Abortion and Other Questions
‘Everyone in the debate is opposed to outright infanticide—that is taking a live child and deciding to kill them because they’re too much trouble to take care of, and everyone agrees on that. Everyone agrees, I suppose, that women are allowed to wash their hands, although I guess you could make a case, if you went over to the biology department, that when a woman washes her hands, lots of cells flake off and some future technology might be able to use the information in those cells to construct a potential child. So somewhere between, say, washing your hands and killing your three-year-old, somewhere between them there are decisions to be made about how we’re going to balance what we call “life”, which is in fact there in the cells in your hands, against lots of other problems. People who say, “Well I know it’s this number of days,” can’t be taken seriously.’
I begin with Noam Chomsky’s comments about abortion because, admirably, he contributes in a manner we rarely see. Rather than whipping up a passion for or against abortion, Chomsky takes the heat out of the debate, readjusts the perspective. Unlike seemingly everyone else, he refuses to be certain, arguing instead that certainty can only be based on simplistic and contradictory reasoning. He reminds us that life is full of conflicting values. He warns us of those who are certain. But if we agree with Chomsky, then a new problem confronts us. If we accept, as it’s so unlike us to do, that we cannot know what is right, that we must ignore certain moral absolutes if we wish to act, that there is at least no easy answer and perhaps no answer at all, then how, in the real world, do we make decisions about unborn children?
I am talking about action beyond the theoretical domain. So much intellectual effort on the issue of abortion goes to waste in this trivial, unreal space. As Chomsky points out in the same interview, it’s hard to take seriously many people who actively protest about abortion, either for or against it. How many of them also support, for instance, the USA’s military intervention? And how many of them, therefore, are serious, really serious, about the lives of women and children? You simply cannot support the USA’s brutal neoliberalist project, dividing rich and poor across the globe, and at the same time take an ethical interest in the abortion question. Do the protestors really care about the foetus and the mother? Or do they only care about the American foetus and the American mother?
If we’re unable to answer the question, we can at least reduce the number of times we need to ask it. As Chomsky notes and as I think all of us are aware, abortion rates decrease as education becomes more available. Why don’t the protesters demand that the government helps fund sexual education programmes, both in their own country and across the world? Again they force me to question how serious they really are about human life. We should be indignant about these people and their attitudes. Even without agreement on the ethics of abortion, we can make a real difference to real lives. It seems their blinding rage drives them well off the track.
There’s also the feeling that, once we’ve answered the difficult question about abortion, only easy ones will remain. Intellectual enquiry on this point suggests otherwise. An article about abortion recently published in the Journal of Medical Ethics generated an uproarious response, to the extent that one of its writers received death threats. The article contends that, in all cases where a foetus may be aborted, a newborn child may also be killed. It moves to this conclusion by asserting that the foetus and a very young child have the same moral status. In the authors’ words, both are potential rather than actual persons, and as such, the concerns of mothers, fathers, and even of the state should take precedence.
According to Dr Giubilini and Dr Minerva, the academics behind this paper, killing a newborn is as acceptable as killing a foetus because, even shortly after birth, the child will not yet have developed aims. Life becomes valuable, they argue, when taking it away represents a loss, so until a human being invests him or herself with potentiality, which doesn’t occur immediately after birth, he or she isn’t a person in a morally relevant sense. The moral status of the infant and the newborn is equal, and consequently it’s as permissible to kill the newborn as it is to kill the foetus. They propose to call this form of infanticide ‘after-birth abortion’.
An interesting argument, but many disagree. It isn’t my aim here to explicate their premises any further or to come down on one side. I include this argument only because it proves that, even if we work out whether abortion is morally right, tough questions remain. In a hypothetical world in which we have legalised abortion, must we also accept after-birth abortion? Giubilini and Minerva seem to think so, but it’s complex. Surely it’s foreseeable that, in this potential world, a question about the status of the foetus and the newborn will divide people in the same way that its prior question has.
Sections from the interview with Noam Chomsky are accessible here. The video also features Peter Singer, whose philosophy heavily influenced Dr Giubilini and Dr Minerva’s arguments. Their article in the Journal of Medical Ethics can be found here.