Abortion: We've Actually Thought About It
To the editor:
I am writing in response to two articles you published recently advocating for a pro-life view of abortion. Normally, I would not bother to respond. I am firmly pro-choice, but I am far from the most passionate, well-informed, or thoughtful voice on the issue and I believe I can add far more to the debate on economic matters than on the question of abortion. However, the pieces recently published in the Crimson suggest that the thought leaders (or at least editorialists) of the campus pro-life community are thoroughly uniformed about the thought that serious pro-choice thinkers have put into their positions on the matter. I will seek to correct a few of those points in the hope that next semester’s debate will move on to deeper and more considered positions.
“The Philosophical Argument for Life,” takes as its central claim the argument that “Abortion can only be permissible if the fetus is definitively not a person.” This claim utterly ignores the reasoned arguments of Judith Thomson. Thomson created her famous “violinist” example to address just this point. In that example, we awake in a hospital, connected to a famous violinist by various tubes. We are informed that in order to preserve the violinist’s life for the nine months it will take to arrange a transplant for his failing organs, we must remain where we are to aid his vital processes.
Thomson notes that there is certainly no legal obligation to cooperate with the violinist, even though the process is temporary and the person saved is indisputably a person. Rather, we are entitled to demand to be removed from the machine, killing the violinist. We may even require that the attending physicians help us to do so. The analogy with unintended pregnancy is extensive. Even if we grant the fetus full personhood, a pregnant woman is still entitled, due to her bodily autonomy, to compel it to exit her even at the cost of its own life.
Now, you may find the violinist argument thoroughly unpersuasive. However, it clearly undermines the claim that debates over abortion reduce completely to debates over fetal personhood. Strong questions of bodily autonomy are also involved, and they cannot be disregarded.
“Personally Pro Life, But . . .” disparages the “personally pro-life but politically pro-choice” position as logically incoherent based on the claim that we cannot strongly hold a moral proposition without willing it to be law. This is nonsense. For an easy, clear example, just ask any of America’s Baptists. Members of that denomination, constituting a full fifteen percent of Americans, tend to hold both that faith in Jesus Christ is morally important and also the belief of “soul competency,” that it is morally wrong to compel anyone to believe or practice religion in any way not in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience. That’s why Baptists have such a proud tradition of supporting freedom of religion.
More generally, it is perfectly coherent to have a strong, religiously motivated moral conviction but believe that, because it cannot be expressed and defended in secular terms, it ought not be enforced by the law of our secular nation. That’s where “Personally Pro Life” goes off the rails; by not acknowledging the vital question of the relationship between exclusively religious moral views and the laws of a secular state, it disregards the actual positions and understandings of the “moderate pro-choice” politicians and thinkers whose views it disparages.
“Discrimination Against Pro-Lifers” does not disregard a single, key point of pro-choice thought as the other two articles do. (Also, it nominally works to defend a postering campaign which I agree should be protected from vandalism.) However, it includes a number of fairly basic flaws, including at least one falsehood. It claims that abortions are particularly emotionally risky when in fact they tend to be safer than childbirth. It misrepresents the arguments of previous editorialists, claiming that Alexandra Atiya ’06 criticized the posters for “irritat[ing] pro-choice supporters on campus,” when her clear thesis was that the posters have an “antagonistic purpose” and “misrepresent the pro-choice members of this campus as bloodthirsty baby killers.” (Given that “Discrimination” goes on to claim the Democratic Party is “evil,” perhaps Atiya’s claim may be granted some weight.)
Clearly, abortion is an issue that produces strong feelings on both sides. I freely admit that writing this piece was an emotional experience for me, as I’m sure it was for the authors of the other pieces I’ve addressed. But if the pro-life community at Harvard College has something to contribute to the discussion, I’m certain they can do so without ignoring pro-choice arguments to make self-confident statements of total correctness or accusing its opponents of evil. Here’s hoping for a more thoughtful and more interesting discussion next semester.
Louis R. Evans ’13