Bad Arguments on Abortion
Posted on January 23, 2017
I’m prochoice, but I get tired of the leading arguments on both sides of the debate, because they are perfectly bad arguments.
The prochoice side needs to accept that a woman’s right to choose is NOT a matter of tolerating other women’s choices and not making judgments. We would never say that about murder. So what is important isn’t toleration–it’s that we are making a strong judgment that abortion simply is not murder.
The antiabortion side make two bad arguments:
1. That abortion is a form of murder.
2. That science demonstrates that life begins at conception, and therefore so does the right to life.
In both cases, the questions have to do with the fallacy known as metaphor literalization. Antiabortionists try to metaphorically extend legal concepts of “murder” and “rights” to domains where they actually make no sense at all, and then they try to carry over all the relevant emotion from one domain to the other. Emotions expressed in inappropriate domains are described as “sentimentality,” and sentimentality is at the root of antiabortionism.
1. Abortion is not similar to murder. Most importantly, abortion does not end the life of a socially-known or socially-functioning human being. Therefore it does not leave a hole or disturbance in the web of human relationships. Therefore no third party has any relationship claim for preventing an abortion. Murder, in contrast, nearly always leaves a big hole in the web of relationships that ripples outward and affects many people.
Murder is a crime punished by the state in order to prevent vendettas and clan wars. A sufficiently discrete abortion does not lead to vendettas.
Granted that third parties might have a genetic family or clan interest in maintaining an existing pregnancy. However, just as no clan interest could justify forcing a woman to undergo pregnancy in the first place, neither could a clan interest justify forcing her to extend an existing pregnancy.
2. Science does NOT say “life begins at conception,” at least not not in relevant way. (Do antiabortionists believe the sperm and egg are not alive?). The only thing that matters is: should zygotes have any rights? So what is important is that there is no possible scientific basis for granting legal rights to zygotes.
A legal “right” refers to an allocation of the power to choose. To say that zygotes have a right to life means, in a legal sense, that they, all by themselves, get to decide whether to live or to die. Science actually tells us that zygotes are incapable of choosing either to live or die, so the concept of a “right to life” is utterly inapplicable. The only legal rights at issue are the rights of antiabortionists to decide for the lives of other people’s zygotes, versus the rights of women to decide for their own zygotes.
Now granted, when antibortionists say that life begins at conception they mean other things as well. In particular they mean that the zygote’s life ought to be so valuable to others that they would keep it alive even to the extent, if necessary, of using criminal processes against the woman to prevent a life-saving abortion. However, that judgment is demonstrably rejected by roughly 90% of Americans. It quite obviously has no basis in science. And in any case, it lacks the emotionally compelling rubric of a “right.”
I would also grant that late-term abortion is a different kettle of fish, because the fetus looks like a baby and may be able to survive a forced delivery. But that would take us far away from the two bad antiabortionist arguments I wanted to complain about. Both of those arguments are based on false absolutes, rooted in sentimentality, that simply can’t hold.
The sentimentality of antiabortionism is historically new, and we have to wonder where it is coming from. Normally, sentimentality is based on displaced emotion. There have been a number of suggestions as to which displaced emotions are fueling antiabortionism, and none of the studies on that seem very conclusive. The changing role of women surely has a lot to do with it, but the details are more elusive than you might think. For example, a lot of women, including some rather liberal women, support antiabortionism.