If there is one thing about the abortion debate that most people agree upon, it is that it inflames the passions and can get rather heated. Some of the participants live in a world so removed from reality that they don’t seem to understand that being human entails making mistakes and then making even more mistakes while trying to fix the previous ones. Others are so mired in reality that they seem to have forgotten that even if we are very subjective creatures we should nevertheless strive to be objective and that there is, ultimately, such a thing as right and wrong. There is a lack of concern for the nitty-gritty details of everyday life on the one hand, and a lack of perspective and moral reasoning on the other.
It has always struck me that hypotheticals have the advantage of realism without reality. They offer details at a distance. And, apart from anything else, they provide excellent exercise for the brain. So, let’s play hypotheticals for a short while:
Which is preferable, to live in a world in which pro-life advocates are wrong but get their way or to live in a world where the pro-choice advocates are wrong but get their way? Let’s think about it. If the pro-life advocates get their way – i.e. abortion is made illegal – and they are wrong, then we will have to be unnecessarily meticulous about using contraception, and when it fails (or we fail to use it) then we would have to live with the natural and sometimes inconvenient consequences of having sex. These consequences could include having a child when we didn’t plan one. If the pro-choice advocates get their way – i.e. abortion remains legally available and Medicare-funded – and they are wrong, then we will continue to legally sanction the murder of hundreds of thousands of babies each year (and large numbers of us will continue to personally murder our own flesh and blood), all at the behest of the mother, without any requirement to inform or gain the consent of the father.
So, if we apply the precautionary principle or devise an alternate version of Pascal’s Wager, the rational thing to do (even if you don’t believe abortion is wrong) is to act as if you do believe it’s wrong, because when weighed up the gain is immeasurably greater than the loss. After all, if you act as if abortion is wrong, then the worst possible outcome is that you have to live with the inconvenient but natural consequences of this ‘antiquated’ notion: a living child. If, however, you act as if abortion is morally permissible, the worst possible outcome is that you commit murder and are accessory to mass murder.
In gambling terms, the stakes are too high. Whatever our beliefs, we should have the integrity to recognise that abortion is a gamble with human lives at stake. It’s the wager of a foetus for a mere convenience, the convenience of being able to choose when not to have a child. It is a wager that blithely ignores what might happen if we are wrong, that ignores what prominent pro-choice ethicists like Peter Singer admit as a given, that there is nothing that happens during pregnancy or childbirth to alter the fundamental nature of the human life form and that there is no reason to consider an unborn embryo or foetus any differently than a day-old baby. “The liberal search for a morally crucial dividing line between the newborn baby and the fetus has failed to yield any event or stage of development that can bear the weight of separating those with a right to life from those who lack such a right.” (Peter Singer in Practical Ethics)
Of course, most of us are too attached to the unnatural modern privilege of having the freedom to have sex without consequences to consider this subject in such detached and rational terms. Responsibility for our actions is an outdated notion. We much prefer to assert our rights than accept our responsibilities. No woman should ever be inflicted with the inconvenience of a child when she isn’t ready, so the story goes, and there are many who love children and talk about children’s rights but who still obdurately insist that a woman should have the choice to kill her own flesh and blood if having a child should prove too inconvenient. Some even tout it as a “basic human right”. (Note, however, that this argument is never applied to the male half of the human race.) I’m told that a woman should have the right to destroy what is inside her body, even though it has its own DNA and is not part of her body, simply because it is dependent on her, even though the laws of private property do not allow us to kill or even expel dependent minors who live in our homes against our desires. And it seems that the idea that modern medicine should save lives rather that destroy them is at odds with this obsession with irresponsible rights.
Here is another hypothetical: You live in an isolated place and are rather attached to the peace and quiet of your chosen lifestyle. In fact, you have a medical condition that requires peace and quiet if you are to live a normal life – too much stress and bustle makes you unwell and you experience mild pain and discomfort, but nothing life-threatening or debilitating in the long-term. One day, someone dumps a newborn baby on your doorstep, complete with all the appurtenances such as baby formula and so forth. You telephone Child and Family Services, but they can’t relieve you of your mewling burden for anywhere up to eight months – it’s unfortunate, they admit, but there’s nothing they can do. Your entire life has been turned upside down, your health will suffer for several months, and the psychological impact of this unexpected responsibility is difficult to even fathom. You wonder how you will manage. Ignoring the laws of the land for a moment, does this give you the right to kill this baby?
Unfair as it may be, you are responsible for this child, at least until you can find someone else to take it, even if it isn’t related to you. Of course, some will say this is an unfair comparison, and they are quite right because the abandoned child in this case isn’t related to you, unlike the child in the womb who is your son or daughter. But it is also a biased comparison, I’m told, because a human foetus or embyro isn’t a person. I would dispute that, but for the sake of common ground let’s say that the newborn dumped on your doorstep was a puppy dog or kitten instead. Should you have the right to kill it if the RSPCA can’t come and get it for several months? And even if you did have the right, would you? Would you take a knife and slit its throat or perhaps drown it in the bath? Would you even go so far as to put it outside and let it die of exposure and starvation?
So, hypothetically speaking, would you deliberately remove your own child from its womb knowing that to do so would cause its death? And, if not, hypothetically speaking of course, why would you allow anyone else to do so?