On abortion, infanticide, and ethics

Another week, another thread about abortion, another few pages of shallow analysis. In this great echo chamber of the streamlining of opinion and metaphorical burning of heretics, I rarely see anything original being added to this discussion and I feel the need to say my piece.

As an atheist I do not afford a voice in the debate to priests and others on moral crusades. As a rationalist I neither afford it to judges, politicians, special interest groups, celebrities, or, indeed, even to women themselves. To form my opinion on the subject I look to those best informed about it, and when it comes to abortion that would be medical ethicists and philosophers.

Allow me to address the most egregious example of a poor argument in the debate. It repeated ad nauseam, which does not add to its validity, and appears in a few variations over a theme. Women should have the right to choose since it is their body being ruined, their boobs getting saggy, their tummies getting stretchmarks, their vaginas becoming cavernous, etc. It is not rational to allow an argument of aesthetics to inform a debate about ethics, and even less so to let it trump it, yet it appears to always be presented as if valid.

The underlying reason why the debate is a debate in the first case is that it involves death, and death is something humans naturally fear and detest. Arguments against abortion are anchored in either the religious beliefs in the holiness and sanctity of life or the humanist beliefs in right to life. Yet we surround ourselves with death every day without questioning it, indeed our very lives are dependent on something which was once alive to die such that we can consume it since we cannot survive on inorganic matter alone, thus it seems fabricated.

The other major issue with these arguments is the extreme selectiveness in their application. Abortion spark outrage merely because the cause and effect are obvious, and the banning of abortion remain a practical possibility. Whenever these circumstances become less obvious and the solutions less practical the sanctity/right to life crowd tend to shy away. Imagine that uncovered manholes killed thousands each year, it would certainly spark outrage because the cause and effect is clear and the remedy is obvious.

Cars and guns kills hundreds of thousands in their prime youth without stirring similar outrage or having massive lobbies petitioning for bans. Obviously, in a world without cars and guns none would die from these two causes, yet it fails on practical grounds. Even in a world with much reduced speed limits and much increased driver education, or much stricter gun control and expensive weapons, the death toll would be reduced considerably. Thus my initial contention of just how arbitrary these arguments are, which leads me to the conclusion that they are merely masquerading as a general fear of death.

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One issue I have yet to see raised is that there is objectively no difference between an abortion after 12 weeks or 12 months, and one can hardly be in favor of the one and not the other while remaining consequent. However, abortion and infanticide evoke very different emotional reactions without being objectively different on ethical considerations. Part of the issue lies with the psychological experience of time, where immediacy between act and outcome determines the ethical considerations. The immediacy between the pressing of a trigger and a bullet killing another person makes it unethical to press the trigger, yet the unethical outcome does not actually start until the bullet kills another person. When time becomes miniscule the lines between act and outcome blurs, and when we experience significant delays in time the opportunity to inject arguments arise.

Therefore there is no distinction between aborting a potential infant and infanticide, if the latter is considered unethical in the future the former must be considered unethical today and vice versa. A further issue is that the line between what is considered life and not, and when the sanctity or right to this life begins, is necessarily arbitrary in the first place, and as technology inevitably progresses to the point of ex-utero pregnancy the issue of separation merely compounds.

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Personally I am in favor of abortion even though I well know that it inevitably involves death. Seeing as I am not religious I give no credence to arguments about some inherent holiness or sanctity to life, and as a realist it is difficult to place the right to life above all other considerations. I see that people continually die of good and bad causes, and while abortion may be a bad cause I find it less worse of a cause than supporting soldiers to fight and die on my behalf. In a perfect world there would be no need for abortion, but the world is imperfect and I need to make judgements based on how the world is. While abortion is certainly not a positive thing for society, I find it less worse than the alternative.

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Comment by Becca on August 27, 2012 at 7:47pm

When women speak of having a child possibly ruining their bodies they are very rarely referring to aesthetics. They are talking about: impotence, reduced/nonexistent sexual satisfaction, permanent damage to the birth canal that would make future children require a c-section, permanent damage to internal organs, psychological issues not limited to baby blues or postpartum depression, broken bones, severe scarring that requires medical treatment, and so on. Thanks to modern medicine and care many of these things are relatively rare.

Comment by Ed on August 27, 2012 at 9:52pm

While abortion and war both involve death the scales are totally different. And while tragic to lose a citizen soldier the outcome is vastly more serious. War is the continuing scourge of mankind but if we had chosen to remain on the sidelines this thread might have been written in German.

Comment by Arcus on August 28, 2012 at 5:52am

@Becca: You are attacking a straw man, I was specifically referring to the aesthetic arguments raised, not medical ones. I invite you to revisit some of the many abortion threads on this site to see just how often they are used.

But I'll respond nonetheless. Abortion is not without risks either. You would have to make a comprehensive list of the risks connected with pregnancy, their prevalence, weigh it by a measure of seriousness, and then compare it to a similar list of abortion. And to be slightly less callous, in the latter column you should probably add that abortion has a 100% mortality rate for the fetus. (As a side note, I do not believe women have major issues with impotence.)

@Ed: I agree wholeheartedly, I'm merely pointing out that society cheer on soldiers while lamenting fetuses.

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