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On the US Abortion Impasse

pro choice posters at a building

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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.

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