It’s only a few weeks away from the big vote in the US. Barring some sort of miracle, or a methodological fallacy in what the polls are telling us, Hilary Clinton is set to become the first female prez of America and her husband will become the first former president to once again become an official resident of the White House (that has nothing to do with this blog post, BTW, I just said I’d throw it in there!!).
In a campaign which has been as bitter as the 1964 campaign and as prone to violence as the 1968 campaign, both major-league candidates have flip-flopped on a number of issues, changing their official positions and sometimes even denying that they ever took a position on certain questions (Trump on Iraq,Clinton on same-sex marriage).
On one particularly contentious issue, that of abortion, Trump has radically changed his opinion over the course of less than a year. However, for the better part of six months, he has advocated a stridently pro-life position. By contrast, Clinton has maintained a pro-choice position for virtually her whole political career. It is one of the few issues that either candidate has maintained a consistent position on, over a considerable length of time. Ideologically, we can place Clinton within the wider tradition of liberalism and she has consistently espoused liberal values (if there are such things). So it is worth discussing the aspect of liberalism most germane to a discussion about abortion.
Now, liberalism is an empirically unsound doctrine but nonetheless it does have a particular ethic, one that is quite systematic and easy to discern. While there are various shades of liberalism, ranging from the free-market ethos of the 19th century to the welfarism of the present-day, liberalism has always been about preserving the life and liberty of individuals so that they can realise their full potential as humans. Think about why liberals are against war; this is a waste of human life. Why do they promote the idea that government must control healthcare? Again, this is to preserve human life. Education must be in the hands of government, say liberals, because only then can people realise their full potential as humans. Capital punishment is frowned upon because it takes away life and that is even in cases where a guilty party has violated the life of an innocent. Business is promoted by liberals because of the economic comforts it yields which in turn leads to a better quality of life for all and not just the small elite who excel at enterpreneurship. Even intervention in foreign countries is justified on the pretext of ‘rescuing’ people. Whatever the truth of that claim, intervention, in the mind of some liberals, is meant to give people a better life.
The other side of the life-preserving coin is that freedoms and rights are subordinate to preservation of life and security in liberalism. This is the key difference between liberalism and libertarianism. For a libertarian, material comforts and the prolongation of life are secondary to personal freedoms and rights. So, government interference in health-care and education, as well as any other sphere where government is seen to have no right to interfere, is hotly disputed by libertarians. By contrast, a liberal can call for a universal health care system, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ education system, a welfare state, or indeed any other measure which raises the quality of life of a number of people and which prolongs and preserves life. And, in a point which is relevant to this post, it is the case that a liberal emphasizes the absolute right to life, and also the security of a standard of living, to a far greater degree than their usual opponents, the ‘religious right.’ An evangelical Christian is more likely to support the death penalty or a harsh prison sentence because the principle of justice trumps that of material security of life and liberty. Memes prolifrate online where liberals (falsely, because of their lack of understanding of the ‘inner logic’ of conservatism) accuse the religious right of hypocrisy.
Now, let’s get back to abortion. Liberals cannot advocate abortion within the limits of their ideology unless they propagate either or both of two arguments: (1) they must deny that an unborn child is a human life. (2) they must argue that a woman’s health is in such dire risk from her pregnancy that the lesser evil is to have an abortion (they might also argue that a woman’s quality of life is in jeopardy from an abortion but that would require invoking the first argument).
Thanks to the miracles of modern science, the first argument is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. More and more is now known about babies in the womb. They have been seen to develop far quicker than was previously anticipated and it is likely that by the time a woman has realised she is pregnant and booked an appointment to terminate her pregnancy, the baby will have some form which can be definitively called ‘human.’ Also, survival rates for babies born even months premature have increased. The idea that life starts at a relatively early point in the womb is being conceded more and more by pro-choice supporters.
The second argument has far more manifestations. It is also an argument that pro-life advocates would be willing to concede in certain limited exceptions. For example, the Church of England opponents of the 1967 British bill which permitted abortion did not oppose the entirety of the bill and most anti-abortionists would be open to considerations which balance the life of the mother and the life of the unborn child, especially those relating to physical health. Curiously enough, liberals, relative to their right-wing opponents, should accept the deaths of mothers rather than accepting deaths of the unborn in 50/50 cases. This is very much the principle they follow when it comes to the death penalty; even if someone murders someone else, they shouldn’t be put to death by the State.
That aside, the typical cases put forward for abortion on the grounds of preserving the life of the mother and/or preserving the quality of life of the mother are usually specious. To take a few; there is the idea that pregnancy promotes suicide. This idea is completely false. Then, there is the notion that an abortion will save a pregnant woman’s life if she suddenly takes a turn for the worst; that is not even worth discussing it is so ludicrous. There is the argument that babies might not survive for long outside the womb or that they might be handicapped. This goes against the entire fabric of liberalism (imagine a liberal saying that we shouldn’t help refugees because they’ll die of cold or hunger if we leave them long enough or saying that we should hunt down refugee boats and scuttle them because our lives might suffer if we have to take care of the destitute). Like the arguments about possible still-births or handicapped children, the idea that women should be able to abort on the grounds that their career might suffer is again contrary to the thrust of liberalism. Then, there is possibly the strongest case for abortion, that of being impregnated without consent, i.e. rape. This rare case could be justified on the grounds of balancing the rights of women to consent to intercourse, on the one hand, and the right to life, on the other. The problem here is the time-window: it would not be practical to arrest, charge, and prosecute an individual in a transparent and thorough manner before a pregnancy comes to term.
On the issue of abortion, liberals have demonstrated their dogmatism and unwillingness to accept the latest scientific findings. Instead they have hid behind the slogan of ‘right to choose,’ hardly the most intellectual tactic for those who often look down their nose at the slightest hint of irrationalism.
Now that the scales have fallen from our eyes and we accept that life begins at an early stage in the womb, we also find that liberals today, like Hilary, struggle to integrate their views on abortion into the wider liberal agenda. Constantly invoking a woman’s ‘right to choose’ might fit more into those left-wing libertarian movements like anarchism. Since it runs counter to the ethos of liberalism, support for abortion is a purely political strategy because the scientific foundations and empirical evidence that would support abortion within a liberal context have vanished.