Abortion Debate Redux
Tibor R. Machan
Sometimes a debate or discussion goes completely astray because concepts are used that are entirely confusing. The abortion debate is a case in point.
It begins with the cryptic terms used to classify the opposing sides: Pro-life versus pro-choice. While such labels should never be taken literally, in this case they tend to be. Those who are on the pro-life side seem really to think they are for life, while their opponents are against life. Yet, of course, pro-life advocates aren’t, for example, defenders of animal rights which they would have to be if they were pro life period. What they seem to be is pro human life. And here is the problem—while life may well begin at conception, it doesn’t not follow from this that what begins then is the life of a human being. A fetus is something that’s alive, as is a tooth or a strand of hair. But no one is concerned about pulling a tooth or cutting off of a strand of hair—it isn’t deemed to be murder. What is murder is the unjust killing of a human being. If, however, there is no human being around yet, only a fetus, a potential human being, then there can be no murder (although it could still be ethically objectionable).
So the real issue so called pro-lifers ought to be concerned about is when a human being comes into existence, not when life beings. Even sperm are alive, yet these are killed routinely without anyone suggesting that it constitutes murder. (Well, “anyone” may be an exaggeration!)
On the pro-choice side, in turn, the real issue isn’t choice. For one, many who believe in “the woman’s right to choose” confine this right to the choice to kill a fetus or, as pro-life folks (question-beggingly!) refer to it, “an unborn child.” Many who defend the right of women to have abortions do not believe in their right to choose not to pay taxes, to smoke dope, to refuse to sell a home to blacks, etc., etc. They aren’t really in favor of choices of which they disapprove, just as pro-lifers aren’t.
Indeed, a choice to murder someone is not one anyone ought to have a right to make. Whether “a woman’s right to choose” is worth defending depends on what the choice is about. If it is a choice to kill another human being—even if that human being is inside the woman (after all one’s child is inside one’s home and no one may commit infanticide there or anywhere, for that matter)—no one has a right to make it.
I suppose it is unrealistic to expect that most parties to this debate will get down to the business of trying to resolve it in fair and accurate terms. They are too committed either way. But there has to be a resolution—it should be either legally right or wrong to have (or to ban) abortions. What is an abortion in the majority of cases? The deliberate killing of a fetus before or around the 24th week of pregnancy. (We aren’t here talking about late term abortions, which are extreme cases and deserve separate treatment.) May a woman kill or have killed such a being? If yes, then abortions must remain legal, just as any other actions that do not violated the rights of anyone must (a point many pro-choice folks miss). If no, they must be banned, just as any murder must be.
To reiterate, pro-life people aren’t actually pro life, per se. The bulk of them have no problem with killing chicken or fish or even monkeys for purposes of medical testing. They are only against killing human beings and they believe abortion involves doing so. Most pro-choice folks, too, don’t much care about choices, only about the choice of a woman to terminate a pregnancy and they hold that this may not be prohibited because it does not involved murdering a human being.
So the real issues is when does a human being come into existence. Is it at conception? Is it when the fetus acquires some capacity to think—based on “man is a thinking animal”? Or is it when someone is born—we celebrate birthdays then, thus it's the beginning of someone’s human life?
With these questions before us, I am confident that more progress would be made in this highly divisive and acrimonious debate. It may even be lead to a rational resolution of it.