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2.25.2011

Abortion Philosophy

It’s a super-volatile topic, I know… and I’m really not trying to antagonize anyone or stir up trouble.  I just want to throw out, in easily referenced fashion, how I frame the “abortion debate” in philosophical terms and why I find the political side of it (in the United States, at least) really oddly positioned.

Here are two contrasting principles:

When we encounter a conflict between a known rights-holder and a possible rights-holder, we should

  1. uphold the rights of the known rights-holder despite restricting a possible rights-holder
  2. guard/defend/protect the basic rights of the possible rights-holder despite restricting a known rights-holder

In most things, the “libertarian” position is A) above and the “liberal” position is B) above.  (Feel free to commend with improved terminology for me here; the Democrat party in the U.S. would usually be identified with “liberal” but the Republican party has a mix that runs from “libertarian” to almost “paternalistic,” for lack of a better word.)

How’s this cash out?

Animal welfare:  Dolphins or chimpanzees might deserve basic rights of life and liberty (nobody knows for sure) so we shouldn’t wantonly kill them even if someone says, “I captured those chimps on land I own” or “I have the right to fish these waters per international treaty and the dolphins are in my way,” etc.

Slavery:  People are people (and if you go back to the 1700s and 1800s that was in dispute, but you could make the argument, “Well, they sure look like people to me!”) and therefore shouldn’t be bought and sold.

Women’s rights at home and abroad:  Even if a culture says, “Around here, women are property,” we stand up and say that’s wrong and that they should be treated with human dignity.

With me so far?

Here’s where I ruffle feathers:

By any measure, a fetus sure seems to be a person.

An inconveniently located one, perhaps, but a person.

Looks like a person.

Comes from a person.

Has unique human DNA.

Let’s grant for the sake of argument that this particular fetus-person-thing is a horrendous physical and/or emotional burden on another person (the mother)…

Shouldnt the liberal position be that its right to life itself should be preserved?

“But my wife dishonored me and deserves to be stoned to death” isn’t an excuse.
“But freeing my slaves would have a terrible economic impact on my plantation” isn’t an excuse.
“But working around dolphins and chimpanzees is inconvenient and I don’t think they matter!” isn’t an excuse.

“My property, my choice” isn’t an acceptable reason for a government to ignore its obligation to protect the rights of those who can’t protect themselves.

But… “My body, my choice” is?

I honestly, truly don’t get it.

Yes, “my body” is a deeper, more core “right” than external property… but “life itself” of an aborted fetus is the deepest right of all, isn’t it?

For every argument I see about the physical, emotional and economic reasons for legalizing abortion, I can apply those same exact arguments to slavery or spousal abuse or environmental destruction.

Those things are very, very bad.  So abortion is too, right?

Why is it okay in some cases for the government to protect vulnerable populations from choices that might be harmful to others… but not okay in other cases?

Granted, we don’t “know” that a fetus is a person.  When dealing with risks and rights, there are lots of things we don’t “know”.

So, it comes back to our philosophical framework for making ethical decisions.

When we encounter a conflict between a known rights-holder and a possible rights-holder, we should

  1. uphold the rights of the known rights-holder despite restricting a possible rights-holder
  2. guard/defend/protect the basic rights of the possible rights-holder despite restricting a known rights-holder

Which side do you fall on?  Are you consistent in that belief?  If not, why not?

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