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It’s about who decides

This has been brought on by a comment thread at Reclusive Leftist. The post was about feminism, but the thread kept veering off into abortion. Could you be a feminist and be antiabortion?

Folks, that is the wrong question. And asking the wrong question can never lead to the right answer, any more than looking for your socks in the bedroom when you lost them in the dryer is going to help you find the things.

So let’s start by asking the right question.

Maybe the first thing to do is figure out whether abortion really does kill babies. (I’m using “babies” as shorthand for “legal person with the same right not to be murdered as everyone else.”) If it does, even that’s not the end of the matter, as we’ll see in a bit, but first let’s figure that out. It’s a sticking point for many people.

Who’s human?

What are the facts? Science is the one method capable of finding objective proof, but it can only work its magic on objective data. It can tell us that human beings have forty three chromosomes, and that there is 95% similarity between our DNA and that of chimpanzees. The growing combination of egg and sperm is called a zygote, morula, blastula, gastrula, embryo, or fetus, depending on its stage of development. There are lots of facts, but I can see you rolling your eyes already. These facts don’t matter.

Few people would feel that the purely physical parameters are very important. Human DNA in a petri dish isn’t exciting (except to biologists), and a corpse looks much more human than a zygote. Qualities of feeling and mind are really what we’re thinking of when we say that humans are special.

Science can actually provide some data for the discussion of feelings and mind. Nerves, for instance, become myelinated beginning around the fourth month of development. Myelination gives nerves the ability to transmit the sensations we traditionally associate with feeling. Unmyelinated nerves provide that curious awareness of touch and pressure that you can feel under local anesthetic. It is the degree of sensation found in clams.

Thus, one can say with certainty that the developing embryo’s unmyelinated brain is not thinking or feeling in a way that we could recognize. The process of myelination continues after birth, and if the process is disrupted, as for instance in fragile X syndrome, severe retardation can result. That is how far away a fetus is from having a mind like ours, so it is perhaps best not to lean too heavily on the human mind to define humanity.

There are other problems with relying on brain power as a defining characteristic. It is not unique to us. Animal behavior studies have shown that many animals can reason, and once the decision point depends on the degree of reason, fetuses won’t do particularly well.

The only mental skill that has not yet been found in the rest of the animal kingdom is grammar. Bees can say, “excellent flowers, southeast, five miles,” but they can’t distinguish between, “Fly southeast for five miles to find excellent flowers,” versus “Toward the southeast there are five miles of excellent flowers.” Of course, if grammar is to be the hallmark of humanity, it will be a bit of a letdown in our self-image.

Another problem for any argument that rests on our special qualities of mind or emotion is that fetuses don’t have them. Even infants aren’t any too impressive. If they survive, they may eventually show subject-verb agreement, but that is only one possible future.

Potential is not the same as actual. I may have the potential to win the Nobel prize, but that doesn’t mean anyone actually gives me one. As reproductive technology advances, every cell in my body may have the potential to become an entire new human being, but that doesn’t mean it will ever make sense to save each cell my body sheds in the course of a day. Being potential human beings makes embryos interesting, but it’s not enough, by itself, to give them special status.

All of this means that there are no objective criteria by which to define something as human. “Looks like a human” won’t work, certainly not at the embryonic stage. Chromosomes won’t work because human DNA, by itself, is just a molecule. If people really believed that chromosomes were all it took, then people with transplants would have to carry two ID cards. And, last, being a potential human won’t work because potential is not the same as real. You only get to vote when you are an adult, not when you might become one.

Science provides no answer at all to the question of who is human in the sense that’s relevant to the abortion debate. Biology can only determine who belongs in the species Homo sapiens, but there is no cellular marker that lights up when someone is due to get legal rights.

Without any objective answers, the only possible answers are subjective. Books have been written about how to define what is human. Socrates struggled with it. In the Cliff Notes version here, it’s enough to say that the more you think about the issue of what actually defines “personhood,” the harder it becomes to figure it out.

Nor do cultures speak with one voice on the question. Some cultures didn’t even consider newborns human. Infants had to survive for a while, days, weeks, or even months, before they were named and accepted as members of society. The definition of who is human in a given culture is based on consensus. In these modern times, one can probably say that newborns are considered human the world over. There is no equivalent agreement about fetuses.

It is frightening and troubling to understand that our definition of humanity is a matter of opinion.

That means objectively defining who is a human person is not a difficult question. It is an impossible one.

Is murder ever acceptable?

It could be argued that since we don’t know at which point humanity begins or ends, we should stay on the safe side and never resort to abortion.

We don’t, however, apply that principle in general. There are many cases where killing is accepted. Killing in self-defense is not a crime. Most people walk around with an extra kidney and a lot more liver than they really need. But nobody suggests requisitioning these spare organs to save a life. There’s a common thread here: people have an absolute right to be what the law calls secure in their own persons, even at the cost of someone else’s. They have an absolute right to control over their bodies, to not be punched or hit or even touched, to refuse medical treatment, and so on through every example you can think of. Except when the example involves women and babies.

Funny how that works.

Whether you think a fetus is a person or a developing mass of tissue, a pregnant woman is providing the life support. According to basic rights, it has to be up to her whether she does that or not. Assuming otherwise, means also assuming that healthy people should be strapped onto gurneys and forced to give up a kidney because that can save a life. If it’s okay to use human beings as parts for other human beings in one case, it’s okay in all cases.

In the ultimate irony, admitting the idea of forced life support and denying people the right to control over their own bodies also admits the idea that forced abortions are acceptable. The people who oppose abortion have to hope their ideas don’t gain enough traction to be truly accepted, and they lose the right to refuse medical procedures.

The fact that women are adapted by nature to provide life support, and the fact that they are happy to do it often enough to overpopulate the planet, doesn’t change the ethics of the matter. The fact that a woman’s egg helped produce the creature needing life support doesn’t change that, any more than it does for the sperm provider. If it did, parents should have no legal right to refuse to donate organs to their offspring, should the need arise.

The amazing part is not that women have the right to be secure in their own persons. The amazing part is that it needs to be explained.

So, what is the question?

Let’s recap. The question is not “Who is human?” because there is no single answer to that. The question is also not “Who is more human, fetus or mother?” If the first question can’t be answered, the second one definitely can’t be. There is no way to resolve the debate about the humanity of fetuses, because there is no way to prove one belief right or wrong. It is pointless to argue about it. There is no evidence on either side. It’s pointless to look for middle ground. That ground depends on one’s beliefs, and you’re right back where you started.

For most of human history, people have had no idea how to deal with that situation, other than smashing the opposition into silence. Then along came a few geniuses who pointed out that it didn’t have to be that way. We could separate beliefs and state. We could all live according to our own faiths, to the extent that it was compatible with the same right for others.

So that’s the question: Does my abortion change your ability to have or not have children? In short, is my abortion your business?

No matter what you believe about fetuses, admitting the principle that anyone can be deprived of the right to control their own bodies means that abortions could be forced as well as pregnancies. It means organ donation could be forced. It means any medical procedure could be forced. It means that killing in self defense might be criminal, if the defender was less human on the social scale than the attacker. We probably don’t really want to go there.

That means the answer to the question is a resounding “No! My abortion is not your business.” It also means that personal beliefs about the humanity of the fetus are not the issue.

It’s very important to remember that this says nothing, absolutely nothing, about the rightness or wrongness of abortion itself. That can be a very complex question depending on what one believes, and it can be enormously hard to resolve. But the crucial phrase is “what one believes.” It can be complex for the individual.

It is not complex at the social level. It is very simple. Everyone must have the same right to self-determination. So, even though individual decisions about abortion may be very difficult, socially they are easy. You stay out of my business, and I’ll stay out of yours.

That says two things about the debate on whether one can be both a feminist and anti-abortion.

Yes, obviously, you can be both feminist and oppose abortion . . . for yourself. You can be a feminist and have a zillion kids . . . yourself. You can be a feminist and use abortion as birth control . . . for yourself.

What you cannot do is be a feminist — or anyone who cares about extremely basic human rights — and tell someone else to have an abortion. Or a child.

(This post echoes my previous ones on this topic here, here, here, and here.)
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128 Responses

  1. From Salon:

    Can we ever say a woman can’t choose?

    It’s hard for pro-choicers to admit sometimes a woman shouldn’t be allowed to choose abortion — but we have to

    • (You sure know how to get the discussion going, myiq. I shall watch our future progress with considerable interest.

      And, uh, they didn’t really say that, did they? Not really. Right? Right?)

    • Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

    • I agree with the ethice arguments made but, since I’m a man, I shouldn’t have a vote on this issue.

      • Ralph: I read this comment, and thought, “This guy gets it!”. Unfortunately, I read your comments below and realized that you really don’t. You should have stopped here, because you are right — agree, don’t agree — until you get pregnant yourself, your opinion is irrelevant.

  2. As reproductive technology advances, every cell in my body may have the potential to become an entire new human being

    When we eventually perfect cloning (and we will) then wouldn’t killing a single cell be morally the same as having an abortion?

    • What people are missing is that this entire debate is about controlling women’s sexuality. It isn’t really about the fetus/baby.

      • Right, boomer. Because the same folks who are out on the sidewalk at the end of the workday praying over the Planned Parenthood in my building, are of the same political ilk as the ones who protested to the FDA that Gardasil (the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer) should not be approved in the USA.

        Here we have, for the first time, a widely available vaccine capable of preventing cancer in women, and they were actually saying that it would increase promiscuity!

        It is all about female sexuality. And female power and self agency.

    • When we perfect cloning, then the same arguments used to say “life begins at conception” will have to say that killing any cell is killing a human life. Exactly. It shows how untenable that whole line of thought is.

  3. A fetus is a baby (and human) if the mother thinks/believes/feels that it is. Otherwise? Not.

    • We have made few strides in understanding when life begins since St Augustine accepted the quickening.

    • See, I disagree. I think it is. And the mother still has the right to terminate it. (I expanded on this below.)

      • I think mothers sometimes decide to abort babies (fetuses that they believe are babies) — and I absolutely believe they have that right.

        AND I also don’t think that my opinion about that should matter – since I’m past the point of it being a personal issue.

    • Until those cells can exist on its own outside the woman’s body it is not a human,it is a part of that woman’s body. She has total choice.

  4. quixote, nicely argued. It never ceases to amaze me that many Libertarians and Conservatives (and even some Liberals), who seem to be constantly worried that government intrudes too much on their personal freedoms, don’t seem to have a problem with insisting that everyone else follow their particular belief system. Meanwhile, why is it that men never have their medical decisions restricted? Having the ability to make individual medical choices is about autonomy, not religious or social beliefs or even scientific arguments.

    • Having the ability to make individual medical choices is about autonomy, not religious or social beliefs or even scientific arguments.
      Autonomy sure, as long as the biological father and minister are OK with it. /snark

  5. Okay. Why is spammy singling me out today?

  6. It’s about autonomy

    Yes. I’m not sure why that’s so hard to understand for Those People.

    Then again, maybe they do understand it.

    • I imagine they understand it and reject it. They don’t really feel that autonomy is solely on the side of the woman. Some believe the viable fetus has some measure of autonomy or the right to autonomy.

      Then again, maybe they do understand it but you don’t understand their side of the ethics question.

      • I actually addressed that.

        In no other case except that of a pregnant woman is one human’s autonomy held to be dependent on another’s. See, eg, the fact that killing in self-defense is not a crime.

        And if we’re going to reject the principle of autonomy EQUALLY, the implications, as I point out, are staggering.

        • Yep.

        • You did it ridiculously.

          • Really? What was ridiculous?

          • Oh. comparing the right of self defense to abortion on demand is ridiculous to me. Now comparing the right of self defense to abortion to save the life of the mother, OK. But they are hardly the same thing. That’s one and I could go on but it’s not worth it.

          • RalphB, consider:

            the right to self-defence says your life is not less than someone else’s.

            the right to refuse to provide a bone marrow transplant, just to take an example at random, says your life and your body are under your control, no matter what the cost to someone else. They will die without that transplant, but it doesn’t matter. You have the right to refuse a small degree of discomfort under anesthetic, regardless.

            I am trying to make clear that in all instances EXCEPT pregnancy, the right to autonomy is absolute. Not all the instances are a perfect match for pregnancy, although the life support ones come pretty close.

            The only way to say that women don’t have the same absolute right to autonomy, and yet to say that other people do, is to put women in a class by themselves.

            The only way to do that is to say that women are not human beings of the same order as other human beings. If they are in the same order, then, as I say, the implications are staggering. If they aren’t, then you can say that the rules don’t apply to these non-humans, or part-humans, or wherever you fit them in your universe.

            Is that really your view? Somehow, I doubt it. Try the thought experiment of looking at it from my logic, just for laughs. Then compare the women-are-special vs women-are-not-special for consistency.

            As I said, the amazing part is not that women have autonomy. The amazing part is that it has to be explained.

      • IMHO, they think women should not have autonomy. They should have their choices made for them by others (e.g., as Obama suggests: husband, father, doctor, pastor). Women should not have control over their own bodies according to these people. That is the sticking point. If women are allowed to make the choices, according to them, they’ll choose to have an abortion if they are “a little blue,” as Obama has also suggested. He is a very good representative of this kind of thinking.

      • How can you have autonomy when by definition you NEED the woman’s body for survival?

        A fetus isn’t autonomous. It requires the body it resides in to do everything from eliminate waste to provide oxygen and nutrients for it to grow. Even once a fetus becomes viable at 25 weeks the fetuses born at this stage have health complications because it hasn’t completed the full process and its organs aren’t fully developed.

  7. I believe that sometimes abortion IS the taking of a human life. Do I know where that point is? Nope. I’d say not at 6 wks, but 2 days before delivery? Probably. Somewhere before birth, yeah, that becomes a person.

    I am STILL for abortion on demand. It’s not a privacy issue for me, or even a “mine and my doctors business” thing. It’s a matter of autonomy over my own body. Even if that fetus is a person, NO PERSON has the right to the USE of my body, with risks entailed to me, without my consent. We do not strap unwilling parents down and harvest organs, not even to save the life of their child. People have no problem with that concept, and abortion is no different.

    I think that pro-choice advocates need to be honest about this. When you hear “But at some point it’s a human life!”, don’t try to deny that. Yep, it probably is. Have the balls to say, “But even if it is, another human being does not have the right to THE USE OF MY BODY without my consent. Period. The fact that they are an infant has no bearing on the fact that they do not have that right. A 40-year old who may die does not have the RIGHT to my kidney, either.”

    Is it a noble thing to willingly give the use of my body for another? To save/nurture a life in that way? I think so, and remember my pregnancies with fondness. But the bottom line is, it is my choice whether to offer myself in that way.

    • Situational ethics at it’s finest. In the end though it does come down to this. Does one person, any person, have the right to arbitrarily take the life of another, any other?

      Note the “arbitrarily” in that question because it’s key. It’s the difference between civilization and savagery.

      • In the viewpoint you are taking it comes down to deciding that the life of a fetus is more valuable than the life of an adult woman. In many cases, a pregnancy (which could have come from forced sex) means a woman’s life is altered forever, her potential destroyed.

        • No. Please don’t misunderstand. I am pro-choice but find these arguments to be shallow and not usually worthwhile.

          I believe everyone should acknowledge the difference between abortion for birth control and abortions to save the life or health (physical and mental) of a woman.

          As an aside, I don’t think the pro-life forces should say a word until they’ve put their money where their mouth is and assured that these babies will be loved and cared for properly. That would mean lots of support for young mothers, whether it is for adoptions or day care and job help if the mother decides to keep the baby.

          Riverdaughter hit the nail on the head below with her comment that abortions should be safe, legal, and rare.

          • “Abortion for birth control” is a strawman. No one chooses to have major surgery with significant side effects and recovery time as a form of birth control.

            But then, I don’t agree with the “safe, legal, and rare” designation either. It should be the choice of the person whose body and mind are being affected in life-changing ways. There should not be these guilt-inducing qualifications. Period. IMO. That is all part of the effort to reduce women’s autonomy and control their sexuality.

          • Sorry but “abortion for birth control” is not a strawman. It happens when other forms of birth control fail or are not used with an unexpected result. I know of several instances among my kid’s school friends. I don’t know who decided on the surgery, the families or the young women, but it sure happens.

            Taking responsibility for yourself and your actions should be part of the discussion. Safe, legal, and rare can help with that.

          • So you believe that women use abortion as a birth control method? So according to you, they refuse to use all the other more safe methods and just use abortion which can be risky to the life of a mother? What you are saying is these women are willing to risk their lives or the possiblities of never having children by using abortion as their birth control method? Am I to believe that these women enjoy getting abortions?

          • It’s swell that women are supposed to accept consequences(which does include consequences to their health because a fetus is parasitic and derives its nutrients from the body it occupies) for the failure of birth control methods. I suppose you have the same problem with taking antibiotics which also is essentially destroying “life”?

            I do not believe anyone has the right to tell another they must sacrifice their life or health for broad swaths of time simply because sperm met an egg.

      • Perhaps you don’t know this, but in China women are forced to have abortions. That is the point. If women have no control over their bodies and no choice about reproducing, they can also be forced to have abortions or donate organs to their children. You are arguing for a world in which women are once again chattel. I know you don’t believe that women are chattel, but that would be the result.

        • Please keep in mind that until the 1970s, in many areas of life women were still chattel.

        • Let’s all do what we can to assure that the “woman as chattel” never returns. I’ve said before and will say again that, as a man, I do not deserve and do not want a vote on abortion issues.

          Since I won’t be personally affected by it, I consider my opinions to be hot air on the subject. I do think it’s good to stimulate discussion though.

      • Who said it was arbitrary? It’s not an “arbitary” matter, when it is YOUR body that is involved. It’s quite personal, as a matter of fact.

        So your position is that another human being has the RIGHT to the use of my own body without my consent? Because the reality is that either the life of a fetus takes precedence, or the right to my control on whether my body is USED without my consent is paramount. At this point, until babies can be grown outside the womb of a living, breathing woman, those are the only 2 choices we have.

        Again, why are parents not rounded up and forced to give blood, give kidneys, etc to save the life of their child if needed? Because THEIR right to autonomy over their own physical being takes precedence. One can say they should. One can say it’s sad and selfish if they don’t. But no one advocates MAKING them do it by force of law.

        • I’d just love to see the SCOTUS decide that men should be forced to give up 9 months of their lives to carrying around a foreign object inside their bodies and then sacrifice the rest of their adult lives to taking care of the life that emerges. Then we’d hear some different arguments about “ethics,” wouldn’t we?

          • You wouldn’t hear anything because the species would have died off after the first reproductive cycle. 🙂

        • Yes I suppose I am saying that. If you want to have a first trimester abortion that’s fine, go right ahead. However, if you’re irresponsible enough to wait for 7 or 8 months then decide, you’re too late.

          Responsibility should come in here somewhere but all I read is “it’s my right”.

          • RalphB,

            People don’t “wait” until 7 or 8 months. Pregnancies can go wrong, babies die in the womb or are horribly deformed. You can’t even get the results of amniocentesis until the 4th or 5th month. You are taking the position that women have abortions because they are irresponsible. The fact is, it does need to be a right or you get a situation like we have no where everyone and his brother wants to decide for women they don’t even know.

          • (Ralph, I added another 2 cents of mine on responsibility later on, after some more comments on the topic.)

          • And you can’t make a distinction between “life and health of the mother” and other reasons, because even in routine pregnancies, life and health are involved. Giving birth is always traumatic. There are only so many times the human body can go through it. You can always die in childbirth or develop complications or hemmorrage and die after. You’re trying to draw this bright line in the sand that doesn’t exist.

          • Irresponsible? Most of the pregnancies that make it to the second trimester and are terminatedwere wanted pregnancies that a woman agonized over terminating because the fetus would have a diminished quality of life. Women do not put up with swelling and puking just to arbitrarily wake up and decide “gee whiz, I don’t feel like being pregnant anymore.” It just doesn’t happen no matter how much the right might attempt to paint it that way.

    • WMCB,

      That was beautifully said.

      When Rick Warren asked B0 and McCain “when does life begin?”, I just shuddered. It’s the wrong question, or at least, it is not the pertinent question to ask when thinking about abortion.

      To me, life does begin, in a rudimentary way at least, at conception. But “rights” don’t begin then. And therefore the rights of the woman are paramount. Yes, there’s life there, but as you said, it is the woman’s right and choice whether to carry that life until, as a born infant, it then has it’s own rights.

      Your way was prettier…but this is how I explain my viewpoint when asked.

  8. OT – maybe everyone has seen this already but I got up late today:

    TEHRAN: The daughter of Iran’s former president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and four relatives were arrested…

    Faezeh Hashemi, a renowned women’s rights activist, former parliament deputy and head of women sports in Iran, has in the recent years emerged, like her father, as one of the main opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

  9. Nature has already provided the definitive answer. There are certain species of animals that abort when environmental conditions are unfavorable.
    There you have it.
    Now, one could argue that people aren’t animals or should know better but I do not subscribe to this point of view.
    Abortion should be safe, legal and rare. The emphasis on the rare. Responsibility first. But if the environment isn’t safe or favorable for a newborn, abortion should be an option and it’s time for people to stop feeling guilty about it.

    • This approach takes the arbitrariness out of the abortion question. It has astonished me in the past few years to see the phrase “safe, legal, and rare” fall out of favor.

  10. I do not support abortion, but its not my right to deny someone to choose. Ok I can agree with that, what I can’t agree with are my tax dollars paying for that murder. We have ever means of birth control available for free at Planned Parenthood. So shouldn’t we try teaching responsible sex? Then maybe abortion could be rare and unnecessary.

    • The issue of taxes is an interesting one. It opens the whole question of whether taxes are there to support the State, full stop, or whether you can pick and choose what to support. There’s the military, for instance. Or wars. Some people don’t like environmental departments. Others don’t like the Army Corps of Engineers. And so on. Where do you draw the line?

      I’m not sure you’d have a workable State if you let people pick and choose what they support. On the other hand, I dure as hell wish *I* could pick and choose! I know what you mean.

    • Well, here’s part of the problem: birth control can fail, especially where the couple relies on physical, rather than medical, means to prevent contraception.

      You also seem to be making the assumption that abortion has to do with irresponsible sex. There are many married couples who jointly make the decision to abort a pregnancy. Abortion isn’t always about someone’s sexual behavior.

      • For the anti-abortion people, it mostly is about controlling women’s sexuality. IMHO.

        • I think that’s a big part of it, along with trying to make women feel guilty about their sexuality.

    • Then can you also eliminate rape and incest? Good luck with that. Furthermore, most of the people who want to prevent women from having abortions also oppose birth control. If you think they will stop once they outlaw abortion, you’re sadly mistaken. They will continue to work toward restoring the world of the 1950s or earlier.

  11. “sure as hell” :rollseyes:

  12. Help! What’s going on with the spam filter? I’m beginning to take this personally.

  13. I am glad O’Neill won but I am disgusted (again) at NOW for the lame endorsement Gandy gave to Lyles. Gandy endorsed Lyles because she was younger and represented a “generational shift”. As if O’Neill being 56 was OLD! If O’Neill were a 56 year old male running for ANY office in this country, government or otherwise, age wouldn’t even be mentioned, let alone be a reason for endorsing the other candidate!

    NOW elects Maryland woman its next president
    1 hour ago

    INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The National Organization for Women has elected a 56-year-old Maryland woman as the group’s next president.

    NOW said Terry O’Neill, who is white, defeated Latifa Lyles, a 33-year-old African-American woman from Washington, D.C., during the organization’s three-day national conference in Indianapolis.

    O’Neill spokeswoman Hannah Olanoff said Sunday that the vote totals were not immediately available but she said it was a close election, as had been expected.

    The voting took place Saturday.

    Lyles was been endorsed by current NOW President Kim Gandy, who had said she would “take NOW to a different level” by recognizing the nation’s “generational shift.”

  14. As long as men rape, abortion must be a legal option! Are there instances where late term abortion should be questioned, yes! But I believe that reproductive freedom is essential to women’s equality.

    • So if rape could be 100% prevented then abortion could be outlawed?

      • Doesn’t follow, myiq.

        Rape is *one* instance in which abortion must be available to the victim. It may be the ultimate example of unplanned pregnancy, but as long as the Pill occasionally fails, or condoms tear, a back-up is needed for those times when a woman cannot, or chooses not, to bring a child into the world.

        • But rape was the only instance KendallJ mentioned.

          Rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother are the common reasons for an exception to a ban on abortion.

          By using those as justifications for abortion you are surrendering everything else. Do you really want abortion outlawed EXCEPT in certain cases?

          • But rape wasn’t the only instance I mentioned.

            I think “those times when a woman cannot, or chooses not, to bring a child into the world” is considerably broader than “rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother.”

      • myiq is (rightly) getting at the implication in the comment: that it’s not the woman’s decision. That it’s to be decided on some other basis of worthiness, or whatever you want to call it.

        I, obviously, don’t think so. It’s her call because it’s her body, and that’s all there is to it. I may not like her decision. (In my universe, that happens when she decides to help overpopulate the planet …) But it is her decision.

  15. Maybe NOW will focus on all women, instead of gay rights and racism. This issues are important, but the National Organization has for a very long time, neglected women’s issues and struggles to focus on race and sexual orientation. Meantime they have neglected the women of this country. No other group has done this like NOW. Hopefully the focus will come back to fighting for all women again.

  16. Nice post, quixote, and I’m substantially in agreement with it. I think abortion is a matter of individual choice. That’s an absolute as far as I’m concerned. I do, however have a couple of minor nits that I’d like to pick:

    1) Using a scientific argument against those who are primarily motivated by irrational faith (or, as they would no doubt describe it, transcendent faith), is a doomed effort. Those who are amenable to such arguments are probably already in agreement with you. Those who are not do not care about myelin and may, in fact, be openly hostile to scientific arguments (given that many of them are convinced that Darwin was a Satanist). Ask Galileo about this – I believe he is inhabiting Dr. Socks’s Spirit Smoking Lounge these days.

    2) Your use of the word “murder” is unfortunate. “Murder” is, by definition, the unlawful taking of a life and is therefore always unjustified. That is why the law distinguishes between “murder” and other types of “homicide”. “Killing” would be a better choice. This is not a minor techicality: the use of the word “murder”, in and of itself, implies that the act of abortion is both unlawful and unjustified and therefore denies that any right to have an abortion exists. KIlling in self-defense is, for example, explicitly not murder – it is “justifiable homicide”. Essentially, there are two questions at work here: (a) is abortion homicide, and (b) even if it is homicide, is it “murder”?

    American law has the concept of a “duty to care”. This duty is never unlimited – nobody is required by law to risk death or serious injury for another, for example. Parents are not obligated to rush into burning buildings to retrieve their children. Nobody is required to give up an organ for another – not even for his or her children and not even if that organ may taken with negligible risk. It seems to me that this means there is an implicit, unlimited, and inalienable right to abortions to preserve a woman’s health (physical or mental), regardless of the stage of her pregnancy.

    What about other cases?

    Here’s where if gets a little sticky. While the duty to care is limited, it does supersede some rights. If it didn’t, there would be no legal basis for laws against child neglect. It seems to me that two questions exist here: (a) does a duty to care exist between a woman and her fetus, and (b) if so what are the limitations of that duty (specifically does it supersede a woman’s right to “bodily autonomy”)? If the duty to care does not exist or is always subordinate to the right of bodily autonomy, does that mean that society cannot impose sanctions for legal behavior that may endanger or impair the fetus (e.g., drinking heavily during pregnancy, etc.)?

    My personal belief (and it is explicitly a belief) is that the right to bodily autonomy wins out. This has some unpleasant consequences for me, since it means that I can’t justify legal sanctions for some truly reprehensible conduct.

    • I’m *not* using science against an article of faith.

      I’m using science to show that it IS an article of faith. There is a widespread feeling that we know who is human, that that’s a fact. I’m showing that it is not a fact. We don’t know who is human. I’m saying it is an article of faith.

      Re the points you make regarding duty of care to the fetus: there is only a duty of care if you believe (that word again!) that the fetus is a child. If you don’t, there is no duty of care. That is a matter of beiief, not fact. Therefore nobody can dictate to someone else about which belief to hold.

      The belief in bodily autonomy is NOT a belief in the same sense as an article of faith is. It’s part of the social contract necessary for a society to function. Those are human constructs, but they’re not usually called beliefs any more than the alphabet is.

      • I doubt if those who hold, as an article of faith, that a fetus is a human being would deny that. Instead, they would argue that faith (or at least their faith) represents a superior form of knowledge derived from divine inspiration – the “evidence of things not seen” according to St. Paul. Such folks are not persuadable by logic or evidence. As the old saw would have it, it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

        “Duty to care” is not dependent on individual belief: one may believe that one need not feed one’s child, for example, but the State will eventually intervene regardless of that belief. It does, obviously, represent a social consensus – but then so does the rest of the law.

        I’m not sure whether the law ever imposes a duty to care for nonhuman creatures – I think it’s conceptually important to distinguish the scientific or religious notion of “humanity” from the purely legal question of whether such a duty exists. The duty to care, as I said, is not unlimited – this provides a consistent framework for establishing a right to abortion regardless of anyone’s views about the “personhood” of the fetus. Not framing the argument in terms of personhood also prevents the invocation of Godwin ‘s Law by those who would bring up historical incidents where groups of people have been legally deprived of “personhood” (sorry for the circumlocution, but I’m trying to avoid interception by Spammy).

        • The state steps in if you mistreat animals–sometimes more quickly than for abused children.

  17. Myiq2xu,

    Of course not! I believe in reproductive freedom whole heartedly. What I am saying is that rape is the ultimate denial of a women’s sexual freedom, and if for nothing else, that reason alone should be enough to keep abortion legal. There are a thousand other reasons as well that I support for keeping it safe and legal. Rape is only one.

    • I was just pointing out that it was a weak argument. It could be twisted to support a ban on abortion except in cases of rape.

  18. But then, I don’t agree with the “safe, legal, and rare” designation either. It should be the choice of the person whose body and mind are being affected in life-changing ways. There should not be these guilt-inducing qualifications. Period.

    I heart you, boomer!

    • You too, Catarina. I understand why the Clintons talked about keeping abortion rare, and of course I favor women and men using birth control responsibly, but there has been a major effort over many years to make abortion shameful and illegitimate, even though it is technically still legal (though very very hard to obtain in many states in the US). “Safe, legal, and rare Is part of that effort. I’m not against the idea; I’m against the use of those words to guilt-trip women.

      • ““Safe, legal, and rare Is part of that effort. I’m not against the idea; I’m against the use of those words to guilt-trip women.”

        Exactly. That’s the problem with that phrase.

    • I’m in total agreement with catarina & bostonboomer. I believe in the value of abortions and I’m not going to put any qualification on that value. If a woman needs an abortion it should be her decision.

  19. I think the supreme court in Roe v. Wade got it right the first time! I wish people would just leave it the fuck alone and allow women the chance to focus on other issues to move us forward towards equality. I am sick of rehashing this 36 year old fight! Women should have the RIGHT to control their own bodies PERIOD!!!!!

  20. Myiq2xu,

    I may have been a bit overly draumatic to make my point, but the reality is that a woman is raped about every six minutes in this country, not to mention in those even more oppressive places in the world. It makes me angry that there is so little consideration for this fact both in the abortion debate as well as in society at large. Men still think that they have a right to do as they choose to women’s bodies and rape is one of the most basic expressions of that belief, whether conscious or not. So I think when you have a discussion about abortion, rape has to be part of the discussion because the underlying control issues are the same.

    • I agree.

    • I would be willing to bet that rapists, in general, don’t oppose abortion and men who do oppose abortion, in general, would never consider rape to be anyone’s right. If MEN are as you suggest, how do any of us ever feel safe enough to leave our houses? Or date one? Or marry one? Work with one? Rapists are just a subset as are anti-choicers but your brush is painting far too broadly. If I were one of the men who blog here and comment here, I would be crushed by your comment.

      • The simple truth is that rape is an extension of the belief that men have a right to control women’s bodies. That doesn’t mean that all (or even most) men believe it. But it is a belief that is out there in our culture. If that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be so much controversy over women’s sexuality. Keep in mind that even in the 1970s, rape was still treated as a property crime in some states.

  21. Okay. Another one of my comments disappeared into the spam filter. This is getting to be depressing.

    • I’ll check the filter again.

    • I went through all your comments looking for possible trigger words and then I looked again in the filters to see if there is some word that matches your name or e-mail address. I got nuttin’. Myiq probably already did what I did too. I just don’t know what’s going wrong, sorry.

  22. Fetal sentimentalists leave me cold.

    Let’s take care of the children we already have for a change, and stop filling the world with unwanted children. That’s immoral.

  23. I quite like this argument. Very nicely done. Nothing like making the issues relate to issues that involve men to get everyone’s attention. It’s about controlling your body and privacy over the life and health of something other than you. That works for fetus’, organs, cloning, etc. And I agree about raising it to be about human rights in general too. Women’s rights like any other group in the end is about human rights.

  24. bostonboomer, you rock. Thanks for saying it all so well!

    • Thanks! But I don’t have all the answers. I just don’t want to be a second (or third) class citizen.

  25. I just sent this to my Facebook page as it is one of the sanest evaluations about abortion that I have ever read!

    Thank you, quixote. Would you be interested in a position on the Supreme Court? We could use minds like yours up there.

    • Would you be interested in a position on the Supreme Court?

      I don’t think I have enough sitzfleisch for that 😆

      (Translates loosely to “sitting muscle”)

      Thanks for my laugh out loud moment today! (more :lol:)

  26. We do not want to grant personhood status to an unborn fetus at any stage of gestation. The constitutional, 14th Amendment ramifications of such a status are scary indeed. We’d be on the slippery slope to third party representation/guardianship for the unborn.

    I don’t give a rat’s patootie whether or not abortion is “rare.” If a woman wants to use abortion as a method of birth control, it’s none of my business. I’ve never had an elective abortion, but I did have a spontaneous abortion (aka miscarriage) literally take place in my OB-GYN’s office. It was followed by an immediate D&C–10 minute procedure, no anesthesia, minor discomfort, back to work the next day–no big deal.

    In some ways, I have to admire the pro-lifers’ convictions. They are absolutely sure that “human life begins at conception” and that abortion is always “murder.” If we pro-choicers weren’t so damn wishy-washy about our conviction that the woman’s right to self-determination and bodily integrity trumps the rights of the unborn BAYBEEEEE, maybe we wouldn’t have seen our reproductive rights eroded to a mere shell of what they were following Roe v. Wade.

    Who was it (Erica Jong, maybe?) who said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

  27. I’d like to add another 2 cents to the “responsibility” issue: As with duty of care, one has responsibility only to other people. So for responsibility to be an issue, you have to believe — because that’s what it is: belief — that the fetus is already a person.

    If you don’t, responsibility doesn’t enter into it.

    That is a personal matter that, (one more time, sorry to sound like a recording on infinite loop) depends on your beliefs.

    • Meant to add: Quixote, very well-presented argument.

      I can’t emphasize enough that we need to fight granting personhood status to the unborn every time it appears in proposed legislation or in state constitutional amendments.

      Already some 35 states have “fetal homicide” or “unborn victims” laws. A federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act was passed in 2004 as a direct consequence of the Laci Peterson murder. Every one of these statutes undermines our autonomy as women.

    • You also have responsibilities to yourself. One of those responsibilities should be not to cheapen the lives of others or your own by your actions.

  28. The fact that BlueOregon believes Obama is a “feminist” shows how completely clueless they remain in terms of what they believe the Obama administration will do for feminists.


    Why do the Latifa Lyles supporters believe that progressive and diverse feminists need to find a new home simply because Terry O’Neill won? Like Kim Gandy was that great of a president to begin with? Give me a break.

    • Corrente is happy with the choice. T BlueOregon and all the other “feminists” blaming Clinton and/or Palin supporters for electing O’Neill: No, Corrente did not support McCain/Palin. I guess the only good that comes from the last year is that it not only exposed many liberals/progressives as sexists but it also exposed the division in between third and fourth wave feminists:

      • [The Corrente writer “likes…” not Corrente as such. There isn’t really an overall editorial policy.]

        That said, I’m almost entirely ignorant of the history here. Personally, I like the sound of civil disobedience and hunger strikes. It worked for single payer at the Max Baucus hearings! So, if O’Neil can start generating a little heat, my guess is that the Lyles supporters will rally round — especially if the policies advocated are ones they can support.

    • Teigen also wrote a nasty post at TPM called Real Feminist vs. Fake Feminists with the Third Wave as the real feminists. HAHA. Maureen Dowd (the real one? I don’t know) commented at your link:

      Substance has triumphed over style with the election of Ms. O’Neill as the president of NOW. This article misstates facts about the creation of the New Agenda. It was not to protest against the success of president Obama, rather the organization was created in August 2008 to fight against the kind of sexism and misogyny that was first directed at Hillary Clinton during the democratic primaries and later at Sarah Palin by the media and both the liberal and conservative activists. NOW did not say a word at the countless insults that Hillary and Sarah received last year, these insults had every to do with their gender or physical appearance and little to do with their politics. NOW finally came out against sexism in the media after the elections! I guess better late that never. May be with the new president the bleeding will stop and recruitment will go up.

  29. Why shouldn’t a woman have the right to choose when it is something that leaches the very vitamins and minerals from her body?

    I don’t think there is any instance when a woman shouldn’t be allowed to choose knowing that the choice she makes will effect her health both in the immediate future and years down the line when her body is depleted of vitamins.

  30. Abortion is not the problem. Women being impregnated against their will is the problem.

    • Let me know when they can get rid of this “evidence” and then talk to me about forcing someone to undergo 10 months of forced pregnancy

      Click to access S73_04_menken.pdf

      The truth is choosing pregnancy has consequences on a woman’s body. She should not be forced to risk her health simply because another potential life resides inside her.

  31. If prenatal personhood is unbelievable, why is child personhood believable?

    • and this question makes sense how?

      let’s see, children walk, talk, scream, cry, BREATHE … are basically completely separate individuals and show signs of sentience …

  32. If we buy into the argument that all potential life is a citizen to be protected, then shouldn’t we be testing every woman of child bearing age every month just to make sure there isn’t an unprotected citizen there? Being against choice it seems to be must necessarily lead to that and to the general condition of women of child bearing age being essentially the property of the state.

    • It gets even more complicated than that. Soon you begin mandating what women may eat and drink, what they may do, simply because it’s always possible they might be pregnant or about to become pregnant.

  33. A woman who becomes happily pregnant after many futile attempts at in-vitro or many miscarriages, knows that life begins at the moment of conception. The celebration of that life begins when the early pregnancy test comes back positive. That does not change if a woman becomes pregnant after a rape. The only thing that changes is how to go about that pregnancy. If all women can accept that life begins at the moment of conception and then give each one of us the right to choose how to go about her pregnancy, then maybe we can stop fighting about this issue. Feminism is not about abortion, it is about the support we show one another and the forgiveness we give one another in making the choices that are right for us – even if we don’t agree with them. I don’t believe that any woman really wants to abort her baby, or comes to that decision easily, but I won’t stop her if she feels that is the only way out for her. I also believe that abortion leads to a measure of guilt that is difficult to carry. We don’t have to get angry in order to nullify that guilt. With acceptance of a woman’s right to choose we can move forward. We can mourn the loss of a life and still reach out with compassion and understanding. To me, that is what true Feminism is! I was lucky in that I wanted all of my pregnancies to be carried to term without a second thought and I would like all women to be able to have that security in her decision, even if it is different than mine.

    • There are quite a few misconceptions in that comment. Some women may feel guilty after an abortion, many feel relieved. Decisions about public policy need to be based on science, not someone’s gut instinct. You do not have the right to tell other women how to feel.

    • With acceptance of a woman’s right to choose we can move forward

      Exactly. You feel that being human begins at conception. I feel it begins at birth. But that’s my point exactly. What we believe about these things doesn’t prevent anyone from supporting basic human rights for women. All that’s necessary is to agree that the decision on what to do is left up to the woman involved according to her own beliefs.

  34. Boomer, guess that struck a nerve. There is nothing complicated about life, it either exists or it doesn’t. The fight for or against abortion is not the question. The question should simply be about the “right” to have one and the “right” not to. Roe v Wade is not going anywhere, why are we still fighting?

  35. Let us all not forget that at one time we were all fetuses.

  36. What a remarkably civil debate on the issue of abortion. I’ve recently been down this debate road. I proposed the concept of self ownership as a vehicle to investigate the debate and was promptly trolled by a few anti-choice individuals. The argument in question was this one, and despite the slings and arrows cast at it, I believe still holds water:

    1) A person owns themselves
    2) Self ownership implies the right to free will
    3) In having free will, you cannot have a duty to perform any affirmative actions.

    Conclusion– You have no duty to provide another with the means to live.

    Therefore it is permissible to remove anything classified as a separate entity from your body.

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