How Can We Approach and Reconcile Conflicts Between Different Human Rights?
This week, Jacob Tims and Emily Collinson explain their opposing viewpoints on abortion. We would like to thank them both for their civility in this particularly sensitive topic. If you like what you read, check out more Political Pen Pals debates here.
A Scientific Framework for Conceptualizing Personhood and Abortion
By Jacob Tims
I want to start out by outlining a framework for this discussion that I hope will be helpful in defining the key questions we need to answer. See the below flowchart that, I believe, is a good way to break down the question of whether or not abortion should be legal.
My first question to you is whether or not you agree with the questions and conclusions of the chart. If so, it refines the scope of our discussion to the two main questions listed: (1) When does human life begin? and (2) Are unborn humans persons with unalienable rights?
This might seem like an oversimplification. Let me provide an illustration of why I think these are, in fact, the only two questions that matter. Here are the most commonly cited reasons why women received an abortion:
- A child would interfere with her education, work, or ability to care for dependents (74%)
- She could not afford a baby (73%)
- She did not want to be a single mother or was having relationship problems (48%)
- She had completed her childbearing (~40%)
- She was not ready to have a child (~33%)
Now, imagine a woman has already given birth, and is holding a healthy child in her arms. She regrets having it, and wants the doctor to end the baby’s life. Would any of the reasons listed above justify that? No. The baby is a human life and a person with unalienable rights. The only difference between the situation above and an abortion is how you define human life and personhood. Ergo, those are the only questions we must answer.
Let’s start tackling the questions. First, when does human life begin?
There are some great lists detailing the chronological progress of prenatal human development. Here are a few highlights:
- t = 0: Conception
- t = 12 hours: Pronuclei merge and a new human genome forms
- t = 7 days: Embryo implants in the uterine lining
- t = 14 days: Primitive streak forms, classically the first sign of a nervous system
- t = 18 days: The heart beats
- t = 8 weeks: An embryo becomes a fetus. All structures present in rudimentary form
- t = 21 weeks: Viability. A fetus could survive outside the womb
- t = 9 months: Birth
You could pick any one of these points and say, “I think this is where life begins.” Many pro-choice advocates believe that life begins at viability, the point at which the baby can survive outside the womb. Most pro-life advocates, including myself, believe that life begins at conception. There are many good arguments to be made for why life begins at conception and not once the fetus becomes viable. We can go more into that if you’d like. However, for the sake of brevity, I think there’s a more practical point to consider.
Dealing with Uncertainty
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the answer is “Well, it’s kind of a gray area. Nobody can say for sure when life begins.” If that were the case, there is a well-established methodology for how we deal with risk and uncertainty—when faced with a “gray area” decision, our risk posture must become more conservative as the potential consequences become worse. Simply put, if nothing is at stake, you can take risks more freely. If something bad might happen, you have to be more careful. This is a fundamental precedent that is universally accepted across every area of industry and government regulation. I’ll give an example from my life as an engineer. NASA uses the “5×5 risk matrix” when it comes to making decisions. It looks like this:
Let’s say you’re designing a new part for a rocket. First you ask, “How likely is it that this part is going to break?” Maybe that’s a three. Then you ask, “If this part breaks, what happens?” Maybe the answer is that the rocket will explode and people will die. That’s a level five consequence. The intersection of those two points is red, which means you need to redesign the system.
High Stakes Warrant Careful Consideration
Let’s attempt to apply this methodology to the question of abortion. If we incorrectly decide when human life begins, millions of people die. That’s a level five “consequence.” Even if our choice for when life begins is unlikely to be incorrect (defining life at day seven might be a one or two on the “likelihood” scale), our 5×5 risk matrix lands on a yellow square, which tells us that we have made a bad decision.
Defining life at conception is the only way we know with near 100% certainty that we are not killing millions of people. The stakes are too high to place that definition anywhere else. This is how our legal system works as well. In America, a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Babies should be presumed to be alive until proven otherwise.
Now for the second question. Are unborn humans persons with unalienable rights? Or in other words, when does personhood begin? Again, there are lots of arguments here. However, at the risk of being blunt, I’m going to get straight to the point.
Denial of personhood status and basic rights to a less powerful or voiceless category of people, in this case unborn babies, is a textbook case of dehumanization which inevitably results in genocide.
That’s all I’ll say for now on this point, but again, we can go deeper with this if you’d like.
The last thing I’ll say is that it might seem impossible to have a world without abortion. It is not. We can work towards a society with free, easily accessible, high quality birth control, thorough and realistic sex education, cheaper and easier adoptions, and no stigma against pregnancy. We can build a system where unwanted pregnancies are rare, and when they do occur, the baby is taken care of in a way that protects the sanctity of life.
Safe and Legal Abortion is a Human Right
By Emily Collinson
I think the main point of disagreement here is about the personhood status of an embryo/fetus. I do not believe that life begins at conception or that aborting an embryo/fetus that is not viable outside of the womb is equivalent to murder. This theory has been emphasized by religious groups, many of whom also believe that a woman’s period is a time for mourning as it is the “death” of an egg and therefore a potential child, and that male masturbation should be prohibited as it is “spilling seed in vain.” Religious scripture has no place in state and federal legislation.
I believe that a life that will not be viable outside of the womb cannot be granted personhood status. By definition, in order to dehumanize someone they would first have to be a human. It is extremely telling that the United Nations Human Rights Committee has affirmed that access to abortion is a human right. To force a woman to spend her every moment nurturing, accommodating, and financing a cluster of cells that will potentially become a child that she never wanted is cruel. I would even go so far as to say that it is a form of enslavement. The cruelty of this scenario is greater in cases of rape or medical complications.
Banning Abortion Puts Women at Risk
The issue with your risk matrix is that you’re falsely equating not building a rocket to not having an abortion. Not having an abortion has serious risks and impacts. Let me explain why. Forcibly carrying a child to term: (1) Threatens the physical health of the woman in a multitude of ways, the most obvious being from pregnancy-related complications, (2) Impacts a woman’s ability to work, earn money, lift herself and her family from poverty; results in dependency on government services, which are often inadequate, leaving both parent and child to suffer, and (3) Increases likelihood that the mother and child will be victims of domestic abuse, as they will not have the financial autonomy to escape violent domestic arrangements. Given the gravity of such a decision, I trust women to make the correct choices for their lives and their bodies.
When a woman makes the choice to have an abortion, she will do so one way or another. The preferable way would be safe, affordable, and free from persecution. We can look to countries with abortion bans to find out what happens when abortions are banned: women self-administer abortion-inducing medications, use coat hangers, etc. One of the most striking statistics I’ve seen is that, according to the World Health Organization, 25 million unsafe abortions are estimated to take place annually.
Striving for Gender Equality
Your final sentiment is beautiful. I too dream of a world in which there is “free, easily accessible, high quality birth control, thorough and realistic sex education, cheaper and easier adoptions, and no stigma against pregnancy.” But alas, that is not even remotely close to being the world, let alone to the America, in which we live today. Improving in each of the aforementioned areas would be a huge step toward cutting down the number of women who end up in a position where they are then driven to abortion. As it stands, the pro-life movement is choosing to protect embryos/fetuses/unborn children (while in the womb, after which they lack protection) over those of women and their access to important medical services. I could dive into some of the more inherently sexist and classist components of the anti-choice argument, but perhaps we can circle back to it if you would like.