19 January 2008

Abortion and compromises

Over at Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte has a really nice post about Abortion as a First Amendment issue. I'm going to cut and paste a substantial portion of her post since it's so good, but I'm snipping out a bunch, so go read the whole thing for context.

I had always heard soundbites that Keenan was walking around talking about the “moral complexity” of abortion, and it got my back up against the wall, because I heard that to mean “the people who think abortion is killing have a point”, and I don’t actually think this is an issue that’s painted in shade of gray. “Shades of gray” only comes into the equation for me when actual, feeling beings are killed or forced to suffer for reasons that are understandable,* but as fetuses are unfeeling balls of flesh that have brain activity far below the sort of animals we thoughtlessly kill in animal shelters and farms every day, I find there to be no complexity. In a battle between what is still technically a feeling-free parasite on a woman’s body and a living, breathing, feeling woman, the latter wins hands down, and there’s no complexity or shades of gray there.**

But when I listened to Keenan elaborate on “moral complexity”, I realized she wasn’t conceding that anti-choicers had a point. She was saying more that the people in the mushy middle feel like they’re in a moral quandary about abortion, because it’s all mixed up with various other issues about sex, commitment, self-image, family, ickiness, and other touchy subjects and thus most people refuse to really think the issue through and come to the correct conclusion: Anything so complex and personal should be a matter of personal conscience. The term “moral complexity” is a way of saying to those people, “Yes, we’re aware that all these buttons are pushed for you, but you should really talk and think this through anyway, and ask, should the government really be making the decision to force you to have a child?”


I honestly think the issue has become more religious over time, because hiding behind religion is the only way that anti-choice arguments have any traction, now that mandating the patriarchy is off the table as the official reason to ban abortion. A fetus doesn’t have a functioning brain, but you can always say that it has a soul and get the troops whipped up. When people say the debate is over when “life” begins, they’re really talking about, for all intents and purposes, when a soul enters the body. “When life begins” is about wrapping theological questions into secular-sounding language to smuggle theocracy in, like the term “intelligent design”.

Keenan argued that pro-choicers should talk about moral complexity to get our foot in the door with the mushy middle, and then argue that because it’s complex, freedom of conscience and religion applies.

I've mangled the overall structure of her post, but hopefully anyone who's interested in her points can go read the link above. But what I love here is the way that Marcotte she sees abortion as a moral good (at least at some times for some people), and that in her mind, the "rights" of a clump of cells in no way infringe on the rights of a living, breathing person.

There's another bit here that she doesn't quite elucidate, but which I'd like to point out. It's easy for wishy-washy people in the "middle" on the abortion question to wish there was some sort of compromise, some sort of "middle ground" that could be reached on the question. But the truth is that in this country we are already at the point of "middle ground" -- a truly extreme position on abortion would take into account population growth questions, as well as the overall fitness of the mother and the financial circumstances the child would be born into, and essentially legislate away the rights of the mother to choose to have the kid. Automatic abortions to be performed on mothers clearly unable to care for the kid (i.e. drug-addicted, or indigent) is an extreme position, but it's a theoretically tenable one.

And yet this is considered monstrous, horrible to consider. It would take away the autonomy of the mother to make her own choice in the matter, and substitutes the state's force for the mother's rights. (And, just to be clear, I am in no way advocating for such a position myself!) So far as I am aware, there is no person, no government agency or private business, that has the ability to force the decision of abortion onto a person who doesn't want one. Choice is about choice, i.e. the right of the mother to make the best decision for herself and for the hypothetical child. In that sense, it is already a compromise position -- if you are a religious person who believes that the lump of cells inside you is a child, no one can make you get rid of it. In fact, if you are poor or have problems receiving medical care, the state will give you assistance in getting the care you need, and once the kid is born the collective "we" of government will give you at least some assistance getting the kid fed and clothed.

The world is a complex place. Every situation is slightly different, and the decision to end a pregnancy is rarely an easy one. No legislation can possibly capture the subtleties of these situations, and to me the only way of dealing with this is to allow the mother (who, after all, will have to carry the child) the freedom of choice in deciding what to do about it, in conjunction with her medical provider. And no amount of wishy-washy people feeling "icky" about medical procedures or religious conservatives using the words of nomads millennia ago should impact the essential rightness of individual choice one whit.

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