The Right Way to Talk about Abortion

Hat-tip to Jessica: Bill Scher of Liberal Oasis talks about how liberals should talk about abortion. Unlike most “We should talk about abortion like this” arguments, his is very strong: his primary argument is that it’s a bad idea to concede that abortion is bad.

The most convincing way to frame abortion is as a medical procedure. It’s usually not medically necessary, but neither are many common non-plastic medical treatments: flu shots, most antibiotic treatments, common pills like aspirin, casts for broken limbs.

Obviously, the conservative moral objection here is that abortion kills a living being, while antibiotics don’t. In the medium and long runs, it’s crucial to address that, to make sure that graphic displays of fetuses after a dilation and evacuation don’t make people emotionally support abortion bans.

The current frame – “Abortion is not murder, a fetus is not a child, and a woman is not an incubator” – is something that should never be said outside the nooks and crannies of Democratic Underground. Instead, the best way to reassure people who are afraid that abortion kills people is to talk about neurulation and cognitive development. Human self-awareness begins somewhere between week 31 of pregnancy – when even dilation and extraction is impossible – and a few weeks after birth. Liberals talk about that a lot less than they should.

Although most of Bill Scher’s presentation is good, toward the end he suggests something that will probably not work: to acknowledge people’s moral objection to abortion and try arguing from some form of relativism. That will just allow conservatives to portray liberals as immoral, instead of as having different moral judgments. The phrase “legislate morality” is powerful enough that it’s easier to just attack the idea that there’s something wrong about killing a fetus.

One Response to The Right Way to Talk about Abortion

  1. Hello again Alon. While your point would appeal to many, others would point to several simple facts about abortion:

    1) a fetus/embryo is human (human DNA); and

    2) it is alive by common definition of life (it respires, grows, gives off waste and is capable of dying.)

    3) an abortion renders a fetus/embryo makes a living embryo/fetus dead, i.e. kills it. A procured “abortion” without killing doesn’t exist; killing makes it complete.

    When do we get human rights? At what moment? Is the first human right the right to life; if not, what right precedes the right to life logically? If there is a human right to life and it applies to all living humans, does the mother’s desire to kill (or to benefit from killing) trump that right to life? The answer has to be more solid than labels and neurulation.

    These questions are inconvenient of course, and not politely stated, but in this area I suspect that courtesy and convenience are part of the problem. The “choice” paradigm is one that ignores human rights; we do not generally get a “choice” to violate others’ rights, which principle this paradigm ignores. Mr. Scher’s argument is, at core, that human rights don’t apply to all humans; this argument loses and will continue to lose for the lifetimes of both of us.

    The importance of mothers not being made into unwilling incubators trumps the state power to interfere to save life, in my view, just as the needs of war trump the right to life of innocent civilians who die by the tens of thousands in firestorms. Some killings are necessary to perform or to tolerate, but make no mistake: abortion is the precision killing of a non-aggressor (unlike civilians in war, who may be incidentally killed or even, to a limited extent, deliberately killed.) The fact that many or most zygotes die spontaneously is no argument for the tolerance of their killing; some cancers have a high mortality rate but the deliberate killing of the minority who survive is murder.

    A society in which women, their doctors, nurses, clinic staffs, etc., are all on the lam is no free society. A society that prosecutes abortion will have abortion prosecutors, abortion public defenders, abortion defense attorneys replete with tacky TV advertisements, abortion court dockets scheduled between traffic ticket dockets and parking ticket dockets. Abortion undercover special agents, I guess women who will pretend to be pregnant, and prison medical specialists who will have to examine women pre-trial to confirm that their anatomy has evidence of recent abortion. A Handmaid’s Tale society indeed. In my view, the threat of this hellish society, not arguments about fetal self-awareness or neurulation or a positivistic “non-child” label on a killed fetus, will scare people best into voting against abortion restrictions.

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