Several thousand anti-abortion protesters marched in Washington yesterday on the 41st anniversary of Roe vs. Wade—just a small manifestation of the attack on abortion rights taking place across the country these days. I have no doubt that abortion rights will one day be secured in the United States: we are an increasingly secular country and demographic trends will eventually diminish the religious and political right that provide the motor force behind the anti-abortion drive. But that’s the future. Right now, abortion rights are imperiled, and lots of people will suffer.
I’m an unqualified supporter of abortion rights. I’ll explain shortly why I think restrictions on abortion are immoral, but first I want to take the opportunity to vent a couple of my longstanding beefs with the pro-choice movement.
First, I have always thought that abortion rights supporters may have made a strategic mistake in focusing almost exclusively on women as the victims of the anti-abortion agenda. Women of course are the direct victims, but it’s not as if men are unaffected. If my girlfriend or wife has an unwanted pregnancy, I have an interest in her right to terminate it. If she can’t, I’m a victim too, if I have any sense of responsibility as her sexual partner. So, I’ve always thought that choice should be framed not just as a feminist issue, but as a family planning issue. That might have rendered it less vulnerable to misogynist-inspired attacks. The counterargument, I suppose, could be that in framing abortion as a feminist issue, pro-choicers have been able to mobilize their mainly female constituency more intensely and thus to greater effectiveness. I don’t know if the strategic issue was ever actually discussed in those terms within the abortion rights movement. I would be surprised if it was.
My second beef is that abortion rights supporters never directly confront the central contention of the anti-abortion (I never use “pro-life” except occasionally in quotation marks) movement: that abortion kills babies. I understand the reticence. To talk realistically about the nature of the fetus, to explain how far it is from having the essential characteristics of an actual, living, conscious human being, is difficult; it is vulnerable to demagogic caricature and emotionalist attack. So, pro-choicers consistently change the subject: instead of talking about the fetus, they talk about the woman and her right to choose. But that is an evasion. I’d feel more comfortable if someone among the many smart people in the abortion rights movement could find an effective way to get across the kind of argument that I have already made and will reiterate in the following paragraphs.
A fetus is not a person—i.e., a human being entitled to the legal protection and moral regard we normally extend to persons. It’s not a person because it possesses none of the attributes that we associate with persons–it lacks not only intelligence, but even consciousness. In fact, until well into the second trimester–long after most abortions are performed–it isn’t even a sentient being in even the most primitive sense. That means that it literally has no feelings. And by “feelings” I don’t mean just mean emotions–obviously, a fetus has none–but physical sensation. You simply cannot inflict pain–physical or emotional–on a fetus until well into the second trimester. Even then, it is at best highly problematic to talk of “pain” in a being which, inarguably, lacks anything that can be called consciousness.
A fetus is less like a person than is a typical household pet, which does have some kind of consciousness if not intelligence, interacts with other animals including humans, and can certainly feel pain. It is less like a person than are animals that we routinely kill for food. The only thing a fetus has in common with you and me is a complete set of human chromosomes. (Of course, you may believe that a fetus is like you and me in that it has a soul; but that is a religious belief, which you have no right to impose on anyone in a society that values religious freedom.) It has the potential to eventually be like you and me, but potential is not actual, and there is no reason that mere potentiality should be protected and accorded “rights.” That is, unless you believe that there is a moral imperative that every possibility for increasing the number of human beings on this earth must be preserved.
A woman–unlike a fetus–is an intelligent, conscious, sentient being. Unlike a fetus, she is aware of her existence, she has desires and can feel pain. It follows that it is morally perverse–not to mention absurd–to claim that a fetus has rights that trump the right of a woman to control her own body for a period of 9 months and to choose how she wishes to live her life. Compulsory pregnancy is immoral.