Saturday, July 23, 2005

Philosophical Investigation into Abortion Rights

This is the conclusion to an essay I wrote for my Intro. to Philosophy classes at Quincy College but then chickened out and never used. The surprising thing about it for me is that although I have always been "pro-life" (through many different political and religious incarnations), my final conclusion was very nearly "pro-choice," at least under some fairly common circumstances and with some restrictions.

...Finally, there is a class of arguments about abortion which depend on the concept of the future. One of the primary difficulties with talking about abortion is that any talk, for instance, of the subjectivity of the fetus cannot simply be limited to the subjectivity that the fetus may presently possess, but must be expanded to include the subjectivity which it can be expected to possess if it is born and continues to live. The difficulty is in talking about the future at all. How is this even possible, when the future does not yet exist? I would submit that there are two extremes to avoid. The first is that which would argue for a purely mental or subjective future. By this definition, even to conceive of a future existence is in some sense to cause it to exist. Some radical opponents of abortion rights argue that a fertilized egg, even before it is implanted, is already a person. Others would outlaw abortion even in cases when it can be proved that the pregnancy will result in the death of the woman. One response to these arguments is that there is no good reason to stop simply at the fertilization of the egg. One could just as easily argue that a "person" already exists from the moment of copulation, or even the moment when the future parents first meet. It is an absurdly deterministic argument. (I am reminded of Billy Crystal’s line in the movie City Slickers: "If the women you date get any younger pretty soon you’ll be dating sperm.") I submit that the concept of "the future" only has meaning as an extrapolation of present material reality. This is not to say that the future is purely material, only to point out that it is absurd to imagine a future with no organic basis in the present. The second extreme is the argument that the future is an abstraction which has no bearing on the choices made by persons living in the present. For instance, few would argue that a parent who loses a one month old infant has only lost the infant as it was in its present state (i.e., that the loss of the infant is equivalent to the loss of a relationship which has only lasted for one month.) Rather, the sense of loss stems from the loss of everything they could have reasonably expected or hoped the infant would become. It is the complete loss of its potential. Thus the difficulty with talking about abortion is analogous to the difficulty of talking about responsibility towards future generations. Some philosophers have argued that the most rational course of action for the present generation would be to consume all of the earth’s resources, arguing that there is no empirical evidence of "the future." Most reasonable people, however, have some sense of an obligation to future generations even though these persons are not yet actual. Most philosophers would agree that responsibility towards the future is one of the foundations of modern ethics.
Consider the example of a typical pregnant woman who intends to complete her pregnancy. In addition to making the usual preparations, she pre-enrolls the fetus in her employer’s day care program. Of course it is not the fetus she enrolls. She is not enrolling the fetus either objectively [its material body] or subjectively [the person it presently is by way of the experiences it has in the womb.] Rather she has enrolled a "future person" whose basis in reality (i.e., future reality) depends entirely on her intention to provide it a future. One could argue that through the process of preparing for its birth, she is constructing a personhood which otherwise would not exist. This includes selecting a name, buying baby clothes, adjusting her living arrangements, etc. Even actions such as avoiding physical labor, abstaining from alcohol, and playing soothing music all can be seen as being actually directed towards the future event of the person rather than the fetus as it is at present.
This argument can help to explain a puzzling aspect of abortion: how it is even possible, not in the physical sense but mentally and emotionally. Arguments against abortion rights depend largely on proving that abortion of some fetuses is the termination of a human person, potentially equivalent to the termination of non-fetuses. Yet most women who have abortions are not emotionally or mentally disturbed and would never consider terminating any non-fetus. There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that women who have abortions dissociate from the consequences of their actions in the same way that otherwise rational and moral leaders of nations dissociate from the consequences of waging war. The second is that women considering abortion have a different understanding of their fetuses than do those who oppose abortion rights. If pregnant women regard their fetuses as the organic basis of a future person, whose future depends entirely on their intention to create it, then it is only by that intention that one can speak of the personhood of the fetus, and without that intention that future person does not and cannot exist. If this is the case then women who are considering having an abortion are attempting to discover whether they have this intention, i.e., whether within their own subjectivity also exists the subjectivity of the fetus as future person. This would explain equally how rational and moral women are capable of considering having an abortion as well as why this decision is so difficult. This also explains why there is a consensus even among most opponents of abortion rights as to the morality of abortion in certain exceptional circumstances such as a pregnancy caused by rape or incest. From either a purely objective perspective or the perspective of objectively inferred subjectivity, the fetuses of such women are no different (at least not necessarily) than any other fetuses and would seem to merit the same protection. Even opponents of abortion rights instinctively recognize, however, that it would be almost impossible for a woman who became pregnant through such circumstances to intend such a future person, and that to make such a demand of her would be highly immoral and would constitute a form of violence. One could ask on the basis of this whether other futures, though not as extreme, could be seen as violent in a similar way.
This argument would seem to lead in the direction of favoring abortion rights, with some possible restrictions (for instance, the necessity of counseling to assist women in the process of discernment.) There are several possible responses which I will briefly rehearse. The objectivist might claim that the process of pregnancy is for the most part objective. If left unhindered, the fetus will physically mature regardless of the woman’s attitude towards it. Again, however, this encounters the materialist counter-argument that the physical process of gestation is not sufficiently constitutive of personhood and that an entity must meet other criteria to be considered a person. Perhaps using the argument of objectively inferred subjectivity one could still claim that there is a portion of the fetus’ subjectivity which is independent of the woman’s intention towards it. For instance, it has experiences she does not have and on the basis of those experiences might have its own sense of a future (both a future as a fetus, for as long as it remains in the womb, and a future beyond the womb.) One could also object to the logic that the pregnant woman’s intention to either create or not create a future person somehow already exists in an innate sense which she must discover. Opponents of abortion rights might argue that though she may not intend a future for her fetus, she is capable of it in most circumstances.
The issue of abortion rights is so complex because it involves political action on both on objective and a subjective level. This has led to considerable confusion and little progress towards a resolution of the issue as the opposing parties have more often then not been talking past each other. I ask you to take the issue seriously, to try and challenge whatever pre-conceptions or ideologies you have in place and to give the topic the careful and philosophical analysis it deserves.

No comments: