A Taxonomy of Positions on Abortion

One of the things that’s really frustrating for me about the political debate over abortion in the U.S. is that many members of the two major sides on the issue refuse to use accurate terminology.  So what is the accurate terminology to describe the various positions on abortion, and why is it important?

I’ll be examining a variety of terms, including “Pro-Abortion” and “Anti-Choice” and “Anti-Abortion” as well as the standard Pro-Life and Pro-Choice terms generally accepted by members of their respective movements.  I’ll start with “Pro-Abortion” first.

The Misconception:

Pro-Abortion is a label often used by folks who think that abortion procedures should be illegal either all or most of the time to describe people who think that it should be legal all or most of the time.  It is not “Pro-Abortion” to merely propose that abortion should be legal all or most of the time.

The Explanation:

Most people who want abortion to be legal aren’t pro-abortion in the same way that most people who want alcohol to be legal aren’t pro-alcoholism or pro-DUI.  They just think, when looking at the trade-offs, that it’s less dangerous to have it legal than it is to have it illegal.  Many point out that it’s very difficult to write legislation to cover the possible range of cases in which a woman might want to terminate a pregnancy and that we should therefore leave it up to those who have the most knowledge of each situation, which would be the mother and the doctor assisting her.  Now, there is a small minority of feminists who think that having an abortion is a good thing, that it is a liberation of women from the chains of a patriarchal culture that sees them as baby-making machines rather than people.  But that’s only a small minority who can be accurately described as pro-abortion.

Accurate Definition:

Those who take a genuinely Pro-Abortion position believe that abortion should be legal and also that it is a morally good choice for women to make, though perhaps with certain exceptions.  They might, for example, still object to sex-selective abortions which are used to kill female fetuses because male children are valued more highly in the culture in which these abortions are occurring.  They would likely see it as an instance of patriarchal oppression in action, which is also how they generally see attempts to make abortion illegal or access to it more restrictive.

Now let’s move on to another inaccurate label (Anti-Choice) that’s used by the opposite side of the debate.

The Misconception:

Anti-Choice is a label often used by folks who think that abortion procedures should be legal either all or most of the time to describe people who think that it should be illegal all or most of the time.  It is not “Anti-Choice” to merely propose that abortion should be legal all or most of the time.

The Explanation:

Most people who want abortion to be illegal aren’t anti-choice in the same way that most people who want murder to be illegal aren’t anti-choice.  They just think that abortion is the killing of a child, and that it rationally follows that we should prohibit it like we do other killing.  And many of them will admit that there are rational exceptions to this prohibition, such as when the mother’s life is intrinsically endangered by carrying the child to term.  This would be roughly analogous to self-defense as a moral justification for killing another person who poses a threat to one’s life.  And, depending on whether or not the sexual activity which lead to the conception was consensual, it might be analogous to inviting someone into one’s home and knowing that the person might be unintentionally a threat to one’s life or analogous to someone breaking into one’s home and placing a threat to one’s life within it.  Many people who identify themselves as Pro-Life make these important distinctions and adjust their policy views accordingly to leave it up to a personal choice in those involuntary cases as to whether or not to risk one’s life.

Accurate Definition:

Those who take a genuinely Anti-Choice position believe that the decision to have an abortion is rightly made by the State (or other government agency) rather than the individual mother in concert with her doctor.  And they aren’t particularly concerned about whether it’s murder.  The concern of people who could rightly be called Anti-Choice is more that individuals are terrible at making their own choices, and they usually believe that the solution to this is to have some political authority make those choices instead based on what the utility of the child’s life is likely to be to the future of the State.

Now let’s look at “Anti-Abortion” as a label.

The Misconception:

There are some in the Pro-Choice movement who charge all those in the Pro-Life movement with being “Anti-Abortion” rather than Pro-Life in any meaningful sense.  It’s not uncommon to read suggestions that the movement to end abortion is actually about controlling women’s bodies rather than preserving life, because the people they associate with the Pro-Life movement don’t seem very Pro-Life on issues related to the death penalty, euthanasia, foreign policy, environmental regulation, and other issues.  So they conclude that it’s not actually about life at all.

The Explanation:

There are indeed some people in the movement to end abortion who don’t seem to have a consistent ethic of life.  That’s important to acknowledge and deal with.  They should be held to account for the inconsistency.  It’s also the case that most people who are serious enough about being Pro-Life to be active with fund-raising to help women dealing with crisis pregnancies, educating women on options other than abortion, and prayerful protests are generally the kinds of people who have a more consistent ethic of life because they also take their religious or intellectual commitments seriously in general.  Pro-Choice folks tend to massively overestimate the popularity of combining the “Bomb them all!” and “Life is precious, so stop killing babies!” statements.

Accurate Definition:

Those who take a genuinely Anti-Abortion position untethered from a coherent Pro-Life philosophy are opposed to the killing of babies in the womb, but their position isn’t grounded in a general concern for the preservation of human life.  It may simply be grounded in a visceral moral disgust at the idea of killing babies, and that’s understandable.  It may even be grounded in misogynistic views of women as mere baby-making factories which are ultimately disposable, though it’s very rare for anyone to make that case.  Or it may be that the person who holds an Anti-Abortion view just hasn’t spent much time checking their moral and political views for rational consistency.

Let’s move on to look at the more common labels of “Pro-Choice” and “Pro-Life” used by members of the movements themselves.

“Pro-Life” used accurately would describe people who advocate for an end to abortion because they have a consistent ethical framework through which they determine their policy positions based on how to best support the preservation of human life.

The opposite of this position would be “Pro-Death” which is sometimes used by “Pro-Life” individuals to describe their political opponents.  While it’s possible that someone could have a consistent ethic that promotes all possible kinds of death for humans, it’s extremely rare that anyone has such an ethical framework.  The Pro-Choice folks they’re generally referring to are often opposed to many forms of death, including the death penalty, various war-related policies, and sometimes others.

“Pro-Choice” used accurately would describe people who advocate for easy access to abortion because they have a consistent ethical framework through which they determine their policy positions based on how to best to ensure that people’s options are maximized when they make choices.

I will concede that most people who describe themselves as Pro-Choice are not very intellectually consistent in applying an ethical framework that maximizes personal choice.  Pro-Choice libertarians are the most consistent about it, and Pro-Choice progressives are usually much less consistent about it even in other cases in which their arguments for keeping abortion legal would apply very well for analogous reasons.

This is probably because Pro-Choice progressives are often more motivated by what they see as pro-woman concerns and anti-patriarchy concerns than by a general concern about personal liberty.

This highlights one of the problems with our political labels for groups who takes one or another position on abortion.  It’s generally the case that our positions on abortion are a result of factors other than a straightforward examination of the issue of abortion itself.

We bring gut feelings, evidence, values, and philosophical assumptions to our policy analysis, and those will inevitably shape our conclusions.  What’s less inevitable is how they will shape our conclusions.

There are a lot of ways to respond to abortion because there are a lot of different combinations of gut feelings, sets of evidence, sets of values, and philosophical assumptions that can be brought to bear on the question of whether or not it ought to be legal.

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2 Responses to A Taxonomy of Positions on Abortion

  1. Jack says:

    Do you think that the question properly boils down to “Is the fetus a human person?” Or is that an oversimplification? What I have noticed is that those who are in favor of abortion rights will grudgingly acknowledge the human life that is in the womb, but will at least try to cast doubt on the personhood of that life (This strategy seems especially effective in the case of embryos less than a few weeks old, which are not obviously human in their exterior form and therefore may not arouse as much pity as a more developed fetus). Once the wedge of doubt is hammered in, they can then allow each individual woman to decide the value (or lack thereof) of the fetus she is carrying. Personhood entails rights, so once you acknowledge personhood, it becomes more difficult to argue for a right to choose an abortion. For in no other realm of life do we acknowledge the possibility of someone’s doing harm to another person without somehow proscribing the harmful behavior (except in rare cases such as self-defense). For example, though we believe in the right to privacy in the home and the general autonomy of parents over their offspring, we still do not leave it up to parents whether or not to beat their children with a split-rail as a form of discipline. In the case of our split-rail wielding parents, no one would argue that the government should stay out of it, and that we should trust the parents to make these most difficult decisions about how to raise their children.

    • I don’t address the argument about personhood primarily because in the majority of cases it’s just an argument of convenience. There is a tiny percentage of Pro-Choice intellectuals who hold coherent and internally consistent views of what personhood is. Most people find their views morally reprehensible because they entail horrifying consequences. The philosopher Peter Singer is one example of this kind of consistent view on personhood.

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