This is an entry in the Pro-Abortion series.
(about the above: both of the opposing positions have been legal at some point, so don’t assume I am specifically attacking anyone with this quote)
Charles Bellinger, professor of theology at Brite Divinity School, offers a surprisingly informed and neutral view on the dispute between the anti-abortion and pro-choice positions, hinging around the concept of tyranny and how both sides interpret it.
He looks into two writers, one pro-choice and one pro-life, and examines their rationale, especially as it relates to tyranny. In the pro-choice case, the concept of tyranny hinges around suppressing people’s conscience and capacity to choose:
Every shade of belief must be protected under our democratic system… As long as the Catholic Church, or any faith, continues to block legislation allowing individual conscience and free choice in abortion, the core of our democratic system is crippled.
For the pro-life writer, the tyrannical nature of the pro-choice position lies in its exploitation of the powerlessness of the fetus, which he saw as an important form of human life:
The human unborn is the ultimate civil rights victim. It cannot be heard; it cannot be read; it cannot demonstrate or parade through the streets. It cannot even be arrested and thrown into jail for civil disorder. The victim’s silent anguished pleas are heard only by the pro-life cause.
These two writers’ arguments, I think, can fairly be generalized to their positions as a whole. The pro-choice position sees the anti-abortion position as tyrannical because it attacks freedom of choice and one’s individual conscience, as well as forces women to endanger their lives to prevent childbirth. The anti-abortion position sees the pro-choice position as tyrannical because it kills innocent human beings mostly for the sake of convenience.
Introducing the pro-abortion position also introduces a whole new dynamic to the debate. Although I obviously can’t get their opinions about pro-abortion ideas, I can easily imagine what they would say, based on their existing positions. Clearly, anti-abortion advocates would be horrified beyond belief at what they would see as the outright enforcement of murder, probably comparing it to the Holocaust. Pro-choice advocates would likewise be horrified at the refusal to let women choose and be free to have children, probably on the same level than they are horrified at forced sterilization.
Pro-abortion advocates see the other two positions as tyrannical, albeit for different reasons. The main difference is that, unlike the other positions, the pro-abortion position is most concerned with the harms brought about by childbirth, the creation of which is not only criminal, but dwarfs any other ethical concern. Compared to this, the harm of abortion, even considering the possibility of abortion being murder, is inconsequential. Also consider my past discussion of procreation as a form of slavery.
I’ve given detailed reviews of both positions in this series, so my answers here should not be too surprising. The pro-choice position is tyrannical because it denies the individual, social, political and ecological harm created in the name of childbirth. The anti-abortion position is not only tyrannical in the same way, as well as tyrannical in forcing people to raise children they are not habilitated to raise, but is also mendacious in claiming to support human rights and wanting to reduce suffering while doing the exact opposite.
With this in mind, let me begin answering Bellinger’s questions.
1) Why do different people have different understandings of the tyranny against which they are struggling?
Bellinger is talking about persons specifically, but I think the question can be approached from many different angles.
First, we can look at it from the statistical angle. It’s no secret that abortion positions are related to, amongst other factors:
* Religion (less than a third of people with strong religious beliefs are pro-choice, but two-thirds of the non-religious are pro-choice)
* Party affiliation (60% of Democrats with strong beliefs are pro-choice, and only 22% of Republicans with strong beliefs are pro-choice)
* Political affiliation (75% of extremely liberal people are pro-choice, 32% of extremely conservative people are pro-choice; these percentages are higher and lower than their associated parties because extreme liberals and extreme conservatives tend to vote independent)
* Schooling (62% of college graduates are pro-choice compared to only 25% of high school dropouts)
* Beliefs about suicide (78% of people who support suicide in all cases are pro-choice, while 30% of people who do not support suicide in all cases are pro-choice)
* Beliefs about homosexuality (25% of people who are against homosexual sex are pro-choice, compared to 67% of people who do not oppose it)
(all statistics are from the 2006 iteration of the General Social Survey Panel).
Of course, correlation is not causation: I am not saying all these things cause one’s position on abortion, but that they are related to said position. Perhaps they open some avenues of thought. For instance, the correlation between being pro-choice about suicide, pro-choice about homosexuality, being extremely liberal, and being pro-choice about abortion seems to confirm most pro-choice advocates’ strong belief in choice as their guiding principle, and not something else.
If I had to guess where these ideas about tyranny come from, I would have to look at the general worldviews that incorporate them. Liberalism is a product of Enlightenment values, which prioritized optimism about the capacity of humans to understand reality and live within it, and the primacy of human reasoning and human will over religion-centered systems of thought. So it seems like a natural consequence that liberals believe that the expression of the human will trumps principles, at least in this case. This leads naturally to pro-choice and pro-childbirth beliefs.
Christian conservatism, on the other hand, is innately pessimistic about human abilities while being wildly optimistic about the bounties of human life (because of naive nationalism, salvation, and the belief in Heaven), which gives it an ideal framework to articulate anti-abortion, pro-childbirth beliefs.
[W]e can ask: How did the social/ philosophical/ religious environment in which a person was raised affect the way in which that individual thinks about tyranny in general, and the problem of abortion in particular? If a person was raised in a particular environment and has rejected that upbringing and “gone over to the other side,” what are the main factors which contributed to this “conversion”? Why are some articles or books which an individual may read influential in shaping that person’s thought?
Answering for myself, before I converted to the pro-abortion side, I would say my position on abortion was pro-choice, as informed by my former Libertarian (capital L, by which I mean the American kind) convictions. Libertarianism is basically liberalism reshaped by an unwavering belief in property rights and, by extension, the particularly bizarre economic form under which we live. In social issues, Libertarianism is pretty similar to liberalism, and the same choice-based arguments apply.
Obviously, becoming an antinatalist is what officially converted me to the pro-abortion position (the most influential book award would therefore have to go to Better Never to Have Been, by David Benatar). But for a long time before that I have been extremely dubious of parenting as a concept, partly from the obvious contradictions within it, and partly from reading the works of Alice Miller and other kindred spirits. This did lead me to the first steps of a pro-abortion position.
2) What is the significance of the language of “rights” in the abortion debate? When one camp argues that women’s “reproductive rights” must be protected and another camp argues that the fetus’ “right to life” must be protected, we seem to have reached an impasse which the language of rights, in and of itself, cannot lead us out of.
As I have discussed in this series, both these claims are factual claims, and they can both be disproved. “Reproductive rights” are an attack on the rights of the future person, and as such cannot be rights at all. The flip side of this conclusion is that a fetus cannot have a “right to life” since killing the fetus prevents the future person from existing, and thus prevents the fetus from embodying any rights at all. Both are pretend rights for the same basic reason: because we have to acknowledge the presence or absence of a future person with rights.
That being said, I get, from the rest of Bellinger’s question, that he’s trying to lead us in a direction of minimizing the importance of rights in this debate. Insofar as these two pretend rights are the representative of the concept of rights in this debate, then I can’t disagree with Bellinger’s intention.
However, there are real, actual rights. More on this in the next section of the question.
We are now led to ask, who is right about rights? Where do rights come from? The Constitution? The Creator? The social contract? The human will to power?
None of these are possible origins for rights. As I point out in this entry, constitutions and gods are not sources of rights, since ethics cannot be conferred by legal or divine obligation, and rights presume equality of force by their very nature and cannot be conferred by an entity too powerful to be countered. In general, rights exist in all human beings properly raised to be alive, communicate, move about, relate to other human beings, and to defend themselves (without the capacity to express it, a right is effectively meaningless, and therefore pointless to acknowledge).
As for asking “what is right about rights,” that’s a rather strange question. By definition a right is ethically right. The real questions are, do rights exist at all, and if so, what are they.
Rights are necessary because we need to decide who is justified in conflict situations. Take a very simple situation where person A punches person B, and then person B defends emself by rushing person A. Who is in the right? In order to decide, we need to have some principle or set of principles by which we can delimit justifiable from unjustifiable uses of violence, such as “it is unjustifiable to assault someone unless you’re acting in self-defense” (to give one example).
Direct physical conflict is only one facet of this problem. Obviously there are many other ways in which people can be in conflict, many of them social in nature. In property systems, people are sometimes prevented from getting the health care they need to survive. Although this is not a direct conflict, it is still a conflict between a person’s life and another’s well-being, and we still need to decide who gets priority. Of course, the “right to property,” which is nonsense, is the underlying cause of the conflict, in this case.
Is access to health care a right? Is employment a right? Is housing a right?
Access to health care and access to housing are rights, because they are necessary for human survival. The “right to live” is made strictly meaningless if people do not have the means to live in the first place; to deny these rights means to deny the right to live. That much is clear.
As for employment, we’re getting into the means by which this access is gained. In a society where access is granted by money, every person must be given the money they need to gain that which is needed for survival. That can mean an economic system based on full employment, although severely handicapped people may not have access to the jobs they need even under full employment, or these jobs may not provide enough money to fulfill basic needs (minimum wage jobs, for instance). Because there are many kinds of economic systems, I would not say “right to employment” but rather reiterate the fact of the “right to access” to life’s necessities, through the means which are appropriate to any given society.
How do we know what rights “exist”? How do we know that “rights” exist at all? Alasdair MacIntyre is one contemporary philosopher who has argued that the language of rights is a grand philosophical mistake which has been foisted upon us by the Enlightenment. He argues that the rhetoric of rights is an intellectual cul-de-sac which was created in the wake of modernity’s rejection of the Greek understanding of virtue and the Christian understanding of charity. How would one answer MacIntyre’s claim that rights have as much reality as do unicorns and witches?
I am not familiar with this person and his works, so I am not habilitated to comment. From the little I know, MacIntyre states that rights talk treats the individual in isolation and overemphasizes conflict. That’s fine, and I’m not saying that we should only talk about rights in political issues. But rights provide the limits within which our social institutions must operate. While the ultimate goal is always a cooperative society, we cannot ignore the needs of the individual; individual freedom goes hand-in-hand with social autonomy.