Thursday, October 14, 2010

In Defence of Choice.

What gives us the right, as one commenter on Tuesday put it, to “snuff out a human life”? What gives a woman the right to abort a pregnancy?

The same basis that gives her the right to contraception. Or, to take an example that even the Catholics reading this can’t consider controversial, the basis that gives a married woman the right to have a natural menstrual cycle without conceiving.

She has the right to sovereignty over her own body, and she has no obligation to bring any given potential future person into actual existence. This right is not absolute — she may not use her body to harm another, of course, and (as I’ve explained elsewhere) I don’t believe she has the right to create a child for whom she is unable to adequately care, even if there is no direct harm involved.

Notice that I say “potential future person”. This is all that an embryo is and has: potential. It is potential in the same way that an ovum or a sperm cell is potential. It is defensible to say that, in the general case, we have an obligation to create some future persons; but that is an obligation that we hold to ourselves, because we desire the survival of our species; remove that desire, and the obligation is removed — and even though it does exist, it doesn’t translate to an obligation to procreate in any specific case. An embryo may become a person, given the right (fairly specific) conditions; but so may an ovum — it’s just one step earlier in the chain. Yes, it’s human life in the literal sense — it’s alive and it’s genetically human — but the morally relevant factor is not whether it is alive but whether it is a person, and without a functioning nervous system it’s no more a person than it is a telephone. If we create human tissue in the lab, we don’t give it moral rights. Biological independence also plays a role — a fœtus has the sort of relationship with its mother that in interspecies cases is called parasitism, and the only reason we don’t always treat it as such is because other motives, such as the desire to actually have a child, come into play.

Ultimately though, practical arguments can be brought to bear. Banning abortion doesn’t stop it from happening, any more than Prohibition stopped people drinking or abstinence education stops them shagging. It just drives it underground, making it far less safe as a procedure in its own right and also making it harder for people to find unbiased, factual information. At the end of the day, the decision to criminalise abortion is not a case of deciding between an abortion and a baby. It’s a case of deciding between a competent doctor in a sterile hospital, or a criminal in a back alley with a dirty coathanger.

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