REFRAMING THE ABORTION DEBATE

This article was published in Lot’s Wife on 18/10/2010

In any emotional political debate, you can’t go too far without encountering a reductive popular mantra. Abortion is no exception, and “If you don’t want an abortion, don’t have one” must surely take the cake.

Of course, it’s all too easy to shoot down. An ideological statement like “If you don’t agree with process x occurring freely in society, then don’t participate in it” is enough to make even the most ardent libertarian blush, and the implication that one should only look after one’s own affairs is kind of disturbing for anybody with a semblance of social conscience.

All the same, this isn’t some lazy attempt to create a straw-person argument. The reason this quote is cited is to examine a particular mentality that pervades many areas of the pro-legalisation argument: namely, the framing of abortion as a primarily, even exclusively feminist issue. The subtext is simple: “Men, steer well clear of this one”.

There are reasons why such attitudes have proven so popular. You don’t need to major in gender studies to comprehend why abortion was so historically central to the women’s rights movements of the ’60s and ’70s. It was the ultimate battleground: the female right to physical self-determination against the paternalistic morality of the (still heavily religiously-informed) patriarchal state. Yet, it’s simultaneously important to acknowledge how much things have changed in the intervening time period.

This is not to say that the fight for gender equality is over. Still, the dynamic has shifted. When the placards are laid to rest, the fact remains that abortion is still a difficult moral and ethical question that has never really been satisfactorily resolved. It’s a grey area, and many males choose to abstain from commenting under the pretext that their gender has no role in the debate; or else, they are happy to leave the ultimate decision in the hands of the mother in each individual case. This is a noble and well-meaning position, but it’s misguided. Laws exist for a reason, and it is the role of all adult members of society to decide what those laws should be. Abortion is no exception. Unless one has no problem with the theoretical concept of legalised full-term termination, there needs to be an acceptance that some sort of regulation must exist.

This is where the persistent framing of the abortion debate as a purely feminist issue becomes a major flaw, and one that significantly affects the parameters that many allow the debate to operate within. Some people simply have legitimate concerns about abortion, and it’s pretty silly to paint their opinion as some kind of relic of antiquated sexist ideas about female free will and rationality. This is why glib lines like “If you don’t want an abortion, don’t have one” don’t add anything to the debate; it is, of course, entirely possible for men to have a serious intellectual or ethical concern over the issue. To strip them of their opinion because of, say, their incapability of experiencing pregnancy, is little more than a debate-stifling exercise that, in any case, misses the point.

Beyond all the emotion, it is possible to present the debate in relatively rational terms: that is, the right to biological autonomy of an adult human being against the right to life of a developing human foetus. It is widely accepted that an adult person’s rights are more important than that of the foetus, but simultaneously it is reasonable to assume that the right to existence is, in its basic principles, a more fundamental right than the right to physical freedom (as the latter right is incorporated within the former). Pregnancy, by definition, entails a situation where a right to autonomy is in direct conflict with a right to life. To make matters more complex, the foetus is in a constant stage of development; during which, theoretically, its rights grow increasingly in relevance (although some might justifiably question why this ‘right to life increasing in proportion to development’ assumption does not apply in law after birth, through infancy and childhood). Nevertheless, the generally accepted status quo in most Western states is that at a certain stage of the development of the foetus (about 20-24 weeks), its right to life becomes a factor; a substantial enough concern for it to impose, in some ways, on the adult woman’s basic right to biological freedom. This basic conclusion is actually implicitly disputed by much in the way of pro-choice rhetoric: after all, “Get your laws off my body” is, by its very nature, a rejection of abortion legislation altogether. In such cases, the point is clearly made: until the child draws breath, the rights of only one body are of concern – that is, the right of the mother to have freedom over her own biological processes.

And yet, nobody really disputes that latter right. From humanist objectors to clinic-picketing Christian fundamentalists, it is difficult to seriously characterise the contemporary pro-life stance as being about an attempt to deprive adult women of the right to control what happens to their bodies. Indeed, it seems quite clear that the primary concern of the anti-abortion movement is the foetus itself, and the belief that its humanity (or potential humanity) ought to grant it some kind of right to existence under law. If we accept that this is the case, then the perceived rights (or lack thereof) of the foetus is the only significant variant between a hard-line pro-life and hard-line pro-choice position. This makes sense – after all, if one were to accept that the foetus were in some sense a human being possessing some of the rights that entails, one would have to conclude that abortion was at the very least ethically problematic. Once the historical and ideological baggage is removed from the argument, its essence is clear: the only logical conclusion is to re-frame the abortion debate as an issue of human rights and interpretations of personhood.

Ideal abortion legislation hinges on this realisation. Perhaps the abortion law reforms of the late 20th century gave us the best possible legislation; perhaps they didn’t even go far enough. Whatever the case, the debate continues – and it’s one that we all have a stake in.

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