Sunday, July 10, 2005

Against Anti-Choice Absolutism

Ever since Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement, we have heard quite a bit about what can happen to the court. The issue which occupies the attention of both the right and the left is abortion . I have to say that in no way do I look forward to the intensified debates certain to follow court appointments. I have been teaching moral issues for years. Almost every year I have focused a unit of debate on Abortion. And, honestly, in the last two years it has been unbearable to bring this topic up for discussion.

What bothers me, as someone trained in good argument, is how a very complicated and interesting moral argument has turned into shouting matches. Abortion, frankly, is an issue that reasonable people can disagree on. Moreoever, in the past, most people I discussed or debated this issue with were fairly thoughtful about their views on abortion and quite willing to entertain the nuances of counterarguments. Now, however, there are pre-determined party lines and anything that deviates from that "line" is heresy.

I find this really disappointing. So, I thought I would blog a bit about it today. I guess, what most astounds me about current discussions of abortion is how "absolutist" both sides can be on this issue. For example, it use to be possible for pro-choice folks to denounce certain decisions to abort. I think many reasonable and moral persons can support the view that trusts women to make a good moral decisions about their lives (to extend autonomy to women), and yet, those same reasonable and moral person can admit that some women are not thinking clearly or making good decisions.

If you read the literature--the enormous literature that deals with the moral and legal arguments concerning abortion--it is astounding how thoughtful and careful thinkers are on this issue. And yet, when the debate makes it into classrooms these days, usually what it devolves into is a sophistical trap. It goes like this:

Student A: I think abortion is a personal, moral choice.
Student B: When does life begin? [This is the beginning of the trap]
Student A: What?
Student B: Since when is "murder" a personal choice. [You can see where this goes]

The fact is, the reasons women choose to have abortions or terminate a pregnancy are as varied as you can imagine. For example, what if a married woman, in her 40s, who is already raising three kids finds out she is pregnant. She decides to ask her OBGYN for a prescription for Plan B to prevent implantation of the pregnancy. Is this "murder"?

Now, let's consider a reason to prevent a woman from getting an abortion. Let's imagine that a woman in India has aquired enough money to get an amniocentisis done. She finds out that her fetus is a girl. So, she immediately seeks out an abortion. Is this a legitimate exercise of choice or autonomy?

I could go on with countless complicated and nuanced examples. But, of course, if you were to ask many of my students what image they have in their head of a woman seeking an abortion, it is usually a very irresponsible young woman who should've "kept her legs closed." Rarely, do the men who "opened those legs" get scolded or held accountable for their actions. This is usually, I imagine, because most of us still grow up in a world where we learn to see women as "temptresses" and men as incapable of holding back sexually. In fact, I am always amazed at how men are willing to paint their sexual urges as somehow incontrollable and hence, the burden lies on women to not put themselves in they way of a oversexed teenage male.

But, the fact is, women from all walks of life and all types of situations seek out abortions. And, sometimes, the details of the case are such that almost anyone can understand the choice (e.g. the child will be born with Tay-Sachs disease, the woman has an irregular pregnancy, the woman was raped). Sometimes, women were irresponsible and living in horrible conditions (poor, drug addict, etc.). The cases vary. What should occupy our thoughts, however, is what the "unintended consequences" are of any legal regulation of abortion.

Now, I know that many would like to use the law to teach women morals, and hence, get rid of the right to a legal and medically safe abortion. However, using the law is a rather blunt instrument in this case. What you do is put many women in a great deal of harm if you try to regulate those "loose" women who choose to have an abortion. What happens, for example, if you find out your mother's health is in great danger if she brings her pregnancy to its end? If you have taken away her right to have a safe and legal abortion, then, you are perhaps handing down a death sentence to your mother. I know, many anti-choice folks will argue that this is a "rare" case. But, frankly, that doesn't matter--even if it were a rare case.

Let's say, for example, that you say, "well, ok, abortion should be illegal except in cases like the one you just mentioned above." If, however, you agree to such an exception, then you are compromising any moral position you may put forward that claims that abortion is murder. If it is murder, then it is murder whether or not it is to save your mother's life. And, if you admit to that, then you have to start thinking in a more sophisticated manner about what IS a moral choice. If it were easy to make moral decisions, then we wouldn't have long and thoughtful debates on the matter.

I just pray that we will be able to have a civil and thoughtful dialogue about these matters again.