Sunday, October 21, 2012

Abortion: One The Inconsistent Nature of Both Sides of the Debate

Recently, a picture came across my Facebook feed, which inspired the following. I find it difficult to place myself in this debate, between the so-called "pro-life" and "pro-choice" crowds, because I consider the substance of both arguments to be generally lacking.

On the one hand, there's the pro life crowd. I can respect a consistent pro-lifer, who is simultaneously opposed to abortion as well as other forms of wanton killing, particularly war. But all too often, the very same person who speaks, perhaps even eloquently, about the sanctity of life when speaking of an infant other than his own is the same person who cries out shrilly for the blood of foreigners the moment the flag is hoisted. Additionally, I dislike the simplistic view that any practice that is reprehensible should simply be made illegal, without any reference to the nature of the penalty which should be imposed, the method of enforcement, or the actual outcome of a given policy.

But the pro-choice position also has its issues, the largest of which is a seeming dishonesty with regard to what I regard as the central issue of the debate: at what point in a person's development does a child become legally "human", and as such entitled to the protection of the State? This issue is easily dodged if you regard the State simply as not having standing to pursue the case; however, it is my understanding that the vast majority of those who advocate this position are not typically consistent with regard to what is and is not outside the purview of the State. Also, it isn't as if those on the "right" regard women as not having a choice as to whether or not to bear a child; the characterization of the "pro-life" position as one which regards women purely as breeders in service to the State is highly disingenuous. Rather, the question is at what point the choice has been made, and a woman (and perhaps a man, as well) becomes legally obligated to bear the consequences of that choice.

(Note that I bring up the man because this question also has bearing on another issue: the point at which a man becomes legally responsible to provide material support.)

The "Pro-Life" position is consistent on the first question: they regard a person's legal existence as beginning at the moment of conception. If one disagrees with this, one should say so, and further, one should propose an alternative which can be medically tested for using current technology. Do you regard birth as the proper beginning of a person's legal existence? What would you define as "birth"? For example, would it be legally allowable for a woman to kill her child just before it emerges? How about a week before labor would normally commence? How about a month? And there's another alternative: some cultures (ones which developed in a period when infant mortality was very high) do not "induct" the child into their society until some time has passed after the birth (some do not name a child until it has survived for a number of days, and one might regard the point of circumcision under traditional Judaism as legal recognition of the child's position in their society). And how about the practices of classical Greece and Rome? Should death-by-exposure be allowed up to a certain point?

I'm not making a slippery slope argument here, but posing a legitimate question (at least, under the generally accepted paradigm with regard to the relationship between the State and Society): at what point in a child's development, if ever, does the State gain the authority to require the parent to sustain the child's life?

The second question is when one should regard the "choice" as having been made; when does the life become a legal obligation? Once again, the most extreme of the "pro-choice" crowd is consistent, and might even be open about it from time to time (as socially unacceptable as this position is). To them, the moment of decision is the same as the moment they believe life begins: the moment of conception. Under this ideal, chastity is a viable option, birth control is a gamble (or perhaps even an immoral act, under certain religious traditions). What is the pro-choice alternative? Where is the point at which the child goes from being a choice, to being a legal responsibility? (Same question as before, restated.)

Ginsburg's quote is well received, but my question is this: by what legal principle do we distinguish the woman who makes the adult decision to terminate her pregnancy, from the woman who fails to care for her infant child?

Now I should distance myself from this argument. I do have my own position, but it stems from a highly non-traditional (though increasingly prevalent) view of the relationship between the State and Society (in other words, with regard to the law I dodge the issue presented above). That, however, is the subject of another essay, as is my regard for the most common variety of the pro-life position (and "religious rightisim" generally) as idolatrous and spiritually bankrupt.