will quickly crowd out facts - again.

But the rekindling of the whole abortion debate just depresses me. And this is in spite of the fact that the most likely outcome, I think, will be that our law ends up more sensible - with a social clause along with the mental health one in the appropriate statute.

Anyhow, the issue was covered - fairly poorly? - in Insight on Radio National this morning (link to audio and will break eventually). Afterwards I send them the following email.

Dear Chris,

Absent from your discussion on abortion this morning was one key point.

A recent, comprehensive, survey conducted by the World Health Organisation and the Guttmacher Institute found that abortion rates vary little between parts of the world where the procedure is legal and those where it is not. It is surprising, given this fact, that those who see abortion as morally wrong do not do more to concentrate on non-legal and effective means, such as sexuality education and contraception, to reduce its incidence.

At the same time illegal and unsafe abortions lead to the deaths of over 70,000 women every year.

It surprises me that an organisation which calls itself Right to Life would want to bring this problem to New Zealand.

Kind Regards


On re-reading I was worried that this email would suggest that abortion is morally wrong and that my only quibble with Right to Life is how best to reduce its frequency.

So I thought I'd expand things here.

Like Deborah I'm sceptical of rights claims made in an absolute sense. I support human rights not because I think they are God-given or afforded to us simply by virtue of being human but rather because they provide us with a sound framework for reducing suffering and increasing wellbeing. I'm a (sortof) rule utilitarian who thinks that rights, when well-thought out, are very important rules.

Having said all this, much of my thinking (in other words: much of my muddling through within my own head) on abortion has been in terms of rights (rather than some sort of crude utilitarian calculus which is kind of what is going on in my email above). Which is fine, although to be consistent at some point of time I should pin these rights back to wellbeing, but that won't be today. So, in addition to my standard disclaimer (IANAPNAE - I am not a philosopher nor an economist - just someone who worries about things) I should add that my thinking here is incomplete.

But here goes...

Should abortion be legal?

In answering this I want to start with two positions which I think can't be correct. 1. That a woman has an unconstrained right to do what she wants with her body and 2. That, from the moment of conception, the fetus has a full set of human rights, equal to its mother's.

The first position flounders in the same way that libertarian arguments for absolute self-ownership do. I can't have absolute control of my body because in doing so I can violate your control over your body. Quite rightly our society prohibits me from using my body to do violence to others. Likewise it prohibits me from putting my body behind the wheel of a car and driving drunk. Obviously, despite this, I maintain considerable rights over what I may do with, and what may happen to my body, but they aren't absolute. To an extent, my rights are constrained by the impacts of my actions on the rights of others.

Which means that, if we can show that fetuses are entitled to full human rights we're going to want to do our best to eliminate abortion*. But should fetuses be entitled to full human rights (position 2 above)?

To me such a position seems acutely counter-intuitive. If you choose the moment of conception as the moment where a full set of rights are bestowed you are effectively granting equal rights to a collection of cells who may someday become a recognisable person, over the needs of an actual living woman. And these needs, when we consider the medical risks of pregnancy, not to mention the impact on the life of the woman in question are not insignificant.

Similarly, seeing as you have declared the fetus as having equal rights as its mother then, to be internally consistent, you must also ban abortions where there is a risk that the mother may die giving birth (certainty of the fetus's death versus probability of the mother's). All this despite the fact that what we are talking about here is a few cells that are in no way recognisably human. (True they may come to be recognisably human in time, but as you have decided to convey full human rights from conception you need to explain why they apply to the entity that exists the moment after conception).

If you want to see how ugly rights at conception are in practice have a read of the following article on El Salvador in the New York Times.

So if both the first position (that a woman has absolute rights) and the second (that a fetus has the exact same set of rights as a full human being) are wrong, then what is the alternative.

To me, at least, it makes sense to do the following.

1. Deal with the issue as one of competing rights sets. So a pregnant woman (like everyone else in society) does not a have absolute rights over her body and, in the case of abortion in particular, her rights need to be weighed up against those rights that we give to a fetus.

2. (And this is the important bit). The rights of an entity change as an entity changes across it's existence. There's no need to worry about 'big bang' moments such as when human-hood starts (which is going to be hard to pin down, I think). Just worry about when entity X has a sufficiently significant rights-set for these rights to restrict the actions of entity Y.

If it sounds strange for me to advise not getting caught up in when human-hood starts consider the following. Not all human beings have the same rights. This may seem appalling but it's just a statement of fact. We don't afford babies the right to vote, or children the right to choose where they live. We force teenagers to stay in school, but we don't force adults to stay in work. And so on... Of course we do afford all living human beings some core rights (not to be murdered, for example**) But the central point is that there is already a perfectly reasonable precedent set here - that people's rights sets change as they change.

And so what's left for us to decide is when does the developing fetus develop sufficient rights for these rights to prohibit its mother from having abortion? The short answer to this is never. Or, at least, its rights are never so significant that they should stop a woman from having an abortion when carrying the pregnancy to term would put her life in real danger. We don't legally oblige men to leap into burning buildings to save their children when doing so would be a risk to themselves (not even in El Salvador). Why should we compel women to take the same risks for a fetus? Of course we do compel parents to take due care of their children, when this doesn't involve risking their lives and, similarly, we are right, I think, prevent abortions in non-life threatening situations for a fetus close to term.

But we would be wrong to prohibit abortions in non-life threatening circumstances right from the moment of conception. We would be wrong in doing this because, even when we aren't talking about a life threatening pregnancy, having a baby is something that will have massive consequences for the woman involved and as an actual living individual her right to have control over something as significant as this takes precedence over those rights that the fetus has developed.

At some point in time this balance changes of course, and then the some of the fetus's rights (like the right to a chance at life) take precedence over some of hers (the choice about pregnancy in non-life threatening circumstances, in particular). For a variety of practical and biological reasons (the subject for another post maybe) sometime around viability seems like the best time for this switch.

For now though, I want to make one final point, this is that the whole idea of competing rights sets (and the idea that fetuses are in the process of acquiring rights) does mean that, while I support the legal provision of abortion, I have a strong preference for preventing unplanned pregnancies in the first place. And I would definitely prefer to live in a country that taxed its wealthy more and used the money to provide people with decent sexuality education and which did more to encourage contraceptive use and so on...

Ok - that was my first attempt to write down the product of an internal ongoing conversation I've been having about all this. I don't know if it worked, but I do know that I want to get outside and catch some Southerly Storm in Cook Strait. So enough for now.

*Which, of course, doesn't necessarily mean outlawing it as laws aren't always the best way to achieve societal ends.
** Except in cases of the death penalty which I oppose and self defence, which seems more reasonable.

No comments: