Monday, January 14, 2013

What we should talk about when we talk about abortion, pt. 2

In part 1 of this post, I wrote about the question of fetal personhood vis a vis abortion, and concluded since it's not at all clear when a fetus becomes a person, fetal personhood is a problematic criterion for whether or not an abortion is ethically okay. I also wrote that I don't think that fetal personhood should inform laws surrounding abortion, and in this post I'll explain my reasoning.

(I should note that women aren't the only people who can get pregnant; trans-men and other people outside conventional gender norms can as well. I wasn't sure how to write about abortion in a way that acknowledges this fact without putting long, irritating caveats on every sentence, so I opted for elegance over accuracy. Apologies to all for not finding a better solution.)

It seems conventional to discuss abortion-law in terms of fetal personhood: are they people or objects? At least that's been my experience, as a child and later as a student. But this is a particular way of framing the issue, which assumes that fetal personhood is the ethically relevant issue in abortion. Pro-life advocates speak of fetuses as "children" or "babies," waving giant pictures of adorable, thumb-sucking, 2001: A Space Odessey-esque proto-infants in utero and MURDER or PRO-LIFE in all-caps.


Of course, the question of whether and when abortion is ethical is distinct from the question, "Would you MURDER this slumbering, Muppet-like fetus?"

But both questions still focuses on fetal personhood as the ethically-relevant issue, to the exclusion of all other issues. Which tells us something important: that talking about fetal personhood is the conservative way of framing abortion.

In Don't Think of An Elephant!, George Lakoff explains how progressive and conservative worldviews derive from different family-based metaphors for thinking about larger human communities: conservatives use a strict-father worldview, in which the father must protect the family against evil in the world, provide for them, and teach his children (and wife, who's sort of like a child) to be good. Implied in this model is that it is the duty of children and wives to obey the father: disobedience amounts to evil, and the proper response by the father to disobedience is either punishment or, if that doesn't work, disowning the wayward child. (Progressives, on the other hand, use a family-model which emphasizes equality of parents, and casts responsibility and compassion as the primary virtues.)

Proof of liberal bigotry against elephantine persons.

If you accept the idea of a strict-father morality, then conservative opposition to abortion makes sense: it's less about protecting fetuses and more about control over women's sexuality. This conclusion is supported by the fact that the policies supported by "pro-life" advocates don't actually prevent abortions or save fetuses. As Libby Anne discusses here, countries with strong anti-abortion laws (e.g. in Africa and Latin America) tend to have high rates of abortion, while countries with wide access to birth control (e.g. in Europe) tend to have low abortion rates. Needless to say, the pro-life mainstream has little love for birth control. Poverty also seems to encourage abortion, and the stories about how the Pill causes 'mini-abortions' are false in several ways. In other words, pro-life policies encourage abortions, while pro-choice policies discourage them. This makes no sense if being pro-life is about saving fetuses, but is perfectly reasonable if being pro-life is about a worldview in which women who control their sexuality and reproduction are sinful sluts who deserve to be punished.

Pretty sure that the US and the EU don't have identical laws on abortion...

(Map from

As Jacob Kovacs puts it,

1) That people’s morality shouldn’t be subject to government interference is a defining conservative belief.
2) That abortion should be restricted by law for moral reasons is a defining conservative belief.
This contradiction is reconciled if you define women as less than full people, less than full moral agents, on whose behalf it is downright necessary to intervene.

Being pro-life is about controlling women, not about saving babies.

I've taken our discussion a bit afield from the original topic, which was "What are the ethically relevant issues around abortion?," but I have a solid rhetorical reason for doing so. I want you to see that the pro-life position is bankrupt. Not only does it rely upon the implausible concept of ensoulment-at-birth to argue that all abortions are unethical; it actively opposes policies which discourage abortion. Seen in the most charitable light, it is nonsensical; seen in a more cynical light, it's old-fashioned chauvinism in disguise. "Save the children!" is just an excuse for controlling women.

(I'm not suggesting, by the way, that pro-lifers are consciously lying when they say that they want to protect children. I'm suggesting that their real motivation is based in a particular worldview or schema, since their purported motivation makes no sense in light of their actual behavior.)

So we shouldn't talk about fetal personhood when we talk about abortion--or in any event, we shouldn't just talk about fetal personhood, and we should stop talking about it once we notice that it's too complicated to get us anywhere.

Instead, let's talk about agency. Let's talk about who should decide whether an abortion is ethically permissible instead of what that decision should be. Let's acknowledge that there may not be a straightforward answer to "Should this person get an abortion?" in every instance, and instead talk about who's in the best position to make that difficult call.

Once we start talking about agency rather than the misnomer of "life," it becomes obvious that the person who's facing pregnancy, the person who will have to go through the expensive, invasive, difficult procedure of an abortion, the person who will deal with the consequences of pregnancy or abortion--they should be the one to decide. Not their family or church. Not society. Not the moral paragons in Congress.

The woman should decide.

George Washington explaining his own "struggle" with the ethical dilemma of abortion, to be followed by Thomas Jefferson on his "struggle" with the ethical dilemma of slavery.

This is what we should talk about when we talk about abortion: agency, not fetal personhood.

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