Approaching the subject, I tend to be quite dismissive. At first glance it seems obvious to me that government shouldn’t be involved in what someone does with their body. My dismissive attitude might stem from the fact that many of the most vocal supporters of pro-life are dogmatic people of faith deriving their sense of morality from prescriptive doctrine. Some of these are the same people that discourage both abortions and contraceptives and think abstinence is a reasonable solution. Fortunately, there are pro-lifers who debate abortion rationally and intellectually, a good example being the author of Persuasive Pro-life Trent Horn. He’s also featured on this radio show and provides important opportunities for discussion. Hopefully I am not misunderstanding and therefore misrepresenting him or like-minded people, but I believe Trent Horn argues that a fetus has an inalienable right to life and therefore terminating a pregnancy would be forgoing that right.
I think this relates to John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle. This principle basically posits that people should be free to do whatever they like right up until they inflict harm on others. The extension of this principle gives us the libertarian notion that infringement on another individual’s rights is the only justification for setting limits on liberty. Deciding whether or not a fetus has these same rights is the critical juncture of this topic. If it’s merely a lump of cells then the moral quandary is voided. If it’s a human life then it has rights. I think the vast majority would agree that there is a moral difference between aborting a fetus at 1 month vs. at 8 months.
The arguments from both sides make sense. Forcing a woman to go through with a pregnancy she doesn’t want greatly reduces utility. We end up with an overburdened foster care system or children being raised by parents that are financially, emotionally, and socially unprepared. I realize there are thousands of success stories about young single mothers raising children in difficult circumstances and those children going up to achieve great things. Unfortunately, I don’t think that argument holds up statistically. There are millions upon millions of stories of children born into debilitating poverty, neglect, abuse etc. that go untold.
Sometimes contraceptives fail, sometimes people make bad choices, sometimes childbirth poses risks to an expectant mother, and sometimes women are raped. Women in these situations would likely be better mothers in different circumstances, not the present one, so why not focus on discouraging/preventing the events leading up to the situation rather than the abortion itself. Women that are prevented from getting abortions lawfully sometimes seek illegal methods that are much more harmful and dangerous. Abortion shouldn’t be presented as some kind of evil and horrendous act when the root of the problem is the circumstances that put a woman in that position.
I do think there’s a fair criticism levied against this though. Many abortions happen because of unsafe sex. Is it fair to terminate a life (or at least the prospect of a life) because you don’t like the consequences of your irresponsible actions? Though it seems harsh, I think that’s a fair point. There are negative impacts to abortion that can’t be ignored. I think most women who have gone through one will attest to some of those negatives. Though it’s a bit of a departure from the main point, forcing taxpayers to support government funded abortions makes little sense to me. People vehemently disagree on the moral dimension of the topic; and I see no reason why people shouldn’t pay for their own abortions. I think charity could cover the costs for those who can’t afford it. Whether that’s feasible is yet further departure, so I’ll stick to the subject at hand.
If abortion is morally permissible during the third trimester right up until the moment of birth, it seems quite arbitrary to instantly consider the fetus a “baby” now. I don’t think the difference of inside the womb vs. outside the womb is what constitutes life (and therefore the right to life). On the other end of the spectrum, isn’t it just as arbitrary a divide to not allow extremely early term abortions? What’s the difference between that and a morning-after pill, or for that matter, contraceptives. Is there some kind of magical chime at the moment of conception that grants an inalienable right to life? I don’t think that’s any less arbitrary than the divide between inside the womb and outside the womb.
So how do we make a non-arbitrary distinction? Well, I don’t think we can make one that won’t appear at least somewhat arbitrary. But I believe a distinction of some sort is necessary. While some might see it as an insignificant factor, I think as soon as fetuses have the capacity to suffer, i.e. the ability to feel pain, the ethics change. The debate on when exactly this happens is apparently “extremely complicated“. It seems that the general consensus is at some point after 20 weeks. I’d say that’s a sensible cut off.
Abortion is not as simple an issue as many make it out to be. I think denying that there’s an ethical dilemma is intellectually dishonest. Disallowing abortions after 20 weeks still provides people who aren’t ready for parenthood an option while harmonizing fairly well with the harm principle.