Futures and Options

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Coming together on Abortion

Pastor Bill Shuler of the Capitol Life Church in Arlington, Virginia gives us a list of ten questions upon which, he claims, “we should be able to come together,” meaning that, in his eyes, we should all agree on his points.  Let’s take a look at his list and see if his claims are justified.

  1. Can we agree that the number of abortions needs to be reduced?
     
    No, we cannot because there is no consensus on the precise definition of “need” in this instance.  From a purely secular viewpoint, the only “need” is to preserve the ability of a society to function and there is no compelling evidence to suggest that the current abortion rate is in any way impairing the ability of society to function.  In fact, as Steven Levitt points out in his book, “Freakonomics”, there is at least some evidence to suggest that our current abortion rate is actually improving society’s ability to function. If a person is of the opinion that a government’s only responsibility is to provide a stable society on a secular level, then there cannot be a true perception of any “need” to reduce the number of abortions that is based on pure rationality.  This question presupposes that the opposition believes that governmental protection of life is important in and of itself rather than purely as a means of promoting social stability.

    Now, if the question is re-phrased as, “Can we agree that it would be preferable to minimize abortions?”, then I believe the answer could reasonably be “yes”.  However, as long as the word “need” is used, agreement is not possible.
     
  2. Can we border on caution when it comes to the question of when life begins?
     
    Carried out to an admittedly absurd degree, choosing “caution” in this question could result in the decision that life begins with the creation of individual gametes well before any potential zygote is created.  I admit that under this definition masturbation (in males) and menstruation (in females) would be, technically, murder since both involve the destruction of gametes that, again technically, contain the potential for human life. Still, I understand Shuler’s thrust with this point and I agree that there is a valid sentiment here.  It is possible to construct a secular argument that, since a fertilized egg (zygote) has a sufficiently reasonable chance of developing into a viable fetus it should therefore be treated as “alive” in the legal sense.  This is open to argument on the grounds that medical estimates suggest that anywhere between 50% and 70% of zygotes never make it to full term (for natural reasons).  That opposition can be countered through examples of other laws (e.g. drunk driving prohibitions) that restrict actions that are not guaranteed to be causative.

    In any case, at this point there is at least a legitimate and secular discussion possible and we have proven an ability to build a case against abortion that does not rest strictly on emotional/theological/moral grounds.
     
  3. Can we agree that inconvenience is not a proper reason for an abortion?
     
    Again, from a strict secular position, I don’t think this is an area where agreement can legitimately be expected.  Who defines “inconvenience”?  Is one month of bed-rest a mere “inconvenience” or is it something above and beyond?  How about two months?  Three?  I would agree that there are valid arguments against using abortion as a primary means of birth control (e.g. in lieu of condoms or the pill) inasmuch as abortion is more invasive and more likely to cause complications for the woman as well, but that’s not the only thing implied by “inconvenience”.

    What of couples who use a condom or the pill (or even both) and still conceive?  Is an abortion still a mere “convenience” then?  From a purely secular view these questions are not easily answered.  A rational discussion is certainly possible, but again this seems to be a clear case where, as the saying goes, honorable men may differ.
     
  4. Can we speak to those of an opposite viewpoint without using hate speech?
     
    Absolutely.  But this is a two-way street and someone needs to get the message out to the people who think it’s acceptable to bomb clinics or harass doctors who perform abortions.
     
  5. Can we choose to promote a culture of life?
     
    What is a “culture of life”?  Is it a culture in which the needs of people who have been raped are considered?  Is a a culture in which the needs of those whose life is at risk from carrying a pregnancy to term are considered?  The term “culture of life” is a pleasant-sounding platitude but it’s not a meaningful definition of anything.  The only purpose is to create the (patently false) impression that our current culture is somehow a “culture of death”.  Empty rhetorical devices such as this do nothing to improve an argument’s perception.
     
  6. Can we encourage adoption, recognizing the many parents who would love and cherish a baby?
     
    Absolutely.  But does this question imply that adoption is somehow currently discouraged?  Because I don’t believe that is true.  Most people, even those who support legalized abortion, already agree that adoption is preferable in cases where there are no extenuating circumstances (e.g. mother’s health in danger, rape, etc) but that doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that abortion should be reduced in availability as an option.
     
  7. Can we help teens see that abstinence is the best option and clearest way to avoid STDs, regret and abortions?
     
    I don’t think that there is any teen of at least moderate intelligence who doesn’t know, intellectually, that abstinence is the single most effective means of preventing STDs and pregnancy.  However, to promote abstinence-only plans is to willfully disregard reality.  Educating teens about their options in addition to abstinence is a necessary component of sex education and we ignore it at our own peril.
     
  8. Can we agree that there is no greater gift than life?
     
    Calling life a “gift” presupposes a religious, or at least “spiritual”, understanding of the universe.  To a purely secular mind, life is an “occurrence” and not a “gift” because life is not conceived of as being “bestowed” upon an entity by any supernatural force.  This statement is meaningless when addressing a secular audience.
     
  9. Can we agree that this is ultimately an issue that transcends politics?
     
    Unarguably it does.  Which is precisely why it should remain legal.  Politics are concerned exclusively with a country’s secular existence.  If the arguments against abortion are primarily religious, ethical, or moral in nature then they are irrelevant to legal and political decisions.  If there are cogent secular arguments against abortion, they should, by all means, be considered.  However, if opposition to abortion depends upon religious principles then it is reckless to an extreme degree to allow those religious convictions to become codified in secular law.
     
  10. Can we agree that you and I wouldn’t be able to have an opinion on this issue if we had been aborted?
     
    Cute, but far from anything resembling a cogent secular argument.

To be sure, I am personally opposed to abortion and, were I asked for counsel by a woman who was considering one, would recommend adoption instead assuming that the woman’s life was not in danger and that her pregnancy was not the result of a rape.  Neither do I believe that the government should directly fund the practice.  However, I likewise do not believe that I would be right to impose my own morality upon others in the absence of a valid secular reason to do so and, so far, I have found no compelling secular argument against the practice of abortion.  I don’t like that I haven’t, but the truth is often uncomfortable like that.

posted by Zenmervolt at 10:35  

5 Comments »

  1. Loved this blog.
    In particular #5. Using “culture of life” is just as annoying to me as saying someone is pro-life, as if somehow being pro-choice means that I am either anti-life or pro-death…
    Matt just sent me the link to this blog and I plan on keep reading your posts! They’re great!

    Comment by Lindsey — Monday, 18 May, 2009 @ 11:08

  2. I do not understand what it means to argue something from a “strict secular position.” I’m not convinced that there is such a clear distinction between personal morality and the legitimate objectives of secular government, as your arguments suggest. A secular law must always have an objective – some social “good” that the law is intended to promote – and at root, those objectives will always have a moral component. We think it’s morally wrong to murder people, so we criminalize murder. If you regard abortion as tantamount to murder, what further “secular” argument do you need to support laws banning the practice?

    You say “from a purely secular viewpoint, the only “need” is to preserve the ability of a society to function and there is no compelling evidence to suggest that the current abortion rate is in any way impairing the ability of society to function.” But this argument simply begs the question: how is it that we want society to function? To what end shall our laws direct the functioning of our society? If you think an important aim of society is preservation of human life, and you think that fetuses count as a form of human life, then it seems pretty rational (in a secular sense) to ban abortion. Indeed, under this standard, society can hardly be said to be “functioning” well at all when it allows millions of innocent lives to be taken every year. The pro-choice crowd values a competing moral principle: freedom of women to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. It is far from clear to me that the moral values underlying the pro-choice position, but not those underlying the pro-life position, constitutes a valid secular argument. Both positions are based on difficult moral judgments, as are most laws we pass.

    I’m not saying anything original here about the pro-life or pro-choice positions. All I’m saying is that you can’t summarily dismiss the pro-life position as non-secular. The secular argument and the moral argument about abortion overlap broadly.

    Comment by Strix nebulosa — Monday, 18 May, 2009 @ 20:44

  3. “We think it’s morally wrong to murder people, so we criminalize murder.”

    Actually, that’s incorrect. Murder is not outlawed because it is considered to be morally wrong. Murder is outlawed because the alternative, namely that anyone could kill anyone else at any time without fear of repercussions, would create widespread panic and fear for one’s own safety. Such conditions would be tantamount to anarchy and no modern social structure could possibly survive. It is murder’s immediate destabilizing effect on the social structure that causes it to be outlawed rather than any “moral” attribution.

    Abortion causes no similar widespread panic and presents no threat of causing the social structure to disintegrate. This is not a moral judgment, it is an observable empirical fact. In cultures where murder is permitted (or where the government is unable to prevent it) there is a demonstrable decline in societal structure and the ability of citizens to go about their normal lives (e.g. Sudan, Afghanistan, etc). In cultures where abortion is permitted, there is no demonstrable decline in societal structure.

    Also, I have not dismissed the anti-abortion position as non-secular. I have dismissed the common anti-abortion arguments as non-secular. I even went so far as to suggest a truly secular argument against abortion in my response to point number two.

    Comment by Zenmervolt — Tuesday, 19 May, 2009 @ 07:52

  4. I’m not sure whether we’re agreeing or disagreeing. I suspect some of the confusion stems from an imprecise definition of the word “secular.” I might understand your position better if you address these two questions:

    Question one. Why do describe your response to point two as suggesting a truly secular argument? I understand the difficulty of drawing lines regarding fetal development, but it seems to me that in order to make a case against abortion, at some point you have to make a leap and say “and killing unborn babies is wrong.” How does that fit into your definition of secularism?

    Question two. We don’t allow parents to kill their own one-year-old babies. Why not? It wouldn’t seem to cause any mass disruption in society, because one-year-olds would not perceive that other parents are killing their babies, so it wouldn’t cause any panic or fear in the potential victims. Is there a secular reason why we don’t allow infanticide by a child’s own parents?

    Comment by Strix nebulosa — Tuesday, 19 May, 2009 @ 11:15

  5. Why do describe your response to point two as suggesting a truly secular argument? I understand the difficulty of drawing lines regarding fetal development, but it seems to me that in order to make a case against abortion, at some point you have to make a leap and say “and killing unborn babies is wrong.” How does that fit into your definition of secularism?

    While I would quibble with the use of the word “wrong” (which is inherently a moral evaluation) and substitute “undesirable”, I’ll stipulate that, given the questioner, such quibbles are mostly pedantry on my part. I consider my suggested argument to be “strictly secular” because it does not invoke any absolute right or wrong as received from a deity but rather bases its argument on existing legal precedents and scientific knowledge. In other words, rather than simply saying, “killing babies is wrong” (a moral statement that, while I agree with it, largely depends on some form of religious or spiritual sentiment) the argument says, “a zygote is sufficiently likely to develop into a fetus and eventually into a healthy baby that it is only logical to afford a zygote similar protection under the law as would be given to persons already born.”

    We don’t allow parents to kill their own one-year-old babies. Why not? It wouldn’t seem to cause any mass disruption in society, because one-year-olds would not perceive that other parents are killing their babies, so it wouldn’t cause any panic or fear in the potential victims. Is there a secular reason why we don’t allow infanticide by a child’s own parents?

    Pragmatism. At some point there must be a demarcation between the age at which, if murder were allowed, there would be mass disruption of society. For example, it seems very clear to me that a child who grew up knowing that his or her parents could kill him could suffer some fairly severe psychological damage. The age at which a child would be sufficiently mentally aware of such things (and therefore able to be damaged psychologically by them) would naturally vary from child to child making a hard line of demarcation difficult. Birth is a well-defined and documented point that can effectively serve as this demarcation point. For pragmatic reasons one can argue that it is rational to adopt birth as the point at which a person “becomes a person” and is therefore granted protection under the law.

    This argument can actually work further in favor of restricting abortion as one could say that, at the time when this standard came into wide use, there was a lack of ability to determine when conception occurred and a lack of understanding of the fetal development process. As we now know more about the process and are able to understand the concept of conception and the processes that surround it, one can argue that it is rational to change the demarcation point from birth to conception. In this case the revision is based not on any moral principle but on a revision in scientific knowledge.

    Comment by Zenmervolt — Wednesday, 20 May, 2009 @ 06:52

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