Back before the holidays, Trevin Wax at the Gospel Coalition posted a list of “10 Questions a Pro-Choice Candidate is Never Asked by the Media”. The idea was that pro-choice politicians got a free ride whereas politicians enjoyed hammering pro-life politicians with “gotcha” questions. I thought it might be interesting to take a crack at his questions.
Full credit: I never seem to hear about the Gospel Coalition except when someone rails against some crazy thing they’ve said. This time it was Libby Anne who introduced me to the list. Apparently they’re fairly big in the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian blogosphere.
Anyway, I was all set to post my answers in one long post but it got, well, long. I’ve worked my way through Mr. Wax’s ten questions and have roughly 3,000 words of my thoughts. But even with that I was rushing at certain points, and that’s a lot to read in a single go. So I thought I’d break things up and make a series of it. I’ll be taking a question or two a day, and I’d really appreciate everyone’s thoughts on these issues.
First Question to Pro-Choice Politicians: You say you support a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices in regards to abortion and contraception. Are there any restrictions you would approve of?
I assume Mr. Wax is referring to legal restrictions. I have a hard time thinking of any in practice, but it’s not because the body is untouchable or anything. I mean, I have no problem with the government restricting what we do with our body in certain situations. For instance, I don’t think you have a right to inject heroin, and if you have AIDS I’d probably agree with a law saying you can’t have unprotected sex. It’s just that the usual reasons we restrict bodily actions don’t seem to apply on these issues.
As a general rule I favor laws that:
A) prevent people from harming another person, or risking harming to them, or
B) provide a framework that encourages you to develop virtue, even if no strangers are hurt
That second point needs a bit of qualification because generally the law is a pretty awful tool for building character. It can help motivate you to do the kind of things that destroy virtue, but it’s quite often a very blunt instrument, and it only guides actions, not the motives behind those actions. So if there’s another way to encourage folks to build up their characters, I’d say go for that.
There may be other reasons people can think of that justify laws; I just can’t think of them offhand. But I think these general goals are good. I’m in favor of drunk driving laws because of that first point – you’re putting every other driver on the road at risk, and they’ve done nothing wrong. I’m also in favor of the minimum age for drinking (no alcohol until you’re twenty-one), but for the second reason. It’s not that teenage drinkers are more harmful to bystanders than adult drinkers are. But in my experience, the older you are before you start doing something that can be addictive (and drinking probably qualifies), the better – you have the character necessary to stay away from bad habits. So if you wait to start drinking until later, odds are you’ll drink in a better, less destructive way – this law makes it more likely you’ll have a good character needed to avoid alcohol abuse. Imperfectly, of course, but as a blunt instrument it’s not too bad.
Now, on to contraception and abortion. Sex involves two people, so I can easily imagine situations where you risk hurting someone else. I already mentioned one, actually. If you know you have a serious STD like HIV or AIDS, I don’t think you have some kind of right to put your partner at risk. But we’re not really dealing with true outsiders; usually the only other person involved made a choice to be involved, so you don’t run into things too often like the sober man killed by a drunk driver.
Abortion is trickier. It seems like it would come down to a question of whether the fetus is a person. I mean, the whole point of abortion is to kill a fetus – that’s harm, no doubt, even if it’s outweighed by other concerns. And most people who are pro-life think it’s obvious that a fetus is a person – a clear case of the restriction “prevent[ing] people from harming another person,” right?
Not quite. It’s important to understand that there are two types of abortion. Some either keep the embryo from implanting in the woman’s uterus or detach it once implanted – essentially saying the fetus or embryo don’t get access to the nourishment from the mother’s body s/he needs to survive. Obviously that means the fetus dies, but the abortion is more about a woman choosing what happens within her body, not killing it directly. On the other hand, some abortions do attack the fetus directly, attacking it directly. As I understand it, this latter type really only happens late in the pregnancy and is relatively rare, so I’m going to focus on the first type.
I can go along with a law that says I can’t harm another person. But what about a law that says I have to save someone? Good Samaritan laws are pretty controversial, and they just require you to get involved for a relatively brief window of time. In a way we use taxes to force people to help others, but again, we take a relatively small percentage of income and this isn’t really forced because you’re always free to leave the society if you don’t want to live under the social contract. But even so, these moves have been pretty controversial ones. The idea that we could force a woman to go through a pregnancy she doesn’t want requires an even greater explanation. And the claim that a fetus is a person (even if true) doesn’t cut it IMO. People have a right to life, but they don’t have a right to nourishment. I’ll come back to this on question #4 in a few days.
Now, there may be some legal restrictions on abortion that make sense. I like to think there are! I mean, the idea that any human action simply isn’t critiquable by the law makes me go a bit twitchy, given what I’ve experienced of human nature. But most of the actual laws people have come up with, they flow from principles I don’t think we’d be comfortable applying in any other context. (How would we feel, for instance, if a pharmacist could refuse to sale medicine for high cholesterol, or if you had to see a counselor before having gall stones removed? And that seems to be a good starting point on this area: what’s the principle motivating the restriction, and are we comfortable applying it universally.
I can also see someone restricting abortion as a way to spur on moral development. For instance, say a certain woman refused to use contraception and would just try to get abortions once pregnant. We’re not talking failed contraception (she’s not even trying), and let’s just assume it’s actually widely available. I wouldn’t have a problem with her doctor warning her that he wouldn’t do any more abortions unless she could prove she’d taken contraception and it had failed, as a way to wake her up that she was being unacceptably careless with human potential. If this was a widespread problem and you could generalize this approach so it only affected those in need of a moral wake-up call, I’d be okay with that under my B) criteria above. The problem is, first, it’s not a common problem – I suspect situations like this are exceedingly rare – and second, you can’t really use the law to sort out people who need abortions for good reasons for those without such good reasons. At least I can’t see how you would. BUt if you could show me how a certain law would help spur on character development that was actually necessary, I’d be convinceable.
What about you? Do you think there are any good restrictions on if/when contraception + abortions should be available?