Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Toward an analysis of abortion

Ella's Dad over at Ragged Edge has written one of the more sophisticated analyses of abortion that one is liable to see. It's not often that people cut through the emotional rhetoric and really get to the matter at hand. It's pretty long and in-depth, but I'll excerpt it as best I can to convey the essence of the argument:
What was curious to my abortion-supporting friends last summer was why I'm anti-abortion: not because I believe "life" beings at conception, but precisely because I don't know when "it" starts....

With the calculus being thus - the certain end of what may be a living human being on the one hand versus the promotion of consequence-free hedonism on the other - the only reasonable answer is the one that errs on the side of caution....

Good argument. Typically, when a life may be at stake, we err on the side of the caution. For example, if I'm hunting in the woods and see a figure in the distance that may or may not be a deer, I won't shoot on the off chance that it's a person. This is the moral precautionary principle, and it's clearly a good principle.

So far as I can tell (and I haven't spent long hours agonizing over this question - this analysis is purely provisional - hopefully I'll get some good pointers on the weaknesses), there are two ways in which the Precautionary Principle can be met when it comes to abortion. (note: I'm bracketing the option of adoption for the time being).

First, there's a difference in what is weighed between the hunting hypo and abortion. In the former, what is lost is just a shot at getting a deer. More deer will come along. In the case of abortion, what is weighed is not "consequence-free hedonism" but the enormous opportunity costs incurred in having a kid. Kids are enormously expensive, both monetarily and emotionally, and require that the parent forego a number of other non-monetary options (a career; or, in this world, the choice of a partner, since many are less willing to date single parents; etc.). As I noted at ED's blog, this weighing of life and money is the rule, not the exception. Worker safety regs, for example, take note of the expenses of saving lives and issue regs that will efficiently ensure some level of worker safety. In other words, a measure that would cost a million dollars to save one life is a measure that will be rejected as inefficient. What this tells us is that, even when what is at stake is clearly a person, monetary concerns are not irrelevant.

A hypothetical: let's say that collecting a one-time tax on the wealthiest of 50%, to be applied to health care for the poor, would save 5 lives. Other things being equal (ie, assume no long-term effects on the economy), should we collect the tax? I have a feeling that people would say no, it's not acceptable. With abortion, though, when we aren't even clear that what's at stake is a person, the contention is that money and opportunity costs are no object. Perhaps the money-for-life tradeoff is morally wrong; however, the fact that we're so willing to accept the swap in so many other areas suggests that the life-at-all-costs approach to abortion is misguided.

One more consideration: let's say our hypothetical hunter is in the field, and sees a figure in the distance. It's brown, it's eating leaves off shrubbery, and it has horns. These are the things that we typically associate with deer-ness, so we shoot. The analog in the abortion case is that many people associate a brain with personhood. In the same way people associate horn-ness and brown-ness with "deer." Similarly, the existence of a brain seems like a minimal condition of personhood. So we're not awash in a gray zone of total incertitude - there are some factual states that enable us to infer personhood. Of course, some of us don't see the existence of a functioning brain as the minimal condition of personhood, but the general consensus is that it is (I think it's especially notable that even in the Schiavo case most Terri-bloggers argued that her brain had some minimum functionality; rare was the person that argued that a lump of flesh sans brain was a person with full rights).

In short, we're able to discern relevant facts by which we can infer personhood. We may be wrong, of course, but our hypothetical hunter may be wrong. What's significant is the existence of facts by which we can reasonably infer the personhood of the object.