14 November 2004

[Politics] Abortion

About two years ago I had the epiphany that abortion is actually immoral, and that if progressives in the USA ever want to move the conversation past the current deadlock, we need to admit this. I've been a good mainstream liberal voter (and campaign contributor) during my adult life, and I've always treated the right to choose whether to have an abortion as an unquestioned good. About two years ago, I was doing some reading on foetal development, and it occurred to me (for the first time, to be honest) that there is simply no way to clearly draw the line between when the change happens from "a bunch of cells" to "an unborn child". There's certainly nothing magic about three months: many of the important organs are functioning in a basic form by then, and many other important developments don't happen until long afterwards.

Unfortunately, I quickly grasped the implication of that. The Asian belief that life begins at conception is basically correct, and that means that abortion is simply immoral. There is a limit, of course: I don't believe that either the pill or the morning after pill are immoral. But once a woman has missed a period (meaning that foetus has been developing for a month or so), you're well within the morally unsupportable time.

Does that mean abortions should be illegal? God no, it wouldn't help our country to return to the days of illegal abortion clinics and dead mothers in backroom bathrubs. I realized that the reason abortion should be legal and safe has nothing to do with whether it's moral. Abortion needs to be safe and legal because the damage to society from outlawing abortion (it results in backroom abortions, which in turn often result in the death or sterility of the mother; additionally, it would cause many women to have unwanted children whose childhood will not likely be a positive experience) is much worse than the damage to society from permitting licensed and regulated abortions.

That's probably regarded as heretical by the mainstream left. That's a shame, because the current status of the abortion debate is deadlocked over the "Right to Choose!"/"Right to Life!" dichotomy. While both sides of the debate are unequivocal about their own opinion, neither one has a point that makes any sense to the either side (my friend Bill Polson once asked the following insightful question about Pro-Life protesters: "Suppose you really believed abortion was murder. What would you do?").

It's both more productive and more intellectually honest to acknowledge that abortion is not morally suportable, and to seek to move the grounds of debate as to whether all morally questionable activities should be prohibited by the force of law. While I'm not sure this is theoretically against the point of view of mainstream left-wing organizations, it isn't where the debate is being conducted. Interestingly, in looking through NOW's website while writing this, I couldn't find any actual arguments as to why abortion rights are a good idea -- it's definitely treated as a given.

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