Irelands great abortion debate rolls on. More articles, more statements by ministers, more posters, memes, counter-memes, etc … What can I add to the cacophony?
I can speculate. Is the introduction of abortion inevitable? Or will Ireland hold out against the barbarity of abortion? The problem with history is that you really don’t know how it’ll play out. There is a certain thrill with watching it all, but one sobers up when it’s realised that the debate concerns the weak and vulnerable. And, yes I mean the weak and vulnerable in the womb.
But instead of speculating on the future, I want to address the issue of choice. As in the US, the debate has cleaved along two lines. You are either pro-choice or pro-life (or anti- either, if you are being pigeon-holed by the other side).
Choosing how to live your life, and having the gift of life protected – who doesn’t want either? Both are normal aspirations. No, they go beyond aspirations: they are rights that are aggressively defended. They are also intertwined. Choice is meaningless without having a life to exercise that choice, life is meaningless without the freedom to exercise a choice. Both are things that – historically – men and women have been willing to die for.
So, it seems, everyone is pro-choice, everyone is pro-life. Choice and life? Hey, I’m all for it!
Being pro-anything is only an abstract position, however. Its fine to talk about someone’s innate right to choose. What if they ‘choose’ to rob you? Or ‘choose’ to borrow money and then ‘choose’ to not pay it back? Or they ‘choose’ to drop a brick on your head? Examples of extreme pro-life positions could also be pitched to a pro-lifer. If someone breaks into your house, for instance, do they have an absolute right to life?
This is why we have law. In the real world, abstract assertions of right disappear. There are concrete cases. Two parties come into conflict. The case must be resolved. Often our abstract concepts look ridiculous or incomplete and need to be reassessed. Either precedent will determine the outcome or a new decision must be made if the case is unique.
In Ireland, unlike in America, the courts and legislature have come to the understanding that the sacredness of life trumps the right of free choice. Abortion has been the defining issue in arriving at this jurisprudence. This regard for life is so, even where limited abortion is permitted because the abortion is justified on the grounds that a womans life is in danger. Not to everyone’s liking but the principle remains the same: protect life. That cannot be denied.
This protection is eminently sensible because someone can be restricted in their choices but once they still have life, there remains the possibility of freedom. If someones life is snuffed out, the possiblity of freedom is gone.
Thus, there is a crucial distinction between pro-choice and pro-life positions. Choice is an abstract, intangible concept. Life on the other hand is concrete. You either have life or you don’t. And the concrete reality should come before any abstractions.
Not recognising concrete reality and instead deferring to abstractions: that is the blind spot of the pro-choice movement. Even there, their speculations are inconsistent. There is infinite choice for a pregnant woman. There is zero choice for the life – the beating heart, the limbs, the bloodstream, the developing human – that her own choices have brought about. Even when abortionists point to the small number of cases where women conceive via rape, they don’t see that this is a situation where a man exercises his ‘choice’ without regard to the wishes of a physically weaker party or with regard to the mores of society. And, just to round out this part of the talk, it’s realistic to recognise that choices are often made on our behalf by people more powerful or of a higher status than us. But these choices do not negate rights that we may enjoy, like the right to life.
Given what has been said, are abortionists really pro-choice?
In reality, pro-choice groups adopt a ‘see no evil, hear no evil,’ position. Humans in the womb are unseen. Their liquidation is carried out in a hospital room. Their bodies are thrown into medical waste bags. In a day or two, they are probably buried under piles of other rubbish (I’m only guessing though; I would be too squeamish to inquire). An efficient, industrial process, carried out far away from prying eyes.
Abortion is one of those examples of sanitised killing in the modern world. Someone killed with a knife in full view of the world shocks us. A drone strike on a wedding that kills dozens … we’re ok with it because its unseen and barely reported. Similarly the nearly two hundred thousand human lives aborted in the UK doesn’t raise a stir; a murder of a child would shock pro-choicers and pro-lifers equally.
The thought that a new life born into the world may socially ‘hinder’ a woman, or indeed socially hinder the man who sired the life, greatly angers pro-choice advocates. They see it as an attack on their personal freedom. Again, they are wrong if they claim it impedes their right of choice. Except for hard cases, men and women exercise choice when going to bed with each other. People don’t spontaneously pro-create. Things don’t ‘just happen.’ Once that initial choice is exercised, there are responsibilities that come into play if a new situation emerges. If I exercise my choice to procure a loan, then I become responsible for its repayment. If a man and woman choose to lie together, is it reasonable for the right to life to be removed from their offspring? Where’s the choice for the offspring? What implications does that have for others? Are humans outside of the womb to be done away with if the killing can be presented as the choice of an autonomous human and if the liquidation doesn’t offend the sensibilities of the public?
Believing in choice isn’t an excuse to do what you want. That life in the womb is a human life and feels pain when being killed. Even if abortion could be performed without any pain or harm to the baby it’s hardly an argument for abortion. Many murders are relatively painless, but are illegal nonetheless.
Adults must exercise choice before they lie in bed with each other. They should be prepared to manage any offspring. Teenagers know more about sex by their early teens than their grandparents knew in a lifetime. A similar prescription applies. But if teens are hormonally imbalanced, then adults in charge of them can exercise their choice to restrict their chances of putting themselves in situations where pregnancies are possible. As I said before, choices are often made on our behalf by stronger parties.
In sum, one can be pro-choice while not going to extremes. But it is true that a right to life greatly affects the right to choose. And that is not at all a bad thing.