Friday, January 18, 2013

Thinking aloud on abortion

Richard Johnson for the National Post.
I've had this draft on my dash for *ages,* but never hit publish because it is so far from perfect. Consider this the starting point for my thinking on abortion, not the conclusion.

The National Post published this graphic on December 7th 2012 that I think is really useful (click the link in the caption for the best view). There’s something so grounding about data, isn’t there? Particularly for controversial topics. I was tempted to tape it to the wall across from my toilet to force guests to look at it.*

Presently, Canadians have unrestricted access to abortion. There are no legal limits, though as the graph illustrates, late-term abortions are rare. This is unusual, and troubling for abortion moderates who have moral qualms about late-term or sex-selective abortions.

Talking about abortion is taboo. Harper thinks bringing up the issue in parliament is “unfortunate,” parties promise to avoid the issue altogether, and pro-life student groups have to fight for funding.

Which is why I keep thinking, silently, to myself, that Canadians need to have a rational discussion about abortion -- that both sides of the debate need to acknowledge the limits of their knowledge and the difficulty of the decision.

So here’s my contribution: I do not know when human life begins, and I think the ironclad certainty of the pro-life and pro-choice movements is rootless and destructive. Both sides have deluded themselves into thinking they know the Truth, and in doing so have shut down debate.

Personally, untangling my feelings surrounding the abortion issue is trying. Politically, it’s nearly impossible. I really can’t think of a good, public, universal defense of the lives of fetuses/babies until they’re like, seven years old and smarter than the average jay bird.

On one hand, women should be at liberty to do whatever they want to their own body. The baby is within them, so the mother is sovereign. Governments have a history of denying women sovereignty over themselves and this is a continuation of that history. A fetus is simply tissue that grows within a woman's body, and no one has any right to tell women how to treat their tissue.

On the other, have a look at that fetus. It looks like a baby, no? From very early on. It certainly becomes a baby -- we were all once fetuses. Looks like a baby, acts like a baby, just what exactly makes you doubt it's a baby? Particularly when the fetus is viable. Sure, it's still dependent, but have you met babies? They stay dependent for a really long time. Seems like a silly distinction. A fetus is a baby, and killing a baby is murder, so abortion is murder.

Both positions are persuasive if you accept their definition of when a person’s life begins. The problem is that drawing that line in the sand is a crap shoot.* For you, for me, for anybody.

Frankly, I can’t even decide who ought to be in charge of determining personhood. A judge seems a poor choice. A philosopher or biologist seem incomplete. Certainly not a preacher -- Canada is a diverse society, there isn't any mention of abortion in the Bible (even though in Jesus’ time infanticide was common. I like to imagine Jesus was all “woooaah not touching THAT issue people need to love me”) and the church’s position is historically inconsistent. No one expert seems to possess the authority needed to state "personhood starts here."

The good news is, impossible issue like these are what politics is all about. When life begins is, for lack of a better word, a matter of opinion.

Opinions are trivial, but can be made valid through discursive thinking, persuasive and dissuasive arguments, and ultimately the consent of the community they govern.

For example, when Jefferson declared in the Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal...” the significance of the statement did not come from the expressed “truths,” but in the consensus between individuals: that they held it to be true.

That all men are created equal cannot be proved. It is our collective preference that it be treated as true. It is our common sense of opinion that created this laudable ideal.

By refusing to argue publicly about abortion, we deprive society of the opportunity to determine and entrench the ideals surrounding it. Regardless of your position on abortion, if you desire consensus you will first have to embrace argument.

I’m still undecided on many aspects of the abortion debate. I think it ought to be legal, but I can see the value in limitations.  At the same time, I know personally I could never choose abortion.

I’m also certain that abortion is an emotional, intensely personal yet necessarily political issue that deserves a sensitive and caring approach. So please, please stop acting like the other side is stupid or evil. If Canadians think abortion is important enough to protect or forbid, Canadians need to feel confident enough to talk about it.

* Stop by sometime, I am an excellent host.
* “Mixed metaphors lighten the mood!” I thought to myself.