My new and improved abortion position
In my past abortion articles, I outlined why I've gone down this philosophical rabbit hole, the foundational ethical dials everyone is working with, and thought experiments to tune those dials. Aligned with the intention of a safe space for personal exploration for my readers, I've been careful not to disclose or insinuate my personal position. My hope is that folks consider the facts and thought experiments and form their own conclusions.
I am also deeply conflicted and see merits on both sides of the debate. I started out my discovery being staunchly pro-abortion, but the more I thought about it the less I understood or agreed with my original premise. This article chronicles my thought process and where I land now.
The ethical mixing board
For me, abortion is a complex balancing act of four ethical axioms. My balance may not be the same as your balance, and I think reasonable people can respectfully disagree simply based on personal ethical boundaries.
I agree with anti-abortion advocates that life begins at conception and that all life is morally relevant. I also agree that unborn children are a vulnerable population that deserves extra attention and care.
I agree with pro-abortion advocates that a woman has a right to choose. I also agree that historical gender inequities should make us extra sensitive to empowering women's self-determination.
I add what I rarely read or hear is that these two considerations must also be balanced against society's responsibility to provide for a child physically, cognitively, and emotionally once they have been born. Moral relevancy includes not just ensuring birth, but also giving that valid life a solid chance at surviving and thriving.
Considering abortion in any given context, then, is balancing the ethical axioms of doing no harm (to mother, unborn child, and already born children + adults), the mother's self-determination, and (unborn + born children's) right to be provided for.
It's only fair that I walk through my own thought experiments.
Curing morning sickness
I think the principle of do no harm to the unborn child outweighs the woman's right to choice. In my ethical orientation, the physical and cognitive development of a child lasts their entire life whereas morning sickness is temporary. If the pain becomes life-threatening or causes long-term damage to the mother, this triggers a higher level of reconsideration closer the pregnant trolley below, but a transient 10 out of 10 on pain is not enough to permanently maim the fetus.
If I start dialing back the certainty, I would require relatively low probability (exact numbers are hard, but <1%) because the experience is transient for the mother but lifelong for the child. Even 1 in 100 child permanently maimed feels way too high to relieve the mother's temporary and extreme pain. If I could, for example, I would outlaw drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes for pregnant women because of the known negative impact on fetal development.
Things that can affect the fetus, but not permanently damage it, have a much different calculus. In those cases, such as caffeine or spicy foods, I revert back to the mother's agency to choose what is best for her and her child.
My key learning here is that, although I put A LOT of weight into self-determination, I am happy to limit the mother's choices when they permanently and irrevocably harm the unborn child.
The most acute example of permanently harming the unborn child is ending their life, so by that standard, this is a strong anti-abortion argument.
When the mother's life comes into conflict with the fetus' life, I choose the mother. I believe the woman's right to not be harmed coupled with her right to self-determination supersedes the rights of the unborn child. I consider this in a similar vein to ending another life in self-defense. Plus, providing for child is much harder when the mother is no longer alive.
Choosing the mother over the fetus in life-or-death situations supports a pro-abortion position. Because I cannot fathom such a gut-wrenching situation, I do not know where I'd draw the line of certainty of harm to a mother. Even at 1% probability of death, or .1%, I default to self-determination and allowing the woman to choose what's right for her and her family (up to and including sacrificing herself to carry to term).
This thought experiment does not extrapolate beyond life-threatening or otherwise critical medical complications. Pregnancies are often hard, and there are serious physical ramifications to both natural births and cesarian even in the best of scenarios. Thus the pregnant trolley is a narrowly circumscribed conclusion.
Mother's life snap
This one is extremely hard for me.
First, it's easy for me to say that there is no scenario and no moment after birth where the snap feels ethically justified. For me, something changes at birth as the "my body, my choice" argument no longer holds. At birth, including pre-term births, the mother's right to self-determination dials down dramatically because the child is no longer inside her physical form. The child's right to life is still equivalent, but the mother no longer has a monopoly on providing for the child's life (e.g. orphanage, foster care, adoption all become options). No sequence of events makes it ethically sound to end the child's life outside the mother's womb.
Second, try as I might, I cannot find a meaningful distinction for what switches before birth. The further from birth (as x increases in t - x), the less relatable and recognizable the human life. The fetus' physical form looks more alien, the brain and organs dissolve into pre-existence, and at some point, it's a blob of embryonic cells and not even considered a fetus. Still, I do not find visual or emotional relatability to be a viable standard to erase the moral relevancy of that developing human life and person.
Taken to its logical conclusion, equating ending life post-birth with ending life pre-birth suggests that abortion is never (with narrow carveouts like the pregnant trolley above) ethically justified. This is the fundamental argument of many anti-abortion activists and I am surprised to agree on this point.
I am not comfortable saying any human life is more or less worthy of living, so I cannot say a child born into poverty or with physical or cognitive delays has less of a right to life than any other. The same logic extends to different ages and I cannot say an unborn child in womb is more or less worthy of life than a child recently born.
Still, in addition to a child's right to life I think they also have a right to be provided a baseline of opportunity (healthcare, shelter, food, safety, education, emotional support) to survive and, hopefully, thrive. If a child is born and they are immediately thrown to the street to waste away, I do not consider the "right to life" to be fully satisfied without the counterbalance of "right to be provided for". In that case, if the mother (/ parents) simply cannot provide for the child, the burden falls on the state to devote adequate resources to providing for and nurturing the child physically, cognitively, and emotionally.
The state, and humanity more generally, increases its chance of survival (and thriving) with more well-adjusted, securely attached, capable humans. Cold-hearted as it may sound, on my ethical mixing board, the unborn child's right to life cannot come at the expense of others already living. Put another way, I'm also considering pragmatic resource management in addition to the more lofty philosophical considerations of abortion.
Specifically, where support systems do not exist or are already strained, I do not think it's in the best interest of the unborn child, born children, or society writ large to add more life to the system. I am not aware of a single American state, not to mention the federal government, that adequately provides for the physiological, psychological, or relational health of an unwanted child. On that basis, the right to be provided for can, in some cases, overwhelm the right to life.
This begs the question of what is enough. I uphold every individual's ability to decide for themselves, without the need of justification to anyone else, what they consider enough financial and emotional buffer to raise a child. Because I am not comfortable dictating those thresholds, I default to the right of self-determination where every mother decides for herself and her family what she considers enough.
So now I can run down all the scenarios I offered with greater precision.
Woman does not want child, cannot provide, and used protection - right to be provided for > right to life, so abortion is defensible
Woman does not want child, cannot provide, and did not use protection - unfortunate and ill-advised, but right to be provided for > right to life, so abortion is still defensible
Woman wants child but cannot provide - if she wants the child and knows the implications, she can seek whatever social resources exist to buttress her own capacity. Mandatory abortions (like mandatory sterilization) are never ethically justifiable in my ethical system
Woman can afford but doesn't want child - whatever her financial resources if a woman does not want a child she will not be able to adequately provide for the child's emotional wellbeing. Again, only she knows what is enough emotional reserve or personal investment, so the child's right to be provided for > right to life and abortion is defensible
Woman wanted the child but then changed her mind - Same as above with emotional bandwidth, so right to be provided for > right to life and abortion is defensible
Woman was raped - this is an extreme example where the woman's right to self-determination was so radically limited that she is justified in abortion regardless of any other context. Her right to not be harmed overwhelms the unborn child's right to life, so abortion is defensible
Conclusion and succinct pitch
After all that, I come back around to the original questions.
Is abortion ever justifiable? Yes
If so, when and why?
- In cases of rape, because the woman was so harmed and her self-determination so negated.
- In cases of life-or-death and substantial physical harm to the mother, because the woman's right to no harm overwhelms the fetus' right to no harm.
- In cases where neither the mother nor the state can adequately provide, because no one wins when an additional neglected child is added to an already strained resource system.
From a practical and legislative lens, it is impractical to create tests for the third scenario and possible though problematic to enforce tests for the first two scenarios. Therefore, although I agree with the fundamental argument of most anti-abortion activists, I still conclude that, from a managing resource in society perspective, abortions should be widely available nationwide. For any woman that personally disagrees with the ethical balance of abortions, they can enforce that belief system for themselves as defined by their right to self-determination.
Given supporting abortion, the next reasonable question is when can abortions be supported throughout the pregnancy? Generally, after the first trimester the potential for complications and harm to the mother increases and become especially acute in the third trimester. With the ethical hurdle overcome, at this point it becomes a personal cost-benefit analysis. If a woman knows she wants or needs an abortion, I support her getting it done as early as conceivably possible on the standard of doing less harm. That said, if a later abortion is necessary for any reason, only she can weigh the complex physical and emotional consideration set with her doctor, therapist, and larger support network. At that point, I defer to the woman's right to self-determination to pick when in her pregnancy makes the most sense given her unique set of constraints and considerations.
It is worth acknowledging that, given how I've landed for now, I can imagine a world where non-rape and non-life threatening abortions (aka, >97% of all abortions) can ethically be outlawed. This is conceptually possible if there are significant investments in support systems and critical infrastructure to uplift under-resourced children and, by extension, their families. If we lived in a world where the state can take as good or better care of a child through adulthood than an average middle-class American family, I would be willing to reconsider my current pro-abortion stance. Then, even acknowledging the physical and emotional harm to the woman of carrying an unwanted full-term pregnancy, at least the woman (and all of society) could sleep well at night knowing her child will be adequately provided for by society because it's the ethically right thing to do.
The corollary to this admission is that any legislation that seeks to limit abortion access without simultaneously radically investing in social support systems (actually, literally all current anti-abortion legislation in the US) is ethically ghastly to me. Even if we entirely disregard the woman's right to not be harmed and her right to self-determination, itself an ethical travesty, forcing a child into a world that cannot support or provide for its life is problematic at best and tortuous at worst. If legislators feel like they have moral ground to so radically limit the woman's choice, they absolutely must uphold the moral responsibility to provide for the child. Opting for one without the other is like waging war and sending in soldiers without giving them any protection or weapons. What's the point of war if we don't set our side up to win? What's the point of forcing life into existence if we don't set it up to win?
My succinct pitch to build bridges and start productive conversations
I believe abortion is an issue that balances complex ethical considerations. Women have a right to self-determination and to not be harmed. The fetus has a right to not be harmed, including and especially ending its life. The fetus' right must be considered with extra scrutiny and weight because it is a vulnerable population that has no voice and cannot defend itself. Unborn and born children have a right to be provided for on multiple dimensions, especially physically, cognitively, and emotionally.
I have not been able to find any scientific or rational reason to suggest life or personhood begins at any point after conception. I am also unable to find a reason why any human life is more or less worthy of living than any other human life. Except for narrow and relatively rare cases, I believe the unborn child's right to life overwhelms a woman's right to self-determination. I also believe that children, born and unborn, have a right to be provided for. Until we have adequate state-funded resources and support systems to provide baseline opportunities for children's survival and thriving, I can agree with most anti-abortion advocates and still personally support abortion as a pragmatic ethical and legislative policy.
In the balance of my ethical sound board, this feels most right to me. For those interests in exploring their position, I am happy to share 4 ethical axioms and 3 thought experiments that helped me question and rebuild an abortion position I can stand behind.