The Ethics Of… Abortion

Let me preface this with a big old trigger warning. In case it wasn’t immediately obvious, this post is going to discuss a touchy topic and may be too close to home for some.

While I’m not going to cop out with a ‘this is just my opinion’ disclaimer, I want to make it clear that this is not about individual cases of abortion, but rather the issue in abstract. Every individual case has its own unique circumstances which I know not a god damn thing about, so attempting to pass judgement on them would be idiotic as well as insensitive as hell.

The ethics of the practice in general however, and whether it can be justified ethically (let alone legally) is fair game and its controversial nature only makes it more important to discuss.

Enough grandstanding? Right. On to the issue.

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Of all the debates in modern society, you’d be doing well to find one that gets such an extreme reaction from both sides. The issue of abortion is so controversial that there have been multiple fire-bombings over it – just to emphasise that, people feel so strongly about whether abortion is right or wrong that some of them willingly attempted to burn other human beings until they died. So yeah, people take it pretty seriously.

Unsurprisingly, most people check out of the argument at that point, mutter ‘everyone’s entitled to their opinion’ and change the topic in case someone decides to shoot them. Unfortunately this leaves the subject exclusively to the very loud and the very angry and does nothing to resolve the situation. Governments in most developed countries tend to get around this by just ignoring the entire mess and getting on with business, but as with climate change, asylum seekers and gay marriage, all it takes is one party to see a chance to grab some votes before it’s a major political platform and all sorts of weird and horrible stuff starts to happen.

This is the point in the article where I’d usually lay out the arguments on both sides of the debate, but describing the simple-minded, hateful, no-shades-of-grey arguments all too often thrown around by both sides of this ‘debate’ hurts my brain. But let’s give it a quick run down…

In the blue corner you have the ‘pro-lifers’, who range from people concerned for the welfare of unborn children, right through to those who consider themselves the LORD’S Mortal Instrument of Justice, out to bring down the child-murdering harlots and their supporters by any means necessary.

And in the red corner we have the ‘pro-choicer’ who vary between the protection of women from social stigma, persecution and harassment over what is already the most traumatising event of their life, through to those who consider unborn children parasitic lumps of cells with absolutely zero inherent value.

And since the moderates tend to get edged out of this showdown, what we end up with is two groups arguing completely different points, drawing on completely different ‘facts’ and achieving absolutely squat – hopefully.

The pro-lifers call abortion murder. The pro-choicers say it’s the woman’s choice.

The lifers claim it’s an act of convenience. The choicers claim its justified in any and all circumstances.

Lifers say that unborn children should be full legal entities. Choicers say this logic would make masturbation genocide.

It’s so god damn stupid that even as someone who actively lives for debate, I can barely stand to watch it. And this frustration is only compounded by the fact that the ethics of the situation are so blindingly simple. Let’s lay it out;

No one, anywhere is claiming (or should be claiming) that the act of abortion, in and of itself, is a positive thing. It’s awful, and if the levels of depression suffered by those women who have it one aren’t proof enough of that, then consider how much more heinous we consider a murder when the victim is pregnant.

Seriously guys, how is this even up for debate? We can argue about consciousness, stages of development and the definition of what is an isn’t ‘human’ all we want, but if I was to deliberately cause a woman to miscarriage a wanted child, there aren’t many people who wouldn’t consider that as ethically foul as murder.

THAT SAID, this reality only increases the need for abortion services to be accessible easily, safely and free of judgement. Why? Because the cost of not supplying these services is so very much worse.

Abortions are not planned. No sane person anywhere goes out and gets pregnant in order to get an abortion. Even in cases where it was obviously going to happen, where contraception is blatantly ignored to the point where you simply cannot believe that they didn’t see it coming, the people involved suffer from the same cognitive bias as speeding drivers, gamblers and smokers: “Sure the risk is high, but it won’t happen to me. I’m totally in control.”

As such, limiting access to abortion as some sort of disincentive is not only barbaric, it’s simply not going to work because no one ever thought they would be in this situation, even (or perhaps especially) when the circumstances of pregnancy are ridiculous.

But even if people were going out and getting maliciously pregnant, or in some rare cases, using abortion as a form of contraception, limiting access to abortion either legally or just through good old fashioned shaming only makes things worse.

If a woman needs an abortion but can’t get one through safe and legal means, or is too ashamed and terrified to run the gauntlet of protesters calling her a baby-murdering whore (despite not knowing a god damn thing about her, the circumstances of the pregnancy or why she made the decision to abort), then the odds are good she will seek a backyard service or just do it herself. Without going into the details, such practiced are described by the World Health Organisation as a “preventable pandemic” and can kill both mother and child, or worse.

Alternatively she can go ahead and have a child she doesn’t want and then raise it for 18 years, regardless of her social, economic and psychological circumstances. And while I’m well aware there are exceptions to this rule, such situations do not exactly make for ideal child-raising conditions.

These are the realities behind the gradual, inevitable global shift toward the legal acceptance and protection of abortion. It’s not because we’re comfortable with ending an unborn child’s life, nor is it really a matter of a woman’s control over her body. No, at it’s core, the reason abortion is and must be accepted and made freely available is simple:

Abortion is bad, but the alternatives are far, far worse.

Some of you might have noticed my usual hyperlinking started to dwindle half way through this article. 40 minutes trawling through the fetid swamp that is the online abortion debate I gave up in disgust – seriously, you can fill in the blanks. If as a result anything I’ve claimed here is factually incorrect or unbalanced, let me know at theethicsof@gmail.com, back it up with a source and I’ll edit it accordingly.

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15 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Abortion

  1. Once again, another great job of breaking down relevant points in the argument. Most of the pro-choice people I know recognize that getting an abortion is no picnic and that it is a big deal. My ex-girlfriend actually had one (in a previous relationship) and though she is a pretty big feminist she appreciated the gravity of the situation quite a bit. I am pretty big into evolutionary psychology and ultimately it is an extremely natural and evolved trait to kill one’s own baby. Not to say that it is easy, or even as an excuse, but anthropological evidence shows that in a time before abortions were even possible, babies were often abandoned simply because resources were scarce and the mother’s survival was more important, because she could always have another baby, but a child would only consume resources. It seems sort of unfeeling to break it down like that, but sometimes feelings don’t factor into survival. Accepting this truth however, actually helps us do something about it. Pro-choice people don’t want more abortions, they just want women to have the choice. I don’t think any pro-choice person, if people decided to not have abortions, would be saying…hey can’t we make more people get abortions? Pro-lifers don’t want abortions but the only way they are willing to stop abortions is through having them adopt their morality. There is room for compromise however when beliefs are put aside. In any country with a low abortion rate, it is not achieved through laws banning abortions, but addressing this evolved instinct that we have. Abortions would quite simply happen less with 1) A strong sex education program for every child 2) Easier access to contraception 3) Better health care so that pregnant women can afford to raise their babies. In addition, a society which does not ridicule women for unwanted pregnancies, but are supportive and empathetic to that person. We theoretically live in a society where most abortions are unnecessary if we could make mothers feel supported both emotionally and economically. Once again, we have to make that cultural shift to value those things. What’s frustrating the religious right should be taking up this flag more than the left. Ultimately their attitude is very un-Christian when it comes to actually helping instead of just judging.

    • Hey Swarn, thanks again for the comment.
      I totally agree with your assessment and that’s what drives me nuts about this issue – the solution is so blindingly obviously, but it requires a middle-ground, reasoned approach which the extreme ends of the debate totally smother. As you say, experience from around the world shows that high-quality sex education, easily accessible contraception and better healthcare without moral judgement are the best and most effective way of preventing abortion, by decreasing unwanted pregnancies. But as with the previous article about gun control, the facts have fallen by the wayside with this debate.

      Interesting point you make about evolutionary psychology – a fascinating field! As grim as it is, I tend to agree with you that killing your baby would be a very pragmatic decision when you did not have the resources to support it and yourself. A very intensive version of utilitarianism to say the least. Actually raises the question whether the sort of values and rights-based arguments we see in the debate now (‘woman’s right to control her body’ versus ‘child’s right to life’, etc) are a luxury of a developed society which separates us from those grim realities.

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