Before trying to deal with the conflict over abortion, let’s first ask if there is a general rule for dealing with all policy disputes. I’m not saying that it is perfect, but I would vote for John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle,” which is that people should be free to act however they wish unless their actions cause harm to somebody else. The principle is a central tenet of the political philosophy known as liberalism and was first proposed by Mill. In his “On Liberty,” Mill wrote that “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Let’s examine the abortion conflict in light of this principle. Those who oppose abortion do so primarily on the grounds that a fetus is a person, and therefore aborting the fetus harms it. Those favoring abortion do so on the ground that the fetus is not a person, at least until it can survive outside its mother’s womb. Before that, the fetus is an entity that will normally become a person but is not actually a person. On that basis, the woman’s decision to abort should be her own, and the power to prevent her decision against her will violates the harm principle.
The contention by the anti-abortionists is that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. This really isn’t true. A person is a being that has certain capacities or attributes such as reason, morality, consciousness or self-consciousness. A fetus lacks these. Nevertheless, the anti-abortionists are correct in saying that abortion prevents the fetus from becoming a person. And therein lies the conflict.
By preventing a woman from aborting a fetus, the woman is forced against her will to go through the difficulties of pregnancy (which can cause her physical harm, and certainly makes her uncomfortable). Furthermore, she gives birth a child, which makes her responsible for the life of the child. She can give the child up for adoption, but this has psychological implications. Moreover, one should think about the harm to a child in being born to a mother that does not want it.
For my own part, I believe that the woman should have the right to control her own body and not be forced into motherhood simply because she happens to become pregnant. Pregnancy can occur through rape and through accident. The woman should not bear responsibility for the fetus in any such cases. Indeed, a woman may decide to become pregnant but, due to changed circumstances, decide that pregnancy is a mistake. She should not be prevented from changing her mind.
Despite my own feelings in this matter, I completely understand the position of the anti-abortionists. I realize that, for the most part, their position is mostly driven by religious beliefs. Yet I can still respect their feelings and beliefs.
What I cannot accept is the position of most anti-abortionists which forces all of the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy onto the woman. It seems to me that denying the right to abortion creates harm to the woman and also to the fetus, which is born to an unwilling mother. Moreover, preventing legal abortion forces a woman to consider an illegal abortion, which creates even more danger to her.
I do not accept the idea that all women become pregnant by choice. This is clearly not true. They can become pregnant through rape, sexual abuse, or even drinking too much alcohol. They may become willingly pregnant but discover that the fetus will produce a severely ill child. There are all sorts of reasons for terminating a pregnancy, and the woman should be the one to decide if the reason is sufficient.
If anti-abortionists truly believed in their own positions, they would – at a minimum –offer to women who wanted abortions alternatives that would remove as much of the unwanted consequences of pregnancy and childbirth as possible. Pregnancy and childbirth are expensive. The cost of those should be borne by the society as a whole. Even better, they should be borne by all persons who opposed abortion (for example, by a tax). Those who oppose abortion should be required to adopt unwanted children. The anti-abortionists as a group should be forced to pay the costs for the raising of unwanted children. They should also pay for treatment of psychological and physical injuries to the women denied abortion, including the cost of injuries created by illegal abortions.
I am not saying that forcing the cost of anti-abortion policies onto anti-abortionists is a perfect solution, because it isn’t. But it is an attempt to make anti-abortionists share the pain and anguish which their policy creates. Anti-abortionists essentially want to create a living being, and they therefore should be prepared to support that living being. That would at least be a fairer outcome than forcing all of the consequences on the women who are denied rights to abortion. I am sure that there may be other ways, too, of leveling the playing field in connection with the abortion issue, and every effort should be made in that direction.
A similar problem appears to exist in connection with assisting a person with suicide. Most states still prevent assisted suicide. The main victim of suicide is the person who dies, and that person has made a choice for him or herself. He or she should have a way of dying as easily as possible and not be denied care. Certainly one could require the one desiring suicide to consult with an expert to be sure that there is no insanity or other harmful reason promoting the desire. But individuals who are seriously ill or with other good reasons for dying should not have the government preventing assistance. We need to remove rules motivated by religion removed as bars to the decisions by individuals on what to do with their lives.
The point here is that we can and should discuss issues such as these openly and respectfully. At the same time, someone who has a position (such as being against abortion) should recognize the difficulties that their position creates and be prepared to deal fairly with those issues. Otherwise, their position is hypocritical, and that is a very bad thing.
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