Sunday, February 27, 2011

Let's actually talk about abortion - part 1

An alarming amount of talking past each other usually occurs when people with differing viewpoints talk about abortion. While I generally identify as pro-choice, I'd like to cite a couple examples of people who either don't speak for me, or people who are doing a very bad job of attempting to speak for me. People I generally respect and agree with on many things have been promoting both of these lately, and it just doesn't sit right with me.

The first is Anthony Weiner's recent tirade against the infamous distinction between rape and "forcible rape" that was to be added to the Hyde amendment.

The second is an essay, I used to be a pro-life Republican.

There's quite a bit to go through here. Let me start with what they have in common before I give my own views, and then I'll return to the samples in part 2.

Neither of these leftists can be bothered to condescend to even begin to answer the question of what they think a zygote/blastocyst/embryo/fetus is, and what significance, if any, they think it should be accorded, or why. In any case, I've more or less found it somewhat pointless to try to talk about these basic underlying issues, even with people whose conclusions I mostly agree with. In forums or wherever, I often get the feeling that I'm harshing everyone's trip just by being male and having any interest in the topic that takes any form other than rabidly agreeing with the "self-evident" axiom that a fetus is whatever its mother says it is and that all further thinking on the subject should only be done by her explicit invitation. Actually, even stating the axiom out loud in those words is going too far to draw attention to the question of what a fetus is, for some tastes. I get the feeling that maybe 10% of the left has any interest in actually addressing the question, whereas the other 90% are insulted that anyone would think to ask it.

Fortunately, PZ Myers has an essay on this particular topic which I more or less agree with. I used the overly-long terminology "zygote/blastocyst/embryo/fetus" before on purpose - it's a partial sequence, and I could have even listed "egg and sperm" at the beginning and "baby" at the end. I could've carried it out further as well, with "toddler", "child", "adolescent", and so on. The point being that they are not all the same; in fact, vertebrate species in general tend to be difficult to distinguish from each other early in the embryo stage. To me, it is not clear when exactly to draw a line. Certainly a blastocyst that fails to implant is entirely unable to comprehend what is happening to it when it dies, while a toddler who dies from cancer certainly does.

What happens in between falls on some sort of continuum, and though I am not intimately familiar with the particulars, I would certainly feel differently about a later stage of a pregnancy compared to an earlier one, and without question, I would prefer all abortions to that do happen to happen sooner rather than later, all other things being equal. While a second- or third- trimester fetus has many features that make it closer than ever before to self-awareness and humanity, what isn't so clear to me is the extent to which it has earned a status greater than that of a pig, cow, or chicken. The pig, especially, I would expect to be much more capable of contemplating its own misery, fear, and pain as it is killed. It is anything but clear to me why this capacity for experiencing what is happening to it should be given so much less weight.

Only by acknowledging a continuum and a strong disanalogy between toddlers and fetuses is it possible to proceed. I would think that pro-choice persons would generally have some interest in establishing this disanalogy as well as they can manage to explain it, but it's not the first time I've been surprised and disappointed. (I suppose it would be an interesting philosophical dilemma if a Horton Hears A Who micro-universe were living inside of my brain tumor and I had to decide whether to operate, but that is neither here nor there.)

In fact, third-trimester abortions are rare, for a variety of reasons.

(From Wikipedia. The far-left bar is misleadingly wide; heights have NOT been adjusted so that the AREA is proportional to the abortion rate. The HEIGHT times 1000 is the number of abortions per year in the entire range of development.)

I am pro-choice, and I am not a vegetarian. To me, it seems not at all coincidental that PETA ads resemble pro-life ads so closely, and this reason can be discerned at least dimly even without a more-than-passing interest in biology. I am not lacking in all ability to empathize in either case, and I would probably be a little unsettled by having to watch a butchery or an abortion being performed, probably to about equal degrees. The horror of death by chopping, shredding, and puncturing is a somewhat prominent feature of the natural world, though, and one that is beyond our means to eliminate, except perhaps by complete annihilation of all life on the entire planet. If the goal is to minimize suffering, then, the best one can do is precisely that; depending on how one regards livestock, one may be right to have concern for how they're handled. A field mouse caught in the maw of a cat may be mutilated and allowed to die slowly, but livestock and pets are under our own watch, and we may find some merit in the idea of allowing their lives and deaths to be of similar duration and quality as they may have been otherwise, even while we use them toward our own ends.

It is exactly when the questions about abortion are posed in terms of maximizing genuine happiness or minimizing suffering that it is possible to even begin to make traction with the pro-choice argument. Anyone who thinks that abortion always - or even usually - contributes suffering more than it alleviates is most likely coming from a very sheltered point of view. It probably goes without saying that an abortion is cheaper than welfare and possibly later on prison. When the problem is posed in terms of suffering, pro-choice wins.

The other issue I'd like to address is the issue of potential life, perhaps the weakest of all common pro-life arguments. Potential life is unbelievably cheap - any time any potent man fails to impregnate any fertile woman for any reason whatsoever, potential life is lost - each of the millions of sperm that may have paired with one of thousands of eggs marks one of literally billions of lost potential lives - and that is for just one man and one woman; multiplying this again by a billion for the number of men and again by a billion for the number of women, and one sees a vast landscape of lost potential, though I don't intend to lose sleep over it, and neither should you. If my mother had ovulated a different egg 28 years ago rather than the one she did, someone else would be writing a different blog post about something else, and no one would have noticed any difference, other than perhaps in the abstract as I am doing now. Saving sex for marriage isn't the murder of potential life. Refusing to have unprotected sex with the first man to come on to you in a bar isn't the murder of potential life. Stopping at just one wife isn't the murder of potential life. And - at the risk of being controversial - I would go so far as to say that the use of condoms is not the murder of potential life.

The difference, then, between abstinence and abortion is not potential life - the difference is entirely contained in however many weeks constitute the life and death of the fetus, and in whatever regrets the mother may or may not experience afterward. When someone says, "I'm glad my parents didn't abort me," I have to wonder how they'd feel about saying instead, "I'm glad the two or three blastocysts before me didn't implant." I hope that such people don't want everyone to make as many humans as possible - that would be a scary thought, but the logical end to which to take this exercise in avoiding losses in potential life.

That, roughly, is why I am in favor of legalized and subsidized abortion.

But before I go on, it should be noted that, without any exceptions I know of, even the most vocal proponents don't particularly want to be involved in one for its own sake. If abortion is orders of magnitude cheaper and less life-changing than childbirth, then consistent use of contraception is several more orders of magnitude better still. Just judging by the estimated costs to the welfare system alone, helping all women avoid unplanned pregnancies is a strikingly effective investment by any conceivable estimate, even if the quality of life of these women is of no concern to you. For my part, I'm concerned about both, and am duly horrified to see Planned Parenthood funding on the chopping block.

I firmly believe that proper education, subsidies, and screenings can, indeed make "safe, legal, and rare" a thoroughly sane approach to abortion. This slogan of Bill Clinton is not a contradiction, but a summary referring to several interacting parts of a general plan. Abortion is not made rare by being made safe and legal - it is only by enabling as many women as possible to have only those pregnancies which are intentional in the first place that abortion can be rare. When it is beyond a certain natural base level, incidence of abortion could be regarded as a barometer for coercion, misinformation, and poorly distributed resources. Criminalizing abortion would not solve these other problems, but solving these other problems could only decrease the incidence of abortion.

In Part 2, I will compare my own reasoning and what convinced me to switch over with what is typically presented in a discussion.

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