Dissecting Abortion

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, abortion has been back in the news in the United States. First there was Todd Akin, a candidate for senate, who said this:


Fuel was added to the fire when Paul Ryan said this:


The response has been vitriolic, with Republicans being accused of rampant sexism. At first my initial reaction was one of similar outrage, but as I thought about the issue deeper, I made an observation about the nature of the abortion debate that I think doesn’t get enough air time.

Typically, the instinct on the left is to label opponents of abortion rights sexists, to suggest that they are a bunch of men trying to boss around women. The instinct on the right is to label supporters of abortion rights baby killers and murderers. This dichotomy misses the point of the debate about abortion entirely. Abortion has absolutely nothing to do with gender rights. Your position, for or against abortion rights, is based not on your feelings concerning women, but on your ethical understanding of what it means to be human.

There are two ethical positions in the abortion debate:

  • Animalism–a human being is defined by the presence of human physiology and physicality
  • Psychologism–a human being is defined by a set of mental and emotional behaviours and capacities

The right wing is made up on animalists, while the left wing is made up of psychologists.

First let’s discuss the animalist, or conservative position. For these guys, a foetus is just as human as an infant, a child, an adolescent, an adult, or an old person, regardless of mental capability or emotional feeling. It is biologically and genetically human, and therefore all protections offered to other humans must ethically be offered to the foetus. Allowing women to terminate their pregnancies, is, for these people, the same as allowing a parent to kill his or her infant or child. This is a logical position provided you agree with the essential premise–that human beings are physically defined by biological and genetic content. What’s interesting about this position is that it is illogical for someone holding it to believe in permitting any abortion at all for any reason. Think of it this way–if a woman is raped, she has a child, and at age 7, she decides she wants to get rid of this child, the fact that the child was a product of rape would not matter. This would still be deemed ethically wrong, and the woman could still go to jail for it. A seven year old is, from the animalist viewpoint, just as human as a foetus. What’s more, sexism need not come into it–this would be just as true if a man wants to kill his child as it is if a mother wants to kill her child. Some of the people who hold this position might be sexist, but  the sexism is not the cause of the position, but a separate issue. It is the sense that a person is being murdered that upsets animalists, and their perception that psychologists (in the philosophical, not professional sense) do not treat all human beings equally is one they find disturbing. Animalists see a slippery slope here, because the distinction made between foetuses and other people seems arbitrary–in every way that matters for an animalist, a foetus is just as human as any other person.

But what about the psychologist, or liberal position? For these people, it is not enough to be genetically or biologically human, a human being must be capable of performing quintessentially human behaviours. Many people of this persuasion do not believe that a foetus becomes human in a real sense until it can survive outside the womb, or feel pain, or reach a certain level of cognitive or emotional complexity. Being human is then more a psychological condition than it is a physical condition. For the left, what it means to be human is more complicated, and consequently a diverse set of understandings are allowed for. This allows the left to provide mothers with the opportunity to make the moral decision for themselves, because the left does not have a fixed definition of what it means to be human. While the right more or less universally agrees that a human life beings at conception, the left sees many nebulous distinctions and comes to no universal conclusion.

An interesting manifestation of this same dilemma is present in the “right to die” argument. For the animalist right, a human being is alive so long as the physical body continues to function, and therefore a suicide is every bit as ethically troublesome for a terminally ill person, a sufferer of a degenerative condition, or a depressed person as it is for someone with none of these problems. For the psychologist left, these different understandings of when a person no longer feels human in such a sense that continued life is desirable open the door to ethical suicide. A person with Alzheimer’s, depression, or terminal cancer may have reduced mental functioning or may not be experiencing a full human life in the  psychologist sense, and such a person could, therefore, logically choose to die.

The two positions really are utterly intractable, which is why the debate is so very persistent. It need not be so vitriolic, however. By understanding that both positions are logical but derive from opposing premises, we can understand the abortion debate without being offended by it, and without reducing it in its philosophical complexity to mere insults and taunts. While I personally find myself in agreement with the psychologist understanding of what it means to be human, I can understand how the animalist assumption leads people down a logical path which not only leads to different choices in their personal lives than I might make, but even leads to different legislative desires. If you think abortion is murder, I understand your desire to put a stop to it. I do not agree with your premise, your fundamental assumption, but I understand how that assumption causes you to behave as you do, and I need not hate you, and vice versa. Should this notion proliferate, we may one day be able to have these philosophical arguments under the tent of logic, without resorting to emotionally charged personal attacks. Such an advance would certainly be evidence of a more civilised society than the one in which we presently find ourselves.