A couple of months ago, I said something about abortion on Dogma Debate that I wanted to repeat and expand upon here. I’d just written a couple of posts about abortion, and David Smalley thought that would be a good controversial topic. As a challenge to my position (basically, make abortion cheap and easy to get), fetal viability was brought up. It turned out we didn’t have much to argue about. In fact, the matter seemed so straightforward to me that I’m surprised I don’t see it presented this way more often.
The fetal viability question is one of when human life begins. It recognizes that, no, human life does not start at conception, that a fertilized egg is not a human being. Jean Kazez had an amusing take on that argument today.
At conception, what exists is a single-celled zygote. That zygote contains the makings of not just the embryo (fetus, etc.), but of all the structures that will support the embryo (fetus, etc.)–the placenta, amniotic fluid, etc. Imagine (only somewhat analogously) a very full box you take off the shelf at Ikea (with great effort!). The box contains the makings of a bed, but also instructions, tools, packaging, styrofoam, etc. You take it home and put together the bed, discarding everything else. Would you say the bed started its lifespan as the full box? No, of course not. There is no bed until a bed has started to take form and become separate from everything else that was in the box. And at the point, it really makes no sense to say “the bed was once the full box.”
Those concerned with fetal viability also don’t feel it’s reasonable to declare that human life begins at birth. I don’t know anyone who does believe that, no matter their position on abortion, but maybe there are a few. Or maybe it’s an anti-abortion strawman.
Either way, the viability position notes that, at some point, a fetus becomes capable of existing outside the womb, even if it currently resides, much more safely and cheaply, still inside the womb. At that point, it should be considered a fully human life and be accorded the rights of any other human being.
I understand that position. It is at least as logically compelling as any other and far more compelling than many. However, accepting this position is not an argument for outlawing abortion of a viable fetus. It is an argument for when a fetus achieves rights as a human being.
It is not an argument for when a pregnant person loses their rights.
Let me show you a couple of graphs. This one shows (roughly) the rights of the pregnant person and the rights of the fetus throughout a pregnancy based on a period of time during which the fetus can be considered to grow more likely to be viable outside the womb, based on the argument from viability.
Now let me show you another graph.
This graph is the argument from viability as it is used politically. It is the argument that once the fetus has rights, the pregnant person no longer does. They no longer have any say in how their body is used. They no longer have any right to say that pregnancy is not in their interests–medical, emotional, social, or financial. They have no rights at all in the matter.
That’s what a law banning third-trimester abortions does. It assigns 100% of the rights to the fetus, not 50%.
So how do we protect the rights that a fetus does have in these situations? That’s a good question, but frankly, it’s a medical question. The fetus may be theoretically independent of the pregnant person, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually independent. It’s still inside the womb, and every means of getting it out carries risks to both parties. What risks vary greatly from pregnancy to pregnancy.
Consider also that the reason many people stop wanting to be pregnant at this point is that the fetus is less than healthy, which may translate into less than viable. Balancing rights and risks of both parties simply isn’t something that can be done in the general case. If we are truly interested in protecting everyone’s rights, this stays a private, medical matter informed by the conscience and situation of the pregnant person making the decision.
The abortion can’t happen without a consultation with medical personnel who have a strong interest in making sure any decision is informed and considered. There is no basis for us to intrude.
Unless, of course, you’re one of those people who really don’t think pregnant women should have any rights.