Abortion is not something I write about often. It is not an issue about which I have strong feelings. I understand and respect the perspective of those who think that the unborn entity is a true human, with abortion being akin to murder. (Though to be consistent, they must also just as stridently oppose the use of IUDs for birth control). I also understand and respect the view that the woman controls her body and if the unborn entity is wholly dependent on the woman’s body, she has the right to eradicate her body of this entity. I also respect that there are differing views of how deep into the pregnancy this goes.
But I am not a woman, I will never have to make that choice, and if I were ever in a position (e.g., father of an unborn ‘child’, grandfather of an unborn ‘child’) I would try to empathize with the woman, support whatever she decided, and make sure she thinks all things through. If I were asked to really think through this and decide what I believe she should do, I would make the attempt. But if I were told to butt out, I would. The woman has to make the moral and personal call, hopefully in consultation with her doctor and any spiritual or psychological counselors she has.
Yet the shooting of an abortion doctor in Kansas brings home the stark reality that some people want to impose their perspectives on others to the point of killing those they consider immoral. Now, politics is always at some level about the possibility of imposing ones’ own ideals on others. In totalitarian systems an individual or small cadre of people can impose their views on others, with the threat of force to back them up. This anti-abortion shooter was clearly of an authoritarian personality — so certain was he of his moral rectitude, he felt capable of simply taking vengeance out on those he saw as guilty. Never mind that this would do nothing to decrease abortion and would probably even help the pro-choice movement.
My view on abortion comes from my view of how a Democratic Republic should work. Laws and infringements on liberty are by definition dubious endeavors. They are always choices by some to impose their will on others, a pretentious act. Yet even without governments, people impose their will on others; the strong on the weak, the rich on the poor. Humans are never truly free but are only free within their circumstances, which includes dealing with the choices of others.
So governments emerge as a flawed but at this point in history necessary way to try to assure social order, progress, and stability. Places with no government or where government breaks down almost always have anarchy, organized crime and chaos overtake the polity. People yearn for security and stability, and if it comes, it often comes in the form of some kind of tyranny. That’s simply the way the world is. I don’t think that is human nature so much as human habit — the cultural realities humans have created at this early time in our history.
Democratic republicanism is the form of government in the West, and it fits our secular, individualistic culture. It allows multiple perspectives to co-exist, communicate, compromise and interact. At its best it protects the right of people of a wide variety of views to make the choices they wish to make, without having the state or other individuals unfairly impede or block their actions. At worst it can devolve into a kind of tyranny. The founders warned of tyranny of the majority, but the well funded corporate elite who manipulate media and government can also tyrannize. Lobbyists, well intentioned activists, and others often seek to impose their will, saying they know better than average citizens. I heard one colleague argue passionately for a ban on campus smoking because ‘science says it is dangerous.’ That scares me a bit, science can also prove driving a car is dangerous. The euphemism “nanny state” is used by conservatives to describe this kind of mentality. Sometimes it fits, sometimes it doesn’t, but clearly the state interferes in our lives quite intensely.
Yet ultimately we decide how far and to what extent. If out of apathy or ignorance we allow too much imposition on our lives, we have only ourselves to blame. Ideally, however, government would only intervene if: a) there was a domestic consensus that such intervention was morally justified by a greater good (that is, denying the liberty of some is worth while because it serves a higher moral purpose); and b) the process is transparent, reversible, and open to public participation.
This leads me to a pro-choice position because I do not believe there is a public consensus that abortion is murder, or that keeping it safe and legal does more harm than good. There is no consensus that a greater moral good would be served by banning it. However, having a Supreme Court decision make this call is troubling. In part it’s because I’m uncomfortable with the legal reasoning of Roe v. Wade. The interpretation of the constitution should not be manipulated to bring about a desired outcome. I do not find a right to abortion in the constitution, and I find the argument of this as an extension of the right to privacy to be weak.
If that decision had not been made, and if therefore states would make their own choices, there might be a more vibrant debate on the issue, and not a one sided one where the anti-abortion/pro-life group has the most energy and volunteers, while pro-choice folk simply feel that the Supreme Court protects them. Abortions would probably remain illegal in much of the deep south and plains states, but would be legal in the majority of the country. Moreover, if the argument had been made over time at the state level, who knows where the debate would have gone?
That said, Roe v. Wade has been settled law for three decades, and legally that means it should be not overthrown simply because justices disagree with the earlier interpretation. Settled law should be maintained unless there is a profound change in conditions; I do not think there is enough to warrant rejection of stare decisis in this case.
Given all the pregnancies that are prevented by birth control, and all the people who die very young in the third world, I have a hard time seeing abortion as a major tragedy. These entities are not yet born, do not feel pain or understand their condition. It strikes me as bizarre that people can see such things as tragedies, but still support war and the death penalty, where born people are killed — and in war 80% of the deaths now are innocents, not military personnel. Such folk are often immune to the vast suffering on the planet, where alive, feeling, thinking humans undergo real pain and suffering. Yet none of that means abortion is right. I have a hard time seeing vegetarianism as logical, given that vegetables are living entities too, why is slashing down wheat any worse than killing a cow? But that doesn’t mean vegetarian arguments are wrong; maybe meat is murder.
If I’m not convinced, I’ll not change how I approach this — I have to make my own call. If there is no societal consensus on such issues, then I think people have to be allowed make their own moral call. Those opposed who believe they represent God, should not be so presumptuous as to think they have the wisdom to try to impose God’s will on others. Now, perhaps they can build a consensus for their position, and someday amend the constitution. More likely technology will make abortions so rare and unnecessary that the debate will go away. But for me, this is the case where individual freedom has to trump the sincere and respectable beliefs of those are certain abortion is evil.