Rachel Birdsell’s rants are usually not worth a response; but with her July 18 piece she has provided me with an opportunity to say something that I’ve wanted to say for some time.
The abortion controversy has, to date, been based on gratuitous assumptions about when human life begins. Obviously, if we knew for certain that a fetus is a human being from the moment of conception, very few people would approve of abortion-on-demand. The explicit assumption of the pro-life crowd is that the fetus is a human being from the moment of conception while the implicit assumption of the pro-choice crowd is that it is not, with much of America making an uneasy compromise somewhere in the middle, at the point of viability outside the womb.
The fact is, however, that no one knows when human life begins; and, in a pluralistic society, basing policy on one assumption or the other, or any assumption, is unsustainable. The proper policy question is not, “When does human life begin?” but, “In a state of unresolvable ignorance about when human life begins, what should policy be?” The answer is, “That position that is most consistent with American political values.”
What are those values? America’s philosophical foundation can be reduced to two axioms stated in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, quoted here in relevant part:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These axioms are:
1. that each individual has inherent value equal to that of any other individual, and
2. that each individual is possessed of inherent rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Because each individual has inherent value equal to that of any other individual, his or her right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is equal to that of any other individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. My right to choose is equal to your right to choose, and so on. Furthermore, there is a hierarchy among these rights. The right to life is the most fundamental of fundamental rights, because without it no other right has meaning. In any unresolvable conflict between one person’s right to life and another person’s right to, say, hold property, the former person’s right to life wins. This is why, if a man finds it necessary to take the property of another to preserve his life, the law will not brand him a thief but will only direct him to compensate the owner for his loss. His right to life trumps the property owner’s right to his property.
Thus, if we knew for certain that a fetus is a human being from the moment of conception, the fetus wins the argument, hands down. Its right to life is more fundamental than the mother’s right to choose. However, as pointed out previously, not only do we not know: we cannot know.
When a woman walks into an abortion clinic, so long as the abortion is not sought because her own life is in danger, the policy question of whether the abortion should be legal can be answered in one of only two ways: No, or Yes. Here is an expansion of each position.
The pro-life position is: No. We do not know when human life begins. The fetus may be a human being from the moment of conception. If it is a human being — the possibility of which cannot be denied — then by killing it we would be taking a human life, and for no greater reason than the mother’s convenience. The American political tradition respects life more than it respects freedom, inasmuch as it recognizes the right to life as more fundamental than the right to freedom; therefore, to act cavalierly in spite of our ignorance and thereby risk taking a human life for the sake of convenience would violate our political traditions.
The pro-choice position is: Yes. We do not know when human life begins. The fetus may be a human being from the moment of conception; but that is irrelevant compared to the mother’s right to choose whether or not to bring it to term. The mother’s freedom of choice is certain, while the humanity of the fetus, and therefore its right to life, is unknown. Therefore, the mother’s freedom to choose must be preferred. If at some future time, we are able to determine that human life begins at an earlier point, then we will have erred out of ignorance and are not responsible.
If it is not yet clear which of these positions is more consonant with American political values, I offer an analogy. Suppose you are forced to hunt deer to feed your family. You go hunting with a friend and become separated. Some time later, you see what may be a deer in the bushes; on the other hand, it may be your friend. You honestly don’t know, but your children are hungry. Do you shoot? (Assuming you aren’t Dick Cheney, that is.) How you answer that question should tell you something about which position is more consonant with American political values.
Naturally, this conclusion applies only to abortion-on-demand, i.e. abortion for convenience. When the life of the mother is imperiled, the same approach would lead to a different result. In that case, rights of equal value are in conflict: the mother’s right to life and the right to life of the fetus, which may or may not be a human being. Even if we assume that the fetus is a human being, the law should not and does not force one person to sacrifice his or her life for another. In such a case, therefore, it should be the mother’s right to choose, and hers alone.