January 2012

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By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Now that I have completed seventeen years of publishing the Spectacle, I am hyper-conscious of the topics I have never attacked in all this time: Freud, race, abortion are prominent among them. Each is hard for a different reason: Freud gets us into personal matters; on race, it is so easy to say the wrong thing; as for abortion, I was always afraid of giving comfort to the wrong people.

What I mean by that: I found myself, whenever I thought about it, regarding fetuses not as mere clumps of cells or tissues, but as potentialities, possible people, lives permitted or averted. Not only that, it seemed clear that there is a moment, which is hard to precisely define, when a fetus becomes an entity capable of sensation and suffering--and it has never been obvious that this happens only at the moment when abortion becomes illegal.

In writing articles here, I usually feel its appropriate to reveal any personal experiences or features which may affect my understanding or opinion.

First, I am not female. Anything that I have to say is therefore about something which I could never experience personally. There is a long history of men ineffectively imagining what women feel, or trying to dictate what they should feel, on matters of anatomy and reproduction, and all of the cultural and philosophical implications which arise from these. Such imagination always risks presumption and paternalism. However, I can't say either that men should avoid entirely imaginings about these matters; the essence of compassion, of attempting to stand in another's shoes in your mind, applies here as well as anywhere else.

Second, I have never had a biological child, or even gotten anyone pregnant, and it appears I am not able to. Years ago, the one time a girlfriend had a pregnancy scare (which lasted only three days or so), I had to think about what my proper course of action would be, and it seemed at the time that the correct choice would be to leave the decision completely up to her, offering to help either with abortion or child-rearing, and even offering marriage as a way to legitimate the baby. This wasn't someone I loved, and I have no idea of the extent to which I would have followed through had the emergency been real. However, the ideals I postulated seem to arise naturally from basic concepts of responsibility: the pregnancy, had there been one, came from our joint activity.

When I speak of "giving comfort to the wrong people", I mean to say I stood at the intersection of a conflict between two ideas. The first was that a woman is the owner of her own body, and has the right to decide what to do with it and whether a baby should come out of it. The other was that a potentiality, and even in some cases a living, suffering being, is being disregarded when we treat fetuses as if they were tumors. I felt, however, that the anti-abortion movement, no matter what ideology of compassion it may throw about itself as a cloak, is largely based on unquestioning assumptions about women's bodies as public (or even private) property, on a very non-libertarian idea of women having a duty to God or society to bear children. I therefore never wanted to write something which would provide even a single pull-quote which could be used in support of such an attitude ("there is a moment...when a fetus becomes an entity capable of sensation and suffering").

I also hesitated because my own thinking on the moral issues was unformed and fluid. In alchemy there is a concept of 'l'oeuvre au noir", the work in the dark, where the elements percolate for years on end, and then suddenly transmute into the finished result. I had this kind of an epiphany on the abortion issue last year.

A thought experiment

In a world of Mill-ian liberty, where we are each entitled to make use of our bodies, lives and resources as we will, even if we are seen by others as wasting them or harming ourselves as a result, I take a woman's right of self-ownership as a given.

For the sake of the argument, as part of our thought experiment, let us assume that life in fact does begin at conception. I am not conceding this as a reality. However, the intersection between morality and science or technology, as I have written in many other contexts, is a confusing one. Sometimes we purport to be talking about one thing, when in reality we are discussing the other. For example, the death penalty is right or wrong regardless of whether it is painless or expensive. The first set of italicized words are moral precepts, and the second set are practical concepts, and should not be uttered in the same breath without a justification of how they relate to one another. Nothing is morally correct just because it is painless, or morally wrong because expensive.

Although the issue of when life begins has more relevance than the question of expense would in a moral debate, it still to an extent takes us down a questionable pathway. At any rate, a moral rule is best when its applicability does not depend on abstruse or controversial scientific determinations. At its worst, the science, even though correct, contributes to a fraud or misdirection anyway, in the sense it doesn't really lead to the answer. Scientific and moral propositions are entirely different; the scientific statement that execution can be achieved painlessly does not make it moral. The science is instead usually invoked as a cover or even a declaration of victory. Some statements about science really translate to little more than a declaration, "I win!". Since the speaker can't possibly prevail based solely on the scientific assertion, there is usually a large hidden element consisting of moral reasoning of which the speaker is officially unconscious, or assumes everyone knows or shares. The death penalty, once again, can't be right merely because painless; it must be legally and morally correct for some other reason.

The question when life begins is a confusing hybrid. It is a philosophical question which can never admit of a scientific answer. Science can only tell us when a fetus is developed enough to feel sensation, which is not likely to be at the moment of conception. Thus, abortion opponents are using science selectively: throwing it to the winds when they argue life begins at conception, and invoking it notoriously with their tales of suffering fetuses. Some proponents, for their part, invoke science reductively, to argue that a fetus, even at more advanced stages, is not a living being but merely a collection of cells.

The epiphany I had is that it doesn't matter. Even if we conceded, for the sake of argument only, that life begins at conception, that "fact" fails to answer the moral debate, as in a conflict of interest between two living humans, there are circumstances in which both law and morality dictates one prevails, even though it means the death of the other.

Dealing with abortion hypothetically as a conflict between two living things advances us significantly in solving it, placing it squarely in the domain of most human conflicts. People often misleadingly characterize moral disputes by insisting there is only one interested party (an example that pops to mind is the Zionist declaration of "a land without people for a people without land"). In reality, most such disputes involve the question of which of two or more interests are to prevail in a conflict. The current health care debate, for example, pits my interest in affordable health care against your interest in not being taxed, or in "big government" not interfering in your life.

This is a good moment to observe also how rights language muddies discourse. I wrote years ago that there are no natural rights, only those we legislate. Insisting that a right of self defense is somehow engraved in the universe, because we are physically able to defend ourselves,implies a right of murder or oppression, because these are also within the same physical capabilities. The universe, like science, is neutral; moral schemes are the choices we make in determining how and when to use what we are physically endowed with. So I am not speaking of a "right to live" or a "right to choose" except in terms of a human cultural and legal rulebook adopted by consent. If abortion is ever outlawed again, it should only be because women have decided by consensus they do not want abortion available to them, not because someone thinks God or the universe demands it.

All right, so the basic conflict we are envisioning in our thought experiment is between two living beings, a woman and a fetus. This encounter is not happening in a vacuum, because the fetus must make use of the woman's body, her blood stream and lungs, to live. It needs the woman, but the woman does not need it for anything in the same sense. More than that, the fetus, in order to become a person, must emerge somewhat explosively and painfully from her body, in a way that will harm or kill her some percentage of the time.

Phrased this way, it seems to me as though the woman-fetus conflict is highly analogous to some others, real and metaphorical. It is not correct to postulate that our law says that our wish to live never prevails over that of another human. We have a legislated legal right of self defense, to kill people who are trying to kill us. We also have a legal right to resist others who are trying to take something from us. In that sense, a fetus using your bloodstream without your permission may be analogous to someone trying to pick your pocket.

We don't think twice about killing ticks or mosquitos which are trying to access our bloodstream without permission. The human imagination has postulated vampires, which take human form and may be resisted or killed when they try to drink our blood. A fetus, even if sentient and capable of suffering, is in effect in the same position as a tick, trying to make use of a human body. If the woman does not want the fetus to be there, her ownership of her body implies a right to remove it, regardless of the fetus' suffering as a result. When we permissibly shoot people trying to attack us, the question does not even arise whether those people are "alive" or capable of suffering. Of course they are.

As for the danger of dying in childbirth: I can't think of any other choice we are legally required to make (other than military service when the draft is instituted in wartime) which puts us at some percentage risk, however miniscule, of dying.

This libertarian analysis of a right to protect one's own body, even though it inflicts suffering on the one trying to make use of that body, seems so basic that it leads to the realization that to ban abortion, we have to go through some other mental jumps that are rarely admitted. The most obvious one is that women's bodies are property, that they have some duty or obligation to bear children , for the public good or for the men who are their masters. Following close behind that is that sex is wrong, so if it results in pregnancy, the woman should take her medicine and not try to avoid the fruits of sin. That judgmental thing, "you fooled around, you should take the consequences," doesn't apply in cases of rape, so those who are absolutely against abortion in those cases are reasoning exclusively under the property theory. Unless the "original sin" is not sex but the state of being female and attractive to men, of course.

Another primitive line of reasoning, rather than starting from an assumption of the inferiority and subjugation of women, probably starts from the fetus. (Perhaps women who are against abortion are more likely to start here, than to assume they are a man's property.) The fetus, which will be a baby, will be large-eyed, adorable, and innocent.The world needs babies. "Baby killer" is about as evil an accusation as you can throw at someone. And so forth.

While the cuteness of babies is a given, and probably even evolutionarily determined to make us want to keep them, for our purposes a fetus is an adorable, innocent mosquito or vampire which must use your bloodstream to live. Again, when we exercise our limited right of self defense to shoot someone who is trying to kill us, it is irrelevant that that person is beautiful, or otherwise innocent.

Seen this way, the discourse on abortion reveals the usually unstated sexism involved. Try telling men that they must allow vampires, no matter how adorable or innocent, to engorge themelves on their blood, and they'll start reaching for their Second Amendment-protected AK47's.

There is a highly subjective jump of illogic, based on largely unexamined and primitive assumptions, to say that in a woman-fetus conflict, the fetus should prevail. The most logical, compassionate and libertarian rulebook we can adopt--in fact, the one we already adopted, which the right is trying to undo--says that a woman need not permit anything to use her body or her bloodstream without her permission.