The abortion rate in America is at its lowest level for 30 years, according to a new study by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research group. Since a peak in the early 1980s, the rate has dropped steadily: there are now less than 20 abortions for every 1,000 women. Fewer teenagers are having abortions, thanks to higher contraceptive use. Teenagers accounted for 17% of all abortions in 2004, down from a third in 1974. White women, who are on average richer, have fewer abortions than those from minority ethnic groups. In 2004, whites had 10.5 abortions for every 1,000 women, compared with 28 for Hispanics and 50 for blacks. (source)
I don’t label myself “conservative” or “religious” and I regularly take non-conservative positions in this blog. However, in this post, I want to defend the pro-life position which is traditionally considered to be typical of religious conservatives. To be more precise, I want to defend the following two statements:
- Abortion is a human rights issue, because human beings have a right to life. And fetuses should be considered as human beings. Human life starts from conception and not after birth or after a certain number of weeks of pregnancy, a number which is more or less arbitrary and changes according to scientific progress.
- Therefore, respect for the right to life implies restrictions on abortion.
The argument for abortion usually goes likes this:
- A fetus can only be called a human being or a human life and hence enjoy the protection offered by the right to life (which is a right for human beings exclusively), after a certain number of weeks of pregnancy. This is based on the fact that a fetus is not viable until after a certain number of weeks.
- Therefore, abortion is permitted before the pregnancy reaches this number of weeks. Abortion within this timeframe cannot be called murder because a fetus is not a human being or a human life at this stage of development.
Different aspects of this pro-abortion argument strike me as odd:
- First of all the viability claim; not the claim that life is only viable after a certain number of weeks – this is scientifically undisputed – but the claim that viability as such determines the existence of human life. One can imagine many situations in which life needs special protections and circumstances or surroundings (such as the womb) in order to be viable, but in none of these does life cease to be called life.
- Secondly, even if we admit – and I don’t – that fetuses aren’t human beings, why would it follow from this that they should not enjoy any protection? Do only human beings deserve protection?
I therefore welcome laws restricting abortion. But as with all criminalization, laws never completely abolish a practice. There will always be abortions, and when abortion is a crime, the conditions in which abortions take place are often detrimental for the mother (so-called “back-alley abortions”). Here’s a graph showing the influence of abortion restrictions on maternal mortality:
If a pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, it is acceptable to give priority to the mother. In the system of human rights, there’s often a need to balance rights against each other, in this case the right to life of the mother and the same right of the fetus.
The priority for the mother can be based on several different considerations:
- life means more to the mother than to the fetus, and hence the (possibility of) loss of life is more distressful to the mother
- or the mother may be responsible for the care of other children, and these children will suffer as well if the mother loses her life
Such a balancing act is required in many cases:
- abortion requested by very young girls; hese young girls would lose their right to education if they are forced to become mothers
- unviable or severely deformed fetuses
I don’t claim to have a solution to all possible conflicts of rights; I just point out that there are conflicts, and that the rights of the fetus are not always or automatically preponderant. Often there’s a conflict between two similarly important matters, and talk about the sanctity of life will not always bring us closer to a solution of the conflict.
Here’s an overview of the different abortion laws in the world: