pro choice posters at a building

On the US Abortion Impasse

Recently, the US Supreme Court published a ruling that, in effect, overturns the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion precedent, and returns responsibility for deciding policy on abortion to individual states. One conservative commentator paraphrased the decision as “sorry, but the Constitution doesn’t say anything about a right to abortion, so it’s up to the states.”

This has been met with furore in US “progressive” quarters. The judgment of the three dissenting justices says: “Roe held, and Casey reaffirmed, that the Constitution safeguards a woman’s right to decide for herself whether to bear a child. Roe held, and Casey reaffirmed, that in the first stages of pregnancy, the government could not make that choice for women. The government could not control a woman’s body or the course of a woman’s life: It could not determine what the woman’s future would be.” Fine words, perhaps; but they do not disguise the anti-democratic desire of these justices to stop individual states setting their own rules on abortion, even if a majority of the people in the state desire them.

But on the other hand, extreme conservatives have been heard muttering about seeking a constitutional amendment to prevent Congress or the states legalizing abortion. Indeed, such an amendment reached the floor of the Senate in 1983, but was defeated.

Here is the nub of the issue, as I see it. The abortion question – when it should be permitted, and when not – appears at first sight to be, and is being treated as, a political question. But it is not, in reality, a political question at all. It is an ethical question; a fundamental question of what is right and what is wrong. The issue, simply stated, is: exactly when does a fetus become a human being, and so acquire the right to life?

The way I see, there are four ethically tenable positions on abortion:

  1. The “Catholic position.” A fetus becomes human at the moment of conception.
  2. The Roe v. Wade position, that a fetus becomes human once it is capable of surviving outside the womb. (This decision, by the way, strikes me as a typical political compromise, trying to appease both sides in an ethical war, while satisfying neither.)
  3. The common-sense position, that a fetus becomes human, and acquires human rights, at the moment of birth.
  4. This is a bit of a curveball, but there are some who say that the criterion for being human is self-awareness. That isn’t usually achieved for some months after birth. So, these people think it should be OK to commit infanticide, if the child will never have a chance of a decent life – for example, due to autism.

None of these positions can be said to be right or wrong in an absolute sense. The matter, then, ought not to be the subject of legislation! That it is, is I think the cause of the immense divisions over the issue between Americans of different persuasions.

I myself take the common-sense position, number (3). That means that, until birth, the fetus is not yet a human being, only a potential. So, the mother must have the right to say “I won’t go through with this.” There is, it’s true, a somewhat grey area over how long before the birth is due the mother should actually be allowed to undergo abortion. But certainly, in the first third of the pregnancy, if the mother feels it is the right thing to do, abortion ought to be permitted.

This is even more important when we consider that parents have the responsibility to bring up and educate their children. If they (or the mother alone, if the man is no longer around) feel that they cannot discharge the responsibility, then they (or she) must have the right to say: “No, I can’t go through with this; so, I’ll abort the pregnancy.” And most of all, if (as in a case in Ireland a few years ago) the pregnancy was caused by rape.

Now, what does the Supreme Court decision actually do? It places the power to regulate abortion in the USA back where it was before Roe v. Wade, with the governments of individual states. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t moving the power to make political decisions down towards the lowest possible level a good thing? Then, if you don’t like a particular policy in one place, you can go somewhere else more congenial to your views. In the case in point, even if the state a woman lives in goes so far as to ban abortion totally, if she wants an abortion badly enough, why can she not travel to another, more abortion-friendly state?

The fact is, that it is simply tyrannical and unjust to enforce on people whose view on the ethics of abortion is on one side, laws which reflect the views of those on the other side. Being an ethical dispute not a political one, it isn’t something which can be met by a compromise half-way. This was exactly what the Roe v. Wade verdict tried, and failed, to do. So, it was always doomed to fail eventually. At least this ruling will allow ordinary people some degree of choice, at least, in what abortion régime they live under.

So, I think the Supreme Court has probably done the right thing with this ruling, even if it may not have been for the right reasons.


  1. It is better not to misrepresent the views of others, lest one be accused of using a straw man argument. What you call the “Catholic position”, as you have stated it, would-be ridiculous, in that there is no fetus at conception, only a single-celled zygote. A science-based approach would be say that an individual human organism has become literally that by the time at which it might split into two individual human organisms (fraternal twins) has passed. That time has usually long passed before a mother realises that she is with child.

    Any other doctrine relies upon quasi-religious doctrines which assert that there are ensoulment events in humans’ lives. But such events are not observable. Calling ensoulment “enpersonment” instead, doesn’t change what that ensoulment doctrine teaches. From a scientific point of view, the doctrine is mumbo-jumbo. Everybody born was once an embryo, then a fetus. To assert that a given adult wasn’t himself or herself that early in his or her life, is sophistry, not scientific. That is the true meaning of the much misused word “identity”. A zygote that doesn’t split into twins, and the single embryo into which he or she develops, and the single fetus, the baby, the child and the adult, have the same contiinuous identity, just as do a tadpole and the frog it grows to become if it survives, or a caterpillar, a crysallis and a moth.

    Science teaches us the truth and the rights and wrongs of aborting younger fellow citizens near the beginnings of their individual life-journeys. The role of religion (Roman Catholicism) is merely to indoctrinate believers to believe that right and wrong are rather important, with perhaps eternal consequences for the righteous and the unrighteous, so that they might act accordingly, in this aspect of life as in any other.

    See: The mumbo-jumbo of choice

    • John, thanks for pointing out my slip. I was simply using the word “fetus” to cover all the stages of life prior to birth.

      But my point stands, that the “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” dichotomy is an ethical one, not a political one. In such a case, my view is that neither side should be allowed to impose their point of view forcibly on the other. What we are seeing here is the total opposite – both sides trying to force their particular view on to everyone.

  2. Your point stands. But your argument works just as well for slavery as it does for abortion. It is often said, as a pro-choice slogan, “If you don’t want (or ‘need’) and abortion, don’t have one.” That seems to be your argument. But, likewise, nobody who disagrees with slavery is forced to own slaves. What right have abolitionists to impose their eccentric beliefs (be they “ethical” or “political”) on those who think it is okay to own slaves and want to own slaves, and even consider that they “need” to own slaves?

    My main point also stands, that pro-lfe isn’t some strange, eccentric Roman Catholic doctrine that deserves to be labeled (potentially dismissively) as “the Catholic position”. It is the only coherent, science-based ethical position, whatever thought experiment one conducts to make the necessary ethical judgment. That’s why I wrote “The mumbo-jumbo of choice” all those years ago, beginning with a nasty little dig on my part against Roman Catholicism, but then applying the same argument to the pro-choicers who opposed the Catholics that day. Did you take a peep at that blog post?

    • John, the argument you ascribe to me does not work for slavery as you seem to think. For just as I can posit, “It is wrong to kill anyone who has been born” (which is indeed my position on this issue), I could equally well posit, “It is wrong to enslave anyone who has been born.” Accepting that, establishes the wrongness of slavery for all practical purposes. Of course, it doesn’t address the question of whether or not it is wrong to (try to) enslave someone who has not yet been born. But I, at least, regard the idea of such an enslavement as rather silly.

      My argument is actually from the opposite side of the coin. It is closer to “if someone wants to have an abortion, you have no right forcibly to stop them.” This is because, if you want to infringe someone’s freedom of action, the burden of proof is on you to show that the damage their proposed action will cause is greater than the damage that will ensue if they don’t do it. In the case of abortion, that raises questions about the mother’s health, and (as I said in the essay) about what kind of life-chances the child is likely to get. The whole question is more complicated than the “pro-life” point of view admits.

      Yes, I did read your “mumbo-jumbo” article. If I understood right what you were saying there about “ensoulment,” you were in essence objecting to a variant of the position I numbered (4) – that something comes along, after birth, that plants some “soul” in the individual. I too would object to that way of putting the matter. But there is indeed something that comes along after birth, that does change an individual’s thinking processes; that is, the point at which the individual becomes self-aware. That, or close to it, is also the point at which the individual acquires the ability to remember. My own earliest conscious memory, for example, comes from when I was about 18 months old. I have no memory of my time inside the womb, or of ever being a zygote. But would you not expect what you call a “continuous identity” to be able to remember back to previous phases of its existence?

  3. Regarding your first paragraph, your introduction of the word “posit”, and the one person’s inference that “accepting” what you posit somehow “establishes” that what you posit is correctly, because clearly there may be others who posit differently. That paragraph doesn’t help you either to justify or to condemn the imposition of acts or omissions that are the outworking of how how some people posit upon those who posit differently, whether this be the aborting of anothr class with no say, or the enlavement of another class, or any other behaviour.

    In your second paragraph, you write, “if you want to infringe someone’s freedom of action, the burden of proof is on you to show that the damage their proposed action will cause is greater than the damage that will ensue if they don’t do it.” How does that sentence help you? Firstly, it is merely an appeal to a highly controversial utilitarian calculus as the basis of a calculable system of ethics, whereby it can be calculated or “proved” (hence a “burden” of such proof”) that this or that alternative causes greater or lesser “damage”. Secondly, all the following ideas are value judgments, the stuff of ethics: (1) that having no choice of employer or occupation (the essence of slavery) amounts to “damage” of a certain magnitude on the *correctly* calibrated utilitarian scale; and (2) that being put to death in the womb does not amount to serious “damage” on that scale; (3) that not being out to death in the womb when one is likely not to have good life-chances later in life, causes one greater damage than would being put to death.

    Having also mentioned “the mother’s health”, you finish the second paragraph, “The whole question is more complicated than the ‘pro-life’ point of view admits.” Not even Roman Catholic ethical doctrine adopts the simplistic teaching you erect, as a straw man, when stating what you call “the Catholic teaching”. Self-defence abortion is permitted in that faith community to protect a mother from death or grievous bodily harm, in the same way as it is permitted to shoot dead a toddler who plays going postal with his toy machine gun, who has accidentally picked up a real machine gun at a garden party. Roman Catholicism likewise allows the slaying of foetuses up to full term who, through no moral fault of their own, endanger their mothers. Even Roman Catholic midwives have always been armed with weapons for crushing the heads of babies that are too big to get through their mothers’ birth canals, to save their mother’s lives, or at least to protect them from grievous bodily harm. Alas, not even one percent of the missing 60 million Americans deliberately killed before they were born, lost their lives in such tragic circumstances.

    You haven’t responded to my criticism that characterising the pro-life posistion as a “Catholic” position, is misleading.

    Finally, the identity of a human, as I am using the word identity, is which human he or she is, not a comment on how good a memory that human may have yet of its life events. If a see a dead, blue-arsed fly floating in my soup, and push it below the surface accidentally whilst trying to fish it out, but then succeed in fishing out a dead fly that I notice hasn’t got a blue backside, I conclude that the dead fly I’ve managed to pull out isn’t the same dead fly as the one I saw earlier floating on the surface. It has a different identity from the first fly, recognisable by the different colour of it’s bum. The first dead fly must still be in the soup. In this literal sense of the word “identity”, we all have a continuous identity, throughout our entire lives.

    I would expect many a three year-old to remember a two-digit number I’d said a few seconds before, but would expect no ten year-old still to remember consciously my having once played that memory game with him or her, when he or she was three. That does not mean that the three year-old and the ten year-old was and is two different humans. They share a single, individual human identity, being the same individual at bothe stages of their lives, regardless of whether they remember when they were little.

    • John, on the matter of the pro-life position being “Catholic,” this may help: Here is what they say: “In accordance with its widely publicized anti-abortion teachings, the Catholic Church opposes abortion in all circumstances.” That is unequivocal, no? And the Catholic church is the only one for which they say “in all circumstances,” without qualification. Every other major religious group in the USA recognizes at least some circumstances in which abortion is permissible. You are in a minority, John, even among different religious persuasions. And in the population at large, you are even more in a minority. Another Pew report tells us that 61% of the US public say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% say it should be illegal in all or most cases.

      Now, you may want to say that Pew is not a “science” organization, which may be true – they describe themselves as a “fact tank.” I can see that you like to use the word “science” like a battering ram, that once uttered, proves your case. I don’t see science as being anything like that; for me, science is a, more or less formalized, way of seeking new knowledge. In fact, I am always leery of someone who talks of “science” as if it was a deity – that’s exactly what the “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming” scammers do.

      When I said that I had read your mumbo-jumbo article, I neglected to mention that I also read the comments. You had a very interesting conversation there with someone called “Edd.” I notice that on this thread you have been trying to do to me very much what you did to Edd; disputing little turns of phrase, failing even to attempt a proper answer to real points like my burden-of-proof argument, or throwing in straw men (like your mention of slavery above), all the while never giving any objective arguments for your position, just simply re-iterating it.

      Your last paragraph above is a red herring, too. No-one should expect a ten-year-old to be able to remember any specific event from when they were three. But if your “continuous identity” contention is correct, they should be able to remember at least some event or events from when they were three. And two, and one, and zero, and minus nine months.

      • I don’t see that my slavery analogy is a “straw man”. Your doctrine is that that those who would abolish offensive abortion ought not to impose their ethical beliefs upon those who teach that the practice should be retained. I am entitled to ask why, for consistency of approach, you don’t also teach that those who would abolish slavery, or keep it abolished, ought not to impose their ethical beliefs upon those who teach that slavery should be retained or reintroduced. You protest that the two cases are different. But I am asking you *how* they are different, and you seem to have avoided that question.

        • John, to enslave someone is to deny self-determination to an individual who is capable of self-determination. A fetus is not capable of self-determination.

          • An adult in a coma, like a fetus, is temporarily incapable of “self-determination”, should we harvest his or her vital organs, ensuring that he never regains consciousness, for this reason?

  4. I don’t have unlimited time, to cover every point. However, I thought I had covered the flaws in your “burden of proof” assertion.

    Regarding the statement on the Pew Research page, it is unequivocal, but it is wrong. Closer to the truth is the opening passage at

    “The official teachings of the Catholic Church oppose all forms of abortion procedures whose direct purpose is to destroy a zygote, blastocyst, embryo or fetus, since it holds that ‘human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.’ However, the Church does recognize as morally legitimate certain acts which indirectly result in the death of the fetus, as when the direct purpose is removal of a cancerous womb.”

    One point of mine remains unchallenged, that it could be misleading to refer to the radical pro-life position as “the Catholic position”. It is and has been also the position of many, in many ages and cultures in recorded history a majority, including those who are not or were not Roman Catholics, or Christians of any churchmanship, or of any theistic faith at all, including many who make faith-like appeals to “the science” of the matter (as you seem to think I have done).

    Like the two dead flies in my soup, which also have identities (the blue one and the other one), there is no evidence that very young humans, still inside their mothers’ wombs, have memories. That doersn’t refute that they have identities, as you claim.

  5. John, I have engaged with you on this thread in good faith, simply trying to put forward my position (and conceding on the occasion on which I was wrong). You have not shown corresponding good faith towards me. You have merely re-iterated your position again and again, and tried to push the burden of proof on to me, when that burden is clearly on you, since you want to restrict the freedom of conscious human beings. There can be no constructive discussion in such circumstances; and most of all on a libertarian website! I shall not respond to any more of your comments on this thread.

  6. I am also disappointed in our conversation so far. I.m sorry you want to end it though. Perhaps our next conversation will be more rewarding, for both os us.

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