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Abortion & the value of human life

Abortion has been on my mind a lot recently. Not for personal reasons. We’ve been discussing it in my biomedical ethics class, though I’ve unfortunately missed a lot of the discussion because of my grad school visits. On top of that, Angie the Anti-Theist, a blogger I follow, has been generating a media storm because of her decision to live-tweet her abortion. I fully support what she is doing – it’s sad that talking about a legal medical procedure results in shock, hate mail, and death threats.

It probably does not surprise most of you that I am extremely pro-choice. The odd thing, though, is I don’t talk about it a lot. I’m always wary of getting into abortion debates, because I feel like it’s one of those topics that’s a lose-lose situation. No one is going to change their minds, and I’ll just get cranky at the particularly stupid comments. But I also know how important it is to speak up about how I feel:

Even if you could convince me that biological human life begins at conception, I would still be pro-choice.

Emotional arguments about beating hearts and fingers and brainwaves don’t affect me at all. Abortion is unfortunate, but when it is the lesser of two evils, it should be an option. The whole “when does life begin” debate is totally irrelevant to me. And why do I say that?

Because I don’t think we can honestly say all human life is of equal value.

I’d love to be a perfect liberal and say that all human life has infinite value and can never be compared or weighed, but I’d be lying to myself. I’d wager that none of us treat all human beings as having equal value when it really comes down to it. For example, think of this thought experiment:

You have the choice of killing one person or killing five people. They are equivalent in every way (job, age, personality, number of family of friends, etc). Do you kill one person or five? Most of us would say to kill the one. While killing anyone is unfortunate, in this case it is best to minimize the amount of total harm done.

But let’s change it up a bit. What if the one person was a loved one – one of your parents, one of your siblings, your spouse, or your best friend. Would you still kill that one person to save the other five? Most people would not. This illustrates that there is something more to our decision making process than all humans having equal value.

Maybe that’s a bit subjective because of our biology – through evolution we’ve slowly adapted to favor kin over non-kin. And since I don’t believe we should simply be the product of our biology, let’s use a more telling thought experiment: how we treat age. If there was a burning building and you could only save one person, do you save the 25 year old or the 80 year old? Most people say they would save the 25 year old, with their reasoning being that the 80 year old has had time to live a long, fulfilling life.

Replace that with an fetus and a 25 year old.

If we’re using a simple metric of “total years lived,” you could argue the fetus would win – the 25 year old already has lived 25 years, after all. But is number of years lived the only thing we use to assign value to human life? Again, I’d argue no. If there was a burning building and you have to save one of two people of equal age, who would you save: An elementary school teacher or a brain-dead person? A charity worker or a sex offender? A cancer researcher or a grocery bagger? The President or a unemployed alcoholic?

We feel bad about making judgement calls about people’s worth, but it’s something we do. That grocery bagger could be a great human being – but all things being equal, we see the cancer researcher as contributing more to society. Likewise, there are other negative traits we see as detracting. These traits all have fairly subjective value – what’s worse, a sex-offender or an unemployed alcoholic? – but most of us still make these judgements. I’m not at all advocating eugenics or the widespread purging of unemployed alcoholics – I’m just trying to make a point that unless your answer to those questions is “I’d flip a coin,” then you don’t view all human life as having equal value.

So back to abortion.

To me, a fetus is on the bottom of the totem pole. A fetus does not feel emotional pain, does not have conscious thoughts, and does not have dreams to be a big shot football player some day. It does not have friends or families that it has made intimate connections with. It does not have career or life goals. It does not fear death because it does not have the mental capacity to understand what death is. It does not have a fated trajectory in life (you can’t argue that this was the person who would go on to cure cancer). And in the case of a woman seeking abortion, it will not be missed by loved ones because it is not even wanted to begin with.

And to me, these are the things that make us human and give us worth. Not heartbeats or brainwaves or unique genetic composition. If a woman decides that continuing a pregnancy will severely detrimentally affect her life, she has every right to have an abortion. She has all of these attributes, and her quality of life far outweighs the existence of insentient cells.

Yes, quality of life, not just her life itself. To me, the value of an unwanted fetus is low enough to not outweigh quality decisions. An unwanted pregnancy going to make you have to drop out of school? Quit your job? Be depressed and stressed? Feel free to choose an abortion.

Obviously not everyone is going to agree with me. There are women out there who can see four cell zygotes as God-sent little babies. And to those women I say: Great! That’s why I’m pro-choice. If you don’t see unwanted fetuses as parasitic clumps of cells, then don’t get an abortion. But this is one of the few areas that I will concede that philosophy does trump biology – that DNA and physiology alone cannot answer this ethical issue.

Note: There are many points about abortion that I have not addressed in this post, and they will likely come up in the comments. I will probably cover them in the future.