Despite everything else happening in the world, the supreme court’s decision to overturn Row v Wade is undoubtedly one of the most significant moral setbacks of the 21st century. Rather than the successful outcome of decades of anti-abortion campaigning, the decision would only ingeminate the sneaking suspicion that those in power don’t care about women as much as they claim.
Aside from the historical and political reasons that anti-abortion is not the moral issue the pro-life camp proclaims, it is clear that it remains one for which both sides claim the high ground. Whilst it should be obvious that inflaming the ongoing culture war of the west with a signature blend of misogyny and religious zealotry is not a morally tenable stance, it appears for many this is not the case.
The pro-life argument is often one that is based on religion; the sanctity of life and belief in a soul. Yet, for a purported source of moral truth, religious texts offer a surprising approbation of, amongst other completely reprehensible acts, murder (often for very minor infractions), incest, slavery and misogyny. It is telling that of the ten most important rules a religion preaches, ‘do not murder’ is placed right alongside the profoundly inane ‘don’t worship a picture of god’ (both of which, by the way, are done in his name by followers regardless).
It is also a clear indication that you are not on the right track when religious leaders throughout history have systematically ruined the lives of innocent people for their own gratification. If you have read this far, it’s likely I don’t need to say any more for a particular group or time period to come to mind. Can religion really claim moral superiority when some of the most abhorrent crimes imaginable have taken place in His name?
There needs to be a better basis for making normative decisions on abortion. A better metric is to follow the path that increases human flourishing and reduces human suffering (something akin to Harris’ moral landscape). There are, of course, still flaws in a utilitarian approach to ethics but, in the absence of a better theory, these remain more isolated and easier dealt with ad hoc. Furthermore, there is an empirical basis for measuring suffering and flourishing, as opposed to the circular sophistry of invoking a book that isn’t even consistent with itself, let alone anything else.
Using this, a lot of deep intuitions on abortion are immediately realised, whilst, in the long run, it resolves the supposedly difficult questions around the subject. An embryo or foetus does not experience suffering equivalent to a mother. In situations where a baby would be brought into the world and live an awful life, ruin the lives of their carers or, even worse, end the life of the mother through medical issues there is one simple question that needs to be asked: will this increase or decrease suffering?
A foetus might experience pain, but this alone is not suffering. Regardless of whether such physical pain is equivalent to the mother, a woman experiences mental burdens that an unborn baby cannot. Performing these moral calculations is not always easy or even possible but, at the very least, it shifts the argument onto an evidence-based footing.
It’s possible there will remain, at the extremities, instances where an abortion may be difficult to morally justify. However, with proper credence given to the suffering of a mother and to the likely suffering of the child, it becomes clear that abortion should always be offered as a legitimate form of healthcare. Genuinely considering the well-being of sentient creatures is not easy, but it forces us to no longer hide from the truth behind a wall of cheap, erroneous maxims, broad generalisations and scapegoating of those with whom one cannot properly relate.
The completely useless metric of a beating heart, or a fertilised egg does very little when used as an arbitrary marker to begin life. The belief in a soul and unscientific mysticism pinned to the concept of life has dirtied the moral waters and made it harder to see the obvious fact that such a definition is meaningless.
The typical rebuttal that ‘all life is precious’ and hence distinguishing life from non-life is important, is redolent of the casual imprecise reasoning that doesn’t actually make any ethical progress.
“All life is precious”… and? What about the mother’s life? Taking away bodily autonomy from half the population seems like a strange way to celebrate living.
“But that life might go on to achieve world peace, or at the very least, could have a wonderful life — don’t take away that opportunity!” Yes, as could every life not brought into existence every second that you fail to fertilise an egg. As pro-lifers protest outside abortion clinics, countless children are losing out on ever existing thanks to their failure to copulate in that precise moment. The excuses go on.
The truth is that this relentless casuistry is a disguise for a failure to rationally address one’s own beliefs, with a profound hatred of women and their freedom to choose.
The decision to overturn Roe v Wade would, without a doubt, increase suffering in the world. It would create more unloved, unwanted children who cannot be properly cared for. It would create unnecessary suffering for women who will be subjected to medical issues, trauma, dangerous abortions, unjust incarceration and sometimes death. It will create a precedent for placing religious ethics at the heart of policy making, which has never and will never be a good idea.
And all of this for what? So a group of misogynistic zealots can superciliously look down on the public thinking they have saved lives. So they can extend their destructive control to those most in need of help. The truth is that their defective principles have dragged society down and taken more life than they’ve saved with them. For these people to win would be a huge blow to moral progress. The challenge to Roe V Wade must not succeed.