With the new presidential administration and a Republican majority in Congress, I think we can all expect a reinvigorated attack on abortion access, so let’s reassess where we are. We could discuss any number of things, but I’d like to focus on two fundamental questions: When do we ascribe personhood and who makes the decisions on abortion?
The right wing has figured out that the pivotal legal question is when we assign personhood, insisting personhood begins at conception. The timing of the legal assignment of personhood is hotly contested, but crucial. Catholics say personhood begins at conception, some states say at twenty weeks, and the US Supreme Court says at twenty-six weeks. Some liberals say personhood is established at the beginning of the third trimester, other liberals say at birth, and the bioethicist Peter Singer (in his book Rethinking Life and Death) says we should set the date at thirty days after birth. Assigning personhood at conception simplifies matters, whereas the range of liberal thought on the matter makes our position seem arbitrary and ambiguous, which it is, and makes for a hard sell to people who want simple clarity in life.
The religious right knows the legal battle is based on ascribing personhood, which is why they are expending a great deal of time, money, and other resources on this issue while liberals continue to focus on a woman’s right to choose.
This brings us to the second major issue: determining who makes the decision to abort. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s 1971 paper, “A Defense of Abortion,” is often cited as a foundation for the philosophical position that it’s a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body, however I would argue there are deep flaws in this argument. In humanist thought, rights are not ordained by God or absolute. Rather, they are those privileges that a society has found so important that they’re protected for all. Too many times the word “rights” is used casually and it diminishes the term. Let’s ask this question: If a woman or a man has the absolute right to do anything they wish with their body, does that mean a woman has the “right” to put heroin in her body while pregnant? I think not.
Of course, I believe that in almost all cases we do a have a right to make decisions about our own bodies, but there are exceptions to all rules. Still, reproductive choice is a civil right we should stand firmly behind. I think the justification for who decides whether or not to pursue an abortion is pragmatic as well as rights-driven. When all is said and done, it is the woman’s right to choose because it allows the best outcome in a fundamentally difficult ethical dilemma. We can still be conflicted but we don’t necessarily have to be.
Anti-abortionists are more easily able to market their position with simple answers and by appealing to the “disgust instinct.” The anti-abortion movement has taken to showing horrific images of bloody fetuses and pieces of babies to illicit the “yuck” response, and it works. Pro-choice advocates counter with rational charts showing the effect of teenage and unwanted pregnancies on lifelong poverty, education, heath, abuse, and so on. The intellectual approach doesn’t have the same visceral power as an image that makes you feel sick.
Regarding personhood, we may need to acknowledge the inherent philosophical ambiguity of determining personhood and yet come together in dialogue to form a consistent position, as reproductive freedom advocates are losing the legislative, judicial, and public-relations battle right now.
With respect to the issue of who determines whether a woman pursues an abortion or not, this a debate we can continue to advance especially using real life stories. My grandmother died from a back-alley abortion. My wife’s great aunt died that way as well. I know many people who had unwanted pregnancies that necessitated unwanted marriages before Roe v. Wade. I know of many single mothers and their children caught in the cycle of poverty right now. The choice for abortion is personal and the real life stories should be better presented.
I hope all of us can find new, more effective ways to protect access for reproductive choice in an increasingly hostile environment. Opposition by the religious right is savvy, determined, and winning. The job of humanists is to try to find new ways to succeed in our cause or we will be seeing more unwanted children suffer and more people die like my grandmother. Let’s get savvy.