On abortion

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3 July 2011

Hello, internets. I’ve come to offer myself as a sacrifice at the alter of people-who-can-never-be-politicians-because-of-things-they-said-on-the-internet.

Why? A friend of mine recently created a tumblr account as an alternative to his regular blog. He’s posted on a few topics, but most of his posts have been about abortion.

It turns out that he and I disagree, and none of my normal avenues of replying are available to me. Tumblr doesn’t have a comment feature, so I can’t just add a comment to his post. And Tumblr isn’t Twitter, so I can’t just tweet back. And his Tumblr account isn’t feeding his Facebook account, so I can’t reply there (not that I would have, anyway). Tumblr wants me to open an account with them, to reply, but “truist.tumblr.com” is taken (but not used) by the new owners of truist.com, so I’d have to choose a new moniker, and I’m not really up to doing that just yet.

So I’m left with finally getting around to codifying my opinions on my own blog. (Or staying silent, but I find that I can’t, on this topic.) In a way, that’s long overdue, so thanks for the motivation to do it!

Here goes:

You may recall that I touched on abortion before, without really saying what I thought. I avoided giving my opinion (about what the law should be) for three reasons:

  1. The reasons are complex (although the resulting opinion is simple)
  2. There’s likely to be a backlash from people who disagree
  3. My personal rules for myself aren’t the same as what I think the law should be

#2 seems inevitable, so I’m just going to live with it. #3 I’ll explain at the end of this post. #1, I’m ready to address now. I’ll start with what I think the law should be:

Any woman should be freely allowed to have an abortion at any point during the first trimester of pregnancy, without any legal restrictions, without any information being forced on her, and without the consent of the father. After the first trimester, no abortions whatsoever except in cases where the pregnancy puts the mother’s life at an unusually-high level of risk.

Explaining that paragraph is the hard part.

The basis of my opinion is that I don’t think an embryo / fetus (up to 13 weeks) is biologically much more than a fish. I think 99% of humans are comfortable with the idea of killing a fish for fairly mundane reasons; I think killing a human embryo / fetus (before 13 weeks gestation) is no worse.

I feel like the truth of this opinion is self-evident, so I’m going to try explaining my opinion in terms of the various counter-arguments.

One disclaimer, first: the words people choose to use are important. That’s why we’ve had so much noise about “pro-life” and “pro-choice” and their variations. That’s also why pro-life people tend to say “human” and “person” and “baby” and pro-choice people tend to say “fetus.” So I’m I’m going to avoid fuzzily-defined words (“human” and “person” and “baby”) until I’ve had a chance to define them. I’m going to use “fetus” most-often in this post, because that’s a precise, biologically correct term. But sadly, that term is a bit dehumanizing (see? there’s that fuzzy word…) but I don’t mean it to be that way. I just mean for it to be precisely understood.

A fetus has a heartbeat, lungs, limbs, and brainwaves

So does a fish (at least as much as a 13-week human fetus). More so does a deer. We allow the killing of those things without (much) debate. Killing a human fetus might seem revolting, but that’s an instinctual reaction (that I’m sure every mother about to have an abortion feels) and there’s no biological reason to feel worse about it than about killing a fish or a deer.

If this argument (that a heartbeat and brainwaves were enough) held true, then we should also make it illegal to kill animals. (As it happens, I’m a vegetarian, but not for ethical reasons.)

A fetus is conscious

Maybe, by 13 weeks. Consciousness is hard to define and hard to measure. But even if a fetus is conscious by 13 weeks, it is no more so than a fish, or a deer, etc. Killing it might cause it pain, but no more than a fish, etc.

Yes, my heart aches at the idea of causing a human baby pain. (It sucks to cause any pain, really, but especially so for a human baby.) But a 13-week fetus is not a human baby; intellectually I am certain of that, even if emotionally it is difficult to remember.

On the other hand, if we discovered that a less-than-13-week fetus was self-aware, I’d have to seriously re-think my opinion on this issue. But they aren’t, so I don’t worry about it.

A fetus is an actual human life, and killing humans is murder

Yes, a human fetus is a human. So the question is whether killing a (13-week) fetus is murder. I say no. The explanation requires trying to define “murder” and “human” both of which are very fuzzy. I’m going to start by defining “murder” without using the word “human”:

Murder is the intentional killing of a self-aware being by one or more sane, self-aware beings, except when done in self defense.

(“Sane” here basically means “can tell right from wrong, and is in control of their own actions.” Maybe the killer also needs to be an adult; I’m not sure. I’m not sure whether the death penalty constitutes murder or not.)

Note that my definition is quite similar to the common-law definition, except that my definition doesn’t use the word “human” and actually encompasses things like dolphins and sentient aliens (which is intentional).

Lots of arguments against abortion basically come down to “killing a human is bad, and a human fetus is human”. But that argument conflates three different ideas into a single word (“human”). Those three ideas are:

  1. A biological entity of the species homo sapiens
  2. A creature that is “the same as me” and should have the same rights I have
  3. A creature with a god-given soul / is “seen as human” by god

Or to paraphrase in a way that helps define terms:

  1. The biological question of whether they are “human”
  2. The intellectual question of whether they are a “person”
  3. The religious question of whether they have a “soul”

I’m going to start by ignoring the religious question, because I address it specifically in the next section. Looking, then, at the arguments based on the first two ideas, they all seem to start by defining a fetus via #1 and then arguing against it via #2 – but I don’t think #2 applies to a 13-week fetus. Yes, such a fetus is biologically a human. But it’s not self aware, it’s not “the same as me,” and there’s no good reason to give it the same rights as I have. (Except the religious reasons, which come later.) In other words, I think that the intellectual definition of “person” requires self-awareness.

Sometimes the argument says that they are a “potential” person, and I agree, they are a potential person. Which means that they aren’t yet a person, and therefore don’t yet have the same rights. My sperm and a woman’s eggs are also a potential person, but that doesn’t mean we have to mate because to do so would be killing a person. (This sounds extreme, but it is the necessary, logical conclusion of the base argument.)

The result is that this argument (excluding the religious definition) doesn’t hold any water with me. If someone can manage to make a version of this argument that never uses the word “person” or “human” or “baby” and never uses a pronoun, and is always carefully precise in its language, I’d be very interested to hear it – but I’m pretty sure the flaw(s) would be so obvious that no rebuttal would be required.

It has a soul, and killing a soul is a sin

Wow, addressing this one, publicly, is almost as scary as the rest of this post was before I got this far.

To start, I don’t really believe in “sin” (i.e. a set of rules handed down by a divine entity). On the other hand, I do believe in something akin to karma… but that just means that having an abortion is likely to have long-term negative consequences for the mother, and I think that was pretty obvious already. (Presumably the mother thinks the positive consequences will outweigh the negative ones.)

I also don’t really believe in a “soul” (i.e. that goes to heaven) or in reincarnation – although I am open to either possibility (with reincarnation in the lead, at the moment). What I do believe is that my thoughts exist, and the universe exists, and I have some ideas about how self-aware creatures should behave to best get along… and then I’m not very certain of things past that. (See my previous posts on religion for details.)

Net effect? I don’t really believe this argument.

BUT! That’s not the point I want to make here. The important point is that this argument is inherently a religious one, and therefore unproveable. If this were the basis of an anti-abortion law it would be an endorsement of the religions that believe this argument, which basically means that some religions would be using government to force people to behave according to what they believe – which I believe is a moral wrong.

On the other hand, for some people, their faith (in their religion) is absolute. For such people, there is no doubt that killing a fetus is murder, because the one true God told them so. To such a person, they must necessarily want the law to force other people to behave according to their beliefs, because otherwise those people are going against absolute truths. Such a person has no alternative. I understand that consequence, even if I can’t understand the basis faith.

On the other, other hand, there’s no reason for me to bother arguing with such a person, because their belief is absolute, so they won’t change their mind. Taken to an extreme, it comes down to a question of whether they have the power to force me to behave as they wish, or whether I have the power to avoid that fate. Thus far, my country has provided that power for me, and I hope it continues to do so.

So, if you are one of the people whose faith is absolute, I wish you bad luck in forcing me to think like you do. If, on the other hand, you are a religious person whose beliefs are not absolute, then I seriously hope that you do not want to use your religious beliefs to force me to live according to your rules for yourself. In either case, though, if you actually want me to believe as you do about abortion, you’ll need to first convince me to adopt your religion as my own.

To either type of person, and to all other types of people: I sincerely welcome your rational argument about this topic; my mind is open to being changed.

Allowing abortion is bad for society

This is fuzzy. There’s lots of evidence tying increased abortion rates to lowered crime rates. It is very clear that making abortion illegal doesn’t stop them, it just makes them much more dangerous for the mothers (which, in a sense, means that such societies value the fetus’s life more than the mother’s). It’s also very clear that something of significant potential value is lost any time there is an abortion, but it is very unclear whether that potential value outweighs the reasons for having the abortion, and there’s no way to ever be 100% certain.

There are lots of arguments about “allowing abortion makes murder commonplace which is a slippery slope, degrades our society, … etc.” Those arguments are about morality and may have some truth to them – but there’s no way to prove whether they are true, and I haven’t seen any evidence that abortion is the cause of moral degradation; it may be a symptom.

My understanding is that in all the measurable arguments, abortion is actually good for society. For the unmeasureable arguments, it seems like the moral problems that stem from abortions are actually symptoms of deeper underlying problems (poor parenting, poor schooling, poor community, poor patriotism, etc.). In such cases, trying to fight the symptoms is usually a waste of time and always causes more harm to the people caught in the symptomatic situations (i.e. the ones who are already in trouble). It even seems likely that allowing abortion is one way to start addressing the true underlying problems.

Net effect: my sense (without complete certainty) is that legalized abortion is actually quite good for society.

You are killing a person who could go on to cure cancer, save millions, etc.

Yep. Or maybe they could go on to murder someone who was busy curing cancer, saving millions, etc. These arguments can be spun both ways, depend on fuzzy statistics, ignore the benefits to and potential of the mother, and can’t be conclusively proven except by running tests in infinite parallel universes and seeing which one turns out the best.

My gut agrees with the economists – a disproportionately large percentage of aborted fetuses would have become people with serious problems who are more likely to cost society than to improve it.

There are many other options that are better than abortion

There are also great options that are better than meat-eating, or better than riding motorcycles, or better than seeing violent movies, etc. But outlawing all those things would be absurd, because none of those things hurt the people who aren’t doing them. It’s the same with abortion – unless there’s a strong reason why one person (i.e. self-aware being) having an abortion (before 13 weeks gestation) hurts another person, then laws against abortion would simply serve to make the people who don’t like abortion feel better, and that’s a morally-wrong use of our political system.

It also seems obvious that if the other options really are better, then mothers considering abortion simply need to be made aware of those options and they’ll choose them. Perhaps we should put more energy into making those options visible and available. (Or perhaps they aren’t really as obviously better as they seem.)

It is better to be cautious and outlaw this sort of killing

If this were reasonable, we should also outlaw all the other things that people don’t like, until we’re sure those people are wrong. This argument is really just the “other people should behave the way I want them to” argument, and that’s not what laws are (supposed to be) for.

Lots of people who have abortions aren’t mature enough to make that choice

I agree, and it makes me really sad. But making abortion illegal won’t fix this, nor will it stop those people from getting pregnant. It will just make life harder and more dangerous for those people, and they don’t need that.

Worse than that, though, this argument (and the previous one, actually) presuppose that some adults “know best” for other adults, and that it’s OK for the “know best” crowd to force the others to behave how they want. Hopefully that’s an obviously-bad idea, by now.

Even so, there is still the question of when someone is mature enough to decide to have an abortion. I’m sure “18 years old” is not a guarantee of having that maturity, and yet as a society we have defined that as the age of “adulthood” (and we must choose some age, and 18 seems about right to me) so 18-year-olds must be allowed to make the choice for themselves.

Under that age it gets a lot harder. I don’t have firm opinions, although my gut is that once a person is pregnant, they are an adult whether they wanted to be or not. I’m going to leave the details for my future self to ponder, though.

13 weeks is the wrong cut-off point

I chose 13 weeks somewhat arbitrarily (e.g. I’d be fine if it was “14” instead), but there’s only a small range which I feel is correct. If you make the number much smaller, you don’t give the mother enough time to consider all sides of the question before making a choice (and we want caution, right?), and you increase the risk that she’ll try to have a dangerous illegal abortion after the deadline.

On the other hand, if you increase the number, you start to run the risk that the fetus will become self-aware. I don’t know exactly when that happens. (I’m not even entirely certain it has happened at birth.) At some point, though, that fetus becomes self-aware, and therefore can be murdered (according to my definition), and that consideration overrides any considerations of the mother (except her own safety, sometimes). Here is a place where I want society to enforce cautiousness (i.e. a limit on how late an abortion can be had) because the abortion starts to infringe on the rights of “a thing like me that should have the same rights”.

So I chose “13” because it seemed like plenty of time for a mother to make a choice and for me to feel comfortable forcing her to live with that choice (either way), without coming anywhere close to the point where it seemed possible that the fetus was self-aware (and therefore something more than a fish). Much less that that or much more than that, and I disagree with the number.

You wouldn’t want your child to be aborted, so why would you let other people abort theirs?

My fetus, you mean?

It’s true, I generally think I wouldn’t want to be involved in an abortion. But I’m a very lucky person with sound mind and body, an open heart, a stable life, good support networks, and good prospects for my future. I am confident that my children (one so far and more to come!) will have a good chance of being happy, and of adding value to the world. But my situation isn’t everybody else’s situation, and it would be wrong of me to force my choices onto others unless their choices were causing harm – and I can’t see how an abortion (before 13 weeks) harms another person so much so that we should force the mother not to do it.

As a father, you’d want a say in whether your child was aborted!

My fetus, you mean?

But yes, I’d want a say. But that doesn’t mean I’d want to force the mother to have to listen to me (before 13 weeks). There are lots of cases where that actually makes the situation worse instead of better, and such a law is really just another instance of one person forcing their beliefs on another. Given that my beliefs don’t include the idea that killing a 13-week fetus is murder, then I don’t see a reason to force other people to treat it as if it is.

A counter-counter argument: the woman has the right to control her own body, so until the baby is born, it is entirely the woman’s choice

Per an earlier post of mine, I think this is bunk. The fetus is not a part of the mother; it is an independent entity that happens to be totally dependent on the mother, and totally enclosed by her. Those aspects alone aren’t enough to make the fetus be “property.”

The overriding issue is when the fetus becomes “like me, deserving of the same rights.” If that happens while the fetus is still in the womb, then the mother (as inconvenient as it may be to her) loses her right to kill (i.e. murder) the fetus.

In summary

Looking back at what I’ve written, I think there are really two foundational beliefs that are dominating the entire post:

  1. Whether a 13-week fetus is a “person” (i.e. equal to the rest of us, deserving of rights).
  2. Whether it is OK to force other people to behave according to your opinion, in cases where no other person is hurt.

I say “no” and “no” – so first-trimester abortion should be legal.

P.S. – I’ve just noticed – the second belief is largely irrelevant (to this topic) for people who say “yes” to the first belief, because they believe that a person (the fetus) is harmed during an abortion. So the same rule applies to my opinion – it all really hinges on whether the 13-week fetus is a person. If someone could prove that it is, I’d change my mind about the whole issue. But I’d need proof, or something pretty close to it.

  1. Amitai Schlair says:

    If you said anything that keeps you from being a politician, it’s probably way too far into this piece for anyone who’d use it against you to be able to find. But if they do, good, then you won’t be a politician!

    I have to reread this at least a few more times, but my knee-jerk reaction on the topic is the same as always: Nobody gets excited about having abortions. It must be extremely hard to go through with such a thing and to live with it afterwards. People do it when they’re in trouble and getting an abortion seems better than not getting an abortion. Any law we might pass doesn’t change the decision equation much; mostly, it changes the quality-of-advice-and-care equation. If the result we want is fewer abortions, laws can have some effect, but not the best possible effect. For the best possible effect, listen to people who think they need abortions, figure out what conditions lead to their thinking thus, and then change those conditions.

    Getting to the best possible result starts with listening. Listening starts with valuing life. Anyone who wants to have a serious discussion on the topic should be able to agree to this starting point.

  2. Nathan Arthur says:

    Some data supporting that “first trimester” is a safe boundary: http://www.doctorsonfetalpain.com/. (Although note that “feels pain” also applies to fish, deer, etc., so this argument isn’t especially relevant for me.)

    via Matt’s tumblr post

  3. Erin says:

    You posted this a long time ago.. and I stumbled on it while looking for textpattern plugins..

    This is well written, and well thought out. Whenever I try to express my opinions on this (and they align very closely with yours), I end up going around in circles.

    13 weeks: I know you said it was arbitrary. While I totally get your personhood notion, I’ve had a few miscarriages, and have been staring down the possibility of birth defects and other complications. Some of those tests can’t be done until 17 weeks at the earliest (full anatomy check with high sensitivity ultrasound).

    Any woman (along with the father in supportive environments) should be able to decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy with known complications. That isn’t just “health of the mother” that is “health of the family”.

    It was refreshing to read a rational post on the subject! Thanks!

  4. Nathan Arthur says:

    Erin, wow, thanks for your comment!

    13 vs. 17 – I personally doubt that a 17-week fetus is self-aware, but I have a much harder time comparing a 17-week fetus to a fish, so “17” seems like a risky number.

    I also strongly disagree that the “health of the family” is a reason for extending the deadline. What if you couldn’t have those tests done until 25 weeks? (I’ll bet a few years ago, that was the case.) What if the test couldn’t be done until 39 weeks? What if it couldn’t be done until after the baby was born, or after they were 2 years old (e.g. a psychology test)?

    The relevant question is still (always) “when does it become murder?” That answer is currently very fuzzy. I believe that “13 weeks” is a very safe number; “17 weeks” feels less so.

    If you can’t determine whether the baby will have birth defects until after the baby is self aware, then the choice to get pregnant needs to be the choice (for you and the baby) to live with the outcome, whatever it ends up being – unless the outcome is so terrible as to justify murder, and you’re able to make that choice. The only reason I can think of for that is if the baby is likely to kill the mother – which is about a terrible a situation as I can imagine anyone ever being in.

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