Keep Abortion Legal
by Ari Armstrong, July 1999
The argument over abortion is intractable. I don't think those who favor outlawing abortion have proven that the practice is a violation of rights, nor do I think they can do so. In absence of a compelling argument favoring the abolition of abortion, the government ought to err on the side of non-intervention.
Pro-lifers can affect cultural change without pushing to outlaw abortion. We don't have to outlaw abortion in order to drastically reduce its practice. Pro-lifers can educate the public and advocate birth prevention and adoption.
Pro-lifers can also roll back the government programs which foster irresponsible sex and abortion. Such programs are legion: the State has in some cases subsidized abortions, it has slowed development of birth prevention technology, it has made adoption a bureaucratic nightmare for many couples, and it has advocated promiscuity in government high schools. In addition, Big Brotherism has created a general decline of responsibility U.S. culture. Increasingly, people look to government to solve all their problems and blame everything and everyone around them for their lives.
Goonan rightly argues that conception is preventable, and that those who conceive unwanted children are irresponsible. However, simply because irresponsibility gives rise to abortion, does that mean that abortion should be outlawed? Not at all. Self-responsibility should be mandated by law only when others' rights are at stake. For instance, negligence is properly an actionable offense, because it hurts others. However, alcoholism is also irresponsible, yet that doesn't imply alcohol should be abolished (again). The responsibility argument by itself carries no political implications. We must turn, then, to the issue of whether abortion breaks the rights of children.
Goonan argues that a fetus is "life." I think everyone can agree with this. But is "life" sufficient to endow an entity with rights? Clearly not. Mosquitoes are alive, yet we swat them with impunity. We also bite into living fruits and vegetables with delight.
Goonan, then, must make the stronger statement that a fetus is "human life." But this proposition is anything but obvious. One could argue that a fetus consists of living cells which contain human DNA. However, so does my pinkie toe, yet my toe does not have any rights apart from me. (I could whack off or pierce my own pinkie toe without regard for its rights.)
So what Goonan is arguing, then, is that a fetus is a collection of living cells with human DNA which has the potential of developing into an autonomous, rational human being. And we all grant that autonomous, rational beings thereby acquire rights.
However, a fetus is neither autonomous nor rational. A fetus doesn't even have a brain or nervous system until days or weeks after conception. Certainly it is not capable of surviving autonomously. Goonan makes a leap in logic when he proceeds from, "autonomous, rational humans have rights," to, "therefore, a collection of cells which can potentially become an autonomous, rational human has rights." That simply does not follow, and I see no reason why a pin-dot of cells possesses or should be bestowed with rights, any more than my finger-nail possesses rights. Thus, Goonan's opposition to "morning after" pills is perplexing.
Now, when we get into the later stages of fetal development, the baby clearly has a brain, even awareness, and can survive outside the womb with medical assistance. Goonan's argument carries more weight here. However, the baby is still only latently autonomous and latently rational, so it's still not obvious that older fetuses have rights.
Here, an analogy to newborns is helpful. Though infanticide is common in other parts of the world, I've yet to meet an American who would support the practice. A newborn is arguably no more autonomous or rational than is an older fetus. Why are we anxious to protect the rights of newborns, then? I think it's because of the ease of giving up the child. The mother can just as easily lay the child on a doorstep as toss it in a dumpster. A mother unwilling to take even a few moments to give up her child is properly seen as uncaring and callous.
Can we extend the practice of adoption to fetuses? I think so. Let's say an organization existed which would fund safe, cesarean births and pay for the care of the child. Let us say further that the organization is broad-based, such that mothers all over the country can access its services easily. (Or, the organization is willing to pay travel and time expenses for mothers to come to a central location.) In short, giving up a child before birth would be as easy as giving up a child after birth. If this were the case, could the government properly outlaw abortion of older fetuses? I think it could. However, I don't think it would be necessary, as most mothers would simply utilize the services, if such were truly convenient.
Let us push the case further. What if, with improved technology, an organization were able to safely and quickly remove even young fetuses and raise them into children? Again, I would not then have much trouble with a law outlawing abortion.
However, the social structures must precede the law and can solve the problem without assistance from the law. If pro-lifers really want to end abortion, there are non-legal means at their disposal. If we're going to worry about self-responsibility, we might urge pro-lifers to assume some responsibility rather than call for the government to solve the problem, which it will surely be unable to do.