Abortion: A question of values

A fetus may have a right to life, but how does the state fit in?

I don’t like writing about social issues. In part, this is because they seem so insignificant. Why should I care about the passage or overturning of Prop 8 (a gay marriage ban in California) when that state already offers domestic partnerships that provide all the same rights as marriage? Does it really matter whether a violent criminal spends his entire life behind bars or is put to death? How can the issue of marijuana legalization rate more highly in anyone’s mind when Social Security is insolvent?

For the most part though, I don’t like writing about social issues for one reason: They make me uncomfortable. Policy questions in economics, technology, or foreign affairs are primarily debates over the nature of an objective realty. These are issues on which empirical evidence has something to say, where value judgments alone are insufficient to guide a responsible policy maker. But social issues are almost entirely questions of values. Conversations about social policy very quickly devolve into intractable differences and eristical arguments — they’re divisive, not deliberative.

If there is a silver cloud to the recession, it is the disappearance of social issues from public discourse. The attention of the nation has been on bailouts, fiscal stimulus, and health care, and as the midterms near, the wedge issues that practically defined past elections are conspicuously absent.

This peace will not last. Some issues, like gay marriage, are already working their way through our court system, ticking time bombs placed under the support beams of the GOP’s new fusionist political tent. Others, like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the “Ground Zero” mosque, are going to be brought out by politicians to be used as cudgels against the other side.

If social issues are an inevitable feature of political life, then people like me have two options. The first is to live as Elena Kagan has, and fastidiously avoid making any public judgment on such matters, in the hope of avoiding them until such time as I’ve been given lifetime tenure in some position. The second is to confront social issues head on, explain my views clearly and honestly, and let the chips fall where they may.

I’ve chosen the latter. And so, I give to you, Keith Yost’s answers to questions about abortion.

Is an embryo human life?

If human life is a yes/no binary sort of thing, then it’s fair to say that life begins at conception. After all, if a 21-year old is human life, and walking backwards we find no bright line to mark the transition point between non-life and life, or humanity and non-humanity, then it stands to reason that an embryo is life just as I am.

Personally, I like to think of life as a fuzzier sort of thing and say that an embryo (or, for that matter, a coma patient) is human life only insofar as it has a chance of reaching cognizant adulthood. Thus, if an embryo only has a 50 percent chance of reaching maturity — and we chose to ignore the significant resource costs involved with converting an embryo into a mature human being — we should be willing to trade two embryos for a single 21-year old.

But what are its rights?

The important question is not whether an embryo or fetus is human life. The important question is whether we choose to assign it human rights, and to what degree. After all, we do not automatically grant rights to all forms of human life — most rights are reserved until the age of majority, and some are taken away under various circumstances.

I consider rights to be inexorably tied to cognitive function. In order to enjoy the liberty to make ones own decisions, you first need the mental capacity to rationally make those decisions for yourself. For this reason, we deny rights to children and the mentally incapacitated. An embryo, by this reckoning, should have very little in the way of rights.

At the same time, the right to life is the most basic of human rights. We are loathe to take it away from anyone — a 6-month old child, even if it has fewer mental functions than an adult dog, still enjoys a level of protection in society that exceeds that of the animal. I’m inclined to believe that an embryo does indeed have a right to life.

However, does an embryo’s right to life trump a mother’s liberty?

Rights are constantly in conflict. There is no cardinal ordering of human rights that decides when one trumps another. Think about the challenge of terrorism: a society can respond in many ways to a new terrorist threat. It could simply ignore the problem and accept the increased risk of death (cheapening the right to life). It could improve its level of protection by granting the police and national security forces greater powers to intrude upon citizens lives (cheapening the right to liberty). Or, refusing to accept either mortal risk or curtailed liberties, it could increase the resources it uses to combat terrorism (cheapening, through taxation, the right to property). There is no right answer. We choose our path through a sort of tug of war held between Dick Cheney, Anthony Romero, and Grover Norquist.

The Roe v. Wade decision was an unprincipled legal nightmare. Justice Blackmun made virtually no attempt to link the decision to constitutional rights, and placed the decision within such an arbitrary legal framework that were the decision to be revisited today, would almost certainly be struck down. But his balancing act, however arbitrary, exemplified the trade-off between rights. As a pregnancy progresses, the viability of the fetus increases, which strengthens its right to life, and the burden upon the mother of carrying the baby to term decreases, which weakens her claim to liberty.

Blackmun’s formulation of “first two trimesters are abortable, third is not” is a crude tool, but it captures the problem well: Somewhere in those nine months, there is a line to be drawn.

Is abortion immoral?

I’m reminded of a series of late night commercials by ChildFund International. You’ve probably seen them: an actor (usually Alan Sader) appears with a child from a developing country and says that for less than a dollar a day, you can save the life of a child, this child. As melodramatic as it sounds, ChildFund International is actually understating its case. For a dollar a day, it is probably possible to save as many as ten lives. Is it immoral for you or I to not give that dollar, knowing the relative good it can do? Yes.

As a question of morality, I think of abortion in the same way. For 300 calories a day, you can save the life of a child. In most circumstances, abortion is immoral. While pregnancy and birth are not inconsequential, their burden upon the mother is, in my mind, usually much less than the value of the life it creates. A pregnant utilitarian should feel personally compelled to preserve the human life inside them.

But speaking more practically, should abortion be illegal?

Abortion is generally immoral. But it is not the job of the state to impose morality on its citizens. Granting the state that sort of responsibility is to invite disaster — historically, states are not characterized by their morality, but by their depravity. The job of the state is to protect the rights of individuals, and a fetus’s rights, for at least some period after conception, are less than those of a mother.

If dictating morality really were the proper sphere of the state, we should force our citizens to give money to ChildFund International well before we force every woman to carry every pregnancy to term. We don’t. And we shouldn’t.