Can a new thought experiment involving hypothetically joining the National Guard shed light on the abortion debate?
With most issues, there is a middle ground, somewhere Americans can agree to meet for a compromise. For example, capitalists and socialists do not have much in common as far as economics, but, in the United States, they can come together and both be mildly satisfied with an American economic system that combines a largely capitalist economy with certain redistributive policies favored by advocates of wealth equality. With abortion, there is little middle ground. One side must be right, and the other side must be wrong. Either you believe abortion constitutes killing or you do not.
To address the most polarizing issue of our time, we must first answer this question: Is a fetus a human life or not? If it isn’t a life, then this will be a brief discussion. However, if it is a life, we must then determine whether there are any circumstances where it becomes acceptable to take the life of another human being in order to fulfill a competing priority: like a woman’s interest in not carrying a fetus to term, at considerable effort and expense, if she prefers not to.
From conception, however, the fetus has a complete human genome and the potential to become an adult, autonomous human, should the fetus be left undisturbed to mature. Nobody else in the world will ever have the same DNA as any one fetus. After just three weeks, it has a heartbeat, often beating with a different blood type from that of the mother. At two months, the fetus can turn its head, frown, and hiccup. At 9-10 weeks, teeth and fingernails are beginning to develop. Whatever it is, it is definitely human. But is it alive?
People have created many ways to define life. Criteria favored by the pro-choice camp for determining whether the fetus is “alive” range from viability to higher standards such as the ability for the fetus to desire to continue living or to use language.
Viability, to start with, makes for a poor standard. Firstly, it is often difficult to tell how viable a fetus really is at a given time. Some are viable at 16 weeks; others are not viable until 24 weeks. It all depends on the individual. However, the more fundamental claim that underlies this criterion is that a human being must be able to survive unaided in order to qualify as being alive. However, as we know from day-to-day living, this is not quite accurate.
Take a person on life support, for example. If you stab an elderly person on life support in the chest, you’d be charged with first-degree murder. There is no suggestion in our society that someone requiring dialysis and, therefore, unable to continue living completely on his own is any less a person than someone who is healthy and does not require frequent third-party assistance in order to continue living.
Higher standards such as the ability to use language or the desire to continue living are equally problematic. Many adults living with cognitive disabilities are unable to form coherent sentences or thoughts, and depressed people often lack a desire to want to live. Standards for life that include high degrees of cognitive function exclude many people we already consider part of our moral community such as people with mental disabilities.
Additionally, many of these more advanced criteria for life would exclude newborns and small children from protection. If someone argues that it is acceptable to kill a fetus because it does not display “higher order” human traits like cognitive abilities or self-sufficiency, by that logic, infanticide would also be justified.
The only claim that seems to make sense is that life begins at conception. The fetus has a full human genome and the capacity, if protected from interference such as being removed the womb, to become an adult human. After all, if a single-celled organism were found on Mars, newspaper headlines would read “Life Discovered on Mars.”
A related and interesting question posed in recent decades is this: Is the fetus entitled to nine months of a woman’s labor? This gets to the heart of balancing the interests of the mother and fetus, something courts have been attempting since before Roe v. Wade. Both the mother and fetus have interests that sometimes come into conflict with one another. A fetus has an interest in being born, and a reluctant mother may have an interest in not being inconvenienced by carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term.
The underlying presumption is that the mother is essentially a slave to the fetus inside of her. However, this is not true for one reason—consent.
The question implies that the mother is being held hostage against her will to the baby within her; however, the mother made the decision, a decision carrying intrinsic risks, to engage in sexual activity. Even if a couple takes the most extreme precautions to avoid pregnancy, there is always a chance, however small, that pregnancy can result from sexual intercourse. Think of it like this:
Let’s say you’re an American citizen and you decide to join the National Guard. You may benefit from this job by earning a salary, getting free healthcare, and getting tuition assistance. However, there is also the risk of being activated and sent to war—something you hoped would not happen when you joined the National Guard. Yet unfortunately, the United States gets entangled in a war, and you are forced to serve. Are you being forced to labor against your will? Well no, because by signing up, you understood the inherent risk, the possibility, however small, that you may be called upon to fight. In having sex, you understood the risks. Contraception is not foolproof. There is a chance, even if it is only a small one, that whenever you have sex you may become pregnant. When you have sex, you acknowledge this as a risk.
There are countless activities we do each day that carry a small risk of an unexpected turn of events.
This brings us to the final question of rape. When a woman is raped, she is not agreeing to the risks inherent in consensual sexual activity. Instead, these risks are violently forced upon her. The damage inflicted on women by rapists is often irreparable, and rapists should be punished beyond severely.
So should a woman be forced to labor for nine months if she did not make the decision to have sex voluntarily? For many that answer is no. However, it would be a tragedy to kill a child simply because of the circumstances surrounding its conception. The right to live should supersede the right for a woman not to be inconvenienced for the nine months of pregnancy. An interest in preserving life always outweighs other secondary interests like property or spending one’s time as one wishes.
Nearly a million abortions take place in the United States every year, and over 50 million occur worldwide. Decades from now, may we look back on abortion and realize its barbarity. Abortion will be listed beside slavery and ethnic genocide as among the greatest moral calamities in human history.