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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Abortion as a Moral Choice

The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.
-- Planned Parenthood v. Casey
The Abortion Myth: Feminism, Morality, and The Hard Choices Women Make by Leslie Cannold (2000) at its core argues that the right to choose an abortion basically boils down to trusting women to make the moral choice whether or not to be mothers.  A scenario where an embryo can be removed and put in an artificial womb was not a "solution" any more (for most) would adoption, since the duty and responsibility here was in the hands of the woman. Her sample of pro and anti-choice (her terms) women both agreed with this sentiment.  An abortion was not wrong here if done for respectful reasons in the interests of the life involved (often seen as a "child"), birth not always the "right" or "moral" choice.*  

[This brings to mind Justice White's Doe v. Bolton dissent that speaks of choice of abortion based on the "convenience, whim, or caprice" of the putative mother.  This is offensive -- the typical abortion choice is not of this nature, one is hard pressed to imagine that this is ever likely the case.  A value of the book's approach is that it challenges this stereotype, just like "value voters" in 2004 weren't merely evangelicals.

I'd add that the state advocate in that case did something impressive --  defended certain exceptions to a general ban, the only problem is that the lines drawn are too narrowly applied.  The stereotype is that the exception is basically "me," but limiting things to rape or severe health risks ("health" at the time was broadly defined anyhow) is arbitrary.  Any number of sympathetic cases can be imagined. Ultimately, we should trust the woman, not some arbitrary panel of set of guidelines.]

It is not merely a "privacy" matter or about "control of my body" or a "medical question." It is a moral question, which women might greatly divide over but basically on the details.  Focus on freedom of choice in this respect is "feminist," including seeing the pregnancy as not about some "other" (the fetus, often seen as floating in a vacuum almost), but a special condition of the woman as a whole. Cannold argued that such a moral argument will eventually be particularly important as technology moves up viability though even a decade later it is still around twenty weeks, after nearly all abortions occur.  Of course, there remains enough to be a concern, including in public clinics in the UK and Australia (her home base), where abortion regulations are at least technically more strict or where many clinics are wary about later second trimester abortions.

[The law changed somewhat since her writing. As an example of differences, though public financing appears to be better off, the UK requires two doctor consent, though it's hard to tell if this practicably (except again in later cases) amounts to much these days.]

The book  (a short one, under 150 pages, plus some introductory and appendix material) covers the complexity of this question, including the reality of getting pregnant in the first place. This is contra to some debates where women (much less likely men) are seen as reckless for getting pregnant, including for taking risks that are normal human behavior. Freedom includes not needing to give birth in such situations, just like a bad debt or job choice or marriage won't require some sort of involuntary servitude because of some "just desserts" mechanism.   

The book also argued that if abortion is a right, physicians have some duty to perform them, including not tossing all the nasty work to nurses.  Cannold might not want to treat pregnancy as a "disease" or merely a medical procedure, but as my label for many of these posts suggest, it is at least partially a matter of health care.  As Roe v. Wade noted:
The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent. Specific and direct harm medically diagnosable even in early pregnancy may be involved. Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation.
The opening picture is a discussion about abortion that includes various testimonials (to quote an Amazon review) "of real women from all ages, walks of life, and eras who have had abortions." The author is on the cover heavily pregnant, just like the author of this book is a mother, which belies the idea (that at least one person raised) that somehow you won't be pro-choice once you had a child. As noted here, if anything "planning" parenthood, including the right to choose whether or not to be a mother (intrinsically a role choice, raising clear Thirteenth Amendment implications) provides you with a greater respect to the importance of choice here, including trusting the woman, not the state. 

I'm sure some will not be a fan of this approach (I know from experience, raising it a few years back and getting heavy push-back, the other person, a woman, simply not wanting to answer my point that questions of sex, marriage and childhood all have a moral dimension, even if it is not JUST about that).  We let people get married and have children even if they make "wrong" choices, choices we have strong opinions on without wanting to take their choice away; why not here?  Heck, some will say, yeah, to give a question she posed, I'll have an abortion to go on that Olympic trip.  Even if you think this is wrong, who would trust the government to decide the question?  But, I think there is a core truth involved here about what exactly is involved with this health decision, this control over one's body.  It very well has a moral dimension and one where we should trust the woman (with the right amount of support) to decide is she will be a mom.  Not wanting to admit it doesn't make it not so.

And, ultimately, she takes a step to protect the future child or the child if one there is -- hard as it is for some to believe -- quite often by abortion.


* As Justice Douglas noted in a pre-Roe opinion:
There remains the moral issue of abortion as murder. We submit that this is insoluble, a matter of religious philosophy and religious principle, and not a matter of fact. We suggest that those who believe abortion is murder need not avail themselves of it. On the other hand, we do not believe that such conviction should limit the freedom of those not bound by identical religious conviction. Although the moral issue hangs like a threatening cloud over any open discussion of abortion, the moral issues are not all one-sided. The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson stated the other side well when he suggested that 'The most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child's spirit.' There can be nothing more destructive to a child's spirit than being unwanted, and there are few things more disruptive to a woman's spirit than being forced without love or need into motherhood.
This might throw people, since "values" or "morals" or "religion" (Ronald Dworkin  argued in Freedom's Law that such basic value questions had a religious character; Justice Stevens repeatedly treated them as questions of "conscience")  also are deemed to have a conservative flavor.  But, that is misleading in the extreme.  In fact, many religions expressly allow abortion in various situations, while other members accept it regardless.