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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) 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.

11 Responses

  1. Great post – you definitely summed up the Bill of Rights aspect a lot more coherently than I’ve ever been able to.

  2. […] ETA: And a really nice sum up of the Bill of Rights “issues” involved at Still Truckin’. […]

  3. Thanks QoT. ๐Ÿ™‚ Rights-based stuff is easy for me with a grounding in philosophy and ethics. I feel I ought to have got a bit more in about how hard the law is actually supposed to make it to get an abortion and why it’s a good thing that people who don’t meet the letter of the law are getting through, but perhaps sitting on that until tomorrow might be a good idea, especially as it seems there are plenty of women making the same point.

    Reading through the post that tracked back here, I definitely find myself nodding, especially the part about how we should be more concerned at 11-14 yearold girls getting pregnant than that they’re getting abortions. Not only are your daughters having sex, they are having unprotected sex! Kindly deal with their life education before you go moaning about the fact that someone can clean up the emotional mess you’ve left them vulnerable to if their pregnancy causes them so much distress that they would abort.

    I have to agree with your sentiment, too. If they’re looking to shill to judges to enforce the word of an outdated law, they might find their next hearing is in the court of public opinion, which tends to judge things a bit less favourably in that regard.

  4. I’m a “pro-lifer”, a woman and a mother of four. I want a foetus treated as a person because I believe that personhood isn’t something that is conferred at some arbitrary future time of existence. Once a person is conceived they have individual DNA, blood type, sex etc. Personhood is inherent to humanity.

    “this โ€œpro-lifeโ€ stance doesnโ€™t seem to extend to using their clout on this issue for good works that improve life expectancy for children or families.”

    You are quite incorrect about this. As a Catholic I am involved and aware of a number of initiatives to assist children and families. Caritas, Catholic Social Services, the Catholic Worker Movement, Family Life International – all these groups assist vulnerable families with practical assistance. Likewise other Christian groups who are pro-life are providing practical help, such as the Salvation Army, and food banks run by Baptist churches.

  5. Hey Muerk-
    Let me start by saying I think abortion is about the worst possible way to avoid having a baby. Adoption, emergency contraception, contraception and birth control, abstinence… none of them involve allowing something to die that, at minimum, is a living creature. As someone who believe in animal rights and moves insects outside instead of killing them, I’m pretty hot on the rights of living creatures of any type, let alone humans.

    Firstly, let me say that there’s a real difference between being human and being a person. Human is merely a species- you can be braindead and human, but you’re still human. You can be a fertilised zygote and human, but you’re still human. It’s defined by certain configurations of DNA and proteins. That’s it.

    But I also don’t believe personhood is arbitrary. I believe it’s defined by the capacity for independent thought and action, the ability to suffer and prosper, and the capacity to feel. What I don’t know is the point where a baby gains all those, but physically speaking, it is impossible that it all comes at once, and it’s likely it takes quite some time to develop even when it starts coming. It’s entirely possible that newborn babies don’t count as full “people” in the same sense that children and adults do, even though they’re out of the womb. Spiritually speaking, maybe there’s a soul involved that grants personhood instantly on conception- but in that case, a soul has to be something that has self-contained personhood, and it can’t be “killed” in the sense that a physical body can, and that has enormous consequences for the morality of life and death that would actually support a pro-choice position. (ie. it means that the person is not lost when a baby is aborted, so suddenly chemical abortions have little downside) So if pro-life arguments have a point, we face some sort of emergence point for personhood, which is part of why even an incredibly outdated law like the current abortion law recognises that the time since conception is a relevant factor.

    That said, you don’t need full personhood to attain rights- this is why I talk about the fetus primarily having a right not to suffer, not to be violently killed. It’s incredibly likely that a developed fetus will have the capacity to feel pain. That gives it a right to be free from suffering. If we are overly restrictive of abortion, we make desperate women resort to coathangers. I’m convinced that enforcing the exact word of the law will do that, and that’s even less acceptable to me than allowing abortions.

    I think it’s possible to be both “pro-choice” and “pro-life”, but just to think that one of those principles has a priority in certain situations, and abortion is certainly one of those complex situations where labels aren’t enough.

    I’m glad to hear you’re “pro-life” in the wider sense, but I’ve yet to see any institutional commitment from groups opposing more liberal abortion law to that sort of care for life after birth. I hope you inspire other people with your take on this issue to do similar work, and thank you for anything you’ve contributed to our society- I know that both Catholics and Anglicans do very good community work in general, so it’s great to hear that individuals in the pro-life movement maintain those standards.

    Hopefully we can also agree on working together to prevent abortion being necessary in the first place too, instead of just focusing on where we disagree. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Thank you for your very civil reply Ari.

    Family Life International is both a group that is pro-life and offers practical assistance to mothers.

    I’m personally involved with it as a Natural Family Planning teacher, and I’ve seen the accommodation where women can stay, the piles of excellent quality baby clothes and sundries. The doctors, nurses and midwives who offer free care.

    This is an organisation that puts its money where its mouth is because we understand that it’s all very well to say – abortion is wrong – but it’s a bit of a cop out to not stump up with offering a way for mothers to keep their babies in a practical sense.

    The issue I have with the theory of personhood that you outline is that I think to be human is to be a person. The disabled are persons, despite impaired “capacity for independent thought and action, the ability to suffer and prosper, and the capacity to feel.”

    Denying a human being personhood is open to gross abuse, probably the most extreme example would be World War II. But you can look at any ethnic cleansing/genocide to see where a denial of personhood can lead.

  7. Muerk- civility ought to be the norm in these matters, even when we disagree. Thankyou for coming forward as someone who supports mothers when they decide not to abort- that is definitely the kind of pro-life sentiment I’d like to see more of and have been missing in the mainstream of the anti-abortion movement. As long as we can stay civil with each other, please feel free to disagree with me as often as you like ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I’d like to quickly clear something up- I don’t think you can deny someone personhood in the sense that you take it away from them. When you fail to recognise personhood and it exists, it’s you who is responsible for that, even though someone else bears the brunt. Their personhood still exists despite your failure to recognise it. If I am wrong and I’ve supported mothers in killing people, and those mothers have not had a good reason, then those are consequences I’ll have to accept for trying to reduce harm in a very unclear situation. I agree we ought to take every method short of deciding for the mother to persuade her to avoid abortion late in pregnancy. My trouble here is that in asserting the personhood of the fetus we can deny the personhood of the mother, and while we know the fetus is human and valuable, we’re not necessarily one hundred percent sure of its personhood. It’s a mucky decision that might become clearer in cases where the mother’s health is at risk.

    I agree with you that the mere humanity of the disabled is every reason to care for them to a very high standard, and that their personhood- while in some cases not as perfectly intact as it could be- is an excellent reason to help them as close to independence despite their differences as we can. Averting harm is actually part of the reason I ultimately choose pro-choice over pro-life- if the mother is going to abort one way or another, society should do whatever it can to make sure the way she chooses is safe for her and does not risk pain or suffering for the fetus.

  8. I truly don’t think that asserting the personhood of the foetus denies the personhood of the mother, but for a woman who wants to abort there is definitely a negative effect for her by refusing her desire. I wouldn’t shy away from acknowledging that blunt fact.

    Rather than having women having unsafe abortions I would like to see a huge push for women to avoid unplanned pregnancies and if a pregnancy happens the woman is given massive levels of support to continue her pregnancy and after the baby is born then make a decision over keeping the child or not.

    One thing that really bothers me is the nastiness of the debate in the global sphere. I think both sides what what’s best for people and I think it’s important to acknowledge the good will of those we disagree with. No one wants to see women and children in pain.

    The key question for us all is despite our advanced contraceptive technologies why are so many women still wanting abortion? Why can’t we prevent abortion in the first place?

  9. BTW, Unsafe abortions or not, there’s still no pain relief for the foetus. Abortion, even provided by trained doctors in hospitals, is still a very gruesome procedure and the foetus is dismembered alive, either by scissors or through strong suction.

  10. […] will not spout my my views on abortion here, as they have been repeated ad nausium throughout the liberal blogs and even on Kiwiblog. Ultimately, in my opinion, it’s […]

  11. Muerk- yeah, that’s why I have issues with late-term abortions in general, although I still think that it’s best to give women a choice and support them in making the right decision- both for them and the fetus, if possible. Still, I think overall, coathanger is a lot worse than pill+suction. And scissors are likely to be better than a coathanger, too, as they will kill relatively quickly, although that sort of procedure is the type of one I would rather see mothers reserving for times when someone is going to die if the fetus is not aborted.

    Internationally, most induced abortions are in the embryonic stage, however, and these have roughly a 90% success rate without resorting to any surgical procedures such as suction. Overall, that’s about 70% of abortions that die with no pain for the embryo at all. I’d say that’s pretty good, and I seriously wonder about the motives of restricting chemical abortion of embryos.

    I’m going to look up New Zealand-specic statistics on that for a third post on the matter, but before that I’ll take a break with some other stuff, as frankly, as bad as I feel it would be if we followed the letter of the law in this case, I can’t let myself burn out on this by spending all of my feminism time on it ๐Ÿ˜‰

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