Abortion debate needs less rhetoric, more logic

Consider the following example: As a result of occasional sunbathing, a woman develops a cancerous mole on her body. Should she have the right to have it removed? After all, since she made the decision to sunbathe in the first place, it seems she should accept the consequences. Even if this woman responsibly used the proper sunblock, she still knew there was a chance she was going to develop skin cancer. She made that initial choice; she should accept the responsibility for her actions.

This is an absurd example, but it’s just as absurd as the pro-life argument that shares the same logic. The pro-life argument states since a woman chose to have sex, she should be forced to have a child if she becomes pregnant.

The subtext of this kind of pro-life argument is that sex is only for procreation; and that non-procreative sex and – gasp – recreational sex are immoral. When women have sex just for enjoyment or intimacy, they are doing something unnatural, something sinful. And when women do something immoral like that, they deserve whatever consequences result.

Pro-life advocates will likely be outraged by my analogy of a cancerous tumor to a fetus. This outrage doesn’t challenge my analogy, though it does reveal that the heart of the abortion debate isn’t about responsibility. I would like to examine exactly what is at the heart of the abortion debate by taking issue with the poor argumentation by both sides of the abortion debate.

The recent Roe vs. Wade anniversary has kicked up the same bad rhetorical arguments in both pro-life and pro-choice camps. The discussion has turned from anything ethically investigative to a pointless shouting match. Both pro-life and pro-choice sides shout their same slogans: “It’s our right to do what we want with our bodies,” versus “Abortion is the murder of a child.” Despite the vehemence with which they are proclaimed, both statements are false.

We do not have the liberty to do whatever we want with our bodies, despite how many bumper stickers pro-choice advocates slap on their fenders. For instance, we do not have the “right” to take illicit drugs. We do not have the “right” to prostitute our bodies. And I would imagine pro-choice advocates would agree a woman doesn’t have the “right” to abort a baby far into the third trimester, merely because she suddenly changed her mind. The right to bodily liberty only extends so far; it does not extend to murder.

But is abortion murder? That is the real question of the abortion debate – should the fetus morally count as a human being? It is clearly a fetus, particularly early in pregnancy; it is not a “child,” despite what pro-life rhetoric might say. At that point, the fetus is of negligible consciousness and sentience. It will perhaps become a child, as long as natural or induced miscarriage does not occur.

Pro-life advocates frequently try to make the case fetuses are indeed human beings by waving pictures of aborted fetuses. This is a sentimental appeal, however physical resemblance isn’t relevant to whether a being is morally considerable. Embryologists can tell you that the embryos of several animals and human beings are very similar in the early stages of development (for example, at a certain point in development, “humans” manifest gills like a fish).

Pro-life advocates often assert human fetuses are morally significant because they have human DNA. But this reasoning is begging the question: After all, what makes something that possesses “human” DNA sacred in the first place? Why isn’t a monkey’s DNA sacred? Or a cow’s? To base the sanctity of human life on a certain combination of amino acids is completely arbitrary.

Perhaps it’s the “potential” of a fetus to become a human being that makes it sacred. In this way, a fertilized egg should be considered sacred as well. But doesn’t a sperm or an egg possess “potential” in the same way? Perhaps it’s true: Every sperm is sacred. Seeing this inconsistency, some pro-life advocates have tried to make a distinction between a fetus and a sperm or egg. They reason that since a fetus has all the necessary information to become a human being – given time and resources – it should be morally considered a human being. It seems a superficial distinction, however, to separate the “potential” of a fertilized egg from the “potential” from a sperm or egg. If “potential” counts in one case, why shouldn’t it in both cases?

To rely on the “potential” of a fetus seems a very shaky and uncompelling basis for the pro-life position. Yet some pro-life advocates argue for it using cooked-up analogies. I recollect one that describes a comatose man in a hospital who, after nine months of unconsciousness, would become fully conscious and resume his life (in an obvious analogy to a developing embryo). Then the question posed is this: Can we disregard this man’s potential and kill him simply because he has no present qualities of consciousness, sentience or any other human mental characteristics? Surely we do not want to kill him, even though he is devoid of consciousness and sentience. We recognize we shouldn’t kill him because of his potential for life.

Though an interesting analogy, this example is guilty of sneaking certain factors into the example that are absent in the case of the fertilized egg. First of all, this man is part of society and probably part of a family. He has a history; he has an identity; he has relationships to others. No wonder we have the moral intuition it’d be wrong to kill this comatose man. It would, indeed, be wrong. However, this is a bad analogy, as there are several additional factors present that make killing that man wrong, which are not present in the case of the fetus.

So what makes a fetus sacred? Pro-life advocates do not provide any good reasons to believe it is. Ultimately, what their view relies upon is their religious metaphysics that a fetus has a “soul” or is somehow made sacred by God. If this is their basis, then to state a fetus is a “baby,” and “abortion is murder” is simply to express one’s religious beliefs.

Freedom of religion is a constitutional right. In fact, we can all believe whatever crack-nut things we want to believe. The government, however, is secular, and cannot determine judicial cases based on a religion. Thus, to protest that the Roe vs. Wade decision be overturned is to confuse proselytizing with politics and to misunderstand the nature of our nation.


Matt Brophy’s column appears alternate weeks. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]