13 August 2008

Abortion: should there be a wider debate?

Abortion has for a long time been in the political "too hard basket" in New Zealand. It is a subject that fires up two considerable minorities of people, passionately, with a degree of bitter hatred on both sides. Many are aware of how in the USA this has seen violence be exercised by opponents of abortion.

The debate has long been dominated by fundamentalists on both sides. Conservatives who believe that replicating human cells have the status of a human life no different from any other and feminists who believe that a foetus inside a womb is simply part of the mother's body, and she must have absolute control over that. I believe a majority of people reject both views.

However, the legal status quo in New Zealand arguably gives scope for both views to be disenchanted, but not enough for them to be particularly agitated.

Anita at No Right Turn describes the issue well.

The law as it stands looks like it confines abortion to categories that I believe the majority of New Zealanders would agree with. They come down to putting the woman's health above the foetus, permitting abortion in cases of rape and incest (as cases where the woman has been violated) and the more troubling case of endangering the woman's mental health.

However, the practical effect of this has been to interpret "mental health" far beyond that which was intended by some of the legislators at the time.

No Right Turn argues that there needs to be a political debate about this, because the application of the law depends entirely upon the people selected for the Abortion Supervisory Committee. No surprise where that blog would take the issue, but my views on it are not as liberal. In fact, the one point I would assert first and foremost is that given the depth of feeling about abortion, and the moral outrage so many have, the state simply should not fund abortions. It is highly inappropriate for people to be forced to pay for something that so deeply offends them ethically, and which in itself is about drawing a line somewhere between the extremes I described.

If the debate is to start, it needs to avoid, as much as possible, ethics driven purely from religion or from identity politics, and look at what the salient issue is - when does a human being exist and what rights does it have. I find the notion that a dollop of replicating cells are equivalent to a baby to be ludicrous, but I also find the notion that an 8 month old foetus is disposable due to inconvenience to be murderous.

Abortion wont be an election issue. Neither major party wants to fire up one or the other side on this issue, especially when each side names itself something that most people couldn't disagree with, on the face of it - who isn't "pro-life"? who isn't "pro-choice"?

However, a mature debate is important. It is not one to be afraid of, as long as all those involved employ reason, not abuse as their common currency. You see from my perspective, I'm a libertarian - choice to me is fundamental, and as an objectivist, I also value life as the highest value. In addition, it is plausible that had abortion on demand been available at the time I was conceived, I may not be here. That doesn't fire me up, but it makes me think.


Anonymous said...

"...given the depth of feeling about abortion, and the moral outrage so many have, the state simply should not fund abortions. It is highly inappropriate for people to be forced to pay for something that so deeply offends them ethically..."

This is an excellent point, which I had not considered before. Thankyou for such a balanced post.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your statement about the state not funding abortions.

on the issue itself I think that it is the personal choice of the woman and her partner/husband

Stephanie said...

I think it is safe to assume that as a Libertarian you don't support any state funding of health so abortion wouldn't be a special case. In which case you are fine to hold that view.

However many of the people will take your view as an excuse to not fund abortion and only abortion. But are happy to see state funds all sorts of bits and pieces that various sectors of society find ethically dubious, health care for rugby players who injure themselves, the army or Winston Peter's salary. In which case the choice to have an abortion is fairly limited by the high taxes they pay to support all these other bits of the state.

Anonymous said...

Ex: you are correct, of course, but two wrongs never make a right; ie, just because the state immorally (in my opinion) funds A, it's no excuse to accept the funding of B.

Mr D: the section you highlight mirrors the way I feel about being forced to fund state welfare - something I personally find deeply offensive.

I support any measure to remove the state from all but its core responsibilities, no matter the issue.

Stephanie said...

But my point was that many of the so-called 'unethical' activities are very dependent upon an individual point of view. Therefore abortion shouldn't be treated any differently from any other part of the health or government budget.

If you advocate no taxation and no public healthcare then fine. I respect your position because at least it is consistent with Libertarian philosophy, ie. no government interference in individuals lives. In which case I presume women would be free to make the decision at any point in the pregnancy because they are funding the procedure themselves.

But I think its a bit of a misnomer to say that you are pro-individual choice yet at the same take away the money that is needed to make that choice through taxing for health care but then not subsidizing it!

Anonymous said...

Abortion is an issue that is more complicated than just a personal choice. The general libertarian view as I understand it would be personal choice is fine so long as you don't harm anyone else.

But if a foetus truly is a live human being, then killing it is not a choice the mother is making about her own body - rather she is taking someone else's life. This is a choice that is severely harming (in fact killing) someone else.

It is this view that is most supported scientifically in my opinion, as there is no point which can unarguably be used scientifically to define when life starts apart from conception.

On the other hand, if the foetus is not actually a live human, then personal choice is relevant.

This makes abortion a special case where the general "free choice" concept is far from clear-cut. If someone believes a foetus to be a live unique individual, which is the strongest position to take in my mind, then it is perfectly consistent to oppose abortion.

Libertyscott said...

I'd argue first that abortion is unconscionable at a stage when the foetus can live outside the womb, unless it poses danger to the mother's life. The mother's life must always be paramount over a potential life.

However equally a bunch of replicating cells is not a human being, it is a potential life. There is no brain, no consciousness, just cells developing which "could" become a human being.

This is when the argument becomes more controversial. I think human identity starts and finishes with the brain, without it, there is no life.

Anonymous said...

Scientifically speaking: a human is someone who is fully developed (biologically after birth) and who has consciousness.

A fetus is neither fully developed nor does it have consciousness. And it doesn't even start to form long term memories until after birth.And so there is no individual being stolen from when the potential is ruined.

The problem is when does consciousness begin? I think we can say with a extremely high degree of certainty that in the first and second trimesters it has not begun. The neural architecture is simply not in place.

Being as we need some pretty sophisticated hardware to run our "consciousness" software we can look at what point this hardware even comes close to existing. And the hard scientific truth is that this likely only occurs sometime after birth. There is a detailed discussion of fetal brain development here:


Stephanie said...

I agree with you that I'm entirely uncomfortable with abortions that take place past the point of viability outside the womb.

But its such a tricky area, and with advances in neonatal care that argument gets tougher. Even if premature babies are able to be cared for, many of them suffer health problems as a result (or perhaps the reason for the early birth) including brain damage.

Anonymous said...

I got your original point, Ex, and I get that you get mine. (Still with me?!).

Re abortion, the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life" irritate me. They're dated Americanisms that are too stark, implying that if you believe women have the right to make their own individual decisions, (which I do), you automatically have no problem with abortion, (which I don't). It's not that clear-cut at all.

Watch the advent of science & technology here. British doctors in a doco screened here last year suggested the future clarity of foetal images (relative to current grainy ones) may very well contribute to a natural decline in abortions.

We laymen seldom use clinical terms. From the moment we hear that somebody's pregnant, the talk is invariably about "the baby". And when we can clearly see "the baby" during its formation, the decision to terminate becomes something else again.

Stephanie said...

Sus - I don't think that clearer pictures alone are going to turn women off abortion. 1/2 of New Zealand women that undergo them are already mothers so are likely to know what they are giving up. And if not, there are plenty of people out there happy to show some graphic pictures of what they look like.

But I think we are going to be talking past each other. So I humbly bow out and agree to disagree.