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.


  1. While the legality of abortion will be debated for probably another generation, I still see it as a secondary issue, and something of a smoke screen. We can become distracted by legislation and abstracts and hypotheticals without ever focusing on the question--what is abortion? What is actually taking place? Can this possibly be considered a good thing? My answer is no, because I believe that life begins at conception. I believe what is taking place is the barbaric termination of a fellow human being.

    When slavery was legal, it was still immoral. Legality doesn't mean morality, and certainly not in this issue.

    I agree that the question of when life begins is ultimately a personal one, and therefore an opinion, but it's such an important question, I don't think it should be dismissed as a Coke or Pepsi type thing.

    For me, abortion remains the most pressing human rights issue facing society today. I am a libertarian, and so I think government should not interfere in people's lives. However, the most important liberty that deserves protection is the right to be, the right to life, to humanity. Whenever we as a society have ignored the humanity of a person, we have sinned. When we have pretended to be more foolish than we really are--pretending we believe a black man is a lesser fraction of a white man, we have done wrong. Whenever we think that the life of a foreigner is less sacred than ours because of the accident of his or her birthplace, we have sinned. And whenever we ignore what our eyes, our medical science, our hearts tell us is a human being, we have sinned. And the crass desire, as Christian voters, to not be defined by a single issue like abortion, is something we will have to answer for.

  2. I agree with Mr. Moineau and would add that definitions of human life and lines drawn on a calendar are side issues to what is really at stake. Except for the rare therapeutic abortion, that procedure is an attempt to undo choices made and deeds done, in a vain effort to avoid consequences. Nature, courtesy of God, dictates that choices and deeds will lead to outcomes and it has been known from before recorded history that certain behaviors result in undesirable consequences - such behaviors were labelled "sin". Those who choose to risk the natural consequences of their behavior try to delude themselves into believing that the problem they have created will simply go away after a visit to a "women's health" clinic. It would seem from history that some people can commit atrocities without remorse but here and now no woman leaves one of those clinics in good health.

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  4. Why is there such confusion about when life begins? According to any basic biology text, it begins at conception. From that point on, left alone the zygote will become a baby. How can that be a matter of opinion?

  5. Ah yes sorry, I see I was sloppy and used the terms interchangeably. What I was referring to is personhood. Sorry for the confusion!

  6. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "drawing that line in the sand is a crap shoot."

    When a human being is considered as such is entirely a cultural question. Some say conception, others say birth. There are even cultures who base the distinction on post-birth 'naming ceremonies' or ceremonies akin to baptism.

    Personally, I think a distinct human being is created when they are physically separated from their mother's body. But I can absolutely see the merit in different opinions, and in considering ethical, religious, cultural and scientific factors.

    What I object to is the State making a firm distinction -- with penal consequences -- on the basis of majority opinion, informed as that is in our democracy by the whims of the day and the efficacy of particular lobbyists.

    There is clearly a vast and vocal range of opinion. So let people debate and express their opinions. I support the right of anyone along the spectrum to make their opinion heard, and for a woman considering an abortion to seek guidance from whomever she sees fit.

    But ultimately, the person I want to make any final decision is the woman who is the carrier of this tissue/human/zygote/fetus. I simply cannot imagine any workable system in which the woman is not the final arbiter. She is the one who will have to live with the consequences -- economic, ethical, spiritual, existential. And I have absolutely no business imposing any of these consequences upon her.

    If a woman believes that an abortion is unethical, then I fully support her decision not to have one. But I will not see her deprived of the right to make the opposite decision.