Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Fearing to Tread

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Every once in a while, I get the idea that I should outline my position on abortion.

Up to now, I’ve successfully resisted the temptation.

The reason for this is simple–most people, on BOTH sides of the debate, are incapable of discussing the subject, or even considering it, rationally.

Positions on abortion are, for most people, not rationally considered policy decisions but visceral responses that are immediate and undeniable.  They’re about right and wrong and good and evil only in the sense that such things are bred into us by nature–in the sense in which our moral compass is a matter of that inborn conscience the Medieval theologians were convinced all human beings possessed whether they believed in God or not.

It doesn’t help that my own position on abortion is bifurcated–my moral reasoning is different from my legal reasoning, and the consequences of the two are divergent.

My moral reasoning says that I can find no moral justification for aborting a child that will live. 

The usual reasons given for the  moral licitness of abortion by people whom I can only think aren’t thinking too clearly–the child might be born handicapped; the child is the issue of the woman and a rapist–seem to me to be not only obviously wrong, but extremely dangerous.

The one about handicaps implies that people who are disabled are better off dead.  The one about the rapist is generally stupefying.  If you wouldn’t go off and kill the man’s born child because he raped you, then I don’t see why you would be morally justified in killing his unborn child.



These are MORAL arguments.  They’re irrelevant to the legal issue.

And the legal issue is this:

Should any government have the right to require its citizens to give their PHYSICAL bodies, their blood and skin and bone, to the use and benefit of another person without their consent?

This is, you will notice, a question of the relationship between a government and its citizens and citizens and their government.

It is not about whether or not the fetus is a human being.  Of course the fetus is a human being.  What else is, or could, it be?

It is not about whether or not abortion is “murder.”  There are all kinds of murder, and there are laws on the books allowing justifiable homicide for a reason. 

All I am considering here is whether any government anywhere should have the power to require its citizens to place their PHYSICAL bodies, their blood and skin and bone, in the service of another person whether they want to provide such service or not.

Well, for one thing–that’s a pretty good description of slavery. 

If the government can require me to carry a fetus to term against my will, then it can require me to provide bone marrow for a child up the street dying of leukemia, to provide one of my kidneys because not enough of them are available for transport, to–

Well, you get the picture.

Essentially, any government with the power to forbid women to terminate a pregnancy is a government with the power (potentially) to do anything at all.  Its citizens are not citizens, or even subjects.  Its citizens are a slave labor force available for the use of the state for any reason whatsoever.

This is the only rational argument in favor of the LEGALITY of abortion.  All the other arguments are essentially rotten at the core.  Like I said, if the child being born disabled is a reason to allow abortion, why isn’t it a reason to allow infanticide?

There’s too much of “life unworthy of life” in that for me to stomach.

But this position has two necessary effects, and they ought to be stated out loud.

First, it sees abortion as a defense against PREGNANCY, not against the fetus.  That means that, should the means ever become available–and those means provide no greater risk to the mother than an abortion–to get the child out alive and keep it alive, rather than destroying it in the process of ending the pregnancy, then that would be what would have to be done.

Second, it forbids the legal restriction of abortion through ALL NINE MONTHS of the pregnancy.  There is no point at which the woman can be required to be a machine for the benefit of the child.  If she no longer wants to be pregnant, the state cannot compel her.  In later stages, it could insist on induced labor or a C-section, but not that she bring the pregnancy to its natural term.

This is, however, ENTIRELY a legal argument, an exercise in political philosophy. 

It says nothing at all about the MORAL licitness of abortion.

I find most arguments that attempt to frame abortion as a morally licit choice to be entirely  unconvincing.  The only abortions that seem to me to be morally licit are the abortions that are not abortions at all–the ones done because the fetus will never be able to survive outside the womb, or because it is already dead.

That said, to say that a government has no right–and violates your rights absolutely otherwise–to prevent you from getting an abortion if you want one is not the same thing as saying that government has to pay for it, or that government has to insure that things are arranged so that, if you want an abortion, there will definitely be people out there willing to give you one.

If your fellow citizens decline to “cover” your costs for birth control, abortion or anything else, it is NOT a case of your rights being violated and it is NOT a case of somebody “forcing their religion” on you.

Governments are not required to cover anything at all. 

I personally think that a single payer health insurance system works best, and that health care is not something that functions well on a market system.

But the decision to provide some of the funding for health care, all of the funding for health care, or none of the funding for health care is discretionary.  It does not violate your rights–which are NEGATIVE ONLY, cases in which the government must leave you alone–if it does not cover some service you want it to.

And, since your rights are negative only, it is also possible that a situation may arise that although you have the right to be free of government interference if you want an abortion, you don’t actually have access to abortion.

It’s statistically highly unlikely in a nation of 350,000,000 people that this would happen, but it COULD be the case that no doctor is available who is willing to perform an abortion. 

You have no more right to coerce a doctor to perform a service he does not want to perform than he has to get the government to stop you from seeking the same service from somebody else.  You don’t own him any more than he owns you.

I bring this up because it comes up every once in a while.  Most doctors do not do abortions, and most are not trained to do abortions.  Medical schools that offer training in doing abortions find that most students don’t opt in. 

Part of that is because most of them will work in specialities–like, say, cardiology–that will not require such a service, ever, and part of it is that even students who want to go into things like gynecology have a strongly negative reaction to the whole idea.

Some of that is certainly the fact that doing abortions in some parts of the US can be dangerous.  There are fringe groups out there who are vowed to kill you for it.

But some of it seems to be a decision medical students make in training once they’ve had enough experience with fetuses, pregnant women, ultrasounds and the rest to come to a decision about what they think of the MORAL licitness of abortion.

And, like I said, most of them don’t opt in.

It is therefore at least theoretically possible that a day might come when you want an abortion, and there are no government restrictions on your getting one–but you still wouldn’t be able to get one, because no doctor would be willing to give it to you.

Like I said, it’s a long shot.  Even in places where abortion providers are being actively hunted down, there are doctors willing to perform the service.  The chances that we’d reach such a point are effectively nil.

But if we DID reach such a point–if we got to a place where no doctor in the country was willing to do abortions, IN SPITE of no government interference, and WITHOUT any threats of violence–well, your rights wouldn’t have been violated, even if you couldn’t obtain the service.

We don’t own each other. 

We really don’t.

We don’t have the right to demand that other people pay for what we want, or that they perform services for us that they do not want to perform.  

We are a nation of citizens, not slaves.  Women can’t be forced to service a fetus for nine months agains their will.  Doctors cannot be forced to perform abortions (or appendectomies) they don’t want to perform.  And the citizenry is not required to fund ANYTHING outside the core functions of government (police, courts, military) unless it wants to.

Tomorrow, I want to get into that “should Jehovah’s witnesses be allowed to provide health insurance that doesn’t cover blood transfusions?” business.

Because my answer to that is:  yes.

But it’s more complicated than that.

Written by janeh

June 20th, 2012 at 9:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Fearing to Tread'

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  1. No quarrel on the moral reasoning.

    There is another way of looking at the legal reasoning, though–that a law against abortions is a specific example of the enforcement of negative rights, in this case on behalf of the child. Just as I can’t legally kill or assist in the killing of my neighbor–indeed can’t even discharge a firearm at random, set off explosives or drive down the wrong side of the street and endanger him, so I may also be restrained from harming or assisting in the harm of an unborn child. That a child in the womb draws nourishment from the mother makes it a special case–but it is a child in the womb, not a cancerous growth or a wart, and the law is not tyrannous for acknowledging a difference.

    The more general point of physical service also has complications. Virtually all governments claim the power to compel military service in wartime. Many governments have had a corvee. Is a government more tyranous for compelling me to labor on roads for a week a year–or for compelling me to “contribute” 20 weeks pay a yeear? How about if it compells me to shovel my walks?

    We’re talking, you understand, in the abstract: what powers a governmetn might legitimately claim. As a question of what powers a governmetnr has under the Unitd States Constitution, I should have said, prior to ROE, that the Tenth Amendment, and more than a century and a half of anti-abortion laws on the books and unchallenged made it clearly a matter which was within the power of state governments. Now, of course, we’ve had a short generation in which that was not the case, so the reading of the Constitution and custom work in opposite directions–a condition guaranteed to give any conservative a splitting headache.

    It’s also not one calculated to make conservatives trustful of the Supreme Court as a guardian of liberties. If they can toss out a century and a half of precedent and custom in this matter, how safe is any part of our structure of ordered liberty? America’s liberals got a quicker and more complete victory in ROE than they would have gained making a political case in one state after another–but they did so at terrible cost to the Constitution. It’s a victory even they may one day see as Pyrrhic.


    20 Jun 12 at 7:48 pm

  2. I agree with Robert about the Supreme Court and US Constitution.

    I also agree that a fetus is a living human being. My objection to anti-abortion laws is that in the present moral climate, they are unenforceable.

    A law that can’t be enforced shouldn’t be on the books. I’d argue for legalized abortion, prostitution, gambling and drugs!


    20 Jun 12 at 10:23 pm

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