Thinking about Abortion(s)
21 Jul 2022 · 8 min read
Along with many others, of course, I’ve been thinking a lot about the abortion issue of late.
I guess I’ll start these reflections with my first exposure to the procedure, fourth-hand as it was. One of my college friends, in my freshman year at Michigan, had an older roommate who managed to impregnate his girlfriend. I remember the roommate was a short-haired fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival, which would make him somewhat of a cultural conservative on the Ann Arbor campus of 1970. His girlfriend had short hair as well. I don’t believe they were really prepared to become parents. This was before the Roe v. Wade decision, and I know she traveled to California for the procedure. I don’t believe the trip or the procedure were a financial burden to anyone, although I don’t really know who paid for what.
My next reflection is based on a novel I happened to read recently, originally written in 1963, and reissued in 2012. The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B. Hughes, is about many things, but much of the story’s plot revolves around an abortion taking place in Arizona. The attitudes expressed in the book are telling: the procedure, along with the necessity for it, are consistently depicted as things that only happen on the fringes of normal human society. The novel is a noir and, in most respects, is more progressive than not for its time, so I think we can take these attitudes towards abortion as fairly typical for the time and place in which the story is set.
And my third reflection is also based on a work of art, this one a song, “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” written by Graham Parker and originally released in 1979. The lyrics also tell the story of an abortion, but seen from a number of different perspectives, and viewed with differing attitudes.
Parker later commented on the composition, in a Rolling Stone interview during the tour to promote the album on which the song appears:
When you’re sixteen, or eighteen or something, you haven’t got any money or anything, and the only thing you can think about is, ‘God, I only hope she gets rid of it.’ But I’m not eighteen now, and it just makes you think…. But when I say, ‘You decide what’s wrong,’ I’m not putting any blame on a woman. I’m saying the fact is that a man doesn’t have to decide. A woman does. If it’s saying anyone is weak, it’s the men, because they don’t feel it.
The song appeared on an album with the title Squeezing Out Sparks, which comes from a line in the song:
Yeah babe, I know it gets dark, down by Luna Park,
But everybody else is squeezing out a spark
That happened in the heat, somewhere in the dark.
Later in the same Rolling Stone interview Parker further comments:
A few people didn’t like the title, including my manager. He thought, ‘What the hell is that? I mean, how can we market it?’ I said, ‘I don’t care. It makes people think.’ I’m still thinking about what it means.
And in another piece, Parker says about the song:
I get fairly rankled when people ask whether it’s pro- or antiabortion. I don’t deal with such simplicities. It’s about being involved in an event.
So, what is my thinking, based on all of this?
Well, first of all, an abortion is a procedure that inevitably brings up thoughts and feelings that are difficult to easily pigeonhole, for everyone involved. It’s not something that we as humans are supposed to feel good about, in any kind of complete or unalloyed way, and no one I’ve ever come across suggests it should be otherwise.
Second, we need to get clear on our belief in the value of family planning, aided by various means of contraception. If we believe that it is somehow natural or morally right for every woman to produce as many new humans as she physically can, or if we believe that every act of intercourse should have an unrestricted opportunity to produce a new human, then we should perhaps consider the words of historian Yuval Noah Harari, from his 2015 book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:
The Heated debates about Homo sapiens‘ 'natural way of life’ miss the main point. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, there hasn’t been a single natural way of life for Sapiens. There are only cultural choices, from among a bewildering palette of possibilities.
The facts of the matter are that we humans have already traveled far beyond whatever we might deem to be “natural,” in any kind of animalistic sense, and the ethics of continuing to reproduce in large numbers, when our planet is already suffering from an overabundance of members of our species, are more than slightly questionable.
So please, let’s just acknowledge that, for humans in the 21st century, some sort of family planning through use of contraception is well within legal, social and ethical norms. If this is too much for you to swallow, then I suggest you just take the next exit ramp off the freeway of my thinking, because nothing else I say is likely to make much sense to you.
Once we’ve acknowledged that contraceptives are widely available and morally acceptable, the next step is to accept that our ethics permit us to experience the pleasures of sex without necessarily having the intent or desire or responsibility to bear and raise a new child following every act of intercourse. This doesn’t mean that becoming a parent is a bad thing – far from it. It just means that, as a society, we can to some extent disentangle one from the other – the brief sexual act from the years of parenting – at least at some times and under some circumstances.
Again, if this is too much for you to accept, then I’m not sure that anything I can say today will change your attitudes on this topic, and fairly certain that nothing that follows will carry much weight with you.
So, assuming you’ve made it this far, let’s see where we’re at. If it’s OK for humans to enjoy sex without having children as a result, and if contraceptives are not always available, and are not 100% effective, then there will be times when unintended pregnancies occur.
And so, what shall we do then?
Now we must note here that there are two completely different categories of answers to this question.
The first category tries to answer this question on a case-by-case basis, allowing the pregnant person, along with their doctors, and other interested parties and advisers, to make the best decision they can based on the particular circumstances surrounding one particular pregnancy. And I have to believe that every human faced with such a choice already feels the full weight of such a decision, without any assistance from the state. So I believe that society should provide them with the resources they need to make the best decision possible in their particular circumstances, and the qualified medical care to safely carry out an abortion, if that is their decision.
But the second category of answer to this question tries to come up with one universal answer that will be right for every case. And here I tend to side with Graham Parker when he implies that such a stance is overly simplistic.
But if we wish to sincerely consider such a position, then we must ask: why would we say that every abortion, no matter the circumstances, is morally wrong?
Is it based on some belief in the sacred nature of life? If that’s your argument, then I hope that you’re a vegan, because otherwise lives end every day so that you might live.
Or is it based on your belief in the special nature of human life? Yes, we humans are indeed special. For one, we are the only species capable of overpopulating the planet to such an extent that our continued existence, and continued reproduction, is precipitating the extinction of other species at an unprecedented rate.
Or is your argument based on the rights of the unborn?
Here we enter the moral quagmire of pitting one absolute right against another. Does the mother have an absolute right to decide to terminate a pregnancy occurring within her own body? Or does every unborn human at any stage of development have the right to be born?
For me there are several considerations here.
To refer to an embryo or fetus as having absolute rights of any kind, no matter what their stage of development, seems an example of extremism, and an attempt to claim an absolute where none exists: the truth is that human sperm, and eggs, and embryos experience ongoing gradual development, starting with cells coming from the parents and sometimes proceeding towards a reasonably full human life; there is no single point (short of birth) at which we can all agree that we have a human being now possessing inalienable rights.
Every parent has a moral responsibility to care for their children, to help them develop to become reasonably happy, successful, adults. But then it follows that every potential parent has a moral responsibility to assess what sort of upbringing they will be able and willing to provide to a child of theirs. And so there is an unavoidable moral calculus that every potential parent must engage in, to determine whether it is right to carry a pregnancy to term, and bring a child into this world. There is no single right answer here – especially in a modern capitalistic society in which the resources available to a child are so heavily influenced by the resources available to the parent, and in which the costs of child rearing are so exorbitant.
If we are pitting one right, belonging to an adult human, against another right, supposedly belonging to an unborn, potential human, then I will tend to give preference to the rights of the adult.
And so, finally, after all of these considerations, can we make a reasonable case that the state – at whatever level of governance – has the right to forbid all abortions, and to punish pregnant persons, and/or their doctors, for pursuing or carrying out such a treatment?
Frankly, I can’t see how such a case can be made by any reasonable, caring person who understands what it means to be a responsible, informed human of the 21st century.
If you disagree, then I’d love to know where I went off the track, and where your beliefs and attitudes differ.
Thanks for reading! You can also generally follow my work on Medium and Buttondown.If you’d like a convenient short URL to link to this piece, you can use pract.org/tfoas.html. Or feel free to simply share this piece using one of the social media buttons below!