The grown-up abortion debate, part 1

May 24, 2008

In the next few posts, I’ll provide both pro-lifers and pro-choicers with arguments that are, shall we say, less comprehensible by five-year-olds than the fare usually available in open forums.

The sky is not the limit
A perception pro-lifers have of pro-choicers is that they rely on blind faith on their particular prejudices about life and death to justify their defence of abortion. To me, all this indicates is that a pro-lifer’s grasp of the pro-choice rationale is tenuous at best. In fact, pro-choicers do not care if a woman is pregnant of ‘unborn humans’: this is not the issue at stake. This view was famously mocked in 1971 by the philosopher Judith J Thomson, who compared pregnancy with waking up to find that you have had a famous violinist plugged into your vital organs and being told that if he does not remain there for the next nine months, he will die.

Now think of yourself as a moral man, a saver of lives. Suppose that by some queer accident a famous violinist gets plugged into your vital organs for nine months, and if you unplug him, he will die. After that, he’ll be a semi-invalid for sixteen more years and it’ll be your duty to nurture him. Of course, if you’re a man, it would take a VERY queer accident to get you pregnant; but a real pregnancy, especially the first one, is not much different from that: a non-pregnant woman must feel she is as autonomous a being as a man does.

So, taking it all in, I think one may safely assume that, being a moral man and a saver of lives, you will gladly carry that weight around for the specified length of time, in the certainty that a human life hangs on your efforts. You will lose job opportunities, you will do without simple pleasures, you will live with fatigue and discomfort, your body will irretrievably change for the worse, you will depend on other people’s help, you will be uncertain of the future, &c. Nine months pass and then the glory of your achievement will be apparent. Everybody’s happy, including you, the violinist, music lovers, your country and your deity. You will expect no thanks, of course: this is no more than your duty. I commend you.

Of course, after such privations, you’ll expect your duty’s done and you can move on to other endeavours. Well, sorry, you then learn that by another queer accident, you’ll get plugged to a famous mathematician, either a him or a her. You smile politely though deep down you’d rather not have anyone plugged into you again. But you’re a hero, now. You’ve been through all this before and you know the rewards are worth a thousand times the suffering, so you say, “Let him/her come. I don’t care if it’s a him or a her.” Well, it’s a girl. Who’d have thought it possible? You start feeling there are a lot of gaps in the work you had been wanting to accomplish, a lot of gaps in your knowledge, a lot of gaps in your pleasures. But then, what are you, next to a famous mathematician? Nine months later, you’ve saved her life.

Well, now back to work. Some months later, a single mistake, one more queer accident and there you are. Maybe a dustman, this time. Or a dustwoman: you don’t really care. But nine more months?!? AND with so much music and maths to look after already!! Some questions keep cropping up out of your subconscious mind: “Why me? What about MY life, for deity’s sake?” Somebody shows you the way to unplug the little dear, and a million to one you will do it. It might be only a dustperson, after all.

Notice that I’m not talking about anyone in particular. I’m talking about what happens, and what human beings are like. I’m just describing, not prescribing.

Personally, I can envisage having a fully-fledged human being plugged into my vital organs for a week or so. But only once. The second time that happened, I’d certainly let them go. The definition of a sentient being includes the idea of autonomy. If for some reason I lose my autonomy, I can be expected to want it back, even if I’ve lost it because some other person cannot live autonomously.

Some pro-lifers criticize pro-choicers for their philosophy of “me me me, who cares about anyone else?”

This is an interesting point. So let me start a different analogy.

Suppose you drive by a lake every evening on your way back home. One evening you spot a drowning child. The water’s cold, but that shouldn’t bother you if you’re saving a life – which you then do, with considerable effort. Who wouldn’t? (This analogy is to be understood as bearing the proviso: “no other options are possible, except saving or not saving the child.”) To your chagrin, this is then repeated every evening for days on end, a different child every time; and every evening you stop your car, get out, jump in, swim, grab the kid, swim back, &c. What do you think will happen after some weeks? You will catch yourself considering a different route back home, even if you know that there is a child drowning in the lake. You might actually try and find an alternative route, or fake other business, but eventually you’ll drive by the drowning child without so much as a nod. There is a limit for everything. For some people, the mere knowledge that there will be a drowning child on their way back home is enough to make them decide on a different route anyway. And who’s to blame them? We’re talking about real people here, not imaginary saints.

You know what I’m driving at, don’t you? Your morality and your religion are not worth much after you get the know-how to interfere with a natural but inconvenient bodily function. That’s what humans are like. Morals are nothing when personal comfort is repeatedly at stake. If you say that personal comfort is not reason enough to allow a person to die, I say that I have demonstrated to you that even a life-saver will choose not to save a life once a limit is reached. What pro-choicers are saying is “do not presume to prescribe what that limit should be for other people.”

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One Response to “The grown-up abortion debate, part 1”

  1. modestypress Says:

    I am an agnostic who is very close to being an atheist. Humans are (apparently) the only animals with enough intelligence to realize we are going to die. We are confronted with the problem of looking for some reason for living as we dwell our the temporary nature of our existence.

    Answer #1 is to say (against all evidence) that there is some being called God and that we will continue to exist after our physical death through Heaven, Hell, or reincarnation. (Religious answer). Religion is one method of creating meaning and justification for existence.

    Answer #2 is to reproduce little copies of ourselves (or adopt orphaned or abandoned helpless young ones) and “live on” through our genetic or virtual descendants. (Sociobiology answer). The problem with this answer is it tends to encourage our tendency to overpopulate.

    Answer #3 is to become “Heroes,” so we live on through the memories of others who admire us. (See the writing of Ernest Becker, author of Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.) Sometimes referred to as “immortality projects,” these efforts can lead to much good but also much evil, when embarked on by the likes of Hitlers, Lenins, and Stalins.

    Humans now grossly overpopulate the world, and civilization is likely to collapse. This is a strong argument for controlling our population. Abortion is not a very good method for population control, and is a slippery slope to other types of evil behavior. Early in our evolution, when humans were not a sure bet to survive, our rampant sexuality, fertility, and urge to reproduce was a survival advantage. Now we need to come up with more successful methods of birth control. This should be a top priority for our technological research.


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