Debating abortion

Can men speak about abortion?

“Abortion shouldn’t even be debated”

Are there other arguments for the pro-life position?

“Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one”

Can men speak about abortion?

‘No uterus, no opinion!’ We have all heard this slogan. And before I respond, I do want to say that there is a grain of truth in it. Women’s voices and experiences have been marginalised, and women have too often had decisions made about their bodies by men, often in horrifying ways – whether through forced sterilisation programmes in the 20th century, forced marriage in many cultures throughout history and the contemporary world, rape, including marital rape, and far more. These are grievous offences against the dignity of women, and it is right that we condemn them, allowing women to speak for and make decisions about themselves.

Likewise,  it is true that women have experiences which men cannot have, particularly relating to pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, and the various challenges (including discrimination) that come with them. Women have unique experiential knowledge which deserves its own place in the debate.

Finally, it is also true that as a result of this asymmetry, men can be too quick to speak without seriously considering the implications of pregnancy, childbirth or motherhood for women. This can lead to insensitive, and sometimes even false, claims. And both can lead to bad policy. So humility is of considerable importance in debates relating to abortion, especially where it relates to hardships that women may go through.

But there are powerful reasons for men to speak about this topic, albeit with humility and caution. Many reasons, in fact, and I will just mention a few.

One of the most important is that there is a danger – in retrospect a very real one – that by making abortion a ‘women’s issue’ only, you create fertile ground for men to abandon women whom they have put in that position. By excluding men from the debate, you are also excluding them from their responsibility, effectively telling them: you may have sex with whomever you want, and if anything happens, it’s nothing to do with you. The man is thereby liberated from any accountability, leaving the woman alone to cope with the burdens of an unwanted pregnancy – whether she keeps it or aborts it. This is the ideal situation for male exploiters of women. It is not so ideal for the women left behind to pick up the pieces. Thus, telling men that pregnancy and abortion are nothing to do with them thereby enables men to have a mentality of abandonment and exploitation. It liberates them from any consequence of sex, in a way that could never be true for women. While some women may welcome this in given situations, the large share of women victimised by this mentality may not feel so liberated. The slogan takes a societal problem and places it entirely on the shoulders of women. Men should be part of the solution to unplanned pregnancy and abortion; excluding them only makes things worse.

A second problem is that this is ultimately a question about justice, and all of us have a responsibility to help redress injustice. A major theme in the contemporary social justice movement is that fighting for a vulnerable group while at the same time marginalising another vulnerable group is an eviscerated form of justice – in fact, it is another form of injustice. A second major theme is the idea of ‘allyship’ – that those in a position of power or privilege, rather than staying silent, should use that power or privilege to lift up and defend the vulnerable. Indeed, staying silent is seen as another mode of oppression. If these are on the right lines, then men have not only permission, but a responsibility, to speak about abortion as a matter of justice.

A third problem is that men are often asked to speak for women, either because they feel they do not have a voice or platform at all, or because they feel their voice or platform is in danger of marginalisation and having others say the same thing may empower them. This is presumably part of the motivation behind the He For She movement, which asks men to use their words and actions to advocate on behalf of women, amplifying their voices in the advancement of gender equality. For my own part, I can say that countless women have asked me to keep speaking about abortion, knowing that I can represent their voices to a wider audience than they have access to. It seems perverse to take away the megaphone those women have in the name of ‘giving them a voice’.

Fourth, there appears to be a problem of inconsistency. Pro-choice men are rarely, if ever, asked to stay out of the conversation – their views about the morality of abortion are perfectly well tolerated. More problematic still is the fact that all of us feel comfortable talking about issues which only affect a certain different demographic group. I was recently involved in two conversations with a large number of doctors about male circumcision and hymen repair surgery. Not one of the doctors of the opposite sex in either case expressed any hesitation about sharing their views on these topics, nor did any of the doctors of the relevant sex express any objection. Fortunately, when the topic occasionally moved onto female genital mutilation, both men and women were united in raising their voices in condemnation. I think this is a good thing – women should be able to speak about male circumcision, and men should be able to talk about – primarily to condemn – female genital mutilation and hymen repair surgery.

The problem here is that the objection simply makes no logical sense. You do not need to be able to be personally involved in a situation in order to have a moral opinion about it (though of course men are affected by abortion policy, since their taxes pay for abortions in many countries, if they are doctors, like me, they are at risk of losing their jobs for not being involved, and so on). I will never be President of the USA. But I certainly have views about how he or she should act. I will never be head of the Israeli or Palestinian armed forces. I certainly have views about how they should act. And so on. Possible examples are endless. The idea that people shouldn’t have opinions about situations they could never be in is demonstrably absurd. If someone cannot be in a position, that is a reason for humility and for listening. It is not a reason for silence or censorship.

Finally, if men cannot speak about abortion, it is hard or impossible to know where to draw the line – at what point is a man speaking about abortion? This issue came up a few years ago when I gave a talk on the moral status of foetuses, as I learned that a feminist society had planned to protest me. I assured my audience that I was not going to say anything about the legality of abortion, nor even the morality of abortion, but keep my talk strictly focused on the moral status of the foetus. The audience could draw conclusions on abortion themselves.

It’s clear that men should be able to speak about the moral status of foetuses. It would be absurd to suggest otherwise. But what if they conclude that foetuses are persons who should have legal protection? That still seems to be a claim primarily about foetuses, about which men are perfectly well permitted to opine. But yet it clearly has implications relating to abortion. Likewise, I have sometimes given talks on the mental health consequences of abortion, without making any claim about the morality or legality of abortion. Some have raised objections to this – but why? Are male doctors not allowed to talk about the psychiatric outcomes after a given procedure? Should male doctors not inform women about the risks of a surgical abortion? These implications are surely absurd. But if you say only that men shouldn’t give an opinion about whether abortion should be legal, the claim becomes so empty as to be pointless. If I can say that foetuses have an inalienable right to life, that the same legal protections should apply to them as any other human being, and so on, it seems that saying abortion should be illegal is hardly a big step further.

It is worth noting in closing that women are, in many countries, more pro-life, and more supportive of abortion restrictions, than men. So on balance, having fewer men in the conversation would only make the pro-life position appear more popular.

These are only a few of the reasons men should be permitted to speak about abortion. There are many more beyond the scope of this article which I hope to share soon.

“Abortion shouldn’t even be debated”

The idea that ‘human rights shouldn’t be up for debate’ is a tempting one. And of course, if you think abortion is a human right, you might be tempted to conclude that abortion shouldn’t be debated.

Of course, in some sense this is a circular argument – it assumes that abortion is a human right, which is exactly what is disputed. But there’s more we can say.

One of the problems with this view is that it seems too easy to avoid debate on any topic by simply asserting that your view involves upholding a human right. This will obviously not convince anyone who disagrees – and that is a major problem in a pluralistic society with significant disagreement about important issues.

Another problem is that debating even our most fundamental commitments can, in fact, strengthen them and put them on firmer grounding. It has long been argued that free speech and debate is, in fact, the best way to safeguard our most cherished values. Suppressing that debate only prevents people with the view from properly understanding their view and the basis for it – and that makes it far more fragile to cultural shifts in future.

JS Mill, in his seminal defence of free thought and speech, put it helpfully:

‘the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.’

What he is saying is that those who disagree with an opinion (say, the pro-life view) are equally – or more – deprived by the suppression of that view. This is because either the view is, surprisingly, correct, and pro-choicers are deprived of the opportunity to learn the truth. Or, the view is false – and discussing why the view is false helps to understand the truth – the truth’s ‘collision with error’ helps it to be more clearly perceived.

Understanding the truth better is helpful for at least two reasons: it safeguards that truth against cultural shifts, and it helps us come to the truth in what might be considered marginal cases.

Consider the killing of disabled children as an example. Most of us think that killing disabled children is horrendously wrong. But not all societies have thought so, and there is no guarantee no one in the future will think so. Perhaps in a few decades, there will be a cultural shift toward doing so, and a public debate on the topic. If so, what is more likely to protect the rights of disabled children – a society which just assumes without argument that killing disabled children, and is clueless in the face of counter-arguments, or a society which knows why killing disabled children is wrong, and can argue powerfully against it using reason and evidence? Plausibly, the latter.

Likewise, understanding why killing disabled children is wrong helps us to understand marginal cases where we might be unsure. Is it wrong to kill cows for food? Well, that depends on why killing is wrong – and hence we need to understand this topic, even if the conclusions are uncontroversial. If killing disabled children is wrong because ending sentient life is wrong, then killing cows for food is wrong for the same reason. But if killing disabled children is wrong because they are human beings made in the Image of God, then killing cows is not necessarily wrong – at least, not for that reason. So understanding the basis for uncontroversial, foundational ethical claims is important and helpful.

I think at the root of all this is an equivocation of ‘up for debate’. Of course, human rights should not be ‘up for debate’ in the sense that we should willingly give them up just if it is convenient, or if there is disagreement. But at the same time, for the reasons I’ve given, basic, foundational moral truths should be reflected on, and often the best way to do that is by debating them with thoughtful people who reject them.

It is difficult to claim that the truth of the pro-choice position is so obvious and foundational that it should not be debated – the large majority of the world rejects that position, and for prima facie comprehensible reasons. But even if it were an obvious, foundational truth, for the reasons I’ve suggested, debating it and reflecting on it would remain the best way to safeguard that truth, and should therefore be welcomed.

For more thoughts on this topic, see my contribution to Donald Downs’ and Chris Surprenant’s academic volume on academic freedom.

Are there other arguments for the pro-life position?

Yes. Some of them are different ways of approaching the same fundamental issue. Others are entirely different arguments entirely. Here are some examples:

Infanticide

  1. Killing a newborn infant is wrong.
  2. There is no morally relevant difference between a newborn infant and an embryo/foetus.
  3. Therefore, killing an embryo/foetus is wrong.

This is clearly a powerful argument against late-term abortion – and is perhaps the reason most people already oppose late-term abortion.

Whether an argument against early or late-term abortion, the argument clearly needs some clarification. There are some morally relevant differences between newborn infants and human embryos – very early embryos are not sentient, for example, and are dependent on the mother. So when the argument says there are no morally relevant differences, what it means is that there are none which could make it wrong to kill infants but OK to kill embryos. Being dependent on another person is morally relevant – but it is not morally relevant in the sense that it makes it permissible to kill someone.

The argument relies on the fact that birth, in and of itself, does not fundamentally change the nature, and barely changes the abilities, of a baby. The baby clearly remains the same thing with substantially the same abilities before and after. Hence it primarily undermines the idea that abortion is permissible until birth, but becomes murder after birth.

It is worth noting that many of the foremost defenders of abortion in the academic literature agree with the second premise, at least the clarified version. It is widely – though not universally – agreed that if abortion is OK, so is infanticide (some also say that killing certain disabled adults is likewise permissible). The position that abortion is OK, but infanticide is not, is in fact a relatively uncommon one in the academic ethics literature. For those tempted to think that infanticide may be permissible, see ‘Is infanticide permissible?’

Since both of the premises are overwhelmingly likely, the conclusion is likewise probable.

Prenatal harm

  1. It is wrong to harm foetuses by, for example, smoking, taking drugs, drinking excessively, and so on.
  2. If it is wrong to harm foetuses in this way, it is wrong to kill them, which is a greater harm.
  3. Therefore, it is wrong to kill foetuses.

These premises are plausible. Many people are committed to the first premise – at the very least, they would be against harming the foetus for trivial reasons, or intentionally. A serious reason would be needed for significantly harming the foetus in this way.

The second premise is extremely intuitive. Killing someone is, intuitively, a worse harm – or at least comparable – to giving them the kind of harm which results from smoking, for example. So it is difficult to see how harming them without killing them could be wrong, while killing them is permissible.

Harming the foetus must be wrong for some reason – presumably because the foetus has some substantial moral value. But if so, then wouldn’t killing it likewise be wrong?

It might be argued that harming the foetus is wrong not because it harms the foetus, but because it harms the child or adult which the foetus becomes. Killing doesn’t obviously harm the child or adult in the same way – it prevents them from existing. But on the leading account of why the embryo or foetus has limited moral value, something similar could be said for prenatal harm. Jeff McMahan of the University of Oxford argues that the reason foetuses are less valuable – and able to be killed – is because their future interests are made far less important by the fact there are few psychological connections between the foetus and the adult which it becomes. But if the psychological connections are so few as to make killing permissible, then those limited psychological connections likewise make harming the foetus more justifiable. If the adult is, for practical/ethical purposes, a ‘different person’ to the foetus, then harming the foetus harms the later adult only in the sense that it creates a ‘different person’ with a worse life, than the one who existed. But creating someone with a worse life than another possible person is clearly permissible, and is clearly not the same as making an existing person’s life far worse. Hence, on the foremost account of why killing a foetus is permissible, harming the foetus is plausibly likewise permissible.

Deprivation of a ‘future like ours’

  1. Killing is wrong because it deprives an individual of a ‘future like ours’.
  2. Abortion deprives an individual of a ‘future like ours’.
  3. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

This argument, pioneered by philosopher Don Marquis, starts by considering why killing is wrong in the first place. This is a more difficult question than it might seem. If you ask a variety of people why killing humans is wrong, you will get a variety of different answers.

One reason that killing is wrong is because it deprives someone of a ‘future like ours’ – meaning, the kind of goods that mature humans typically enjoy – not only pleasurable experiences, but ‘higher’ goods like advanced cognition, marriage, education, and so on. It is intuitive that to kill me would be wrong in part because I would no longer be able to do these things.

Marquis suggests a few other reasons for why killing might be wrong, concluding that they don’t fully explain it. For example, killing can’t be wrong only because the victim wants to live – because some murder victims, perhaps with severe depression, do not want to live. Still, it would be wrong to kill them.

But if this is sufficient for killing to be wrong, then since most foetuses have such a future to look forward to – and indeed have more future than most humans – it follows that abortion is (usually) seriously wrong.

Prudential argument

  1. If there is a reasonable chance that what you are killing is a person, it is wrong to kill without very strong justification.
  2. There is a reasonable chance that foetuses are persons.
  3. Therefore, abortion without very strong justification is wrong.

This is a simple practical argument best illustrated by analogy. Suppose you are hunting for food,* and you are not sure whether the creature in the distance is a bird or a child. It would be wrong to go ahead and shoot, even if the chance of it being a child is only, say, 10%. What this suggests is that it is not enough to think that foetuses are probably not persons – to justify ending their lives, you need to be really sure that they are not, at least in ordinary circumstances. Or, as Jack and Barbara Willke put it, ‘We do not bury those who are doubtfully dead. We would work frantically to help rescue entombed miners, a child lost in the mountains, or a person under a collapsed building. Does a hunter shoot until he knows that it is a deer and not another man?… the truly human thing would be to give life the benefit of the doubt.’

If, therefore, you are not sure whether foetuses are persons – you think they’re probably not, but you have significant doubts, and think you might be wrong – you should err on the side of caution and prevent them from being killed, at least in ordinary circumstances.

*Of course, many people think that killing animals is impermissible. But if killing animals is wrong because they have a right to life, this only appears to strengthen the pro-life argument, since foetuses are animals.

Religious arguments

For obvious reasons, these are a special class of argument. I decided that it would be better to tackle this topic more generally under the section ‘Abortion and religion’.

Impact on women and society

As I mentioned in ‘Why pro-life?’, pro-lifers have traditionally held that abortion is bad for both the child and her mother – and indeed for wider society. Although the trend differs slightly between countries, in many countries, women are more pro-life, and more supportive of abortion restrictions, than men.

Rather than repeat the same material on this issue at multiple points, I have summarised this argument under ‘How abortion harms women’, and included many different articles on the specific ways in which abortion is harmful for women and society. If those empirical observations are indeed genuine, they surely provide considerable reason to oppose widespread abortion, even if they do not in themselves make abortion inherently immoral. Societies would still have reason to make it an option of last resort, in order to best protect women.

“Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one”

Being pro-life is not about having a preference against abortion, or being personally averse to it. It is about believing that all human beings are equal and deserve equal protection from the rest of society. We oppose abortion because it violates the human rights of the most vulnerable humans in our world. To say this phrase is like saying, ‘Don’t like theft? Don’t steal’. If you’ve sincerely used this objection to the pro-life view in the past, ask yourself what is wrong with ‘Don’t like theft? Don’t steal’. When you answer that, you will probably see why it is an ineffective response to the pro-life position.

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