To the editor:
I read with interest the recent column by Jess Coleman, which, despite my nominally pro-life position, I found rather intelligent as undergraduate arguments on abortion go (it should be required by law that no one write about abortion till they’re 25, with Jess being perhaps a partial exception). Nevertheless, I do think there are some basic flaws to Jess’s argument, as there is to pro-life apologetics as well.
First of all, Jess is absolutely right in arguing that the pro-life movement is not philosophically consistent in its position when it comes to rape. Indeed, I would be scared if it were to become so. The problem is, the pro-choice movement is no more philosophically consistent. Jess refers to the moment of fetal viability, which is, I believe, where he arbitrarily defines human life as beginning. The problem is that fetal viability is not a constant concept. If we developed technology that allowed the fetus (or even the embryo) to survive and develop outside the womb for the entire period of pregnancy, would that suddenly change all fetuses and embryos from non-humans to humans? Such an argument is absurd, yet that is the logic that Jess (and to be fair, the Supreme Court) seems to use. This is not to say that the Supreme Court decision is right or wrong, just that there are philosophical inconsistencies about abortion on the part of both sides in the issue. Nevertheless, it is impressive that Jess saw this particular inconsistency on the pro-life side at all, since it escapes both most pro-choicers and pro-lifers.
Jess also emphasizes bodily autonomy issues, particularly in regards to women’s bodies. I personally am sympathetic to the argument for bodily autonomy, and can see many reasons for wishing to protect that right. The problem is I can see many arguments for not protecting it as well, and a declaration of total bodily autonomy is likely to be philosophically and ultimately morally indefensible. For instance, take this hypothetical: thousands of people decide not to get inoculated against diseases like smallpox (or perhaps bubonic plague). As a result, the diseases reappear in the human population and kill other people. Should bodily autonomy be allowed in such instances? Is it then truly “my body, my choice,” when my body may end up hurting other people’s bodies? There’s no easy answer to this real-world scenario, either in favor of bodily autonomy or against it. Either position presents challenges.
My personal belief is that the pro-choice movement should ground its defense of abortion on the issue of sexual violence. In other words, pro-choicers should argue that forcing someone to maintain a pregnancy for nine months is an act of sexual violence. I first heard this argument from the great Jon Stewart, and despite (or perhaps because of) the source, I find it persuasive. I don’t have an easy answer for it, except to say that the act of abortion may be a physical act of violence against the fetus and/or embryo. Either argument, however, has faults. Similar arguments that pro-choicers and pro-lifers use that refer to graphic pictures of fetuses or pictures of blobbish embryos to prove the life-likeness or non-life-likeness of fetal life are also problematic, because an organism’s development or lack of development has nothing to do with its “innate value” within nature, which, if we are to be philosophically consistent naturalists, is zero, whether it’s a 1-day-old embryo or the President of the United States. In many ways, despite pro-lifers’ and pro-choicers’ disdain for him, ethicist Peter Singer is more ethically and philosophically consistent than either movement when he makes the argument that being a human is not being the same thing as a person; they are two totally different philosophical categories.
My class recently had a discussion in which we talked about abortion as performance art (something a Yale student has actually done in real life, at least according to her). I argued that since most of my non-religious students (and myself) assume that art’s definition is relative — that a urinal can in fact be art (Duchamp, for instance) — that abortion is just as valid a form of art as the Mona Lisa, using that definition. Two of my favorite Christian students agreed, despite their personal dislike of abortion. My non-Christian and non-religious students morally opposed this position, despite the fact that such opposition was frankly nonsensical (and arbitrary). So, I guess, in the final analysis, we are all philosophically inconsistent on this issue; but I agree with Jess that there are perhaps more germane uses of our political capital then squabbling over the fate of fetal life, when non-fetal life is dying in even greater numbers every day.
Adjunct Professor, English Department