Abortion: A Question of Women’s Rights, Morality—or Both?

April 5, 2010

While discussing abortion recently, a friend of mine made two arguments that go something like this: abortion is a women’s rights issue, and, even further, women (and their doctors) alone should be the ones making the decisions. That is, a woman should have the right to have an abortion, and nobody should be interfering with that, or her decision. These are two arguments that need to be dealt with separately, the first being whether abortion is purely a women’s rights issue, and second, how open the debate should be on the matter.

Firstly, for political liberals at least, it seems abortion is already a women’s rights issue. We rarely hear our lawmakers or other public officials defending the legality of abortion based on the concepts of the soul or fetal personhood; instead, we hear them argue that a woman should have the right to choose. Yet there seems to be a problem with the communication of this defense. Consider that roughly half of Americans think abortion should be usually or always illegal, objecting to the practice because it is the destruction of something worth our moral concerns and/or rights. Even many liberals are hesitant on the matter because of their faith, or their fear of upsetting social norms. Polling data suggests public opinion has been unchanged over the years on this issue. What can we do, then, to solve our problem?

I don't claim to have all the answers, but as it stands, the two sides in this debate are talking past each other, and there's no real discussion on the beliefs that drive the controversy itself. For the right, abortion is almost always wrong because it is murder. Liberals respond that women have the right to choose what to do with their own bodies. But, then, liberals are effectively defending a woman’s right to commit murder, and thus the debate wrongly focuses on how much power we give women over their body and the fetus. Instead, what liberals must first do is defend why abortion should be a woman's choice. I suspect liberals avoid this move for at least two reasons: first, liberals don’t often like to dig too deeply into religiously influenced issues, as debate can get contentious; and second, liberals have already won the moral case in their own minds. But open, honest debate is necessary in our open democracy. And even if you have won a debate in your own mind, you still need to convince the public you are right. So, how can a supporter of choice do that?

At least two answers rest in the concepts of morality and legal rights. Do fetuses deserve our moral consideration? Should society grant them legal rights? To get moral consideration from us, it would seem reasonable to demand sufficient evidence that a fetus is aware of itself, able to suffer (not just that it responds to stimuli, but that it can experience what it is like to respond to stimuli). As for rights, we give these to protect the freedom – the interests of human beings, of persons – in a society. So, if not completely aware of itself, to be granted rights, a fetus must at least need its freedom protected, or have interests, whether its own or from others.

Perhaps the most important matter for us to clear up is the difference between first and second-term abortions, and late-term abortions. We need to do this for two reasons. First, research shows that fetuses are unlikely to suffer pain until around 26 or 27 weeks (more here ) into the pregnancy (also around the time of viability, though we should note even viable fetuses need tremendous care). Second, only 1.4 percent of all abortions in the United States annually, occur after 21 weeks. Yes, you read correctly: roughly 99 percent of all abortions in the U.S. take place before a fetus is equipped to suffer. In fact, 90 percent of all abortions in the U.S. occur in the first 13 weeks, nowhere near the controversial 26th or 27th weeks. So while we still lack conclusive evidence about what late-term fetuses can experience, (I will return to this in a moment), it seems we reach a point here where abortion is hardly a moral issue, as nearly all abortions performed in the U.S. happen when the fetus cannot be expected to suffer.

Many will argue here that we are destroying “human life.” But as Peter Singer has pointed out, of course a fetus is human life – yet what does this do to clear up whether or not we have moral responsibilities for the object, or whether the object deserves rights? As a society, we don’t seem to generally feel concerned for the suffering or rights of other basic forms of human life – like the cells that encompass our entire body. Why is that? Because not all human life matters.

Many will go further, arguing a fetus is not just human life, but a human person, thus deserving our considerations. But this would be stretching the bounds of the words so far that they would cease to mean anything. A person, or human being, at the very least has interests, and is usually conscious or sentient, aware of its surroundings. In turn, this person wants to be protected by rights from the state so that it can live out its life free of oppression from the state or from neighbors. But in just about every abortion performed in the U.S., the fetus isn’t conscious or sentient. So how can a fetus want freedom or rights? Even if we wanted to grant the fetus rights, why would we do so for an object which we have no reason to believe is part of our moral circle? In this vein, considering we have more moral obligation to the fully human mother than the fetus, there is no basis for society to preemptively grant the fetus rights in wanting to protect its freedom over the freedom of the mother.

The fetus has an interest in staying alive, though, right? Surely; but in that case, so does an ant, and I don’t see people walking very carefully on the sidewalks. Many things have an interest in staying alive that we do not grant moral consideration or rights. In this case, a fetus cannot even have an interest in living to its potential, for it does not even know it is living currently. But doesn’t the mother have an interest in keeping the fetus alive? Maybe – but the decision is hers at this point. When a human being loses the ability to be aware of his or her own interests, we pass responsibility over to the significant other or next of kin – to the person who has an interest in the situation. Given that the mother has rights, and that there is little to no moral tie to the fetus, the mother is then allowed to decide if the fetus has interests. The interests of the fetus are the interests of the mother.

With this, the act of abortion may no longer be a moral issue for us – but we still have a moral issue when we consider that a woman’s right to get an abortion is severely restricted in the U.S. As Rachel Maddow reported via the Alan Guttmacher Institute , in 87 percent of all U.S. counties, it is impossible to get an abortion. Securing the right to have an abortion might even help resolve the problem of third-term abortions. Consider that a Guttmacher survey of women who had third-term abortions found half of them had a difficult time arranging to have an abortion. If abortions were more available, it seems the need to worry about third-term abortions would lessen.

Now we finally get to the lingering issue of open debate. Clearly there is much to learn about the fetus in the third term, and that is a conversation worth having. Moreover, although we have reached some level of determination about fetal rights before that, there is still much to learn about this issue – and not just for women. All members of society – tied to neighbors by law and conscience – ought to be concerned about the potential suffering and/or interests of a fetus. If there is compelling evidence that a fetus can suffer at some point in its existence, or a gripping argument that the fetus should be kept alive, everyone in society should be willing to listen. This argument goes the same way when we are speaking of women’s rights. Women’s rights are a moral issue not just for women, but everyone in society.

Yet while we cannot convince everyone to care, at the same time, nobody can be excluded from conversation either. Indeed, we probably shouldn't want it any other way. Clearly, religious believers care about abortion, and as political philosopher David Miller points out in " Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction ," these concerns cannot be dismissed considering how widely they are held. But secularists care, too. So we’re all in the public square together. This is not a problem; the problem is figuring out how to go forth from there. A debate needs to be had, but how will it be carried out? In this specific case, do we respond to these people with the women’s rights argument, or do we ask them to substantiate their beliefs about the soul and personhood first? I think we will find the latter is the necessary route. And in asking questions, and making the moral and legal case, we must still keep our eyes on the moral issue of women's access abortion.

Note: This essay was originally published on the the blog Rationally Speaking