The issue of abortion remains a key battleground in today’s culture wars. Whether you oppose or support abortion, you put yourself in the line of fire, especially as a man. Part of the reason is that abortion tends to be framed as a women’s issue—my body, my choice. But this is not accurate. Nor does it do justice to the moral complexity of the subject.
An embryo or fetus is not a female body part. Biologically speaking, it is a separate human being, which shares half of its DNA with its father. Moreover, as Coleman Hughes writes in his article “Rethinking Abortion Advocacy,” unlike a body part, an embryo or fetus “will become something with distinct moral worth: a baby.” And, in 51.7% of cases, that baby will be male.
What’s more, not all women support abortion—far from it. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll, 47% of American women consider themselves pro-life. Conversely, 47% of American men consider themselves pro-choice. So the narrative that the abortion issue is, in essence, about men denying women the right to decide what they do with their bodies is inaccurate on multiple levels.
Nor does the fact that women are the ones who get pregnant necessarily mean that abortion is purely a women’s issue. We are a dimorphic species, which implies different reproductive roles for men and women, who need each other to procreate. Human reproduction thus concerns both sexes. This, in turn, implies that abortion, which is directly related to human reproduction, also concerns both men and women (which is not to suggest that it affects men and women equally, given their different reproductive roles). In short, abortion is a human issue; it transcends gender politics. It is also a moral issue relating to questions about the nature and value of human life.
Many pro-choicers, however, don’t treat abortion as a moral issue, partly because, in their view, an embryo or fetus is not a subject of moral worth. Some even consider it a parasite, confusing procreation with parasitism (in biology, a parasite, by definition, is of a different species than its host). This is somewhat problematic. After all, liberal society is based on the idea that human life has intrinsic value. It forms the basis of our concept of inalienable individual rights—“no one may be sacrificed for others,” to quote the philosopher Robert Nozick.
This, however, is not to suggest that pro-lifers are correct in saying that abortion is murder. Murder is the deliberate killing of a person, and an embryo or fetus is not a person (though it may be regarded as a person in the making). As Steven Pinker notes in The Blank Slate,
The discovery that what we call ‘the person’ emerges piecemeal from a gradually developing brain forces us to reframe problems in bioethics. It would have been convenient if biologists had discovered a point at which the brain is fully assembled and is plugged in and turned on for the first time, but that is not how brains work. The nervous system emerges in the embryo as a simple tube and differentiates into a brain and a spinal cord. The brain begins to function in the fetus, but it continues to wire itself well into childhood and adolescence.
However, we have to draw the line somewhere. Since the question of personhood is, in Hughes’s words, “not a scientific question, but a conceptual one,” this implies an arbitrary decision. The most sensible approach may therefore be to draw the line as early as possible—with due consideration of the individual rights and interests of all parties involved. (Hughes, for example, draws the line at twelve weeks, arguing that this “gives women seeking abortions a reasonable amount of time to obtain them without encroaching on the period during which the fetus begins to develop consciousness.”)
Pro-lifers often argue that abortion violates an unborn’s right to life. However, as Nathan Nobis and Kristina Grob point out in their article “Abortion and Soundbites: Why Pro-Choice Arguments Are Harder to Make,” “since the right to life does not include the right to someone else’s body, a fetus might not have the right to the pregnant woman’s body—therefore she has the right to not allow the fetus use of her body.” But this leaves out an important part of the story—how the fetus got into her body in the first place.
Nobis and Grob’s critique—that “Soundbites make many pro-life arguments seem stronger than they really are, while the complexities of pro-choice arguments can’t be readily reduced to soundbites”— ignores the fact that pro-choice is itself a soundbite oversimplifying the issue. After all, abortion is only one of many reproductive choices available to women in modern societies.
Of course, there are special cases in which outside influences severely limit a woman’s freedom of choice—rape and incest being the most obvious examples. As USA Today reports, however, “Just 1% of women obtain an abortion because they became pregnant through rape, and less than 0.5% do so because of incest, according to the Guttmacher Institute.” These are exceptions warranting special moral consideration. The trouble, however, is that they have garnered outsized attention in today’s abortion debate, particularly in the pro-choice camp.
Other special cases include pregnancies that are terminated because the baby is likely to be born with a severe mental or physical defect. What’s interesting here is that many of those who support abortion under almost any circumstances oppose disability-selective abortion, mainly because they see it as a form of ableism—discrimination against people with disabilities—reminiscent of Nazi eugenics. Typically, their line of reasoning contains a slippery slope argument—that it’s only a small step from aborting disabled fetuses to euthanizing disabled persons—which plays right into the hands of those who argue that abortion is tantamount to murder.
The comedian Louis CK has a bit about abortion where he says, “I don’t think it’s killing a baby—I mean, it’s a little bit like killing a baby,” and invokes the idea of a moral continuum (which he then immediately rejects for comedic effect: “It’s totally killing a whole baby”). We are appalled by infanticide—and rightly so. Therefore, we want to avoid anything resembling it. This, however, does not imply that we have to adopt a pro-life stance. That personhood “emerges piecemeal from a gradually developing brain,” as Pinker points out, is highly relevant in this regard.
Also relevant is another gradually emerging characteristic: sentience. As with personhood, the capacity to feel and experience subjectively is closely linked to neurological development. (In his piece, Hughes confuses sentience with personhood, defining the latter in terms of “conscious experience, the ability to feel pain, the capacity for self-sustaining growth.” However, these characteristics can also be found in animals.) So, the question is: when does the fetus start to feel pain? According to science, “the fetus is not capable of feeling pain until the third trimester [which] begins at about 27 weeks of pregnancy.” At any rate, if morality is, at least in part, about the prevention of needless suffering in sentient beings (see sentientism), then surely we should aim to prevent needless fetal suffering as well.
In his abortion bit, CK jokes, “I think you should not get an abortion—unless you need one.” The humor here is in the semantic elasticity of the word need. Most people, even staunch pro-lifers, agree that abortion is justified if the mother’s life is in danger—she clearly needs an abortion. This implies that the mother’s right to life trumps that of the fetus, which reflects an understanding of personhood as a gradually developing and morally relevant characteristic. What it doesn’t imply, however, is that the interests of the mother always trump those of the embryo or fetus (anyone who disapproves of smoking during pregnancy recognizes that the unborn have interests to be protected). In short, abortion involves a weighing of interests. This can be much more complicated than dogmatic pro-life and pro-choice advocates make it out to be. As is so often the case, a compromise may be the best solution.
The idea that abortion should be safe, legal and rare offers a compromise of this kind. Some argue that it contains an internal contradiction. In CK’s words, “Why legal, if it should be rare?” Because legality is not morality. Just because abortion is legal up to a certain stage doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be avoided. Few people would argue, for instance, that abortion is a good thing in and of itself—that the more abortions, the better. Furthermore, there is clearly a difference between legally allowing women access to safe abortion and promoting abortion as an alternative to sexual responsibility. Ultimately, what we need is an open and informed debate on the ethics of abortion, free from dogma. Given that human reproduction and sexual responsibility are issues that concern both sexes, such a debate only makes sense if it includes both men and women.