Coathanger versus pill (in which we quickly debate the rights of a fetus)

I’ve often been caught saying that there are two types of people- those who believe in false dicotomies, and those that do not. This is how I feel about the debate on abortion, which as the Hand Mirror points out looks very likely to resurface. (original story via the Herald1)

What most anti-abortion campaigners don’t want to know is that legalising abortion is not about allowing women to abort at all. It’s about allowing them to do it safely, with quality-checked drugs, and avoiding desperate measures. Feministe has a great post to catch you up: The Bad Old Days, in which Jill discusses why the framing on the whole abortion debate is being badly skewed in favour of anti-abortion groups.2

Mainly, she argues that we don’t have a choice between no abortions and some abortions. On the one hand, we could choose to have a lot more abortions becoming very unsafe, but there being less abortions. On the other hand, we could choose for there to be slightly more abortions overall, but ensure all of them are very safe. It’s a showdown of the coathanger versus the pill. As I generally assume my visitors to this blog are ignorant of any feminist background I haven’t given them- coathangers are a powerful symbol of do-it-yourself abortions, and I suggest you skip the following sentence if you’re weak of stomach: Coathangers and similar objects are used to reach into the uterus and kill the fetus in a much more gruesome and dangerous way than medical abortion, which generally just delivers the fetus before it’s old enough to survive outside the uterus, and allows it to die naturally in a way not dissimilar to turning off life support for a terminal patient.

I think if we were given a choice between offering a desperate woman who could not cope with having a baby either a coathanger or a pill, we’d choose the pill. That, to my mind, is the best thing about New Zealand’s current abortion laws. They are, of course, still lacking. As Justice Miller rightly points out, more counselling for mothers aborting for mental health issues is a very good idea. (so long as it’s real counselling where her issues are actually explored, rather than just a shallow attempt to get her to deliver the baby at all costs)

Justice Miller argues a very dangerous line- that we should apply the Bill of Rights to fetuses, despite it being completely inappropriate to them. I do agree that morally speaking, the fetus has rights. It may not be a full member of our community, but it is vulnerable and how we treat it defines us. (morally speaking, it’s an object) But what rights does it have, and how do we best legally protect those rights? The fetus is not an independent human being- it’s quite clearly stuck in the womb for quite some time if it is to survive. Its mother is acting as life support- essentially she is giving it first aid automatically. Thus it can’t be said to have any “positive rights” at that stage, where it is guarenteed the ability to act or compel others to act for it. We can only talk of children with the ability to listen and read having a right to education, for instance. The only rights it can have while it is still in the womb are “negative rights”, to non-interference. The fetus, I would say, primarily has a right not to be killed violently- and killing fetuses violently is exactly what limiting the availability of medical abortions will encourage.

It does not have a right to its potential as a person- such arguments lead not just to a banning of all birth control, but to a duty to uplift other species as close to personhood as we possibly can. There’s even an excellent philosophical argument along those lines that talks about what would happen if we invented an injection which could make cats sentient- pro-life people would be stuck injecting cats all day, from the position Family First seems to be taking. The right to refuse treatment would have to be struck. Full-blown socialism would need to be mandated. Arguing a wide right to potential, rather than narrow rights derived from potential, has enormous consequences.

Likewise, the fetus does not have the right to be treated like a fully-formed child. If it did, many people would have “brothers” or “sisters” that they never even knew about who had been routinely miscarried before their mothers had even known they were pregnant. We would talk about age relative to conception, (which we still can’t pinpoint) rather than relative to birth. We would mourn miscarriages like infant deaths, and we would be worrying about a lot more than just baby names and clothes shopping during pregnancy.

Finally- and the most controversially- the fetus has no right to compel or endanger the mother. This is why the Bill of Rights is completely ill-suited to deal with the rights of fetuses. If the mother’s health is at risk and she is capable of making decisions independently, (which almost all women are 😉 ) she has every right to abort the fetus. The Bill of Rights does not compel someone to gamble their own life to save their children, and as such any weakening of a mother’s right to give her own health primacy is at best misguided. If the fetus itself is a great source of mental harm, such as if it is a result of a rape- we can also make a strong argument that the mother has no duty to keep it alive against her will, and certainly no duty to care for the child herself if she does deliver it.

In arguing about abortion, we can’t forget that we’re talking about two lives, not just one, and treating women like children while treating fetuses like adults is definitely the wrong way around. Any law on abortion has to start by treating the mother like she has the rights and responsibilities to make her own choices, and then setting the framework so that those choices uphold the health and any rights of the fetus afterwards. It also has to avoid trivialising the decisions of the mother by slowing them down “in case she changes her mind”. In normal circumstances, it is her responsibility to take the decisions at an appropriate pace, not the legislative framework’s.

1I’m annoyed, although not surprised, that Jackie Edmond from Family Planning has her take on this treated like an afterthought. Family Planning is a respected social service agency, and appropriate coverage would dictate that she gets front-billing, not an advocacy group for a vocal minority that wants to infringe on other people’s reproductive decisions.
2I’m sure someone is just waiting to take me to task for this, but people who campaign against abortion are most certainly not “pro-life”, although that is their justifcation. The movement as a whole opposes numerous sexual health campaigns that do nothing but improve quality of life, and this “pro-life” stance doesn’t seem to extend to using their clout on this issue for good works that improve life expectancy for children or families. Unless of course, we’re talking pro-life in terms of opposing birth control. In that sense, they do qualify. I think broadly speaking, anyone interested in the abortion debate can agree that life is good, babies should be carried to term all other things neutral, and fetuses have some moral value of their own. Reducing such a complicated series of variables to “pro-choice” and “pro-life” without considering the kinds of situations mothers might be in is insulting at best, moronic at worst, and causes reactionary nonsense like the stuff I just linked.

Note: While I use the word fetus here, it’s important to note I’m not being entirely scientific. Fetus (or fœtus) is but one of the stages that pregnancy takes before birth, and each of those stages have different circumstances which should effect any decisions regarding aborting it. I use the term “fetus” loosely to generally talk about the most contentious times a mother could abort, especially as it still implies human-like characteristics and a relatively advanced state of pregnancy, but doesn’t imply advanced charactistics like detailed perception or talking in the way that “baby” or “child” does. I’ve also deliberately ignored speculating on the point at which an embryo gains rights, or whether a fetus can dream/think/hope/etc…, as they’re very difficult questions to answer for a very inconsequential impact on the debate.